Tag Archives: nate powell

Gender, Race, Forgotten Pasts and Hopeful Futures: The Best of Political Comics in 2013

Who Were the Movers and Shakers in Comics for 2013?

In and out of the comics world, it’s been quite a year! For Ad Astra Comix, it was a year that we came to be. But how was our own growth reflective of the rise of political comics elsewhere? Listed below are the people, projects and titles that our contributors believe made the absolute best of the past twelve months, in many different ways. Follow the links to find out where you can purchase their work and learn more about them!

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The Ladydrawers Comics Collective

sexmoneyracegenderTwo Thousand and Thirteen was a big year for comics introspection. At the forefront of alternative comics, comics activism, and raising awareness about some of the deficiencies of the industry is the Ladydrawers Collective, who have gained a wider audience from their contributions to the progressive website Truthout.org.

“We are not just readers and fans of comics; we are also creators and active participants in comic book culture,” they explain in their Kickstarter project last summer, which successfully raised over $15,000 for a documentary film about diversity in the industry. “…[A]s a medium as well as a mass cultural instrument, comics should not only represent our society by mirroring genuine aspects of human thought of emotion, but also nurture critical thinking and creativity.”

In addition to creating original works on topics as wide-ranging as feminism and unfair labour practices, the collective has curated comic art exhibitions, interviews with others in the comic industry around these issues, and given much-needed fuel to the fire calling for nothing short of a revolution in comics and the way we use them.cartoon-ladydrawers


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Black Mask Studios

Although founded in 2012, Black Mask Studios really heated up this year with a full slate release of titles from this new indie/political/punk publisher. Primary titles of interest: Occupy Comics and Liberator.

Occupy Comics (with 3 issue releases this year) has done much more than just tell the story of Occupy Wall Street. The series captures the feel of the movement. By reaching out to artists and writers from around the genre (Frank Miller need not apply). Occupy Comics offered powerful stories of struggle from early labour history, to OWS, Occupy Sandy, and other elements of the world wide movement for economic and social justice.
Liberator, written by Matt Miner in New York City, has taken an often marginalized sector of the activist community, the animal rights movement, and brought it into a powerful story that can be appreciated by both supporters of animal rights and everyday fans of good storytelling. This story from the political margins earned 4 out of 5 stars from Comicvine, and was described on the website Bleeding Cool is “A fiercely strong book that refuses to preach”. Speaking to the busy year he’s had in comics, (he and his family were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy when he launched his Kickstarter campaign for Liberator–since then, he’s released a first volume of four issues, and is collaborating on a project in the new year with the hardcore band Earth Crisis):

“The launch of Black Mask Studios has certainly helped bring political issues into comics in a bigger way.  I feel that as comics continue to grow and expand we’ll continue to see new and different types of stories that are relevant to the society we live in.”
“…I mean, Liberator isn’t Batman but it’s out there being read and enjoyed by a bunch of people who read Batman.  10 years ago the idea of an animal vigilante justice book never woulda happened.”

Certainly there are “non-political” titles that Black Mask is investing in, such as Ghostface Killah’s and RZA’s Hip-hop crime drama 12 Ways to Die, or Ballistic, a futuristic adventure about a man and his pet gun. But perhaps one of the most innovative and notable actions of the studio is its distribution strategy. Actively seeking out an alternative audience as well as traditional comic fans, Black Mask has placement in record stores, alternative book stores and uses an online subscription model to reach their audience. Black Mask has brought a slate of avant guard and openly political offerings into the wider marketplace.
Imagine: any average kid walking in to pick up the latest X-men or Batman (let’s face it: Superman fans probably weren’t interested) could see titles that made no bone about their politics of Animal Liberation, punk rock anarchists or the 99% sitting proudly beside old favourites. The times, they are a-changin’!

But the evolution of political comics is certainly not limited to North America, or to the new issues rack at the local comic shop.


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So Close, Faraway!

If you live homeless in 2013 Brazil, you face extreme risks. The country has an incredibly high murder rate for its most vulnerable citizens, and they aren’t getting a lot of help. A true case in point: last year, eight homeless people were poisoned when a passerby gave them a bottle of water spiked with rat poison.

