Black Creator Spotlight: Bianca Xunise

I’m kicking off the Black Creator Spotlight with a profile on Bianca Xunise, a Chicago-based artist whom I have followed on Twitter and Instagram for years now. I initially began following her because of her involvement in the Chicago goth scene, and for her punk and goth related jokes, outfits, and musings. In the course of the last few years, I have been treated to her comics as well, many which center around her experiences with racism, sexism, and mental health. Xunise is a cartoonist whose work has appeared in many places including Vogue and The Washington Post, though you may recognize it most readily from The Nib.

A few weeks ago, I finally purchased four of Xunise’s mini-comics through her Gumroad: The Ignatz Award-winning Say Her NameRock Against RacismGothThrob Magazine #1, and The Devil’s Music. Having paid attention to her posts, I knew what to expect and that I would enjoy it. In fact, I hope to one day re-purchase all four, along with more of her other works, in a physical format.

Xunise’s artwork reminds me, favorably, of Charles Schultz’s Peanuts. Her figures have sweet round faces and the easily readable facial expressions that are essential to the cartoon medium. A major important difference is that Xunise’s focus is frequently autobiographical, centering the narrative on the experiences of being a Black woman in the alternative music scene, rather than on a little white boy in Everytown, USA, with only one Black neighbor. Her straightforwardness and willingness to be vulnerable with her audience about her life give her comics the weight of truth.

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Say Her Name, a 2017 Ignatz winner, contains several short stories in which Xunise uses anecdotes from her own life to illustrate the larger, systemic issue of racism in America. The first story relates Xunise’s fears for her brothers in the wake of the shootings of young men like Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Philando Castile, as well as her father’s run-in with a police officer who mistook him for another Black man. She discovers that even she, model citizen though she is, is not immune to the judgments of the police. She also details an incident of microaggressions around Halloween, and the time her childhood friend levied a slur at her, effectively ending their friendship.

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Xunise learns as a teen that her own mother had a similar experience when she was young, common ground that has likely existed between Black parents and their children for generations. Xunise’s relationship with her mother seems complex, and she touches more on her mother’s parenting style in The Devil’s Music, where she reveals her mother’s preoccupation with her return to the Christian church. This dedication to her religion meant that Xunise’s mother did not allow secular music in the house — unless it was from her own childhood. This seems like an unlikely origin story for a person with so much pop culture knowledge, but it is Xunise’s deep understanding of music history that drew me to her work in the first place.

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To that end, I was very drawn to Rock Against Racism, which appealed to my interest in music and history. Somehow, I came in to this mini not knowing much about the Rock Against Racism movement (just a passing reference here and there), and Xunise lays out the basics in a clear, engaging way. She reminds readers that music has always been political, for better or for worse. Beginning with the story of a drunken hate speech from Eric Clapton in 1976, Xunise then launches into the various counterculture music movements that sprung up in the 70s and 80s. I especially appreciate the way she highlights musicians of color who are too frequently overlooked in such overviews of music history. I know that I am guilty of not paying attention to such artists, and Xunise’s brief profiles of artists like Mona Baptiste, Pauline Black, and Steel Pulse (as well as her discussions about them and others on Twitter) have inspired me to dig a little deeper when looking for something to listen to.

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After all, music is the main reason I started following Xunise. I was really excited to read GothThrob Magazine #1, which talks about her various gothy loves. Included in this list are Dave Vanian of The Damned (pictured on the zine’s cover), the Mothman, and the Chicago goth scene itself. The tone of this mini is much lighter than the others, a sweet indulgence that moves beyond Xunise’s worries and woes to her joys. She makes a point to talk about two incredible Black woman musicians who helped shape rock music: Sister Rosetta Tharpe (one of the first musicians to play the electric guitar way back in 1945) and the exuberant Poly Styrene, of the punk band X-Ray Spex. Xunise is flexible in her definition of punk music to being more about pushing against the system that solely focused on a style of music, a philosophy which I share and am glad to see touted by an artist I respect so much.

