Tag Archives: racism

From ‘It’s All Over’ to ‘Your Black Friend’: the anarcho-comix of Ben Passmore

dayglo ahole its all over

Hours before I met Ben Passmore for the first time, I’d been informed that it was the first night of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. My partner and I were on tour in the American South and had not made any definitive plans for the space on the map between Atlanta and Houston.  A friend of a friend put us in touch, and we gathered in a small group waiting for the Krewe du Vieux parade to start. The night’s theme: “politically incorrect”.

I could hear wooden chips and beads crunching under my shoes as I struggled to distribute the seven jell-o shots I’d just purchased from a nice old lady pushing a cooler through the crowd along the sidewalk. We stood, drinking, smoking, and watched the floats pass: a pair of queens with enormous falsies, an old white man from the ‘NOLA for Bernie Sanders campaign’ wearing a fake indigenous headdress and throwing candy. It was somewhat surreal, somewhat entirely foreseeable.

Mardis Gras continues like clockwork every year, but a lot of New Orleans has changed since Hurricane Katrina. The largest residential building in the city is abandoned. Entire neighbourhoods are boarded up, next to other neighborhoods peppered with colourful and chic low-income housing built with donations from celebrities like Brad Pitt and Sean Penn. In many ways, post-Katrina NOLA became the poster city for explaining concepts like disaster capitalism, neo-liberalism, and gentrification.

dayglo landscape

It’s hard not to notice elements of this un-done landscape in Passmore’s online comic, D A Y G L O A H O L E, which he worked on for years while living in the city. Characters wander around a mysterious post-civilization wasteland. There are semi-familiar objects everywhere, but ‘civil society’ and all that phrase entails is gone. Washed away. Each new comic extends further into this post-apocalyptic future, and deeper into Passmore’s mind we go.bens mind

“Daygloayhole has consistently been too ambitious for my level of talent, but I think that’s what makes it fun. I’m not a huge sci-fi nerd, but what little of it I’ve consumed and enjoyed consistently pairs the recognizable with the fantastically alien.”

Passmore spent several years working on daygloahole, living in New Orleans. Life was a mix of work, going to shows, and fostering a burgeoning indie comics scene through the NOLA zine and comics fair. Of course a city known for its history of parades and grassroots activism will attract its share of artists, hippies, road punks, and anarchists. When I suggested that New Orleans appeared to solve the age-old mystery of where crust punks go to die, he said it was “more to become undead… There’s a lot of lumbering soulessness [here].”

dayglo portland douche

And the anarchists were having a moment. Abandoned buildings were being squatted and used for political organizing or art projects.

The phrase ‘It’s all over’ appears again and again in daygloahole, which was funny because that’s all I could think when I was in New Orleans. And then, it doesn’t seem quite as funny anymore.

dayglo nightclub

“I think that’s something that I enjoyed at first, the culture of collapse in New Orleans, until I really realized the toll Katrina took on people’s minds and lives, and the disparity it underlined.”

food trucks for antigravity
“Food Truck” illustration for Antigravity Magazine

That disparity is one drawn clearly around race in New Orleans and Louisiana as a whole, whether we’re talking about segregation of schools and neighborhoods, police violence, or the state prison system. It was only in the last year that New Orleans removed several Confederate Monuments, which Passmore documented for the comics journalism website, The Nib.

The Confederate Monument fights became a flashpoint in the South for confronting fascist and white supremacist forces, who were being emboldened by Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” (a perfect dog-whistle for the South’s “Lost Cause” sentiment, which sticks around like 100% humidity). From inside a jail cell for confronting the KKK at Stone Mountain, to the streets of New Orleans where a masked Mardis Gras parade took to a Confederate statue with paint and sledgehammers, Ben took names, covered it, drew it, and showed the rest of us what was going on.

ben passmore taken em down
“I’ve been really excited about doing pieces for the NIB,” Ben says. “It’s good to have to explain your ideas with pictures and words if you’re politically wing-nutty. I assume the majority of the NIB readership is liberal and prolly not very into most of my Anarchist politics.”