Shedding light on this dark and treacherous life, Brazilian creators Augusto Paim, Bruno Ortiz & Maurício Piccini created an interactive webcomic that–for a day–puts you next to Jorge, a 43-year old homeless man from Porto Alegre, Brazil.  So Close, Faraway! a self-described “interactive piece of comics journalism,” is a pioneering effort that stretches the capabilities of the comic medium while forcing us to look at a social issue we often ignore.
Vigorously researched by Paim, the SCF! combines the story of Jorge’s life with real statistics about homelessness in Brazil, like those mentioned above. Ortiz’s art reminds us of the tropics in that it seems almost two bright, yet startlingly accurate, even in the blur of the final page. There are also multiple photos that demonstrate that the artwork rarely takes any liberties, and the harsh conditions on each page accurately reflect the harsh reality of homeless life in Brazil.
Bringing the story of Jorge to the online space is computer science graduate Piccini, who creates each page in layers that let you add or remove statistical or story dialogue boxes to give you some freedom as to how you read the comic. There’s something empowering about having control over the text on a comic page, allowing you to appreciate the art, and giving you the chance to read as deeply into the details of the story as you like.


From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.
From left to right: Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis, and Andrew Aikin standing on the bridge where police had beaten Lewis and his comrades decades before. The scene is depicted in March: Book One.

MARCH: Book One

John Lewis is perhaps one of the few members of American Congress who deserves to be there. As a leader of the Civil Rights Movement and the only person still alive to have spoken alongside Martin Luther King at the Washington Monument rally in 1963.

march__mlk_600px_lgAnd so kudos to him, Andrew Aikin, and the rest of their team for recognizing that the way to pass on this important chapter of American history—a history so often white-washed and told to have a happy ending—is to tell it as children and young adults like to learn it: with comics (electronic orders of this title, available through Top Shelf Productions, even include an electronic copy of vintage comic Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a 1950’s-era title that inspired Lewis to re-visit the medium). March: Book One shows us that our history is beautiful, terrifying, and can be powerfully relevant to our own lives. And who else could illustrate this with more grace than comic artist and illustrator Nate Powell?

If a comparison is acceptable, Powell is also another hard-working person who uniquely deserves every ounce of credit for what he has achieved in his life. After self-publishing comics since he was 14, Powell completed a few critically acclaimed and award-winning works like Swallow Me Whole, The Sounds of Your Name, and recently more politically-charged work like The Silence of Their Friends, and Any Empire. In 2011, he appeared at the United Nations alongside the world’s foremost writers of young adult fiction, to present on his contribution to the anthology What You Wish For: A Book For Darfur.

As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in MARCH, the Civil Rights Movement was a bloody, uphill battle, and should be remembered that way. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures; the movement moved and shaped by thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students, and many of whom lost their lives.


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Boxers and Saints

Gene Luen Yan’s Boxers and Saints is a hugely innovative and visionary dual graphic narrative for all ages, from First Second Books. Using cutting-edge creative technique, we can now begin to think about history (and comics) in a very different way.

They are in fact, two separate but complementary graphic novels, Boxers, and Saints, that challenge a traditional black & white world-view.  They are also available together as a boxed set and share trade-dress (including connecting imagery on covers/spines), and the reading of both is highly recommended to fully appreciate the richness of the larger world and the historical backdrop of China’s Boxer Rebellion.

Even though Boxers is the heftier of the two physical volumes, both are balanced in substance. Yang has tackled the problem facing anyone trying to fairly depict two sides of a conflict, and finds a rather eloquent solution: each is given it’s own stand-alone (albeit interrelated) story, and it’s own protagonist.

Boxers tells the story of Little Bao, an ignorant farm boy turned rebel leader, while Saints follows a young Christian girl, whose lowly status does not merit a proper given name until she chooses her vocation.  The two meet only briefly, but with significant repercussions on the lives and ultimate fates of both.

In addition to being a critically acclaimed and award winning Graphic Novelist (American Born Chinese won an Eisner and other honours in 2007), Yang is a high school teacher. He shows deftness and ease at breaking complex concepts and events into accessible, yet entertaining, ways for his primary audience of children and youth.

He crafts fictionalized version of very real events, using what we as adults might liken to “Magic Realism”.  It’s not surprising that Yang also writes the graphic novel adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender. He has essentially turned his protagonists into superheroes, while the very human reactions of his adolescent characters remain easily relatable to young readers.

Yang’s work pushes the boundaries and demonstrates the potential of the medium. Boxers and Saints highlights the complexities and ambiguities of political/social/economic conflicts, and illustrates to his readers that the world isn’t cleanly divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”.


