Graphic Insights into Racism

Since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis last May, public outcries have re-focused attention on the injustices that a few years ago triggered today’s Black Lives Matter movement.  For readers tween and up, that movement’s emotional center and origins are embodied in the enormously powerful graphic novel I Am Alfonso Jones (2017), reviewed in depth by me here.  Its author Tony Medina and illustrators Stacey Robinson and John Jennings are outstandingly effective in depicting the truncated life of fictional New York teenager Alfonso, using magical realism—the narrative device of Alfonso’s ghost and the spirits of other actual, unjustly slain Black people—to highlight his and others’ losses. 

Sad to say, the long and difficult process of transforming insight into social change continues to inspire noteworthy graphic works.   Artists world-wide quickly responded to the slaying of George Floyd.  Yet it is a different instance and kind of racism on May 25, 2020, the very day that Floyd died, and the graphic work this incident inspired, that is my focus today. 

“It’s a Bird” (2020) is a fictional graphic short story rooted in the emotional rather than physical violence its author Christian Cooper experienced while birdwatching in New York City’s Central Park, just hours before George Floyd’s death.   A white woman, asked by Cooper to restrain her dog, tapped into racial stereotypes and years of police violence against Black men, falsely telling police that an African-American man was threatening her life.  In reality, this phone call was a threat against Cooper!   In his story springing from this exchange, 57 year-old Cooper added characters and transferred his experience to a younger man.

Readers tween on up will empathize with the teenaged central character in this expertly-crafted story, illustrated by Alitha E. Martinez and colored by Emilio Lopez, which is accessible online for free as part of DC Comics new Represent! series.  This digital series, according to its editors, “is designed to showcase and introduce creators traditionally underrepresented in the mainstream comic book medium . . . highlight(ing) both new and familiar voices.”  Christian Cooper is both a new and a familiar voice in comics, since before he left that industry twenty years ago for science writing, he was a successful comic book editor.  One of his projects was Marvel Comics gay superhero Northstar.

Readers of “It’s a Bird” will appreciate how, in a few words, Cooper establishes the loving if-prickly relationship between protagonist Jules and his thrifty father.  Jules would rather grudgingly use heirloom binoculars than lose his expensive new Playstation. He does not believe his father’s remarks that those binoculars are said to have “special powers”—ones that kept Jules’ grandfather safe during the Korean War and later civil rights protests.  Jules doubts this supposed luckiness, sarcastically referencing heroic super powers such as Superman’s “x-ray vision.”  To Jules’ amazement, after his encounter with a neighborhood bigot and then that biased dog owner, the binoculars do turn out to have a kind of x-ray vision.  Each time Jules views a bird through them, he also astonishingly sees the translucent head of a Black person unjustly killed by police.  Each of these circular framed shots is followed by a full-scene depiction of that death, grimly colored in red and black. 

As in I am Alfonso Jones, with such scenes this short story deploys magical realism as a significant plot element.  Its final page, with Jules viewing a large image of all those slain people flocking together, each with the wings of angels or superheroes, might similarly be either a real or imagined vision.  We are left with the initial uncertainty of observers within traditional Superman tales, who wonder, “Look! Up in the sky. Is it a bird? Is it a plane?  No, it’s Superman!”  The title of Cooper’s birdwatching tale makes ironic, ambivalent use of that well-known pop culture refrain.  Cooper further acknowledges its impact with the few words displayed at the page’s top:  “Up in the sky.”  This is a powerful blend of verbal and visual storytelling by Cooper and illustrator Martinez.   In addition, the effective absence of panels on that final page, intensifying its drama, also occurs at several points throughout the short story.  At other points within its ten pages, unframed images overlap panels, enhancing a scene’s tension.  

Jules’ growing, oppressed awareness of this history of racial violence is shown in close-ups of his increasingly disturbed features.  In an interview, Alitha E. Martinez, the daughter of immigrants from Honduras and Curacao, has said that Jules’ expression is one she saw on her own young son’s face, after his first encounter with racism.  This story’s merger of disturbing fact with engaging fiction culminates in its back matter. 

This includes a page devoted to Christian Cooper’s Central park experience; a page apiece for Amadou Diallo, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, the other victims depicted and mentioned by name within “It’s a Bird;” and a final page listing six other Black people slain unjustly by police.  That page ends with ellipses to indicate the ongoing status of this institutionalized violence. This week’s court decision assigning no criminal blame in Breonna Taylor’s death, many would say, is another instance of institutionalized violence being deemed acceptable.  On these back matter pages, the brutal information given about each victim is visually highlighted by boldly-colored text against a black background. 

Reading Cooper and Martinez’ “It’s a Bird” has left me looking backwards as well as ahead.  I will keep an eye out for more works in DC’s Represent!  series as it grows.  I also want to catch up with the award-winning Black Panther: World of Wakanda, (2016 -2017), illustrated by Martinez and written by Roxanne Gay, now available in a one-volume collection.  The recent, cancer-caused death of Hollywood’s Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman adds new poignancy to this 21st century iteration of the Black superhero who originally appeared in 1960s comic books. 

Readers might, in honor of birdwatching Christian Cooper, a board member of the New York Audubon Society, want to look at a fine graphic biography of that groundbreaking ornithologist himself:  Audubon, On the Wings of the World (2016, 2017), reviewed by me here.   The national Audubon Society itself just spotlighted “It’s a Bird” in its on-line magazine.   In response to Christian Cooper’s experience, the Audubon Society also recently held an on-line Black Birders Week.  

Finally, readers might avoid potential confusion by keeping in mind that there are two fine graphic works titled “It’s a Bird”!   Both have autobiographical elements.  Author Steven T. Seagle also references Superman throughout his full-length, semi-autobiographical novel, It’s a Bird . . . (2004; 2010; 2017).  Illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen, that award-winning graphic novel, reviewed by me here, focuses on the impact of an incurable genetic disease, Huntington’s Chorea, on Seagle and his family.  





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