What do you do when your haven for all the Black queer misfits gets shut down? Well, you build something new.
Perseverance is one of the animating themes of Lawrence Lindell’s hilarious and sweet new graphic novel, Blackward (Drawn & Quarterly, Sept. 26). The book follows the adventures of four friends—Lika, Amor, LaLa, and Tony—who simply want to hang out and enjoy one another’s company but can’t seem to catch a break. Trolls infiltrate their club and, to the surprise of no one, incite an altercation that gets the quartet kicked out of the community center. This ban forces them to figure out a different way to carve out a space for weirdos like them. (Blackward is a portmanteau of Black and awkward.)
Lindell has written a number of other works, including From Truth With Truth and Couldn’t Afford Therapy, So I Made This, and he’s contributed to publications including the New Yorker and the San Francisco Examiner. His comics frequently explore Blackness, queerness, and their intersections.
In a starred review, Kirkus called Blackward’s art “lively” and “panel-breaking” and said that the book is “a paean to the radical joy of being every part of yourself.” Lindell and I recently spoke via Zoom to discuss his latest work. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Where did your inspiration for this story come from?
I started it as a webcomic in 2018. I was sitting in a gallery in San Francisco—because my spouse was putting up a group show—and I was reading Bingo Love. And I was like, I wanna make a comic that’s my own Black queer story. And that’s what happened. I started putting it on Instagram, and people began to gravitate toward it. And I was like, This might be something.
Could you talk a bit about the graphic novel’s style? It’s striking—vivid. And in some ways, it has the buoyancy of the cartoons I watched as a kid in the 1990s.
That’s exactly it. I was born in ’88, so a lot of the ’90s cartoons were a big influence on me. It’s funny: I was just watching Bebe’s Kids, and I was like, Oh, I can see how this influenced me. I know that these kinds of things influenced me, but I never realize until I go back and watch them that I’m like, Oh, that’s why I draw like that. Or: That’s why I do this kind of comedic beat. So, my style is definitely influenced by ’90s animation like Dexter’s Laboratory and The Powerpuff Girls and by comic strips like Peanuts.
One of the chief joys of reading this book is that it makes clear that Blackness can look a million different ways, depending on the person and the context. How did you approach this worldbuilding?
In the original webcomic, that was the intention—to show that Black kids also are into punk and hardcore goth. I’m someone who grew up in punk and hardcore scenes but who also grew up with a very large Black family. My experience was never like, I’m surrounded by white kids. It was just that I was into this other stuff but still very Black.
Originally, it was very wordy and kind of in your face—like, This is what this means. And my editor said, “That’s great, but your readers aren’t dumb, so expand on the world and tell readers without telling them.” I had to start thinking like, OK, since this isn’t taking a webcomic form, what does it look like as a graphic novel, and what do the characters’ everyday lives look like? I wanted to show that Black stuff is also just normal stuff.
I couldn’t stop laughing when you introduced the Hotep character. His political narrow-mindedness is constantly reaffirmed by a white ally, a woman who seems to latch on to him simply because she can express her own unsavory opinions through him, and that relationship makes her views seem more palatable. Tell me what you were thinking when you created those two characters.
They were in the original one, too, and they really resonated with readers. I also had some reservations, because doing a graphic novel involves a different audience from doing a webcomic for a bunch of other Black nerds. So, there was a risk, I felt, with putting him in there; people might identify with him and say, “This is the type of Black person we should have,” or people might think that I’m demonizing Black people. I even had reservations about putting him in a dashiki, because I didn’t want that to be synonymous with “a bad Black person.”
I had to think about all of that but eventually was like, I’m just gonna tell the story. The people who know, know. Those who don’t, don’t.
And then the white character was just a day-to-day thing. There’s always one who’s decked out in all the Black Lives Matter clothes and everything, but it’s a show. And I thought that it’d be funny to make it cartoony, so that’s how that character happened.
I’d like to hear a bit more about audience. Were you worried that some things might be legible to Black audiences but not non-Black audiences?
Not so much. I was self-publishing 10 years before anything like this came about, so I was already comfortable about audience—people who know me, know me. It wasn’t until later that I thought, Oh, they have a different readership, not me. But with my editor, there was never a moment where they were like, “Oh, what does this mean?” They were just like, “Well, that’s what it says.”
It was comfortable—it was comfortable to turn something like that in, and no one batted an eye or thought twice about it. There was a lot of love and a lot of freedom.
This book lands a particular way in our current moment of political turmoil, when there are very real trolls thwarting discussions on important race and identity issues. Did you write Blackward with the intention of shaping or informing these conversations?
It’s interesting. When I created the troll characters, I wasn’t even thinking like, Oh, they fit into a particular conversation in the world. I think that these are just things that we’ve lived with for a long time now, and they manifested naturally. And in some instances, these trolls might not actually hate you—they might just want attention. Sometimes they’re just 12-year-old kids in their house, talking mess.
So, I didn’t approach this with the goal of fitting into a specific conversation. Really, I just wanted to make a joyful and funny story.
What do you want your readers to take away from Blackward?
I hope that people read it and have fun, but then I also hope that they go back and say, Oh, let me start thinking about why Lawrence chose to put this panel here or why he used this color there. Those kinds of things. Because these are things we’re always thinking about as cartoonists.
Brandon Tensley is the national politics reporter at Capital B.