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African-Americans in Graphic Novels

Given a choice between reading a literacy classic and a contemporary fiction book, most of us, including me, would probably choose the contemporary book. But, if I had the choice between reading a classic in text format versus a comics format, depending on what it is, I’d choose the graphics format.

That’s just what you can do right after Christmas when African-American Classics: Graphic Classics Volume 22 comes out, featuring some of America’s best works by Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others. Contemporary black illustrators like Kyle Baker, Shepherd Hendrix and Jeremy Love have contributed their talent to this collection that showcases classic stories and poems adapted by award-winning black writers like Alex Simmons and Mat Johnson. Many of these illustrators and writers have received Glyph Awards. These awards celebrate outstanding comics made by, for, and about people of color.

This upcoming book made me curious about the representation of African-Americans in comics. Comics should reflect today’s racial and cultural diversity, so I decided to see if that was true. The representation of African-Americans in graphic novels for teens runs the gambit from:

BIOGRAPHIES

  • Bessie Coleman: Daring Stunt Pilot by Trina Robbins (2007)
  • Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography by Andrew Helfer (2006)
  • I See the Promised Land: A Life of Martin Luther King Jr. by Arthur Flowers and Manu Chitrakar, illustrated by Guglielmo Rossi (2010)
  • BAM! The 44th President: A Graphic Novel by Kyle Baker (2010)

GRITTY TRUE-TO-LIFE FICTIONAL OR NON-FICTIONAL STORIES

  • Yummy: The Last Days of a Southside Shorty by G. Neri, illustrated by Randy DuBurke (2010): Based on true story of an 11-year-old African-American gang member from Chicago who shot a 14-year-old girl and then was shot to death by his own gang. (2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens)
  • Little Rock Nine by Marshall Poe, illustrated by Ellen Lindner (2008)
  • A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld (2009): 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens
  • Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd by Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton (2008): 2009 Top Teen Graphic Novels for Teens
  • Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun: A Personal History of Violence (2010) by Jamar Nicholas, from Geoffrey Canada’s memoir that described how Canada learned to survive on the violent streets of the South Bronx. 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens
  • Moped Army by Paul Sizer (2005): In 2277, a girl named Simone is caught between her rich entitlement culture friends in the upper city and the gangs of moped riders who roam and patrol the lower city. 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens

EYE-OPENING ACCOUNTS OF LIFE IN OTHER COUNTRIES

  • Deogratis, a tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen (2006): 2007 Great Graphic Novels for Teens
  • Aya. Vol. 3: The Secrets Come Out by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clement Oubrerie (2009): the third installment of the irresistible “Aya” series about small-town life in the Côte d’Ivoire.

FANTASTICAL STORIES FEATURING SUPERHEROES

  • Runaways: Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan, illustrated by Adrian Alphona (2005): includes issues 1-18 of the Runaways series and made the Best Books for Young Adults list in 2006. In the series, six teens, including African-American 17-year-old Alex, discover that their parents are actually super-villains so they try to atone for their parents’ crimes.
  • Hardware: The Man in the Machine by Dwayne McDuffie and Denys Cowan, illustrated by J. J. Birch (2010): Brilliant kid Curtis Metcalf, working for Alva Industries, discovers his boss is involved in organized crime. To stop him Curtis creates superhero Hardware, an alter ego equipped with ultra-tech weaponry.
  • Shadoweyes. Vol. 1 by Ross Campbell (2010): Great Graphic Novel for Teens nominee. In a future dystopia, a wannabe teen vigilante morphs into a superhuman creature who rescues a younger girl from a zombie.
  • Superman vs. Muhammad Ali Deluxe Edition by Denny O’Neill and Neil Adams (2010): 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 Sons of Liberty. Vol. 1 by Alexancer Lagos and Joseph Lagos, illustrated by Steve Walker (2010): In pre-Revolutionary War America, runaway slaves Graham and Brody get duped into serving as lab rats for Benjamin Franklin’s wild-eyed son, William, and end up with superpowers that help them ruin their former slave master and support the colonists’ rebellion against the British. Vol. 2, Death and Taxes, came out in July.
  • Static Shock. Vol. 1: Rebirth of the Cool by Dwayne McGuffie and Robert L. Washington, illustrated  by John Paul Leon (2009): A teen is given superpowers by mutagen-enhanced tear gas released in a gang war.
  • Blokhedz. Vol. 1 by Mark David and Mike Davis (2007): In this inner-city supernatural adventure, gifted teen rapper Blak must discover his true self and his superpowers.