“New Orleans created a feeling of urgency about white supremacy as a societal poison that I didn’t feel as much before I moved there.”

“And it for sure burned me out on white people.”

your black friend

In 2017, Ben Passmore made international news for having his work, a short 16-page comic called “Your Black Friend,” nominated for an Eisner Award. For those of you not in the comics industry: that’s kind of like being nominated for an Academy Award. Needless to say, as an anarchist, but more as a political comic enthusiast, I was pretty stoked about the news.

‘Your Black Friend’ is a comic for that person who wants you to know they’re not a racist. It’s a comic about micro-aggressions, cultural appropriation, and lefty-progressive virtue-signalling. It is a short but poetically full-circle sampling of how annoying, depressing, terrifying, and frustrating it is to share space and community with white people (even those nice ones) in a white supremacist world.

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Passmore’s first 20 years were in and around Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “My mom was/is an artist and she encouraged me to draw a lot. I think she would’ve liked me to draw trees… I drew a lot of muscle guys in spandex covered in spikes.”

Ben would eventually go on to art school and major in comics with a minor in illustration.

Passmore seems somewhat surprised that younger people are inspired by his work.

“I get messages from other weird black cartoonists and people that get stuff out of my comics. A couple times people have told me that they’ve been “reading my comics for years” and they’re in their early twenties which is such a crazy thing to be a part of someone’s cultural scenery when they’re turning into an adult.”

There’s a lot being processed in Passmore’s comics, from the low-key racism of his friends, to his Mom voting for Trump, to his own relationships with addiction, depression and impulses to self-harm. Ben has made space for it all, while never taking himself too seriously.

dayglo whatever hippie

A current project of Passmore’s –not yet released– deals with identity, inspired by the pronounced dysphoria he experienced during the last two years’ living in NOLA. I’m looking forward to seeing that, given the nuance he gives to subjects like blackness and queerness. “I’ve never subscribed to the ‘destroy everything/destroy my body’ that characterizes some queer nihilism. Not because I don’t think that strain has validity, it’s just it feels complicated to be black and to desire physical deconstruction.”

black people have been gaslighted
From “Fighting For a Better History” about the call to remove Confederate monuments in New Orleans

Leftist comics – much like “the Left” in general– have a tendency to forget the nuance in their attempt to promote a cause. And that’s a fine strategy, if you’re designing lawn signs for an election.

Passmore’s work shows us that a comic is capable of something infinitely more sophisticated.

His advice to folks who want to make political comics: “Don’t be preachy… if peeps don’t at least recognize your point of view, it’s cause you didn’t make your case well enough.”

Your Black Friend‘ is available now from Silver Sprocket. Follow Ben’s adventures on Twitter and Tumblr, and if you want to show Ben some support, throw some pocket change at his patreon page.

antifa chasing richard spencer

 

 

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To Hell, and Black: The Harlem Hellfighters’ race to the Rhine

A historian, the old joke goes, is someone who chases after you calling out “that’s not how it happened!” Good history sees the devil in the details. It looks past the obvious events to understand the human relationships that lie underneath. But beyond good history, there is great history. Great history links these human experiences to the systems of power and domination that shaped the past and continue to shape the present. In exploring the experience of black men serving in the American army during WWI, ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ achieves both.

HarlemHellfighters

Title: The Harlem Hellfighters
Author: Max Brooks
Illustrator: Caanan White
Published: Broadway Books (2014)
Pages: 272 pages
Other Specs: Colour cover with B&W interior
Purchase: In the Ad Astra Online Store


