Black History: A Comic Book Reading List

For the last 10 days of February, I put out a list of Top 10 Comics relating to Black History. I didn’t consider this a quintessential list; moreso, I wanted it to be a startting point for anyone interested in exploring the genre/medium combo.

From the get-go, I knew I could at least name 10 different titles, although I hadn’t read them all. And as research tends to do, I’ve added another few to this list, along with some notes. 

Black History Comics – A Reading List

bayou page shotBAYOU – 2010, by Jeremy Love.
It’s the Deep South–in the deep dip of the Depression. Young Lee was already afraid of the Bayou–that was where they dumped the body of Billy Glass–and who knows how many other blacks who “hadn’t known their place”. But when Lee’s white friend goes missing and her father is suspected to be involved, Lee sets out into the Bayou, a dark place of murder and magic, to rescue the girl from whatever has taken her, and in turn rescue her father from the fate of the gallows.
Here in the “new world” we often have a hard time picturing our history as folklore and our folk lore as mythology, but that is what is at work here. Jeremy Love does a great job with this book bringing that mythology to life in the stylization of Uncle Remus and his Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Fox, et al. He even takes it a little further, with pieces of social memory that still seem a little too real, too close, to feel entirely comfortable with: flocks of “Jim Crows” that will eat you alive; monsters with the faces of minstrel characters. There is an anthropomorphic element here–lots of talking animals, stories and song that make the characters really pop. Think “Alice in Dixieland”.
Two Volumes have been released of the story so-far: I do hope that more is on the way…
Published: 2010 by Zuda Comics (online arm of D.C. – now closed.)
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Writer, Best Artist, Best Female Character, Best Comic Strip, and Story of the Year (2009);
Best Digital Comic for the Eisner Awards – Nominee (2010);
American Library Association – 1 of Top 10 Graphic Novels for Teens (2010);
Further Reading: Nice Analysis over at Web Comic Overlook (although self-admittedly long.)

nat turner page shotNAT TURNER – 2006 by Kyle Baker. Four issues bound into two volumes here tell the story of Nathaniel “Nat” Turner, leader of one of the largest slave revolts in American history. The genius of this comic is that it tells a compelling story while allowing the historical value to shine through. It uses all excepts of Nat Turner’s own words, taken from a “confession” he gave to a newspaper while in prison awaiting his execution (the word “confession” of course, is an editorialization from the newspaper of the time–however, one can hardly expect him to be remorseful for killing the men who killed and enslaved his kinfolk). We not only have a primary source, but a first-hand account of what we’re seeing depicted in pictures: the life of a 19th Century slave, the horror of life from capture, transport, sale, work, and punishment. The role of religion and prayer for slaves who survived. As a political and historical comics enthusiast, this is one of the gems. Kyle Baker looks to have taken 19th Century newspaper illustrations and breathed them full of life and human emotion. This and a nail-biting narration have practically gift-wrapped this bloody episode of American history.
Published: 2006 by Kyle Baker Publishing
Awards: Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist, Best Cover, Story of the Year (2006);
Glyph Comics Awards – Best Artist (2008);
Further Reading: Nice review on Eye on Africa Blog

 

jackie robinson coverJACKIE ROBINSON, Issues 0 – 6 – Written by sports-writer Charles Dexter. Now I know nothing about this comic – save that it was published in 1950 and that it’s real. That makes it one of the earliest comic book depictions of a black historical figure (maybe the first?) and impossible to leave off this list, where I try to encourage that there is black representation, but also a note-worthy link to Black History (sorry Black Panther, Storm, Huey Freeman…)
That being said, I know nothing of the quality of this comic – the writing, the artwork. But regardless I like having this comic on my reading this for two reasons. It’s not only that it’s the sole comic that is more than 10 years old… consider the fact that a black baseball player would have difficulty finding lodging or a bar to sit in when this comic was released. Second, it’s written by a sportswriter, and I love sportswriter/political commentator cross-overs (the “Olberman” effect?).
Published: 1950 – 1951 by Fawcett
Further Reading: Good luck getting yourselves a copy of this – some issues retail as high as $75 for their 16 pages. But a decent telling of Jackie’s story (and the story of African Americans in the major leagues) can be found here at Awesome Stories.com 

