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.
Tag Archives: Race
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.