Saving the Summer, One Hero at a Time

Three great comic books to help you soar through the summer.

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Last spring I taught an English course called Black Heroes that explored how black heroes have emerged and are depicted in the public sphere. The course moved from the 19th century (Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner), through the 20th (Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Angela Davis and Assata Shakur). One of the more creative final projects was a song and video written, produced and directed by Thadeus Davis.

In the spirit of the engaging, enthusiastic and sometimes skeptical response to the class, I proffer my Black Heroes Summer Reading List to you. These three books require more imagination and critical thinking than drudgery. They also will inspire just as much visual literacy as written; just as much artistic/conceptual engagement as they require a knowledge of history. Each reflects the rise of the ninth art: the graphic novel, sequential art or what most of us know as plain old comics. The era of dismissing comics as just for kids is so 20th century. In the 21st century comics/graphic novels/sequential art constitute one of the most promising artistic and literary genres particularly for the depiction of cultural, sociopolitical and sexual identity.

Without further ado (and with hopefully no spoilers) I give you my Black Heroes Summer Reading List:

Nat Turner

Kyle Baker

Image Comics 2007

I prefer Vol. 2 (of 2) aptly entitled "Revolution," but both volumes will appear in a collected version later this month. "Revolution" is a revelation. Baker's art, rendered in black and white and every shade of gray in-between, is both emotive and impressionistic. The narrator/protagonist of "Revolution" is Thomas Gray, the financially challenged lawyer who dared to interview Nat Turner in the aftermath of the only "successful" slave insurrection noted in American history. He published his interpretation of those interviews as The Confessions of Nat Turner almost immediately following the harrowing events in 1831. Baker brings Nat Turner to life like no other historian, filmmaker or novelist. The words may be Gray's but the images are the most striking portraiture, depicting one of black America's most violent, inspirational and enigmatic heroes.

Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery

Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece

Vertigo/DC Comics, 2008.

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