Graphic Novels for African American History Month

“The Comic Book That Changed the World” was what congressional aide and graphic novelist Andrew Aydin (coauthor, March) titled his master’s thesis. In 1957, an interfaith peace group called the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) published a comic book on Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott—Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story—to spread the message across the South about nonviolent civil rights activism. The comic was distributed widely and inspired future Congressman John Lewis during the 1950s and afterward, most recently leading him to collaborate with Aydin on March (see review below). Yet the work has had influence far beyond the United States. A Spanish-language version has inspired nonviolent social action in South America, and an Arabic translation helped fuel recent Egyptian activism. The comic book is online here, and FOR has partnered with March publisher Top Shelf to offer reprints for $5 starting in May. March itself has received wide acclaim and below joins 18 other recent titles that should appeal to your patrons.

armyofGod021114Axe, David (text) & Tim Hamilton (illus.). Army of God: Joseph Kony’s War in Central Africa. PublicAffairs. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9781610392990. pap. $14.99. CURRENT EVENTS/HISTORY
A charismatic Acholi Ugandan spurred by “visits from spirits,” Joseph Kony has led his Lord’s Resistance Army of rebels since the mid-1980s in countless brutal raids against civilian villages. Throughout Uganda, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the Central African Republic, Kony’s disciples have raped and kidnapped thousands of young people and children, forcing them to serve the rebels and become killers themselves. Army of God provides vignettes about the history, victims, victimizers, and would-be saviors in Kony’s sweep of terror, with detailed source notes. See War Brothers, below, for a fictionalized account from a young victim’s perspective. For teens and adults.

Bollers, Karl (text) & Rick Leonardi & Larry Stroman (illus.). Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black. New Paradigm Studios. 2013. 141p. ISBN 9781939516015. pap. $16.99. F
Former parajumper medic Watson is a hulking Afghanistan war vet, while ex-programmer Holmes sports dreadlocks, fedora, brilliant deduction ability, and a photographic memory. Set in Harlem, this breakthrough vision of Arthur Conan Doyle’s duo succeeds with fine writing, dead-on art, and moody coloring. For high school age and adults. (LJ 1/14)

downsetfight021114Bowers, Chad & Chris Sims (text) & Scott Kowalchuk (illus.). Down. Set. Fight! Oni. 2014. 144p. ISBN 9781620101162. pap. $19.99. F
“Fearless” Chuck Fairlane threw away a promising football career when he started a huge brawl after a winning game by punching the losing team’s mouthy mascot. He had reasons, though—mostly having to do with his no-good father. Now years later as a high school coach he’s being targeted for a bruising by costumed mascots from all over. Is it just payback or something more complicated? Crack FBI Agent Molly Harrison would sure like to find out and so would Chuck. With plenty of action, tongue-in-cheek humor, and a message about honesty, this graphic novel would appeal especially strongly to young men, teen and older.

Brockett, V.J. (text & illus.). Gesso Squad: The Graphic Novel. Vol. 1: 1,000 Star Demons and a Rain God. CreateSpace. 2013. 154p. ISBN 9781491090138. pap. $19.50. F
A series of graphic novels for tweens designed to teach multicultural art history, the Gesso Squad’s escapades are up to seven volumes. “Gesso” is a white paint mixture used as an under layer for artwork and serves as an apt name for this group of high school students with powers whose adventures relate to art and artifacts. Anthropomorphic animals, aliens, and oddball demons complicate the lighthearted stories. Brockett’s colorful, simple art is likely to inspire DIY creativity, and all books have discussion questions keyed to chapters.

Brooks, Max (text) & Caanan White (illus.). The Harlem Hellfighters. Broadway: Crown. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780307464972. pap. $16.95. F/HISTORY
They ended up fighting for France because the American Expeditionary Forces refused to use them. After training in South Carolina where they suffered much racism and discrimination, the first African American troops to fight in World War I were sent to Europe but put to work as stevedores and day laborers. Only when the overwhelmed French army begged for help did the United States release the all-“colored” 369th regiment for combat—under the oversight of the French command. Ultimately, one of the fiercest and most decorated units of the war, they earned the nickname “Harlem Hellfighters,” from the Germans, not the Allies. Brooks (World War Z; The Zombie Survival Guide) based the lightly fictionalized and heavily researched account on both true events and real-life people. White’s stark black-and-white artwork gives the violence the immediacy of a newsreel. For high school age and adults. (LJ 3/15/14)

blindcorners021114Johnson, Jemir (text) & Luis Sierra & Winston Blakely (illus.). Blind Corners. 2013. 102p. ISBN 9780981827834.
Johnson, Jemir Robert (text) & Luis Sierra & others (illus.). Five Shots. 2008. 100p. ISBN 9780981827803.
ea. vol: Creative Elamentz Studios. pap. $6.95. F
Jocasta “Jay” Nova can read minds, which does help with her private eye business, but it hurts like hell. She’s also a dead shot and wire-taut both mentally and physically. These street lit short story collections drop Jay and her partner Randy into familiar urban territory: deals gone sour, crime syndicates, missing people, deceptions unmasked, the wrong secrets falling into the wrong hands. In Jay’s world of hip-hop noir, violence isn’t the best answer but usually the only one. While the black-and-white art as well as the print quality can be inconsistent, Jay succeeds as a kick-ass heroine who works both sides of the law and wades through danger like it’s just dirty water. For adult fans of urban crime fiction.

