Tag Archives: Race

On Black Cartoonists and Black Humor: Rethinking the Racist Narrative

A Charles Johnson self-portrait. If you know who R. Crumb is, then you really need to know who Charles Johnson is!

IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall

Chicago is one of the great cities for comics with a rich history dating back to the dawn of the comic strip supported by world-class newspapers. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago honors this tradition with Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now (June 19-October 3, 2021), curated by  Dan Nadel. In the process, Nadel also edited a book that focuses on Black cartoonists entitled, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940 – 1980, published by New York Review Comics. The title of the book comes from a gag panel cartoon by the cartoonist, and National Book Award-winning novelist, Charles Johnson. And the actual cartoon dates back to a collection of Charles Johnson cartoons, Black Humor, published in 1970, when Johnson was only 22 years-old. The two books document where Black cartoonists have been and point to a persistent struggle to rise upward. Discussion of the facts can only help to chart a course for the future—and it’s essential to look at all sides.

Black Humor cover, 1970.

The key narrative in It’s Life As I See It, is Black cartoonists reacting to being excluded from mainstream media, the white magazines and newspapers of the time. Dan Nadel asserts: “…neither Black cartoonists nor The Chicago Defender had a reach comparable to Chester Gould and the Chicago Tribune. Moreover, the Tribune and other primarily white outlets were notoriously uninterested in either Black cartoonists or Black subject matter.” And Johnson asserts: “…in The New Yorker, which at the time had a notorious history of not using the work of black cartoonists. In 1996, The New Yorker published a special “Black in America” double issue, which featured the work of thirteen “gag artists,” only one of whom was black; eight black people who submitted work were rejected, and the magazine’s cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, admitted that The New Yorker‘s stable of cartoonists at the time was still entirely white.” However, when I spoke with former New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, he had a generous history lesson to provide that can’t be overlooked.

From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson

First of all, it is very difficult to get a cartoon published in The New Yorker to begin with. Bob Mankoff explains: “Historically it’s been very hard for anyone, regardless of race, gender or anything else to get published in The New Yorker. I submitted 2,000 cartoons to the magazine before I sold one. Even after I became a regular in the magazine, I sometimes went for many weeks at a time having all my cartoons rejected. To break into The New Yorker was an arduous process and basically anonymous. You just mailed in your batch of cartoons in a self-addressed stamped envelope and then got back a rejection slip or if you were lucky, eventually a sale. The Cartoon Editor, at that time, Lee Lorenz would not have known if you were black or white or really anything else about you. In looking over a thousand cartoons a week what was important to Lee, who I knew quite well, was the cartoon itself.”

1934 New Yorker cartoon by E. Simms Campbell. Archival sample.

Mankoff goes on to provide some historical perspective: “The reason there were traditionally few black cartoonists published in The New Yorker and relatively few women cartoonists compared to white male cartoonists, is primarily due to the fact that historically there were many more white male cartoonists in the field and submitting to The New Yorker than either black cartoonists or women cartoonists. That said, there were a number of women cartoonists, many more than black cartoonists of which, I believe there were only two, E. Simms Campbell and Robert Minter. E. Simms Campbell had quite a few cartoons published in The New Yorker in the ’30s before he moved to Esquire later in that decade to do Playboy-styled cartoons before there was Playboy.”

Esquire mascot, Esky, created by E. Simms Campbell

It was E. Simms Campbell, a Black man, who created Esky, the dandy with a top hat mascot for Esquire back in 1934. Esky is a whimsical character, albeit a rich white man too. In 1939, Campbell became the first African American to have his work syndicated nationwide. King Features published his comic strip, Cuties, a humorous series featuring pin-up girls, in more than 140 newspapers around the country. The Society of Illustrators includes in its Campbell profile: “E. Simms Campbell worked at the time racial segregation was the norm in the United States. Because his work was primarily about the life of wealth and pleasure enjoyed by white people, and it appeared in mainstream publications, most of his admirers were unaware that Campbell was African American. Economic reality was the most likely motivation for the absence of African Americans in his art, until after the Civil Rights Movement, most American publications were not willing to feature non-stereotypical minority characters regularly.”

