Short Takes: 27 Graphic Novels for African American History Month

The past year was a good one for African American-themed comics. Traditional publishers as well as the comics industry have come out with plentiful and quality reads across age brackets. A few backlist titles are also included below. The Glyph Awards celebrate outstanding comics made by, for, and about people of color, and as a Glyph judge this year, I’m being swamped with submissions. Bring ’em on!

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Love, Jeremy (text) & Robert Love (illus.). Shadow Rock. Dark Horse. 2006. 80p. ISBN 9781593073473. pap. $9.95. F
After his mother’s death, young Timothy London moves to the fishing town of Shadow Rock to live with his father. Bullying peers and uncaring adults complicate his adjustment, but he finds a new friend in the ghost of Kendahl Fog, a boy who was murdered in the local lighthouse. Naturally, Timothy and the ghost team up to unravel the mystery behind Kendahl’s murder. Ages nine and up.

Smith, Charles R. (text) & Shane W. Evans (illus.). Black Jack: The Ballad of Jack Johnson. Roaring Brook Pr. 2010. 40p. ISBN 9781596434738. $16.99. BIOG
This vivid picture book pairs concise rhythmic verse with bold colors and simple drawings to tell of Jack Johnson’s winning of the heavyweight boxing crown in spite of pre-civil rights racism. For children and tweens.


Aristophane. The Zabime Sisters. First Second. 2010. 96p. tr. from French by Matt Madden. ISBN 9781596436381. pap. $16.99. F
Three teen sisters begin a coming-of-age summer, immersed in the flexible and sometimes unthinkingly cruel interactions of growing up: rivalries, teasing, boys’ fights, and petty thievery. What’s different: M’Rose, Elle, Celine, and their families live on the lush Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, captured in bold black-and-white brushwork art. This translation should appeal to fans of the popular Aya. Back matter includes an afterword and a discussion guide. Teens and up.

Campbell, Ross. Shadoweyes. Vol. 1. SLG Pub. 2010. 204p. ISBN 9781593621896. pap. $14.95. F
In a future dystopia, a wannabe teen vigilante morphs into a superhuman creature who rescues a younger girl from a zombie. The plot/character/art combo has earned high marks from several reviewers and is a Great Graphic Novel for Teens nominee. Campbell wrote and drew Water Baby (DC/Minx). Teens and up.

Canada, Geoffrey (text) & Jamar Nicholas (adapt. & illus.). Fist Stick Knife Gun; A Personal History of Violence: A True Story in Black and White. Beacon. 2010. 144p. ISBN 9780807044490. pap. $15. AUTOBIOG
The original of this brutally honest 1995 memoir of a Bronx, NY, childhood earned raves from reviewers as well as from Oprah, who called Canada “an angel from God.” Canada is president and CEO of Harlem Children’s Zone, a model for the Obama-Biden “Promise Neighborhoods” designed to assist urban areas with high crime and low student academic achievement. Nicholas’s adaptation focuses on the personal end of Canada’s message, and his thoroughly apt art has just the right lived-in yet edgy feel. A Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominee, for tweens up.

Flowers, Arthur (text) & Manu Chitrakar & Guglielmo Rossi (illus.). I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. Tara Bks., dist. by Consortium. 2010. 138p. ISBN 9789380340043. $16.95. BIOG
Self-dubbed a “performance poet” fusing the African oral tradition of the griot with Western print culture, Flowers (Another Good Loving Blues; Mojo Rising) weaves King’s story into the vivid canvas of Chitrakar’s distinctive West Bengali art. The approach is more picture-story than a traditional comic, with endnotes providing brief historical background. The Flowers/Chitrakar collaboration supplies fresh color and richness to the oft-told history of this game-changer and sticks in the emotional brain as much as in the intellect. Designed for adults but fine for teens up.

Lagos, Alexander & Joseph Lagos (text) & Steve Walker (illus.). The Sons of Liberty. Vol. 1. Random House Books for Young Readers. 2010. 176p. ISBN 9780375856709. pap. $12.99. F
In pre-Revolutionary War America, runaway slaves Graham and Brody head north toward an abolitionist rescuer but get duped into serving as lab rats for the electrical experiments of Benjamin Franklin’s wild-eyed son, William. Somehow they end up with superpowers instead of death certificates, willing and able to ruin their former slave master and support the colonists’ rebellion against the British. Volume 2 is due in July. A Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominee, for tweens and up.

Neri, G. (text) & Randy DuBurke (illus.). Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty. Lee & Low Bks. 2010. 96p. ISBN 9781584302674. pap. $16.95. BIOG
“So young to kill, so young to die” read the 1994 Time magazine cover with Yummy’s photo. Yummy was an actual 11-year-old Chicago kid, sucked all-too-readily into the Black Disciples gang where he was given a gun and sent on small jobs. But Yummy was shot dead by his own gang after he attracted unwanted police attention for accidentally killing a teen girl. Neri’s re-creation paints a compelling and sympathetic portrait of a youngster too eager to please the wrong people, and DuBurke (Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography) provides skilled, semi-photo-ish inks and shadows. A Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominee, for tweens and up.

O’Neil, Denny & Neil Adams (text) & Neal Adams (illus.). Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition. DC. 2010. 96p. ISBN 9781401228415. $19.99. F
Another pairing of a little real with a lot of unreal, this collectors-item team-up first appeared in 1978. Although the two good guys are on the same side, the psychopathic emperor of the alien Scrubbs demands they fight each other so the winner can fight the Scrubb champion. The prize: survival of earth. The denouement gets quite inventive when Superman and Ali hatch a plot together involving switched identities and feigned skills interspersed with the expected intergalactic heroics. Extras include sketches and commentary. Teens and up

Poe, Marshall (text) & Ellen Lindner (illus.). Little Rock Nine. Aladdin. (Turning Points). 2008. 128p. ISBN 9781416950660. pap. $7.99. F
It’s 1957, and the Supreme Court has ordered Little Rock High School to integrate. But the community is divided on the issue. Caught in the middle, teens Will and Thomas wrestle with the social implications in the context of their own lives and their mutual friendship: Will is the white son of a local attorney and Thomas the Black son of the attorney’s domestic help. Black-and-white semirealistic art with period details; for tweens and up.


Alcante (text) & Vujadin Radovanovic (illus.). Pandora’s Box. Vol. 2: Sloth. 2009. ISBN 9781849180061.
Alcante (text) & Steven Dupré (illus.). Pandora’s Box. Vol. 3: Gluttony. 2010. ISBN 9781849180191.
ea. vol: Cinebook. 48p. tr. from French by Jerome Saincantin. pap. $11.95. F
The Pandora’s Box series presents the seven deadly sins, plus hope, via eight timely parables mixing mythology with modern life. In Sloth, we meet African American Olympic sprinter Paris Troy, who yearns for yet one more gold medal-perhaps possible through under-the-counter steroids. Gluttony introduces Teze Egée, an Ethiopian orphan adopted by the Health Minister of France who later appoints his grown son as director of a food safety agency. Unfortunately, Egée’s efforts to control a deadly outbreak of mad cow disease uncover a trail of profiteering implicating his adopted father. Alcante’s considerable plotting skills consistently se
rve up unexpected outcomes, always tragic in some way yet satisfying, with clear-line color art. The series makes excellent fodder for ethics discussions in and out of classrooms. High school age and up.

Arnold, J.D. (text) & Richard Koslowski (illus.). BB Wolf & The 3 LPs. Top Shelf. 2010. ISBN 9781603090292. 96p. $14.95. F
In purportedly the real story behind the nursery tale, good-guy farmer and blues musician BB Wolf’s just keeping his family together when the greedheads at Littlepig Industries try to grab the wolves’ land. After the pigs burn his farm and family with it, BB’s bloody revenge slashes through local swinish officialdom. Here we have another inventive remix of classic characters, this time a parable of racism with the pigs as the bad guys. The excellent noirish black-and-white art has all the punch of political cartoons. High school age and up.

