Cover of Chad in Amsterdam
Image from the cover of Chad in Amsterdam No. 3 from the summer of 2019. Image courtesy of Chad Bilyeu.

Recently, I met a terrific comic book writer from Cleveland, by way of Amsterdam and Washington, D.C., named Chad Bilyeu. The 47-year-old author of what are two of the best independent comic series published in years — “Chad in Amsterdam” and “The Re-Up” — is one third of a trio of artists who was recently awarded a Pedantic Arts Residency.

Though it has an odd name, the Pittsburgh-based arts residency brings together an artist, a writer and a curator under one roof for a monthlong “collaborative experience” that is “focused on fostering artistic connections rather than production.”

In other words, it is a dream residency that doesn’t require a product for exhibition at the end of the month. All that is required is a willingness to go to dinners, lectures, visit studios, hang out at galleries and museums, meet local artists and turn on the charm.

Along with Detroit artist Akea Brionne and Boston art curator Chenoa Baker, Bilyeu (pronounced “bill you”) gets to live and work in an ultra-modern house straight out of MTV’s “The Real World” on Penn Avenue in Garfield.

As is the case with many residencies these days, it is also an opportunity for recipients to network with potential collaborators and influencers. 

Award-winning poet and Marvel Comics scribe Yona Harvey, comic book historian Bill Boichel, cartoonist Raymont Youngblood of RaiZArts and comic book freelance artist Marcel Lamont Walker — project coordinator for the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh-sponsored comic book “CHUTZ-POW!” — were among the invited guests Bilyeu regaled with hilarious and often poignant stories that will eventually make it into his autobiographically centered comics.

Chad Bilyea as illustrated by Juliette de Wit in “The Re-Up.”

But as rarefied as the occasion was, Bilyeu couldn’t let go of the fact that he hails from Cleveland, a sister Rust Belt city that is home to one sports franchise that is regularly humiliated by the Black and Gold.

“I’m here to do everything in my power to destroy the Pittsburgh Steelers,” he said, when it was his turn to tell those gathered around the sleek dinner table what he was all about.

There was good-natured laughter all around at that tongue-in-cheek admission. Considering the fact that Bilyeu has lived full-time in the Netherlands for nearly a decade and in Washington, D.C., for a decade before that, his affection for his hometown football team seems like a vestigial gesture at best. 

After all, he has yet to produce a “Chad in Cleveland” comic book during the years he’s been making comics that rival the surreality of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” in exploring the multiple paradoxes of African-American life, ambition and alienation.

Though he never met the late Harvey Pekar, the Cleveland-based author of the long-running comic book series, “American Splendor,” Bilyeu was inspired by how the cantankerous dean of autobiographical comics expertly explored the boredom, banality and inexplicable humor of a file clerk’s life. 

The result has been two acclaimed issues of “The Re-Up,” a book illustrated by the brilliant Dutch cartoonist Juliette de Wit and six issues so far of “Chad in Amsterdam,” in which Bilyeu collaborates with a gaggle of great cartoonists including de Wit, Boyane One, Dan Meth, Sean van der Meulen, Jared Boggess, Gary Dumm, Bernie Mireault, Lorenzo Milito, Will Robson, Eryc Why, Denis Galocha, Lera Ryazanceva, Dany Modesto Rodriguez, Lae Schafer, Merel Barends, Bas Schippers, Iva Spasojevic (EKS Graphics) and Margreet de Heer.

Chad Bilyea and Juliette de Wit. Photo courtesy of Chad Bilyea.

De Wit has just finished penciling the third issue of “The Re-Up,” a series that illustrates Bilyeu’s time as the affable, but resourceful weed dealer of choice to his fellow classmates at Georgetown University “many years ago” and “far beyond the statute of limitations for such things.” 

Still, de Wit illustrates all of the characters except Bilyeu with floating black bars obscuring their eyes so they can’t be recognized by overly zealous drug enforcement officers scanning the comics for clues. 

Both de Wit and Bilyeu announce on the inside back cover of both issues that they “quit smoking the herb back in 2021,” a hilarious coda following many pages of (non-violent) hijinks that wouldn’t be out of place in the third season of HBO’s “The Wire.” 

“I pay all of my cartoonists upfront,” Bilyeu said. This is not something cartoonists and comic book illustrators in Europe or the U.S. take for granted. Unlike the other top-notch illustrators he works with on the other books, de Wit is an equal partner on “The Re-Up.” They split the costs of production and reap the profits equally.

