21 Illustrated Books for African American History Month | Graphic Novels Short Takes

In 2014, the comics world saw a new focus on diversity. No fewer than four panels on African American comics were held at the New York Comic Con, and even the tiny Philadelphia-based Locust Moon Comics Festival included a panel on Hip-Hop and Comics. For rapper Schoolly D, “It was a requirement in my family that everybody do painting, drawing, poetry.” Another “origin story” came from Locust Moon panelist artist Eric Orr: “When I was a kid, my parents used to pick up the Sunday paper on the way to church. So I’d hunker down in the back pew and read the comics. But my parents got wise and started picking up the paper after church.”

Superhero comics–wise, we now have a black/Latino Spider-Man, a black Captain America, and a black president Superman. Badass detective John Shaft, created by Ernest Tidyman, has been revived from novels and screen and reworked for comics. Films have been announced that will feature the Black Panther, Ultimate Nick Fury, a black Johnny Storm (Fantastic Four), and Cyborg, while television series will also star Nick Fury as well as Luke Cage and Static (Static Shock). Two widely acclaimed nonfiction graphic novels have gone into Volume 2: Congressman John Lewis’s autobiographical March, Book 1 (LJ 7/13) and Book 2 (LJ Xpress Reviews, 1/23/15), and Ed Piskor’s historically colorful Hip Hop Family Tree (LJ 11/15/13).

An appreciative shout-out to comicbookresources.com, which has run Joseph Phillip Illidge’s “The Mission,” a thoughtful column about diversity, and Brian Cronin’s Month of African American Comics. In the publishing industry overall, the We Need Diverse Books campaign has attracted a good deal of support and media coverage. In her School Library Journal article “How Diverse Are Comics and Graphic Novels?” Brigid Alverson concluded, “From here, there is no going back.” More diverse characters equals more—and more diverse—readers and wider literacy. Onward to stories to entertain and inspire! Here are 21 titles to share with your patrons.

Abouet, Marguerite (text) & Mathieu Sapin (illus.). Akissi: Feline Invasion. Flying Eye. 2013. 44p. ISBN 9781909263017. $14.95. F
This charming children’s comedy written by Abouet, well known for the “Aya” series about an enterprising teen from the Côte d’Ivoire, tells of Akissi, a mischievous little girl from West Africa. In this story Akissi attempts to deliver fish to a village woman, but hungry cats grab her prize. Then she tries (incompetently) to care for a neighbor’s baby, lets her pet monkey Boubou get out of control, and continually causes trouble for her older brother Fofana. Bright color art similar to that in Aya but rounder and more childlike. Age six and up. (SLJ 11/1/13)

Bendis, Brian Michael (text) & Sara Pichelli (illus.). Spider-Men. Marvel. 2013. 128p. ISBN 9780785165347. pap. $19.99. F
spidermen12915In the alternative universe of the “Ultimate Spider-Man” series, Spider-Man Peter Parker is killed. The sequel series “Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man” introduces 13-year-old Miles Morales, an African American/Hispanic youngster who reluctantly steps into the webslinger’s shoes after being bitten by an experimentally altered spider himself. This Spider-Men stand-alone begins when the villain Mysterio accidentally sends the Peter Parker from the main Marvel universe through an interdimensional portal to Miles’s universe. There the two Spider-Men must work together to fight Mysterio, close the portal, and send Peter back home. Bendis’s lively writing and Pichelli’s fluid, realist art keep the story engaging. See also “Miles Morales: The Ultimate Spider-Man,” a new series from Bendis and various artists that follows “Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man.” For teens and up.

Bieser, Scott (text & illus.). Quantum Vibe. Vol. 2: Murphy. Big Head. 2014. 172p. ISBN 9780985316754. pap. $19.95. F
Originally a webcomic, this lively space opera stars Nicole Orasme, a brilliant tawny-skinned techie with two gal sidekicks: Murphy, an android sex slave, and Buford, a hulking beltape (genetically engineered hominid). Through cleverly written adventures and near disasters, the trio help genius inventor Seamus O’Murchada with his mysterious project despite enemy interference. Bieser gleefully blends countless ingredients into the story, from sf stereotypes to class-based dialects to references evoking history, mythology, and pop culture. This semirealistic picaresque series should be especially enjoyable to new adults. Some sexual content. (LJ 8/14)

