African American history turned a corner in January when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. From Washington, DC, Obamamania swept through the recent New York Comic-Con, where exhibitors sold Alex Ross’s striking Superman Obama print as well as T-shirts proclaiming “Obama is my homeboy.” Obama comics are also jumping out of stores, and several more are in production.
Because our new president is a poster honcho for literacy as well as a comics-friendly icon, I hope we will soon see more graphic novels for children and tweens featuring black people as major characters. Luckily, there are many existing works that offer distinctive and often powerful portrayals of African Americans famous and unknown, real and fictional. Limited to teen through adult readers, the titles below are recommended for public and school libraries, and many would be welcome in academic collections. Display away, librarians!
Tweens and Up
Mariotte, Jeff (text) & Tom Morgan (illus.). Presidential Material: Barack Obama. IDW. 2008. 30p. bibliog. pap. $3.99. BIOG
An attractive comic book biography covering Obama’s life from his Hawaiian boyhood up to his clinching of the Democratic nomination in August 2008. See also Barack Obama for Beginners (Bob Neer & Joe Lee, For Beginners/Steerforth, 2008), a slender prose book with numerous illustrations and a bibliography. Look also for another Obama comic from Kyle Baker, who anticipates “a totally different take on the material.” This comic book has no ISBN; order from www.idw.com, Diamond Distributors, or through a comics shop.
Bailey, Neal (text) & Joshua LaBello (illus.). Female Force: Michelle Obama. Bluewater Productions. Apr. 2009. 32p. pap. $3.99. BIOG
Planned with an approach similar to the comic book biography of the president (above), although from a different publisher. The “Female Force” series includes issues for Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin; a trade paperback collection is due in July. This comic book has no ISBN; order from Diamond Distributors or through a comics shop.
Torres, J. (text) & Scott Chantler (illus.). Days Like This. Oni Pr. 2003. 80p. bibliog. ISBN 978-1929998-48-7. pap. $8.95. F
It’s the early 1960s, and girl groups like the Shirelles are topping the pop music charts. When teens Christina, Emily, and Doreen make a demo record in the Harmony Plaza building, the future looks rosy. But Christina’s dad doesn’t see it that way. Including a wealth of period detail. (LJ 9/1/03)
Laird, Roland Owen & Taneshia Nash Laird (text) & Elihu “Adofo” Bey (illus.). Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans. rev. ed. Sterling. 2009. 220p. bibliog. ISBN 978-1-4027-6226-0. pap. $14.95. HISTORY
The story of African Americans in the United States from the year 1619 through the election of Barack Obama, told in some detail and with simple black-and-white art. Charles Johnson’s introduction about the history of “Blacks in comics” enriches the presentation, as do the differing viewpoints of the two elderly narrators introduced in the beginning of the book. Originally published in 1997; unfortunately, the bibliography has not been updated. (LJ 2/1/98)
Teens and Up
Landowne, Youme & Anthony Horton. Pitch Black, Don’t Be Skerd. Cinco Puntos Pr. 2008. 64p. ISBN 978-1-933693-06-4. $17.95. AUTOBIOG
Rejecting his youth of foster care and the hell of New York City’s shelters, Anthony escapes into the subway tunnels, where he finds a home of sorts, mentors, rats—and art. A YALSA top ten pick. (LJ 1/09)
Baker, Kyle. Nat Turner. Abrams 2008. 208p. bibliog. ISBN 978-0-8109-7227-8. pap. $12.95. HISTORY
A harrowing, almost wordless drama beginning with the ocean transport of a group of Africans on a slave ship. The story eventually focuses on one shipboard woman and then on her American-born son, Nat Turner, who led the only effective sustained slave revolt in U.S. history. Winner of an Eisner and several Glyph Awards, this suspenseful and violent work documents the slave trade’s atrocities like no textbook can. Excellent for academic libraries and curriculum support at varying levels. (LJ 5/15/07)
Carey, Percy (text) & Ronald Wimberly (illus.). Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm. Vertigo: DC. 2008. 128p. ISBN 978-1-4012-1047-2. pap. $14.99. AUTOBIOG
In this sobering, self-reflective autobiography, rapper Carey cuts through the bling-and-babes stereotype of the hip-hop lifestyle to describe surviving the 1994 murder attempt that left him a paraplegic, a subsequent blacklisting by record companies, a descent into crime, a prison term, and rebirth as a penitent survivor. A Glyph Award winner; violence and strong language. (Xpress Reviews, 8/2/07)
Morales, Robert (text) & Kyle Baker (illus.). Captain America: Truth. Marvel. 2009. 168p. bibliog. ISBN 978-0-7851-3666-8. $24.99. F
In an attempt to re-create the lost super-serum used earlier to turn Steve Rogers into Captain America, a regiment of Black soldiers are forced to act as test subjects in a program that kills all but Isaiah Bradley. The now-enhanced Bradley steals a spare Captain America costume to destroy a similar Nazi effort but is captured. Inspired in part by the infamous Tuskegee, experiment where African Americans already infected with syphilis were misinformed and merely observed rather than treated. Originally published in 2004 as Truth: Red, White & Black.
