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All African American History Coverage

The range of comic book storytelling is vast, and this selection of 2021’s best graphic novels, memoirs and histories runs the gamut in terms of artistic style and narrative approach, yet all of them have two things in common: a mastery of the form and a unique sense of expression.

Bubble

The stakes of the gig economy have never been higher than in Bubble, a graphic novel by Jordan Morris and Sarah Morgan with illustrations from Tony Cliff and colors by Natalie Riess. Adapted from the scripted podcast of the same name, Bubble is set in a world where corporate-funded cities have sprung up as domes of safety, walling off humanity from a monster-ridden wilderness known as the Brush. Morgan was born in the Brush, and though she’s grown accustomed to life in the bubble, she’s retained a few of her more useful Brush skills, including the ability to kill pesky mutated imps. Naturally, her employers have just the thing to help her monetize that ability.

Bubble crackles with wit and biting commentary on piecing together a living one app at a time. Cliff's art enriches the whole wild affair, lending a grounding sense of reality to the reading experience despite the fantastical setting. He’s as adept at depicting action-packed scenes as he is at homing in on a character’s eyes at a key moment of personal discovery. There’s tremendous glee to be found in Bubble, but also tremendous heart.

Ballad for Sophie

A young woman talks her way into the mansion of one of the world’s most reclusive musicians and convinces him to give her an interview. That’s the premise from which Ballad for Sophie springs, and with a sense of adversarial yet whimsical tension, we are propelled into a world of bittersweet wonders, tragedy and music.

Written by jazz composer Filipe Melo, illustrated by Juan Cavia and translated from the original Spanish by Gabriela Soares, Ballad for Sophie unfolds as the aging pianist tells his story. We meet a lifelong rival, a lost love, a tormented mother, a devilish piano teacher and more, their rich narrative tapestry unfolding against backdrops that range from World War II to the luxury of 1960s Paris. 

Through it all, Melo’s characters are either constantly growing or constantly resisting growth, while Cavia’s art sweeps across the page with lithe figures and elegant depictions of bygone eras. When the story dips into the past, his art grows slightly more magical, turning piano teachers into great horned creatures and piano recitals into dramatically lit clashes of titans.

Emotionally dense, texturally rich and humming with humanity, Ballad for Sophie is a moving portrait of the ways in which art can both save and doom us.

Interior image from Ballad for Sophie
From Ballad for Sophie. Used with permission from Top Shelf.

Lore Olympus

Some elements of Greek mythology are simply timeless. In Lore Olympus: Volume One, Rachel Smythe reminds us of this using her acclaimed artistic magic. This is the first volume of her webcomic “Lore Olympus,” and it’s striking to see her work collected in such a lavish tome after its celebrated web release.

As Smythe unveils her retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth, her gorgeous art elevates each scene. She uses precise color and shading to bathe the Greek gods in neon hues of purple and blue, like they're perpetually in some mythic nightclub. Readers will revel in how seamlessly Smythe has adapted this classic story, and in no time at all, they’ll find themselves utterly lost in her beautifully dark, often startlingly timely world of sex, lies and immortality. 

The Middle Ages

You’ve probably heard that the Middle Ages wasn’t really the period of darkness and ignorance that popular culture has made it out to be, but you’ve never seen that truth demonstrated quite like in The Middle Ages: A Graphic History. Medieval historian Eleanor Janega and illustrator Neil Max Emmanuel set out to reveal how this period took shape and why it became so consequential, and they never miss in that mission. 

Rather than attempting a strictly linear dissection of centuries of human history, The Middle Ages unfolds almost as an illustrated textbook, with sections devoted to everything from the fall of Rome to the rise of Charlemagne to the growth of major European cities. Janega’s prose is precise, informative, digestible and witty. Emmanuel’s simple but effective black-and-white art carries that same wit through to the visuals, alternating between modern compositions and homages to medieval aesthetics, with amusing revisions to the Bayeux Tapestry and clever representations of church schisms.

It all adds up to an utterly essential volume for history buffs, whether they’re diving into the medieval period for the first time or just brushing up on a few things. 

★ Run

The follow-up to Congressman John Lewis’ monumental, award-winning March series, Run: Book One kicks off a new graphic trilogy that further establishes Lewis as a fundamental, undeniable force in the mid-1960s American civil rights movement.