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Symbolia – A Periodical of Comics Journalism

Symbolia Magazine started out this year doing something that seemed very logical: an electronic periodical composed entirely of comics journalism. In fact, it seemed so logical that many of us forgot that this had never been done before. Celebrating the genre in and of itself and not merely as decoration for other more “legitimate” pieces of print journalism, the periodical format reminds us that this category of work is alive, kicking, and packs a healthy dose of diversity (and punch, in case anyone’s wondering). The latest instalment just came out on December 24. and the electronic-only format means that the editorial board can focus on quality content and not pinching pennies to make the next full-colour print run (electronic comics also mean interactive comics, of which the magazine takes full advantage!)


femalesuperheroesTom Humberstone and Female Superheroes

For those unfamiliar, Tom Humberstone is an award-winning comic artist and illustrator based in London. This year, he launched the platform Female Superheroes on femalesuperheroes.nl (with access in English and Dutch), featuring inspiring stories about ordinary women from around the world, who face great adversity and overcame it to do extraordinary things with their lives. The platform is unique because, “it showcases how Comics Journalism can be combined with a game-like interface, 360-degree photography and video to create an immersive experience”. Pretty awesome.


Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.
Screenshot of the interactive Female Superheroes website, available in English and Dutch.

Tess Fowler, Mari Naomi, and the “Open Letters” to the Comics Community of 2013

Similar to this last project was some of the initial work released by Tess Fowler, who gained recognition for her modern remix of Disney heroines, called “Apocalypse Princesses.”

For better and for worse, Fowler arguably made less waves with her incredible artwork this year than for her calling sexist foul on Brian Wood, a leader in the mainstream comics industry for sexually harassing her during a comic convention social. Open letters such as hers and other women in comics (most recently comic artist Mari Naomi re-lived, in comic form, how she was repeatedly sexually harassed during a panel at a comic convention) are pointing to a deep and powerful undercurrent of male chauvinism in comics.

Certainly, these talented women would like to focus on what they love doing most, which is telling stories and drawing comics. But for the purpose of this post talking about who has had the most significant impact on comics from a political perspective, their public positions against harassment in the industry have been huge. The ripple effect of these public-yet-very-much-“inter-community” criticism is going to be felt for years to come, and has very likely changed the titanic course of the comics industry as we know it. The letters, each as they pop up, have obviously been constructed with great caution and forethought, but ultimately released for the betterment of the comics community, and are therefore courageous and worthy, more than any other buzz news or gossip, of our time to read.

Contributing Writers:
Zachary Dunlop-Johnson
José Gonzalez
Raisha Karnani
Sam Noir
Nicole Marie Guiniling

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Review of “MARCH: Book One”

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Title: MARCH: Book One
Creators: John Lewis, Andrew Aykin, and Nate Powell
Published: August 2013 by Top Shelf Press

March: Book One is the first part in a trilogy graphic memoir detailing the life and times of Civil Rights activist and Congressman John Lewis.

Growing up in the United States, you’re led to believe that you learn all there is to know about the Civil Rights Movement in school. You learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts; you learn about the most famous American speech of the 20th Century: “I Have a Dream”.

In a recent article shared through the Zinn Education Project, historian and black activist Bill Fletcher Jr. describes the method by which certain moments and people in the Civil Rights movement have been “mythologized” and “sanitized“. And boy, has our understanding of this history been manipulated! We would be led to believe that forces of the status quo in the 1950s and 1960s–from local police departments up to the President’s office–supported non-violent forms of protest; that racism and racists were isolated to the masses of simple folk in the South.

Of course, the result of this is that students are not understanding the context of these important pieces of history. That is why I’m hopeful of a book like March making its way into classrooms… students deserve a broader view of these issues than what will be allocated to them in 2 or 3 paragraphs of a standard-issue textbook.

As John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell so eloquently show us in March, this was not the case. The Civil Rights movement was a bloody, uphill battle. The struggle and its gains were not the results of a few actions by those now famous historical figures: the movement moved by way of thousands of committed activists, many of whom were students.

This is a truly beautiful comic book that paints a portrait not just of a man (John Lewis was one of the leaders of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and is now a Congressman; he is also the last living person to have given a speech alongside Martin Luther King on Aug 28, 1963). It paints a vivid portrait of a movement that you think you know, but maybe, possibly, probably don’t. Why was non-violent civil disobedience so radical at the time? Why were there rifts between the younger activists and the older black leadership–figures like Thurgood Marshall? How was the Civil Rights movement connected to religious groups? To the labor movement?

Nate Powell has a way of making every picture personable–crisp, yet dreamy, with solid black ink brush strokes complimented by dabbles of watercolor staining. And Andrew Aydin, who works on Congressman John Lewis’ staff, has obviously been instrumental in taking the vast treasure trove of information that is John Lewis’ life experience, and organizing it into an epic memoir. I particularly like the stories that attest to his core character, like growing up on an old sharecropper farm, wanting to be a preacher and practicing his talks on his chickens. These are wonderful stories that bring out the humanity behind the political battles.

