When the opportunity presented itself to pen a graphic novel about famed American writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, David F. Walker jumped at the chance.
Walker, having already written some of the most prominent fictional black characters in comics for various publishers, including Shaft at Dynamite, Luke Cage at Marvel and Cyborg at DC Comics, saw a chance to finally break into historical nonfiction. And for an admitted history buff, it was an opportunity to reconnect with a piece of American history that he felt would give him his most rewarding published work.
“Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave’s Journey from Bondage to Freedom,” written by Walker, illustrated by Damon Smyth and Marissa Louise, and published by Ten Speed Press, arrived in book stores last week.
Walker dove into every piece of work on Douglass that he could during his year-long research, including multiple autobiographies; transcripts of Douglass’s speeches; writings in the anti-slavery newspaper the North Star, which Douglass founded; and stories about his conversations with Abraham Lincoln.
“To me, Frederick Douglass, he’s sort of the quintessential American,” Walker said. “His story speaks to the American experience because the American experience is so directly tied to slavery — the fight against slavery and the ideology that allowed it to exist, the ideology that led to the Civil War, the ideology that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction. So, to me, Frederick Douglass is it. He is one of the greatest heroes in America.”
After being born into slavery in Maryland in the 1800s, Douglass escaped and went on to become one of the most respected minds of the 19th century for both his spoken and written work. Walker relived this black-history journey by writing the tale from the first-person perspective of Douglass, which he says enabled him to tell the story more emotionally and give readers a sense of the abolitionist at his most brave, flawed and inspirational moments.
“As much as I love pop entertainment, I think that we do [so] much escaping into popular culture that we run away from our own realities. We don’t want to face the real demons that are out there,” Walker said. “I wish that more people would sort of look toward history for inspiration and for strength because at the end of the day, Superman doesn’t show up and save the day in real life.”
Walker was also inspired by his artistic collaborator Smyth, with whom he had previously worked on “Where We Live,” an anthology from Image Comics that benefited survivors of the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017.
Like Walker, Smyth is biracial: Both are sons of African American fathers and white mothers. When they met at coffee shops for hours-long meetings to go over the graphic novel, they talked frequently about the likelihood that Douglass was biracial, as well (probably the son of one of his family’s slave owners).
The more Walker and Smyth talked, the more Walker realized that Smyth, too, was a survivor, just like Douglass. Smyth, 27, was arrested for robbery as a teenager in Portland, Ore. (where Walker also lives), and served three years in prison starting at age 16. During the eight months he spent illustrating pages, Smyth was shocked to discover that the day he went to jail, Feb. 20, was the anniversary of the death of Douglass. He felt a connection and is proud that he’s been able to creatively create a second chance for himself through his art.
“I got very deep into the script,” Smyth said. “I found a lot of similarities between him and I.”
Walker admits that his research taught him that what he thought he knew about Douglass — mostly from history books and his family’s extensive collection of encyclopedias and black culture magazines — was next to nothing.
Rediscovering Douglass’s autobiographies and the works of others who researched him has made Walker hopeful that the graphic novel he, Smyth and Louise made can serve as a gateway for readers who might be too young for a deep dive into one of the most influential African Americans.
Stepping away from the world of superheroes, if only briefly, was eye-opening, Walker said.
“This isn’t to take away from any of the fictional characters I’ve written, because they’re all near and dear to my heart,” he said. “But this is something that was so much more rewarding for me, and it has it signaled a new direction in my career.”