BLACK vol. 1 by Kwanza Osajyefo, Tim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, and Khary Randolph
Finding new ways to look at superheroes is hard to do. BLACK vol. 1, by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith 3, gives us an enlightening work. Let me tell you, this story is perfect for any superhero lover.
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Reinventing Superheroes
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Writer’s Note: This comic and its message are especially meaningful to me. I have previously written on it, which lead to me speaking with the creative team. Although I have spoken with them before, I reviewed this comic honestly. I find it’s message to be important and necessary for us, as a society, to grow.

Historically, comics have made political statements. After all, the medium began as small political cartoons. When looking at these comics through a modern lens, the imprint of society and ideals of the time are visible. Whether it is THE YELLOW KID by Richard F. Outcault or THE CROWN COVERS A MULTITUDE OF SHORTCOMINGS by Thomas Nast, we can look at these old comics and see how the creators perceived their world. Black Mask’s BLACK vol. 1, by Kwanza OsajyefoTim Smith 3, Jamal Igle, and Khary Randolph also leaves an impression of modern society for future generations to learn from and enjoy.

No better reflection of society is seen than in superheroes. They’ve been around for almost 100 years and mirror the desires of society at that time. In BLACK, Osajyefo and Smith 3 reinvent the concept of superheroes and where superpowers come from. Together, Osajyefo, Smith 3, and the rest of the creative team give us a story that will make you think about how you see the world.

Addressing Racial Trauma in BLACK

Black Males, 20s, Basketball Shorts and T-Shirts

BLACK vol. 1 collects issues #1 to #6. The story begins with Kareem Jenkins walking home from playing basketball with friends. Unfortunately, while searching for a robbery suspect with the cliché description of “young black male wearing a hoodie,” officers profile Kareem and his friends as the suspects. Never mind the fact that there was only one suspect. The boys are shot multiple times and presumed dead. However, Kareem wakes up while in the ambulance. He bursts out of the ambulance and escapes, eventually meeting up with Jeremiah, leader of a group called The Project.

Black Vol. 1
Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios

The purpose of The Project is to protect the world’s biggest secret: only black people have superpowers. These powers are genetic, altering DNA on a molecular scale. Kareem learns that he is one of the most powerful people The Project has ever met. Therefore, this power attracts an evil government office, run by Director Mann, who will stop at nothing to catch him. The government wants to run tests on these super people and find how their powers work. Will Kareem be able to avoid Mann? Does The Project really have good intentions? You’ll have to read the story to find out!

History in BLACK and White

The story highlights historic as well as present struggles black people face, creating a space for these stories within comic book history. The comic constantly illuminates different moments in history through subtleties. For example, the government is testing on incarcerated superpeople without their consent. This testing is reminiscent of instances such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. Both times, the government has decided to test on a venerable demographic without consent. It brings to mind medical victims like Henrietta Lacks and medical offenders like James Marion Sims. These are names that history constantly forgets and overlooks, but should absolutely be taught.

Furthermore, BLACK also reinvents the superhero trope. Since only black people have powers, it puts a mirror up to the comic industry itself. It is only recently the comic book industry is opening the door to more diverse superheroes. Historically, people of color were side characters within popular comics. Even Black Panther started out as a token character for the Fantastic Four. BLACK, however, changes this and centers the story completely around the black experience in America. This recentering creates a mirror to look at companies like Marvel Entertainment or DC Comics, with a fumbling from DC being a catalyst for BLACK’s creation. Instead of tokenizing the characters, BLACK gives black comic characters personalities and personhood.

The only (minor) downside is that although there is a big cast, readers don’t get to see or learn as much about the other characters. Although they may come up later, I would have liked to know more about characters like Hood Rat. It’s also possible that I’m just impatient; I like to know things right away, and I wanted to know these characters so badly. However, since the creators are creating a whole new universe, it’s more than likely we will meet them again. And I look forward to learning more about them!

Jamal Igle Interview at NYCC 2016

Art Makes the Story in BLACK vol. 1

The story utilizes black and white watercolors to create a realistic blend of tones. This makes the characters feel real. Bringing realism to the story is totally necessary to convey their point. What strikes me as most interesting is that Kareem never uses his powers in an aggressive manner. Anytime he is seen using his powers, it is always an act of defense or escape. This builds on who Kareem is, showing that he is not trying to have problems. He isn’t trying to fight or hurt anyone. He just wants a normal, American life, which isn’t asking too much. The imagery of Kareem breaking doors, running from cops, and lifting large objects is reminiscent of any superhero comic. The primary difference is Kareem never uses it to attack.

Image courtesy of Black Mask Studios

BLACK vol. 1 provides each cover right before each chapter begins. These covers by Randolph are crucial as they create their own narrative as well as further the story. If you look at each cover in issue order, they tell the story of black people within American history. From lynchings to present activism, the covers emphasize the struggle black people have been facing for centuries, the same struggle American society has been trying to ignore. The cover for issue #6 is the most powerful. It ties all of the covers together, creating an empowered Kareem attempting to uplift his people.

Khary Randolph Interview at Five Points Festival 2017

BLACK is Beautiful

BLACK vol. 1 is a wonderful work that every comic book reader should try. Although the history and meanings can be hard to find, it is a necessary text. The school systems have failed in teaching history of diverse people. The suffering Americans cause, the people we ignore, these are things that we should be taught. Osajyefo, Smith 3, et al. give us this history and provide some room for discussion and growth. This is an opportunity we, as a society, should not squander. In order to further ourselves as a society, we have to learn to stop and listen to what oppressed or disenfranchised groups have to say. Otherwise, we’ll never be able to better ourselves.

The comic presents the question of whether or not complete emancipation from an oppressor is the correct response, or if outright retaliation is the best course of action. Kareem convinces us there is a space somewhere in the middle between these two ideas: we just have to find it.

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