Depicting a complex and underrepresented part of history is no easy feat, especially when it’s a history that one feels deeply connected to.
Yet, Clifton Park illustrator and fine artist Marcus Kwame Anderson has done just that with “The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History.”
Written by David F. Walker and illustrated by Anderson, it details the complex and often misrepresented history of the party, which was founded in 1966 in Oakland, California.
The initial intent was to help protect Black citizens from police brutality, though its aims expanded from there.
Anderson, a Jamaica native who grew up in the Capital Region, has been a professional illustrator since the early 2000s. His love for comics and illustration started at an early age and some of his favorite series were “Avengers” and X-Men.”
“I think I was drawn [to comics] because . . . it’s the perfect marriage of the literary and the visual arts,” Anderson said. “I loved reading prose and novels anyway so it wasn’t a big stretch. When I would read comic books, it felt like I was getting everything that I got from prose books and even a little bonus because there was cool artwork.”
Previously, he’s illustrated comics like “Snow Daze” and “Cash & Carrie.” Released earlier this year, “The Black Panther Party” was his first graphic novel with a major publisher and it was a weighty one to work on.
“This is history but it’s also living history. There are people still around who were there and so in a lot of ways I felt an extra responsibility to really try to be as accurate as possible,” Anderson said.
Both he and Walker did copious amounts of research to write and illustrate the book and they took a “warts and all” approach to the story, not shying away from the less positive aspects of the party’s history. In the graphic novel, they offer up biographical sketches of key people involved in the party, even people they don’t necessarily admire, like Eldridge Cleaver, who became the party’s minister of information.
“. . . Part of the issue that we were trying to rectify is that a lot of people don’t know much about the Panthers either way and a lot of the really negative ideas and overtones that have just been put out into the zeitgeist, either intentionally or unintentionally, have permeated with the lack of information and context that the average person has,” Anderson said. “Some of the ideas of them being scary and people who wanted to take over the country, those ideas really took hold more so than anything else. So there was a little bit of course correction we were trying to do, but we also were honest.”
They began working on the book in the summer of 2019 and continued through the summer of 2020, amid the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.
“Probably the biggest [challenge] is it’s emotionally heavy because you’re dealing with the idea that, while the Panthers weren’t perfect, . . . what they were fighting for and working for was really positive. It was essentially the idea that Black people deserve and need dignity, food, clothes and shelter and the same opportunity as everyone else,” Anderson said.
Those ideas were stated in the party’s Ten-Point Program, published soon after the party was founded and reproduced in full in “The Black Panther Party.”
“. . . those Ten Points, if you read it, they could be speaking about 2021. Obviously, the movements of today are different. Black Lives Matter isn’t exactly the same as the Black Panther movement but there is definitely a connective tissue,” Anderson said. “The biggest connective tissue is the circumstances have not changed enough. I think it’s maybe reductive to say they haven’t changed but they have not changed enough.”
Working on the project as people like George Floyd and others were killed at the hands of police last summer made some of the more painful parts of the party’s history feel even more relevant.
“We’re dealing with this history that is just all too familiar; it’s not even like a distant history or something I feel removed from,” Anderson said. “Even while I was creating the book, history didn’t stop and Black people were still dying.”
Since the book’s release, Anderson has gotten positive reviews and feedback. Publishers Weekly called it a “nuanced” and “accessible” history. “Artist Kwame Anderson balances text and images skillfully, and even the wordiest sections feel spacious, while he lends cinematic visual pacing to the many heated interactions between activists and police,” reads the review.
However, for Anderson, some of the most rewarding feedback has come from teachers, some of who say they’ve started using the book in their classrooms. As a teacher himself at Living Resources in Saratoga Springs, that’s gratifying news.
“The reception has been really positive and I’m humbled by that because I’ve felt fortunate enough to even be a part of it,” Anderson said.
On Saturday, starting at 1 p.m., he’ll be at the Open Door Bookstore for a book signing.
Throughout the late winter and early spring, he and Walker have done many virtual artist talks and events but Saturday’s will be the first in-person event he’s been able to have in celebration of the book’s publication.
To those interested in reading “The Black Panther Party,” Anderson recommends diving into it with an open mind.
“Come ready to learn some new things that you haven’t been exposed to and also after that, seek new information beyond just our book. It’s definitely not the end of what I think people should learn,” Anderson said.
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