Black Artists Plot Diverse Themes for Graphic Novels More writers and artists are using graphic novels and comic art as a way to take on major issues. Some African-American artists are exploiting the medium to create books about black history, racism and to craft new stories about America's diverse culture.

Black Artists Plot Diverse Themes for Graphic Novels

Black Artists Plot Diverse Themes for Graphic Novels

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More writers and artists are using graphic novels and comic art as a way to take on major issues. Some African-American artists are exploiting the medium to create books about black history, racism and to craft new stories about America's diverse culture.


Say you see a book in the store. It's nice, if a little slim, with a set of stylized pen and ink portraits on the cover. The title is "Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography." You open up the book's pages and inside is a retelling of the race rebel's life story, complete with complex images of his life as a child, a hustler, a black nationalist, a preacher of peace between races and a murder victim.

What is this, kid stuff? No says the book's writer, Andrew Helfer. Helfer is also putting together a graphic biography on Ronald Reagan for publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or FSG. FSG is better known for releasing books that go on to win the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award. But Helfer argues that in some ways graphic biographies can tell a serious story better than just text.

Mr. ANDREW HELFER (Author, "Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography"): The pictures compress the narrative. They allow you to get a lot more narrative information with less work. I think of the Harlem scenes that are so instantaneously evocative of Harlem. You know, your eye scans the page and you suddenly you have that image in your head of what Harlem was like at that time.

I think that a book will try really hard and sometimes they will accomplish that, but it will take a lot longer to get that image into your head than a picture will. I think that's one of the beauties of the graphic novel form in general, is that it does set a scene and stage and the tone much quicker than the written word.

CHIDEYA: In fact, the Malcolm X book is the second in a line of graphic non-fiction. It already includes a version of the 9/11 Report and will feature biographies of J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra, as well as Reagan.

For the Malcolm X work, the editors chose an African-American graphic artist; his name Randy DuBurke. DuBurke won the 2004 Coretta Scott King Award for new talent in illustration. And DuBurke argues that there are some things long-form graphic works can do better than movies.

Mr. RANDY DUBURKE (Graphic Artist): Like the Spike Lee movie, as strong as the movie was, you still - there are parts were you knew that was Denzel Washington portraying Malcolm X. Whereas with the graphic novel you really feel to a point that you're there, sort of breaking down the barrier between the reader and the subject.

CHIDEYA: These graphic biographies are just part of an ongoing struggle; it's to claim space in America's bookstores for adult books that blend words and pictures says artist Felipe Smith.

Mr. FELIPE SMITH (Author, "MBQ"): Comics have pictures in them. I don't know if this is common belief, but adults don't stop liking pictures. It's just that pictures aren't drawn for adults after a while, you know. We all know about Superman already and Batman, and all those heroes. Now we need real-life heroes.

CHIDEYA: Smith has a superhero story of his own. He went to art school in Chicago, but when he got to Los Angeles, studios told him he would never work because he didn't draw for kids. So he went to work in a karaoke bar, learned Japanese, and entered two comic contests. The first got him a trip to Japan. The second got him something even better - a three-book deal with the publisher Tokyo Pop. The title of his semiautobiographical series is "MBQ".

Mr. SMITH: The main character, Omario, wants to be a comic book artist. He wants to get published and he wants to get heard and seen, because pictures are his game. But then his roommate, Jeff, is actually my roommate. Some of the other characters are also real people I know, including one of the police officers. Even though it takes place in real-life Los Angeles, I make up things; but other things are real.

CHIDEYA: One of the things he works to make real is the diversity of Los Angeles. After being born in Ohio and raised in Argentina, he's enamored of L.A.'s tapestry of diversity.

Mr. SMITH: My dad is Jamaican. My mom is Argentine. I'm mixed. My dad is black and my mom is white. And I grew up where everybody thought I was adopted because I didn't look like anybody in my family. My sister's the same mix as I am, but she's got straight hair and I got dreadlocks. So I don't look like anybody in my family. And that's a good place to be, actually. If you can grow up not looking like anybody that's directly blood related to you, you see people in a different manner, I think. Maybe I'm lucky in that way.

So when I came to the States, I thought hey, I'm cool to everybody.

CHIDEYA: Smith's work is definitely cool with Calvin Reid, the editor of PW Comics Week, a compendium of industry news.

Mr. CALVIN REID (Editor, PW Comics Week): What Felipe does in my view is he brings together the most influential international influences on youth culture, and that's Manga and anime and hip-hop. So, I mean, if you've read MBQ, then you know that it's a - in my view, a hilarious and really incisive sort of dissection of a multi-ethnic Los Angeles.

CHIDEYA: And to Calvin Reid, the burgeoning of new voices in American comics and Manga is distinctly tied to the rise of a movement of independent comic producers. Some are smaller, some international, all give voice to America's cultural complexity.

Mr. REID: We're in a time now where there's many, many more opportunities available. Not only just for African-American comics, but for women in particular who in some ways have been pushed out of the comics industry even worse. I think you're going to only see more and more comics that are doing things that Americans - that surprise American readers.

CHIDEYA: The "Waiting to Exhale" era marked a watershed for black popular fiction. Will the rise in Manga and graphic books provide a new venue for African-American artists and voices? Stay tuned; or rather, keep your eyes wide open.

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