Every year, I try to celebrate Martin Luther King Day by delving into the life and times of Dr. King beyond the too-common reduction of his legacy to a quick soundbite. This year it involved comics, the way every major American holiday should! My best discovery this year was Montgomery Story, a short comic written in 1956 that tells the story of King and the early civil rights movement. Thanks to Heidi at the Beat for linking to this! Montgomery Story is a fascinating historical object, not just because it’s a look at the civil rights movement as it was unfolding, but because of its value as a primer for how to use non-violence as a political protest tool. The idea for a comic book telling the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott came from the non-violence religious group, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and created by writers Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik and a still-unknown artist. What I find especially fascinating is how far this single comic has spread since its inception–it was soon translated into Spanish so it could be distributed through Latin America and throughout the Middle East during the Arab Spring. Representative John Lewis read Montgomery Story back in 1957 before getting involved in the civil rights movement, and then fifty years later it inspired the creation of his graphic novel trilogy March. How is this something that has escaped my comics knowledge??? If you were as ignorant as I was, check out this video on Montgomery Story‘s origin for more details.
Speaking of Representative John Lewis, he just got a U.S. Navy ship named after him. Hell yes, John Lewis, getting the respect he deserves! Reading about Representative Lewis’ reaction to the Secretary of the Navy’s suggestion to name a ship after him made me cry, not even going to lie. “In Troy, we couldn’t use the swimming pool, so I never learned to swim,” Representative Lewis was quoted by NBC News as saying. “All these years later, to hear the Secretary of the Navy say he wanted to name a ship after me — we cried a little together and we hugged.” The fact that Representative Lewis went from never learning to swim because of segregation to having a U.S. Navy oiler named after him…there’s a power in that, and I’m so glad Representative Lewis is getting this honor.
(For anyone complaining that Representative John Lewis doesn’t count as comics news…shut up. Comics writers being honored with ship naming is ALWAYS relevant to this columnist.)
If you’re looking for stories with black leads but less with the history angle: here’s a whole list of webcomics starring black characters! There’s fantasy, romance, autobio, weekly strips, just about every genre you could ask for. I’ve mentioned Alone by Olivia Stephens before, and, oh my God, the cover for The Immortal Nadia Greene by Jamal Campbell looks AMAZING. Check these out, folks.
Not into webcomics? Maybe check out last year’s Glyph Award winners that celebrate comics featuring black characters and by black creators. There’s also the newly started Dwayne McDuffie Award that celebrates Diversity in Comics, which doesn’t focus solely on black characters and creators but also included nominees featuring other characters of color like Kamala Khan. The 2015 inaugural award went to M.F.K. by Nilah, and so far this year has seen three times as many submissions up for consideration. Awards like this are so great at raising the profile of works and creators who otherwise don’t get much traction in the mainstream comics market, and are one of my favorite ways to check out good books that I might have missed.
By the way, for all those naysayers saying the comics marketplace doesn’t need to “pander” by featuring diverse characters and creators…the Black Comic Book Festival in NYC drew 5,000 this weekend in only its fourth year. Go look at the pictures in that article of the children loving comics that feature people who look like him. This stuff matters. It mattered fifty years ago when Montgomery County was published, and it matters today to young black children to read stories where people like them get to be the heroes, villains, or anyone they want to be.