Picturing pride, prejudice, and protest: African American graphic novels

Picturing pride, prejudice, and protest: African American graphic novels

By Daniel F. Yezbick

Over the last few decades, multimodal stories that employ both words and images have gained immense popularity with audiences of all ages, from elementary readers to college classrooms and beyond. Now more than ever, thanks to the success of best-selling creators such as Raina Telgemeir (“Smile, Drama, Ghosts”), Jeff Smith (“Bone”), and Gene Leun Yang (“American Born Chinese,” “Superman Smashes the Klan”),  the comics – and their many international, interdisciplinary forms – are truly for everyone, both in print and online. 

Daniel F. Yezbick
At the same time, graphic storytelling has never been more ethnically diverse or racially proud, especially in the United States. Innovative masterpieces, award-winning epics and daring artists of color are changing the face(s) of African-American literature every day. 

Here are just a few of the exciting new narratives showcasing the storytelling talents in African-American culture. From lush period pieces and intimate memoirs, to spectacular fantasies and probing political satires, there is something for everyone to appreciate and explore. 

“The March Trilogy,” by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

“March” is a triumph of comics language and cultural exchange. This three-volume biography of Civil Rights pioneer and national treasure Sen. John Lewis, D-Ga., could have been a typical exercise in dry historicizing. Instead, Lewis enlisted two gifted interracial collaborators, Aydin and Powell, who bring gripping depth and genuine moment-by-moment suspense to the story of his rise from a child prodigy who preached the gospel to his parents’ chickens, to one of America’s greatest advocates for racial equality. Powell’s lush brushwork shadows and evocative facial expressions teach readers of all ages about the tension, fear and danger involved in every lunch counter protest, public stand-off and political intrigue involved in making all American citizens truly equal. Winner of the National Book Award, and now standard reading in many elementary schools, high schools and college courses across the country, “March” is a beautiful, earnest testament to the resilient men and women who fought for a better nation during a truly terrible time in our history.

“Strange Fruit Vol. 1: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History,” by Joel Christian Gill 

This anthology of short stories celebrating unsung heroes in African-American history is one of the  most rewarding graphic novels of the last several years. Gill’s gift for investing genuine warmth and passion into each of his obscure historical subjects brings the true misery of slavery, Jim Crow culture and violent prejudice to life. Instead of emphasizing the misery and violence, however, his stories celebrate the wit, resilience and cleverness of everyday black people striving to find their own way to freedom, safety, happiness and even celebrity. Some vignettes bring thrilling resonance to the adventures of African-American heroes including Bass Reeves (the black inspiration for The Lone Ranger!) and Henry “Box” Brown, the slave who succeeded in mailing himself to freedom. Others introduce us to unfairly marginalized gamers and athletes such as forgotten chess Master Theophilus Thompson; “Major” Taylor, an early black cycling star; and “Bucky” Lew, probably the first African-American to develop a public reputation as a basketball player. Still other stories bring cohesion and continuity to mere scraps and enduring fragments left over from lives that were erased, suppressed or exploited outright such as the tragedies that befell the residents of Maine’s Malaga Island. These resuscitated tales are among the most compelling of Gill’s many subjects, all framed with deft energy and tender respect for the agonies and anxieties they suffered.  Gill’s other installments of his “Strange Fruit” and “Talented Tenth” historical series are just as compelling, as are other more personal works incluing his most recent memoir, “Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence.” Regardless of which you get hold of first, Gill has provided fresh, exciting access to some of the most meaningful  and underappreciated elements of African-American history. 

“Kindred” and “Parable of the Sower,” by Damian Duffy and John Jennings adapting the speculative fiction of Octavia Butler

Though she passed away in 2006, Butler’s importance to black American writing and world science fiction has finally begun to earn long-overdue respect and wide-spread popularity. Contemporary media makers including Jordan Peele (“Get Out,” “Us,” “Antebellum”) acknowledge her influence; and her time-hopping visions of past and future worlds consumed by rampant hate and dictatorial cruelty have more relevance now than ever before. The mixed-race creative team of Duffy and Jennings has also been developing hard-hitting comics of  dystopic dissent for decades; but their work was often too radical, cerebral or just plain fierce for mainstream audiences. Now, their attention to the grace and intellect behind Butler’s fantasy parables has earned all three voices renewed international relevance. “Kindred” is an especially moving example of a gripping adaptation that tells its own story in a bold new form while honoring the original work’s most meaningful conflicts and concerns. Though these fearless, provocative texts are not for all tastes, they are some of our best graphic testaments to the monstrous legacies of slavery and the enduring dangers of ignorant hatred. 

