A Trailblazing Black Cartoonist’s Work: ‘It’s Unapologetic, and It’s the Truth’
In 1989, the cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft wrote to the country’s biggest newspaper syndicates urging them to publish her comic “Where I’m Coming From,” which had just premiered in The Detroit Free Press.
“The integration of the comic pages was long in coming,” delayed by a sort of “limited thinking” that refused to recognize the Black experience, she wrote. It was time for them to carry “a weekly comic strip featuring Black women and created by a Black woman.”
There had been strips by Black cartoonists before, she continued, from Morrie Turner’s “Wee Pals” to her own father’s “Luther,” but these works featured small children and nearly all of them were written by men. “Out of the mouths of babes seemed the most palatable way to introduce Blacks to the funny pages,” she wrote. Refusing her comic strip, she not so subtly implied, would be racist, sexist and shortsighted.
“I was pretty bold,” she recalled in a recent interview. “They all rejected me.”
Two years later, “Where I’m Coming From” was picked up by Universal Press Syndicate, the home of such iconic strips as “Doonesbury” and “The Far Side,” making Brandon-Croft the first Black female cartoonist in the United States to be published nationally by a major syndicate.
The series followed “nine opinionated Black women,” as Brandon-Croft puts it, as they navigated everyday life. Over the years, “Where I’m Coming From” tackled everything from the L.A. riots and “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies in the military to racial profiling and school shootings. But it wasn’t all politics: Brandon-Croft’s characters, including the sharp-tongued Cheryl and Alisha, a “good girl,” chatted about money and boyfriend woes, the trials of single motherhood and the strength and beauty of Black women.
“When you encounter the strip, you’re like, ‘I know this sister,’” said Rebecca Wanzo, the author of “The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging.” “She’s like my friend or my cousin or this person I don’t like. There’s a politics of recognition with the strip.”
On Tuesday, Drawn & Quarterly published “Where I’m Coming From,” a collection of strips from the series’ 17-year run. Despite Brandon-Croft’s reign as the best-known female Black cartoonist of her time — she is the first to admit that it’s a woefully small club — the book is the first retrospective collection of the artist’s work.
Using essays, family photos and assorted ephemera, the book chronicles Brandon-Croft’s rise to fame in the early ’90s, which included profiles on “Good Morning America” and in The New York Times; her slide into obscurity after the strip’s demise; and the relaunch of the strip on Instagram in 2017, prompted by her outrage and consternation over the election of Donald Trump.
“I couldn’t understand the things that were coming out of Trump’s mouth,” she said during a video interview from her home in Queens. “I was like, ‘I have to do something right now.’”
Brandon-Croft, 64, was born in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, in the unincorporated hamlet of New Cassel. “It’s where they let the Black folks buy homes,” Brandon-Croft said. She loved to draw, and as the youngest child of Brumsic Brandon Jr., whose own nationally syndicated strip about inner-city Black children, “Luther,” ran from 1968 to 1986, she was never at a loss for art supplies.
When Brandon-Croft was in junior high school, her father needed help applying Zipatone, a form of coloring, to his strips. The artist gave his three children tests to see who might have an aptitude for it. “My brother had the shakiest hand,” she remembered. “We kept his drawing up for a long time, just so we could laugh at it.”
In the end, Brandon-Croft “won” the family competition, and soon she was applying Zipatone to “Luther” panels for $5 every other week. “Honestly, it did not occur to me that I was being trained at the time,” she said.
In 1982, Brandon-Croft applied for work at an up-and-coming Black women’s magazine that was looking to take on Essence. The editor in chief liked her drawings, and hired her for a monthly comic feature. That’s when Brandon-Croft created the idea for “Where I’m Coming From,” including its title and cast. But the magazine folded before her first strip could run.
Even so, she kept doodling. In 1988, when Brandon-Croft was working at Essence as a fashion reporter, her father received a letter from Marty Claus, a managing editor at The Detroit Free Press, who was looking to diversify the paper’s comics pages. Did he happen to know any talented Black cartoonists?
