Graphic Novels with Black Protagonists
Here at Good Comics for Kids, we agree with Joel Christian Gill that #28DaysAreNotEnough, and we cover graphic novels by and about people of color all year long. That has gotten easier as the field expands and becomes richer and more diverse. On this special day, though, it seems appropriate to gather some recent graphic novels with Black protagonists into a single post. Some address the experience of Black lives head-on, while others simply place Black characters in the lead roles of fascinating stories.
This is a guest post by our Library Journal colleague Martha Cornog, who compiled a similar list of graphic novels with Black protagonists for us in 2019. She also points us to an additional resource, the Black Lives Matter Comics Reading Lists from Black Caucus ALA in collaboration with ALA’s Graphic Novels & Comics Round Table.
Children Through Tweens
Black Heroes of the Wild West by James Otis Smith (TOON Graphics, 2020)
Gr 4-6—Former slaves Mary Fields, Bass Reeves, and Bob Lemmons live large again through these colorful, witty profiles. Fields drove a stagecoach and did both men’s and women’s jobs wherever she went. Reeves became the first Black Deputy U.S. Marshal, capturing outlaws through persistence and subterfuge. Cowboy Lemmons excelled at rounding up wild mustangs, getting them so used to him that they followed him willingly to the stockade. Plentiful background blurbs, visuals, and bibliography encourage curious minds to explore further.
Cassandra, Animal Psychic, Books 1 & 2 by Isabelle Bottier, illus. by Hélène Canac (Graphic Universe, 2020)
Gr 4-8—Fourteen-year-old Cassandra can communicate with animals through images and empathy. Why not “give back” by solving human-animal problems? She locates a lost cat despite a ransom scheme, then finds a new home for a dog whose owner is going into eldercare. But it’s harder understanding humans—like her mom’s new boyfriend and his daughter, and that boy reporter who likes her. Fortunately, as she deduces, animals and humans can be remarkably similar. Charming picture-book-style color art.
Claire: Justice Ninja; Justice Is Served! by Joe Brady, illus. by Kate Ashwin (David Fickling Books, 2020)
Gr 3-6—With her nerdy sidekick Nigel, little Claire masterminds satisfying, over-the-top retributions for neighborhood “crimes.” Whether it’s the town council’s project to replace a playground with a parking lot, a relative who gobbles all the pepperoni off the pizza, or an unrepentant litterer (chastised with pigeon poop), Claire serves up giggles as well as justice in these comedy vignettes.
Class Act by Jerry Craft (Quill Tree Book, 2020
Gr 4-8—In this superb sequel to Craft’s Newbery Award-winning New Kid, eighth-grader Jordan shares the stage with best friends Drew and Liam—whose backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Darker-skinned Drew lives with his doting, working-class grandmother, taking city buses to school, while Liam’s wealthy white family supplies a chauffeur but little love. Refreshingly, the boys do forge a friendship of respect and support while their teachers experiment awkwardly with diversity training. Craft’s latest insightful take on disparities triumphs with humor and goodheartedness.
Just Jaime by Terri Libenson (Balzer & Bray, 2019)
Gr 4-7—Jaime and Maya have long been best friends, but now Maya’s drawn towards “cool girl” Celia whose perfect appearance matches her preoccupation with girly-stuff and boys. As Jaime first despairs but then finds new friends, Maya realizes her mistake. Jaime’s voice, in illustrated text, alternates with Maya’s viewpoint, told in all comics. A touching subplot incorporates two adults reuniting after a similar episode in their own youth. Simple, pastel-ish art nails the funny yet poignant middle-school drama.
The Okay Witch by Emma Steinkellner (Aladdin,2019)
Gr 4-8—Beset by class bullies, thirteen-year-old Moth discovers her witch powers while trying to shut her tormentors up. So why hasn’t her mom told her about her magical heritage? The coming-of-age tale goes back to seventeenth century New England, with persecution despite good works, romantic liaisons destroyed, a tyrannical grandma from a mystical witches’ world, and malevolent ghosts. Don’t miss the wiseass talking cat. The fluid color art appeals with emotive faces and rich tones.
