Today, Patrick and Drew are discussing Black 1, originally released October 5th, 2016. As always, this article contains SPOILERS.
Patrick: Representation is a remarkable thing. From my position as a privileged white dude, it can often appear to be one of the more superficial qualities of a work of art. I’m so used to seeing my race and gender portrayed in fiction that diversity is a welcome garnish, rather than the main course. I like to see different races, genders and sexualities represented in my movies, TV shows, comics and games, but that’s not the sole reason I seek them out, or even one of the primary reasons. But again, I never need to look too hard (like… at all) to find myself on the screen or on the page. Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3 and Jamal Igle’s Black 1 makes a case for representation as a reason for existence, mapping the specifics of modern Black American culture onto an otherwise unremarkable superhero origin story. But those specifics make a world of difference, and the blackness of Black ultimately convinces both the reader and the protagonist that this is a story that needs to be told.
When we meet our hero, Kareem, his vague likeness is being described in an APB. There’s an immediate cut to a trio of young black men, and the admission from Officer Waters that most of her fellow police would think that description applied to all three of them. At this point, the creative team hasn’t made a point to focus in any one of these kids, so for a moment, the reader is sort of in the same boat — Kareem isn’t yet identified as a superhero, but he is dangerously close to becoming a statistic. Their encounter with the police goes horribly wrong in a hurry, and all three are gunned down in a hail of bullets. We don’t see what happens to his buddies, but Kareem wakes up in the ambulance, bandaged, but ultimately none the worse for wear.
In one way, that’s a very basic set-up for a character to discover that they’re invulnerable: survive something kills others. Hell, I just described the whole plot of Unbreakable. Where Black stakes its own claim is in the act that proves Kareem’s superpowers. Instead of a freak accident or an attack from some kind of (literal) monster, Kareem and his friends are beset by something that really only happens to black men — being shot by police for no reason. Osajyefo isn’t being subtle with this point — he’s taking a real, specific and timely fear and repackaging it as the origin for a superhero story.
When Kareem wakes up in the ambulance a few minutes later, he’s understandably freaked out, and makes a break for it. The situation escalates fast — as soon as Kareem’s on-the-run, there are fucking SWAT guys on the scene with armored trucks and automatic weapons. It’s conceptually heavy stuff, calling out all of the worst tendencies of cops, from their institutional bias against black people, to their over-militarization, to their itchy trigger-fingers. Luckily, illustrator Igle is able to quickly snap back to the fun of a superhero origin story with some crackerjack action sequences.
This is a cool little action scene where two leveled-up agents of the same organization that Kareem will become a part of lay waste to these SWAT goons. I love the way the whole thing is lead by feet, and that the arc of the boot in the second panel leads perfectly into the tumbling body of the officer in the third. It’s graceful, easy to follow, and exciting as hell.
That kind of tight action is all over this issue, proving that it’s not just a comic book that wants to make a point about the strength and character of black men. It’s also a fun superhero story. However, I think my favorite turn in the issue is Kareem accepting his charge, not because it’s novel for a person to have superpowers, but because it’s novel for a black person to have superpowers.
That’s the reason Kareem becomes a hero, so that’s also the reason to read this comic. It’s a powerful reminder that representation can be it’s own raison d’être.
Drew! There’s so much I didn’t touch here. I think the nature of Kareem’s vision is absolutely fascinating because it drifts away from so many versions of the idyllic peaceful life that you’d see in stories with white protagonists. I find it particularly interesting that Osajyefo writes out the old woman’s dialect when no other characters exhibit any kind of affected speech. What do you think is going on there? Also, gotta ask what you make of the black and white — it’s such a striking choice — and that cover with the red accents is fucking heartstopping — but I was curious if you could find more meaning or utility in that choice.
Drew: I think the most obvious is that it is indeed a striking choice. Four-color printing has been the norm for superheroes since the very inception of the genre, so presenting a superhero story in this richly inked greytone makes it immediately stand out from the crowd. We’re aware something is different about it before we know anything about it — a telling metaphor for the prejudices its characters face. Interestingly, while the superhero genre has been around for over 75 years, the technology to print grey tones accurately and consistently is relatively new, suggesting that this story couldn’t have been told with this level of nuance until recently. To me, that resonates both with the quality of race relations — we weren’t ready for this conversation 30 years ago — and the role technology has played in exposing exactly the kind of police actions that this issue depicts.
Black and white also has associations with other genres; horror and manga immediately spring to mind, but it’s really anything that wouldn’t have the production budget of the big two — for all of the advances in printing technology, color printing is still a heck of a lot more expensive. That may suggest a utilitarian source for the decision — as a kickstarted project, there wouldn’t have been a lot of money to pay those additional printing fees — but it also shores up the indie bona fides of this miniseries. Superhero comics were originally colored to appeal to children, and there’s still the attitude in some segments of the comics community that coloring is kids’ stuff — a criticism that no one would level against this series.
Additionally, while black and white photography has been all but reduced to an instagram filter, we still have associations with it. For older generations, those associations might be to a favorite film or tv show from their youth, but for my generation, there was really only one place where I saw black and white images with any regularity: newspapers. Improving printing quality has changed that, too, but I still tend to associate black and white images with newspaper photography, which is a fitting connection for a miniseries with such a ripped-from-the-headlines hook.
Whatever the reasons for the choice, Igle makes it absolutely sing. His linework is clean and dynamic, and the ink washes add depth and subtlety to his characters and their environment. Every page features this, so I’m just going to present my favorite:
I suppose I’m most impressed with the sense of motion Igle achieves throughout this sequence. Every panel exudes tense energy, and every shot is chosen just perfectly. Compare the panel of Kareem leaping from the ambulance to this promotional image from their kickstarter (maybe drawn by Smith, but there’s no credit listed on the site):
The high angle in this example completely loses the power of the leap that Igle so effortlessly captures in his low angle version of the same moment. It’s panels like that that make clear just how valuable a good artist can be, making just the right choices to imbue every moment with its maximum dramatic potential.
That’s not to say this issue represents a flawless performance. While the art on the whole was clear and precise, I was thrown for a loop on this page:
There’s no logical reading order. The way Kareem’s hand overlaps with panel three suggests you should read it before the panel of him being pushed. Instead, we have to override our innate desire to continue to the right and instead move down, but if we read the “WHAM!” panel before we move right, we again get the cause before the effect. Moreover, putting the “punchline” to this page in the bottom left corner completely bungles it; it should be the last thing we see on the page. I absolutely understand why Igle would want a tall vertical panel to capture Kareem’s fall — this is an artist who can’t help but make strong, dynamic choices — but with no cues as to when to read that panel, it mostly serves to push us out of the action. It’s an odd hiccup in an otherwise very strong first issue. It’s worth noting that while the storytelling in that sequence is less than ideal, Igle’s shot choices and brushwork are still stunning.
As Patrick mentioned, this issue largely boils down to an origin story — novel though that origin may be. We haven’t even learned the name of the Professor X/Nick Fury-type that recruits Kareem into his organization, let alone learned the motivations behind our mysterious villains. There’s still a lot to be fleshed out as this miniseries continues, but this is more than a strong enough showing to get me to come back for more.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?