Continuing the Black Panther Party Conversation

Just as comic books saved graphic novelist Alan Clark’s life, "The Black Panther Party for Self Defense" may provide a lifeline to another kid.


Alan Clark moved to Oakland to write his graphic novel about the Black Panthers.

Photos by Mike Rosati

Even a brief conversation with graphic novelist/painter Alan Clark is enough to take note of his passion and eloquence for his work. His latest project is a graphic novel, The Black Panther Party for Self Defense. It tells the story of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary black group formed in Oakland in the ’60s to combat police brutality. If that sounds familiar, Clark is well aware of that, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement calling attention to the persistent and tragic law enforcement shootings of African Americans. “The same narrative we were shouting then, we’re shouting now,” Clark said.

Deep parallels exist, including the root of the problem, which Clark traces back to the transatlantic slave trade. The beginning pages of his graphic novel, which he shares online as he creates it, show a slave ship arriving in Senegal in 1659. Those illustrations also reveal one of the book’s strategies: Clark draws the row of coffle-bound Africans as black panthers and the white slave traders as dogs. In later pages, as history has progressed, pigs represent police. The images are stark and detailed with color used only sparingly. Skillfully rendered and arresting, these illustrations invite reverie and instill a desire to return to look again.

Why is Clark choosing to talk about such a gut-wrenching topic through the medium of comic books, the less fancy way of saying graphic novels? One illustration depicts a slave being whipped, with large font KRAKKOW demonstrating the sound of the whip, reminiscent of the old-time POW punching sound from Superman comics. His answer is deeply personal: “Comic books saved my life.”

Clark, 33, who grew up in New York, experienced an environment that seemed to prod kids toward crime. “I could’ve pursued a life of dastardly deeds,” he said.


Clark’s graphic interpretations of the Black Panther Party are arresting images.

“When I was young, about age 8, I acquired some comics, and I was mesmerized. They were a means to experience all sorts of ideas. They kept me out of a life of crime and let me pursue academic interests.”

What sort of academic interests? Oh, just the minor study of thermal dynamics and theoretical physics at Georgia State University. As one does.

“I decided to drop all that and enter the world of comic books,” Clark said. He moved to West Oakland a few years ago specifically to write his graphic novel.

The beautiful irony of being transported by those comics is that he had stolen them from some kids he knew. “I still feel bad about that, but it kept me out of trouble,” he said. Clark describes a childhood in which poverty held sway: Lights were turned off for lack of payment, and he remembers food stamps being printed on paper. Yet he managed to find the 25 cents to buy comic books.

Today’s kids may not know much about the Black Panthers, or that their controversial militant edge and violent history were somewhat softened by the free breakfast program they provided for inner-city children before school, literally providing food for thought. This tangible strike at poverty was a core part of the movement.

Clark said he believes that through the medium of comic books, “History can be retold in a way shared across the generation gap ... to experience a wave of history in a way that’s easy to absorb and be entertained by.”

And just as comic books saved Clark’s life, The Black Panther Party for Self Defense may provide a lifeline to another kid. “What does it mean to be a person, a simple human being, before we add anything else on?” Clark asked rhetorically.

To help fund what will eventually be a 200-page graphic novel that will be printed, bound, and distributed, Clark has put up a donation website. He wrote, “Your friendly neighborhood super villain needs your help!” Visit to support this innovative project, which Clark called “not just a history book, but a conversation.”

For more on Clark’s work, visit or check to see posted chapters of his Black Panther book.


A Milestone for the Black Panther Party

In October, the Black Panther Party turns 50, and the Oakland Museum of California commemorates the monumental milestone with All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50. The exhibition, running Oct. 8-Feb. 12, 2017, pulls together rare artifacts and photographs, oral histories, and contemporary art for a look back at an important empowerment movement with a legacy that continues to reverberate today. For more, visit

Published online on Oct. 6, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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