Black graphic novel review
  • North American Publisher / ISBN: Black Mask - 978-1-62875-186-4
  • Release date: 2017
  • Format: Black and white
  • UPC: 9781628751864
  • Contains adult content?: no
  • Does this pass the Bechdel test?: no
  • Positive minority portrayal?: yes

As noted on a prominent back cover quote, the premise of Black grabs instantly. Given the way our world is, and the widespread prejudice, what if only black skinned people could become superheroes? With an idea like that and Jamal Igle on board as artist the job is half done before a script is written, and it’s proved a durable theme, spawning sequels.

Kareem Jenkins is a victim of unwarranted and excessive police response, presumed dead along with his two friends. Except as seen on Igle’s sample page, he revives in the ambulance. Kwanza Osajyefo’s plot from that point is as fast moving as Kareem himself, introducing him to others with powers while establishing a government organisation merciless in tracking them down. Also curious is Detective Waters, who arrived too late to prevent Kareem being shot, but her investigation reveals a trail of cover-ups, replaced and missing files, and misinformation.

Osajyefo’s clever plot generates not just conflict between white and black skinned people, but between those who consider hiding and prevention is the best way to survive and the belief that direct action is the way forward. It’s a slight variation on the ideological differences between Martin Luther King and Malcolm X in the 1960s, but also exploits current tensions, with Black produced well before 2020’s escalation of the Black Lives Matter movement, the early days of which are referenced.

The credits note Tim Smith 3 as co-creator and designer, and as seen in the bonus material the well conceived character designs are his, but employing Igle to draw the project was the right choice, as he’s the better artist. His solid visual definition of personalities and his refined storytelling instincts ensure the pages turn without having to stop and figure out what’s happening.

Some aspects just don’t hold water, especially establishing around three million people have powers, when the wider public, as represented by the tenacious Detective Waters, remain ignorant. Generally, though, this is a cinematic action thriller in which superpowers feature, but the background questions are equally important. Exaggeration plays a part, with the arrogance of an industrialist button-pushing hateful, but also creating a villain of the first rank. The finale devolves into more traditional territory with a superhero slugfest, yet with points still to be made, and a smart ending.

Mention should also be made of Khary Randolph’s covers to the serialised comics. Each is a poster defining how the world is today for black people, where irrational judgement is instant and has been constant. The most powerful of them lines up four men against a US police height board, each holding a piece of card in front of them, those cards reading in order “slave”, “negro”, “colored” and “thug”, indicating how African Americans have been defined over the past two hundred years.

This world is explored further in Black AF: America’s Sweetheart.