 

 

SOOF - page shot

THE SILENCE OF OUR FRIENDS – 2008, Written by Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, and illustrated by Nate Powell. This is a deceptively simple memoir of a man who moved to a small Texas town with his liberal white family in the 1960s. The town was intensely segregated, and the author remembers the stir it caused when his Dad invited a black friend and his family over for dinner. Besides political overtones and largely untold events of recent Texas history, which included protests and a serious accusation of black demonstrators firing on police–which was later determined to be false–Silence of Our Friends is a story of childhood memory that is touching, personal and honest. With a heavy emphasis on Powell’s art, the narrative re-creates the [often quiet] tension of racism, privilege, and friendship.
Published: 2008, by First Second Comics / Macmillan
Awards:
Further Reading: I’m a huge fan of Nate Powell’s artwork, so I will take this time to direct you to his blog over here at See My Brother Dance

MALCOLM X A GRAPHIC BIOGRAPHY – 2006, by Andrew Helfer, Randy DuBurke.
Published: 2006 by Hill and Wang
I have yet to full read this piece, but have it on my list. There is also another Malcolm X biography – by Jessica Sara Gunderson and Seifu Hayden. Neither Helfer nor Gunderson are names that I’m very familiar with in comics, so I’ve been slow to pick these titles up. However they are available for those interested.

King coverKING: A COMICS BIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. – 2005, by Ho Che Anderson. Generally considered to be more comics journalism, this volume collects over 10 years of Ho Che Anderson’s work into a biography of the renowned civil rights leader.  From a review on Amazing: “KING probes the life story of one of America’s greatest public figures with an unflinchingly critical eye, casting King as an ambitious, dichotomous figure deserving of his place in history but not above moral sacrifice to get there. Anderson’s expressionistic visual style is wrought with dramatic energy; panels evoke a painterly attention to detail but juxtapose with one another in such a way as to propel King’s story with cinematic momentum.”
Published: 2005, by Fantagraphics (the Complete Edition)

birth of a nation coverBIRTH OF A NATION – 2004, by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker.
McGruder, Hudlin and Baker definitely have satire in their sights for this piece – that being said, it touches on black culture and history more uniquely than other books mentioned here. Aaron has admittedly used some real stories in this work, gathered by himself and friends over the years to make this comedic work ask a darkly humorous question: If East St. Louis seceded from the Union, would anyone really care? East St. Louis (“the inner city without an outer city” it says), is an impoverished town, so poor that Fred Fredericks, its idealistic mayor, starts off Election Day by collecting the city’s trash in his own minivan. (A real story is inserted here, says McGruder – some people kept their trash on their rooftops to discourage the packs of wild dogs from rummaging through it. No joke…well, yeah, I guess he kind of makes it into a joke.) But the mayor believes in the power of democracy and rallies his fellow citizens to the polls for the presidential election, only to find hundreds of them disenfranchised (this was the 2000 election, so that part is also totally believable).
“Birth of a Nation” to me, is what comics have always been about–pointed political commentary that makes you split your stomach laughing at the same time. And in doing so, it raises questions of culture and national identity. A great read.
Published: 2005, by Three Rivers Press