The Harlem Hellfighters is not about WWII, a fashionable war regardless of your politics. It is about the Great War for Civilization, now often described as World War One, though the first global war was the Seven Years War. There was nothing particularly civilized about it, and ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does a great job of tracking this from the United States to the artillery-chewed meadows of an exhausted Europe. It follows the eponymous Hellfighters, an all-black combat regiment, at a time when there was a great deal of anxiety that if people of colour were allowed to shoot white people, they might get a taste for it. This racism ran so deep that the army was sending their rifles out to private gun clubs and issuing broomsticks to the Hellfighters. Nonetheless, they made it to the front, and the comic takes us along for a flame-throwing, bomb-dropping, trench digging slaughter of a tour through humanity’s most wretched moments. We see through mud and clouds of poison gas- the death of the romance of war.

harlem_hellfighters1The obvious way to write this story was to showcase the heroic determination of black Americans who enlisted in the US army. Military service and citizenship are tied in a very tight knot in American culture. For black Americans, who were persecuted and marginalized throughout the United States, participating in this ultimate expression of citizenship is easy to hold up as a virtue. There are certainly times when the narrative takes this route. In one instance, a black recruit is walking through a southern American town during training and is attacked by a gang of white racists. Following orders to keep his cool, he endures their violence silently. On another occasion, a black soldier is rescued from a gang of his white ‘comrades’ by a military policeman. When the MP encourages him to drop it rather than press charges for assault, he ends up beaten and imprisoned, but he doesn’t leave the army. All of this is an accurate depiction of the determination that it was necessary for black soldiers to show in the openly white supremacist American army. It highlights the courage, patience and endurance necessary for these men to stay their course.

This kind of easy liberal narrative is a popular one for general histories. Liberal history has no trouble acknowledging that things were bad in the past. But it stops there, often tying up the narrative strings in a neat little package of self-congratulatory nationalism. ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ could have stopped here. But it didn’t, thank fuck. Instead, it calls out the ugly facts of history. It opens by explaining how bloody, how pointless and how ultimately futile the First World War was. It has a character cheekily explain that the cause of the war is that having made a hell for peoples of every colour all around the world, there was nothing left for the white man to do but turn on himself. And it shows, at every opportunity, the shabby treatment of black soldiers in the Army. This goes beyond blacks being second class citizens and actively shows that the Army made policies specifically to keep black people from getting the idea they were equal to whites.

The problem with liberal history is that it stops with the personal. It situates discrimination in the past and leaves it implicit that of course our great, open-spirited democracies have long since overcome the kind of chauvinism that marred the dignity of our otherwise distinguished forebears. It is comfortable with showing the ills of the past, precisely because it needs those ills to tell a story that things are continuously getting better. While ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ does not come out and name colonialism, white supremacy or capitalism as the root cause of the suffering endured by black Americans, that level of explicit political consciousness would seem out of place in the mouths of many of its characters. But they understand these things intuitively from experience, and they offer their own understanding to each other and to the reader. This is a more valuable thing.

There is some worrying sentimentalism towards the end of the comic, with the usual lines about America being founded as the first nation of ideals. But the founding myth of American exceptionalism was often used by black Americans resisting white supremacy, and if it is not politically appetizing, neither is it out of place. The comic tells a story, not only of individual suffering and solidarity, but of the systems of violence that run underneath. It makes it perfectly clear that it is not bad people here or there responsible for incidents of discrimination; it is a system supported by the American government and maintained by the American military for the benefit of white people.

harlem_hellfighters8We talk about visual styles being striking, but in Caanan White’s case it doesn’t strike so much as barrage the reader. The detailed, expressive style can be a bit busy at times and one gets the sense that this is a comic that deserves to be printed in colour. But the faces and postures of the men convey their emotions expertly, and the trenches come to death in gory detail from peeling flesh to rotting corpses. If the style were a little cleaner, it might explode more exactly on target, but I suppose war is a busy, confused business too. This is not to say that it is unworthy of the narrative; far from it. But the devil’s in the detail and I can’t help feeling there’s a bit too much of it.