1971 New Yorker cartoon by Robert Minter. Archival sample.

What’s really interesting in the case of the other known Black cartoonist at The New Yorker, Robert Minter, is that he was active right at the time that Charles Johnson’s Black Humor was published in 1970. You can do an internet search and see that Robert Minter was a regular contributor from 1968 to 1979. His gags are elegant, succinct, and definitely funny.

 

Moving right along to more recent times, Mankoff goes on: “When I became Cartoon Editor in 1997, I originally operated under the same criteria that Lee Lorenz employed. My focus was on the cartoon and on the cartoonist only to the extent that they could continue, week after week, year after year, to produce good original work based on the evolving tradition of The New Yorker cartoon in which the jokes are benign, and when not outright gags, a kind of comedy of manners gently tweaking the foibles and pretensions of the demographic of people who read the magazine, not punching up or punching down but elbowing to the side.

 

When David Remnick became editor-in-chief he realized that we needed to add diversity to our criteria. As a first step, the most obvious thing was not to make the default cartoon character white. If you look through any issue of the magazine nowadays you see people of color in all the situations and positions (doctors, lawyers, etc.,) that previously were occupied by white men. And there has been an effort to seek out more women cartoonists and people of color which has led to about half the published cartoons now being done by women. More diversity has been added by cartoonists with an Asian-American background such as Amy Hwang, Jeremy Nguyen, and Hartley Lin but for the most part, their cartoons do not playoff whatever has been unique about that background. In terms of black cartoonists, the outreach has been less promising. I did reach out to both Rob Armstrong and Darrin Bell and both had a few cartoons published but frankly, as they were both already successful, the rejection to acceptance ratio combined with not all that much money for a cartoon wasn’t worth the effort.

 

Since I left The New Yorker in 2017, many new cartoonists have appeared and I believe the effort for more diversity has been more concerted and urgent and is having more success with some black cartoonists such as E.S. Glenn, who I know, appearing in the magazine.”

Excerpt from Black Humor

So, theoretically, a cartoonist of the caliber of Charles Johnson could have continued submitting work to The New Yorker and have ultimately been accepted. However, it would not have been from the pages in Black Humor from 1970. As a young college student, Johnson was enthralled by a talk given by the Black activist poet Amiri Baraka where he urged Black people to give back to their community. Again, quoting from the same introduction, Johnson states: “I remember walking back to my dormitory in the rain from Baraka’s reading, dazed by what he’d said. I sat down before my drawing board, my inkwell, my pens. I started to sketch. I worked furiously for a solid week, cutting my classes. The more I drew and took notes for gag lines, the faster the ideas came. After seven intense days of creative outpouring, I had a book, Black Humor.” In less than a year, that book was published by Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet. The fact is that this kind of pointed humor, whether Black or not, is not part of The New Yorker sensibility. It would not have fit into what The New Yorker published then or publishes today.

From Black Humor, 1970, by Charles Johnson.

And so, if you’re a young Black cartoonist, circa 1970, fueled by hearty rebellion, what sort of cartoons are you going to create? The answer to that in Black Humor is a collection of biting satire pushing everything as far to the limits as possible. However, what may surprise some, is that the jokes that Johnson lets fly don’t take sides, often poking fun at Black protestors and poseurs alike as when a Black couple contemplate a date for the next riot. And perhaps only a Black cartoonist could strike the right chord when it came to lampooning white supremacy, often depicted in full Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. One joke has a mixed-race couple confronting a visit from mother, donning a hood and looking quite perturbed. Are these jokes unfair in their crassness? During an interview I conducted with Johnson, he pointed out that all’s fair when it comes to satire. And, while some of the cartoons may come off as utterly surreal, it is that very incongruity that makes them most effective. One example is when a Black man adamantly complains that, without discrimination, there won’t be anything left to complain about. Overall, these are cartoons by an accomplished young cartoonist eager to make some unflinching observations. And it’s no overstatement to say that Johnson, at an early age, was already an accomplished cartoonist having won more awards and produced more work than some professionals.

Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

Looking back at the early work of Charles Johnson is rewarding on many levels, especially when you consider where his creative pursuits would take him. Johnson would develop into a highly insightful writer of Black America, racism and slavery. To look back at some of Johnson’s cartoons is to view prescient fragments of the novels that were to come. Perhaps the most striking cartoon of that era is a Johnson cartoon from a 1976 collection of cartoons for Player (a Black version of Playboy), a joke that depicts the sexual fantasy of a Klansman as he gazes upon an attractive young Black woman. In the thought balloon, the Klansman’s deepest desire is for the woman to be stripped and lynched. This is a cartoon so dark, and outrageous, as to court its own deletion from history. But it is this very image, in its sophisticated morbidity, that needs to be seen. It is so distinctive that it could easily be a featured piece all to itself at any museum. Show it enough times, and it would grow to the strength of an iconic image. Keep it hidden, and it remains obscure. In contrast to Johnson, controversial work by R. Crumb has gained iconic status from repeated exposure over the years. Arguments continue to be made that R. Crumb’s blatantly racist comics, at the height of the underground comix movement of the sixties, are actually telling us something about the American psyche. However, Crumb has never adequately, if at all, explained his intent. In comparison to Crumb, Johnson’s work is clear, and, while sometimes blunt, retains its integrity without question.

If you know R. Crumb comics, then consider a Charles Johnson cartoon taking it to the edge.

The following cartoon is part of this paperback collection and no need to have it lost to history.

Cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an essay in The Comics Journal in 2010 discussing Johnson’s early work. In that essay, he opens with a description of the Klansman cartoon in Player. Kreider cites the work of anthropologist Eli Sagan, his 1974 book, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form which “discusses at length the deep human ambivalence between affection and aggression evident in many cultures: the eating of deceased family members or honored warriors, the psychic power imputed to human trophies like bones and heads; the reverence displayed toward the victims of ritual sacrifice. (And lynching is, among other things, a form of ritual sacrifice.) Johnson’s thesis is borne out by three centuries’ history of the rape of slaves by their owners.” Of course, what stands out most today about the work in Black Humor is how direct it is, not pulling any punches. Kreider observes that the more blunt and honest humor was a product of its times, circa 1970, a time when Don Rickles could get away with jokes about “The blacks, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans—mostly the blacks.” But this kind of humor isn’t all from some bygone era. All you need to do is look at Dave Chappelle, circa 2003, and even today! It is a figure like Chappelle who demonstrates how issues about race don’t fit neatly into little boxes. Yes, Dave Chappelle is alive and well, continuing to make outrageous comedy, and yet he can seem to be hiding in plain sight when certain segments of the public won’t acknowledge him.

Krazy Kat comic strip, 1941.

Another prominent Black figure hiding in plain sight was the pioneering comic strip artist George Herriman (1880-1944). It wasn’t until 1971 that a birth certificate revealed that Herriman was Black. During his career, he chose to “pass for white,” a choice many Blacks made not only to hopefully advance in life but maybe even to save their lives. Herriman’s comic strip, Krazy Kat, (1913-1944) is known for its many coded passages. I asked Johnson if he thought some Blacks had figured out that Herriman was Black by reading between the lines of the comic strip. He thought that was possible. I then asked him if he’d ever read of Krazy Kat lamenting over being Black and wondering about being white. To that, Johnson wasn’t ready to accept those comics existed. I had to check back but these comics are documented in Michael Tisserand’s 2016 biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. In fact, I can cite for you here an example, circa 1925, “as when Krazy Kat showers in a bottle of bleach, saying, ‘This smex of a change among the kimplexion of things.’ That strip ends with Krazy turning completely white except for a black tail.” I checked in with Michael Tisserand and he responded with some samples and a reply: “There are many strips that deal with color and Krazy turning white. This “study in black and white” strip from 1931 is a pretty famous one and I’m sure I mentioned it in the book. There are also some beauty parlor gags in which Krazy turns white, one from 1941.”

Excerpt from Your Black Friend, 2016, by Ben Passmore.

