Although I get to talk to indie comic creators every week, It’s been a while since I’ve actually reviewed a comic here and I’ve decided to share some of what I’ve been reading. I’m starting 2019 off with an all-ages comic that I think is a wonderful read and is something that you can add to the list of Magical Books for Black Girls. The Invention of E. J. Whitaker by Shawnee and Shawnelle Gibbs. The Gibbs sisters first came to my attention in 2016 when they had a kickstarter for this comic, and since then they’ve worked on a ton of projects with everyone from BET and MTV to Lifetime and the Food Network. But it was this little story about a young Southern black girl inventor in the midst of the Industrial Age that caught my interest.
The story is about Ada Turner, college student, inventor and ward of inventor George Washington Carver himself. She has been working on a flying machine design and has almost perfected it when her invention starts attracting attention. Like most black women of her time, she has the ability to hide in plain sight because no one believes that a black girl in 1901 Alabama could possibly be the inventor of any sort.
Accompanying Ada in her adventures and at home is Jesse, a small sentient robot girl that she’s created as well that doubles as her best friend and assistant. We also get to see Ada in her classes at the University learning everything from sewing to physics, with this portion of the being closest many black students attended HBCU’s in the south and received advanced degrees just like Ada in the early 1900s. Our narrative as scientists in this country is not what is strewn across mainstream media and that’s what makes comics like this so important. In fact, Alabama State A&M was founded in 1875 and has an Advanced Physics degree program there. As does Hampton University, Howard University and many more HBCUs.
In the story, Ada never once doubts her intelligence, her place in the world or what she can achieve, but she is acutely aware of the position society has placed women and black people at that time and when two men intent on finding and possibly stealing her invention start snooping around her campus. Ada wrestles with destroying her invention so as to not attract attention and put her friends and family in danger.
This comic is well written, the dialogue is easy to follow and Mark Hernandez’s artwork is consistent and easily places you in the Ada’s world. The special extra at he back off the comic features a short story all about Jesse on a solo adventure. Although this short is definitely a kids story it’s one that can easily be used as a jumping off point for a larger discussion about the Industrial Revolution and the marginalized people used to build its infrastructure in the US in the 1800s.