Thursday, August 15, 2019

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers by Ben Passmore

Ben Passmore is angry: that would be the reductive story.

Of course, we're all angry some of the time, and that's true for Passmore. And some of us have more things to be angry about than others. Passmore is a black man in present-day (I'm pretty sure) New Orleans, which is a couple of solid things to be angry about. [1]

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers collects twenty mostly short comics by Passmore, many of which express anger. Some have sadness, or resignation, or other emotions. The longer pieces are more varied -- it's the single-pagers that tend to be bluntly emotional, direct reactions to some horrible thing in Passmore's life or the wider world.

You've probably heard of the title story. Maybe read it. Maybe saw the video. It's aimed at people like me. Maybe you, too, if you're a person like me. (White, settled, comfortable, older, and so on.) It's more reasonable and nuanced than most of the short pieces here: Passmore is more usually an agitprop bomb-thrower, radical reflexively but thoughtfully, the kind of person always pushing for more and better in a world getting lesser and worse.

(And unabashedly pushing for more and better for himself and people like him, which may not mean the same for everyone everywhere. The world is full of choices and options: the ones America has taken so far have not been great for Passmore.)

I appreciate that even as I found a number of these stories exhausting or counterproductively contentious. (Or, sometimes, advocating for things I think would be bad ideas -- but Passmore probably disagrees with me, on the advocacy or the bad ideas or both.) Passmore may not be angry all the time, but from the evidence here, he sure isn't happy.

There are some longer, elliptical, fictional stories -- particularly the long pieces "A Pantomime Horse I" and "Goodbye" -- but those are still Passmore stories. The same concerns are there: race, class, power, revolution. He's serious about all of them, right up to the border with strident and over the line more than once.

Passmore has a bright palette a lot of the time -- a few of the longer stories mix blocks of hand-lettered text with panels on open white pages, but most of his work is tighter and more claustrophobic: lots of panels, lots of colors, lots of words, lots of ideas.

Your Black Friend and Other Strangers is a dense book that lands with an impact. It says things a lot of us don't want to hear. Maybe things we don't believe, or don't agree with. But we need to hear those things, and Passmore is really good at saying them.

[1] The black thing, obviously. And Louisiana in particular has some amazingly baroque corruption -- I say this as a resident of New Jersey, which has its own issues.

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