In another comic strip from around 1925, Krazy describes this particular anxiety as one about an “inferiority complexion.” It’s a struggle that still haunts some Black cartoonists to this very day. If you take a look at Ben Passmore’s 2016 comic, Your Black Friend, there is a passage that depicts the cartoonist as a young boy smoothing out his curly hair and sucking in his lips to make them look thin like Leonardo Dicaprio. “The TV taught your black friend what beautiful was and it didn’t look anything like him.” On that same page, in another panel, Passmore glorifies hurting an innocent person. “One day your black friend heard about some cops killing a young black boy. That night your black friend threw a brick at a cop’s face.” This comic, which presents itself as a Black guidebook for white people, went on to be named on NPR’s Top 100 Comics list along with various comics industry accolades like, ironically enough, winning an Ignatz Award, which is basically a brick. Passmore takes a very obvious militant stance. Some people will find his work can be toxic while others will celebrate it without question.

You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. From Integration Is a Bitch!  by Tom Floyd.

And so that brings us back to 2021 and to the book, It’s Life As I See It, part of a bigger show focusing on Chicago cartoonists. One question worth asking is, How useful is it to set apart one segment of the cartoonist community? In this case, some questions would never get a chance to be asked otherwise and some aspects of history would remain in the shadows. Issues of self-worth are very complex and hard to resolve so, for that reason alone, a book focusing on Black cartoonists is valuable. But it’s all that history needing to be presented within context that pretty much steals the show. If not for this book, so many readers would probably never have become acquainted with such significant trailblazing cartoonists as Tom Floyd and his 1969 cartoon collection, Integration Is a Bitch! This is Floyd’s hilarious account of entering, and exiting, the white-collar workforce. A typical cartoon features two white executives looking over The Civil Rights Act of 1964. One declares to the other, “Hire some Negroes…Quick!” To have such a document of the times available was downright revolutionary. Such a book, along with Black Humor, was great motivation when it was clear there would be no easy wins and many battles ahead. Black cartoonists would need to rely upon themselves, create their own media for their own community, and keep fighting.

From Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, 1965.

Black cartoonists found homes for their work in Black media, like The Chicago Defender. As Dan Nadel noted in his introduction to It’s Life As I See It: “The great tradition of Chicago comics as it’s most often taught—that of Frank King, Chester Gould, and Harold Gray—is brilliant, but it was never the full story. More than any other city in the country, Chicago had a vibrant yet utterly separate Black publishing industry that encompassed multiple comic strip genres in the Defender newspaper and a raft of panel cartoons about Black life in the locally published magazines, including Jet and Negro Digest.” It was this yin yang of responding to exclusion and aspiring to inclusion that reverberated throughout the Black creative process. There was room for wonderfully satirical comic strips like Jay Jackson’s Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, a science fiction parody where the white race is subservient, published in the 1940s in The Chicago Defender. And there was also room for Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, a comic strip that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz encouraged Turner to create. Dinky Fellas was launched in the Defender in 1964 as a Black version of Peanuts. It would later be renamed Wee Pals and be syndicated in five newspapers. But it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, with newspapers urgently seeking new Black voices, that Wee Pals was picked up by scores of papers and continued up to its creator’s death in 2014. A comic strip that came to life as a segregated version of the mainstream had managed to break through and to flourish.

Black anger, or is it simply human anger at injustice?

Charles Johnson was a young man, pounding the pavement in Manhattan in hopes of a big break from the great establishment media of the day—and never got it. All the answers as to why not are now painful to acknowledge. However you look at it, it was a long process. As a final aside, Johnson noted to me in an email that it wasn’t until The New York Times ran a review of It’s Life As I See It that a Charles Johnson cartoon was finally published in the pages of the great establishment media. A little late to say the least; but published nonetheless.

Quote from MIDDLE PASSAGE by Charles Johnson

Oh, one last thing, are you wondering what the cartoon alter ego for Charles Johnson is typing in the opening cartoon? Well, it’s not just mock type. Nope. In fact, it’s a quote from his National Book Award winning novel, Middle Passage. Just a nice FYI. There’s part of the quote right above.

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Review: ‘The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History’

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. writer: David F. Walker. artist: Marcus Kwame Anderson. Ten Speed Press. 2021. 192pp. $19.99

There’s the myth and then there’s the reality. The fact is that the core of what became known as the Black Panther Party began in 1966 in Oakland, California, under the leadership of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But there are a number of other facts that add up to give you the full picture. That is what this graphic novel does so well. Step by step, the reader gets a historical context and an in depth exploration into the lives of very real people.