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There is something a little bit disturbing about the blood-lust of the soldiers in ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’. The comic does not quite express their motivations for being there, unless we are meant to believe that they share the sentiments of the man who says he couldn’t down an opportunity to be paid by white people to shoot white people. But the eagerness to fight instead of rot in the trenches waiting for a shrapnel squall to shred your flesh was a real enough part of the First World War. Trench warfare traumatized a generation of men who coped in whatever way they could. Displaying the grim brutality of that conflict underscores the moral ambiguity of the story as a whole. For all that ‘The Harlem Hellfighters’ is about racism, it is the story of a group of men determined to cross the ocean and kill strangers who have never harmed them. If it is uncomfortable at points, it should be. ★

Evidence As Antidote – “Race to Incarcerate” Fights Prisons with Facts

If all great truths begin as blasphemies, as George Bernard Shaw put it, we in Canada find ourselves living in a theocracy. Certainly even Adam and Eve would wonder at the spectacular efforts to preserve the innocence of ignorance undertaken by our present government. It has taken a valiant stand against sex education so we may uncover our nakedness. In seeking to dismantle the National Archives, they will free us from knowledge of good and evil. Thanks to the government’s destruction of the integrity of census data, we are free from even the prospect of acquiring knowledge.

Stephen Harper Destruction of Public Property

But to be sure we are safe from it, they are throwing whole libraries into the trash, and forbidding the wicked among us from sharing their dangerous truths with the press.

So we are nearly free of blasphemy, and what greater expression of piety than prisons? At a time when American districts are turning away from the tough on crime approach, Canada embraces it enthusiastically. If books are not totally passe at this point, I should recommend to the Justice Minister and any higher powers to which he might answer a thorough reading of ‘Race To Incarcerate.’

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Title: Race to Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling
Created by: Sabrina Jones and Marc Mauer
Forward: Michelle Alexander
Preface: The Sentencing Project
Published: 2013 by The New Press

‘Race To Incarcerate’ practically bursts its bindings with relevant historical, sociological and economic data. It doesn’t shrink from statistics either, as it outlines the growth in prison populations, corrections spending and the prevalence of private prisons. Exploring public attitudes towards morality, the dishonesty of elected representatives and the role played by the War on Drugs, this expressive tome shines light onto critical questions in one area of public policy where high-minded moralizing has long reigned supreme.

ReaganThe comic traces the evolution of America’s obsession with getting ‘tough on crime’ from its beginnings in the 1970s through to the second Bush administration. Along the way it explores the impact of the War on Drugs, changes in social attitudes towards crime and the role of racism in expanding the prison-industrial complex. On the political file, the crass electoral motives of successive legislators are exposed. Clinton and George W. Bush are particularly held up as hypocrites, promising to reform the system while allowing prison spending and populations to grow in tandem.

racism and incarcerationThe comic does an excellent job of outlining the role played by racism in incarcerating black and Hispanic Americans at a disproportionate rate. Racism, and underlying white cultural anxieties, are ably exposed as the culprits for rates of black incarceration. The usual apologies for the racial composition of the prison population are handily debunked. The proverbial fig leaf is pulled away, and the naked truth is not a pretty thing to behold.

If there is a flaw in ‘Race To Incarcerate’, it is in the conclusion. After spending the majority of its pages identifying the endemic racism in American society, it proposes a coalition of business, academic leaders, communities of colour and families of addicts to tackle the problem by lobbying the government. The book persuasively argues that the rich and powerful have a vested interest in maintaining the current system. It then proposes the problems be solved through a coalition made up in part by the rich and powerful appealing to the very politicians whose dishonesty it has exposed. Some business leaders may feel compelled to oppose the prison industrial complex, but it is a drop in the bucket to a system that has been constructed–designed–in the interests of corporate profits.

Furthermore, the book is right to suggest the involvement communities of colour, but missed the opportunity to highlight one of the most important groups of all – prisoners and ex-convicts themselves. Prisoners and ex-cons not only deserve the right to tell their stories, their voices should be at the forefront of a prison abolition movement. Regardless of the accuracy of the book’s conclusion, the information in it can help persuade regular people that prisons don’t work.

