Newspaper funny pages feel anachronistic these days, in a world where so much news content has moved out of newsprint and onto televised or online platforms. But for many decades, the comics section was a little window into the soul of its distribution community, all drawn together by the gold standard of nationally syndicated cartoon strips. Like most forms of media, the subjects of cartoon strips and their creators were overwhelmingly White. That’s what made Barbara Brandon-Croft’s Where I’m Coming From — the first nationally syndicated cartoon strip by and about Black women — such a breakthrough achievement. A new publication of the same name from Drawn and Quarterly Press compiles highlights from the strip between 1991 and 2005 (the years of its national syndication), as well as frontmatter including the artist’s pitch letters to major publications, and essays on the work’s importance.
“In the 1980s, the Detroit Free Press began to take a serious look at why there was such a disconnect between the traditional newspaper and the diverse community we wanted to serve,” wrote Marty Claus, then-managing editor for features and business when Brandon-Croft’s submission made the scene. “Barbara gave the Free Press something we didn’t have … Her girls said some things only a Black woman could say with authority, and other things that were universally true, about work and relationships and race.”
Brandon-Croft’s strip debuted in the Detroit Free Press in 1989 in the lifestyles section and features a rotating cast of nine characters — a group of friends in literal talking head-style discussions on a variety of contemporary issues faced by Black women. Fans of the strip found solidarity in one, some, or all of the characters: tell-it-like-it-is Cheryl, “fly girl” Nicole, high-strung romantic Jackie and her constant relationship woes with the unseen Victor, single mom Lydia and her daughter Aretha, insightful Judy, bright-side and faith-filled Alisha, outspoken activist Lekesia, fair-skinned and hazel-eyed Monica, and stand-by-your-man Sonya. Between themselves, in endless combinations, these women hash out the issues of their time, each bringing nuanced and often contradictory takes on issues that are so often flattened by malignant and well-meaning observers alike.
“I was able to stick to what I believed,” wrote Brandon-Croft in her 1992 essay for Cartoonist PROfiles about becoming the first Black woman to achieve national syndication. “No, I wasn’t going to put bodies on my characters. I’m tired of women being summed up by their body parts. I’m interested in giving my women a little more dignity. Look us in the eye and hear what we’re saying, please!”
Brandon-Croft came by her legacy honestly, following in the footsteps of her father, Brumsic Brandon Jr. an illustrator and animator who debuted Luther (named for MLK) in the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday in 1968. The comic strip, set in a fictitious inner-city Alabaster Avenue Elementary School, was a venue for the elder Brandon to infuse trenchant commentary on social justice through the perspective of Black third-grader Luther, his schoolmates, and teacher Miss Backlash. Luther achieved national syndication in 1970.
At its peak, Where I’m Coming From ran in some 60 newspapers nationwide, and several international publications. While comic books and graphic novels have bumped the numbers for Black creators, cartooning newspaper strips remained an incredibly niche occupation, and Brandon-Croft’s success was a crucial groundbreaker for strips like The Boondocks by Aaron McGruder, which debuted in 1999 and went on to become an animated show on Adult Swim in 2005. Like a lot of newspaper strips (we’re looking at you, Family Circus) the conversations between Brandon-Croft’s characters aren’t always particularly funny, but thanks to her particular perspective, they are always real.
Where I’m Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft (2023) is published by Drawn & Quarterly and is available online and in bookstores.