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:
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.
The hero of Incognegro, Zane Pinchback is a black journalist who passes as white and exposes the awful underside of lynching practices in the South during the zenith of such barbaric practices in the 1920s. Readers must have a healthy appreciation of irony and nuance to appreciate Pinchback's heroism. Incognegro is a perfect example of the artistic vitality of the comic-book form since this story could not be done as subtly and effectively as it is in the capable hands of Johnson and Pleece.
Marvel Comics Group
Last, but certainly not least of all, I suggest everyone start reading Reginald Hudlin's monthly series, Black Panther. The series was originally created by the late, great comic artist Jack Kirby (who also created The Fantastic Four and was a co-creator of X-Men). Kirby brought Black Panther to life just months before the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was born in 1967. Hudlin, a filmmaker who is currently BET's president, took up the mantel for writing in 2005. Now Black Panther will become an animated series (in 2009 on the BET network), and there has been talk of a major film project. Hudlin aspires to depict Black Panther as one of the most complex and culturally powerful heroes ever imagined. The comic's overview explains:
"There are some places you just don't mess with. Wakanda is one of them. Since the dawn of time, Wakanda had been sending would-be conquerors home in body bags. While the rest of Africa got carved up like a Christmas turkey by the rest of the world, Wakanda's cultural evolution went unchecked for centuries, unfettered by the yoke of colonization. The result: a high-tech, resource-rich, ecologically-sound paradise that makes the rest of the world seem primitive by comparison. Ruling over all this is the Black Panther and his queen, Storm."
Yes, Black Panther is married to Storm of the X-Men, and in the Marvel Universe they are the most powerful power couple. For the uninitiated, an excellent introduction to this series is the Black Panther Annual No. 1 aptly entitled "Black to the Future."
Whether you are new to graphic novels or a longtime fan, hopefully this reading list will help you appreciate one of the oldest art forms—even as it gestures back and black to the heroes of our history both real and imagined.
James Braxton Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc.