Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History Month

While an increasing number of kids’ comics have been featuring ethnically diverse characters in stories set in the recent past, we note on this year’s list of forthcoming, recent, and backlist titles in celebration of African American History Month (February) several significant academic works that ground black comics in history and culture.

Of interest across ages is the striking collection African American Classics, giving Zora Neale Hurston and many others their graphic due. Afua Richardson’s outstanding cover shows Hurston in a train station, reading aloud to W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. This image of the trio‚ immersed in literature‚ hints at the riches, both visual and literary, inside. I asked Richardson why she chose a train station as the illustration’s setting. She told me: Train stations were the airports of that era, and I picked a station to symbolize the journeys these writers have taken, sending their experiences and thoughts of the times they lived in from pen to the present. In the middle of trying and treacherous times, they made art of it, and allow us to travel with them a short ways.

Speaking of travel, the Justice League is heading up a fight-famine fund-raiser for Africa, run by DC Comics/Warner. Promote it at your library!

All Ages/Tweens

LivingonSpongeCakeUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthBillingsley, Ray. Living on Spongecake: The Curtis Chronicles. Vol. 2. Self-published. 2010. 153p. ISBN 9780984194612. pap. $16.95. HUMOR
Wilkins family life is never boring, thanks to the shenanigans of tween-age Curtis and his younger brother Barry. While the good-hearted Curtis softens to the charms of potential girlfriend Michelle, Barry remains mostly deaf to the romantic intentions of cute little Chutney. An ongoing plotline concerns a town block of minority-owned small businesses that is to be demolished to make way for a supermall, and the townspeople’s efforts to stop the bulldozers. Dating from 1988, the humorous and socially grounded strip is distributed to newspapers by King Features.

Craft, Jerry. Mama’s Boyz: The Big Picture; What You Need To Succeed! Mama’s Boyz Inc. 2010. 112p. ISBN 9780979613210. pap. $9.95. HUMOR (order from www.mamasboyz.com)
Lighthearted vignettes with a serious message convey how mundane, day-to-day living habits can affect one’s future. Slacker teen Yusuf Porter blows off his mama’s lifestyle advice but is then visited in his dreams, as in A Christmas Carol, by four phantoms‚ all versions of his future self. The phantoms counsel him on matters of health, appearance, family, and education and well as general self-esteem and respect for others. The good-natured preachiness is leavened by jokes poking fun at some of the clichés of black culture. The 15-year-old Mama’s Boyz strip is syndicated by King Features.

Figley, Marty Rhodes (text) & Ted Hammond & Richard Pimentel Carbajal (illus.). The Prison-Ship Adventure of James Forten, Revolutionary War Captive. Lerner: Graphic Universe. 2011. adapt. by Amanda Doering Tourville. 31p. ISBN 9780761370758. pap. $8.95. (History’s Kid Heroes) BIOG
James Forten was a real historical figure, an African American born free in Philadelphia in 1766. He enlisted as a teen in the Revolutionary War and was captured by the British. Treated as a regular prisoner of war by his captors, he also faced the possibility that he could later be sold as a slave. The graphic narrative was adapted from Figley’s easy reader Prisoner for Liberty. See art and comparison here.

AliUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthHelfand, Lewis (text) & Lalit Kumar Sharma (illus.). Muhammad Ali: The King of the Ring. 92p. ISBN 9789380741239.
Helfand, Lewis (text) & Sankha Banerjee (illus.). Nelson Mandela: The Unconquerable Soul. 120p. ISBN 9789380741161.
ea. vol: Campfire, dist. Random. Jan. 2012. pap. $12.99. BIOG
Campfire’s extensive line of all-age graphic novels began with adaptations of classic adventure stories and has expanded into biographies of notables around the world. In its back matter, the Ali volume includes information on how the graphic novel was made plus stories of other prizefighters. The Mandela book has a glossary, a favorite poem of Mandela’s, and facts about South Africa.