Brooks, Max (text) & Caanan White (illus.). The Harlem Hellfighters. Broadway: Crown. 2014. 256p. ISBN 9780307464972. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780804140331. F/HISTORY
harlemhellfighters032814After training in South Carolina where they suffered much racism and discrimination, the first black troops to fight in World War I were sent to Europe but put to work as stevedores and day laborers. The American Expeditionary Forces refused to use them for combat. Only when the overwhelmed French Army begged for help did the United States release the all-“colored” 369th regiment into battle but under the oversight of the French command. Ultimately, one of the fiercest and most decorated units of the war, the regiment earned the “Harlem Hellfighters” nickname from the Germans, not the Allies. Brooks’s lightly fictionalized and heavily researched account is based on real-life events and people, and White’s stark black-and-white art gives the violence the immediacy of a newsreel. An LJ 2014 Best Graphic Novel; high school age and adults. (LJ 3/15/14)

Brotherson, Corey (text) & Gergio Calvet (illus.). Magic of Myths. Season 1. Word Press. www.indyplanet.com/front/product/61195/ or www.magicofmyths.com. 2011. 62p. ISBN 9781616301705. pap. $12.99. F
A schoolteacher finds herself in another dimension in magical armor and confronting mysterious adversaries as part of an equally mysterious challenge that begins with five life-threatening labors. Stylized and stylish, the color art elevates heroine Eve to mythological import, while the vague plot allows readers to populate her story with their own struggles. Offhanded references to cultural standbys such as Shakespeare plays and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot lend texture. Season 2 continues the series. For teens and adults.

Colwell, Guy (text & illus.). Inner City Romance. Fantagraphics. Feb. 2015. 208p. ISBN 9781606998137. pap. $24.99. F
These gritty, sometimes hedonistic short stories about multiracial prison and low-income life spare no details of sex, drugs, or radical activism. The original black-and-white series was published in 1972 to 1978 by Last Gasp as part of the “underground comix” tradition and drew praise from fellow underground comikker Robert Crumb. Police brutality, high-rise slums, prisoner reentry, kids’ dilemmas, prostitution, and rape all infuse the plots. One tranquil, wordless sequence follows a couple’s erotic encounter, including when the woman inserts her diaphragm. Colwell himself spent time in prison and used personal experience and observations as starting points for these tales. Includes background essays and color reproductions of other Colwell art. Adults only; good for historical and social justice collections.

Cruté, Jennifer (text & illus.). Jennifer’s Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl. Vol. 1. Rosarium. May 2015. 88p. ISBN 9780990319160. pap. $12.95. MEMOIR
jennifersjournal12915The simple, black-and-white outline art looks “cute,” but the content isn’t for children. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, young Jennifer copes with many challenges: learning to draw, dealing with racial prejudice, having questions about religion, playing with stuffed animals. But she also watches her parents fight pitched battles, meets a half-sister and half-brother from her father’s extramarital affairs, and begins to develop sexual urges and questions. A solid choice for older teens and new adults.

Estler, Thomas (text) & Delilah Buckle & Lizbeth R. Jimenez (illus.). Abolitionista! Abolitionista. 2014. 82p. ISBN 9780615754390. pap. $10. F
Eddie’s a dreamy dude, and he talks a good line, but he seduces young girls into falling in love with him and then pimps them out to other men. This chilling story about human trafficking follows Delilah, Eden, and Jada as they become involved with Eddie and his schemes—and with difficulty break free from the underground world of modern-day slavery. Beautiful manga-style black-and-white art makes the account even more disturbing. No explicit visuals or language. For tweens and teens.

Foster, Bill & Craig Yoe (text) & various (illus.). The Untold History of Black Comic Books. IDW. Mar. 2015. 252p. illus. ISBN 9781631402906. $39.99. GRAPHIC ARTS
untoldhistoryblackcomics12915Presenting seven decades of selections and savvy about black comic books, The Untold History, written by comics scholar Foster (Looking for a Face Like Mine; Dreaming of a Face Like Ours) and comics historian/anthologist Yoe (Alice in Comicland) will both educate and entertain.

Gill, Joel Christian (text & illus.). Bass Reeves: Tales of the Talented Tenth. Bk 1. Fulcrum. 2014. 158p. bibliog. ISBN 9781938486630. pap. $25.95. BIOG
Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves (1838–1910) stars briefly in Strange Fruit, below, and here takes center stage. Born a slave, Reeves learned how to shoot to win money for his Texas master but eventually escaped into Indian territory where he lived with Native Americans until after the Civil War. As one of the first African American lawmen, he developed skill with Indian languages and relationships with the tribes that helped him keep the peace and round up wanted criminals—thousands of them. Gill’s simple color art uses symbols quite effectively: e.g., a cartoonish caricatured face stands in for the word nigger, and a large anthropomorphic “Jim Crow” bird represents the discriminatory white supremacy of the period. Tweens and up. (“The talented tenth” was a phrase used by W.E.B. Du Bois to refer to those African Americans likely to become leaders of their fellows.)