Canadian prison
Canadian or American prison? Can’t tell? They’re about to get even more similar…

But the truth, we are told, shall set us free. The Conservative government is hot to bring many of the measures described in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ up to Canada, including mandatory minimum sentences and private prisons. The message of ‘Race To Incarcerate’ is clear: prisons don’t work. But more than that, they are dangerous to a degree that should alarm us. Indigenous people make up about 4% of Canada’s population, but 23% of its prison population – and the rates are climbing. In Canada, prisons are looking more and more like another form of genocide.

conclusionThe facts in ‘Race To Incarcerate’ won’t liberate those prisoners, but they can free the rest of us from the moralizing naiveté that justifies mass imprisonment. Liberated from our ignorance, we can turn our attention to prying open the bars of the prison industrial complex.

The Delicate Art of Getting It: Comics as a Tool for Unpacking Privilege

“Black and Third World people are expected to educate white people as to our humanity. Women are expected to educate men. Lesbians and gay men are expected to educate the heterosexual world. The oppressors maintain their position and evade their responsibility for their own actions. There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

How many times has some variation on this theme been thrown in the face of some well-intentioned person?  They’re “just trying to understand”, and how can they do so if you won’t explain? As an upper middle class white dude, I remember asking such innocent-seeming questions myself, failing to appreciate what the Audre Lorde quote above explains: educating your oppressor is draining!  I was lucky enough to have a kind and very patient friend to deliver a staggering series of savage defeats in debates I had imagined I’d won.  It took years for the implications of her arguments to penetrate the murky sludge of privilege and teach me an essential lesson: it can be hard to understand what we do not experience.   The experience of oppressed people and our difficulty in understanding it makes them an other, separate from us  and outside our understanding.

theotterFor those unfamiliar with this academic term, the “other” describes the relationship of those excluded or oppressed by a group or society by virtue of their identity.   You know what they say where clarity’s concerned: “a .jpg is worth a blog post but a meme will do in a pinch.”  So there’s a kind of emotional truth to the expressions of the otters linked above that we wouldn’t get from a graduate course on the subject.   The appeal of a snarling otter over the excruciating tedium of a dozen French philosophers is obvious.  This otter is asks us to go beyond feeling bad about our privilege and understand it is disgusted with our failure to do anything about it – or maybe just disliked that chewed up watermelon.

But otters keep a busy schedule and can’t be everywhere!  Luckily, there are comics.  The internet has helped broadcast the voices of the oppressed to a wider audience than was previously possible. People who would struggle to get a speaking role on a third-string sitcom can have audiences in the hundreds of thousands, and comics are one of the most accessible media to do so. For regular people struggling to understand how their privilege can be harmful to otters, comics beat the heat of the librarian’s stare when your intellectual sweat starts to stain the aging furniture your local bibliotheque.

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Comics can be an excellent way to visually represent concepts that take ages to present in text. That’s 500 years of exploitation in six panels, and if it lacks the nuance of a textbook on the triangular trade, hey, it’s a starting point. An interested person with good intentions can proceed from here to Google, Wikipedia or the nearest library. It is the beginning of a frame of reference. Most importantly, it conveys an emotional truth.

So much of oppression hinges on emotional truth. One can produce endless statistics on mortality rates during Atlantic crossings, the value generated by slaves for the American economy, the value of unpaid housework to the capitalist economy or whatever else suits you. But notwithstanding statistical significance, you know what they say: tell a human story, people can relate. If you want to bore them, use statistics.