Lewis completed work on the script for Run before his death in 2020, and illustrator L. Fury joins writer Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell (both of whom collaborated on the March trilogy) in carefully layering Lewis’ recollections with vivid depictions of celebrations and violence, hope and heartbreak, despair and determination. The story picks up after the 1965 passage of the Voting Rights Act, as Lewis encountered new roadblocks and hurdles in the wake of that legislative victory. Through dramatic composition and movement, Powell and Fury’s illustrations capture the same energy as the March trilogy, while also conveying Lewis’ maturation as he grows out of his student organizing era and enters the realm of American statesmanship.

Run is another indispensable chronicle of the life and work of one of 20th-century America’s most exceptional figures, but it’s also a mission statement for the work yet to come.

Interior image from Run: Book One
From Run: Book One. Used with permission from Abrams ComicArts.

★ Seek You

It might sound like a cliche to say that a book delving into America’s loneliness epidemic will make you feel more connected to the world around you, but that’s exactly what writer and illustrator Kristen Radtke achieves in this ambitious book. 

Part memoir, part sociological study and part cultural history, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness digs deep into the many ways that loneliness affects our daily lives. Through incisive, often disarmingly confessional writing, Radtke gets to the core of what loneliness is and what it does to our bodies and minds, exploring everything from its neurological roots to the impact of the sitcom studio audience laugh track. 

Throughout Seek You, we are guided by Radtke’s beautifully muted art. Some pages are powerful in their simplicity, such as a wide view of a massive apartment complex with a single lit window, while others are effective in their complexity, such as a spread showing a lone figure amid a fog of words describing their most alienating experiences. 

Seek You is a captivating combination of raw emotional exploration and thoughtful, sophisticated imagination.

The Waiting

A chance encounter with a dog on a city street pulls a character back through decades of memories and serves as the launching point for a stirring graphic novel by author-illustrator Keum Suk Gendry-Kim.

Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong, The Waiting explores a very particular kind of loss on the Korean peninsula. In bold, fluid black-and-white imagery, Gendry-Kim tells a story inspired by her own mother, who lived under Japanese occupation in Korea before World War II, then was forced to migrate during the Korean War and the permanent division of Korea along the 38th parallel. Many Koreans fled their homes amid the fighting, causing a surge of family separations that led to lifetimes of waiting and hoping. 

Though The Waiting is set amid some of the most consequential events of the 20th century, Gendry-Kim never makes the book’s scope wider than it needs to be. The Waiting is better for it, succeeding as a deeply intimate portrayal of one woman’s struggle to not only survive but also keep some measure of hope and determination alive. It’s also about the broader goal of an entire culture to somehow come back together after war, through individual efforts and massive group reunions. 

In depicting a people’s efforts to find each other, The Waiting is one of the most moving graphic novels of the year.

★ Wake

Writer and activist Rebecca Hall and illustrator Hugo Martínez present a powerful meditation on hidden history that transforms into a haunting, necessary statement on exactly why that history has been hidden, and how much of it still lives with us.

In Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, Hall, whose grandparents were enslaved, recounts her process of researching several 18th-century revolts that were led by enslaved women. Though some of the book’s most affecting sequences re-create these revolts, much of Wake is a memoir of Hall’s search for the brave, rebellious women who led them, the punishments they suffered and what, if anything, they managed to leave behind. In the process of constructing their stories, Hall tells much of her own, laying bare how the echoes of enslavement inform our political world as well as her own daily interactions.

Hall’s prose is stunning, and Martínez’s art takes it to another level, delivering expressive representations of the history Hall carries with her and of the reminders of slavery’s cruelty that are etched into the landscapes we walk now. His artwork bleeds past and present together, depicting the city streets around Hall as shadowy memorials of the slave markets that once stood there. When he projects the images of enslaved men and women onto the facades of skyscrapers, he transforms these feats of architecture into monuments to atrocities.

Wake is as poetic as it is powerful. Readers who adored the March trilogy and the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred will find it to be an essential addition to their shelves.

A sampling of the year’s best graphics and comics includes a neon-bright retelling of a Greek myth and the continued memoirs of a civil rights legend.

Writer, poet and educator Clint Smith narrates the audio edition of How the Word Is Passed (10 hours), a timely reckoning with America’s past dependence on the cruel institution of chattel slavery. Smith brings the listener on a tour of locations with fraught ties to the transatlantic slave trade, from his hometown of New Orleans to Senegal. He reads his smooth, journalistic prose in a weighty, measured cadence. Listeners will find themselves paying closer attention and appreciating the author’s perspective even more because of how Smith’s narration lends gravity to his experiences and purpose to their telling.