march021114Lewis, John & Andrew Aydin (text) & Nate Powell (illus.). March. Bk. 1. Top Shelf. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9781603093002. pap. $14.95. MEMOIR/HISTORY
Artist Powell blogged that Congressman Lewis “is the sole surviving member of the ‘Big Six’ of the Civil Rights movement…was integral in the historic marches from Selma to Montgomery, and generally helped smack institutionalized white supremacy in the nuts and changed the face of 20th-century American Society.” Lewis’s personal journey took him from unpaved back roads in 1940s Alabama to the halls of Congress and Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. Two more volumes are coming, and a teacher’s guide is available. A hero’s story with nuanced, evocative art. Great for teens and adults and fine for tweens as well. (LJ 7/13)

McKay, Sharon E. (text) & Daniel Lafrance (illus.). War Brothers: The Graphic Novel. Annick Pr. 2013. 176p. ISBN 9781554514885. pap. $18.95. F/CURRENT EVENTS
Fourteen-year-old Jacob is sent to a Ugandan seminary school, to prepare for university enrollment with a major in mathematics. But Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army guerrillas murder the school’s teachers and kidnap the youngsters, forcing them to join the rebels and kill—or be maimed or killed themselves. Jungle hazards like lions and crocodiles threaten them as well. Jacob struggles to keep his humanity and eventually escapes with several other children, although their horrific experiences will forever haunt them. But thousands more child soldiers in Africa and elsewhere remain victims and will be murdered or become murderers. Based on McKay’s award-winning YA novel, which in turn is based on real-life accounts of Ugandan children, and drawn with evocative, somber art, this graphic novel is for teens and up. (SLJ 3/13)

theartofglamour021114Matt Baker: The Art of Glamour. TwoMorrows. 2012. 192p. ed. by Jim Amash & Eric Nolen-Weatherington. ISBN 9781605490328. $39.95. GRAPHIC ARTS
Although he died at the young age of 38, artist Baker built a solid reputation in the 1940s and 1950s for drawing gorgeous, adventurous women, dynamic action stories, and romance comics. Baker redesigned Phantom Lady, an early crime-fighting heroine said to be the inspiration for Watchmen’s Silk Spectre character. He also penciled It Rhymes with Lust, a so-called “picture novel”  more than 100 pages long before “graphic novels” became commonplace. This tribute volume includes essays, interviews, plenty of illustrations, several complete stories, and an annotated checklist of Baker’s oeuvre.

Mauer, Marc (text) & Sabrina Jones (illus.). Race To Incarcerate: A Graphic Retelling. New Pr. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9781595585417. pap. $17.95. CRIMINAL JUSTICE
This adaptation of Mauer’s complex book cuts to the main points about disparities and toxic effects of U.S. imprisonment practices since the 1970s. A number of prisoners and their sentence lengths have greatly increased, although incarceration may be an unjust and ineffective remedy in many cases. Moreover, an “us vs. them” vision has contributed to racial inequalities throughout the correctional system. Current trends do suggest a promising shift toward better sentencing plus increased programs in crime prevention and reentry counseling. Back matter includes resources for donating books to prisoners and connecting with prisoner pen pals. Mauer is executive director of the Sentencing Project. Skillful black-and-white visuals from Jones (Isadora Duncan; contributor, Wobblies!; Studs Terkel’s Working) add clarity and vividness to complex issues. Tweens, teens, and adults interested in social issues will all learn from this. (LJ 3/1/13)

sciencefiction021114Ollmann, Joe (text & illus.). Science Fiction. Conundrum. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9781894994750. pap. $18. F
Author/artist of the painfully hilarious Mid-Life, Ollmann introduces a younger couple who are doing fine—maybe—until Mark becomes convinced that he was abducted by aliens as a child. Suddenly the pair hit a huge obstacle. As Mark spirals down into paranoia and Sue into unbelieving despair, we see that the story is a parable. Life can hit you with something totally alien from what you expected. How do you keep going? Ollmann provides no solution but plenty of food for thought. The bold, sepia-enhanced art supports his uncanny and unprettified skill at depicting relationships.


