He may refer to them as “funny books,” but Ho Che Anderson views comics as a serious, socially redeeming art. The Toronto cartoonist has authored a number of intriguing titles in the past decade, but none so potent as KING, a graphic novel trilogy chronicling the life of Martin Luther King Jr. The three volumes, which appeared between 1993 and 2003, were commissioned by Seattle-based publisher Fantagraphics. Dark, moody and not always flattering of its subject, Anderson’s interpretive biography was hailed as “rare and vital” by time.com. The 34-year-old artist will release another Fantagraphics book, a supernatural thriller called Scream Queen, next spring, and is currently seeking a publisher for Corporate World, a graphic novel he describes as “a sci-fi blaxploitation action-adventure epic.”
How politically motivated were your parents?
My mother not so much; my father very much so. Anybody who names his son after Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara has obviously got politics very much at the centre of his psyche. It’s tempting to say he was militantly black, but that’s not how I see it. He was never anti-white, by any means. He was always very much pro-black, like, “Please, let’s bring ourselves up beyond the level we’re at.” For a lot of years, that was something I kind of rebelled against—being overtly politically active. But it filters through in the stuff that I do, whether or not I want it to.
How would you characterize your own political drive?
It only goes as far as my work. I’ve thought about hands-on activism in the past, but it’s just not me. I admire people who get out and protest and speak out. I admire them more than anybody. But it’s not really part of my makeup. So the only way I can tackle this stuff is through the stories that I tell. That being said, black people have a certain burden put on them right from the start. Just by virtue of living on this continent, you have to be political. It’s just unavoidable. I’ve always sort of resented that. I’ve always sort of wished that I could be granted the freedom to be as irrelevant and superficial as the rest of society, if that’s how I choose to live my life. But that’s never really been much of an option.
In the first volume of KING, you wrote that you didn’t want to be known as the chronicler of black rage in comics. At the same time, you said that you’re driven to tell black stories. Do you see that as a contradiction?
Actually, I do think it’s a bit of a contradiction. Part of me feels like white folks have the opportunity to tell their stories all the time, and it’s accepted. I sort of feel like there’s enough white people out there telling their stories, and I’m not really sure why I should have to tell their stories as well.
How much has racial equality progressed since King’s death?
The same problems that existed historically are still there to a large extent. I think inherently there is systemic racism at play. It’s built into the very framework of this society. I think it’s possible to get beyond it at some point, but I don’t fully see that it has happened today. Just because you see Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell in the White House, do not assume that all is right with the world and equality has been achieved.