BLACK [AF]: AMERICA'S SWEETHEART By Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Sho Murase, Jennifer Johnson, David Sharpe, and Sarah Litt
BLACK [AF]: AMERICA'S SWEETHEART delivers powerful political commentary and a lovably optimistic young heroine. With brilliant art and writing, the comic makes difficult social justice issues accessible to all audiences.
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This month is Black History Month, a time to honor achievements of people in the African diaspora. In the United States, this month often celebrates black Americans who have shaped the country. As Black Lives Matter points out, it’s also a time to honor Black Futures and the possibilities of liberation. Arriving just in time is Black Mask Studios’ graphic novel BLACK [AF]: AMERICA’S SWEETHEART. The comic’s superpowered young heroine, Eli Franklin, is here to help readers dive into the month.

BLACK [AF]: AMERICA’S SWEETHEART comes from the team behind the hightly successful series BLACK. Writer Kwanza Osajyefo uses superpowers to represent the idea of difference that’s been projected onto black Americans for centuries. The original series criticizes police brutality, focusing on one young man’s persecution as a result of his race and powers. Likewise, this spin-off also uses superpowers as a symbol for difference. Writer Kwanza Osajyefo and teammates Tim Smith 3, Sho Murase, Jennifer Johnson, David Sharpe, and Sarah Litt have done it again. BLACK [AF] takes after the original series with sharp writing and engaging artwork.

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BLACK [AF]: A Wake-Up Call

BLACK [AF] brings readers a hopeful hero in a time when America needs to recognize and empower women of color. The comic’s protagonist is a refreshing take on the SUPERGIRL-type character. Despite the stress of being black in a mostly white family and community, she is cheerful and outgoing. BLACK [AF] follows Eli as she strives to become America’s superhero. She hopes to ease the fears following the exposure of “empowered blacks” (as Osajyefo names people of color with superpowers). Additionally, she faces a shocking enemy threatening to destroy her world. As the title suggests, Eli wants to be “America’s Sweetheart.” Her alter-ego Good Girl reflects her determination. However, the challenges Good Girl faces test her patriotism. 

The source of Eli’s powers is a mystery. Adopted as a baby, Eli encounters a few clues here and there. For example, Eli’s link to her parents is a whimsical silver orb, humorously named “B.O.B.” As she works to uncover the truth, she also confronts difficult questions. The graphic novel asks how black Americans can make positive social changes within a culture of white supremacy. Eli’s dreams of a better future capture the spirit of American superheroes. Thus the comic symbolically puts America’s future in the hands of young women of color. But the comic also demands that Eli and readers alike wake up to the reality of racism. As a result, BLACK [AF]: AMERICA’S SWEETHEART is an energizing and insightful comic.

Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios.

Exposing the Catch-22

Osajyefo portrays Eli as youthful for a reason. Eli carries a heavy plot for a young teenager. As she develops her mysterious abilities, she realizes she can be a force for good. Eli’s adoptive father is part of the government agency working to keep the superpowers secret. With his help, she becomes a certified American superhero. However, unsurprisingly, her popularity dips when white people start to believe she favors people of color. Thus, Osajyefo brilliantly calls out the cultural privileging of white Americans. Indeed, those with privilege often see any support for minorities as threatening.

BLACK [AF] exposes the catch-22 that black Americans face. Eli and other “empowered blacks” are seen as a threat to white patriarchal systems. Ironically, Eli’s work helps everyone. No matter how good Good Girl really is, as a young woman of color, she will be criticized.

Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios.
Eli runs into many other people with superpowers who wish to destroy American racism. However, not everyone has the same approach as she does. Eli has to choose between working from within the system or joining forces with those who fight against it. Indeed, Eli’s nemesis, Zion, wants to use her powers to violently destroy the sources of oppression. Zion does not care who gets hurt, as long as government control of superheroes ends. Others, including a group from the original comic series, want to help Eli outside of the government. BLACK [AF] carefully examines different types of revolutionary acts. Ultimately, this adds satisfying depth to the comic. 

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America’s Sweetheart?

BLACK [AF] does an excellent job of showing just how difficult Eli’s position is. Eli receives criticism from all sides. Other superheroes think Good Girl is being used since she’s a government-approved hero. While becoming America’s superhero, Eli faces the reality of America’s history of violence against people of color. Despite it all, she stays patriotic. BLACK [AF] suggests that being critical of a government does not negate patriotism. It even implies that the two are linked.

Ultimately, Eli wants to help people. Whether she does so from within the American government or not is the big question. Nevertheless, Eli’s patriotism demands that readers acknowledge black Americans as Americans. BLACK [AF] shows how America’s superhero and sweetheart can be a woman of color.

Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios.

BLACK [AF]: Art Meets Activism  

The artwork in BLACK [AF] balances drama with optimism. The comic’s bright and bubbly aesthetic matches Eli’s outlook. But the crisp character design and high-speed action scenes are appropriate for the superhero subject. Even the artwork engages a political side of the comic. For example, BLACK [AF] uses a lot of red, white, and blue, referencing American patriotism.

Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios.
Additionally, Sho Murase’s cover art for the series is similar to subversive British artist Banksy’s work. The stencil-like illustrations of Eli that grace BLACK [AF]’s cover shine brightly in pinks and purples. The connection to politically charged graffiti adds to the main theme of the comic. The cover highlights the eagles and stars on Good Girl’s outfit, showcasing Eli’s all-American identity. But the stencil format hints that she might be a subversive new heroine.

A New Generation’s Superhero

One of BLACK AF’s strengths is that it makes social justice issues accessible to younger readers. Osajyefo plays off the original series title “BLACK” adding a common acronym “AF” (meaning “as fuck”). As a result, the title is more playful, and clearly geared towards Millennial and Generation Z audiences. Eli also appeals to younger audiences; she is independent and loves tech.

Indeed, it would be hard not to love Eli. Despite being a bit of a misfit, she is an optimist. The bright colors in BLACK [AF] contrast with the black and white panels in the original series. In BLACK [AF], the opening panels focus on Eli’s early life. Designer Tim Smith 3 and illustrator Jennifer Johnson tell the story through Eli’s smartphone, in social media and texts. This acknowledges readers who get their news from phone apps and social media.

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Final Thoughts 

While BLACK [AF]: AMERICA’S SWEETHEART introduces Eli, perhaps future additions to the comic will develop other heroes and enemies. BLACK [AF] leaves readers wanting more. Hopefully, future issues will provide more details about Eli’s past and whether she keeps working for the government.

BLACK [AF] brilliantly points out social injustice in an accessible format. The comic’s determined heroine and moral questions make for a well-rounded story. Ultimately, BLACK [AF] reminds us that the criticisms of young black people are often based in white supremacy. Eli’s journey hints at a revolutionary way to look at patriotism.

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