BLACK Volume One
Kwanza Osajyefo (writer), Jamal Igle (artist), Tim Smith III (designer), Derwin Roberson (colours)
Black Mask Studios
1 November, 2017
The story follows Kareem Jenkins, an African-American teenager who is gunned down while walking the streets with his friends. Kareem’s dead body is transported in an ambulance only for him to wake up half way through. He is rescued by a mysterious figure known only as Juncture, who helps Kareem understand his new-found superpowers. Juncture also shares with Kareem a surprising secret—only black people can have superpowers.
Alongside Kareem’s story is Detective Ellen Waters’. She was at the scene of the crime but was too late to stop the murder of Kareem and his friends. However, she does see the resurrected Kareem fleeing from the ambulance. Unable to believe her eyes, she follows him to find answers—but he manages to escape before she can ask him anything.
Meanwhile, Theodore Mann, a wealthy businessman, takes a particular interest in Kareem. He also appears to know much more than most about superpowered beings but it isn’t till the end that the reader truly learns what Mann’s agenda is.
The first volume of BLACK collects issues #1-6 and works as a complete stand-alone story. The world-building is subtle but comprehensive. Of course, the subversion of established superhero tropes makes the book a fascinating read. We are still exposed primarily to straight, white male superheroes as the default and this story subverts expectations of the genre by creating a world where only black people can enjoy superpowers. The premise itself gained the series popularity but its execution cannot be discounted.
This book is packed with action but not at the expense of character building. There are a lot of characters here, and they are introduced slowly through the various scrapes that protagonist Kareem gets himself into on his quest to uncover the truth behind his powers. Detective Waters appears for a fair amount of the story, although she is little more than a reader stand-in.
Writer Osajyefo has chosen to use dialects for the different characters and it helps give them a distinctive voice and show a more inclusive world. However, this method somewhat backfires for one of the characters, Hood Rat, who speaks Arabic. The Arabic letters are written separately, which is incorrect. Arabic alphabets conjoin when they are followed or preceded by most alphabets. That the lettering should appear separately either means that the software used to design the comic book was not compatible with the Arabic language, or that an Arabic proof-reader was not employed to read the work before publishing. In that case, the Arabic should have been left out completely as it negates the author’s attempt at inclusivity.
The art is good and certainly does the job but I do wish it was in colour. Despite the precision in the sketches, some details have been glossed over in the black and white shading. There are a handful of panels where the layout is confusing and readers might struggle to understand what is going on. Whether the creators chose to use the monochrome illustration technique for stylistic purposes is unclear but one hopes that a colour version will be available in the future.
Though the characters are engaging overall, there is a distinct lack of female characters, which is surprising in a book with such subject matter. (Follow-up graphic novel BLACK AF: America’s Sweetheart begins to reckon with this discrepancy.) There is a smattering of women, but most have very short appearances and little to do. The only female character with any presence is Detective Waters, but she is often sidelined. The primary cast of supporting characters around Kareem—Juncture, Mann, Coal and O—are all men.
BLACK is an overtly political statement, but it deftly deals with the incendiary topics of police brutality against African-American youth as well as the history of medical malpractice against non-whites. Black history and culture are peppered throughout the volume, tying into how the superpowered individuals have been and are being treated as well as the circumstances they find themselves in.
Despite its strong subject matter, BLACK never forgets that it is a superhero comic book. The numerous intersecting plots culminate in a fantastic finale, all the while incorporating its social commentary in subtle but powerful ways. The subversive treatment of this long-established genre is what we need in the 21st century and lends itself well to film. Readers will await a new series with bated breath.