I have to admit, I was quite thrown within the first several pages of The Black Mage by Daniel Barnes and illustrated by D. J. Kirkland. This graphic novel is incredibly bold and immensely terrifying, blatantly exposing racism in a way that can shock the reader, and I think is meant to shock the reader. It’s uncomfortable in its own right, but frankly, I think that if it were not uncomfortable, this book would not be doing what it set out to do in the first place. The truth is that racism is uncomfortable and part of the reason that it is so is because racism is not some horrific part of our past that has “passed” and we learned from, it is something that affects people every single day in this country and will continue to do so up until the day that it is confronted, acknowledged, laws and systems of oppression are changed, and the problematic people who support it are pushed out. I know, ultimately, that’s a pretty paltry summary and the issue encompasses quite a bit more than that simple list there, but I do believe that The Black Mage is one of those novels that really takes the issues and boldly presents them to anyone who even glances in its direction. And I found that both uncomfortable and amazing.
I think the most glaring piece of boldness in The Black Mage comes from the outfit of the Headmaster and others in charge at St. Ivory Academy. To put it bluntly, these people are full on wearing the robes of the KKK. There is no room for uncertainty here; we know that the authorities in the school are massively racist and subsequently we know that racism is not only tolerated, but it is also encouraged. Continuing on, even the name of the school points out the blatant racism. St. Ivory Academy, so cleary to anyone who knows what ivory looks like, is referring to the white skin of the students and faculty.
Our main character’s name is Tom Token, having roots in racism in two ways. First with the name Tom, which can relate back to Uncle Tom of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a story that detailed the life of an African American man who was entirely complacent and subservient to whites at their own detriment and that of their race and culture. Secondly, we have his last name, Token, which brings me to the unfortunate truth that the tokenism of having a black friend is incredibly prominent in today’s society. You see it with people and you see it with the media. I’m already naming of television shows and movies that have a token character. And Tom here definitely fits the profile of a token as the graphic novel regularly points out that he is the first and only black student at St. Ivory Academy.
Racism is also touched upon within the characters’ actions and words. They ask the ignorant questions that so many people have done and still do. There are openly racist students who attack and berate Tom solely because of his skin tone. Authority figures not only degrade him, but they also make the suggestion that a “nice white girl” is becoming “trashy” because of her association with him. The headmaster, at one point, even uses the phrase “make St. Ivory great again” in a simultaneously hilarious and painful callback to our President and his very own campaign slogan. In so many ways, The Black Mage is a bold statement on racism that goes out of its way to make sure that the reader understands and sees the problematic issues that are ever present in each situation of the novel. And it really doesn’t take much to see the parallels that exist within our society.
And if that didn’t get you, Tom’s adorably illustrated pet crow is named Jim.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The themes in this book are terrifying. And a large part of the reason they are so terrifying is because they are still relevant today. But I applaud the author’s bold and blatant commentary. I hope more people read it and I hope it educates them if they are not already aware of these issues. As a final comment, it was utterly fascinating and cool to see the inclusion of a variety of African American historical figures play a role in the overall story. I won’t say much more than that, so you’ll just have to pick up a copy to find out. In fact, I would highly suggest that you do.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.