Can a Comic Book Contain the Drama and Heat of Activism?
“Writing this book broke my heart,” David F. Walker admits in the afterword to his ambitious and informative graphic history THE BLACK PANTHER PARTY (Ten Speed, 183 pp., $19.99), crisply illustrated by Marcus Kwame Anderson. Founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was the most famous exponent of the Black Power movement. Its Ten Point Program (reproduced in full in these pages) was a forceful manifesto demanding “land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice and peace” for the Black community. In the immediate wake of the horrific killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, Walker notes that “every single concern” the Panthers addressed — from police brutality to reparations — “is still relevant.”
Newton and Seale were both born in the South, moving with their families to California as children in the mid-40s. They met in 1962 at Merritt College in Oakland, and began strategizing about revolutionary action to address racial injustice — reading Mao and Marx, refining the philosophies of previous civil rights activists. In Walker and Anderson’s account, Newton and Seale are galvanized to start the Black Panther Party by a welter of events, including the 1965 assassination of Malcolm X and the police shooting of a Black teenager in San Francisco the following year. Newton insists on developing a unique structure for the organization, though they are its two sole members. In one of the book’s few moments of levity, they arbitrarily decide that Seale will be the chairman and Newton will be minister of defense.
The Black Panthers disbanded in 1982. But they have lived on in the popular imagination because of their militant stance toward injustice — as in the iconic image of a seated Newton clutching a rifle and spear, which decorates the cover. Walker strives for a comprehensive view, dedicating his book to the party’s “rank and file” involved in community work. The result is a sprawling overview of the group’s brisk rise and protracted fall, punctuated by gripping confrontations with the powers that be.
Fifteen biographical sketches appear throughout, allowing Walker to memorialize some less remembered personalities, such as Emory Douglas (whose artwork in the “Black Panther” newsletter helped define the party) and Lil’ Bobby Hutton, who at 16 was the first to join Newton and Seale’s group. (They had to ask his parents for permission; he was promptly named treasurer.)
Walker dramatizes key scenes, such as an early dust-up between an Oakland police officer and a car packed with four gun-toting Panthers. When the officer asks for Newton’s phone number, he tersely answers, “Five,” referring to the Fifth Amendment. When firearms are discovered in the car, the tension ratchets up. A stickler for gun laws, Newton cites his constitutional right to bear arms, explaining that his piece is unloaded “because it is illegal to carry a loaded rifle in a car”; stepping out of the vehicle, he loads it. “Not a single shot was fired, and no one was injured,” Walker writes. “But war had been declared.”
When the text boxes start piling up, though, the tone can dry out: “Having made a name for themselves in Oakland, the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense was asked by Eldridge Cleaver and the RAM-affiliated Black Panther Party of Northern California to help provide security for Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X.” Fortunately, as an artist Anderson is just as good at rendering static shots as he is at depicting action, and his gift for warm, uncluttered portraiture lionizes familiar figures. In an early sequence, he depicts 31 slain civil rights activists, their names largely lost to us. Most of them are smiling, yet all are shaded, heartbreakingly, in a ghostly blue. Though each panel is just 1.5 inches by 2.25 inches, the depth of emotion could fill an entire page.
A mixture of bravery and dread hangs over much of the book. For all the party’s talk of guns, they are only shown being discharged toward the end. Fred Hampton, who had joined the Chicago branch of the Panthers at the end of 1968, found himself the national spokesman the following year, fixing him on the F.B.I.’s radar. Walker and Anderson depict his murder by plainclothes policemen without showing any gore. Their machine guns fire 31 times across 19 orderly, crimson-tinged panels, the sound of each shot (“BLAM”) obscuring the terrified dialogue of the eight other Panthers in the house at the time. It’s a turning point in the group’s history, chillingly rendered.
The only scene of political resistance in Jim Terry’s memoir, COME HOME, INDIO (Street Noise, 234 pp., $16.99), appears at the end, as the cartoonist travels with his sister and a friend to join the Standing Rock protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The son of a Native (Ho-Chunk) mother and an Irish-American jazz musician father, who divorced when he was young, Terry grew up in the Midwest, bouncing between two worlds. His devotion to Standing Rock is sincere, but he doesn’t have the instant moment of connection that he was hoping for. He worries that it isn’t his place — that he’ll somehow be seen as an impostor.
“Come Home, Indio” is a dense, at times frenzied book, the panels teeming with text. The words themselves seem to vibrate with anguish, regularly fluctuating in size and boldness. An artist who normally works on more fantastical titles (“The Crow”), he plunges into his own life story with a gothic zeal and an arsenal of styles. Sometimes the panels fall away, and a single image, such as a silhouette of his musician father playing bass, will fill the page, evocative of Craig Thompson’s losing-my-religion coming-of-age memoir, “Blankets.”
As a boy, Terry vows to avoid the addiction to alcohol that has plagued the lives of both his parents. But one summer night at the Dells, the Native community where his mother lives, he succumbs — partly because drinking would help him belong. His habit subsides, but returns in college and gets dangerous when he moves to Chicago; one page shows bottles rising from the bottom edge to the same height as the surrounding skyscrapers. Though describing alcoholism risks monotony, Terry reveals how his problem is not just familial but cultural. In his early drinking days he feels shame seeing “haunted men … with warrior spirits gone twisted with impotent rage and soured by booze.” Later, curled up in the throes of withdrawal, he hallucinates Sitting Bull scolding him: “I fought my ass off so you could be just one more drunk Indian? Come on.”
His fractured identity resolves beautifully by the end. Over 20-odd pages, Terry recounts his spiritual journey at Standing Rock, rendered sometimes just as white words over black space — a tour de force of comics that burns off the remnants of his self-loathing to locate a core of strength.
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