In his introduction to Your Black Friend and Other Strangers, author and illustrator Ben Passmore writes, “I know you picked this book up thinking you were gonna read a whole lot of wokeness from a mad inspired and inspiring melaninated revolutionary King” And I’ll admit, he was relatively spot on for me—I thought I would be reading a collection of comics that would educate me about my unintentional racism and about the lived experiences of Black people in America. Reflecting on that thought, it seems a rather stilted expectation; luckily the collection did that, but had even more to offer.
The original Your Black Friend by Passmore was published as a 12-page zine by Silver Sprocket in 2016. It was nominated for an Eisner, won an Ignatz Award, and made it on NPR’s 2017 list of 100 Favorite Comics and Graphic Novels. Your Black Friend and Other Strangers was republished in March 2018 as an anthology of Passmore’s previously published pieces, as well as some of his new work. In the title piece, which is summarized in this three-minute animated clip, Passmore narrates his experiences as “your Black friend,” navigating the constant spectrum of racial expectations White people have, regardless of whether they view themselves as allies.
Because I can’t describe it better myself, I leave Silver Sprocket’s description of the comic to list the topics included in the anthology: “race, gentrification, the prison system, online dating, gross punks, bad street art, kung fu movie references, beating up God, and lots of other grown-up stuff with refreshing doses of humor and lived relatability.” Also notable is Passmore’s warning in the Introduction that “There are a bunch of comics in here that are supposed to turn you into Anarchists.” My favorite pieces, like “A Letter from Stone Mountain Jail” or “Whose Free Speech?”, were those that were more narrative- or politically based, telling stories of Passmore’s experiences in protests or his reflections on what political movements (e.g., Black Lives Matter versus Antifa) might actually have a chance of making long-term impact. My least favorite were the ones that were most abstract, such as “A Pantomime Horse I” or “Goodbye.” I found myself just confused at the end of several pieces, flipping back through to see what I had missed.
Passmore’s art aligns with the genre of the piece he’s writing. The pieces that are based on experience have a more literal style of cityscapes and corner stores, with large blocks of small text providing background information. However, pieces like “It’s Not About You” or “The Punklord” are vibrant with color and abstract creatures and imagined settings. I like the punk influence of his art—the characters with mohawks, piercings, gauges, and tattoos—as well as just more “realistic” characters with beards, dreads, hoodies, and suspenders. There is some violence and “gore,” but most of that is relegated to the more fantastical pieces of the book. (However, at one point two punks do end up biting, shooting, then beheading a police officer… but when the characters look like they belong in a punk adult version of the 90s Doug cartoon, it’s not as gory.)
Both the art and the writing ask for your attention in more than one sitting. I read the collection in one sitting, and it was a lot to take in. However, I will return to it in bits and pieces. There may be some parts that I never understand, as several other reviewers have mentioned similar feelings, but I know there is much in both the text and the art to appreciate repeatedly throughout the book.
I think this a comic worth investing in. It will be a good addition to a memoir collection, and it’s important to include memoirs by authors of color, especially about the experience of racism and activism in America. It’s likely best for readers who are 13 and up. Even younger teens (13-16) will benefit from reading about and gaining a better understanding of race and friendship, and the importance of activism and standing up against brutality and injustice. Many of the pieces have an elevated vocabulary and an expectation for a baseline understanding of anarchism and nihilism, which younger readers will likely lack, but as is evident throughout this review, the anthology is sort of a “mixed bag.” Anyone can find something of interest, but there will be pieces that some readers don’t understand or are just confused by. Ultimately, if everyone just reads at least the title comic, the world might be a better place.