Gill, Joel Christian (text & illus.). Strange Fruit. Vol. I: Uncelebrated Narratives from Black History. Fulcrum. 2014. 176p. bibliog. ISBN 9781938486296. pap. $23.95. HIST
strangefruit13015Nine accounts celebrate lesser-known heroes and stories of African American life from before the Civil War to the early 20th century. Those profiled include magician Richard Potter (1783–1835), chess master Theophilus Thompson (1855–after 1874), bicycle racing champ Marshall “Major” Taylor (1878–1932), and lawman Bass Reeves (1838–1910). Especially moving selections dramatize letters from escaped slave Spottswood Rice attempting to liberate his own children and the sickening tragedy of how the mixed-race settlement on Maine’s Malaga Island was destroyed by mainland officials. Simple and dramatic color art; foreword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. Tweens and up. (SLJ 7/14)

Hamanaka, Sheila (text & illus.) & Lisa Barile & others (illus.). A Dangerous Life. Animal Welfare Inst. & Kenya Wildlife Svc., www.awionline.org/dangerouslife. 2014. 56p. ISBN 9780938414810. pap. $4. F
Amelia’s family made a fortune in the ivory trade years ago, and now the teenager finds herself on an educational safari in Kenya. With fellow student Kai and tour guide Jabari, Amelia learns the real price of ivory-made goods and the value of elephants in the wild. Jabari’s father had been a youthful poacher killed by officials, but his mother, Mwema, became a game warden and bush pilot. Back matter includes a call to action on behalf of elephants and a short section of “elephant facts.” Brightly painted art suggesting picture books; recommended for middle school readers. (One copy free to teachers and libraries.)

Lange, Turner. The Adventures of Wally Fresh: Take the “A” Train. IndyPlanet. order from www.indyplanet.com/front/product/104189. 2010. 230p. ISBN 9781616303310. pap. $16.99. F
Wally’s out of work, and his romance with brainy engineer Bethany has hit the skids, too, plus New York City subway trains keep disappearing. But just maybe he can figure out how they vanished—with a lot of help. In fact, it takes Wally, his roommate Barry, Bethany, and sassy neighbor Valerie to straighten out both the train problem and Wally’s love life. And, oh yes, Barry is a spirit animal—a beaver—and the train problem involves aliens. Lange’s somewhat realistic black-and-white art uses a variety of techniques, including brushwork, halftones, and white on black. Nominated for a Glyph Rising Star Award; older teens and new adults.

McDaniels, Darryl DMC & Damion Scott (text) & various (illus.). DMC. Darryl Makes Comics. (Available at comics shops and from Diamond Book Distributors.) 2014. 74p. ISBN 9780990463603. pap. $19.99. F
McDaniels, nicknamed “DMC,” is a well-known rap artist who grew up immersed in comic books with dreams of creating or starring in one himself. His titular superhero is a mild-mannered junior high teacher who can don jumpsuit, Adidas, and huge DMC signet ring to foil mayhem. In this 1980s-based world, superheroes and vigilantes have sprung up to counter crime. But DMC is the only one to amplify the voices of the marginalized—B-boys, graffiti artists, people recovering from addiction and domestic violence, and a reporter interested in social justice. Although each chapter is by a different artist team, their colorful, kinetic styles work together well, and a real graffiti artist from the period did the graffiti in the story.

Pak, Greg (text) & Victor Ibanez & Matteo Buffagni (illus.). Storm. Vol. 1: Make It Rain. Marvel. Mar. 2015. 112p. ISBN 9780785191612. pap. $15.99. F
Weather mistress Storm is one of the earliest superpowered women of color in comics, first appearing in 1975. This collection will bring together Issues 1–5 of her first ongoing solo series.

