First, there’s Ebony’s desire for a perm. Then, there’s the process of begging her mom to allow her to get one, the long wait in the beauty salon once her mom finally concedes, the scorching pain of ammonia burning against her scalp, the slow process of letting the conditioner set under the dryer, and finally, the hair-do Ebony gets with her newly straightened hair. The rituals and rites of passage, the pleasures and pains, the microaggressions and empowerments bound up in black hair are the unifying principle of Hot Comb, Ebony Flowers’ debut graphic novel short story collection.
While some of the stories in Hot Comb seem more-or-less autobiographical (the main character in the titular short story, for example, shares the author’s name) and are loosely unified by frontispieces showing the same character under a progressively darkening raincloud, others stand alone.
One story shows a black woman facing a cross-examination from a white stranger as to why she’s wearing a headwrap. Another shows a Spanish man commenting at length about how much he ostensibly loves black women, but somehow managing only to objectify and exoticize their hair. Another shows three young women enjoying a day together in Luanda, Angola: doing hair, taking a trip out to the ocean, and stopping to pee on an old colonial mansion en route. The stories collected in Hot Comb are intimate, taking the reader into the heart of the characters’ days, their fluctuating emotions, and their complicated human interactions. At the same time, each story works both individually and collectively to make a larger commentary about the significant role hair plays in the lives of black women and how this significance intersects with issues of racism, colonialism, colorism, and misogyny.
Flowers’ drawing style is bold and expressive. The images are rendered all in black and white, with thick, dark lines and a great sense of gesture and motion. Hand-lettered dialogue effectively communicates the characters’ emotions, with letters growing thicker, darker, or curvier to indicate impatience, anger, or delight; cursive text is sometimes included to indicate non-dialogue narration. Full page illustrations recreating old advertisements for hair products targeted at black women are interspersed between each story, and these drawings add a sense of mingled nostalgia and political commentary all their own.
An exceptional debut, Hot Comb is essential for inclusion in all adult graphic novel collections for both its artistry and for the stories it tells.
By Ebony Flowers
Drawn & Quarterly, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
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Character Traits: Black,
Creator Highlights: Own Voices, BIPOC Creator