“Archival Quality,” by Ivy Noelle Weir and Christina “Steenz” Stewart 

Christina Steenz Stewart
It is impossible to give too much praise to this multicultural young-adult ghost story about trust, love, mental illness and museum curation. If that seems odd, it won’t after you explore the first few pages of this slick little mystery that channels Scooby Doo, Nancy Drew and M.R. James in its 21st century Millennial remix of fear, fun and friendship. The captivating original story focuses on Cel Warden, a kind but confused African-American archivist at the mysterious Logan Museum of medical oddities. Despite her own romantic and mental health challenges, Cel unites her friends and co-workers to seek out the conspiracy behind a series of odd disturbances and discrepancies involving the collection. Each page is a quirky treasure of suspense and edgy designs, as orchestrated by St. Louis’ own Steenz Stewart, Comics Instructor at Webster University and Cosmic Queen of the local Geek Scene. Few all-ages stories are as adamantly aware of race, gender and special-needs perspectives on the past, and thanks to Steenz, no other graphic novel enjoys such a vibrant and original visuality. 

“Hot Comb,” by Ebony Flowers 

Successful female cartoonists of color are rare, and often marginalized into oblivion before they ever get a chance to make their valuable voices heard. Ebony Flowers’ rollicking collection of anecdotes, observations and sass is a fun and perceptive antidote to the dearth of black female comics creators. Much like Chris Rock’s celebrated 2009 documentary, “Good Hair,” Flowers’ stories scrutinize and celebrate the complicated world of African-American hair fads, fashions and frustrations. Don’t let the rough black-and-white production values fool you. Flowers is no amateur, and her slyly rendered splash pages are awash in cultural critique and comedic contrasts involving black women of all ages and backgrounds who struggle, suffer and snicker their way to satisfying haircuts and dynamic do’s. 

“The New Kid,” by Jerry Craft 

This all-ages memoir of toughing it out at a less-than-diverse new school just garnered the prestigious Newberry Medal for outstanding children’s literature, among its many other honors and kudos. Jerry Craft has been developing quality family-friendly cartooning about the African-American experience for years, and his syndicated strip, “Mama’s Boyz,” is among the funniest and most perceptive family situation comedies in comics. “The New Kid” is even more personal, poignant and positive in its loving treatment of transition into adulthood and individual acceptance of self. Few books of any type are more enjoyably encouraging. 

“The K Chronicles” and nearly everything else by Keith Knight 

With a forthcoming TV show to showcase his limitless comedic talents, Keith Knight is about to explode all over American media. This hilarious assault has been too long in coming, especially for one of the funniest creators in world comics whose hi-jinks began in the mid-1990s. First, there came Knight’s outrageously honest diary strip, “The K Chronicles,” an underground comics sensation that ran for years in alternative newspapers and websites. It produced some of his most enduring ideas including the fan favorite “Life’s Little Victories” serial celebrating daily unexpected doses of good fortune and serendipity. Then came his more politically ruthless satires in the single-panel editorial series “(Th)ink,” and his canny commentaries on race and sports culture in the “Sports Knight” series. When Knight married and became a father, his humor turned domestic with the mainstream syndication of his “Knight Life” feature and his ongoing “Jake the Fake” titles, meant to make room for African-American perspectives in the “Wimpy Kid/Timmy Failure” pre-teen market. Each new project has fostered numerous collections, treasuries and controversies because Knight’s unflinching opinions on American racial tension are sharper than his viciously tipped pencil. For proof, see his recent collection, “They Shoot Black People, Don’t They?” No single cartoonist of any color or creed has ever made us laugh so hard about such uncomfortable truths. 

“Bitter Root,” by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene 

Who’s up for a little supernatural adventure, Harlem Renaissance style? If you are, then do not miss Walker/Brown/Greene’s runaway hit series, “Bitter Root.” Introduced in 2018 and already optioned for feature film adaptation by Legendary Pictures, the series follows a family of black monster hunters, the Sangerye clan, through a series of adventures and crises set against a lush background of jazz, blues and Steampunkish Harlem style. “Bitter Root” combines the intensity of the walking dead and the menacing atmosphere of penny dreadful with pithy observations on African-American pride and black cultural heritage. It is truly a thrilling and constructive read, and every new installment grows the story and its world in truly bitter, but fruitful, ways. 