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While there might be a startling brutality to statistics on trans suicides, many may find it easier to relate the above comic to their own experience of breaking difficult news to their parents. It is always the case when unpacking your privilege that a dash of empathy goes a long way, and if the personal is political it’s electrical too. So comics are a place to plug in, and that’s always good. They can be especially effective when someone who shares your privilege uses comics as a way to speak directly to your experience, and acknowledges the frustration of being called out while you are trying to educate yourself. If this comes with two scoops of tough love, at least you can see yourself in the face of the person behind the pencil.

whiteprivilegecomic

Nothing, of course, is universal. But the beauty of comics are their incredible diversity. Not every comic will illuminate every question. Seeking understanding is catching fish with your bare hands, slippery at the best of times, without mediating that search through art. For those of us hoping to improve our allyship, it is alright to admit that we just don’t get it. Sometimes, we may have no reaction to a given comic at all.

ifeelnothing

And that’s ok. In our journey to understand the differences that separate us, and the way our behaviour has the capacity to harm people, we do not need to instantly grasp every concept that’s presented. Some questions have answers you can’t put in comics, or books for that matter. Ultimately these are questions rooted in human experience and therefore best addressed through human interaction. Still, if you want to avoid putting your foot in your mouth and potentially hurting someone’s feelings, comics can be a great place to start. You never know whose life you might make a little easier.

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Ad Astra Comix is building an index of comics to help prospective allies educate themselves! In the meantime, check out some of web comics linked here with permission from the artists–or e-mail us if you think there’s a particularly crucial comic to have on the list! If the comic in question comes in print, we may be interested in ordering it, so feel free to contact us about that, too. 🙂

Review of “MARCH: Book One”

March_cover

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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March-interior-hi-res-5 March-interior-hi-res-6 March-interior-hi-res-7 March-interior-hi-res-8 March-interior-hi-res-9

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

Django Unchained Issue #1

Tarantino is known by fans and foes alike for essentially making good bad movies. Personally, I find some of them great, and some of them horrible. Django as a film, for me, ranks probably in the top two. But how is a comic book adaptation standing up to that?

django comic art

First, a side note: I am fascinated by the fact that Tarantino made this movie from a place that is very different from where most people, post-viewing, are coming at it. Tribute to Spaghetti Westerns and Blaxploitation aside, Tarantino also wanted to open discussion about America’s horrible history with slavery, and racism in general–to which he makes several very thoughtful commentaries in the film. Thom Hartman of Common Dreams went so far as to describe the movie as Tarantino telling today’s American South to go fuck itself.

…But a month in to the world of online reviews, and I’m knee-deep in (very) modern-day commentary about the paradigms of white/male privelege, which all ultimately boil down to whether or not Tarantino, as a white man, should have made a movie about slavery at all.

I’m going to do the only reasonable thing I can with regard to these comments, and just ignore them.

Let’s talk comics.

Shortly after the movie’s release, Vertigo released Issue #1 of “Django Unchained,” a 24-page comic book. Categorically, comic books released in conjunction with a film counterpart are exploitative, in that they’re exploiting peaked interest in a particular plot, character, or genre (whether it’s Kung-Fu, Westerns, etc.) It seems ironic to me that this is an exploitation comic about a film that is essentially a tribute to exploitation film. That would explain why I was the third person in line at the comic shop to be buying it. Generally, I’m not down with this kind of comic-book making: they are all designed to be viewed in a different medium (film), and are, more or less, hastily-assembled products solely introduced for the making of money and fan-swag. The artwork is amazing, yes, but stylistically I see nothing special so far, aside from some exceptional cover art and promotion posters.

django portrait

I am, however, hopeful. The issue opens with a short forward by Tarantino touching on his favorite childhood Western comics, and pointing out that the comic, unlike the movie, is the complete script, unedited and uncut. Things that were cut out of the movie due to lack of time or actors pulling out due to scheduling conflicts remain as scenes in the comic. (Who pulls out of a Tarantino film due to a “scheduling conflict?” apparently half a dozen well-known Hollywood stars…)

More than the film, the comic is a straight-forward look at the barbarity of slavery in the sunset days of the pre-Civil War South (before it transformed itself into the share-cropping/Jim Crow system). Much like any Issue 1, we see a layout of the plot and characters here, and little deviation from the movie.