The Only Living Girl, Vols. 1 & 2 by David Gallaher, illus. by Steve Ellis (Papercutz, 2019)
Gr 3-6—Daughter of a genius astrophysicist co-opted by the evil Consortium, Zandra “Zee” Parfitt is among the last human survivors of a Consortium-instigated disaster that created the patchwork wasteland of Chimerika. Teaming up with Erik (from The Only Living Boy series) and comrades from alien peoples, she must foil the Consortium’s plot to subvert the Afterall—the primal force of the universe—to its own purposes. Plenty of techno-fantasy, robo-villains, monsters, and fighting in superhero-style art.
Twins by Varian Johnson, illus. by Shannon Wright (Graphix, 2020)
Gr 3-7—Identical twins Maureen and Francine have always had each other’s backs and done everything together, though Maureen’s a bookworm and Francine’s a social butterfly. But sixth grade brings new friends, new experiences, and new opportunities—like running for student council president. Suddenly, one twin wants autonomy. Can her sister rise to the challenge and find her own way as well as reestablish a bond with her sibling? Vibrant color art complements the fully realized cast and excellent writing.
When Stars Are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed, illus. by Victoria Jamieson and Iman Geddy (Dial Books, 2020)
Gr 4-8—Driven from their Somali village by civil war, little Omar and special-needs brother Hassan end up motherless in a Kenyan refugee camp. Fifteen arduous years later, UN resettlement efforts enable the now-teenagers to find homes in Arizona. But this happy ending is painfully earned by all too few amongst millions of displaced Africans—Omar’s mother, finally found, remains at the camp. Author Mohamed is now a U.S. social worker helping African immigrants. Expressive, charming color art complements the moving account. [For more, see Caleb’s interview with the authors—Ed.]
The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes, illus. by D.J. Kirkland (Oni Press, 2019)
Gr 7 Up—Harry Potter, Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and Final Fantasy all inspire this adventure about St. Ivory Academy of Spellcraft and Sorcery and its newest—and only Black—student, Tom. But über-whiteness everywhere, plus the KKK-like getups of the administration hint at dark purposes. Indeed, it takes all the powers of Tom, sidekick Lindsay, and the spirits of three Black history icons to disrupt a sinister conspiracy. Exemplary anime-inspired art and up-front snark—Tom’s familiar is a crow named Jim.
Drawing the Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Voting in America by Tommy Jenkins, illus. by Kati Lacker (Abrams, 2020)
Gr 7 Up—Over our country’s history, both political parties have tried—and succeeded!—to gain power by changing who can vote. African Americans’ and women’s suffrage have proven especially contentious, and the critics weren’t always whom you’d expect. This readable summary names names on all sides to show how the right to vote has been dearly earned and why we should exercise it. Simple black/grey art and plenty of source notes. Liberal in slant, but useful for everyone.
Excellence, Vol. 1 by Brandon Thomas, illus. by Khary Randolph and Emilio Lopez (Image, 2019)
Gr 7 Up—The mysterious white-robed Aegis organization supports a caste of Black magicians to secretly assist nonmagical “persons of highest potential.” Unlike others in his family, Spencer Dale is slow to manifest magical ability and grows up alienated from father and peers. He also distrusts and defies the Aegis by helping an “undeserving” relative. Can he also heal his bond with a young colleague so they can help all Black magicians? An action-fantasy about oppression, power, and injustice in gorgeous, glowing art.
Fights: One Boy’s Triumph Over Violence by Joel Christian Gill (Oni Press, 2020)
Gr 7 Up—In Gill’s viscerally moving account about his youth, relatives sexually abuse him; other kids insult and attack him because he is small. Over time, however, he discovers the library’s wonderful books, learns to stand up for himself, and joins forces with friends, even as urban teen culture works against him. Now happily married and successful, he faces his own past while counseling his son. A stirring story of survival and hope, in disarmingly simple color art.
Haphaven by Norm Harper, illus. by Louie Joyce (Lion Forge, 2019)
Gr 7 Up—Alex seeks to summon good luck for her sick mother, believing family stories about traditions like horseshoes and lucky pennies to summon good fortune. Suddenly a leprechaun appears and tells her where Earth’s superstitions get their power: Haphaven. But when she gets there, she must intervene amongst the Jinx, the Black Cat, and the Rabbit (with the lucky foot) to set matters right and save her mom. A complicated, fantastical quest-adventure with terrific characters, compelling kinetic art, and witty world-building.
Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers (Drawn and Quarterly) 2019
Gr 9 Up—It’s not just “hair” but also a symbol of female beauty, incubator of relationships, lifelong obsession, race and status indicator. With humor and hard realism, these extraordinary fictionalized vignettes testify to Black hair’s uniqueness and to the many roles it plays in women’s lives. Flowers’s anthropology training shows in her eye for intimate detail and for nuances of cultural perceptions, expressed through her energetic, tangly ink drawings.