Recently, Xunise hosted a “Comics as Resistance” workshop with The Believer, which you can watch here. If you do watch, I encourage you to support her Patreon. Using comics as a form of protest or resistance highlights Xunise’s background as a person in the alternative scene, conjuring up images of punk zine fests. Though Xunise definitely fits into that category as a punk creator, I would say that in many ways her work bridges a gap, pulling readers into her orbit who might not otherwise have experience in the goth or punk arena with her incredible ability to reach out authentically to her audience. Once again, it is her deep knowledge and openness of heart that keep me coming back for more of her work. I will absolutely be keeping a close eye on her career; I can’t wait to see what she has on the horizon!

May & June Favorites

Toward the end of May I began to lose steam on writing, partially because of mom duties, but chiefly because of current events — namely, the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent protests. Between the fight for racial justice, the extremely blatant displays of police brutality, and the ever-looming specter of COVID-19, there were so many things going on in the world that were so much more important than my opinions on comic books. I needed to step back for a little while so that I could more actively engage with what was happening.

To help hold myself accountable to continuing anti-racism work, I will be starting the Black Creator Spotlight series in July, with the intention of featuring a new Black comics creator once a month. As always, I have a lot of lofty goals for this blog that may be upended by motherhood, but this is important to me. I hope it will inspire readers to branch out in their comic book choices. While I continue to search for ways to be helpful, this is one way I can use my skills to uplift Black artists. I also intend on continuing my Comics Lockdown series, as it seems that we’ll be in COVID hell for a while longer, at least here in the US. I’m working on being better about scheduling my posts regularly so that I can balance all this new content I want to bring to the site.

Needless to say, since this is a two-month favorites post, there are a lot of comics on the list! And as June is Pride month, a lot of them are queer or queer-adjacent. That wasn’t really intentional, since I try to keep up with new and upcoming releases and queer content is what publishers have been putting out. But it’s a happy coincidence, and I hope that Pride helped to reinvigorate and inspire the community to keep striving for positive change for all people in all walks of life.

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Lowriders in Space — by Cathy Camper & Raúl the Third, published by Chronicle Books

The Lowriders books were something I had intended to read for a long time. Raúl is a Boston-area local, and he visited Comicopia several times while I worked there. In addition to being a warm and friendly person, his artwork is just so beautiful, and I love the fact that he illustrates the Lowriders series with only ballpoint pens. Lowriders in Space is the first book in the series, and I finally read it when I was gathering titles for the “Middle Reader Mayhem” installment of the Comics Lockdown series. It follows Lupe Impala, El Chavo Flapjack, and Elirio Malaria as they trick out a new ride to win a car competition to fund their very own garage. They inadvertently rocket into space in their lowrider, decking it out with Mars dust and constellations, and avoiding a black hole with the clever use of white-out. This is the kind of comic kids clamor for, with wild adventure and new ideas. The essay in the back about lowrider culture is one of my favorite parts, as the whole story is a love letter to the drivers who want to ride bajito y suavecito.

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Love Me for Who I Am, Volume 1 — by Kata Konayama, published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I will admit to very nearly skipping this manga over because of the suggestive cover, which I think does not help the manga’s chances. I was actually really impressed by the story, so glad that I got over my biases a little bit to check it out. It revolves around Mogumo, a non-binary high school student who feels as though they are not understood by any of their peers. Their classmate, Tetsu, decides to invite Mogumo to work at his older brother’s maid cafe — a cafe where all the staff are otokonoko, or boys who dress like girls. Upon learning the nature of the cafe, Mogumo insists that they are neither a boy or a girl, that they like wearing girls’ clothes because they feel better on, but that’s not how they identify either. As a result of this declaration, readers are able to learn more about the various identities of the characters at the cafe. It’s a really sweet, non-judgmental exploration of different gender expressions that doesn’t shy away from how difficult it can be to break away from the binary and forge your own path.