RIFFS ON POPULAR CULTURE (INCLUDING OBAMA)

  • Drafted: One Hundred Days by Mark Powers (2009): Barack Obama, a former Senator whose promising career was dashed by an alien invasion, now working construction, is tasked with rebuilding in a freezing and wrecked Chicago … and, owing to an injury, he is mute.
  • Barack the Barbarian. Vol. 1: Quest for the Treasure of Stimuli by Larry Hama, illustrated  by Christopher Schons (2009): Well-written satire of the Obama-McCain campaign.
  • Adrenaline by Tyler Chin-Tanner and others (2009): Mocking 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.

MISCELLANEOUS

  • Archie & Friends, All-Stars. Vol. 3: The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton by Alex Simmons, illustrated by Fernando Ruiz (2010): Features first African-American character.
  • Boondocks: Public Enemy #2: An All New Boondocks Collection by Aaron McGruder (2005): Satirizes African-American culture and politics as seen through the eyes of 10-year-old black radical Huey Freeman. Nominated for YALSA’s Best Books for Young Adults.
  • Bayou. Vol. 1 by Jeremy Love (2009): Multiple award-winner about a kidnapping and a lynching that sends Lee on a quest into a terrifying fantasy world hidden beneath the bayou. 2010 Great Graphic Novels for Teens

Well known African-American superheroes aren’t as prevalent as they should be but they do exist. Two of the most prominent and popular superheroes are Marvel’s Storm from X-Men. (Ororo: Before the Storm by Scott Hepburn (2005) is about her early life) and Black Panther, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda (originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966). Another popular character from the 70s is Luke Cage, strong-as-steel black street fighter who got his superhuman strength and near impervious skin after an accident from the New Avengers comics.

From what I’ve discovered, there are a number of appealing, well-written graphic novels with African-American characters. What I didn’t see were that many female African-American characters in these graphics compared to male characters. There is also a real lack of comics written and illustrated by women. Hopefully, that will change.

— Sharon Rawlins, currently listening to Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

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Sharon Rawlins

Sharon is the Youth Services Specialist at the NJ State Library in Trenton, NJ

7 Comments

  1. Jessica Pryde Jessica Pryde

    I was really intrigued by the story presented in “Drafted: One Hundred Days” so I went looking for it, but my librarian wiles have failed me. Where did you come across it?

  2. Thank you for the notice about African-American Classics, but you don’t have to wait until after Christmas for the book. It is in stock and available now, for next-day shipping, from the Graphic Classics website at http://www.graphicclassics.com.

  3. Maria Kramer Maria Kramer

    So glad to see Shadoweyes and Static Shock on this list! Also, for superhero fans, one of DC’s ‘New 52’ line features an African-American hero — Mr. Terriffic — and another has an African-American character as a co-protagonist — Fury of Firestorm by the excellent Gail Simone.

  4. Mia Cabana Mia Cabana

    Sentences by MF Grimm is another cool one that could go in the Gritty/ Nonfiction section. Thanks for this great list!

  5. Kathleen Kathleen

    Great post! I’d love to see something similar on Latino or Chicano characters in graphic novels. I’ve found a few, but not many for a YA audience.

  6. Edi Edi

    Just a few more that I’ve posted about over the years:

    Zambine Sister by Aristiphane
    Birth of Nation by Aaron McGruder
    Storm by Eric Jerome Dickey
    Icon series by Dwayne McDuffie
    Pitch Black by by Youme Landowne / Anthony Horton
    Satchel Paige: striking out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Richard Tommaso
    Malcolm X: A graphic biography Andrew Helfer (2008 Best Book for Young Adults)

  7. Lauren F Lauren F

    Thank you for this helpful list. I’m an MLIS student and am trying to compile a list of quality graphic novels with characters of color. This is super! I’ll reference you in my words cited. Many thanks!

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