Kaneesha by Ben Miller, illus. by Randy Stewart (Guerrilla Publishing, 2019)
Gr 8 Up—A stop-and-frisk turns murderous when racist police encounter Kaneesha’s unarmed brother, who had politely objected. Although her parents counsel peaceful protest, the fourteen-year-old sneaks off to join cousin Anthony, who is recruiting allies for revenge. Led by Kaneesha herself, the cop-youth clash leaves the boys dead and Kaneesha dying. But it’s a dream—she awakens to lead parents and allies in peaceful protests, appearing to spark real change. But then she encounters her brother’s killer. A bleak parable about police brutality.
The Life of Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave’s Journey from Bondage to Freedom by David F. Walker, illus. by Damon Smyth (Ten Speed Press, 2019)
Gr 7 Up—Icon of the abolitionist movement, persuasive orator and author, escaped slave whose former master apologized, crusader for civil rights of both women and men, hobnobber with presidents, and the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass stands as tall as the Statue of Liberty in our nation’s history. This engrossing account draws on Douglass’s words and includes background essays, character cameos, and sources. Earth-toned, woodcut-style art conveys the rough road this extraordinary man traveled.
Long Way Down: The Graphic Novel by Jason Reynolds, illus. by Danica Novgorodoff (Caitlyn Dlouhy Books, 2020)
Gr 9 Up—Will’s older brother Shawn dies from a bullet while picking up mom’s medicine, and fifteen-year-old Will wants to follow his neighborhood’s rules of revenge. Taking Shawn’s gun, he boards the elevator down. But at each floor someone gets on—someone dead from a bullet. Indeed, a chain of death links them, since some passengers shot others. Does Will follow the rules, or break the chain? The resolution hangs as if by the elevator cable. Limpid, bleeding watercolors capture their interrelated stories.
Naomi: Season One by Brian Michael Bendis & David F. Walker, illus. by Jamal Campbell (DC Comics, 2019)
Gr 9 Up—Dark-skinned Naomi knew that she was adopted by her white parents, but in tracking out clues surfacing after an unexpected superhero brawl in her town, she learns she has origins on another Earth—and a tentacled tyrant is after her. Even worse, he wants to add her own Earth to his empire. The slow pacing at the beginning enhances character development, while the glowing art excels with battle scenes and in conveying family bonds.
School for Extraterrestrial Girls, Book 1: Girl on Fire by Jeremy Whitley, illus. by Jamie Noguchi (Papercutz, 2020)
Gr 6 Up—Tara is a Helosapien of the Lacertilla Empire, thrust into human disguise as a kid and raised on Earth by a human-appearing couple. Were these “parents” kidnappers? The heads of her new high school think so, as the now-rescued Tara learns about her birth race and the wildly diverse races of her classmates. Roommate misunderstandings and identity crises ensue—but then her past resurfaces, endangering them all. Whitley’s seductive world-building pairs up with Noguchi’s simple, character-focused color art.
Sparrowhawk by Delilah S. Dawson, illus. by Matias Basla and Rebecca Nalty (BOOM! Studios, 2019)
Gr 7 Up—Illegitimate daughter of an English naval officer and a West Indies slave, Artemisia lurks resentfully as outsider in her father’s family, sharing love with a half-sister but despised by her stepmother. Then an enchanted looking glass disgorges an evil faerie queen who compels her to swap places and navigate a deadly magical landscape with a powerful sword in hand. The gorgeously-drawn tale incorporates karmic revenge, the seductions of violence, and the elusive power of memory.
You Brought Me the Ocean by Alex Sanchez, illus. by Julie Maroh (DC Comics, 2020) Gr 8 Up—In this double coming-out story about the future Aqualad, Jake Hyde must face his attraction to classmate Kenny as well as his astounding power over water. But with his mom’s prohibition on swimming, his bond with gal-pal Maria, bullying from classmates, and horrible news about his supposedly dead father, he’s caught in a personal life-maelstrom. Kenny’s problem? To square his own gayness with his wheelchair-bound Chinese dad. Outstanding pale-hued art conveys a limpid, liquid quality to the tale.
Filed under: All Ages
About Brigid Alverson
Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good E-Reader.com. Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.
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