These are the stories from the Civil Rights Movement that, I believe, reclaim the history and restore its heart and soul. You can’t learn about a protest movement from a government-sanctioned textbook.. they’ll make you think the whole thing was their idea. And although Congressman Lewis is now a part of that system, well… how he got there will be explained in the next two books of the trilogy.

I’m excited about what I’ve seen so far–this is an often raw, ugly–yet true history of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. To get a glimpse of this, I’ve asked the kind folks at Top Shelf to show you the first five pages of March. I hope you see what I mean–and be sure to pick up a copy when you get the chance!

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The Silence of Our Friends (2012)

coverTitle: The Silence of Our Friends
Authors: Mark Long and Jim Demonakos
Illustrator: Nate Powell
Published: 2012 by First Second Books

L.P. Hartley said, as noted in the book, “The past is a foreign country. They do things different there.”

Taking place in Houston, Texas, in 1968, The Silence of Our Friends is a brief memoir of Mark Long’s childhood against the backdrop of his town’s peaked racial tension. The title comes from that famous quote by Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

Long was raised in a white, Liberal, Christian middle-class family—as American as apple pie, it seems. They find themselves in Houston when Mark’s father, Jack, moves the family to take a job as a TV camera man and the TV station’s “race reporter”. Through his job, Jack befriends a local Civil Rights leader, Larry, a teacher who has rallied students at a segregated university in the 3rd Ward—Houston’s impoverished African American community. The school’s administration banned the right of SNCC to organize (The Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee—a nationwide student group elemental in the rise of the Civil Rights Movement on post-secondary campuses). For more information about this history, I recommend reading a [White-written] news article from the time period, complete with all its presuppositions and bias. This 1967 piece from Harvard Crimson paints a pretty good picture, in addition to providing background on this chapter in Houston’s history.

Despite significant tensions, Jack and Larry’s families attempt to forge a bond in a time and place when it was considered against the rules for African Americans to be in a “white” neighbourhood  even at the invitation of community members, and the Ku Klux Klan openly passed out flyers for their monthly meetings.

soof_artworkThe story is told masterfully against many different backdrops that reflect the memory’s time and place: images of the Vietnam War constantly on TV, rodeos and ‘crabbing’ as weekend past-times. The writing displays an intimate recollection of the events of this time and place—subtleties that pop for modern readers, because so much seems to have changed. A little boy pretending that he’s a soldier in Vietnam; a mother politely arguing with a next-door neighbor about how the war is wrong; a Black man quietly observing that he hasn’t spoken to a white person for any length of time since he was in the Army. One of my favorite scenes is when the children of Jack and Larry’s families are getting to know each other. They spend a good minute just looking at each other. Then they take the time to feel each other’s skin and hair—to investigate difference innocently, without the obstruction of judgement or power dynamics. This is captured most beautifully by Mark’s younger sister, who is blind.

Nate Powell’s artwork equals the story in quality and care. I’ve been a fan on Nate’s work for so long that it’s sometimes impossible for me to appreciate the specific things he does to make a particular work stand out for what it is. The flow of panels here is so well mastered—using song lyrics of contemporary hits (like Sam Cooke’s  “A Change Gonna Come”) to guide us from one scene to another. His artwork is never static—each page is presented with an amazing overall aesthetic. Backgrounds jump from open and white to closed in and dark; the realism of a car driving down a street will be spotted with emotive/expressionistic shapes from the headlights. When I look at his work, I feel like I could be in a dream, where reality unhinging is a slight and beautiful thing. (I also can’t but notice that the subtitle of the work is “The Civil Rights Struggle was Never Black and White”–and Nate, who often works only in B&W, has used a lot of grey tones here.)

There is no other comic book that really compares to this work—it is unique and educational as much as it is personal and moving. However it seems to be opening the doors for more work of a common history—Powell has done artwork for another comic documenting Civil Rights history, March (Book One) written by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin. I look forward to adding this work, alongside The Silence of Our Friends, to my bookshelf.

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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 

 

 

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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

Any Empire, by Nate Powell

Title: Any Empire
Author: Nate Powell
Publisher:  Top Shelf Productions (2011)
Bought this copy: from Nate @ The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF)
More Info: Top Shelf’s synopsis, ordering info, and more reviews

What It’s About:  The story follows the life, in several parts, of rural American Lee Powell against the influential backdrop of militarism in America. Jumping around to different points of the boy’s life in a complex (and somewhat transparently autobiographical) way, Powell is confronted at different times in his life with the purpose and meaning of violence in society—from childhood social groups to the maintenance of modern nation states.