Peters, Stephanie (text) & Nelson Evergreen (illus.). John Henry, Hammerin’ Hero: The Graphic Novel. Stone Arch Bks. 2010. 40p. glossary. ISBN 9781434218988. $23.99. BIOG
Like Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, steel-driving man John Henry and his heroic battle against the mechanical steam drill have remained as strong as these folk heroes’ muscles over more than a century of retelling. A former slave in the classic story, Henry drove spikes to anchor railroad ties during the 19th century’s railroad construction boom, and his strength and stamina were matched only by his good character. And although Henry dropped dead after beating the steam drill, his story speaks to working people everywhere and spotlights the queasiness troubling the relationship between humans and machines ever since someone chipped the first stone axe. Expressive, colorful art and plentiful back matter, including historical background, discussion questions, and a glossary, make this suited for classroom use. Note also Dmitri Jackson’s attractive, two-toned, 30-page minicomic, John Henry: Steel-Driving Man ($4 from www.dmitrijackson.com; select Blog).

OrangeReviewStar Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthSantiago, Wilfred. 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente. Fantagraphics. 2011. c.200p. bibliog. ISBN 9781560978923. $22.99. BIOG/HIST
The Puerto Rican slugger overcame family poverty, racial prejudice, and the language barrier to be voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1966. Puerto Rican-born Santiago (In My Darkest Hour) superbly captures the kinetic excitement of baseball as well as Clemente’s skill and warm humanity on and off the diamond. Note that the Roberto Clemente Sports City complex in Puerto Rico welcomes donations to carry on his legacy. Highly recommended; buy several. (See review: LJ 7/11.)

Teens and Older

AfricanAmericanClassicsUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthOrangeReviewStar Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthAfrican-American Classics: Stories and Poems from America’s Earliest Black Writers. Eureka. (Graphic Classics, Vol. 22). 2011. c.144p. ed. by Tom Pomplun & Lance Tooks. ISBN 9780982563045. pap. $17.95. LIT
By turns elegant, tragic, and funny, this collection features 23 short works by African American literary giants such as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, originally published between 1891 and 1931, adapted and illustrated in full color by contemporary African American writers and artists. The volume opens with Florence Lewis Bentley’s tragic war story Two Americans, rendered with beautifully expressive realism by Trevor Von Eeden, and ends with Frances E.W. Harper’s rather formulaic parable Shalmanezer, much enhanced with simply lovely art by Lance Tooks. All the selections are compelling and evocative owing to the successful partnership between the art and the text. (See review: LJ 11/15/11.)

Bendis, Brian Michael (text) & Sara Pichelli (illus.). Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. Vol. 1. Marvel. Feb. 2012. 144p. ISBN 9780785157120. $24.99. F
In this version of the Spider-Man universe, Peter Parker is killed suddenly and Miles Morales, an African American/Latino middle-schooler, takes over the web-slinging. Pichelli’s art is terrific, and Miles’s developing character is a winning blend of brilliance and na√Øveté. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe runs parallel to Marvel’s mainstream continuity, and Parker keeps his webs in other Spider-Man titles. Later this year, look for trade compilations from DC Comics’s New 52 African American title characters: Batwing, Static, Mister Terrific, and Voodoo.

Getz, Trevor R. (text) & Liz Clarke (illus.). Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History. Oxford Univ. 2011. 208p. ISBN 9780199844395. pap. $15.95. HIST
In 1876, a West African woman named Abina Mansah was illegally enslaved by another African and took her alleged master to a court in the British Protectorate of the Gold Coast. Though she lost the case, her story doesn’t end there. This powerful account by Getz (African history, San Francisco State Univ.) and South African illustrator Clarke is based on a court transcript. Part 1 of the volume consists of the graphic narrative, while Parts 2-4 provide detailed historical context, a reading guide, and strategies for introducing Abina’s story into classrooms (see sample art and additional information here). The resources seem intended for college-level students but could probably be adapted for high schoolers and younger students as well as for readers in nonacademic contexts such as book clubs.

Long, Mark & Jim Demonakos (text) & Nate Powell (illus.). The Silence of Our Friends: The Civil Rights Struggle Was Never Black and White. First Second. Jan. 2012. 208p. ISBN 9781596436183. pap. $16.99. MEMOIR
Attributed to Martin Luther King: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. In 1967 Texas, a white family from a racist neighborhood and a poor black family overcome barriers and work together to free five black college students unjustly accused of murdering a policeman. Such friends‚ real friends‚ are not silent. See an excerpt from Eisner Award winner Powell’s evocative black-and-white line art here. (LJ review forthcoming.)