Benson, Mike & Adam Glass (text) & Shawn Martinbrough (illus.). Luke Cage Noir. Marvel. 2010. 112p. ISBN 9780785139423. $19.99. F
The reboot of Marvel’s Luke Cage character as a Prohibition-era heavy packs major wallops in both story and action scenes, and Martinbrough’s excellent Glyph Award-winning art delivers satisfying myth through a lens of Harlem-based historical accuracy. Released unexpectedly from prison, Cage is hired almost immediately to find the murderer of a rich white man’s wife but uncovers a tightly knit plot against him that pulls in his supposedly dead pre-prison girlfriend, several old Harlem cronies, the rich man’s pretty mistress, and the son Cage didn’t know he had. Best for adult collections but suitable for older teens. See LJ‘s original review here. See also Angeltown, below.

Black Comix: African American Independent Comics Art and Culture. Mark Batty. 2010. 175p. ed. by Damian Duffy & John Jennings. index. ISBN 9780984190652. $45. GRAPHIC ARTS
This sumptuous color anthology from nearly 50 artists invites enjoyment and admiration. Some 17 short essays provide background and perspective. The editors run a blog and a Facebook page related to Black comics.

Chin-Tanner, Tyler & others. Adrenaline. A Wave Blue World. 2009. 216p. ISBN 9780982453902. pap. $19.95. F (order from or from an online book vendor)
Riffing on the reality TV craze, Adrenaline tracks two teams competing in an adventure-based obstacle course that starts with a car race and ends up on mountain peaks. But the real conflict is between the project leader, egomaniac rich-boy Alex Lowder, and his unwilling collaborator, Saida Nri, a courageous and fiery African doctor looking to bail out her underfunded health clinic. By the end, an unexpected third team has picked up the prize money, and Lowder gets much-needed lessons in teamwork. High school age and up.

Díaz Canales, Juan (text) & Juanjo Guarnido (illus.). Blacksad. Dark Horse. 2010. 184p. ISBN 9781595823939. $20.99. F
This European-original noir thriller set in 1950s America stars a cast of anthropomorphic animals, with the dirty-handed PI hero an impeccably trench-coated black cat. John Blacksad’s lost love is inexplicably murdered, a misinterpreted killing rocks a white supremacist movement, and a coterie of radical intelligentsia crosses agendas with a version of Commie-hunter Joe McCarthy. With evocative character renditions, draftsmanship, and painted colors, the extraordinary art simply takes the breath away. Violence and appropriately contextualized sex make this for adult collections.

Dysart, Joshua (text) & Alberto Ponticelli (illus.). Unknown Soldier. Vol. 3: Dry Season. DC: Vertigo. 2010. 144p. ISBN 9781401228552. pap. $14.99. F
Harvard-trained doctor Moses Lwanga heads back to Uganda, his birthplace, to help refugees caught in the civil war mayhem. But despite his pacifist intentions, the conflict calls forth from within him an alternate persona that knows how to kill with almost superhuman ability and goes after the rebels and profiteers perpetuating the tragedy. This excellent series reeks of realistic horror in, for example, depicting deformed and wounded African children while conveying the stark beauty of the country as well as the complexities of international politics. The story took an Eisner nomination and a Glyph Award and concludes with Volume 4 this May. Adult collections.

Eichler, Glenn (text) & Nick Bertozzi (illus.). Stuffed! First Second. 2009. 124p. ISBN 9781596433083. pap. $17.99. F
In this thoughtful comedy about family and race, Tim inherits an actual stuffed African from his late SOB father. Wanting to do the right thing, Tim takes his African to Howard, a black curator at his local museum. As they concoct a plan for repatriating Tim’s artifact to Africa, complications emerge through the whims of Tim’s uninhibited hippie half-brother and through intra-African politics. A parable of clashing stereotypes and clichés illustrating how well-intentioned people with different agendas can easily run each other into walls. Bertozzi’s art perfectly depicts human imperfections. High school age and up.

Green, Martin I. & Jeff Young (text) & Bill Sienkiewicz. Voodoo Child: The Illustrated Legend of Jimi Hendrix. Penguin Studio Books. 1995. 128p. ISBN 9780670867899. Price varies with audio CD. BIOG (order from online resale or used book vendors)
Nine hundred color panels of intense, fluid multi-media art illuminate facts and, more prominently, quotes from Hendrix’s personal writings to form a “speculative fantasy” biography of the innovative but short-lived electric guitarist known for “Hey Joe” and “Purple Haze.” The gorgeous, dream-like images carry a sense of his music as he performed it. This edition includes a 30-minute CD of previously unreleased Hendrix recordings.