June 5, 1966: Civil rights activist James Meredith is shot by a sniper during his March Against fear campaign.

The truth is that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, despite any human shortcomings, became consequential and transcendent. It did not happen overnight. And you learned as you went. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Black Panthers had purpose, real purpose that meant going out and helping the Black community. It had a manifesto and it had a newspaper. And it had guns. It was another time, of course. Back then, Seale and Newton decided to test the existing gun laws in California which allowed the open carrying of firearms. It won’t be lost on any readers that open carry laws still exist in some states with Texas having some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States.

September 27, 1966: 16-year-old Matthew “Peanut” Johnson shot in back and killed by police setting off the Hunters Point Uprising.

One scene in this book that provides a window into the making of the Black Panther Party is when a group of members led by Seale decided to voice their concerns at the state capitol in Sacramento. The goal was to act as representatives of their organization, complete with their militaristic attire and guns, and protest a proposed bill that would outlaw carrying loaded firearms in public, a direct response designed to disarm the Black Panther Party. The protest did not go as planned. Seale and his group, meaning to sit in the public assembly chamber, ended up opening a door that placed them on the main floor. They were immediately disarmed and escorted out. But they had the full attention of the press and so Seale’s protest was not in vain.

The compelling script by David F. Walker and the equally engaging art by Marcus Kwame Anderson bring history to life for the reader through a steadily paced narrative, informative profiles, and numerous examples of the interconnections between then and now. Progress is slow. In some cases, it is surreal as in lynching being outlawed only last year, in 2020. Hills keep being climbed and issues keep being confronted, like equity and police brutality. But you can’t chart the future without understanding the past.

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Review: ‘Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching’

Elegy for Mary Turner

Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46

“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”

The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.

A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.

Page excerpt from Elegy for Mary Turner

Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.

C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:

“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”

The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.

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The Tulsa Race Massacre in Comics: ‘Across the Tracks’

Across the Tracks

The Tulsa Race Massacre, taking place one hundred years ago today, is being discussed now more than ever in various media. One attempt to present this event in comics is Across the Tracks, a compact book that packs a lot of information. It is part of the imprint, Megascope, within ComicArts, published by Abrams. Megascope is a great way to showcase graphic novel projects that focus on people of color through the prism of speculative and nonfiction works.

Lively Greenwood Avenue

This book is a prime example. Writer Alverne Ball and illustrator Stacey Robinson take the reader on a tour marked by tragedy but not without hope and inspiration. In fact, a good part of the narrative is devoted to the marvel that was the original Greenwood community of Tulsa, an all Black community known as The Negro Wall Street. In the span of 58 pages, the reader is provided with great insight into systemic racism as seen throughout American history. It is a straightforward approach that lets history speak for itself.

 

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Review: SAVE IT FOR LATER by Nate Powell

SAVE IT FOR LATER

Save it for Later. by Nate Powell. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2021. 160pp. $24.99

Nate Powell provides a series of what I call “visual essays” for his latest book, Save it for Later. Powell, whether he intended to or not, is working in the tradition of essays going back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Montaigne was a philosopher who, in spite of or because of his erudition, knew how to write plainly and memorably. The sign of any good writing is that it sticks with you, akin to an absorbing conversation with an intimate friend. Essays are not meant to be perfect, although they do best if they ultimately have something meaningful to say, and achieve a clarity of purpose. Powell’s book is not perfect–and I’m glad it’s not. Powell manages to retain a certain level of rawness that adds authenticity. This is a real person who is just trying to figure things out, what’s best for him, his family, and his community.

A parent’s passion.

It’s a messy and complicated world–sometimes ugly (maybe more now than in recent memory). We live for only a pocket of time: perhaps we’re more aware of the ever-shifting present than ever before and mindful of the relatively recent past and future. In the big picture, we’re all here just for a blink of an eye’s time. And then we’re gone. Dust. No more. You’d think that would humble us. We’re too ready to pass judgement and condescend–somehow oblivious to the fact than none of us are going to leave this earth alive. Pretty heavy stuff. And then you throw in the role a parent plays in guiding a child, navigating a child through all the grown-up stuff going on. Let’s not forget there is plenty of joy to go around. You don’t have to be “privileged” to enjoy so much that life has to offer. But sometimes a parent feels a heavy burden to get it all right. One thing is clear in this book, Powell feels the burden and he takes it almost to the breaking point.

