Cartoonist Barbara Brandon-Croft on being the first Black woman with a nationally syndicated comicPlay
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Until 1991, there wasn’t a single nationally syndicated cartoon by a Black woman. That is – until Barbara Brandon-Croft.
"I kinda put them on blast," Brandon-Croft says. "'You haven’t done this, why not? Here is one.'”
Her comic strip “Where I’m Coming From” put the voices, images, and stories of Black women into many American homes for the first time. The comic strip was carried by over 60 newspapers and talked about everything from friendship to love to racism.
"It wasn't until somebody said to me, 'Hey, you're kind of funny. And you draw. You think you can come up with a comic strip?' And I was like, 'I think I can.'”
Today, On Point: We sit down with the legendary comic strip artist Barbara Brandon-Croft.
Barbara Brandon-Croft, cartoonist and creator of the comic strip “Where I’m Coming From." First Black female cartoonist to be nationally syndicated. Author of the book “Where I’m Coming From,” a collection of her strips from 1991 to 2005. (@barbarabrandoncroft)
On growing up with few Black comic strips in the newspaper
Barbara Brandon-Croft: "There were very few Black comic strips in the papers I was reading at all. But my dad was a pioneering Black cartoonist, one of the few who made it into the mainstream press in the late 1960s. And he had a comic strip called 'Luther.' And so I was well aware of the industry. I actually worked on his comic strip at some point when I was a little bit older. So I knew what was happening; I could see it in front of me. And I also knew that if you had one Black comic, you're not going to have another. So often my dad would be (told), 'We already have Quincy or we already have Wee Pals. We don't need Luther.’ I was well aware of how few Black faces were on the comic pages."
On her dad, cartoonist Brumsic Brandon Jr.
Brandon-Croft: "By the time 'Luther' happened, I was a kid, a young adolescent. And we grew up in a small house on Long Island — New Castle, Long Island. And my dad’s studio was our dining room table. So he would set up his situation, you know, pens, papers, pads, light box, the whole thing, do his work and then take it all down so we could have dinner on the table. I was watching a cartoonist, a real-life role model, one that I could touch, in my home.
"It's kind of interesting because when you're younger and you're in a small house and you're running in and out of the house, we had to actually be quiet during the time when he was working on 'Luther.' So he did a daily. So for every other week, he had to do two weeks of 'Luther.' And so for that week that he was working on the two weeks, we had to be quiet. And it was just kind of wild to me as a young person, like, 'This guy is supposed to be a cartoonist. He’s supposed to be fun. And we have to tiptoe around him and he's mean. He's actually stern.' That was just the reality. But I saw the ethic, the work ethic that it took to do a comic strip."
On her creative process
Brandon-Croft: 'The reality is if somebody's reading a comic, you’ve got their attention for maybe 10 seconds, 15 seconds. So you have to do something, whatever you’re going to say — and hopefully you're saying something that is going to resonate with someone — you have to do it succinctly. You have to find the least amount of words to make this happen. So for me, I write down ideas of what I want to do or what I want to say. And then I try to figure out how I can get to that punchline. What's the dialog that gets me there? Is it going to be two characters? Is it going to be one? Which ones are they going to be?
"I had to do two strips every other week. And I would say, because I'm a procrastinator, I could wait until, you know, 'Oh, no, I’ve got three days to do this. Where were those ideas?' So physically, it probably takes me 3 hours. Coming up with the idea and then writing it, that takes them out the most time."
On developing a distinct drawing style featuring only Black women’s heads and hands
Brandon-Croft: "When I first came up with the idea, I was like, 'I am so tired of women being objectified. I'm so tired of being thought of in terms of our bodies or our body parts.' I wanted to have my characters talking directly to the reader or directly to each other, and the rest of us are kind of eavesdropping on their conversation. But I wanted to make it clear that I'm talking about what is going on in these women's heads, what's on their minds. You know, look in their eyes, look at their expressions, look at their hands. I only started using hands to be more expressive, but I didn't want to include bodies. And that was one of the complaints I got early on, too. It's like, 'You can't just do heads.' And it doesn’t look like, it's not it's not a comic strip that you see anywhere. So when (The Detroit Free Press) was like, 'I like this kind of oddball looking strip,' and they went with it, you know, I was so pleased to even just get started."
On her legacy and how she feels the world of cartooning has changed after her
Brandon-Croft: "I think that once I got in, I was feeling very good and proud. I'll say rightly so; I should be proud. I was feeling very good and proud because I knew I had broken down the door, but I also felt like I was standing in the door because nobody else could get in. You know, it's like, 'We have Barbara. We don't need anybody else.' And that was kind of a weird feeling, too. I'm glad that since I've moved on, that there are other cartoonists out there, women cartoonists, that are making things happen. And Black women cartoonists syndicated, two of them, at least, now. There’s another woman in The New Yorker regularly, there's Jennifer Crute. There are a lot of Black cartoonists that are out there that are women, and they're doing it. And I hope that after I unclogged the door that I offered some path for them."
Excerpt from 'From Where I’m Coming From.' Copyright Barbara Brandon-Croft, courtesy Drawn & Quarterly. Not to be reprinted without permission. All rights reserved.
Comics by Barbara Brandon-Croft
This program aired on March 10, 2023.