Writers: Adam Freeman, Marc Bernardin
Artist: Afua Richardson
Publisher: Top Cow Productions / Image Comics
I did not come to understand my brownness until I was staring down the barrel of a gun held by a police officer. What strikes me most about that day isn’t the fear I felt. It isn’t the twitch that ran up and down my spine in a fight-or-flight response pleading for me to just run. It wasn’t even the shame of paralysis that lead me to concede myself to their authority; no, what strikes me is how little I actually understood then–how quick I was to accept this as just a misunderstanding, as just one of those strange things that can happen to anyone.
I had been pulled over as I was pulling into my driveway. Not noticing the flashing lights behind me, I stepped out of my vehicle to walk up the driveway, and the officers got out of their cars ready to shoot me where I stood. And why wouldn’t they, after all? These days, a young brown man getting out of his car seems as good of a reason as any to shoot. Luckily my white mom was in our driveway and convinced them to let me go. But sometimes I wonder what would have happened had I been a bit too quick to step out? Had I held my head a bit too high? Would my own mother have screamed over the corpse of her son, now just another statistic, lying in her driveway?
A black man lies in a pool of his own blood. Above him a police officer holding a smoking barrel holds no remorse or concern on their faces. This is an image of violence in the name of public protection. The interesting thing is, without the events of this week, this image would have just been a panel in one of the best comics I’ve ever read. But because of the events in Ferguson, it’s an image we all see every night on the news.
Genius is a comic unlike anything currently happening in the industry right now, or right ever actually. Occasionally a comic will come out in direct response to current events that wonderfully encapsulates them in a memorable way. Genius is not one of those comics. On other occasions comics come out which predict an event and give us something to remember as we deal with the present news. Genius is not one of those comics either. Genius is the rare comic, which happens to land concurrent with its own tragic allegory. It sits on the rack while the horror it responds to rages outside the store. It contains a prediction that would be somewhat scary in its timing if it wasn’t so painful in its accuracy.
I’ll admit, though, that with the first issue I was a little unsure of the comic. The idea struck me as inherently interesting, but something about the writing was a little stilted: not bad, mind you, just a little bit gangly. It struck me as a novice effort by a talented young writer (or writer group as this case is). This makes sense; after all, there will always be growing pains in telling a story that has never been told. Without being able to rely on decades of tradition like others comic writers, those who are telling minority fantasies have to wade into the waters on their own. Their first attempts may lack a little grace, but fortunately for us this team snapped everything into place by the second issue. The plotting is as well timed as a high level chess match, and the characters are as complex and varied as real people outside on the streets.
The first issue concerns the investigator and his relationship to a tactical genius who he has never met. This person has united all of the gangs of Los Angeles under their power and is combining their force into an all-out war against the police. You can see why this strikes me as relevant considering the news lately?
The interesting thing is that while we are presented one version of the story from the police’s perspective as this investigator seeks to understand this street-level genius, we see the actual story that he is missing: the story of a young black woman named Destiny who the detective can’t even fathom is a woman.
The second issue focuses less on Destiny’s rise to power and more on her present situation. It deftly twists and turns a plot around the way she fights the police not only on the streets but also through social media, turning public perception against her aggressors. It becomes clear throughout issue #2 that she is not just fighting a battle but waging a war.
I appreciate the distance that the material gives us from her. She is not presented as a hero or a villain. We are left completely unsure of her end goal. Like the rioters in Ferguson, I do not find myself condoning her or vilifying her, but simply trying to understand. I also appreciate the distance that is given to the police, as they are also not presented as heroes. They are presented as inept, but the only indication that they are corrupt comes through a media filter that we are shown to be politically and rhetorically malleable. The dual nature of the characters perspective completely eliminates any objective analysis of protagonist versus antagonist. I know that Destiny is on the cover, but beyond that I am allowed to decide for myself who is right and who is wrong.
Afua Richardson’s artwork also deserves special attention as it contains some of the best visual storytelling that I’ve seen in a long while. Her artwork is stylistic, but it moves with an elegant grace. Her panel layout feels deliberate, filled with flourishes but never at the expense of the story. Her coloring is like a perfect highlighter, intensifying and coordinating the action. But if I had one thing to note (which luckily I don’t) it would be her “acting.” This isn’t something that normally comes up, but I can’t really think of another word to describe it. Her characters act. They pose and express themselves to the point that there are nuances of meaning contained in just their expressions towards one another during the action.
I knew Genius was going to be a good comic when I picked up the first issue but was unprepared for how important this comic was going to be by the second. And what terrifies me is that without the dreaded coincidence that is the events of Ferguson, this comic might have been overlooked as another story destined for a “niche” comic audience.
There is an argument in the comics industry that diversity isn’t needed in comics. The argument goes that writers shouldn’t be forced to include ethnically diverse characters just to appease some so-called P.C. culture and that simple stories are being ruined by adding characteristics where they don’t belong, as if someone noticed that there wasn’t enough “diversity of color” in Van Gogh’s Starry Night and added a huge brown streak down the center to appease the masses.
This argument of course relies on the idea that these stories imply that some outside force is butting its ugly head into places where it doesn’t belong. One can almost imagine the stories before they were ruined: idealized, unblemished, pure–in a sense, white. But the fact is that diversity of character doesn’t reduce our present options; it expands our capabilities. The creative team of Marc Benardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson has proven that beyond the shadow of a doubt. How else would stories like this come to be told?
Almost by her very nature, Destiny represents a story which could not be told with a white male protagonist. She is only able to reach her position of strength in this world by hiding in the cultural invisibility of black femininity. History has taught me that if a black man’s life is weighed for a pittance, then a black woman registers nil. Destiny however finds strength in this blind spot, biding her time and then striking from a place most people don’t ever notice. The grace with which she and her creators do so is simply genius.
Looking back at that time that officer pointed his gun at me I realize how naive I was. That was the moment I became a person of color, and I didn’t even realize it. Not because I had never looked at my own skin, but because I had never looked at my skin while also looking down the barrel of a gun. Even then I wanted to believe that this was the type of thing that just happens to people. However, after I began to tell this story I realized that this was not a coincidence, that my white friends were surprised that such a thing could happen and, inversely, that my friends who were brown just thought I was lucky. The reasons stories like this are so important isn’t because they fill some quota. It is only through the telling of these stories that we come to understand who we are.
“Genius #2” earns 10 / 10