Drawing Black Lives and Voices | Graphic Novel Round-Up

Including fiction, nonfiction, and reference, these 20 graphic works focus on Black lives and voices.

Cassiau-Haurie, Christophe (text) & Barly Baruti [Baruti Kandolo Lilela] (illus.). Madame Livingstone: Congo, the First World War. Catalyst. June 2021. 132p. trans. from French by Ivanka Hahnenberger. ISBN 9781946395474. pap. $19.99. HISTORICAL FICTION

The Belgian Cassiau-Haurie (Le Singe Jaune) and the Congolese Baruti (Chaos Debout à Kinshasa) team up for a stellar story about another partnership based on European colonialism in Africa during World War I. A pilot in the Royal Belgian Army, Gaston Mercier joins troops stationed near Lake Tanganyika in the Belgian Congo. Soon he hears about a German battleship nearby, and he vows to sink it. But when he meets his assigned “native guide” for the job, he finds that the mixed-race African claims to be a son of explorer David Livingstone and boasts knowledge and skills way beyond Belgian expectations. As the two men become comrades, Mercier learns much about the African land that Belgium claims to own, and about colonialism’s tragic effects upon the local people. An introduction and illustrated backmatter elaborate further on the period details. Baruti’s sun-washed realistic art lingers on lush tropical landscapes, while darkening into foreboding blues and grays for night maneuvers. VERDICT Based on a true incident, this beautifully rendered and rousing story will give readers naïve to African colonialism an entry point for understanding viewpoints and outcomes.

Clarke, Matthew & Nigel Lynch. Hardears. Megascope: Abrams. May 2021. 208p. bibliog. ISBN 9781419751929. $24.99. FANTASY

Improvising off of Barbados-based folklore and customs, Lynch (Life & Death in Paradise) and Clarke (Heart Man) spin a lush Afrofuturist fantasy about multispecies heroes foiling an evil industrialist. Offspring of a plantation owner and a soucouyant that sucks life essences from others, the unscrupulous Mr. Harding uses his robotic military forces to exploit Jouvert and its neighboring islands of the Hardears archipelago. It’s up to lovers Bolo and Zhara to persuade other humans and a variety of jumbees—supernatural beings—to set aside squabbles and destroy Harding. Flying trucks and buses powered by giant sea creatures, humanoid hurricanes, and giant ships driven by tuk bands load the story with whimsical surprises. Yet an oddly but satisfyingly down-to earth ending leaves this confection more solid than it appears. Clarke’s spectacular hypercolored artwork renders characters true-to-life robust, whether pitched into a swamp of bird-droppings or hovering over an attacking robot. An afterword from scholar Cathy Thomas provides cultural context. VERDICT With outstanding worldbuilding, this immersive, unusual adventure will charm fans of the fantastic as leavened with realistic social commentary.

De La Cruz, Sharon Lee. I’m a Wild Seed. Street Noise. April 2021. 96p. bibliog. ISBN 9781951491055. pap. $12.99. QUEER STUDIES

DEBUT With title referencing a favorite Octavia Butler story about powerful shapeshifters, De La Cruz focuses her lesbian coming-out vignettes not on romance but on the multiple identities she has had to integrate: Puerto Rican, Dominican, Black, female, queer. Attracted to women since youth, she nonetheless dated men and, due to toxic gender norms, felt shame about “unhealthy relationships” without facing her queerness. Preoccupation with acknowledging and learning about her Blackness, she concluded, had delayed her from acknowledging her sexuality until her late 20s. She found then that appearing queer publicly, in addition to being female and Black, led to increasingly threatening male harassment. De La Cruz uses simple, evocative rainbow-colored art to convey her emotional and intellectual development. Visual metaphors add depth, as does content about the Stonewall riots, the civil rights movement, and an historically racist and sexist health care system. VERDICT This spirited portrayal shows how an identity—gender, sexuality, race, family nationality—must be understood and contextualized amidst other identities. An approachable read for young adults facing repressive social norms or integrating multiple identities, and for other adults understanding their own selfhoods. 

