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Anisfield-Wolf Fellow Valentino Zullo is Shaping the Future through Comics

Art by Sina Grace

“Fantasy drives us all,” declares Professor Valentino L. Zullo, the inaugural Anisfield-Wolf Post-Doctoral Fellow in English and Public Humanities at Ursuline College. He begins this fall. 

Zullo should know. A psychotherapist in psychoanalytic training at the Cleveland Psychoanalytic Center, Zullo is a scholar and a national authority on comics. The 33-year-old has gravitated toward the physical act of drawing and story-making since his mother first took him from their home in Chardon, Ohio to a comics bookstore, where Sonic the Hedgehog called out. 

As the son of immigrants, comics also helped him learn English. 

“It was quite difficult at times,” Zullo said of his childhood, “being Middle Eastern, being queer, especially after September 11, when language like ‘terrorist’ was coming at me. It’s a tough town, although with lovely people there.” 

Arriving at Kent State University was a revelation, particularly the class in 18th-century English literature, which stretched his mind in fresh, challenging ways. At one point, Professor Vera Camden asked students to list books they liked reading. After giving an answer he thought she’d want, Zullo hesitated, then added, “If you want to know the truth, really, I enjoy reading comics.”  

Camden’s response: “Why don’t you study comics?”

Those five words, Zullo said, altered the course of his life. “That’s the teacher I want to be,” he said, “someone who can listen and see a future for me.” 

In 2016, Camden and Zullo staged a highly successful Wonder Woman symposium at the Cleveland Public Library. That year, Zullo became the first scholar-in-residence for the Ohio Center for the Book, a job he did so vibrantly that the center decided to make the position permanent.  

Zullo, meanwhile, earned a Master of Social Work at Case Western Reserve University and began to teach at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where the creative use of the physical space in the classroom inspired him.  He has organized comics-making workshops in the Rising Star roastery. The grittiness of Cleveland and the making of such stories strikes Zullo as kismet. 

“How can we find narratives that students didn’t know were there?” he asks. “How do we organize ourselves to push back against oppression instead of falling into despair? How do we avoid the doom-scrolling and use our strong feelings for good?” 

Ursuline English Professor Katharine Trostel said Zullo was a knock-out as a candidate for the Anisfield-Wolf fellowship. She said, “When I read the following lines in Dr. Zullo’s job materials, I knew that he was the perfect fit for Ursuline: ‘My teaching philosophy ultimately finds its origins in my identity as a first-generation college student, a queer child of immigrants, whose relationship with the humanities gave me personal freedom.’  

“We welcome his enthusiasm for the public humanities, his deep belief in the transformative power of language, and his commitment to teaching and mentoring a new generation of civically engaged Clevelanders.”  

Zullo lives with his partner, Steve Jacobs, a swim coach at Shaker Heights High School, and their five rescued animals: two dogs and three cats. One cat, Azar, is named for the Farsi word for fire. 

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