Some general observations…
I will note that the comic and film DO NOT sing a song of revolution — one in which, say, Django would team up with other slaves, and with their strength in numbers, lead an insurrection. So let’s stop talking about how there isn’t enough of this or that in the film: it’s obviously not meant to be seen that way. The story sings the undeniably individualistic tune of revenge, in which our singular hero and [sometimes] his de-facto side-kick, Dr. King Schultz, go it alone in a hostile environment without anyone’s help.

If you’re looking for a film with strong female roles, you’re barking up the wrong genre tree. The last time someone in Hollywood thought a bunch of strong women belonged in a Western, disaster struck. Someone, someday, will change this–but not here, and not today.

I’m looking forward to the possibilities of this comic series. I’m looking forward to seeing scenes that were cut, and seeing stylistically what it might bring to the table. But so far, nothing remarkable. Stay tuned.

Introduction to a Crash Course

August 31, 2011

It was the 1980’s in Britain, the proverbial midday of the Thatcher-Reagan era, when comic author Alan Moore extended the logic of the right wing’s rhetoric to envision a Britain of the future, under the complete subjugation of a dictatorship. It went beyond the beginnings that had already been seen, of cutting down unions, banning gay marriage, and cutting off immigration. This Britain–racist, misogynistic, unloving, fearful of the very cameras on every street corner that citizens insisted they couldn’t live without—was the stage for one of the greatest stories of the late 20th Century.

It is at the foot of an Orwellian statue by the name of “Lady Justice” that the regime’s nemesis lays a final gift to this ‘betraying lover’ (“You always did have an eye for a man in uniform,” he says.) Before destroying the gilded monument, the man known only as “V” utters of her replacement:

“Her name is anarchy. And she has taught me more… than you ever did! She has taught me that justice is meaningless without freedom. She is honest. She makes no promises and breaks none, unlike you, Jezebel. …Goodbye, dear lady. I would be saddened by our parting even now, save that you are no longer the woman that I once loved.”

It wasn’t the first political comic I’d read, but V for Vendetta was my political comic baptism: no medium would ever beat it.

Like George Orwell’s 1984, or Bradbury’s Farenheit 451, or any of its many pictureless literary siblings, V for Vandetta was a barometer for me to know how sick my society was. (Moore himself would quip years later, that someone must have liked those cameras in the streets: now they’re everywhere).

It is well known that Moore, as a comic book writer, would prefer the medium of comics over books or film. But apparently others thought so, too: it became one of the most popular and meaningful works of modern literature, and it still sold over 20,000 copies just last year, two decades after its original publication (a long time in the comics world–although now it is compiled in one volume). For millions of people, something resonates between the text-and-paper story, already heavy with meaning, and the graphic images that make it—and graphic novels in general—especially moving works of literature and art.

At a comic book store, among many more men-in-tights titles than you will ever care to read, you will find a countable few. If you go down the street to your local bookstore, you can find a smaller but nonetheless interesting collection of graphic novel fiction. On the rise now are also works of historical and biographical comics—libraries and classrooms can’t seem to get enough of them. But nestled here and there, in-between these surely enjoyable pages are the books I am writing about today: the political comics. V for Vandetta was surely an excellent work of fiction, science fiction, and social commentary. But it was also a political comic that spoke to real issues effecting an iron-fisted, Thatcherated Britain. It was a warning. And to this day, the Guy Fawkes mask worn by  “V” has adorned many a protester, and is even the avatar of the worldwide ‘Anonymous’ internet movement associated with Wikileaks and social media-assisted uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

“But wait,” you may be thinking… “Aren’t graphic novels just comics? And aren’t comics just… cartoons? Aren’t they supposed to be the opposite of serious?” How, then, have they been used so successfully to publicize the discussions of some of the most serious topics—from slavery and the Holocaust to modern warfare and political struggles? And let’s not forget that political comics themselves are older than the newspapers that first published them in the 19th Century.

The political comic—or graphic novel—is not a homogenous creature. Encompassing a veritable pantheon of different subject matters, authors come from a variety of backgrounds using many different formats and styles for different reasons. Allow me to give you a quick crash-course of some of the world’s most notable political comics.