“My dad said, ‘Are you going to just talk about being a cartoonist, or are you going to be one?,” she remembered.
Soon after debuting in The Detroit Free Press and being signed by Universal Press Syndicate, “Where I’m Coming From” went to readers in the U.S., Canada, South Africa and Barbados. The cartoon was an anomaly on comics pages where the few Black characters were often the sole person of color among a sea of white faces (Franklin in “Peanuts”; Lt. Flap in “Beetle Bailey”). Decades earlier, newspaper strips like “The Yellow Kid” and “Krazy Kat” had included racist caricatures of Black people.
The format was also different from any other strip on the comics pages: talking heads, all facing forward, often speaking directly to the reader, with no body parts (other than some very expressive hands) or backgrounds in sight.
“The series talks about politics in a way that I absolutely love,” said Taneka Stotts, the editor of “Elements: Fire—A Comic Anthology by Creators of Color.” “It’s loud, it’s unapologetic, and it’s the truth.”
The style of the strip “invites you into the conversation, as if you’re having conversations with them,” Wanzo said. “It gives you a sense of what it might be like to be a part of this community, to talk with these women.”
The nine heroines ran the gamut of personality types. “Monica was fun to do, because she’s this high yellow, as we would say, Black woman,” Brandon-Croft said, referring to the character’s lighter complexion. “And she’s one of the more militant characters. She’s the Blackest white-looking character there is.”
Elements of Monica came from her mother, Brandon-Croft said. “If you were to see my mom, you would say, ‘That’s a white woman.’ And I know that my mom did take advantage, like, she would go to first run movies because they didn’t know she was Black. But she never did it to put down Black folks. It was more about getting over on white folks.”
Many strips centered on the topic of hair, not surprising in a strip whose characters had a variety of hairstyles, from dreads and braids to high top fades.
In one strip, Monica talks about how she never asked to have “good hair.” “It was the white slavemasters who raped my ancestors that mixed my heritage,” she says. In another, we see Lydia’s hair expand to the outer limits of the cartoon panels as the humidity in the air rises. “That’s 100 percent me,” Brandon-Croft said.
“Hair is a very strong, touchy subject,” said Stotts. “It’s why we have songs literally called ‘Don’t Touch My Hair,’ by Solange. Where else do you have people just come up and touch you, like you’re some sort of zoo item? I’m not the Monterey Bay Aquarium.”
The strip garnered thousands of fans, as well as a few detractors. Some men thought the strip was anti-male; others simply didn’t want to see Black faces in the comics pages. “One writer told me that I should go back to Africa, and take Jesse Jackson with me,” Brandon-Croft said. “I mean, how do you not laugh at that?”
As topical as her strips were, many feel like they could have been written today, including ones that commented on issues like the ongoing debate over abortion and police shootings of unarmed Black men.
In 2020 and 2022, strips by Brandon-Croft and her father were featured in the exhibition “Still … Racism in America: A Retrospective in Cartoons,” which originated in the Medialia Gallery in New York. By spotlighting strips published 30 years apart, the show revealed how little had changed in the intervening years. “It’s like we were talking about the same thing in 1966, in 1992, in 2020,” said Brandon-Croft.
Despite her place in cartooning history, Brandon-Croft is quick to point out that she’s not the first Black female newspaper cartoonist. That honor goes to Jackie Ormes, the creator of the “Torchy Brown” comics and “Patty-Jo ’n’ Ginger.” But Ormes’s work was never published by a major national syndicate, and ran only in the Black press. “She wasn’t in the mainstream press, which is really just a euphemism for the white press,” she said. “Of course, that’s my distinction: that I was in the white press.”
In 1993, the actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis wrote the foreword for Brandon-Croft’s first published collection of strips, and noted that “if you would have put my strip in a time capsule, years from now people could read it and see how we were living,” Brandon-Croft said.
“That’s stunning to me, because this is 30 years later, and it is kind of a time capsule,” she continued. “And it still works.”