Blackward is a graphic novel that snuck up on me. I was excited to read a story about a group of Black, queer friends and was thrilled to end up with that, plus a beautiful message about how you can’t build a community without help.
Eight years prior to the main story, Lika, Amor, Tony, and Lala met at a reading camp at their local community center. Today, they still hang out at the center and are trying to build a space called The Section for other people like them — Black, queer, and weird. The group hits a roadblock when they’re banned after an altercation with a homophobic, older, Black man and the White “ally” who follows him around. So, the rest of the story is about how they find the right space and event programming that will help them build The Section the way they’ve always dreamed. And what could be more perfect than throwing an all-Black, queer-friendly zinefest named Blackward?
Lika is the closest this band of buds has to a leader. She’s sweet and anxious, so badly wanting to do a good job with their community organizing. Amor is the smooth one of the group, living up to their name as they flirt with strangers and pump up the rest of the friend group. Tony is always skateboarding and down for anything his friends are interested in doing. Lala is a goth punk with a reputation in the neighborhood for being scary, and she isn’t afraid to call out bullshit or fight when the moment calls for it.
Left to right: Amor, Lika, Tony, Lala
Of the main group, I identified most with Lika. She so keenly wants The Section to become the space she’s needed for so long and sometimes her anxiety gets the better of her. We really see that come to light as rude, throwaway comments from strangers feel like big, scary attacks.
As much as I love Lika, Lala is the one I’d want with me if I was ever walking into a tense situation. She is punk as fuck, both in her outward appearance and her demeanor, and she isn’t afraid to punch someone who is bigger and meaner than her. Lala’s edge is balanced by her heart, because she clearly loves her friends and would never let anyone from outside the group mess with them.
My favorite character, however, is hands down Mr. Marcus. He was their facilitator at reading camp all those years ago and they’re still in touch with him. Mr. Marcus runs a local independent bookstore called Books ’N Thangs and he also runs regular book fairs to give local kids a safe and clean space to connect with books. At a couple of points, he tells the group to let him know if they need his help and it’s through him that the key theme of the story comes out: you can’t organize and build a community without leaning on others. As much as I love everything else about this book, this theme made me fall truly in love with it. While we’re all looking for a place to belong and sometimes we have to build that place, we don’t have to do it alone because there’s probably a Mr. Marcus in our orbit.
I also found it really interesting that the event they throw as a way of getting the word out about The Section is a zine fest. For anyone not familiar, zines are self-published works that can include stories, poetry, recipes, or anything really (Book Riot has a great short piece on the history of zines if you want to know more). Zines have had an important role in community building in the punk scene of the 1980s and the queercore scene of the 1990s, so to see a zine fest focused exclusively on Black creators who don’t always feel like they belong is exciting.
The art style brings all of the above to life, which is especially important because there isn’t a ton of dialogue in Blackward. The use of color is incredible, shifting from vibrant shades in the story’s main timeline to muted and/or pastel shades in flashbacks. The art style is like a mood ring, too, because it often shifts from panel to panel, depending on the emotion of the characters or what will deliver the most impact in a scene. This includes aspects like the line width used in panels, shading techniques, exaggeration of features, and more. I found the ever-changing art style so interesting that I read Blackward very slowly my first time, just to take it all in (I’ve read it three times, so far).
As I mentioned in the CW and the synopsis, there are a few villains in Blackward. Thankfully they were developed carefully enough that we can see and understand the harms that these people represent, without having to spend a ton of time with them. One is the older Black man who is extremely homophobic to the group at the community center. He’s very loud and proud about being a strong Black man, and is especially proud when he gets them banned from the center. His sidekick is a skinny, man-bun-sporting White guy in a Black Lives Matter t-shirt who practically trips over himself to support the older Black man because he’s so proud of his allyship, while either ignoring or missing the fact that he’s NOT being an ally to the four other Black people who are being harmed in the moment. Later in the story, some rando shows up at one of their meetings just to tell them they’re sinners and to repent.
Through these interactions, we see the extra layers of discrimination that some Black queer people face that straight Black people or queer White people won’t experience. As a White person who’s given up on the term “ally,” because I don’t believe it’s a title that can be claimed (read more on that), I especially appreciated that Blackward lays out the absurdity of performative allyship with clarity and humor.
The “ally” character’s words and actions highlight how some White people will claim gratitude for learning without actually doing anything to help the group we say we’re an ally to. Moreover, that character clarifies how “solidarity” can make things worse when we don’t look more closely at the dynamics at work in a situation. Also, in case anyone else has religious trauma like me and is worried about the random bible thumper, I found him so over-the-top ridiculous that it wasn’t triggering at all.
One final note, before I wrap this up: the dialogue is largely written in African American Vernacular (AAVE). AAVE is a set of dialects, each with their own regional differences. I had some familiarity with the grammar rules, but it had been awhile and I was struggling to remember some of them. If you don’t know much about the grammar rules of AAVE, I recommend checking out this resource before reading Blackward. It was very helpful as a refresher of rules and meaning, plus it’s only 6 pages, it’s super digestible, and it will make your reading experience so much better.
Blackward was the balm I needed for these scary times we’re living in. The art enthralled and inspired me, and the message about building community by getting support from others gave me hope. And, it was a happy surprise that my 8-year-old loved it just as much as I did. Blackward’s recommended reading age is 14 and up, but if you have a precocious reader in your life and are up for talking to them about meaty subject matter like homophobia, mental health issues, and belonging, I recommend reading it with them, too. Now excuse me while I ask my local library to stock it, so more people will have access, because everyone needs inspiration these days.