In 1950’s America, Korean War vet Harvey Kurtzman was the editor and co-creator of “Two-Fisted Tales,” an anthology of war stories that was surprisingly anti-war for its time; no-where else in McCarthy-era United States would you find a publication so widely distributed, calling bullshit on Hollywood’s romantic notions of no-blood combat scenes and racist characterizations of enemy soldiers. Canadian journalist Mitchell Brown would write that Kurtzman,

“who had been drafted in 1942, knew warfare firsthand, and he was outraged by the gung-ho war comics that made war look like a glorious thing. In his stories, there were no heroes — just soldiers trapped in situations beyond their control. Often, his stories weren’t about soldiers at all, focusing instead on the lives of innocent people scarred by war…”

In 1986, Art Spiegelman created Maus (or “Mouse” in German), a two-part story of his father’s account as a Jew during the rise of Nazi Germany, and the Holocaust. Despite the serious subject matter, Spiegelman helped to illustrate the social polarization and predatory nature of Nazi society by drawing Jews as mice, and Germans as cats. He initially faced a lot of scepticism for his decision to make a “holocaust comic,” especially from fellow Jews; however, his work would end up as a classroom essential. Reporting on the story’s winning of a Pulitzer Prize, the New York Times explained that Maus was selected under the category of “Special Award” because “the Pulitzer board members … found the cartoonist’s depiction of Nazi Germany hard to classify.”

Joe Sacco took a new spin on the political comic as a “comic journalist” in the 1990’s, travelling to war zones and… well, drawing everything. Among his prize-winning works were “Safe Area Goražde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992–1995”, and “Palestine”. In both, he highlights the apparent lack of world interest in these millions of people suffering the ravages of war and military occupation because of their unfortunate geographical locations. He interviewed hundreds and drew thousands, but genuinely let the subjects speak for themselves, even when they made him look bad (maybe this is why he draws himself like a cartoon, even when everyone else in his illustrations looks realistic.)

Many more have been published since: “Uncle Sam” written by Steve Darnell with art by Alex Ross; “The Confessions of Nat Turner” written and drawn by Kyle Baker; “Louis Riel” by Canada’s own Chester Brown. But my current favourite is “Bayou,” an unfinished three-part (maybe four?) work by Jeremy Love. While fantastic in nature, there is little doubt in categorizing Bayou as political fiction: set in the Depression-era Deep South, a young black girl named Lee must rescue a white girl from the Bayou swamps to prove her father’s innocence. Through this eerie landscape, Lee slips into a parallel world of Southern folklore and political anthropomorphism—an “Alice in Dixieland”, if you will—where the she must outrun and outwit characters of a racist imagination: murderous flocks of Jim Crows and minstrel show monsters, to name a few.


It reminds me (again) of something Alan Moore said in reference to his take on the comic classic Swamp Thing: why only look to the supernatural to find horror? There are truly horrific things happening all around us here and now–racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia–that is much more scary when you consider the greater possibility of it affecting your life than, say, zombies. And, in a well-told story like Love’s or Moore’s, it will send prickles down your spine.

If you’re intrigued, Jeremy will probably be pleased: he’s got another edition of Bayou on the way needing your attention. And I’m pleased as well, because there should be more people going into comic book stores and asking for political work. I was amazed this year at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival—an incredible amount of talent under one roof, thousands and thousands of writers and artists—but so few political causes using the medium, and none exclusively so. When progressive and Left issues are so often marginalized or simply misunderstood, the medium is incredible for spreading awareness without being condescending or preachy. Political comics are a huge untapped resource, but they require research, time, and talent. More than anything, they require talent committed to progressive causes.

In the coming days, I will be listing and reviewing some of my favourite political comics, with a few image panels for you to see the work for yourself. I hope you enjoy what you find, and pass the work on. Feel free to send me your feedback, as well as any suggestions for new or overlooked work: I’m always looking for more.