Comic Book Review: Black (2017)
Title: Black Vol. 1 (2017)
Genre: Superhero Comic Book
Publisher: Black Mask Studios
Creative Team: Kwanza Osajyefo (creator/writer), Tim Smith 3 (creator/designer), Jamal Igle (illustrator), Robin Riggs (inker), Derwin Robinson (tones), David Sharpe (letters), Sarah Litt (editor), Matt Pizzolo (publisher), and Khary Randolph (cover artist)
Bias: Comic nerd.
Synopsis (from the back cover): "In a world that already hates and fears them, what if only black people had superpowers? After being gunned down by police, Kareem Jenkins miraculously survives and learns that he is part of the biggest lie in history – only black people have superpowers. Now he must decide whether it’s safer to keep it a secret or if the truth will set him free."
The Critique: Black begins with a provocative premise, and if it limited itself just to that it would probably be little more than a gimmick. But Osajyefo uses that premise to explore deeper issues of white supremacy, blackness, African-American history, and the socio-political reality of being black in America. The series begins with an all-too familiar encounter, as a police car rolls up on three young black men who “fit the description” walking home from the basketball court. This encounter turns deadly as one of the three, fearing for his life, starts to run, and all three are gunned down. One wakes up, moments later, completely unharmed.
I went into Black thinking I knew what the book was going to be, and that expectation got in my way when I read the first issue. I assumed it would be an allegorical treatment on police violence against the black community, where that community suddenly has the power to fight back. When the issue ends with a pretty hard shift into what felt like a more straightforward superhero universe (supported aesthetically by Igle’s art, which I was familiar with from Supergirl and Firestorm at DC Comics) I wasn’t initially onboard. But that shift, and the larger history it reveals, becomes the greatest strength of the series. Black isn’t just the story of Kareem Jenkins, it’s the introduction to a larger work of speculative fiction – one already continued in a companion graphic novel, Black AF: America’s Sweetheart, that’s equally worth checking out – recontexualizing and to an extent literalizing the suppression of black power and resistance throughout history.
At times the allegory can be more than a little on the nose – the evil corporation is called the Mann Co., the group that initially takes Kareem in is called the Project, while a group of black superheroes work for the “Homeland Agency of Ulterior Soldiers” (HAUS, pronounced “house”) – but there’s also a depth and creativity to the abundant number of characters we’re introduced to in the series. And there are truly interesting connections made to competing philosophies and approaches to black resistance throughout history. Far from simply being polemical, Black is also an entertaining superhero comic (albeit one that might be more appropriate for teens and older, given some of the language and violence in the book).
As mentioned, the interior art by Igle, Riggs, and Roberson is very good, managing to ground the book in the real world while having dynamic action and expressive characters (a tough balancing act). Igle’s storytelling overall is excellent – complex enough to be engaging, but easy enough for someone new to reading comics to follow. The use of gray tones could have been a detriment for a book that, frankly, has so much to do with color, but Roberson makes it work, giving the characters a range of skin tones and avoiding the flatness you sometimes find in non-color comics.
Shout-out: The covers by Khary Randolph are phenomenal. Each is iconic, well-designed, and layered with meaning, while also connecting to the themes of the issues contained within. There’s a bit of contrast with the interior look of the book, but it’s one that situates the reader in the real-world context for the series before the comic itself dives into the fantastic.
To Borrow or Buy: Black is highly re-readable and the trade contains backmatter consisting of Tim Smith 3’s original design work, script pages, and pages in the pencil, inked, and gray-toned stages, as well as the variant covers from the single issues. Definitely worth the purchase.