On -isms: Bessie Stringfield Review

By | Thursday, November 17, 2016 Leave a Comment
I recently came across the Tales of the Talented Tenth series by Joel Christian Gill. He started in 2014 and each volume "focuses on the adventures of amazing African-Americans in action." The first volume looked at lawman Bass Reeves, and this second volume I picked up is about Bessie Stringfield. I expect you've heard of neither of these people. Which is all the more reason to read these books.

Stringfield was an early champion of motorcycles in the early part of the 20th century, criss-crossing the United States several times before becoming a courier for the US military. After World War II, she cycled around Europe before coming back to the States to found the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club. She became known as the Motorcycle Queen of Miami, and was later inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

The danger that seems to come with comic biographies is that the author frequently over-relies on factual narratives. You wind up with a lot of long-winded captions that sound like they were lifted from a prose work, and just illustrated in a comic book style. Gill instead makes his work an actual comic, providing a smooth narrative of Stringfield's life and bringing in a lot of her feelings and emotions instead of basic facts and dates. Why did she love motorcycles? What prompted her to help during World War II? What was her opinion of the Freedom Ride after she herself had been taken much the same route by herself decades earlier? The reader gets a good sense of not just what Stringfield did, but who she really was.

I have to admit that I was a little put off by the illustrations at first glance. Gill's style is a little cartoony, but not super cartoony. So it occupies this strange middle-ground for me between simple cartoon drawings and a more realistic style you might find in a Marvel or DC comic. Not sure where I would've picked up my usual distaste for that style. That said, though, as I actually read it, it quickly stopping bothered me, and Gill's talents were evident. I found particularly striking is that he illustrated Stringfield at several stages of her life (as a young child, a somewhat older child, a teenager, an adult, and and old woman) and they smartly all looked like the same person, but at uniquely different stages of their life. That takes no small amount of skill, so I commend Gill for that.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. Storytelling-wise, it was one of the better comic biographies I've read and, as I said, I got a good sense of who Stringfield was, not just what she did. And given how little Black history is taught generally -- particularly when it comes to figures with any less celebrity than Martin Luther King Jr. -- I think this is a great book to take a look at. I'm eager to track down the first volume now, and I hope to see Gill work on more.
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