Fielder, Tim. Infinitum: An Afrofuturist Tale. Amistad: HarperCollins. Jan. 2021. 288p. ISBN 9780062964083. $27.99. FANTASY

When ancient African warlord Aja Ọba betrays his sorceress concubine, she curses him with unforeseeably long life. Thus Ọba outlives his kingdom’s downfall, joins with Carthage in battling the Romans, and much later is captured by slavers bound for the Americas. After enduring years of racism, he fights in the Civil War, both world wars, and Vietnam. More centuries pass, and Ọba heads a massive tech empire with space colonies, surviving intergalactic wars through the end of the universe. A stunning epic of Black struggle in glowing hyperrealism. (LJ 12/1/20)

Fragiskatos, Dimitrios, George Carmona & Joseph Illidge. Access Guide to the Black Comic Book Community 2020–2021. Anyone Comics. Feb. 2021. 164p. ISBN 9781638219200. pap. $9.99. REF

Intended as an annual publication, this compact and affordable black-and-white sourcebook highlights seventy-plus comics projects about Black lives or from Black creators. Supplemental sections list publishers and conventions with a Black comics focus, plus Black-owned comics shops. Very helpful for library purchasing decisions and for collaborating with local Black comics cultural centers as well as for readers looking to extend their horizons. Note also the sumptuous but date-limited Black Comix (2010) and Black Comix Returns (2018), with extensive color visuals. (LJ Short Takes 5/1/21)

Glover, Eric Anthony (text) & Arielle Jovellanos (illus.). Black Star. Megascope: Abrams. May 2021. 176p. ISBN 9781419742286. $24.99. SF

DEBUT As adapted from Glover’s unproduced screenplay, arrogant scientist Harper North and crewmate Samantha Parrish crash-land on a dangerous planet during a mission to find an alien flower with curative properties. But because the crash damages the mothership, only a small shuttle ejected some distance away allows return to earth—and it can carry only one passenger. North, driven by ego and a savior mentality, abandons crewmates trapped in the crash and heads for the flower and the shuttle. But the furious Parrish has broken free and, after failing to save a dead crewmate-lover, gets a head start. The two women’s savage struggle for survival and glory brings out the worst in both. Yet while seriously flawed, both antagonists are driven by understandable motives. The realistic kinetic art from Jovellanos (Fresh Romance) throbs with strong, contrasting colors. VERDICT Despite sometimes unclear narrative flow, the inventiveness of the pair’s planetary struggles plus the psychological twists make the story gripping. A good choice for readers attracted to survivalist thrillers and women protagonists.

Hall, Rebecca (text) & Hugo Martínez (illus.). Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts. Simon & Schuster. June 2021. 208p. bibliog. ISBN 9781982115180. $29.99. HISTORY/MEMOIR

Suspecting that records of slave revolts glossed over women ringleaders, Hall researched evidence from ship logs and ancient court records housed in in New York, London, and Liverpool. In this heartbreaking yet triumphant account, she interweaves tales reconstructed from historical clues with episodes from her oft-thwarted research, and describes two Colonial-era New York rebellions plus a struggle on the slave ship The Unity. Her engaged scholarship empowers current activism by adding back facts omitted from most histories. Superb for educators, especially. (LJ 5/21/21)

Illidge, Joseph Phillip & Hannibal Tabu (text) & Meredith Laxton (illus.). MPLS Sound. Life Drawn: Humanoids. April 2021. 128p. ISBN 9781643378404. pap. $19.99. MUSIC

When little Theresa’s dad demands she stop fooling with his guitar, she knows that her life will be “one long fight to find my own way.” And find it she does, growing up to play the funk-rock-pop synthesis of the “Minneapolis sound” with her own band, Starchild. Enthusiastic audiences respond, and then the pioneer himself of the Minneapolis sound: mythical superstar Prince. Soon Theresa and her crew face bandmember tensions, sabotage from rival bands, offers from would-be coaches, and a lot of hard work. But their biggest challenge is Prince—should the band accept his mentoring and his ideas for a Starchild makeover, or go their own way? Veteran comics editor Illidge (Averee) and writer Tabu (Black Power: The Superhero Anthology) keep the story engrossing despite a few narrative jumps, assisted by Laxton’s (The Crow: Hark the Herald) realistic, colorful art, which shines especially in the vibrant montage-like performance sequences. Fabrice Sapolsky’s afterword, “Behind the Music,” includes more about Prince. VERDICT This fictional period-piece based on Prince’s legacy can entertain and inspire readers to dream big themselves, and to seek new ways when original goals slip out of reach.