Parent, Dan (text & illus.). Archie’s Valentine: A Rock & Roll Romance. Archie Comics. (Archie & Friends All-Stars). 2014. 104p. ISBN 9781936975334. pap. $10.99. F
Suppose Archie Andrews chooses not Betty or Veronica but the sassy Josie McCoy, bassist and head of the high school band Josie and the Pussycats. In this alternate “let’s imagine” window into the Archie universe, the pair fell in love because Josie’s band shared a multicity tour with Archie’s band (see The Archies & Josie and the Pussycats, 2011). Now the musical couple tie the marriage knot and face the dramas of rock-band life, reality TV, and new daughter Star—who lives up to her name. For tweens and up.

hiphopfamilytree021114Piskor, Ed (text & illus.). Hip Hop Family Tree. Vol. 1: 1970s–1981. Fantagraphics. 2013. 112p. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781606996904. pap. $24.99. MUSIC
Once upon a time in the 1970s, platter-jockeys playing LP records for parties began mix-mastering the instrumental “breaks” to please beat-happy crowds. Soon emcees started superimposing verbal showmanship and rhyming over the instrumentals. These innovations were slow to find backing in the recording industry—even some of the artists thought that appeal came only from live performances. But they were wrong. Piskor tells this history in primary-color art recalling 1970s comic books and includes portraits of a hundred hip-hop artists and supporters. (LJ 11/15/13)

Tarantino, Quentin (text) & R.M. Guéra & others (illus.). Django Unchained. Vertigo. 2013. 264p. adapted by Reginald Hudlin. ISBN 9781401241933. $24.99. F
A freed slave packing serious heat to save his wife from an evil plantation owner: What could be more compelling, or more—sad to say—American? Hudlin adapted Tarantino’s untrimmed original script rather than the film itself, so there are parts here that didn’t get into the movie that may attract those who have seen it as well as those who have not. There’s also blood-soaked savagery, sex, and plenty of snappy dialog. Older teens and up. (LJ 1/14)

martinlutherking021114Teitelbaum, Michael & Lewis Helfand (text) & Sankha Banerjee (illus.). Martin Luther King Jr.: Let Freedom Ring. Campfire. (Heroes). 2013. 88p. ISBN 9789380028699. pap. $11.99. BIOG
This straightforward and realistically drawn biography follows Dr. King from his protected childhood in a Southern black middle-class neighborhood, through the much nastier dilemmas of living in the 1950s segregated South, and to his education and growing maturity. Grounding himself in the teachings of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, he rose in the civil rights movement to lead both blacks and whites in a series of effective protests that brought the racial climate of the United States much further from its slaver legacy. At least three other graphic biographies pay tribute to King: Ho Che Anderson’s lengthier, more nuanced, and more adult King: A Comics Biography, Arthur Flowers & Manu Chitrakar’s lyrical and artistically unique I See the Promised Land, and T.S. Lee’s The Martin Luther King, Jr. Story, styled for elementary school–age readers. Teitelbaum and Helfand’s biography works for middle school through adult audiences.

Whitley, Jeremy (text) & Emily Martin (illus.). Princeless. Bk. 2: Get Over Yourself. Action Lab Entertainment. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9780985965242. pap. $14.95. F
Spunky Princess Adrienne has escaped her tower imprisonment by dressing as a knight and persuading her guardian dragon—a fellow female—to be her getaway steed. Now she’s off to rescue her sister Princess Angelica from another tower. But the beautiful Angelica has turned into a major league diva with a whole village of admirers, and she doesn’t want to give up their adulation. Moreover, the girls’ father-the-king has sent a whole bunch of knights after Adrienne, while their mother-the-queen has disappeared under mysterious circumstances. With exuberant full-color art, Whitley and Martin’s tongue-in-cheek adventures of girl power and skullduggery will appeal to kids and adults, too. Whitley has several more volumes lined up as the plot gets darker and even more interesting.

Whittenberger, Mike (text) & Delia Gable (illus.). A Ninja Named Stan. Arcana. 2012. 102p. ISBN 9781771350020. pap. $14.95. F
Stanley Kidderick bills himself as a “ninja PI,” but he’s not very good at either ninjaing or private investigating. And Officer Andrea Zuwowski hasn’t exactly hit her professional stride at the NYPD. But good intentions plus inventiveness plus mutual attraction give the couple the edge over the crooks—who aren’t real savvy themselves. This slapstick urban rom-com will appeal to mid-teens and up. Light violence, occasional bawdy references, and salty language.

For more short takes of graphic novels for African American History Month:

2013: 28 Graphic Novels to Celebrate African American History Month | Graphic Novels Short Takes 

2012: Stories Beyond Black and White: 25 Graphic Novels for African American History Month

2011: Short Takes: 27 Graphic Novels for African American History Month

2010: From Aya to Zapt! 24 Graphic Novels for African American History Month

2009: Holy Black History Month!: 23 Graphic Novels Featuring African Americans



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).


  1. Tessa B says:

    I found that War Brothers by Sharon McKay and Daniel Lafrance was a really great historical fiction take on Kony’s child army, with appropriately rough art and a lot of teen appeal – and a more nuanced take on the subject – it was a Top Ten Great Graphic Novel for Teens and an honoree from the In the Margins Committee as well!

    • Martha Cornog says:

      Tessa, thank you for mentioning the recent honors that the War Brothers graphic novel has received.