Graphic novels intertwine words and illustrations to allow their authors to say what they need to without descriptions. Their audiences don’t need to imagine their worlds; they can see them. Art and words are used strategically to tell stories. Simplicity and silence, lavish details, and verbose prose, or vice versa, tell these histories.
The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History by David F. Walker
Reviewed by Pallavi Yetur
Graphic novels contain multitudes. Comic book writer Alan Moore, who penned the groundbreaking Watchmen series-turned-graphic novel from 1986 to 1987, has lamented the term “graphic novel” as a marketing ploy devised to inflate a comic’s status and price tag. Meanwhile, authors seeking to provide alternative reading experiences increasingly embrace the form, perhaps hoping to reach wider audiences in an almost post-literate world.
Through meticulous research, complete with comprehensive bibliography, writer David F. Walker and illustrator Marcus Kwame Anderson give us the graphic novel as a history textbook in their recent release, The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. The educational tone coupled with stylized drawings cater to the wishes of our eight-year-old selves even as they urge the reexamination of a history in the margins. Recounting key events in the formation and eventual dissolution of the Black Panther Party, the book offers a distilled overview of Black oppression in America. Its pages hold valuable context behind incidents depicted in some of this past season’s Oscar-hopeful films, minus the dramatic flair and without the comic book grit.
Is this restraint by design? Can a graphic novel be as poignant without incessant action sequences? The form seems to be used here for the sake of accessibility, avoiding gratuitousness. In their reportage of the internal conflicts, tragic deaths, and egregious police and government overreach that plagued the Black Panther Party, Walker and Anderson are perhaps making a point about sensationalism, that the facts should be enough without a play-by-play. The exhaustion Walker expresses in his afterword, written during the protests that erupted after George Floyd’s murder, confirms his intent to expose the repetition of history—the murder of Black people—without retraumatizing. Even in his emotion, he continues to serve up facts, culminating in the reality that “what the Panthers wanted in 1966, we still want now.”
INFINITUM: An Afrofuturist Tale by Tim Fielder
Reviewed by Katie Gilligan
Tim Fielder’s new Afrofuturist graphic novel, INFINITUM, is an epic saga that is equal parts historical fiction, sci-fi fantasy, and superhero origin story. But don’t expect any panels or thought bubbles in these pages. This gorgeous graphic novel is filled with over two hundred fully rendered, full-page illustrations depicting the story of Aja Oba, an African king cursed with immortality and forced to bear witness to centuries of political upheaval and racial turmoil.
King Oba and Queen Lewa are an African monarchy revered for their ruthless military tactics and political prowess—a real power couple. But after a sorceress curses Oba with immortality, he finds himself forced to spend centuries in mourning as his loved ones die around him again and again, and he must adapt to a constantly changing, often dangerous world. Through Oba, a Black man whose life cannot possibly be taken, INFINITUM explores the complexities of racism and colonialism by merging supernatural fantasy with our own heartbreaking reality, past and present.
At one point, Oba expresses that witnessing the expanse of time has given him “a voyeur’s perspective,” and it is precisely this voyeur’s perspective that makes INFINITUM such a unique reading experience. Oba’s journey spans centuries, often against a backdrop of violence and racial injustice, including being enslaved during the transatlantic slave trade. Yet because of his curse, Oba witnesses the world as a Black man with absolutely no fear of death. History is rarely told through the Black perspective, but the immortal Oba is a witness to a timeline of important moments in Black history and is often an impartial and reliable narrator.
From ancient Africa to epic cosmic battles, and all the twists and turns along the way, INFINITUM is a visually-stunning exploration of the pasts, presents, and most importantly, the futures of Black people.
Feelings: A Story in Seasons by Manjit Thapp
Reviewed by Lilliana Winkworth
After a year of isolation, there is no better novel to heal the wounds of forced self-reflection than author and illustrator Manjit Thapp’s Feelings. Thapp’s artistic ode to a year of emotions through the changing seasons was not written with a global pandemic in mind, yet its release date fell at the start of March 2021, the first anniversary of many’s loneliest year to date.
Thapp dedicates Feelings to those that, aptly, “feel all the feels.” In her work, she skillfully intertwines those feels with the natural world, benchmarking the ups and downs of existence with a six-season calendar: Summer, Late Summer, Monsoon, Fall, Winter, and Spring. This structure was inspired by the calendars “used by some in South Asia,” as Thapp notes, and allows for a beautifully-nuanced look at a calendar year. The subtlest of emotional transitions are given room to bloom as the carefree confidence of an early Summer sun becomes an overbearing nuisance as the heat of Late Summer rises.
While the work feels autobiographical, Thapp notes that the woman on the page is a representation of “many important parts” of her, with the hope that readers will see themselves in her. This choice connects with the work on a larger scale, as Thapp’s illustrations and writing walk the line of exploring feelings of isolation and community. In the Monsoon season, she reaches out to friends and, as she shares her feelings, she realizes that her friends feel the same. In Winter, she reflects on how she’s not “alone . . . but lonely all the same.”
With Feelings, Thapp illustrates that anxiety is something shared, not something isolating. Under a gray, cloudy sky, stress can feel all-consuming. Thapp’s work illustrates that all clouds are temporary and asks the reader to take a deep breath and to nurture yourself so that, come Spring, you can blossom.
Thirsty Mermaids by Kat Leyh
Reviewed by Daniela Z. Montes
Thirsty Mermaids, by Kat Leyh, revolves around Pearl, Tooth, and Eez, mermaids who are looking for booze and decide to try their luck as humans to get it. After a night of debauchery, stolen identity, and fun the three end up moving in with Vivi, the bartender at The Thirsty Mermaid.
Leyh’s characters are all distinct and individualistic. Ranging from who they love to what they look like, they create a picture of diversity in the seaside town. This acceptance, despite their differences, is a breath of fresh air for the trio since their merworld is rife with biases of social structure. Even Eez, who faced the most prejudice in the merworld, is mostly accepted in the human world (they ask her to cover up her chest). While this acceptance makes her feel welcome and able to lean on Vivi, Eez is not at ease in her human form. This discomfort and insecurity leads to some tension.
Leyh also turns the tables on protagonist and side character tropes. In other stories, the trio would have been sidekicks—Pearl and Tooth due to their brash exterior, Eez her quiet nature—but here they shine. They are a family and showcase the best example of what that means. They understand and respect Vivi’s boundaries, including getting jobs when she asks them to help pay rent.
More than anything, Thirsty Mermaids is about love, acceptance, and growth. Vivi accepts the trio despite not believing they were mermaids at first, openly welcoming them into her home. Pearl and Tooth realize their shortcomings as friends, then pay more attention to Eez. The reader sees the love between friends, chosen family, and the romantic love between two queer couples. Most importantly, all of these forms of love exist without question or complaint. Even the complicated love between Eez and the mysterious Aunties is accepted.
Paired with beautiful art, Thirsty Mermaids is a heartwarming tale about friends and the family we choose.
Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices, curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Like the authors and their characters, each of our reviewers comes from a marginalized or underrepresented group. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.