Jama-Everett, Ayize & John Jennings (text) & various artists. Box of Bones: Book One. Rosarium. Feb. 2021. 174p. ISBN 9781732638846. pap. $19.95. HORROR

What if the collective trauma of Black people over centuries took on a life of its own, magical and powerful enough to destroy tormentors and tormented alike? For her PhD dissertation, Lindsay Ford seeks to learn about a mysterious box from which four terrifying spectral embodiments of suffering may be conjured. The Wretched, for example, appears as a sentient lynching tree that lassos its victims. Five episodes recap horrific circumstances in Black history, but with grisly pay-back by one of the deadly specters that will spiral out of control unless the box is closed. Yet closing the box requires the sacrificial death of the one closing it. What will Lindsay do about the box? That’s to be revealed in a future volume. Jama-Everett (The Entropy of Bones) and Jennings (Parable of the Sower) have taken an innovative and satisfying premise in suitably macabre directions, each episode drawn by a different artist in vivid colors. Several backmatter essays expand on the historical underpinnings. VERDICT This mesmerizing blend of African American folk tradition and high horror-fantasy provides much food for thought as well as edgy entertainment.  

Kleist, Reinhard. Knock Out! The True Story of Emile Griffith. SelfMadeHero. July 2021. 168p. trans. from German by Michael Waaler. ISBN 9781910593868. pap. $22.99. BIOG

Black, an immigrant, and gay—Emile Griffith embodied a toxic trifecta in the decades before civil rights legislation and the Stonewall riots for LGBT rights. A talented designer of women’s hats, Griffith was pressured into boxing because of his physique and ability, remaining for the money and fame. But his sexuality especially made him vulnerable, provoking a fatal incident that changed two lives forever. Kleist’s (Johnny Cash: I See a Darkness) account finds the aging boxer, battered by street thugs, revisiting his earlier life as encouraged by an enigmatic hooded figure. Then, as Griffith sinks further into his memories, he comes to face the tragedy that has haunted him for decades. A master of stark black brushwork without grays or halftones, Kleist creates with fluid realism the savage ballet of the boxing ring plus the joys and struggles of Griffith’s life outside it. Ethnologist Tatjana Eggeling’s fascinating afterword furnishes background. VERDICT Kleist’s study in contrasts paints a powerful portrait of an athlete fighting not just opponents but also racism and homophobia. In reexamining such wrenching events of the past, readers are encouraged to understand today’s still-necessary push-back against these sociocultural stigmas.

Lewis, John & Andrew Aydin (text) & L. Fury & Nate Powell (illus.). Run: Book One. Abrams ComicArts. Aug. 2021. 160p. bibliog. notes. ISBN 9781419730696. $24.99. MEMOIR

“What could we do if they kept killing us?” After passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, when Lewis’s award-winning March trilogy ends, the nonviolence-based civil rights movement still faced attacks, even murder from the Klan, civilians, and officials. Pressure grew within the movement for a militant “Black Power” approach, yet exercising new voting rights offered higher-level change—through political power. As March nudges readers towards street activism, this frank yet hopeful sequel can inspire them to vote, critique today’s voting controversies, and even run for office themselves. Expect additional volumes. (LJ 8/1/21)

Machado, Carmen Maria (text) & Dani (illus.). The Low, Low Woods. Hill House Comics: DC. Sept. 2020. 160p. ISBN 9781779504524. $24.99. Rated: Mature. HORROR

DEBUT A dying Pennsylvania coal-mining town where sinkholes smolder holds secrets that best friends Eldora and Octavia don’t think much about—until the two high-schoolers fall asleep in an empty movie theatre and wake up certain that something happened to them while the film played. Then uncanny creatures threaten them in the forest, horrifying body changes disfigure a girlfriend as well as her mother, and an upcoming teen party at an abandoned resort seems likely to turn sinister. El and Vee vow to investigate, even asking the local witch for help. But it’s far weirder and far worse than they imagined: a conspiracy implicating half the town in a monstrous wave of deception. The creepy world-building is enhanced by excellent color art from Dani (Coffin Bound), which provides just enough detail while goading the imagination to supply the rest. VERDICT This smart, scary mystery from sci-fi/fantasist Machado (Her Body and Other Parties) will suck in readers intrigued by haunting body horror wrapped in a women-centered plot.