“Upgrade Soul,” by Ezra Clayton Daniels 

What happens when racial profiling and ethnic identity get cyber-psychedelic? Check out “Upgrade Soul” and get woke to all kinds of uneasy questions about self, heritage and culture. One of the most downright unusual stories told in comics, it is also one of the most racially complex and artistically interesting. What’s even better, it’s getting international attention for its local St. Louis publisher, Lion Forge, whose commitment to promoting comics of color continues to break down barriers of identity, style and form. Much like the works of Duffy and Jennings (See No. 3), this extremely trippy tale is not for all markets, but it is never anything less than completely surprising and achingly relevant.

“Incognegro,” by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece

This historical thriller remains one of the most insightful reflections on the lynching cultures of the early 20th century in the American South. Penned by acclaimed novelist Mat Johnson (“Drop,” “Pym”), with ferociously ironic use of black and white imagery developed by Brit artist Pleece, this tense narrative follows a light-skinned African-American journalist, Alonzo Pinchback, who dares to go undercover as a white in the Deep South to infiltrate the Klu Klux Kan. A past master of impersonation, Pinchback is tested to the limit when his own brother is accused of murdering a white woman in Mississippi. His supposed last assignment is also his most dangerously personal. 

“Princeless,” by Jeremy Whitley and various artists including Mia Goodwin and Emily Martin 

Jeremy Whitley’s ever-more-imaginative “Princeless” series has been delighting and empowering children of every color since 2015. And with nine collected editions and a Columbia Pictures adaptation in development, this witty, wonderful all-ages fantasy will become only more exciting with time. Discouraged by the lack of independent heroines, multicultural princesses and role models of color available to girls, Whitley developed a magical epic featuring kick-butt tomboy Adrienne Ashe and her snarky dragon, Sparky, whose adventures are filled with empowerment and self-discovery. It’s rich, witty fun from the very first page, and Whitley’s character development takes on many of the toughest hurdles children of all genders may find themselves facing. The damsels of “Princeless” are truly tough grrls who run fearlessly towards distress whenever it suits their needs. 

“Birth of a Nation,” by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker 

Though long out of print, this stunning political satire on American race relations includes some of the most vehement criticism of ethnic prejudice and political hypocrisy ever depicted. Originally developed as a feature film treatment by McGruder (“The Boondocks”) and East St. Louis-born Hudlin (“Black Panther”), the disturbing story traces East St. Louis’ secession from the United States to become its own nation, the Republic of Blackland. Few graphic novels have drawn more controversy for their unflinching depiction of dysfunction and disillusionment involving the lack of opportunities, justice and freedom for African-Americans. If the opening two-panel comparison of east and west St. Louis isn’t devastating enough, there is even more righteous indignation and political intrigue to follow. It’s a bitter but savvy meditation on the worst elements of race-driven economics and ethnic exploitation. 

“Jackie Ormes: The First African American Woman Cartoonist,” by Nancy Goldstein  

Jackie Ormes remains an unsung heroine for countless African-Americans, especially the little girls lucky enough to acquire one of her ground-breaking race-positive Patty-Jo dolls back in the day. Ormes was a pioneer of race-conscious cartooning and toy design, as well as a fearless advocate of fashionable, intelligent and aware black women’s perspectives. Her single-panel political cartoon, “Patty-Jo and Ginger,” was part style guide, part editorial wherein the younger of two black sisters brought the fearless wisdom of childish inquiry to tough questions about civil rights, desegregation, lynching, pollution and more throughout the Cold War. Ormes’ later work with Torchy Brown introduced what is perhaps the first soap opera featuring responsible, sophisticated depictions of African-American relationships in a mass medium. Goldstein, a historian and cultural critic, has collected the bulk of Ormes’ tragically overlooked oeuvre in this single volume and the story it tells about American history in general, and Ormes’ own entrepreneurship in particular is astonishing. 

– Daniel F. Yezbick is a professor of English and Communications
and the Campus Global and Intercultural Education Coordinator
at St Louis Community College at Wildwood.
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