Black Creator Spotlight: Ronald Wimberly

We all have those artists whose work we keep intending to read, but somehow they keep getting put off for one reason or another. For me, that was Ronald Wimberly, specifically his book Prince of Cats. I knew that I had to fill that gap in my comics reading, and so this second Black Creator Spotlight centers on Wimberly.

Ronald Wimberly is an award-winning comics artist whose work includes the aforementioned Prince of CatsBlack History In Its Own Words, and the ongoing LAAB project. LAAB is, in the words of its most recent Kickstarter campaign: “An annual broadsheet magazine full of art, comics, criticism, interviews.” When I was working at Comicopia, we got a stack of the first issue, and I was very impressed with the cohesiveness, clarity, and design sense of the magazine. Wimberly brings together many voices to talk on issues that are important to him, including Black identity. I had never seen anything like it in comics, and haven’t seen anyone doing something similar, either.

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I had read Wimberly’s Black History In Its Own Words a while ago, and I knew that I loved his artwork. I’ve since reread it for this post, and I have a more informed perspective on it in the face of current events and conversations around anti-racism. In short, the book is a compilation of portraits of influential Black people, accompanied by quotes that Wimberly found meaningful. Initially begun as a project for The Nib for Black History Month, Wimberly spun it out into a whole book to be published by Image Comics — drawings spanning three years of work. I especially appreciate that not all of the figures profiled are names well-known to the average white reader; Wimberly purposefully includes rappers, artists, and radical feminists in the mix of voices. I remember being surprised to learn that George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, was a Black man; as in so many aspects of my life, I assumed a white default. When I first read this book, I think I considered it a cute quote book with exceptional artwork; now I realize that Wimberly was collecting a medley of Black voices for Black empowerment and reflection on Blackness. For me as a white woman, the book is an important reminder that even though it is not “for me,” there is plenty for me to learn from it, and from the wealth of influential Black figures both past and present.

Prince of Cats made me glad that I was forced to read Romeo & Juliet multiple times — a feat which middle and high school English classes could never achieve. Wimberly recasts the play with all Black characters, sets it in 1980s New York City, and centers his narrative on Tybalt. He mixes Shakespeare’s lofty prose with street talk in a melodious marriage that reinforces the Bard’s own sense of humor at times. (“Redeem thy kicks for thy skin.”) I found myself thinking of the 1996 movie adaptation of the play starring Leonardo DiCaprio a lot during this reading; Wimberly sets a stage that is more easily recognizable to a modern audience, and changes perspective to highlight the destruction of seemingly arbitrary demarcations of difference. The gang violence portrayed seemed much more real and pressing to me than the fruitless feud of the Montagues and Capulets in Shakespeare’s original play.

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And of course, Prince of Cats is visually incredible. Because of time constraints, I borrowed a digital copy of the comic from my library, even though it is not my preferred method of reading comics. The digital version has a unique feature that forced me to read most of the comic panel by panel, instead of page by page. Generally I take issue with this, because I know that artists put as much effort into page and panel layout as the illustrations themselves, and I know from LAAB that Wimberly has a strong sense of graphic design; however, this allowed me to get a much closer look at the little details he puts in every drawing. I love his use of thick black lines, his sense of movement. I was especially excited by the visual references to Japanese culture, including a few specifically to AkiraPrince of Cats is a celebration of Shakespeare, but also of hip-hop, samurai films, animation, and Blackness. It’s not a straight adaptation, but rather a work that breathes new life and meaning into what can feel like a stale play to many readers. (But maybe I’m biased; I prefer Hamlet.)

Wimberly recently had a comic of his pulled from the New York Times for its “controversial” image of a burning cop car. This page was the end of a series of diary comics, and it is disappointing (to say the least) that the Times decided that Wimberly’s very real, raw emotions about police brutality were deemed inappropriate. For those who want to experience more of Wimberly’s personal comics, and his ongoing work through LAAB, you can subscribe to his Patreon (where membership levels are “Alibi,” Co-defendant,” and “Co-conspirator”), follow him on Instagram, and/or follow him on Twitter.

[Note: Wimberly does not have direct links to purchase Black History In Its Own Words or Prince of Cats through his own website or social media profiles. Instead of linking to their Image Comics pages, I encourage interested readers to get in touch with Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse, a Black woman owned comic shop out of Philadelphia, PA. Their website says that Prince of Cats is currently out of stock, but many shops are willing to place special orders for customers. And regardless, they’re a good shop to support!]

 

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!

The Black Creator Spotlight Series

I started this blog with the express intention of highlighting the comic works of marginalized creators, of lauding the works of women, queer folks, and people of color. The recent conversations around racism in the United States have left me with the realization that I have grown complacent in my coverage, and have not done my part in reviewing the works of Black creators. My expertise is around manga, a comic medium that comes from Japan and therefore is authored chiefly by Japanese creators — though often filtered through the translations and editorial work of white people. But when I consider how I can use my skills to help the conversation about anti-Black racism moving, I keep coming up with my writing about comics.

And so, I want to introduce a new type of column to this blog, where I consciously choose to highlight a specific Black comics creator at least once a month. I know that my platform is not huge, but this format helps not only to spread the word, but also to hold myself accountable to read Black-authored comics. No matter how diverse I think my shelf is, it has been humbling to dig deeper and realize that an overwhelming number of my favorite “diverse” comics are authored by white folks. And while I don’t think there’s anything wrong with white people writing about diverse characters (in fact, I think it’s overall a good thing), it’s not the same as reading works by creators of color, who also deserve to be heard.

My goal in featuring Black creators, as opposed to individual works by Black artists, is to make readers more aware of the creators themselves and go and support those individual creators. For these posts I will not be using my affiliate links, but rather links to the creators’ personal websites, shops, Patreon/Ko-Fi accounts, and so on. I will use this introductory post as a sort of index, updating it with links to each post as I write them.

Read and support Black comics creators.

Black voices matter.

Black Lives Matter.

The Series:

Bianca Xunise
Ronald Wimberly