When the opportunity presented itself to pen a graphic novel about famed writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, David F. Walker jumped at the chance.
Walker, having written some of the most prominent fictional black characters in comics, including Shaft, Luke Cage and Cyborg, saw the chance to break into historical nonfiction. And as a history buff, it was an opportunity to reconnect with a piece of U.S. history that he felt would give him his most rewarding published work.
“Frederick Douglass: A Graphic Narrative of a Slave’s Journey from Bondage to Freedom,” written by Walker, illustrated by Damon Smyth and Marissa Louise and published by Ten Speed Press, arrived in book stores this month. Walker dove into every piece of work on Douglass that he could during his yearlong research.
“To me, Frederick Douglass, he’s sort of the quintessential American,” Walker said. “His story speaks to the American experience because the American experience is so directly tied to slavery — the fight against slavery and the ideology that allowed it to exist, the ideology that led to the Civil War, the ideology that contributed to the failure of Reconstruction.”
After being born into slavery in Maryland in the 1800s, Douglass escaped and went on to become one of the most respected minds of the 19th century for his spoken and written work. Walker relived this black history journey by writing the tale from the first-person perspective of Douglass. “I wish that more people would sort of look toward history for inspiration and for strength because at the end of the day, Superman doesn’t show up and save the day in real life,” Walker said.
He was also inspired by his artistic collaborator Smyth, with whom he had worked on “Where We Live,” an anthology from Image Comics that benefited survivors of the Las Vegas mass shooting in 2017. Like Walker, Smyth is biracial: Both are the sons of a black father and a white mother. When they met at coffee shops for hourslong meetings to go over the graphic novel, they talked frequently about the likelihood that Douglass was a biracial black man, as well (probably the son of one of his family’s slave owners).
The more Walker and Smyth talked, the more Walker realized Smyth, too, was a survivor, just like Douglass. Smyth, 27, was arrested for robbery as a teenager in Portland, Ore., where Walker also resides, and served three years in prison starting at age 16.
During the eight months he spent illustrating pages, Smyth was shocked to see that the day he went away to jail, Feb. 20, was the anniversary of the death of Douglass. He felt a connection, and is proud that he’s been able to create a second chance for himself through his art. “I got very deep into the script,” Smyth said. “I found a lot of similarities between him and I.”
For Walker, stepping away from the world of superheroes, if only briefly, was eye-opening. “This isn’t to take away from any of the fictional characters I’ve written, because they’re all near and dear to my heart,” he said. “But this is something that was so much more rewarding for me, and it has it signaled a new direction in my career.”