A child’s choice.

We cartoonists are born explainers. There’s something about us that compels us to jump upon the stage of life. We’re part artist, writer, journalist, and actor. This need to perform, act out, and explain is genuine and natural. I can clearly see that Powell is driven to make his time count: make the most of his talents, make a difference. That heart-felt desire is undeniable. It is that kind of energy that fueled what he was able to accomplish with March, the trilogy exploring the civil rights movement with Rep. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin. In fact, March figures prominently in Powell’s new book. It is ever-present, not only guiding Powell but influencing the lives of his two children. How does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work address questions of race? How do we feel confident that he’s conveying an honest picture of himself? It’s not easy! I think what really helps, and to Powell’s credit, is the use of what I call “the counter-narrative.” Right alongside Powell’s main narrative, he has moments that depict another viewpoint like when his older daughter, at age seven, admits she sometimes goes to protest rallies because she thinks that is what her father wants her to do.

Two generations co-existing.

Let me share with you how the issue of race was addressed in my family when I was child. Basically, in the 1970s, in my household, it was never explicitly and formally addressed the way it is now in vogue to do. Certainly, race came up as a subject to talk about but it happened very organically: randomly and without pretense. That had something to do, maybe everything to do, with my coming from a biracial background: my mom was Mexican; my dad was Anglo. Both are now deceased. And, if they were both alive and cognizant, I imagine they’d have a well-earned laugh over some of what they’d find to be an excess of sensitivity on display today. Where were all the well-wishers when we needed them? It’s an interesting question. For Powell, he is focusing on his being white and the burden he believes he has. Powell believes that white children should not be afforded an extended time of innocence since non-white children never had such a privilege. There’s plenty to unpack there and fodder for much needed discussion.

In the shadow of a giant.

As a child, I also know for a fact that I became political all on my own, and after a relatively extended time of relative innocence (kids are less innocent than adults generally care to admit). I know that I was certainly curious about the news by age ten and picked it up in earnest by age thirteen. Looking back on it, I see no harm, no foul on that count. I don’t blame my parents for any apathy or neutrality over issues of the day. I think my mother suffered enough, as I did by extension and in my own right, from countless forms of racism. And I don’t think I would have benefited from any critical race theory workshop. That said, we need to be willing to talk it all out and think it all out as much as possible. We often seem to forget how important it is to make our actions count. After all, we’re only here for a small pocket of time.

Make some “good trouble.”

So, how does the cartoonist who was a part of such a consequential work as March address questions of race? It’s one step at time! How does one move in the shadow of such a giant as John Lewis? With purpose! Nate Powell, without a doubt, has created a work of honesty and bravery with his latest book. Yes, bravery because amid all the coded language and distraction, there remains that veiled, and not-so-veiled, threat of violence. It’s like you are being dared to be true to yourself and stand up to the current batch of hate crime bullies. These are bullies that John Lewis understood very well in his time. Sadly, his pocket of time is now over. The baton has been passed on to another generation. We may collectively stumble along the way but, as John Lewis would say when you see something that is not fair: “Find a way to get in the way.” Powell has learned from the best.

Save it for Later is available as of April 6, 2021. For more information, visit Abrams ComicArts.

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Interview: MONGREL by Sayra Begum | Comics | Knockabout

Mongrel is a significant debut graphic novel by Sayra Begum. This is among the best works of 2020 as I look back on the year. You can read my review here. And, now, you can enjoy something more. Check out my interview with Sayra Begum by just clicking the link below:

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Interview: Lloyd Scott, author of ELECTION YEAR

Election Year by Lloyd Scott

Lloyd Scott has written a brilliant novel, ELECTION YEAR, that is part satire, political thriller and action adventure. On top of that, it is a heartfelt and insightful look at where we are today in the United States. You may have heard about Meghan Markle set to produce a film adaptation of this novel. Well, now you can hear Lloyd Scott, in her own words, talk about her work in this exclusive interview. It means a lot to me to have this opportunity to interview Lloyd Scott. We are both writers and we are both biracial. I draw great strength from having this dual perspective. As I’ve shared before, I am Mexican on my mother’s side and Anglo-Saxon (is that a fairly good label?) on my father’s side. Well, we discuss race and many other things in this interview which you can listen to in full by just clicking below. Lloyd Scott also reads from one of her short stories. For more information on ELECTION YEAR, go to the official site: https://www.electionyearlloydscott.com/