ROSA PARKS & THE MONTGOMERY BUS BOYCOTT – 2007, by Connie Colwell Miller (Author) and Dan Kalal (Illustrator).
Part of the Graphic Library series, this book is an introduction to Rosa Parks and her involvement in the Civil Rights movement. Because the author provides a sequential and clear outline of the historical events of the time, the story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott is told in a meaningful and interesting way. The graphic novel is broken into four chapters, each one telling a specific part of Rosa Parks’ story. Through the content presented, readers are introduced to important figures involved in the civil rights movement, racial segregation laws, significant dates and court decisions, important events in the civil rights movement, and the political and social climate of the time. Furthermore, the author shows the impact the Montgomery Bus Boycott had on the civil rights movement and tells about Rosa s life after the boycott.
Published: 2007 by Capstone Press

still-i-rise-graphic“STILL I RISE”: A GRAPHIC HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS – 2009, by Roland Laird (Author), Taneshia Nash Laird (Author), Elihu “Adofo” Bey (Illustrator), Charles Johnson (Foreword)
Still I Rise is a lot packed into a little book: the entire history of Black America– recently updated in a new edition that includes the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.A.’s first African American president (the first edition, published in 1997, took us up to the Million Man March). I believe this work has excelled in highlighting history left out of a lot of American textbooks, for whatever reasons: including early attempts of slaves and former slaves uniting with white indentured servants, along with the rise of early black entrepreneurs and politicians in the South who were constantly attacked, broken down and weeded out. it it a solid portrayal of a lengthy question, and shows that the notion of American history as “white” history is manufactured, and deliberately dismissive of black culture.
Published: 2009 by Sterling

BLACK IMAGES IN THE COMICS – 2012, Edited by Fredrik Stromberg (Introduction by Charles Johnson).
Endlessly browsable illustrated journey through comics’ history of radical portrayals both good and bad.
This book spotlights over 100 comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels to feature black characters from all over the world over the last century, and the result is a fascinating journey to, if not enlightenment, then at least away from the horrendous caricatures of yore. Fredrik Stromberg, who is from Swede, explains in the introduction that he more of less made the volume because it had not yet been made; he set out to make a comprehensive art history of (mostly) white people’s depictions of blacks: as primitive and savage–even cannibalistic, then as dim-witted clowns. Halfway through the 20th Century, this begins to change, and with the inclusion of more positive representations of blacks (mostly African Americans), we see the emergence of black writers and artists, breaking new ground once again.
What begins as a somewhat depressing window on the small-ness of humanity has something of a happy ending with this evolution. However I’m reminded of the words of Charles Johnson, who in the introduction writes, “I wait for the day when…stories in which a character who just happens to be Black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we — all of us — invest our dreams, imaginings, and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do– just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters…”
Published: 2012 by Fantagraphics


Some Additions:

My entire reading list is seriously lacking in the realm of arts and culture. I looked far and wide for a Hip Hop Graphic History, but am perhaps a bit early on that one – Ed Piskor’s exciting Hip Hop Family Tree comes out this October. Until then, you can preview some work on Boing Boing – or pre-order it from Fantagraphics!

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics, Art and Culture
Damian Duffy (Author), John Jennings (Author), Keith Knight (Introduction) – 2010, by Mark Batty Publisher

Super Black – 2011, by Adilifu Nama.
Super Black, although not a comic, it the most thorough work yet to break ground on the subject of black people in comics – their representation and significance. This also extends to blaxploitation film and art, where we see a real packaging of the ‘Black Hero’ for the first time in mainstream American culture.  Available through Amazon, some university literature courses, and perhaps your more-than-average book store.

ABINA AND THE IMPORTANT MEN – 2011, By Trevor R. Getz. Read more about it on the publisher’s website at Oxford University Press.

BAYOU ARCANA – An anthology of work in a similar vein to Bayou, looking at historical roles of race and gender in the Deep South.

The MARCH TRILOGY – Coming out in August, 2013. A graphic novel memoir of former Civil Rights leader and U.S. Representative John Lewis.

THE CAMPFIRE SERIES – by Steerforth Press includes “Mohammed Ali: King of the Ring” and a “Nelson Mandela” graphic biography.

There is also a “Nelson Mandela: Authorized Comic Book” that was produced by the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

African American Classics

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