By the time you read this, odds are better than good that Ben Passmore will have an Ignatz Award with his name stamped on it, as well he should — his early-2017 Silver Sprocket release, Your Black Friend, is a leading contender in the “Outstanding Comic” category, and while he’s got some stiff competition, it’s hard to argue that fellow nominees such as Libby’s Dad and Sunburning (both of which I recently reviewed at this very site) are great reading, while this is required reading.
Clocking in at just 11 pages of story and art, this is essentially a “high end” mini-comic presented in gorgeous and expressive full color on top-quality matte paper with heavy cardstock covers, and while something tells me an argument could be advanced for presenting it in black and white, I’m not going to bitch about the format or aesthetics of its presentation in the least, because it looks amazing and Passmore’s rich and eclectic coloring choices bring just as much to the table, visually speaking, as his smooth and expressive, borderline-playful figure drawings, and pitch-perfect, atmospheric inks. In terms of sheer cartooning skills, there’s no doubt : this guy’s got the whole thing figured out.
What he’s also got figured out, though, is what’s essential to the topic at hand here : the realities of being black in America, specifically of being black and having white friends. And while I like to think of myself as being fairly “enlightened” when it comes to the various issues Passmore delves into in this comic, his central point still definitely hits home like a ton of bricks, namely — stop fooling yourself, no matter how much us white folks might like to think we “understand” the black experience, we’re still, for all intents and purposes, not even living in the same country.
Personally speaking, I wondered how much of this comic was really going to be “necessary” for me given that I’m married to a black woman and therefore like to at least believe that I have a bit more insight into the day-to-day realities of the “two Americas” than somebody who only occasionally interacts with black American life on a purely social level, but as it turns out I’m right in the “target audience” that Passmore is aiming his cartoon monologue at, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have to stop, think, and take the time to fully absorb what he was saying in damn near every panel. If you’re white like me, there are any number of things your black friends, spouses, significant others, you name it would love to say to you but, for reasons that also touched upon here, they simply choose “not to go there.” Passmore is doing their work for them in these pages, and from where I’m standing that makes his comic the closest thing to a genuine public service that I’ve read this year.
Here’s what elevates Your Black Friend from the level of “merely” great to genius, though : for a book explicitly designed to take the white reader out of his or her largely-unearned “comfort zone,” it feels amazingly comfortable. From the opening page, set in a coffee shop where our nameless narrator both admittedly tries to game white guilt to his advantage yet also finds himself stuck overhearing a conversation loaded with racist assumptions at the same time, to the closing page that brings both of those things full circle, Passmore adopts a free-flowing, conversational style that couches what is (and by every measure has to be) an entirely one-sided diatribe in terms that will put even the most uptight white person — well, not exactly at ease, but at the very least in a frame of mind where they’ll be open to what’s being said. The utter lack of pretense in both his writing and art serves Passmore very well indeed — not many cartoonists can take direct aim at white privilege without seeming “bitter” to white audiences, but even this comic’s most “angry” passages first take a moment to quickly (yet surprisingly fully) explain exactly what our narrator is angry about and why it’s not only right, but frankly unavoidable, for him to feel that way. Yeah, our man does one thing to which a fair number of readers of any race will object (I didn’t, but shit — even the fact that I feel the need to point that out probably says something about me and makes it clear that I’ve still got a lot to learn, I admit it), but even there, it’s framed in such a manner that you’re forced to reflect on why you might find his action off-putting and/or disproportionate in regards to the situation that it arose from.
So, yeah — I dunno, man. I like to think that I’m a fair-minded critic on the whole, but I also admit to being something of a jaded one. There’s very little I haven’t seen done (and usually done better) in comics before, and yet when something is executed well enough in terms of story and art, I’m still fully capable of being impressed by it. What Passmore has done with Your Black Friend goes well beyond that, though. While it’s not the reaction he was aiming for in the least and my saying so might even fly directly in the face of his goals, I’m just gonna come right out and confess that I’m more than a little bit awed by what he’s achieved here — cliched as it may sound, if everybody sat down and read this thing, I honestly believe the world really would be a better place. Or, failing that, at minimum we’d have a much more complete understanding of why it’s not.