Black queer heroes in comic books and the classroom

The latest heroes to get the comic book treatment are Black queer historical icons.

Formed by University of Michigan Ross School of Business alums Nathan Alston and Daniella Gennaro, Plucky Comics is an activist-led company dedicated to protecting and reimagining Black queer history and finding ways to bring these important, undertold stories into the classroom.

"I got into business school and didn’t want to leave the creative part of myself behind, so for Black History Month in 2021 I highlighted 28 Black queer historical figures on my Instagram for fun,” Alston said. "I was having a dilemma trying to understand the importance of seeing yourself reflected in history, but as I reflected on my own history and my time in school, I never had an opportunity to really sit with my heroes and I felt like I didn’t have any.

"I started to read about what happens when you don’t have heroes, and individuals that don’t see themselves reflected while they are growing up have limited ideas of who they can be in the future. I was really upset by that, and I realized I couldn’t name even 10 Black queer historical figures. So I chose to do this series.”

On a quest to bring Black queer history forward in a fun and creative way, Alston worked with the U-M Ross Impact Studio and U-M Engineering Center for Socially Engaged Design Innovation in Action to build out a few ideas.

Ultimately, a comic book company was the ideal medium to tell these stories with the artform being rooted in counterculture, and Plucky Comics was born.

"It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to tell these stories, and so many of these folks, because of the times they lived in, had to be creative about how they expressed their sexuality or their gender identity,” Alston said. "So to me, (comic book art) allows for us to honor them by showing them in this very expressive and beautiful way-sometimes in a way that they might not have been able to do when they were alive.”

To spread these stories and empower future generations of students, Plucky Comics began to build a team of artists-largely from within the U-M community-to begin to tell the Black queer stories that they wished had been present for them as children.

With a mission to create education equity at the state and federal level through grassroots activism and community support, their team researched the use of comic books as a teaching tool, finding that pairing images with words increased a student’s ability to retain the information.

"We tested a lot of initial ideas with educators from across the country to get an understanding of how they would use something like this in their classroom,” Alston said. "One thing that was clear was that they were excited to offer these comics to their students, but teachers-like the rest of us-didn’t have this as a part of their learning growing up, which led to the idea of teaching guides.”

The teacher editions are developed by educators to help fill in pertinent historical information to each comic, while helping to find a natural place to include these stories within widely accepted history and existing curriculum.

"Seeing historical figures who looked like them allowed them to think big, dream big, to know that they were capable of beautiful things-and, specifically, to know that they deserved beautiful things,” Alston said of his white childhood classmates. "For queer people, because we don’t have any ’proof’ that our experience is beautiful, we internalize that and we don’t think we are deserving of good things, of beautiful things, of love, of joy.

"So, to me, a Black queer hero is someone who understands what it means to be Black, what it means to be queer, how those two things work together, and has found a path forward to express themselves as personally and as beautifully as they possibly can.”