Cartoonists Who Paint a New Picture of Racial Justice

By Jamilah King Aug 11, 2014

"We need diverse books. We need to make them, buy them, read them, review them, talk about them," award-winning cartoonist Gene Luen Yang told GalleyCat in describing his support for a social media campaign to diversify the publishing world. "Our world is colorful, so our books should be too." This summer, Yang teamed up with Sonny Liew to release a new graphic novel called "The Shadow Hero," based on a character named the Green Turtle who was first introduced by in the 1940s by pioneering Chinese-American cartoonist Chu Hing. The Green Turtle has since been dubbed the first Asian-American superhero by fans and prompted colorful dedications from artists across the genre. "Shadow Hero" is Yang’s third book; his last one, 2011"s "Boxers and Saints" was nominated for a National Book Award. His "American Born Chinese" came out in 2006. Yang is one of a handful of working cartoonists whose work about identity has blown up in recent years. He suspects that at least part of the reason can be found in America’s changing racial demographics. "I think [identity] is something we all deal with now," he told Colorlines over the phone. "I think that most of us have had some sort of experience when we’ve been some sort of minority for whatever reasons. It’s difficult to grow up now in a mono-ethnic culture. People are now realizing that identity is something you have to actively construct when you get older." Outside of the heavily marketed superhero comics from Marvel and DC, graphic novels are, sadly, as bad in the diversity department as other sectors of the publishing industry. While people of color make up 30 percent of America’s population, only 10percent of children’s books — which categorizes graphic novels — contain multicultural content, according to an infographic from Lee and Lows. But, according to Yang, that’s quickly changing. "The kinds of stories that are being in told have grown by leaps and bounds since I was a kid growing up in the ’80s," he says.Here are a handful of graphic novels that deal with some aspect of racial justice, whether it’s an individual identity or a community coming to terms with itself.


The Shadow Hero (2014)

Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew

In 2013, when Yang’s "Boxers and Saints" was nominated for a National Book Award, he ruminated a bit on what he’s learned from his characters, almost all of whom are Asian and grappling with their identity. "You learn something about yourself every time you write," he told William Alexander of the National Book Foundation. "I think that’s what storytelling is. You’re trying to figure out what it means to be human. Identity, culture, and belief crop up again and again in my comics. I don’t consciously choose to write about those themes. They just sort of… emerge."

A Most Imperfect Union (2014)

Ilan Stavans and Lalo Alcaraz

imperfectunion_080814.jpgThe New York Times called "A Most Imperfect Union" a "witty alternative history of the United States." And it’s no wonder: Authour Lalo Alcaraz has built up a well-earned reputation as a genius. "Our heritage is complex and sometimes confusing," . co-author IIan Stavans told the Times. "But then so is the history of this nation." 

The Silence of Our Friends (2012)

Mark Long, Jim Demonakos, Nate Powell

silenceof_080714.jpgTelling the story of segregated Houston in 1968 was no easy task. But Nate Powell and Mark Long, two white authors, felt compelled excavate this part of their own Southern histories in order to show their stake in the fight for racial justice. "It was a unique time of upheaval and self-discovery," Long told Graphic Novel Reporter about witnessing the Civil Rights struggle as a child in 1968.

March (2013)

John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell


Rep. John Lewis wants to make sure that younger generations know his story–he was a rabble-rousing young organizer with the Student Non-Violence Coordinating Committee (SNCC) during the civil rights movement. So he took an unconventional step in 2013 and released a graphic novel detailing his role in planning the movement’s iconic marches. "As much as this is a story about the civil rights movement … it allows young people who read it today to shake off that mindset that they are powerless," Lewis told Roll Call.

Demon (2014)

Jason Shiga

demon_080814.jpgIn a review of "The Shadow Hero," Jason Shiga wrote on this blog, "It’s a great children’s comic, but also a great story about Asian-American identity and the immigrant experience," noting that growing up, "my heroes were never Asian." The main character of his new webcomic "Demon" probably isn’t all that heroic and not exactly a role model for kids, but it was called "hilariously ghastly" by Lauren Davis at iO9. "Demon" follows Jimmy Yee, a guy who keeps trying, and keeps failing, to kill himself. It’s painfully good stuff. 

Zots: Serpent and Shield (2013)

Daniel and Jorge Parada

zots_080814.jpgThis story focuses on the brutal beginnings of America, namely the 16th century Spanish invasion and decimation of the Mayans. "I tried to get away from [the stories of human sacrifices] and show other parts of the culture, the philosophy, the poetry to give it a context and not be biased," Parada told Mission Local of Zots.