Here are some of my favorite comics that tell stories about politics, race, social change, activism, and justice – all the good and bad that goes with our world’s history on those issues. The way my life is organized these days, it’s tough for me to write reviews. So some of the books below have them, some do not, but I love them all. I hope you find something new and interesting to read here!
Before we jump in:
- All comics here can be bought as graphic novels/collections, not only as single issues. Your library may own many of these!
- Amazon links are affiliate links.
- Any questions, corrections, recommendations? Let me know via my contact form.
“Thirteen-year-old Mei reimagines the myths of Paul Bunyan as starring a Chinese heroine while she works in a Sierra Nevada logging camp in 1885.
Aware of the racial tumult in the years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Mei tries to remain blissfully focused on her job, her close friendship with the camp foreman’s daughter, and telling stories about Paul Bunyan–reinvented as Po Pan Yin (Auntie Po), an elderly Chinese matriarch.
Anchoring herself with stories of Auntie Po, Mei navigates the difficulty and politics of lumber camp work and her growing romantic feelings for her friend Bee. The Legend of Auntie Po is about who gets to own a myth, and about immigrant families and communities holding on to rituals and traditions while staking out their own place in America.”
Two traveling African-American blues musicians. White racism. This isn’t going to end well. It’s set in the early 20th century in Arkansas and it doesn’t flinch from showing the ugly brutality of racist violence. But instead of relying on violence for shock value, Bluesman centers the human experience of Lem Taylor, one of the musicians. The story takes him on an epic journey which sadly has no happy ending. The illustrations are dark and somber, in keeping with the tragedy of the plot, and the woodcut / printing style helps set the time period. Vollmar and Callejo include some historical background notes, sparingly, not overwhelming the action or the emotion of the book. I appreciated it, since I wasn’t very familiar with the specific setting for the story. I was impressed with the craftsmanship here, and I can forgive Vollmar and Callejo for kicking me right in the heart at the end. It had to be done.
Bluesman is available in a collected edition linked above, but it was previously published as three volumes.
Superheroes? Yes! Superhero comics that push back against stereotypes? Even more yes! I am not always a big fan of anthologies, but there were a number of short stories here that I would have bought immediately if they were ongoing series. This was a groundbreaking collection when it was published in 2018, and remains an important and entertaining work in the genre. It isn’t preachy, it’s action-packed, funny, satirical, and heartfelt. Shattered, the sequel, had a hard act to follow, but I found a good number of new-to-me creators to love there as well. Well worth your time if you’re a superhero fan, or even if you’re not.
Incognegro drew me back to comics after several years when nothing interested me. The story is intense beyond words. It’s a mystery, a crime and detective story, and a reminder of the deep horror of how African-Americans have been treated throughout U.S. history. It’s set in the 1930s. Zane Pinchback is an African-American reporter who has skin light enough to “pass” for white, working in New York. He travels to Mississippi when his brother is accused of murdering a white woman. Johnson was inspired by the real life stories of Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, who made similar trips to investigate lynchings.
For those interested in crime or mystery stories or American history, this is a must-read. It’s violent, but not without purpose. Johnson is an award-winning writer and writing professor, and he handles this story beautifully. Pleece’s art looks appropriate for the setting without appearing dated. They’re both exceptionally talented, and I’ve enjoyed following their work on other projects after I read this.
Make sure you get the 10th anniversary edition, published in early 2018, for the best reading experience. A companion series, Incognegro: Renaissance, is being published as well, so I’m looking forward to that.
“Mira Jacob’s touching, often humorous, and utterly unique graphic memoir takes readers on her journey as a first-generation American. At an increasingly fraught time for immigrants and their families, Good Talk delves into the difficult conversations about race, sex, love, and family that seem to be unavoidable these days.
Inspired by her popular BuzzFeed piece ’37 Difficult Questions from My Mixed-Raced Son,’ here are Jacob’s responses to her six-year-old, Zakir, who asks if the new president hates brown boys like him; uncomfortable relationship advice from her parents, who came to the United States from India one month into their arranged marriage; and the imaginary therapy sessions she has with celebrities from Bill Murray to Madonna. Jacob also investigates her own past, from her memories of being the only non-white fifth grader to win a Daughters of the American Revolution essay contest to how it felt to be a brown-skinned New Yorker on 9/11. As earnest and moving as they are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, these are the stories that have formed one American life.”
A dark Southern fantasy about race. A young girl, Lee Wagstaff, journeys into a parallel world to save her innocent father from being hanged for the murder of a white girl. Violence pervades this world of anthropomorphized animals and monsters, just as it does her reality, but she won’t give up. Love is a gifted storyteller and a capable artist. His scenes are grotesque and menacing where they need to be, and sweet where Lee and her family connect with each other. I can tell I’m missing some of the layers while reading it, due to my own ignorance, because so much history and mythology is clearly wrapped up in Lee’s journey. It’s a compelling story, though, even if like me you don’t know enough to fully process all the references.