Lee begins to hang out with a group of neighborhood boys who have a “gang”. In order to get in the club, Lee is told, he has to do some bad things. He and the other boys are challenged with the acceptance of their peers or the pull of their conscience. For some, their decision leads to love and happiness—for others, anger and despair. But the road is longer for some than others.  Sorry, I just realized how much of a spoiler this review could be.

Thoughts:   This book comes across as a touching small-town story that observes as much as it tells of the impact militarism on American society. On a technical level, ‘Any Empire’ is a testament to author and illustrator Nate Powell’s capacity for narration. He frequently allows a series of panels to pass in the middle of the story without a single text bubble. I love this—it makes me think that the story, instead of being told by someone, is telling itself. Suitably, the subject matter Nate often chooses is fitting for this layout, whether it’s in the socially awkward interactions of his work Swallow Me Whole, or racism and its effect on children, like in The Silence of Our Friends (this story, illustrated by Powell, was co-written by Mark Long and Jim Demonakos).  Silent images truthfully convey that these social idiosyncrasies rarely interact with words when we are in those situations, which makes the comic narration all the more touchingly real.
What’s more to appreciate, the dialogue–when it comes around, that is–is so believable, lending one to be sure that at least part of this comic came from real conversations in Powell’s personal history.

The boy, ‘Lee’ Powell is such a typical American boy. Raised by a veteran, he reads G.I. Joe comic books, plays with toy soldiers with a deadly seriousness, and dreams of fantastic combat.  Even his “anti-social behavior” seems normal to me as someone who also grew up in the Midwestern U.S.—despite the comic showing his parents worrying over the matter.

Contrast this with the depiction of Purdy—who, on the outside, appears to be no different than Lee. But then the layers begin to unfold. Purdy has a rough family upbringing; raised on fast food and poor parenting, picked on by an asshole brother, his pull towards the fantasy of militarism is stronger and more distorted than Lee’s. He truly believes that being a soldier will bring to him honor and dignity where he has only felt shame and embarrassment his whole life. This ultimately affects his most crucial decisions. The two boys go down very different paths as young men, only to meet up at the crossroads.

CRITIQUES (Spoiler Alert):

Some things in this story aren’t clear to me. I often give a book or movie the benefit of the doubt on this point, and just chalk it up to me not being observant enough. But now that I’m doing reviews, I guess I should be honest when I read something and just don’t get it.
Most importantly, I didn’t understand how this comic ended.  How did Purdy decide to go AWOL so easily, after so little contemplation? He had so much wrapped up in being a soldier, and arguably, no reasonable cause was offered/depicted in the story to make him think otherwise. Do the twins go AWOL as well? In one scene, they are shown diving off a cliff with Purdy, absent without leave. In another, later on, they have guns pointed at Purdy, Lee, and Sara. This conflict doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion.
Is the story really set up to be 99.9% realistic—only to have 3 people (who didn’t used to get along) team up and flip a tank with their bare hands at the very end?
Lastly, what’s in the damn Turtle Killers box? It drove me crazy. Seriously, it doesn’t matter?

Favorite Spreads:

There is so much social commentary in each of these pages… from Sara as a young girl doing her best to save the turtles just as the boys carelessly destroy them; Sara’s mom coming home from work and, exhausted, trying to offer her daughter the best advice she can. Nate took on a lot of different ideas to put this comic together, but that’s how we should be looking at the issue–with multiple adjoining parts.
An excellent scene is when Purdy meets up with his younger self and tells him that he’s an AWOL soldier. I only wish that this conversation was elaborated upon a bit further—meeting up with a younger version of yourself is something that so many of us recognize as a powerfully meaningful vision. What would be the most important thing you could say? Would the younger you listen? I wish this had lasted a little longer.
My most favorite layout, however,  is relatively early on when Lee and his sketchy new friends go to an army surplus store to buy old defective grenades. As Lee is handed his very own almost-ish-explosive, he takes note of his surroundings: above his head hang a variety of flags. There is the standard U.S. stars and stripes, but also the Confederate Stars and Bars; and also a Swastika of the Third Reich. It brings the name of the title home—all violence, weapons, and war… are vehicles, vessels, and empty shells. There is nothing inherently patriotic (or revolutionary) about a weapon. Their content and purpose is the property of the intent—any intent, any empire—that they serve.

Day One

I have so little time to put down thoughts on TCAF at this exact moment. What I will say is CONGRATULATIONS: this year’s festival has some amazing political comic offerings compared to last year. I have already read one book and will definitely be doing some reviews in the coming days. Until then, a few snaps, subtly edited but not as well as they would have been with Instagram:

NMG