McGruder, Aaron. All the Rage: Boondocks Past and Present. Three Rivers. 2007. 280p. ISBN 978-0-307-35266-8. pap. $16.95. COMICS
Probably the first African American newspaper strip to attract a nationwide—even worldwide—fanbase, the multiple-award-winning Boondocks centers on two kids and their grandfather, who relocate to a predominantly white suburb. Cultural clashes with their new community and also among Huey, Riley, and Granddad themselves become fodder for this satiric and amusing saga, which ran 1999–2006 and was adapted for the Cartoon Network. All the Rage includes a selection of strips from 2003–05, interviews with McGruder, and a second selection of strips that newspapers refused to print.
Thomas, Corey. Watch Your Head: A Collection. Andrews McMeel. 2008. 127p. ISBN 978-0-7407-7103-3. pap. $12.99. F
A group of college freshmen navigate life away from home for the first time, facing scholastics, the opposite sex, their families, and one another. As a Howard University student, Thomas began the strip for the school newspaper, and it now runs in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune, among other papers. Wry, funny, and hopeful.
Neufeld, Josh. A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. Pantheon. Aug. 2009. 208p. bibliog. ISBN 978-0-307-37814-9. $24.95. CURRENT EVENTS
Hurricane Katrina wrought devastation upon the lives and homes of many African Americans in the New Orleans area, including several profiled in this dramatic and painful documentary. Neufeld, who volunteered for the Red Cross in the weeks after the storm, originally published the story as a web comic. Strong language may limit access to adults in some libraries.
Older Teens and Up
Phillips, Gary (text) & Sergio Carrera (illus.). High Rollers. Boom! Studios. 2008. 112p. ISBN 978-1-934506-47-9. pap. $15.99. F
Here we have an example of street lit in graphic novel form from crime writer Phillips (Bangers; the Ivan Monk series). Cameron “CQ” Quinn packs heat as an enforcer for drug lord Trey Loc but covets his boss’s job. Wasting Trey assures his “promotion” and allows CQ to upgrade his crew’s image and make peace on the street, but skirmishes with rivals muddy his waters. Meanwhile, sister Rita and husband Roger, Trey’s sometime lover and public defender, Lena, and Lena’s baby daddy, Father Bruen, must all face their addictions. With occasional sexual situations.
Johnson, Mat (text), & Warren Pleece (illus.). Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery. Vertigo. 2008. 136p. ISBN 978-14012-1097-7. $19.99. F
In this 1930s crime-noir story, journalist Zane Pinchback goes undercover as white in the Deep South to expose lynchings and racist atrocities for his Harlem newspaper. When he hears that his brother has been sent up for murder in Tupelo, he finds himself in an investigative gig that turns complicated and deadly. Fast-paced, tragic, and another good addition to curricula in history and African American studies. (LJ 7/08)
Hiramoto, Akira. Me and the Devil Blues 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson. 544p. ISBN 978-0-345-49926-4.