Those who appreciate a good documentary will feel most at home with this audiobook. The content is heavy, at times nearly overwhelming, but Smith’s factual storytelling voice, with fitting but muted inflection throughout, models the courage and fortitude required to take it all in. This book is a generous gift to a nation struggling to define itself.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.

Clint Smith’s narration of How the Word Is Passed models the courage and fortitude required to face this timely reckoning with America’s past.

The audiobook of Natalie Baszile’s We Are Each Other’s Harvest: Celebrating African American Farmers, Land, and Legacy (13.5 hours) explores farming by Black Americans, past and present, through essays, interviews and poetry from farmers and historians, wordsmiths and activists. The expansive project, born out of Baszile’s extensive research for her 2014 novel, Queen Sugar, is bookended by the author’s own words about her family and her creative process. In between, we learn about the Black community’s enduring connection to the land despite slavery’s disenfranchisement and northern and urban migration, among other factors.

Tina Lifford, an actor in the TV adaptation of Queen Sugar as well as the series “Parenthood” and “South Central,” captures the book’s soulful tone through her deep voice, slow delivery and an array of accents. Her performance pays tribute to the Black community’s oral history tradition, which is referenced throughout the book. 

With rich descriptions of crops, recipes, family meals and current efforts to revitalize Black farming and land ownership, this audiobook inspires, empowers and enlightens through the spoken word.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of the print version of We Are Each Other’s Harvest.

With rich descriptions of crops, recipes, family meals and more, this audiobook inspires, empowers and enlightens through spoken word.

When longtime Georgia Congressman John Lewis died from pancreatic cancer in 2020, President Obama said, “He, as much as anyone in our history, brought this country a little bit closer to its highest ideals.” This lovely book offers Lewis’ meditations on everything from love to public service and affirms that he indeed represented the best of our nation.

Carry On: Reflections for a New Generation is divided into short sections in which Lewis shares hard-earned wisdom from his years on the front lines of the civil rights battle. The son of a sharecropper, Lewis joined Martin Luther King Jr. and the Freedom Riders as they protested segregation across the South. For someone who faced injustice, police brutality and racism, Lewis remained remarkably optimistic. “Yes, we were jailed, arrested, firebombed, bloodied,” he writes in a chapter on activism. “But we never felt hate, and even though it can be hard to hold back our anger, it is worth the effort because it works in the end. We changed America, and now the time has come for more change.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Actor Don Cheadle narrates the audiobook edition of Carry On.


Lewis devotes much of the book to the current expression of our nation’s racism. He compares the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Trayvon Martin to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till and urges his fellow Americans to embrace the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are lighter chapters, too, in which Lewis writes about art, sports, clothes and books. He loved comic books as a kid, and a favorite hobby as an adult was frequenting flea markets searching for old books. These chapters read like someone shooting the breeze with an old friend. He recalls telling Congressman Elijah Cummings, for whom he was often mistaken, that he was going to get a tattoo on the back of his head so people would stop confusing them.

Carry On is a bittersweet book, coming so soon on the heels of Lewis’ death, but a beautiful reminder of finding hope and joy in the simplest things. “Happiness is being at home after a long day, playing with and feeding my cats,” Lewis writes. “I’m a happy person.”

This lovely book offers John Lewis’ meditations on everything from love to public service. It’s a beautiful reminder that he represented the best of our nation.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read about places where the story of American slavery lives on. This vital book originated in poetic meditations on the memorials of the Confederacy after Smith’s hometown of New Orleans removed many of those statues in 2017.

Smith began visiting some of the sites where enslaved people once lived and worked. He took the guided tour at Monticello that focuses on Jefferson’s relationship to slavery. He traveled to New York City to visit the African Burial Ground National Monument. He toured Louisiana’s notorious state prison at Angola, where formerly enslaved people were often held on the flimsiest of charges and forced to labor in its vast agricultural fields as part of the post-Reconstruction effort “to funnel Black people into the convict leasing system.”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: From a Louisiana native to a D.C. high school teacher to a Harvard Ph.D. candidate to a staff writer for The Atlantic—Clint Smith shares the journey that led to his brilliant nonfiction debut.


At each stop, Smith’s vivid descriptions of the landscape and his response to the site give readers a visceral sense of place. He also reports on his conversations with tour guides, employees and other visitors. At Monticello, one person shares her journey of learning and unlearning history. It’s quite moving.