Ruliffson, Jess (text & illus.). City Chickens. So What? Pr. www.sowhatpress.com. 2014. 10p. ISBN 9780988724099. pap. $4. URBAN LIFE
In Brooklyn’s racially diverse Crown Heights neighborhood, the Walt L. Shamel Community Garden houses a flock of chickens being raised by the garden directors with help from the Just Food City Chicken Project (www.justfood.org/urban-agriculture-and-markets/city-chicken-project). Ruliffson’s insightful minicomic riffs on urbanites who have never seen a live chicken, closing the gap between producing and consuming, educating locals about keeping chickens in the city, and describing the pleasures of tending to fowl. Realistic black-and-white brushwork drawings; good for urban collections and foodie readers.

anthropologists13015Taylor, Whit (text & illus.). The Anthropologists. Sparkplug. www.sparkplugcomicbooks.com. 2014. 35p. ISBN NA. pap. $6. MEMOIR
Taylor’s study abroad program sent the anthropology major to Australia’s outback for a brief visit. Her local contact was a travel agent with “some nebulous connection” to her academic adviser, and he ferried her and another student to various experiences vaguely related to aboriginal culture. With a fine sense of irony, Taylor lays out her intellectual dilemmas in reconciling her identities as a mixed-race woman, a tourist, and a would-be student of culture contrasted with the very different approaches of the other student and the travel agent. Her simple line art captures the characters dead-on. Teens and adults.


Taylor, Whit (text & illus.). Watermelon…and Other Things That Make Me Uncomfortable as a Black Person. Whimsical Nobody. www.whittaylorcomics.com. 2011. 42p. ISBN NA. pap. $5. MEMOIR
This engaging zine reads like a graphic blog and riffs on racial stereotypes, cross-ethnic controversies, cultural assumptions, and black women’s beauty routines. Lighthearted yet serious, the sketchy and simple pen-work drawings show how the process of creating comics about your own life and concerns is doable and will inspire teens and new adults to try it themselves.

Various (text & illus.). Ending Silence. American Univ., Washington Coll. of Law. Free online www.wcl.american.edu/endsilence/inmate_edu.cfm. 2014. F/CRIMINAL JUSTICE
This educational series of nine short graphic novels is designed to teach inmates and residents in custodial care about sexual abuse and prison rape. Sam Survives addresses youthful inmates in adult correctional settings. The subseries “Ending Silence: Demanding Safety from Sexual Assault” is intended for adult inmates and includes three titles: I Reported (gender nonconforming inmates), Don’t Touch Me (for male inmates), and The Barter (for female inmates). The subseries “End Silence: Youth Speaking Up About Sexual Abuse in Custody” includes five titles geared toward various age-gender audiences. All are drawn in simple, blocky, mostly color art showing skill with facial expressions and emotional nuances. Discussion questions, FAQs, and a facilitator’s guide are also available online, free, as well as videos in Spanish and English. The project was developed with a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice based on the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act. No explicit visuals or language.

Walford, Jerome (text & illus.). Nowhere Man. Vol. 1: You Don’t Know Jack. Bk 1. Forward Comix. 2012. 40p. ISBN 9780988611405. pap. $12. F
Jack Maguire is a police detective bucking for promotion, haunted by his father’s death and trying too hard to prove himself. He is also equipped with limited superpowers. With life also complicated by an undercover romance with his patrol partner, he hasn’t quite understood that his abilities come from a mysterious assassin inhabiting his body, an assassin who has his own agenda. Each volume in the series encompasses three 40- to 50-page bound books; installments up through Volume 2, Book 2, are available. Walford, a Glyph awardee, offers realistic, edgy color art that is comparable to mainstream superhero comics. For older teens and adults.

Wilde, Lisa (text & illus.). Yo Miss: A Graphic Look at High School. Microcosm, dist. by Legato/Perseus. Mar. 2015. 160p. ISBN 9781621062196. pap. $12.95. F
“A school for students for who[m] school hasn’t worked”: yomiss13015that’s the John V. Lindsay Wildcat Academy, a public high school in New York City in which Wilde has taught English for 16 years. In this fictionalized account of one school year, the author paints searing portraits of her students and makes us root for them: probationer William riveting his cellmates with the story of Oedipus; Danny, with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, who calls Wilde “Snowflake”; Jasmine, who has unstable housing and becomes pregnant; Ralphie, who must take over his sick father’s job; Janis, disabled and in a wheelchair. Each has talents and plenty of heart. But everyone has multiple issues amplified by poverty and often marginal home support. Wilde’s scratchy, simple pen-line art works well in representational panels as well as with charts and figurative graphic approaches. This inspiring and heartbreaking read belongs in both teen and adult collections.

For more Short Takes about graphic novels for African American History Month:

2014: 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).