Every two weeks, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it is Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart. Written by Kwanza Osajyefo (Black) with art by Jennifer Johnson, this original graphic novel introduces the first superhero sensation in a world in which only black people have superpowers. This review reveals major plot points.
Black isn’t a series that was developed in-house at Black Mask Studios, but largely thanks to its title, Black has become emblematic of its publisher. The comic began with a Kickstarter that made three times its goal, and Black Mask took notice of that demand and acquired the series for mass distribution. The concept from writer Kwanza Osajyefo and designer Tim Smith 3 garnered significant press by imagining a world in which superpowers exist and only black people have them. The publicity helped heighten Black Mask’s profile, reinforcing its position as an inclusive publisher of genre comics that pays attention to what is resonating with readers beyond the direct market.
The first collection of Black went on sale in November, and for the continuation of this story, Black Mask ditches the single-issue miniseries format in favor of an original graphic novel: Black [AF]: America’s Sweetheart. It’s a smart move that makes the book an immediate presence in libraries and bookstores, and on Amazon, giving it much more exposure than single issues that are only available in comic shops or on ComiXology. There’s a lot of time for momentum to die over the course of a monthly miniseries, but with an original graphic novel, Osajyefo, Smith 3, and artist Jennifer Johnson can quickly get a complete story in more hands, especially with a $9.99 price point. Original graphic novels are also far more attractive to younger readers, the target audience of Black [AF], despite the abbreviated profanity in its title (a strange choice considering this is a more kid-friendly interpretation of the Black universe).
While the main Black series introduced a large ensemble of superheroes and villains, Black [AF] homes in on a single new character: Eli Franklin, a 15-year-old girl who has had special abilities since she was a baby. The adopted child of a loving married couple, Eli is cut from the same cloth as Superman, and when she ends up in a superhero costume thanks to a mysterious metal ball left to her as a baby, she immediately flies into action as Good Girl. She’s the world’s first superhero, but she quickly learns the downside of popularity as the public’s reaction switches from praise to scrutiny.
There’s a lot of rich material to explore in this story, particularly in Eli’s relationship with social media and how that feeds her insecurities as an already alienated black girl. Eli is the only black child in a white adoptive family, and while she says she feels isolated, the reader doesn’t see many examples of it. Her personal life is almost entirely ignored. Her father works for the government and takes an active role in her life, especially after she becomes a public superhero, but otherwise the rest of her family members are blank slates, and she has no civilian friends. School is also a missing piece in this YA story; the responsibilities of being a hero somehow don’t conflict with the responsibilities of being a teen. That’s a valuable source of tension that Black [AF] lacks. There’s so much attention given to Eli’s superhero path that the story loses sight of her grounded, relatable side.
And yet, the reader doesn’t get to see Eli’s first act as a superhero either. She puts a derailing train back on its tracks, but that actual deed doesn’t appear in the panels. The sequence begins with a very slick establishing shot of the train under pink, purple, and teal clouds. Once the derailment happens, however, the action moves inside the train to show how people react to being saved. Maybe it’s a shortcut so that Johnson doesn’t have to spend her time on a complicated train rescue, but this is an important moment in Eli’s superhero career—when she discovers the triumphant thrill of saving the day—and all of that feeling is kept from the reader.
Eli begins as a vigilante before becoming a government sanctioned hero, yet it all happens so quickly that the emotional throughline of the story gets lost. What drives Eli beyond a vague desire to do good? Is there more to her beyond her Good Girl name? A character defined by pure goodness can be seen as a response to a society that regularly demonizes black people, but shades of gray are what make complex, captivating characters. By the end of the book, Eli has gone through a journey that saddles her with heavy baggage, which opens the door for the creative team to take a more introspective approach to Eli in future stories.
The big act three fight takes up nearly half the book, pages that would have been better used to establish the character dynamics and put readers deeper inside Eli’s world. While Johnson’s big strength as an artist is expression rather than action, she doesn’t get much opportunity to dig into meaty emotional material. The most intimate moments in the story, which actually occur during that fight, don’t have room to land in the barrage of violence and exposition. The stakes would be much higher if Eli had a meaningful relationship with another person in the story, but there aren’t any scenes in the first half that tug at the reader’s heartstrings.
This graphic novel has some of the same problems as another recent title spotlighting a female superhero of color: Marvel Comics’ America. Writer Gabby Rivera overstuffed the first arc of America to the point where the story became scattershot. Even though she had a distinct vision for the character, Rivera only gained the necessary focus as the series continued. A two-parter guest starring Kate “Hawkeye” Bishop had Rivera co-writing with Kelly Thompson, a that collaboration helped her gain a deeper understanding of comic book storytelling. The writing improved with every issue, with the series realizing its full potential in the back half of its 12-issue run. It got mystical. It got political. It developed a charming supporting cast and revealed new aspects of its lead hero.
Like America, Black [AF] has plenty of room for improvement, but one of the joys of serialized entertainment is seeing stories and creators evolve over time. Maybe there’s one scene of that first issue that works in a sea of bad or a character that shows promise in a miserable pilot. Checking out the second chapter, you discover that one good scene indicated the direction of the series. That promising character is a big part of the show. There’s an interesting conflict at the core of Black [AF], and Johnson is an artist with a deep skill set and strong storytelling instincts, so there’s reason to come back for a second installment if it happens. In Black, Osajyefo has already proven that he knows how to craft a politically and socially conscious superhero story with well-defined characters, and while that story also moves at a brisk pace, it takes time to let moments breathe and situate readers in a specific time and place. Like most 15-year-olds, Eli Franklin still has a big future ahead of her; it could be a bright one if her creators reveal her hidden depths.