But at other locations, the guides and visitors are less willing to acknowledge slavery’s continuing impact on our country or the intentional romanticization of the Confederacy. At Angola, there’s almost no acknowledgment that the land was worked by enslaved people as a plantation before it was converted into a state prison for mostly Black prisoners. The reader feels “the prickled heat” Smith experiences as the only Black person attending a Memorial Day event hosted by the Sons of Confederate Veterans at Blandford Cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia. There, Smith is an open, polite, somewhat nervous listener. Even in print, he doesn’t call out the people he speaks with. But ever the educator and poet, he lets the Confederate states’ own avowals destroy the animating myth of the Lost Cause.

Smith has an appreciation of nuance. He wields few cudgels here. And yet, How the Word Is Passed succeeds in making the essential distinction between history and nostalgia.

Clint Smith's gifts as both a poet and a scholar make How the Word Is Passed a richly provocative read.

Clint Smith, whose spellbinding How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America is a must-read, grew up in New Orleans. He remembers frequently passing the city’s Robert E. Lee monument, riding along Jefferson Davis Parkway and attending a middle school named for Robert Mills Lusher, another leader of the Confederacy. 

Speaking by phone from Washington, D.C., Smith tells me that when his hometown removed Confederate statues and memorials in 2017, he began wondering, “What does it mean that I grew up in a city, a majority Black city, in which there were more homages to enslavers than there were to enslaved people? How does that happen, and what does the process of reckoning with that look like?”


ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our starred review of How the Word Is Passed.


By that moment in 2017, Smith had given up his lifelong quest to become a professional soccer player (he was good but not quite good enough) and turned to literature, writing and performing slam poetry “just as obsessively as 15-year-old me stayed up until 3 a.m. watching second division [soccer] teams from the Netherlands on cable TV.” He had also published an award-winning book of poetry and taught high school English, and he assumed he would teach for the next 30 years. “I loved talking about literature with teenagers,” he says.

But Smith’s teaching experiences had raised larger questions about the role of education in our society. He began reading widely about the philosophy and practice of education by writers who were “thinking about using the classroom to help students understand that the world is a social construction,” he says. “It can be deconstructed and reconstructed into something new. The essence of that is that you don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

Pursuing this interest further, Smith entered a multidisciplinary Ph.D. program at Harvard. During graduate school, he freelanced for The New Yorker, the New Republic and the Atlantic (where he’s now a staff writer) as a way to distill the history and theory he was learning in the classroom into a more approachable format.

“You don’t have to accept the world as an inevitability. It can be transformed.”

After New Orleans removed its Confederate statues in 2017, Smith began writing a series of daily poems to explore issues around “growing up surrounded by Confederate iconography,” he says. He eventually decided the subject needed something lengthier and wrote two prose chapters, but he was unsatisfied with the results. Then a visit to Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia home, which Smith details in the brilliantly prismatic first chapter of his book, presented him with the format for How the Word Is Passed: Talk to people. Respectfully, interestedly. And do enough research to contextualize their stories and delineate the difference between history and nostalgia.

“When I went to Monticello in the summer of 2018, I had never done a lot of reporting,” Smith says. “I’m not someone who walks up to strangers and asks them questions. That’s not a part of my natural ethos. But I did that at Monticello, and it transformed what I hoped the book could do. My own ideas about what these people and places meant had to be in conversation with what these people and places meant to other people.”

Some visitors he talked to were astonished, sometimes disheartened, to learn of the moral inconsistencies of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who, like so many of the Founding Fathers, owned enslaved people. Recent scholarship has revealed that Jefferson fathered children with enslaved women, most notably Sally Hemings, and kept his children enslaved. In fact, Smith found his book’s title in the oral history of Hemings’ descendants. 

“Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes.”

In recent years, Monticello has made an effort to tell the stories of the people Jefferson owned alongside the story of Jefferson himself. But not all the historical sites of enslavement that Smith visited for his book—Louisiana’s Angola State Prison, Blandford Cemetery for Confederate veterans in Virginia, the African Burial Ground in New York City, the House of Slaves on Gorée Island in Senegal and others—probe their complicated histories as much as Monticello does. Smith’s fascinating, nuanced book illuminates this struggle to acknowledge and reckon with these histories on both individual and societal levels.

“My grandfather’s grandfather was enslaved,” Smith says. “My grandmother’s grandfather was born right after emancipation. The history that we tell ourselves was a long time ago wasn’t in fact that long ago. Slavery existed for a hundred years longer in this country than it has not existed. We forget that sometimes. We forget how much it shaped this country. We forget the extent to which that past is still with us.”

 

Author photo credit © Carletta Girma

Clint Smith, whose spellbinding debut nonfiction book is a must-read, shares his thoughts on reckoning with Confederate landmarks and locations where Black people were enslaved.

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