Following up the terrific six-issue first arc of BLACK, writer Kwanza Osajyefo returns with BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart, a one-shot telling the story of Eli Franklin, a 15-year-old, superpowered black girl living with her adoptive parents in rural Montana. If you’re thinking this sounds a lot like Superman, good; that’s the point.
Before I can really talk about BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart, I have to explain what brought me to it. Last week, in January, two comics I regularly review–and one new one–happened to release an issue on the same date: Abbott #1, Southern Bastards #19, and Black Cloud #7. All three of these issues were very good, and I noticed they all feature a black female protagonist. What I then realized, however, was: not only am I supporting these comics with my money, but I’m also actively reviewing them and encouraging others to buy/read these comics about black women, and none of them are being written or illustrated by a black woman.
Please understand, I am not suggesting a writer or illustrator must be the same race or gender of their characters, nor am I suggesting creators of a given race of gender have any sort of duty to write or illustrate characters that look like them. What I am saying, however, is those three comics (Abbott, Southern Bastards, and Black Cloud) aren’t just comics featuring black women; they are comics about black women’s stories. Elena Abbott is the only black reporter at her newspaper in 1972 Detroit, Roberta Tubb is a biracial woman deep in the white heart of Alabama, and Zelda–while not really human–has a human form that is a black woman in a universe with a Trumpish mayor. I just, personally, felt some kind of way supporting these comics without also doing my best to also support black women telling their own stories, so I went looking.
What I found was BLACK, a six-issue first arc (of a planned three arcs) of a comic series from Black Mask Studios. I had not heard of BLACK or Black Mask Studios. Black Mask Studios was founded in 2012, with the goal of disrupting the comics publishing scene with transgressive stories, and they’ve sure done that. In the days since my search led me to Black Mask Studios, I’ve devoured the wonderful, Eisner Award-nominated Kim & Kim; the aptly named Beautiful Canvas, which is illustrated by Abbott‘s Sami Kivelä; and the astounding first–and soon to not be only, when issue #2 is published on February 14th–issue of Calexit.
The catalyst of all that discovery was BLACK, of course. Written by Kwanza Osajyefo and illustrated by Jamal Igle, BLACK began life on Kickstarter, before eventually landing at Black Mask Studios. More importantly, though, BLACK is a revelation; telling a relevant and meaningful story that removes the veil of allegory from typical superhero othering and does so with exciting, inventive, and well-designed characters. Getting to the point, I only found BLACK because BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart is illustrated by a black woman, Jennifer Johnson.
BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart is the first interstitial story between BLACK‘s first and second arcs; there are announced plans to do further interstitial issues between each of the main story’s arcs. If you’ve not read BLACK, it is entirely possible to read BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart and not miss a beat, but why would you want to? Given that both BLACK and America’s Sweetheart were written by Kwanza Osajyefo, there is a clear voice present throughout both. But, whereas BLACK was irreverent and abrasive in all the right ways, America’s Sweetheart is intentionally written with a naivete, earnestness, and reverence for superheroism. Its main character, Eli Franklin, is a 15-year-old girl who’s grown up in rural Montana with the ideal of “truth, justice, and the American way” shaping her personality. She has virtually lived the life of Clark Kent.
To that end, Jennifer Johnson’s artwork is simply gorgeous, yes, but it also evokes the kind of warm contentment you might compare to the art of Frank Quitely and Jamie Grant in Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman. There’s a smooth, welcoming characteristic to Johnson’s art here that plays beautifully with the plot of this girl wanting so badly to be the shining beacon of hope for a world divided. Beyond that, this comic makes great use of real world aesthetics, as many of its scenes play out through the lens of social media.
Make no mistake, though, the world of America’s Sweetheart is clearly divided. The events of BLACK #6 are played as a catalyst for this division, but we know the reality; racism is a weed looking for its garden, and the fact the only superpowered individuals in this universe are black people is fertile soil. America’s Sweetheart, just as BLACK does, removes that allegorical veil from the familiar “alien” trope and makes it incredibly real.
It’s fitting, really, that BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart ultimately asks a very similar question to the one I had set out to answer: can a black woman do the same thing a white man does and garner the same reception? With America’s Sweetheart, it’s very clearly a question of whether Eli Franklin, a black girl, can be the “All-American” superhero Clark Kent is allowed to be, even going so far as to clad herself in an American flag motif. With me, it’s a matter of whether or not black women in comics can find success telling stories about black women.
I’ll let you find out what conclusion America’s Sweetheart draws, in regards to its question, but we unfortunately have an answer to mine. We’ve just entered a momentous Black History Month, where on February 16, 2018, Marvel’s Black Panther film will be released in theaters. By all known accounts, the film is terrific and everyone did an amazing job, led by the incredible director Ryan Coogler. However, if we go back to 2016, we see another momentous occasion tied to the Black Panther character, because Black Panther: World of Wakanda marked the very first time Marvel had hired black women to write an ongoing series. Those women are Roxanne Gay and Yona Harvey, who followed very closely behind Nilah Magruder, who had become the first black woman to write anything for Marvel when the one-shot A Year Of Marvels: September Infinite Comic #1 was published in September 2016. First. In 2016.
Roxane Gay’s name may be fresh in your mind because she recently made news when she tweeted about her disappointment at not being invited to the Black Panther film premiere.
It’s entirely possible you’ve heard of Black Panther: World of Wakanda, too, but have not actually read it because it also made news, last year, when it was cancelled before its first trade paperback had even been published. Incidentally, that trade paperback is how I eventually read the series; I had not even heard of it before I saw one of its artists, Afua Richardson, talk about it during a roundtable discussion she participated in for Syfy Wire’s State of the Genre: Women’s History Month Edition, in March 2017. Gay revealed the series had been cancelled in early June 2017; the trade paperback released in late June 2017.
As an aside, Afua Richardson not only had some great work on the covers and inside World of Wakanda, but she did an outstanding job illustrating the Marc Bernardin/Adam Freeman-penned Genius. Another all-around excellent book, featuring a black female protagonist and, of course, illustrated by a black woman.
Marvel, as a whole, only has a total of 10 women slated to do any work on their titles in March–again, Women’s History Month–this year (h/t Tim Hanley). Only one of those women, Natacha Bustos, is black; Bustos has been illustrating Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur for Marvel since it launched in January 2016.
The big two comic publishers, Marvel and DC (even though I focused on Marvel above), would seem to have a dearth of black women on their creative teams, even as the field is full of extremely talented–and clearly available–black women. While assumptions can be made as to why that is, the situation is a bit cloudier with creator-owned publishers, the biggest of which being Image Comics. There is clearly a market for these stories, but we seem to be more accepting of stories about black women than we are of stories by black women.
Again, it’s not inherently bad to write and create outside of your race or gender, and the three comics mentioned above are very good, but representation matters just as much behind the panel as it does in front of it. If all that real estate is taken up by (mostly) white guys, we risk creating a gentrified vision of black womanhood. It just seems like maybe we should want a little less of that and more BLACK [AF]: America’s Sweetheart.
If you have any recommendations for comics about black women that are written and/or illustrated by black women, please don’t hesitate to leave them below.