Barbara Brandon-Croft brought a Black woman’s voice to comics
Barbara Brandon-Croft, the first African American woman with a mainstream syndicated strip, has a new book reflecting on her achievement
Her precise verbal strike caught the eye of legendary Universal Press Syndicate editor Lee Salem, who had nurtured such strips as “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Cathy” and later discovered “The Boondocks.” He knew excellence when he saw it, replying to her: “It’s rare to have such a good ear for nuance and character.” She was on her way.
As the next decade dawned, she became the first African American woman ever to have a comic strip, “Where I’m Coming From,” syndicated to the mainstream press.
The trail Brandon-Croft blazed is being celebrated in a beautiful hardcover retrospective, “Where I’m Coming From: Selected Strips, 1991-2005,” hitting shelves and e-sales Tuesday. The overdue salute not only provides a nostalgic trip through the lives of Brandon-Croft’s nine central female characters; the book also includes essays and letters that spotlight just how unique her achievement was.
“I felt like I was pushing against history,” the Queens-based Brandon-Croft says last month during a Zoom interview. Yet she was undaunted in her early 30s, a fledgling Detroit Free Press cartoonist who was full of “nerves and spunk.”
She also drew strength from knowing how much her voice needed to be heard through comics. The once-shy Brandon-Croft speaks with great warmth when she says: “I felt entitled to make this happen.”
Observe, interpret and record.
Brandon-Croft repeats those words, sounding out the syllables like a clarion command.
The steps encapsulated the cartoonist’s job, according to her late Washington-born father, Brumsic Brandon Jr., whose comic “Luther,” launched in 1968, is credited with being one of the first mainstream strips ever to have an African American lead character. “Luther” — the title character’s name salutes Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — grew in popularity alongside such other new diverse strips as Morrie Turner’s “Wee Pals” and Ted Shearer’s “Quincy.”
None of those ‘60s-born strips, though, was created by female writers or artists. And none of them centered on adult experience. In that era, “Out of the mouths of babes seemed the most palatable way to introduce Blacks to the funny pages,” she wrote in her 1989 syndicate pitch letter. It was high time for a change.
What she delivered in her strip was a circle of friends who have an uncanny way of drawing in the reader through casually conversational tones, sometimes breaking the fourth wall. The talk was eclectic, easily shifting from international politics to office politics — and including such topics as dating and parenthood, feminism and racism, even the obstacles to self-love and respect.
“Her Black female voice and perspective in comics was totally unique in its day and, sadly, still rare to see on the funny pages,” says Keith Knight, the “K Chronicles” and “Knight Life” creator whose comics were adapted into the Hulu show “Woke.” “I hear my aunties’ inner dialogue.”
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The strip’s nine women who so resonate with readers include Cheryl (“an in-your-face kind of person who has her strong opinions,” Brandon-Croft says); the spiritually Zen Alisha (“she believes the world should get along”); Judy (“a good friend when you need somebody to talk to”); Lekesia (“fun and very socially conscious”); Nicole (“kind of a full-of-herself airhead”); the fair-skinned Monica (“she looks White but she’s very militant — she talks about the idea of colorism”). Brandon-Croft also created Lydia, through whom the cartoonist meditated on motherhood.
Although Brandon-Croft drew inspiration from her friends, the “Where I’m Coming From” characters were also speaking their creator’s personal truths: “I was just being honest with myself, taking all these parts of me and putting them on the page.”
The strip also stood out because its characters were rendered mostly as talking heads and expressive hands. “What I love about Barbara’s work is how minimalist it was,” Knight says. “No backgrounds. No panels. It was abstract and freeing.”
For Brandon-Croft, the aesthetic of characters without bodies served a larger purpose.
“I’m tired of women being summed up by their body parts,” she wrote in a 1992 article for the publication Cartoonist PROfiles, continuing: “I’m interested in giving my women a little more dignity. I want folks to understand that women — in addition to breasts — have ideas and opinions. Look us in the eye and hear what we’re saying, please!”
Brandon-Croft vividly remembers the first opportunity she got to help her father. Born in Brooklyn in 1958, she was growing up on Long Island, in New Cassel, N.Y., when she became accustomed to watching him draw at the dining table or in his basement studio.
When she was in junior high, “he gave us all an art test,” she says, noting that her brother had a shaky hand and her sister had no interest. It was already evident Brandon-Croft had inherited her father‘s artistic ability. So she got to help cut and apply the gray Zip-A-Tone shading to his “Luther” strips. (Her brother would take after their Howard University-trained mother and become a schoolteacher; her sister became an entertainment lawyer.)
In the early ’70s, her father also was an artist for a pioneering New York City children’s TV program called “Time for Joya!” hosted by former Duke Ellington vocalist Joya Sherrill. He eventually became a cast member and a local celebrity — something she felt was “weird” while growing up but later appreciated.
Brandon-Croft would attend Syracuse University, where she drew for the school paper. She says there were few Black students in her visual arts program, where the shy Brandon-Croft flourished and found her footing. She also reveled in some of her non-arts classes, in which she would “learn about human relationships,” she says — which would serve her well as a keen social observer on the comics page.
Once out of school, she had no plans to become a cartoonist, despite delighting in “Peanuts” and Mad magazine as a child. She entertained the idea of being an artist, perhaps a fashion illustrator. She had worked as a writer for Essence for several years when an opportunity came along. An editor at the Detroit Free Press sought a new creator to help diversify the paper’s comics and contacted Brandon-Croft’s father. Could he recommend someone?
He looked to his daughter. Here was her chance. She headed to his family basement studio and went to work creating “Where I’m Coming From,” which in 1989 began appearing in the Free Press.
After her pitch note that year, Universal soon signed her and launched the strip into national syndication in 1991. The popularity of “Where I’m Coming From” increased as the comic’s themes deepened. The strip was eventually distributed to about 60 newspapers — roughly the same number of clients as her father’s “Luther” at its peak, Brandon-Croft notes.
Single motherhood became a running topic, as did aging and economic prejudice. Brandon-Croft says one of the highest compliments she would receive from fans was that her characters were saying what the readers were thinking.
The cartoonist also responded to headlines on such issues as overseas wars, domestic police brutality and the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the ’90s, when she introduced a new character who came out as lesbian while seeking to join “Clinton’s military.”
Today, Brandon-Croft receives fresh recognition from often timely cartoons she posts on Instagram (some are featured in the new book), as well as from recent curated shows, including “STILL: Racism in America: A Retrospective in Cartoons,” which spotlights both her work and her father’s comics.
And Brandon-Croft’s own legacy continues to inspire the next generation, including Bianca Xunise (“Six Chix”) and Steenz (“Heart of the City”), the first two African American nonbinary cartoonists in mainstream syndication. (Brandon-Croft also acknowledges the work of key predecessor Jackie Ormes, an Eisner Hall of Fame cartoonist who in the ’30s became the first African American woman to have a regularly published comic strip.)
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“She laid the path for cartoonists that look like me,” Steenz says of Brandon-Croft via email. “Barbara has the incredible skill to get complex points across to a reader, all while sticking to a drawing style that is deceptively simple. So much can be said with a look and wave of a hand. Thank you, Barbara, for setting the stage and doing the damn thing.”
Brandon-Croft will appear Feb. 15 at the Loyalty Bookstore in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, in conversation with author Sharon Pendana.
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