When people consider the Black Panther Party, thoughts are often mixed, and often negative, no matter one’s race. Through The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History, David F. Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson offer more than enough details to help a reader understand just who the Panthers were and, perhaps, reconsider their views of the party’s legacy. In the wake of a Black Lives Matter world, understanding the history of the group that came before is paramount to understanding where the fight for racial equality has been and how far it still needs to go.
The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History
Marcus Kwame Anderson (artist and letterer), David F. Walker (writer)
Penguin Random House
January 19, 2021
Walker saves the context of his work for the afterward, but given the negative perception many people may hold of the Black Panther Party, his words could have held just as valuable a place at the beginning of the book. Particularly this part:
“Understanding the Black Panthers is not easy. They were a complicated group that left behind a complex legacy. It is perfectly fine if, after reading this book, you’re not sure how to feel about the Panthers or you might have mixed emotions. I’ll admit that my personal feelings have become more nuanced over the years. Working on this project challenged what I knew by revealing how much I didn’t know… But what any one of us thinks about the Panthers-be it positive or negative-doesn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that our feelings should be derived from a place of knowledge and perhaps even some nuance.”
But in terms of the overall layout and design, it seems clear that the creators wanted the party’s history to speak for itself. The first words belong to Fred Hampton, speaking about how best to fight the fires of racism, with a bold, fire-coloured font to match the heat of his proclamation. This is juxtaposed against a dedication in a smaller text on a softer, canvas-coloured background, with words that are focused on the many Panther members who supported Black communities through free breakfast and children’s programs.
The design choices throughout are clean and easy to navigate. Anderson’s imagery typically focuses on the players in vector-like likenesses of the various people. Despite the simple lines and subtle shading, Anderson’s work doesn’t fail to depict the emotional intensity of many of those faces, such as Emmett Till’s mother mourning her son’s brutal murder.
Anderson, who also provides the lettering work for this graphic novel, keeps to a sharp, bold font, comfortably housed within word balloons and narration boxes carefully laid out on each page. Given the amount of information shared, this layout deserves commendations for so neatly parceling out the information into bite-size pieces.
The book takes its time to move through history, starting with a brief summary of how the Panthers came to be, which is inseparable from the trauma of slavery. Shifting quickly through the salient points of slavery, war, lynching, and the mob justice of the KKK that evolved into police brutality, Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression, it clearly connects the desire to defend oneself to the violence that has tormented Black people in America for centuries.
From there, five chapters are dedicated to meticulously detailing the rise of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense from 1966 to 1970. It includes re-enactments of conversations between its founders, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton. The pace of the panel work slows down at just the right moments to lend weight to the conversations and confrontations, including some of the major events that put the party on the map, such as the pair’s first major showdown with the police. Given the current climate, where Black people are shot because cops “thought they saw a weapon” or “feared for their lives,” reading these panels creates a sense of dread followed by a sense of shock and relief to find that the Panthers’ literally standing up to bullies actually works and the Panthers initially walk away unscathed.
This is, of course, short-lived, as the police and government weren’t about to allow Black people to freely walk around defending themselves and exercising their rights as American citizens. The comic details the subsequent steps, both legal and illegal, that authorities would take to manipulate and destroy the Panther’s party, including the assassination of Hampton.
Like the other leaders, Hampton gets a dedicated page explaining who he is and what brought him to the Black Panther Party, set against the backdrop of a map depicting where he mainly served as party leader.
Violence surrounds both the myth and the reality of the Black Panther Party throughout their history, but Walker does offer insight into the many community programs for which the Panthers are lesser-known. Unfortunately, as with reality, The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History doesn’t spend quite as much time on these programs. The statistics are impressive, but statistics tend not to be as interesting to learn about or depict as the other major events.
My own knowledge of the history of the Black Panther Party was limited to tidbits, but as I learn more, like Walker, my feelings about the Panthers have evolved to understand how and why they came to be, and perhaps even mourn their loss because of the machinations that tore them apart.