The only problem: Bayou was never completed. The two printed volumes, and the Comixology run of issues #1-15, each collect all the material that seems to have been published, and it’s been 5+ years since the last issue. I’m glad I read it anyway, but I know for some of y’all the lack of an ending would be understandably annoying.
Neal Barton has two problems. One, he’s a fantasy-loving smart liberal kid trapped in a scary little Christian conservative town. Two, he he has a super-negative attitude towards life. The attitude may well be an effect of the town, but as various people around him gently point out, it’s keeping him from enjoying the good things there are in his life.
In fairly quick succession, three things happen to change Neal’s life. His gay best friend is sent to military school by his conservative parents. (Actually a relief for the friend, honestly, given the level of conflict at home.) He starts high school, which means meeting a bunch of kids who were in other middle schools. And town politics erupt over an attack on his favorite series, The Adventures of Apathea Ravenchilde, by conservative town citizens trying to save children from the evils of witchcraft by having it removed from the library. Neal has to find the strength to do two things simultaneously: make new friends, and stand up against censorship.
I love so many of the characters here, especially Neal’s mom and the town’s youth librarian who is SUCH a fangirl it’s not even funny. In this book, young people aren’t viewed as second class citizens by the good adults, and that’s refreshing. The small town politics and conservative outrage are pitch perfect, especially in the City Council meetings, which echo a lot of the arguments I remember from my time growing up in the conservative Christian suburbs of Houston, Texas.
Bonus: a gay teen character who may not have the parents he’d choose, but who does not become tragic.
Americus is complete in one volume.
March is a trilogy covering the life and work of Representative John Lewis, a pioneer in the Civil Rights movement. This series has gotten a lot of attention, and sparked renewed interest in civil rights and activism. The book jacket for the first volume says it’s “rooted in Lewis’ personal story” and that’s true. It starts with him, with his life and contributions, but it tells a much bigger story.
The first volume felt a little like background to me, but the storytelling in the second volume really started to pop. You wouldn’t fully appreciate it without the lessons from the first volume, so props to Rep. Lewis and co-author Aydin for knowing how to bring the reader to that place. The story of the Civil Rights movement they share doesn’t just recount historical events, but opens a window into how social change movements and personalities shape each other. Powell is such a talented artist that I had forgotten the art was black, white, and grayscale until I started flipping through again. That says a lot about how powerfully he depicted the events! A must-read.
“For the past fifty years, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld have been hunting Nazis all across the globe. But their story isn’t just about justice. It’s about love. Beate, a German journalist and activist born in Berlin as the War began; and Serge, a Romanian-born French-Jewish lawyer whose father was deported and killed by the Nazis: a couple brought together by—and tested by—dangerous endeavors. They started out by challenging Nazi propaganda in the 1960s and before they knew it, this vibrant couple had devoted their entire lives to investigating and documenting countless Nazi war criminals and bringing them to justice for their unacknowledged and incomprehensible hate crimes committed decades before.”
“When Kim Hyun Sook started college in 1983 she was ready for her world to open up. After acing her exams and sort-of convincing her traditional mother that it was a good idea for a woman to go to college, she looked forward to soaking up the ideas of Western Literature far from the drudgery she was promised at her family’s restaurant. But literature class would prove to be just the start of a massive turning point, still focused on reading but with life-or-death stakes she never could have imagined.
This was during South Korea’s Fifth Republic, a military regime that entrenched its power through censorship, torture, and the murder of protestors. In this charged political climate, with Molotov cocktails flying and fellow students disappearing for hours and returning with bruises, Hyun Sook sought refuge in the comfort of books. When the handsome young editor of the school newspaper invited her to his reading group, she expected to pop into the cafeteria to talk about Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Scarlet Letter. Instead she found herself hiding in a basement as the youngest member of an underground banned book club. And as Hyun Sook soon discovered, in a totalitarian regime, the delights of discovering great works of illicit literature are quickly overshadowed by fear and violence as the walls close in.”
Three interconnected stories about being who you are, and how painfully hard that can be – especially when stereotypes chase you everywhere you go. This is the comic to read if you don’t believe comics can be serious literature, because that’s only one of the many stereotypes it blows away. Already very well known, but such an amazing book that I couldn’t refrain from recommending it here.
American Born Chinese is complete in one volume.
That concludes today’s roundup of comics about politics, race, and activism that I love and recommend!