The first issue of “Chad in Amsterdam” burst onto the scene roughly five years ago and immediately carved out a niche on the spectrum of critical acclaim in Europe that most comic book auteurs on both sides of the Atlantic would’ve killed to have earned in such a short time. 

Issue No. 5, my favorite in the series so far, explores Sinterklaas, the strange Dutch Santa-like figure and his trickster sidekick “Black Pete,” usually a white person wearing blackface because not many Black people would play such a degrading fellow. Black Pete’s existence is deconstructed by Bilyeau and several illustrators in a wild ride of contrasting styles and moods. 

Covers of “Chad in Amsterdam” (Spring 2018 and Winter 2021) courtesy of Chad Bilyeu.

In the text-heavy “De Leugen” illustrated by Rodriguez, Bilyeu addresses the mystery of Sinterklaas and Black Pete with well-earned skepticism given the history of humiliating imagery of Black folks around the world. 

In the comic book, Bilyeu recreates the first time a friend told him about Black Pete. She was oblivious to any interpretation of the myth other than what she believes to be obvious — that the trickster’s Black skin is the result of shimmying up and down chimneys — not racist stereotyping. One of the final panels of the story features his disappointed friend shouting “You’re a racist” at Bilyeu who shrugs off the criticism.

He then devotes a page to eviscerating the normalization of Black Pete in the Dutch imagination: “Because in the year 2020, the Netherlands is the only country on the planet actively claiming blackface as a part of the culture,” Bilyeu says. “And honestly, if you think blackface is your culture, then your culture ain’t [expletive]”

Bilyeu’s meticulous chronicling of Black Pete’s origins from the 3rd century until today, and the conflicting myths of how he acquired his skin color, confront otherwise complacent and egalitarian Dutch readers with the overwhelming evidence of their holiday’s deep-rooted and unapologetic racism.

In “Checkmate” illustrated by Berends, we find Bilyeu standing in line at the local grocery store when a child in a parallel line with his mother spots him and begins shouting and pointing at him “Hij is Zwarte Piet” (translation: “It’s Black Pete”). 

The mother of the child is mortified and the other customers are startled and annoyed by the break in civility that the outburst represents. All she can do is sheepishly apologize to Bilyeu for her child’s rudeness. All eyes are on Bilyeu with the hope he will defuse the awkwardness with a dismissive “It’s OK” or even a joke.

“Chad in Amsterdam,” “The Re-Up” and “Megillah,” edited and assembled by Chad Bilyeu, are available locally at Phantom of the Attic in Oakland and Copacetic Comics Company in Polish Hill.

Instead, Bilyeu says, “You know, if your holiday wasn’t racist, you wouldn’t have a reason to be sorry.” With that, Bilyeu smiles and clutches his armful of groceries even tighter as the flummoxed Dutch people stare at him with a mix of anger, exasperation, guilt and honest acknowledgment of the truth of what he says.

In a way, Bilyeu, the Black comic book writer from Cleveland, became to the people surrounding him in the grocery store line the trickster Black Pete is supposed to be. 

This version of Black Pete doesn’t give comfort to those who would prefer he simply be a mostly silent mascot who doesn’t upend Dutch traditions by truth-telling. It is a remarkable piece of literature that subverts Dutch complacency at every turn.

A few days after the dinner party in Garfield, Bilyeu and I meet for Thai food in Regent Square and imported beers at D’s across the street. He is completely mesmerized by Pittsburgh, a town he’s somewhat familiar with from many previous visits. Because he’s had such a great time here (and Inge Koks, his partner of eight years, prefers Pittsburgh to Cleveland by a large margin), he’s looking at the possibility of relocating to the home turf of the team that often manhandles his beloved Browns.

If there’s one thing a decade of living in Amsterdam, a European city that imagines itself to be far more egalitarian than it actually is, has taught Bilyeu, is that he’s able to adapt to life and even thrive behind “enemy lines.” Because Pittsburgh has been so gracious and affirming to him, he isn’t actively considering any other American city, but he will do his due diligence by visiting a few before returning to Amsterdam.

With the added bonus of Cleveland being just a few hours up the Ohio Turnpike, “Chad in Pittsburgh” now has more than a 50/50 chance of happening if you like betting on such things.

“Megillah,” a collection of colorful Sunday funnies featuring 35 cartoonists at the height of their powers, is one of Bilyeu’s favorite projects so far. He conceived, manages and edits the colossal anthology for Bistro Books, a publishing house based in Amsterdam.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.