Hiramoto, Akira. Me and the Devil Blues 2: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson. 576p. ISBN 978-0-345-50137-0.
ea. vol: Del Rey. 2008. tr. from Japanese by David Ury. pap. $19.95. F
Legend has it that enigmatic American bluesman Robert Johnson (1911–38) gained his mastery of the guitar in a deal with the devil, and Hiramoto crafts this myth and the facts of Johnson’s life into a suspenseful horror manga with a modern feel. A School Library Journal award winner; nudity, sexual situations, and strong language. (LJ 9/15/08)
McCulloch, Derek (text) & Shepherd Hendrix (illus.). Stagger Lee. Image. 2006. 231p. 978-1-58240-607-7. pap. $17.99. F
“Stag” Lee Shelton’s 1895 murder of Billy Lyons soon entered American folklore and inspired a series of songs. This outstanding piece of historical fiction weaves a compelling tale involving racism and political corruption, interspersed with thoughtful commentary on the songs themselves. A Glyph Award winner. (LJ 9/15/06)
Tooks, Lance. Lucifer’s Garden of Verses. Vol. 1: The Devil on Fever Street. 2005. 80p. ISBN 978-1-56163-412-5.
Tooks, Lance. Lucifer’s Garden of Verses. Vol 2: Darlin’ Nikki. 2006. 80p. ISBN 978-1-56163-430-9.
Tooks, Lance. Lucifer’s Garden of Verses. Vol 3: The Student. 2006. 80p. ISBN 978-1-56163-447-7.
Tooks, Lance. Lucifer’s Garden of Verses. Vol. 4: Between the Devil and Miles Davis. 2007. 75p. ISBN 978-156163-470-5.
ea. vol: ComicsLit: NBM. pap. $8.95. F
A sophisticated quartet of stories about the devil in different personas, with uniquely lovely black-and-white art. Volume 4, Between the Devil and Miles Davis (Xpress Reviews, 9/6/06), ties the stories together. Winner of several Glyph Awards.
Knight, Keith. The Complete K Chronicles. Dark Horse. 2008. 510p. ISBN 978-1-59307-943-7. pap. $24.95. HUMOR
A Harvey and Glyph Award–winning strip that for over 15 years has married sociopolitical commentary with autobiography, retooled into sometimes outrageous and always amusingly pointed vignettes. Subversive yet lighthearted; includes references to sex and illegal substances. (LJ 9/15/08)
McGregor, Don (text) & Paul Gulacy (illus.). Sabre. 30th anniversary ed. Desperado Pub. 2008. 48p. ISBN 978-0-9801479-1-9. $14.99. F
“Roguish anachronism” Sabre and lover Melissa Siren battle the Overseer together with his mercenaries and animatronic minions in a dystopic Disneyland. This science fiction swashbuckler featuring existentialist voiceovers and dialog stars a Jimi Hendrix look-alike in a Man with No Name–type role. Beautifully drawn in black and white with violence, some nudity, and sexual situations. First released in 1978 and reported to be the first graphic novel sold to the then-new “direct market” of comics shops.
Vollmar, Rob (text) & Pablo G. Callejo (illus.). Bluesman: A Twelve-Bar Graphic Novel. Bks. 1–3. ComicsLit: NBM. 2008. 208p. ISBN 978-1-56163-532-0. $24.95. F
Traveling blues musicians Lem Taylor and “Ironwood” Malcott think they’ve caught a break when a talent scout invites them to Memphis to cut a record. But love triangles, racism, and murder get in the way. An exceptional evocation of the rural South of the 1920s, where racism was pervasive but music was beginning to transmute suffering into art. With mature situations and some gore. (Book 2, LJ 7/06)
You may recognize Martha Cornog’s byline from the provocative piece she wrote in the Feb. 5 edition of BookSmack! (“Martha Cornog’s Dirty Dozen: 12 Manuals for Getting It On”). Little did you know she’s a double-threat reviewer—sex guides aside, she tackles graphic novels with Steve Raiteri for LJ’s Graphic Novels column (see the March 15 issue).