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BL Metamorphosis, Volume 1 — by Kaori Tsurutani, published by Seven Seas Entertainment

I was so thrilled when I heard that this series had been licensed, and the first installment has only made me more certain that it’s exactly what the North American manga market needs. Ichinoi is a seventy-five-year-old calligraphy teacher who lives alone after the death of her husband. She happens into a bookstore on a whim, and seeing the manga on display, remembers her own youth reading comics. She picks up a manga and loves the artwork on the cover so much that she decides to buy it. While reading, she discovers that it’s a boys’ love manga, something she had never read before — but she’s so invested in the romance! She goes back to the bookstore to get the following volumes, and she ends up befriending the teenage store clerk, Urara, who is also a BL fangirl. I love how the delicate artwork compliments the gentle story of a wholesome friendship borne out of love of a not-so-wholesome genre of manga. As a protagonist, Ichinoi is treated as a whole, complete character, whose everyday difficulties are portrayed with compassion, and whose personhood is well-developed. I’m really eager for the next volume in this series, when Ichinoi and Urara find themselves at a doujinshi event!

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Rock Against Racism — by Bianca Xunise, available on her Gumroad shop

Bianca Xunise will be the first Black comics creator I cover in my Black Creator Spotlight series, but I wanted to take a moment to talk about her zine Rock Against Racism anyway. I really loved all four of the digital mini-comics I bought from her, but this one was a blend of a few of my favorite things: rock music, history, and comics. As much of a history lover as I am, I have to admit that I didn’t know much of anything about the Rock Against Racism movement, and Xunise laid it all out in clear, simple terms for readers in this mini. I’ve long admired how her adorable artwork simultaneously helps to teach and console her readers on issues of racism and sexism, and her knowledge of the alt music scene gives her a unique perspective.

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Goodbye, My Rose Garden, Volume 1 — by Dr. Pepperco, published by Seven Seas Entertainment

In the past, I have bemoaned the state of yuri manga. So much of it feels either like it’s pandering to the male gaze, or that it treats lesbianism as a “phase” that one grows out of after middle or high school. So I’ve been really pleased by some recent offerings in the genre. In particular, Goodbye, My Rose Garden speaks directly to my interests in literature, English nobility, and history in general. Hanako is a young Japanese woman who has traveled to England in an attempt to get her novel manuscript published. She is especially interested in having her favorite author, Victor Franks, read it and offer his critique. When she is told in no uncertain terms that Mr. Franks will not see anyone and has not time to read other authors’ work, she is despondent. But a young noblewoman by the name of Alice Douglas notices the entire exchange and, impressed with Hanako’s single-mindedness and ability to speak her mind, offers Hanako a job as her personal maid. Hanako gratefully accepts, and the stage is set for a turn-of-the-century melodrama, in which Hanako tries to help her mistress, who wants nothing more than to die because she is bound by duty to marry a man she does not love. I feel like a broken record every time I say it, but it’s such a relief to have queer romances set anywhere other than a modern high school, and it’s clear that Dr. Pepperco has done their research on the time period. Looking forward to seeing where this one goes!

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Fangs — by Sarah Andersen, published by Andrews McMeel Publishing (available September 1, 2020)

I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t recognize Sarah Andersen’s “Sarah Scribbles,” a quasi-autobiographical webcomic chock full of relatable content. Andersen brings her impeccable sense of humor and her appealing artwork to Fangs, which unites Elsie the vampire and Jim the werewolf in a spooky-cute romance. There is a vague time progression, but the story is mostly just vignettes about Elsie and Jim’s day-to-day interactions, learning how to navigate each others’ quirks, just like in any relationship. The catch is that those quirks mean Elsie can’t wear silver jewelry, Jim can’t open the curtains during the day, and no one ever sees Jim’s mysterious new girlfriend. This kind of sweet monster stuff is completely my jam, and I think it definitely has a solid spot amidst the modern fascination with the supernatural. The comics are available on Tapas already, but a physical collection is coming out in September!

Okay, that’s going to do it for May and June. I thought that having a baby would slow my book consumption, but it’s actually increased somehow. I hope to keep up that energy going forward so that I can have lots to recommend each month! Thanks for reading once again, and I hope you all keep an eye out for the Black Creator Spotlight series, starting (hopefully) at the end of this week!