Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Review - Black [AF]: America's Sweetheart (@blackmaskstudio)


"My name is Eli Franklin, I'm fifteen, and I don't think I'm like most girls in Helena, Montana."

America has a lot of issues with its identity. Many (most) of them are rooted in centuries old stereotypes and prejudices that are derived from a different era. Despite the best efforts of some, there are others desperately clinging to the way things were which makes a book like Black [AF]: America's Sweetheart from Black Mask Studios all the more relevant. The issue is written by Kwanza Osajyefo, illustrated by Jennifer Johnson and lettered by David Sharpe.

Eli Franklin is a 15-year-old girl living in rural Montana–and she just happens to be the most powerful person on the planet. In the aftermath of the world learning that only black people have superpowers, Eli makes her debut as the superhero Good Girl, on a mission to help people and quell the fear of empowered blacks. When a super-terrorist threatens to take away everything Eli has worked toward, will donning a patriotic costume be enough for her to find acceptance?

Osajyefo readily acknowledges that his work is pretty intense and deeply rooted in modern-day societal stigmas. The book embraces the world where only black people have superpowers, but Osajyefo sort of upends everything else about the main character Eli Franklin. Eli lives in rural Montana and is the most powerful being in the planet with Osajyefo characterizing her as someone who genuinely wants to do good and help the helpless. What's really powerful about Black [AF]: America's Sweetheart is Osajyefo's take on how everyone else reacts to her decisions--for instance, she largely helps other black people primarily because they're in more precarious situations where help isn't as readily (or willing) available and the optics are bad. Osajyefo knows that perception is reality and the fact that Eli is an American symbol who only "helps" black people brings with it plenty of angst on the part of the public in the sense that they feel they're being excluded. It's a brilliant subversion of the concept of white privilege in that Osajyefo puts all the power in Eli and--despite the public's disagreement with her choices--still need her to save the world from her enemy.

There's no better way to say it: Johnson absolutely slays the illustrations. Her approach doesn't rely on well-defined lines and all the players are illustrated in a way that they sort of blend in with their settings. The book is loaded with epic battles as well with Johnson following along with the action rather flawlessly, allowing the reader to feel the weight behind the punches and damage of the explosions. Panels are arranged with a sense of tempo to them in that Johnson mixes up the layouts from page to page in order to best capture the kinetics of the action on the page. And the colors are bold; they're simple sure, but extremely effective at evoking a sense of patriotism in their emphasis on reds, whites and blues.

Saying there's a lot to unpack in Black [AF]: America's Sweetheart is an understatement. Eli is an extremely powerful being with a pure heart, wanting to help out her fellow civilians regardless of their station in life. Osajyefo's script is lean and laser-focused in its assessment of race in the modern age, even if it is a sobering and sad realization that this is really the kind of world we live in nowadays. Johnson's artwork is gorgeous and fits the tone of the book extremely well. Black [AF]: America's Sweetheart is a very powerful read that plays out as a capes and tights book on its surface before revealing itself as a much deeper social commentary.

Black: America's Sweetheart is available now.

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