Ho Che Anderson Biography
Studied Works by Traditional Illustrators, Read Books and Watched Films on King, Returned to King Project
Artists at work in the comics medium became more and more ambitious in the 1990s, expanding their range from traditional superhero themes to tackle serious fiction and nonfiction subjects. Nowhere was this trend more apparent than in the work of African-Canadian artist Ho Che Anderson, whose three-volume biography of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was, in the words of Library Journal reviewer Steve Raiteri, "a milestone for biographical comics." Anderson's King, completed over a ten-year period, was a fully fleshed-out portrait of a complex individual, not in the least cartoonish. And it brilliantly used the possibilities of the graphic medium to generate strong impact on the reader.
Born in London, England, in 1969, Anderson is the son of a Jamaican immigrant who named his son after North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and Cuban Communist revolutionary Che Guevara. The family moved to suburban Toronto, Ontario, Canada, when Anderson was young. Growing up in a predominantly white area, Anderson benefited from his father's belief that blacks should not be limited by societal expectations. "I want to make it clear: he was never anti-white, but he was very pro-black," Anderson told Murray Whyte of the New York Times. "He believed that we as black folks didn't take ourselves as seriously as we should, and we were often our own worst enemy, and we needed to get smart and start moving ahead."
Studied Works by Traditional
As a child, Anderson read popular superhero comics by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. Anderson's family placed a strong emphasis on education, but he frustrated their ambitions for him by dropping out of high school. In another way, however, he fulfilled their vision of limitless horizons: he entered a field that had few black practitioners. As a teenager, Anderson began drawing comics. He did his homework, studying the styles of classic magazine illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker and of superhero comics creators Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller. By his late teens, Anderson was writing comics of his own and sending samples to publishers, hoping to break into the business.
Around 1989, one of those samples went to Gary Groth, the Seattle-based publisher of Fantagraphics comics. Anderson sent a pitch for an erotic comic series with sadomasochistic themes entitled I Want to Be Your Dog. Those comics were eventually published, but Groth had other ideas for his new hire. He had a series of historical biographies planned, and he suggested to Anderson that he draw the first one, a 70-page graphic biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Groth thought of Anderson for the King project not only because Anderson was one of the few active comic artists of African descent, but also because of his politically oriented first and middle names.
Anderson was familiar with King's accomplishments, but, he wrote in the Boston Globe, "in Canada we didn't talk about King around the kitchen table—maybe other families did. TV supplied details of the legend, but I had no idea about the man." At first, Anderson thought of the assignment simply as a financial breakthrough. "My inner mercenary accepted the job, unaware of the rigors of the task," he wrote in the Boston Globe. But he was primed inwardly for something more, having begun to sort out racial issues in his own mind and having written a 14-page comic called "Black Dogs" featuring a black man and woman debating racial violence.
Read Books and Watched Films
For six months, Anderson worked at learning everything he could about King. "I've read as many books and articles as I could get my hands on," he told Henry Mietkiewicz of the Toronto Star. "And I've watched a lot of documentaries, because the scenes I draw have to be properly photo-referenced." His conception of the book quickly outgrew the original 70-page framework, ballooning to a projected 150 and then 200 pages. The solution Anderson and Fantagraphics came up with was to publish King in three volumes. The first volume appeared in 1992, covering the civil rights leader's early life against the backdrop of Southern segregation and his rise to prominence following the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, concluding with King's stabbing during a sit-in at an Atlanta lunch counter.
Anderson's work stirred up some interest with its wealth of detail, its use of huge, panoramic drawings to capture the feel of crowd scenes, and its human treatment of King, focusing on King's flaws as well as his powers. In early 1993, however, the idea of using the comics medium for serious themes was still rarely encountered; Maus, Art Spiegelman's Holocaust-themed graphic book, had appeared only two years before. Although Anderson told the Newsarama Web site that King's story remained on his mind "like an 800-pound gorilla," he faced the necessity of making a living. King was sold mostly in specialty shops devoted to comics, and profits from the book were sparse despite a round of radio interviews Anderson did during Black History Month and a 1995 Parents' Choice Award (given despite the book's use of profanity). During one period of financial crisis he moved in with his mother, but he gradually began to find other drawing jobs.
