Brandon, Barbara 1960(?)–
Barbara Brandon 1960(?)–
“I don’t draw bodies,” cartoonist Barbara Brandon revealed to Amy Linden in Essence. “You’ll see heads, because that’s where my characters’ minds are. Women are always thought of in terms of their bodies.” The first African-American female cartoonist to appear in national syndication, Brandon bases her weekly comic strip, Where I’m Coming From, upon issues that affect women. Taking her ideas from discussions with her girlfriends about their lives and experiences, Brandon uses her friends’ actual names to label her cartoons. Her “talking heads” format, reminiscent of the pioneering cartoonist Jules Feiffer, features characters speaking directly to the reading audience. Although she has been accused of male-bashing and pegged a feminist, Brandon pointed out to Linden that she treats “universal themes, some of which come from a black sensibility.” Among the first illustrators to bring racial characterizations to the funny papers, Barbara Brandon noted in one of her cartoons that even in 1991, there remained areas where it was still feasible to be the “first black.”
Only the eighth black cartoonist to reach syndication, Barbara Brandon followed in the footsteps of her father, Brumsic Brandon, Jr., who was one of the first African-American cartoonists to be syndicated. He created the popular feature strip Luther, which evolved in the late 1960s and ran nationwide until 1986.
The 1980s were lean years for cartoonists whose main characters were black. Although racial issues were not any less imperative, racial concern seemed to decline. During the 1990s, however, the changing demographics of large urban areas influenced the approach of news editors. Faced with dwindling readerships, urban daily editors welcomed racial comic strips in hopes of attracting a larger audience. Marty Claus, an editor at the Detroit Free Press, revealed to Janice C. Simpson in Time, “My community happens to be largely black, and we know young readers turn to the comic pages.” When Claus vigorously solicited cartoonists in the late 1980s, she hired the Syracuse University graduate Brandon.
Influenced by her father’s groundbreaking cartoons and Jules Feiffer’s drawings, Brandon originated the idea for Where I’m Coming From in 1982. She took her comic strip to the editors of Elan, a black women’s magazine. They accepted her submissions, but the publication folded before Brandon saw her work in print. Resolute, Brandon
Born c. 1960; daughter of Brumsic Brandon, Jr. (a cartoonist). Education: Attended Syracuse University.
Cartoonist. Fashion and beauty writer for Essence, early 1980s; comic strip Where I’m Coming From featured in Detroit Free Press Sunday edition, 1989—, and syndicated, 1991—.
Addresses: Home —Brooklyn, NY. Other—c/o Universal Press Syndicate, 4900 Main St., Kansas City, MO 64112.
approached Essence. Though the magazine’s editors liked her idea, they had no space for her cartoon and instead hired Brandon as a beauty and fashion writer.
Finally, when Brandon’s father informed her in 1988 that the Detroit Free Press was interested in featuring more black cartoonists, she was given the chance to receive some exposure. “My father made me a dare,” Brandon told Constance M. Green in YSB: ‘“Are you going to talk about being a cartoonist or are you going to do it?”’ Where I’m Coming From first appeared in June of 1989 in the lifestyle section of the Detroit Free Press. “Getting the Detroit Free Press job in 1989 was a high point for me,” the cartoonist continued in YSB. “It was also important in the sense that, as the only black female cartoonist appearing in a majority-owned paper, I was opening the door for other African Americans in the field.”
Since the strip appealed to the Free Press’s 1.5 million readers, it became a weekly Sunday addition. The following year, Linden wrote that readers “lucky enough to see it” were “treated to Brandon’s distinctly and quietly witty female takes on life, love, and all the stuff in between” and that Brandon “firmly committed herself to not making the all-woman cast of characters merely whining mouthpieces.” Also in 1990 Brandon discovered she had a fan club and told Linden, “I’ve actually gotten letters.”
Unwilling to compromise when it comes to her comic strip, Brandon refused to drop her “talking heads” format when approached about national syndication in 1990. She explained in Time that “the early complaint from the syndicates was that my strip was all women and it was black.” Eventually solicited by Universal Press Syndicate, Brandon began work on her strip that would appear nationwide in September of 1991. Universal’s vice-president and editorial director Lee Salem related in Jet that he hoped his readership was “ready for Barbara. I think the humor is certainly different. The perspective to my knowledge is not one that appears in many newspapers.” Although Brandon did not modify her illustrations, she agreed with Universal to address controversial issues in her cartoons, including Arizona’s refusal to honor Martin Luther King, Jr., with a holiday.
Brandon’s characters, whom she fondly refers to as “the girls,” are appealing perhaps because they share the routine experiences common to humanity, yet reflect the cultural differences imposed by race. One strip, for example, featured the character Lydia contemplating African-American appellations, including Imani and Shafiq, when deciding on a name for her baby daughter; she finally chooses Aretha after rhythm and blues icon Aretha Franklin.
Since Brandon began sketching the first cartoons to center on African-American women, she has had to deal with accusations of male-bashing, to which she responded in People, “I’m merely holding up a mirror…. If you see something in that mirror that makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe it’s a call for self-evaluation.”
With the popularity of her characters increasing and her strip appearing in more than 50 newspapers, Brandon has made plans to market her girls’ faces on T-shirts and coffee mugs. The outlook for cartoonists like Brandon has improved since the era in which the funny papers were, according to Time, “no laughing matter for blacks and other Americans of color.” With the color barrier disappearing in the comics, Barbara Brandon disclosed to Simpson, “A lot of what I deal with is universal, but I do it the way we talk about it.” The cartoonist expressed one certainty about her work in People when she declared, “When I’m dead and gone… folks can look at these strips and identify what black women were experiencing.”
Essence, March 1990.
Jet, August 26, 1991.
People, February 10, 1992.
Time, November 25, 1991.
YSB, October 1991.
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