Lloyd Scott’s novel features a biracial young woman working for a high powered politician, also biracial, who is on her way to becoming the first woman US president. You can read my review here. When I discovered Scott’s novel, I couldn’t help but make connections to my own novel, Max in America, which follows a biracial man who has lived all of his life in Mexico and is suddenly trying to make a life for himself in the United States. Both novels present an offbeat and idiosyncratic narrative, that can be enjoyed on many levels. A driving force in each novel is a searching for understanding from a biracial perspective. That is definitely true, and I’m thrilled to be in the thick of it. Being so close to this, I can start to wonder if I’m making too much of it. But I’ve gotten a thumbs up from Lloyd Scott herself so that will settle it for me.

In my interview, Lloyd Scott shares about her work as a sign language interpreter in the DC area. That makes total sense to me as she was able to draw from countless observations that contributed to helping her create some of the novel’s backdrop featuring political high-rollers. Asked about how she came to write her novel, Scott shared that it all began when she just happened to listen to a radio program describing what it might be like if Russian operatives actually infiltrated the White House. The highlight of our chat might be when Scott recited from one of her short stories, “Salsa,” a very funny tale of  searching for meaning and avoiding misunderstanding. Talking about issues of race took on an interesting life of its own and, I sincerely believe, we had a very productive exchange. As Scott closed out our chat, she quoted the wise words of Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” Wise words we can all try to live by.

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Book Review: ELECTION YEAR by Lloyd Scott

Election Year by Lloyd Scott

Election Year. By Llody Scott. Independently published (June 2, 2020). 220pp, Free.

Here is a book that would make one hell of a movie. There’s even a moment in the book when one of characters suggests they’re in the middle of movie-worthy activity. That said, you might have heard that this novel is well on its way to a movie adaptation thanks to no less than Duchess Meghan Markle and the new movie production company she is launching with Prince Harry. Well, this news calls for a proper review of the book in question and I’ll do my best to give you just enough of a taste without spoiling anything.

Part of what prompted me to write this review is a bit of serendipity. Lloyd Scott and I are both biracial and we both chose to speak to that within a political thriller. Well, mine is not quite as intense. Look it up, Max in America, and you’ll see what I mean. But still, I think that connection is pretty uncanny, especially how we both share our experiences with identity, being seen as the Other, and playing with being a raceshifter. You can say that our backgrounds provided the fuel for our work. I like that. Election Year is offbeat and eccentric, in the same spirit to what I’m doing too. So, let’s take a closer look.

Meet Maverick Johnson Malone, our main character, a Millennial working to help elect Suni Wainwright as the first woman, and youngest, U.S. president. It is the pivotal year of 2020, and there’s excitement in the air. The only problem is that Maverick hates Suni because she’s so fake! This summation is only based upon casual observation until one day it is based on far more than that. It turns out that Suni is a Russian operative–and so the plot thickens.

Ryan, Maverick, and Jay. illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Given all that we know about a certain occupant in the White House and his Russian connections, the plot to this novel has found a funny indirect way to tackle the issue. Lloyd has attached humor to her Manchurian candidate that provides a light and breezy way into her political thriller. The humor going in features Maverick Malone who, at first, seems rather klutzy and self-absorbed. It could be Rome burning in the background but Maverick will keep obsessing over why her ex is such a jerk. This adds up to a pitch perfect Bridget Jones vibe. Lloyd has also created a believable office culture made up of staff working to get Suni Wainwright in the White House. Often, it is Maverick Malone to the rescue with a new idea to put out the latest fire but that is usually overshadowed by her own disgruntled attitude.

Then things transition to a more serious tone. We do have the fate of American democracy to deal with, don’t we? Gee, that question has so many levels of irony that it leaves my head spinning. In fact, the story truly finds its groove just prior to the political intrigue, as the reader gets to know Maverick better. What emerges is the story of a young biracial woman who feels alienated. Part of the problem is her dysfunctional family. Her White mother and Black father are wealthy and distant. As much as she is frustrated by having to constantly explain her racial background, she finds the even greater divide to be money.