Working as a commercial illustrator, Anderson created a variety of other graphic projects. In 1994 he published a book of graphic short stories, Young Hoods in Love, and many of his works in the 1990s focused on urban life in Toronto. His five-part Pop Life series, produced in collaboration with Wilfred Santiago, contained story lines featuring young women as central characters. Anderson tried his hand at a juvenile graphic novel, The No-Boys Club; it appeared in 1998. He also illustrated a children's book, Steel Drums and Ice Skates, by another writer, Dirk McLean.
Returned to King Project
Finally, after nearly ten years, Anderson returned to the King project. The second volume was published in 2002, by which time public awareness of graphic literature was heightened. This installment, which culminated in King's "I Have a Dream" speech during the 1963 March on Washington, attracted favorable notice in publishing and library periodicals, with Raiteri opining that "[Anderson's] effort will convince skeptical adults of the value of comics as a medium." New readers were amazed by Anderson's unique drawing style, which incorporated hand-tinted copies of photographs. Publishers Weekly noted that "Anderson combines illustrations and photocopy collage in a rugged chiaroscuro comics style." Anderson's high-contrast, mostly black-and-white drawings had a monumental quality appropriate to the theme of King's life.
The last volume of King appeared in 2003 and added to Anderson's renown. Using color throughout, Anderson depicted King's 1968 assassination in what Murray Whyte, writing in the New York Times, described as "a chaotic wash of searing crimson that spills over four pages, seeming almost to seep from the book." The three volumes of King were reissued as a single book, with some revisions, in 2005, with an introduction by the prominent African-American cultural critic and newspaper columnist Stanley Crouch.
After achieving celebrity beyond the world of comics and graphic literature, Anderson branched out in several new directions. He credited Martin Luther King directly with the inspiration for his decision to obtain his high school equivalency degree, a credential that helped pave the way for a general assignment reporter position with the Toronto Star daily newspaper. A film buff who named director Martin Scorsese as an influence on his drawing style, Anderson spoke of enrolling in film school. And, in 2005, Anderson issued his first graphic volume since the completion of the King series: Scream Queen was a horror tale with a zombie theme. Having already helped legitimize the new genre of graphic literature, Anderson seemed to be looking for new challenges.
King, Volumes I-III (graphic biography), Fantagraphics, 1993-2004 (repr. as single vol., 2005).
Young Hoods in Love (graphic fiction), Fantagraphics, 1994.
(with Wilfred Santiago) Pop Life (graphic fiction, five parts), Fantagraphics, 1998.
The No-Boys Club (graphic juvenile fiction), Groundwood, 1998.
Scream Queen (graphic fiction), Fantagraphics, 2005.
Boston Globe, January 18, 2004, p. H4.
Library Journal, September 1, 2002, p. 148.
New York Times, August 10, 2003, p. AR26.
Ottawa Citizen, August 16, 1998, p. C15.
Publishers Weekly, November 1, 1993, p. 72; May 13, 2002, p. 53; February 14, 2005, p. 56; May 30, 2005, p. 41.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 13, 2005, p. F8.
Toronto Star, September 26, 1993, p. E2; May 30, 2003, p. J1.
"Biography," Ho Che Anderson, www.hocheanderson.com (August 10, 2005).
"Ho Che Anderson," Biography Resource Center, http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (August 10, 2005).
"Ho Che Anderson," Fantagraphics, www.fantagraphics.com (August 10, 2005).
"King Completion: Ho Che Anderson on King," Newsarama, http://newsarama.com/forums/showthread.pho?s=&threadid=6298 (August 10, 2005).
"King of Dreams," Exclaim!, www.exclaim.ca/index.asp?layid=22&csid=20&csidI=1125 (August 10, 2005).
"The Man Who Would Draw King," Vue Weekly (Edmonton, AB), www.vueweekly.com/articles/default.aspx?i=1847 (August 10, 2005).
—James M. Manheim
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