“Your Black Friend,” one of the buzziest Comics in recent years, is by a young artist who cut his teeth in the anarchist-punk scene of New Orleans. Reading and discussing Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” with a friend in 2016, Ben Passmore realized, as he told an interviewer, the extent to which “we, black punks, live in a different world than our white friends.” With a comics festival on the horizon, Passmore, inspired, quickly drew and photocopied his missive of alienation to debut there. The 11-page story was soon reissued as a full-color pamphlet by Silver Sprocket (a tiny San Francisco-based comics publisher that is also a bicycle club and an activist collective) and it snapped up numerous industry awards. Now Passmore is out with YOUR BLACK FRIEND AND OTHER STRANGERS (Silver Sprocket, $20), a beautifully printed collection tackling dysphoria and difference.
Adapted earlier this year into a three-minute animated film, the titular “Your Black Friend” is a small masterpiece of storytelling, articulating the daily stress of one man’s social relationships with white people — even and especially “allies.” It uses the economy of comics — and its ability to deploy art and color to undercut its own prose voice — to present the discomforting relationship between those who move through the world feeling unmarked by racial expectations and those who have to contend with them at every turn.
“Your black friend is sitting in a coffee shop, your favorite coffee shop,” the story begins. Below this overarching narration, Passmore depicts the protagonist perched at a small table across from his white friend, a tattooed woman, and eating a po’ boy sandwich sneaked in from elsewhere. The scene is a rich turquoise defined with fluid black line art; only the friends’ bodies in the foreground exist in fuller color, the woman a blonde, her peachy-pink skin matching his T-shirt, his blackness signified by purple tones with black shading. The protagonist overhears a white customer explaining to the white barista how she saw a “sketchy guy,” whom she identifies as black, emerging with a bike from a nearby backyard and called the cops. The barista — with the little straight lines of surprise that Mort Walker called emanata issuing from the back of her head — identifies the man by name: He’s a regular customer who was emerging from his own backyard.
This sets the stage for the comic to identify other interactions whose dimensions the protagonist wishes he could make his white friend understand. “Your Black Friend” widens out to tell the Stories of other interactions in which white friends exhibit a whole host of bad behaviors and ignorant actions. A desire to “participate in ‘blackness,’ like it was a costume,” is often the culprit, the narrator muses, while they “wouldn’t want to live with the consequences of actually being black.”
The most prominent device of “Your Black Friend” is its conspicuous, insistent use of the intimate, accusatory “you” (“How you use him like an information desk for black people”; “When you forget yourself”). In this, as in many other aspects, it recalls Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen: An American Lyric,” which is also distinguished by its repeated “you” (as well as a focus on white friend failure, and the relationship between word and image). But Rankine’s “you” is largely an address to self while Passmore’s is an accusation that feels leveled at readers, pointing to their complicity. It is urgent and productively uncomfortable. “Your Black Friend” is not just a takedown: The narrator himself is vulnerable, as when he reveals that he feels personally mocked by his friend’s thoughtless “black” presentations, and that as a child he would suck his lips in to make them look thin like Leonardo DiCaprio’s.
Passmore presents an impressive range of work in the collection, which includes impressionistic one-page pieces. The best of these is a first-person meditation on his decision to cut contact with his white, Trump-supporting mother; brief but haunting, it stuck with me for a long time. The book also includes more sprawling sci-fi stories that showcase Passmore’s dense, colorful drawings; he’s clearly invested in genre, and there are echoes of Gary Panter’s fantastically dystopic “Jimbo” comic strip here. “I’m not really a reporter-type dude, I’m really into drawing mutants and people punching other people,” Passmore told Newsarama last year. But as “Your Black Friend” reveals, when Passmore observes daily life — reporting on its own kind of mutancy — his work explodes with force.
Vannak Anan Prum’s THE DEAD EYE AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA: A GRAPHIC MEMOIR OF MODERN SLAVERY (Seven Stories, $24.95) also centers on dispossession: In search of work, Prum left his Cambodian village, was lured into Thailand, and was captured by traffickers. He spent four years enslaved on an outlaw fishing vessel in the Indian Ocean. Throughout this grim, moving testimony, Prum stresses the power of drawing. As a boy, he etches pictures in the dirt with a stick. Repeatedly in his travails, art saves him or wins him better treatment, including when he finally returns home after a daring escape, and cannot explain in words, but must show, what happened to him.
The theme of drawing to live continues in WE SPOKE OUT: COMIC BOOKS AND THE HOLOCAUST (IDW, $49.99), an anthology of 18 stories from 1951 to 2008, which concludes with an account of the Auschwitz inmate Dina Babbitt, who was spared when Josef Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor, asked her to paint portraits. The book’s self-congratulatory tone lands the wrong way: The “we” of the title does not refer to survivors or witnesses but to cartoonists. Its premise, that these mainstream comics, of which all but two are fictional stories — many featuring fantasy — were received as historical education, often feels like an overstatement (the book also skirts around the titanic success of Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” which would have added depth to its claims about the reach of comics tackling the Holocaust). Still, the volume fascinates as a time capsule of what Americans were able or eager to imagine (some stories do not specify that the Nazis’ victims were Jews) about the racism and profound violence of genocide.
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