Marcus Kwame Anderson is the artist behind The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. Along with writer David F. Walker, Anderson tackles an immense complicated subject, a story that isn’t just a historical topic, but remains very contemporary.
The research required to even start such a project and the skill with which Anderson is able to play with page design and layout is striking. He has an incredible eye and a visual sense that is playful, even though he’s addressing topics that are difficult. Anderson is best known as the artist behind comics like Snow Daze and Cash and Carrie, but with this book his work has reached a new level.
We had the opportunity to speak recently about what the project required and what he took away from the experience.
How did you come to comics?
I grew up liking comics like a lot of other people. My parents are immigrants from Jamaica so there was a big emphasis on finding a good career that’s profitable and secure. Being a comic book artist wasn’t necessarily that. I went to college and majored in traditional illustration. After graduation I found a graphic design job, but I always loved comics. When I got out of school, a friend of mine was making a zine. I illustrated some short comics which jump-started my interest in creating comics again. Then my friend, Leo, had an idea he was kicking around. I was busy at the time and we didn’t do much with that idea, but things aligned when he came to me with the concept for Snow Daze years later. Snow Daze really got me into the practice of working on comics and seeing a book through from start to finish.
How did you and David connect?
Years ago he gave Snow Daze a shout-out. David is really supportive of other creators. If he comes across a comic and likes it, he’ll tweet about it. This blew my mind at the time, because before we’d ever spoken he tweeted about how he liked Snow Daze and he urged people to check it out on comiXology. That was really cool because I was a fan of his work. That doesn’t happen every day.
A little bit later I interviewed him for a podcast that I host and we spoke about his Shaft comic and his work on Cyborg. We were familiar with one another and were keeping up on each other’s work. A couple years ago he reached out to me to do a few illustrations for his webcomic Discombobulated. That was the first time we ever worked together on anything. For The Black Panther Party he reached out to me and asked if I’d be okay submitting some samples of mine to a publisher. He wasn’t able to tell me at the time what the project would be, but that later became this project.
I commented to David that this is in a lot of ways the biggest project he’s tried to do and I’ll say the same to you. This is a big undertaking.
I worked on this book for over a year. I kept my head down and was living this project, so I didn’t have time to think about the enormity of it all. I felt a huge sense of responsibility in telling the history of the Panthers. Most people have an incomplete idea of the party and there are a lot of misconceptions. There’s that weight of wanting to do right by them in telling the story. It’s a huge undertaking. Definitely worth it. After my work was done I finally had time to think about how huge of an undertaking it was.
One reason is the sheer volume of information. There are pages where half the page is text but you keep finding different and interesting ways to arrange pages and convey these details.
Thanks. That’s one of the things I love about creating comics. Just the challenge of it. It’s like solving a puzzle. You could just draw a grid, and some people do that marvelously, but the amount of text in our book called for creative layout solutions. That’s how I ended up lettering the book. As I worked I just decided to put the text on the page to give me an idea of how the text would balance with the images. David and the publisher were happy with how everything looked so my lettering ended up in the final version. I put a lot of thought into keeping readers engaged as they read.
You also had this massive a cast of people and you don’t have this intensely detailed style, but you manage to draw each person an individual without being a caricature in a way that’s hard.
As a reader of comics a big thing is to have characters be distinct and not be confused as a reader. I tried to make sure everyone is distinct. Then there was the added challenge of having to represent real people. For people like Huey Newton or Bobby Seale, there’s tons of photographic reference, but we had a few individuals, Tarika Lewis being one, where there was almost no photographic reference. We had to do some detective work. The research side of this book was pretty heavy. I would watch documentaries and go, okay, these people were there on that day. That’s how we found out an image for Tarika Lewis, in one scene of a documentary, which helped me to capture her likeness in the book.
For a book like this, I’m sure David has piles of books and as you had to figure out how to portray these events, what did you need as far as research in order to start drawing?
