Like many little boys, Darrin Bell wanted a water gun when he was 6 years old. Unlike the white boys in his neighborhood with slick black water guns, he received a bright green one, accompanied by “The Talk” from his mom. She explained that “the world is… different for you and your brother. White people won’t see you or treat you the way they do little white boys.” It’s The Talk that parents of Black children are all too familiar with in America.
Bell is a Pulitzer Prize winner known for his editorial cartoons and for being the first Black cartoonist to have his comic strips, Candorville and Ruby Park, nationally syndicated. The Talk, Bell’s striking debut graphic memoir, utilizes wit and emotional openness to chronicle the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from a police officer terrorizing a young Bell over his green water gun to protests in 2020 over the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Most of the book is illustrated in shades of blue, with flashbacks that come on suddenly and disjointedly—like real memories do—in yellows reminiscent of sepia photographs. Flashes of red are often used during intense moments, and one particularly philosophical page uses a purple that only appears again during the climax. Hyperrealistic pop culture items placed throughout both unsettle the illustrations and ground the reader within the timeline of Bell’s life, from the early 1980s until present day. At the end, Bell even includes some of his most iconic editorial cartoons.
This book is heavy, both emotionally and physically. The size allows Bell to use graphic conventions unlike those he’s usually confined to in a four-panel newspaper comic strip, frequently doing full-page illustrations or removing the panels all together. But during several important conversations, including The Talk between Darrin and his mother, as well as The Talk he has with his own son, Bell returns to an even grid of panels that hearken back to his old format and emphasize how important each moment is.
The deeply honest conversation Bell is able to have with his son is especially compelling when presented in contrast with a much more limited conversation about racism he had with his father, shown through a flashback. Witnessing their generational growth filled me both with empathy for Bell’s father and with hope for what Bell’s radical truth-telling can bring.