Johnson, Mat (text) & Simon Gane (illus.). Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story. Vertigo: DC. 2010. 160p. ISBN 9781401221607. $24.99. F
A couple of petty criminals bunked together in a halfway house decide to take advantage of the post-Katrina chaos to rob a bank-Dabny to raise money for child support and Emmit just for the money. But the shady security firm that’s supposed to ease them into New Orleans just cuts them out of the action, and they find themselves enmeshed in the city’s misery with everyone else. Skillful noir storytelling in a crisis setting, with black-and-white art enhanced by judicious blue wash. Johnson wrote the well-received Incognegro (2008). Older teens and adults.

McDuffie, Dwayne (text) & Denys Cowan & J.J. Birch (illus.). Hardware: The Man in the Machine. DC. 2010. 192p. ISBN 9781401225988. pap. $19.99. F
Rich benefactor Edwin Alva discovers brilliant kid Curtis Metcalf, educating him and then hiring him to work for Alva Industries. But Metcalf’s smarts lead him to discover Alva’s cold-blooded involvement in organized crime, and Alva’s top-level alliances place the man above the usual processes of justice. So to bring Alva down, Metcalf creates Hardware, an alter ego equipped with ultra-tech weaponry. Hardware was the first superhero originated by Milestone Comics, an organization founded to produce racially diverse stories, and this volume collects Hardware #1-8 from the early 1990s. McDuffie crafts a complex tale with unexpected subtleties, and Cowan’s art sells the gadget-rich combat with satisfying whomps. Teens and up.

McDuffie, Dwayne (text) & various artists. Icon. Vol. 2: The Mothership Connection. DC. 2010. 256p. ISBN 9781401227111. pap. $24.99. F
An alien that crash-landed on Earth and shape-shifted to resemble a human infant, the adult now known as Augustus Freeman has used his superpowers quietly for small humanitarian efforts over two centuries. Then a street teen convinces him to turn pro as a superhero named Icon and take her on as partner. In this volume, Icon’s alien colleagues want to bring him home to another galaxy. Now partner Rocket decides to find another hero on Earth and groom him to fill Icon’s boots, settling on an unlikely candidate: a brain-damaged mercenary with a blaxploitation persona.

Nelson, Arvid (text) & Matt Camp (illus.). Zero Killer. Dark Horse. 2010. 160p. ISBN 9781595825315. pap. $16.99. F
In a gang-ridden, postapocalyptic New York City, mercenary/bounty hunter Zero gets tangled up in a mission from a mysterious overseas operation that he hopes will get him back to Africa, the only part of the world spared from nuclear devastation. The art with its realistic renderings of hand-to-hand combat reminded one reviewer of the Akira anime. Adult collections.


Nelson, Michael Alan & Andrew Cosby (text) & Christian DiBari (illus.). Pale Horse. BOOM! Studios. Mar. 2011. 112p. ISBN 9781608860371. pap. $14.99. F
Lone Wolf and Cub
played out in the 1860s West, with bad-ass Thomas Cole as a black man with son in tow, taking revenge for the murder of his Native American wife. Cole is an ex-slave and former Union spy/soldier, so he’s well equipped to leave no trail unbloodied. Adult collections.

Phillips, Gary (text) & Shawn Martinbrough (illus.). Angeltown: The Nate Hollis Investigations. Moonstone. Feb. 2011. 176p. ISBN 9781933076881. $19.95. F
A master of black and white, Martinbrough did the art for the excellent Luke Cage Noir (see above). Angeltown reprints a 2005 Vertigo miniseries about a cool private eye’s frantic search for a pro hoopster up to his eyeballs in sex scandals. Also included: several illustrated prose stories with more West Coast lowlifes on full display. Adult collections.

Sava, Scott Christian (text) & Tracy Bailey (illus.). Magic Carpet. IDW. Jan. 2011. 110p. ISBN 9781600105630. pap. $11.99. F
With three brothers and sisters in their small house, Kevin has no room of his own and yearns for a little personal space. He gets his wish, alright-and it’s space on his very own magic carpet, which sends him off on adventures. Magic, monsters, and a princess follow, of course. All ages, with charming cover art. Sava wrote The Dreamland Chronicles. Tweens and possibly younger.

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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).