David gave me a bunch of images that he had compiled, and I found a lot on my own. As David was writing the book, he gave me a completed chapter so I could start to work out my style. I have my style that I’ve used in other comics, but I wanted to figure out how my style was going to translate to this particular story. The first chapter he gave me was where the Panthers have their first encounter with the police. It was a good starting point because it’s one of the traditional comic book storytelling sequences in the book. As I worked on it, it gave me a chance to figure out how to represent things. It took place outside the Panthers’ first headquarters. I was able to figure out what the building looked like for the most part, but I also spent time trying to find out the layout of the neighborhood. I asked David and he told me something that was very freeing at the time. He said, just draw a general neighborhood. You’ve got the building. If we worry about every detail, we’ll never finish the book. That represents the balance I had to find in doing the book because you aren’t going to be able to find reference for everything during that time period. I tried to represent landmarks the best I could, as well as the hallmarks of the era when it comes to cars and clothing. But I also allowed myself to say, I’ll just draw a city block. I found a balance between telling a story and not feeling like I had to draw everything exactly as it was, because that’s impossible.
I imagine this is a project where if you waited until you were completely comfortable with every last detail, you would never start.
Besides being a story about people who are still alive, events that people remember, this is a very contemporary story. One can’t tell or read about Fred Hampton or some of the police attacks without seeing the present reflected in them.
I’ve always used art to tackle different issues that were important to me. To represent Black people and tell stories that weren’t being told. As I got back into comics, the stories I was telling were great but they weren’t necessarily meeting that part of my creativity. So this project was perfect. We were dealing with issues that are always relevant in America. The way Black communities are always over-policed. Events really hit a crescendo in 2020 at a time when I was knee deep in the book. The uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder fueled me and drove me over the finish line. You mentioned the Fred Hampton chapter, which was one of the toughest to do. Not technically, but emotionally. I was drawing that during the spring when everything was happening. In some ways it was cathartic, because I had somewhere to put my energy. I have all these feelings knowing that there’s a certain threat level on my life that not everybody experiences. Telling this story gave me something to do with those feelings.
It sounds like this has been a big project and really represents the kind of work you want to do going forward.
Yes. Like I said, my creative interests have gone in that direction. I have used my art and my creativity for community projects and projects with young people. One of the most rewarding things about this book by far is teachers reaching out to me to say, I’m going to be teaching it this semester. Yesterday I got a message from an adult saying they were going to get copies for all the teenagers in their family. That is beyond rewarding. I loved the comics I had when I was a kid. But I didn’t have anything like this. It is a turning point, and I would love to tell more stories like this. It’s been very rewarding.
I’m sure with your day job, you’re busy, but is there anything else you’re working on right now?
I am in the process of finishing the second issue of Snowdaze. I’m aiming to have that done in the next month. I just have to ink it. I’m doing that around my full time job. I’m working on a bunch of freelance projects. But finishing Snowdaze is the main thing right now. I have a bunch of stories in the back of my mind, but I probably won’t get to those until after the next graphic novel that I’m working on with David.
In the process of making this book, was there a person or story that you didn’t know about or grew to appreciate in a new way?
I knew about a lot of people going in, but as I was working on the project I learned a couple things. I wasn’t familiar with the whole incident when they went to the state capitol and how that transpired. How the police arrested the Panthers after the incident at a gas station – and the police literally arrested all the Black people at the gas station. They arrested people who didn’t even know who the Panthers were and were just there pumping gas. There are obvious parallels with Jan. 6, and it’s infuriating because the Panthers didn’t hurt anybody. They were dealt with very swiftly by the law. But in January in D.C., you had these people creating carnage and they’re barely being dealt with. It’s a very stark indicator of the double standards in our society.
I already knew about Fred Hampton and appreciated him as a person who was tireless and fearless in standing up for oppressed people, but the more research I did, the more I appreciated him. And his courage. There are a lot of easier things he could have been doing with his life, but he wanted to make a difference. And that led to him being targeted and killed.
The other thing I learned about wasn’t a person but the Kerner Commission. It so clearly articulated today’s problems – as well as yesterday’s problems. For me that just really illustrated the ways that everything happening is happening because the right people aren’t listening. The issues were diagnosed decades ago. But the powers that be aren’t doing anything about it. That part is tough.