McKissack, Patricia C. & Fredrick L. McKissack, Jr. (text) & Randy DuBurke (illus.). Best Shot in the West: The Adventures of Nat Love. Chronicle. Jan. 2012. 136p. ISBN 9780811857499. $19.99. BIOG
Among the rarely recognized African American cowboys, Nat Love made a name for himself, as Deadwood Dick, for his skillful riding, cattle handling, and marksmanship. Born a slave in Tennessee, he was taught to read by his father and, after emancipation, went west for a life of cattle drives, shooting contests, rodeo prizes, and other adventures. After he retired to work as a Pullman porter on the railroads, Love wrote his own autobiography, itself illustrated by someone named S. Campbell. DuBurke’s blacks and whites illustrated Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty, but in this book written by the McKissack husband-and-wife team, who have co-authored more than 100 books on African American history, he works in lively color.

EarthlightUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthMoore, Stuart (text) & Christopher Schons (illus.). Earthlight. Vol. 1. 2006. ISBN 9781598167054.
Moore, Stuart (text) & Christopher Schons (illus.). Earthlight. Vol. 2. 2007. ISBN 9781598167061.
ea. vol: Tokyopop. 192p. pap. price varies (out of print). F
Going to high school on the moon isn’t as much fun as it sounds, but it sure isn’t dull. Teen drama happens in Earth’s first lunar colony, too, and new kid Damon Cole is trying to figure it all out and maybe find a girlfriend as well. But with his dad as the colony’s new administrator and his mom as the new teacher, he and his family soon become caught up in crisis when an unexpected terrorist threatens the future of Earth as well as the colony. Schons’s manga-style art is excellent and the plot compelling. While only two volumes appeared in print, all three are available as ebooks via OverDrive.

Phelps, Earl R. Silent Protector: One Man Making a Difference. Phelps Pub. May 2012. 96p. ISBN 9781887627078. pap. $15.95. F
He’s wearing spandex on the cover, but retired heavyweight champ C.C. fights crime through his rep as a boxer, not as a superhero. Taking aim internationally, from Africa to Europe and the Caribbean to the Galapagos, he first comes up against a former pro wrestler who’s gone on a rampage. In a novel twist, C.C.’s main protection is the bulletproof outfit his chemist wife constructed for him. Phelps is the author of How To Draw Multicultural Supercharacters and several other how-to-draw books.

Riordan, Rick (text) & Orpheus Collar (illus.). The Kane Chronicles. Bk. One: The Red Pyramid. Hyperion. May 2012. 192p. ISBN 9781423150695. pap. $12.99. F
Following right after the graphic adaptation of the first book in Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians comes the graphic version of the first volume of his Egyptian saga of Carter and Sadie Kane, biracial teens who learn they are descended from pharaohs and have hidden powers. Unfortunately, the god Set has entombed their father and wants to get them too. The 2010 original novel was chosen as a School Library Journal Best Book. The second volume in the Kane series, The Throne of Fire, is scheduled for comics in August and the second Percy Jackson book in September.

Thomas, Brandon (text) & Lee Ferguson (illus.). The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury. Vol. 1: Time Runs Out. Archaia. 2011. 176p. ISBN 9781936393152. $24.95. F
She’s the talented child of a family of heroes, and she’s probably going to die soon from a mysterious poison. Meanwhile, she and guy Friday Jack Warning have the Rebel Ronin problem to solve, villains to thwart, victims to rescue, and planets to save in a style reminiscent of classic space opera. A rare story starring an African American female teen. Sweeping, colorful art.

Weaver, Lila Quintero. Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White. Univ. of Alabama. Mar. 2012. 264p. ISBN 9780817357146. pap. $24.95. AUTOBIOG
Transplanted at age five from Buenos Aires to Alabama, Lila emigrates into the racially charged culture of the early 1960s as a Latina who is neither black nor white. Growing up, she observes early on the inequalities in the Jim Crow South and witnesses key moments in the civil rights movement. She struggles to ally herself with her black classmates, but perils emerge from both sides of the divide. Graceful black and white pencil drawings.

HammerandAnvilUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthZimmerman, Dwight Jon (text) & Wayne Vansant (illus.). The Hammer and the Anvil: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, and the End of Slavery in America. Hill & Wang. Jul. 2012. 160p. ISBN 9780809053582. $24.95. HIST
The title refers to a military technique used by Civil War generals Sherman and Grant, in which an enemy would be trapped between a stationary command (the anvil) and a hard-hitting mobile command (the hammer). Here the hammer and anvil concept relates to the collaborative impact of two iconic men: the brilliant escaped slave and leader Frederick Douglass, representing the slaves themselves, and President Lincoln, representing the abolitionists. Through their intertwined stories, Zimmerman recounts the history of slavery, the Civil War, and emancipation. Zimmerman and Vansant collaborated on the award-winning The Vietnam War: A Graphic History (2009). The foreword is by Pulitzer Prize‚ winning Civil War historian James M. McPherson. Full-color, realistic art.

Adults

Ash, Brian (text) & Jun LoFamia (illus.). Black Dynamite: Slave Island. Ars Nova/Ape Entertainment. 2011. 48p. ISBN 9781936340316. pap. $5.95. F
A meaty one-shot comic book starring the retro, 1970s-style action hero of the 2009 blaxploitation-satire film of the same name and an upcoming animated series that will air on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim this summer. The story pits the badass Black Dynamite against honchos running a mysterious island where slavery still exists.

Casali, Matteo (text) & Kristian Donaldson (illus.). 99 Days. Vertigo. 2011. 176p. ISBN 9781401230890. $19.99. F
A former child soldier with the rebel Hutu militia in Rwanda, Antoine Boshoso Davis flees to Los Angeles, where he is adopted and grows up to join the LAPD as a rookie homicide detective. Then a serial killer goes after LA’s African Americans, slaughtering dozens with a machete. Uh oh. For Davis, this feels too much like déj√† vu as what began as a standard police procedural deepens into an intense psychological tale. Fans of Unknown Soldier, an excellent thriller about war-torn Uganda (see the 2011 link below), will enjoy this as well. Sample art and a write-up here.

Vanistendael, Judith. Dance by the Light of the Moon. SelfMadeHero. 2010. 152p. tr. from Flemish by Ina Rilke. ISBN 9781906838171. pap. £14.99. MEMOIR (order from Amazon.uk)
The Belgian Vanistendael fell in love with Abou, a political refugee from Togo, and this moving story of their love affair and marriage touches on family issues, racism, cultural clashes, and torture. Sample her flowing black and white brushwork from this Angoul√™me-nominated work here. SelfMadeHero has been bought by Abrams, so it’s likely more of their line will be distributed directly to the United States.

About Comics

Nama, Adilifu. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. Univ. of Texas. 2011. 180p. illus. bibliog. index. ISBN 9780292726741. pap. $24.95. POPULAR CULTURE
In this long-needed and readable history of black superheroes, Nama (African American studies, Loyola Marymount Univ.) devotes attention to lesser-known characters like Nubia and Icon as well as biggies like Luke Cage and Black Panther, considering them within their cultural contexts. He also discusses black superheroes in film and how real-life African American celebrities like President Obama and Muhammad Ali have been incorporated into the comic book world.

Mason, Andy. What’s So Funny? Under the Skin of South African Cartooning. Double Storey Pubs. 2011. 256p. illus. ISBN 9781770130715. pap. $24.95. GRAPHIC ARTS
A history of South African cartooning and satirical art, with an autobiographical slant augmented by interviews with many cartoonists. Mason is a professional cartoonist and teaches cartooning at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa.

BlackImagesintheComicsUse Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History MonthStrömberg, Fredrik. Black Images in the Comics. Fantagraphics. May 2012. 296p. illus. bibliog. ISBN 9781606995624. pap. $19.99. GRAPHIC ARTS
First published by Fantagraphics in 2003 and nominated for an Eisner Award, this history of racial depictions in comics has been updated in both its content and its source list. Over 100 entries, each featuring a representative illustration and an instructive short essay, cover an international range of comics, from Moon Mullins through Tintin, Will Eisner, R. Crumb, Peanuts, Boondocks, and beyond. Strömberg is a Swedish comics journalist, editor, and educator who has published numerous books in several languages.

Note: For more African American comics, see previous African American History Month short takes:

2011

2010

2009

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Martha Cornog About Martha Cornog

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

Comments

  1. thecrayongirl says:

    Jerry Craft is an amazing inspiration and in addition to his fabulous art work, the underlying message to his incredible story lines puts the world in perspective for children and aedults alike. Cheers Mr. Craft

  2. Troy Johnson says:

    Nice list Martha I will definitely share with my readers.

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