“The Black Mage”

By | December 19th, 2019
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

Previously prevented from attending the exclusive, whites only St. Ivory Academy, the first black student has finally been granted admittance. Tom Token, a young black man, begins his academic career at St. Ivory thanks to the Magical Minority Initiative but finds that although the rules have changed to permit him to be there, the attitudes have not.

Cover by D.J. Kirkland
Written by Daniel Barnes
Illustrated and colored by D.J. Kirkland
Lettered by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Barnes, Kirkland, and Otsmane-Elhaou create a story that is moderate in world-building but rich in symbolism. The creators leave little doubt or subtlety with regards to this story’s messaging concerning the vileness of racism. Although it is set in a fantasy setting where magic is an everyday practice, it is deeply rooted in the real world treatment of black American citizens.

The main character, Tom, is literally and figuratively a token at his school and in this story. His surname is “Token” and throughout the story, he is the only current black student. In terms of other black representation, a former black student is introduced via a plot-line reference while historical figures Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Henry appear first as living figures in 1852, then later as ghosts in the present day. As with the presence of magic, the portrayal of Tubman, Douglass, and Henry is lacking in realism but fun all the same.

The symbolism continues with the name of the school: St. Ivory Academy. A school named after a term that represents a shade of white is a place where you may be unsurprised to find segregation ceremonies take place. Within these ceremonies, faculty, all adorned in Klan robes, perform a ritual that centers the magical extraction of life from a black student, in order that the school’s white population may continue to live as they always have. The message is clear: Without the power of the black body, literally, the white lifestyle would not be feasible.

Staff at the school are led by a headmaster named Lynch, which is not an altogether uncommon last name but which is also a word used to describe the act of brutally murdering via group violence. Historically, this type of murder has centered on black people. Throughout the story, Lynch and many of his peers appear in white Klan robes, and faces are never seen. One teacher’s face is seen but they are not clear of racist treatment; the teacher in question seats Tom in the back of her classroom when he arrives.

Microaggressions from Tom’s peers don’t take long to make their appearance and take the form of everything from comments on the type of food black people are thought to consume, to commentary on being able to swim and thoughts on black people’s hair – it is referred to as “nappy.” Instead of identifying and rejecting these comments and attacks, the authority in the room simply tries to push past it, lending an air of both acknowledgement and tacit condoning.

Even Tom’s familiar, a crow named Jim, serves as a reference to the black experience in the U.S. Jim Crow laws were Southern US anti-black laws – and a much more pervasive culture/way of life – that existed and were enforced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This is somewhat ironic, given that the pet is much beloved to Tom, while the social customs of that era were not something to hold dear by the black citizens who lived through them.

Despite all the opportunities that were seized to speak about the realities of racism in our past and present and how they affect the individual, readers may struggle to get a sense of who Tom is as a person. We get to know him only as one in a line of many who were allowed access to a space, only so that he may be used by those who view themselves as being above him.

The pace of the story is swift due in large part to its numerous sweeping diagonals, action lines, and fight scenes. The fight scenes, which pit the black characters against robed white characters, add a sense of superfluous cinematography to the story – a touch fun but ultimately adding little substance. The colors used throughout the story run the gamut from saturated primary and secondary colors, to pastels, to dingier earthen colors.

Although this story can be read and enjoyed by adults, and offers many gateways to further historical readings (sadly without actually providing and additional resources in the back matter), its centering of action over character development makes it best suited for teens looking for quick read. The story will not work well for readers of any age hoping to avoid social commentary. Minimal cursing (a few occurrences of the word “ass,” “asshole,” and “bitch”) occurs throughout the story and matters are left in such a way as to not rule out follow-ups.

//TAGS | Original Graphic Novel

Alea Perez

For ten years, Alea has been a librarian by day and a graphic novel reader by night. She is the current President-elect for the ALA GNCRT, has served on the American Library Association's YALSA Great Graphic Novels for Teens committee (as a member and chair), has moderated and paneled at SDCC, and generally advocates for graphic novels in library and school settings.


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