26th Jan2021

‘The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History’ Review

by Dean Fuller

Written by David Walker | Art by Marcus Kwame Anderson | Published by Ten Speed Press

When anyone talks about sequential art, comics, or graphic novels these days, the first thing that comes into everyone’s mind is, of course, superheroes. Since comic books as an industry established itself in the 1930’s, superheroes have been the mainstay and money earner. They’ve never been the only genre though. We’ve had westerns, crime, horror, science fiction, classic literature, and an often overlooked genre, non-fiction or factual books. Factual comics, or sequential art used to tell a factual story, are as old as all the other genre’s yet get far less attention. This is a genuine shame, as I think comic books as an educational tool are completely under-utilised and underappreciated. Proof of this lies in this very book. I learnt more about the Black Panther Party, about its rise and fall and all the bits in-between, reading this volume than every bit of information I’ve seen or read before combined.

The first thing to say, is this is not a glowing endorsement of the Black Panther movement by any means. David Walker has gone to great pains to be as objective as possible, relying on a retelling of the facts that show the main personalities in both a good and bad light. The book is chronicling the history, nothing more, and letting the reader make up his or her own mind. It’s a particularly relevant time for a book such as this to be published, coming as it does after recent controversies in the U.S over what you can only call unnecessary black deaths, culminating in the George Floyd killing by a Police officer kneeling on his neck. I read a lot of history, and one thing you often take away is that history goes in cycles, and the same issues in society that saw the Black Lives Matter rise to prominence last year, are not really much different than those that saw the formation of the Black Panther Party in 1966.

It didn’t all start there out of whole cloth of course. As David Walker shows, the United States was a country built on slavery from the very beginning, and the struggle for black equality and recognition literally took centuries. Everyone remembers the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln emancipating the slaves, but not so much the fact that even in the 1950’s full segregation existed in the South, until Rosa Parks sitting in a whites only seat on a bus sparked the Civil Rights movement fully. From early on, you had twin approaches. Martin Luther King preached action through non-violence, Malcolm X favoured direct action, using the violence of the Klan and its supporters back at it purely (as he saw it) to have an equal footing. Against all this civil rights unrest, Oakland, California natives Bobby Seale and Huey Newton decided to form the Black Panther Party for Self-Defence in 1966.

As with all movements, their early days were filled with idealism and lofty ambitions. Things like social freedom, employment for minorities, decent housing, education, though some demands were a little more far-fetched, such as freeing all black people from prison as they couldn’t have had a fair trial. Others started to join. Bobby Hutton notably, and they started to establish a presence on the streets, as did other black panther groups not connected to theirs. The quasi military appearance of the movement did scare many, and their militant directness didn’t win many friends from conservative society. Soon the politicians got involved, notably California Governor Ronald Reagan, and then the FBI under J Edgar Hoover. This is when the fast growing movement, mostly peaceful, was labelled as dangerous and subversive black nationalism, and Hoover wanted it disrupted and broken up.

It was interesting to compare the extremely heavy handed tactics employed by Hoover then, to combat black nationalism as an internal threat, and those powder puff measures implemented to combat white supremacists now. The election of Nixon didn’t help, as mainstream society skewed to the right after the civil right push of the early/ mid 1960’s. The Panthers continued, but internal fighting, FBI infiltration, and general bad publicity (often unfounded) notably from high profile court cases brought on flimsy evidence. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the movement, they were clearly set up. Although the ideals of the Party never died, as a movement it gradually faded away as its main leaders were imprisoned until it finally died officially in the 1980’s.

For me, this book did exactly what I guess David Walker and Marcus Kwame Anderson wanted, which is to give us a deeper insight and understanding into the Black Panthers, as individuals and a movement. They weren’t just a militant movement as portrayed by the authorities of the day, though they were indeed partly that, but also social pioneers in some ways. They ran programs to help the elderly, to offer free recycled clothing and shoes to those who needed it, free food programs, even free medical clinics. This predates a lot of the mainstream versions of those programs. They were formed from a place of anger, no doubt about that, and perhaps they could have tried to be more media/ mainstream society friendly, but that’s how they ended up having to do what they did in the first place I guess. This book will probably show some like m they were more than a militant group, and others that they did some bad as well as the good. They were neither heroes nor villains. Just people trying to do the best for themselves, and their communities at a time when no-one else was.

The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement now echoes in many ways the earlier Black Panther movement, albeit this time with more involvement and support from society at large. BLM is more mainstream than the Panthers ever were, although it still manages to threaten a certain section of American society even today. David Walker does a superb job telling this story, scrupulously fair in showing the good and bad, and the illustrations match the text perfectly. There’s obviously a lot of text in these 184 pages, but there’s not a page in the book where the art doesn’t feel organically connected to the writing. This was clearly a labour of love for the creators and it shows in every page.

If all history could be told in this way, in graphic novel format and distributed in schools to make learning difficult subjects easier, we would have better educated children, ones that could grow up to make the difference we never could.

Never underestimate the power of a message told with words and pictures.

***** 5/5

The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel Story is out now. Order your copy from Amazon.


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