Edited by Tom Pomplun
and Lance Tooks
Published by Eureka Productions (www.graphicclassics.com)
African American Classics is a nice anthology that spans the early African American history of literature, seemingly from the 1900s as late as the 1950s. All of the writers that you would expect would be there are there with one notable exception which I’ll get to later. (Spoiler Alert: Where in the Hell is Richard Wright?)
The kinds of writers that an English Major like myself would recognize include Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Claude McCay and Paul Lawrence Dunbar. The comix anthology also featured a number of other African American writers that I wasn’t as aware of such as Robert Bagnall, Ethel Caution, Leila Amos Pendleton and Frances E. W. Harper.
Overall, I found it an interesting mix of stories and artistic styles. I guess the overall problem is that its meant to be well meaning when a lot of really good works of fiction just don’t feature the well meaning, but the complex, wrong headed and the angry. This has become a Dexter Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Boardwalk Empire kind of world.
Just from a personal standpoint, for example, I thought “Lex Talionis”, arguably one of the first science fiction stories penned by an African American was the best of the lot. “Lex Talionis” means “Eye for an Eye”. It features a white bad guy who hates black people, even the clearly Superior Paul Robeson like character who makes up the story’s black protagonist. It touches upon a number of issues about how fragile black life was (and still is some would argue but the one’s pointing the guns have changed…) in the south, whose lives were valuable and whose weren’t and a nice rewrite of the non fiction book “Black Like Me.” It also features a diabolical black scientist who metes out rough justice. Loved it.
I also thought that all of the poetry pieces were done extremely well. They just seemed to fit and they featured arguably the best artwork in the book. Here’s a one page poem by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. High quality stuff.
Now, again just from a personal standpoint, there were some stories that just didn’t work for me all that well. For example, I’ve always liked Zora Neale Hurston the person while not caring for anything she actually writes. If she was writing now, then she would be writing for Tyler Perry, who while fabulously wealthy is just a terrible gawdawful writer. Another story called “The Two Americans” has a perverse feel good politics where a black World War one soldier saves the life of a white soldier who helped lynch and burn his brother alive. Oh, did I mention that the black soldier dies in the process of saving the white lyncher? Really? Because I wouldn’t have saved that guy. I’m also trying to think how that would have happened in that there wasn’t integration in the military until well after WW2 (although there were separate but equal blacks only units…)and I’m not certain there were even black only units fighting in WW1, where this is set in 1918.
It also has the anthology’s constant problem in that when you get a lot of stories you get a lot of mixed bag results, with good story/bad art or bad story/inspired art, which gets you a middle review.
The unforgivable element of the work is that there simply isn’t any Richard Wright, who I think is the most talented African American writer before 1950. Wright is probably most known for “Native Son” and “Black Boy”. I also liked and respected “American Hunger”. But he’s done just tons of nonfiction work and short stories that should make its way into any anthology of black fiction.
I guess if they do another one, which I would like to see, then I would hope that they would take a shot at illustrating early African American nonfiction from the likes of Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas and Du Bois, whose most important work was analysis. Harvey Pekar and Ed Piskor have shown us how to illustrate historical non fiction. And don’t forget Richard Wright, jeez. I have to admit that I was more impressed with the science fiction stories in the print anthology “Dark Matters” than I was with this but that anthology wasn’t limited to any particular time.
Overall, because of the unevenness and because of my personal tastes then I would give it 3.75 stars out of 5. You should buy it just to support this kind of work though, unless you want all your black comic book characters to have something to do with static lightening of some sort or the other. Please do more editions, and feature modern writers, even Richard Wright…