McDermid, Val (text) & Kathryn Briggs (illus.). Resistance. Black Cat: Grove Atlantic. June 2021. 160p. ISBN 9780802158727. pap. $17. SF

DEBUT Written before COVID-19 surfaced, this realistic fable suggests that a disease-based planet apocalypse remains all-too-credible. British journalist Zoe heads to Northumberland to cover the open-air Solstice Festival. Then a food truck run by friends inadvertently loosens a virus that sickens and kills musicians and audience alike, spreading throughout England and soon the world. Unfortunately, denial, greed, and finger-pointing keep governments, scientists, and Big Pharma from finding treatments. The grungy, grayscale art incorporates medieval figures, vintage posters, and viral cells. A grim addition to the now all-too-relevant subgenre of pandemic fiction. (LJ 5/14/21)

Mitchell, Brian K. (text) & Barrington S. Edwards (illus.). Monumental: Oscar Dunn and His Radical Fight in Reconstruction Louisiana. Historic New Orleans Collection. March 2021. 256p. timeline. glossary. notes. map. bibliog. index. ed. Nick Weldon. ISBN 9780917860836. pap. $19.95. BIOG

DEBUT A hundred and fifty years before Kamala Harris became U.S. Vice President, Louisiana’s lieutenant governor was being considered by President Ulysses S. Grant for his second term running mate. In this heartening yet poignant account, historian Mitchell introduces the nearly forgotten Oscar Dunn as the nation’s first Black lieutenant governor and acting governor. Formerly enslaved, Dunn succeeded in politics through hard work, deep social ties, and organizational smarts. And although he faced nonstop political and ethnic factionalism along with corruption and mob violence throughout the state, both friends and enemies praised his integrity, acumen, and fairness. Yet Dunn died under mysterious circumstances, the monument planned to honor him never materialized, and his many accomplishments in furthering Black civil rights nearly disappeared from the historical record. Edwards’s smudgy, sometimes awkward color art suggests unromanticized glimpses through an out-of-focus time machine. VERDICT Thoroughly buttressed with scholarly backmatter, Dunn’s accessible and moving biography will jolt adults and teens with how similar Reconstruction’s political struggles were to our own today, including their roots in factionalism.

Noir Is the New Black: Noir Stories from Black Creators. FairSquare Comics. Sept. 2021. 148p. ed. Fabrice Sapolsky & TC [sic] Harris. ISBN 9780999276631. ‎pap. $25. Rated: Mature. CRIME FICTION

Curated by editors Sapolsky (Spider-Man Noir) and Harris (retreonmediaalliance.com), sixteen stories serve up cynical characters facing love, work, and relationships gone sour, 1930s-era scenarios through Afrofuturism sci-fi. A current-day detective reunites with a previous lover through time-traveling to the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre; a 1980s Little Rock police officer confirms his kid sister’s conspiracy ravings; a World War II veteran avenges a lynched friend; entertainer Josephine Baker, heading off to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, defies a threat against her; a heroin-fueled pulp fiction writer gets a finale he could have written himself. Running only six-to-eight pages, each story resolves with a twist while whetting appetites for more. The realistic color art is all very good or excellent. However, a prose selection and a concluding preview-excerpt need work. VERDICT The expert plotting that packs so much into each vignette can be breathtaking, while the skillful incorporation of historical injustices adds moral depth. Indeed, it’s as if the noir subgenre was created for Black lives. This tasting menu for—hopefully—follow-up collections will easily draw in mystery/crime readers looking to feed their fix.

Quattro, Ken. Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books. Yoe Books. Dec. 2020. 240p. index. ISBN 9781684055869. $34.99. GRAPHIC NOVELS

A descendant of one of George Washington’s slaves, a painter featured in the National Portrait Gallery, a winner of ALA’s Coretta Scott King Award, an Olympic medals designer, and a pardoned Sing Sing inmate number among these eighteen largely unknown Black artists who drew for the early comic book industry during the 1930s-1950s, kiddy comedies to romance and horror dramas. Some had always loved comics, but most just needed cash—often to support fine art careers that brought recognition but little remuneration. Some worked for Black causes, also: cartoons, posters, “Negro Heroes” series, and the groundbreaking All-Negro Comics, endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt. Most had formal art training, gravitated to Harlem, and entered the field during World War II. For while discrimination and Jim Crow laws limited Black employment opportunities at the time, positions opening when white artists were drafted offered exceptions. Also, because these Black artists worked mainly in comics studios, their race remained invisible to readers and even publishers. VERDICT Abounding in lavish color reprints, Quattro’s (comicsdetective.com) exhaustive research allows glimpses into the challenges, roadblocks, and successes these men experienced. A compelling eye-opener about boundary-breaking stories behind the stories, and winner of a 2021 Eisner Award.

