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Review: ‘The Black Mage’

The Black Mage
Written by Daniel Barnes, illustrated by D.J. Kirkland
Oni Press, $19.99 (softcover)
For grades 8-12

St. Ivory Academy, a magical boarding school run by Mr. Lynch, has accepted its first Black student as a recipient of a minority scholarship. His name is Tom Token, his familiar is a crow named Jim, and you may have already gathered from the names that this is not a subtle story.

The Black Mage cover

But who says it should be? The book opens with Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Henry in an all-out magical battle with hooded and robed KKK members. The Black Mage wears its politics proudly, and although the story is familiar, it gives young Black men a fantasy hero they can identify with and root for.

Tom is determined and talented, with the power to stand up to the explicit racism he’s greeted with as soon as he steps into the classroom. He quickly makes an enemy of the headmaster’s son and his girlfriend, both pale and blond. His one ally is another blonde girl, Lindsay, who also makes stereotypical assumptions at first but learns from her mistake and becomes his sidekick.

Tom is well drawn, with less exaggeration than some of the other characters. Their expressions appear manga-influenced in how their features expand to show extreme feelings. There are several magical battle fight scenes, as Tom has to stand up for himself often, and they can be hard to follow with the various visual and sound effects layered on top.

There are Confederate skeleton soldiers, a battle with magically animated armor that yells, “Whites only!”, ghostly allies, a conspiracy to destroy Black students, and a whole lot of showdowns. This is a book to respond to emotionally, as the plot beats are so predictable, but those for whom it resonates won’t mind.

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Johanna About Johanna

Johanna Draper Carlson has been reviewing comics for over 20 years. She manages ComicsWorthReading.com, the longest-running independent review site online that covers all genres of comic books, graphic novels, and manga. She has an MA in popular culture, studying online fandom, and was previously, among many other things, webmaster for DC Comics. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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