Like a good work of film noir or crime fiction, this novel is meant to please with its fair share of twists and turns. Lloyd has fun tapping into a style with the energy of a young adult novel. Maverick is already into her thirties but still full of Millennial spunk. It is this energy that carries the reader as Maverick goes deeper with her sleuthing. Along the way, Maverick finds love with Ryan, a dashing young biracial much like herself. And, to round things out, Maverick develops a greater sense of responsibility as she finds herself caring more for Jay, a Black girl who lives next door to her. It is this trio who all become caught up in the intrigue and danger that threatens to kill them all. And, even when the tension is high, Lloyd manages to insert a little irony as when Jay has a meta-moment. Jay wryly observes that the three of them seem to resemble yet another comedy adventure but with plenty of diversity.

Overall, this is a unique joy ride of a thriller. Yes, it provides those unexpected twists and turns. But the most unexpected revelations run deeper than any car chase. At the heart of it, this is a story about confronting the status quo and finding the right solutions to ultimately achieve the change that we all want. Lloyd Scott brings up many provocative issues, which pop up as events heat up. It is our main character, our shero, Maverick Malone, who is in a position to truly empathize with the Other in America. It is Maverick who can appreciate, even when passion might overtake wisdom, that life is full of complicated contradictions.

While there is plenty of humor, and action, to be found here, this is also a story about trying to understand some painful truth. For all the rip-snorting good action we find here, there’s also just as robust rounds of political fisticuffs, like this particularly pointed salvo: “You have no idea the extent of your privilege. The geographical luck of your births, freedom is a right from your first breath, and all you do is complain. We on the outside know, we see how endowed with opportunity you are and the means to do great things you have at your disposal, but all you Americans do is spend your time infighting. Refusing to see the truth of things, running down the climate clock for everyone with your pollution and your insolence. It’s time for it to end.” Well, now, if those aren’t some fighting words, I don’t know what is! Yes, if the action doesn’t get you, the heated political talk just might be enough for you to want to see how this political thriller all comes together.

 

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The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre: An Astute Cartoonist’s Prediction

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

UPDATE: The Trump rally in Tulsa is now scheduled for June 20. However, especially during this pandemic, the correct action would be not to hold a rally.

With Trump set for his rally in Tulsa on June 19, Juneteenth, he and his henchmen continue to stoke the fires of racism. Juneteenth memorializes June 19, 1865, when Union general Gordon Granger read orders in Galveston, Texas, that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free. Trump’s response to CNN on his rally coinciding with this date, well-known as a date to commemorate emancipation from slavery: “Uh, no, but I know exactly what you’re going to say. … Think about it as a celebration. My rally is a celebration,” Trump said, adding, “Don’t think about it as an inconvenience.” Add to this the fact that Tulsa was the site for the infamous race massacre of 1921.

Daisy Scott

 

Cartoon by Daisy Scott, 1921

Daisy Scott in the Tulsa Star. Caption: “Isn’t it time to start cleaning your own mess?

Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921

Writer Michael Tisserand remembers Daisy Scott, a cartoonist who predicted the troubles ahead for Tulsa in 1921. This is from a social media post today:

“Among the many things that history has ignored about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre is that the first regularly published Black female cartoonist was working at the Tulsa Star at the time, and she saw what was coming.

The Tulsa Star would be destroyed in the fires. Daisy Scott never worked as a cartoonist again. Yet she remained in Tulsa with her husband, Jack Scott, a boxer, and they would raise a family together.

During the fires, Jack Scott had risked his life to help stop a lynching. He, like others, would be baselessly indicted for murder; that charge would not be officially dropped until 2007.”

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George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten

George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten

As Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) said at today’s funeral, “George Floyd was on a mission.” His purpose shines on as his memory moves progress forward. There’s no turning back. Rosa Parks. Emmett Till. Trayvon Martin. George Floyd. Some of us are on such a mission. Their memory sparks change. George Floyd Will Never Be Forgotten.

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Filed under George Floyd, Obituaries, Race