Rudahl, Sharon. Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. Rutgers University Press. Oct. 2020. 142p. bibliog. ed. Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. ISBN 9781978802070. pap. $19.95. BIOG

Known for his rich bass delivery of “Old Man River” from the musical Showboat, Robeson triumphed as a barrier-smashing renaissance man of the mid-twentieth century. A multi-sport champion, Phi Beta Kappa, actor, singer of multiple musical genres from opera to folk, and all-around nice guy, he leveraged his fame to advance progressive causes around the world with support from wife Eslanda. His entire life pushed back against racism, fascism, and class oppression. Yet while heralded by international millions, Robeson endured hatred and abuse from American racists and “Red Scare” anti-communists while facing Jim Crow-era segregation. Rudahl’s (Dangerous Woman) skillful, swirling grayscale account introduces Robeson to twenty-first century activists who write and march and protest, unaware of his vanguard contributions on behalf of workers’ rights, Black civil rights, and international peace. A scholarly Afterword from the editors gives additional historical specifics. VERDICT Rudahl packs both detail and feeling into Robeson’s life story, profiling a hero for all seasons to inspire today’s activists as well as inform others unaware of restrictions imposed upon descendants of slaves before the 1960s civil rights breakthroughs.

Walker, David F. (text) & Marcus Kwame Anderson (illus.). The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. Ten Speed. Jan. 2021. 192p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781984857705. pap. $19.99. HIST

The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense emerged in the 1960s to resist police brutality against Black people, and to counter other violence against pacifist civil rights activists like James Meredith. But soon the Panthers loomed in media stories only as a gun-toting threat to white majority America, whose safety purportedly rested only with the police themselves and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Indeed, Hoover’s unscrupulous COINTELPRO campaign of harassment, infiltration, and killings fed sensationalist stereotypes about Black activists. Yet a major Panther focus was providing social services for Black communities: food programs, schools, healthcare centers. For while President Lyndon Johnson’s Kerner Commission concluded that the lack of such services had contributed to the nation’s racial unrest, the commission’s recommendations were ignored. Walker’s (The Life of Frederick Douglass) detailed and sometimes unflattering account spans 1525 to 1988, incorporating profiles of Panther leaders, cameos of civil rights martyrs, and document excerpts, all brought to life by Anderson’s (Cash and Carrie) clean, realistic colors. VERDICT This nuanced and gripping history supplies much needed background for today’s activism relating to violence against Black people. For all adult and teen collections.

Williams, Rachel Marie-Crane. Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Verso. March 2021. 80p. ISBN 9781788739047. pap. $24.95. HIST

Williams (Run Home If You Don’t Want To Be Killed) uses woodcuts, watercolor, clippings, photos, vintage postcards, and blotchy hand-inked script for the wrenching story of pregnant Mary Turner, tortured and lynched with her baby in 1918 Georgia simply for protesting the lynching of her husband the day before. All told some dozen people were lynched in that spree of mob violence, allegedly intended to avenge the killing of a white plantation owner. Hundreds of other Black people fled the area in terror, but no punishment ever came to the lynch mobs. Moreover, a full account appeared in the press due only to NAACP investigator Walter White. Supplemental essays by a relative of the Turners, a historian, and an activist-educator broaden the story. VERDICT This beautiful art-text collage about an unimaginably ugly tragedy resonates eerily with 2020’s race-related killings and activism—especially since a 2009 commemorative marker for Turner’s lynching has had to be replaced with a simple, steel cross due to vandalism. Excellent classroom material, teens up, as well as inspiration for creators seeking unique ways to tell difficult stories.

Williams, Rachel Marie-Crane. Run Home If You Don’t Want To Be Killed: The Detroit Uprising of 1943. University of North Carolina Press. March 2021. 277p. notes. glossary. bibliog. ISBN ‎9781469663272. pap. $22.95. HIST

Several years into World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802 to desegregate the defense industry. The idea was an all-hands-on-deck approach to help Detroit build tanks instead of autos. But as southern Blacks and whites as well as immigrants converged on the city to find work, competition for jobs and housing led to anger all around. Black workers resented unequal treatment from racist employers, city officials, and police, while the white community fought to maintain privilege by any means necessary. Tensions exploded on a hot Sunday night that over several days left 34 people dead, mostly Black and many killed by police, with 750 injured and $2 million in property damage. Williams’s (Elegy for Mary Turner) smudgy, unpretty grayscale drawings give voice to all sides, much of the text quoted from archival sources. VERDICT Like the infamous 1921 Tulsa race massacre, the Detroit uprising was historically one of thousands nationwide resulting from centuries of racism and inequalities, still echoing today. This thoroughly researched case study provides much to ponder for activists or simply those concerned about social justice.  

Martha Cornog is a longtime LJ reviewer, and with Timothy Perper edited Graphic Novels Beyond the Basics: Insights and Issues for Libraries (Libraries Unlimited, 2009).

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