Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans

Originally published in 1997, this updated cartoon history shows its age. The new cover, featuring a caricature of President Barack Obama, can’t disguise the interior pages of simplistic art from another era. Graphic novel readers are more sophisticated these days, with high-quality works to choose from, and this attempt to capitalize on trends doesn’t hold up to higher expectations. A decade ago, “oh, it’s a comic” would be creative and unusual; now, the question is, “is it a good comic?”

Still I Rise cover
Still I Rise
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On my first flip-through, I found the art off-putting, so much so that I had to force myself into the text. The illustrations are flat, with no visible grasp of the basics of anatomy, perspective, backgrounds, panel construction, or page layout. Characters vary grotesquely from panel to panel. Some don’t even resemble humans.

Much of the art is unnecessary, either simply illustrating the caption without adding any new understanding, or consisting of talking heads. When the art does add something new, it can be hard to understand what we’re supposed to be seeing.

I was also put off by the Foreword, by Charles Johnson, titled, “A Capsule History of Blacks in Comics”. Including this history is a terrific idea, even if it can only be a brief survey. However, it starts with the observation that the characters cartoonists create are often much better known than the artists are. That’s true, but to make the point by talking about Superman and misspelling co-creator Jerry Siegel’s name undercuts one’s authority. It could also be improved by adding images of the referenced cartoons, instead of simply describing them in most cases, and by updating it from the original mid-90s text.

Last page of the book

Last page of the book

Now, all that said, the content is interesting and informative, although it’s more inspirational than strictly historic. There’s a clear position taken, emphasizing triumph over struggles, no matter how severe, in a kind of uplift of the race approach. Even during the long years of slavery, the authors find optimism; they discuss how adversity spurred cultural developments, including music, culture, and technology. Readers will also learn of achievers and events rarely mentioned in other common sources of history.

The book has already found its audience among academia, with recommendations for use in classes and libraries. Although poorly done, the comic format does make history more fun to read.

Roland Laird is CEO of Posro Media. (The name was coined by turning the NEGative in negro to POSitive). This 2003 article covers the history of his company and the first edition of this book. Elihu “Adofo” Bey is credited with art for The Griots comic strip, launched in 1993 for black-owned newspapers. I’m guessing it’s no longer running, and I couldn’t find any samples of it on the web.

(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

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