Eugene Bullard lived the kind of life that demands biographers take notice. He was the first Black fighter pilot from the United States, as well as a decorated soldier, boxer, vaudeville performer, and Paris businessman. His social circles included early 20th-century notables like Josephine Baker, Langston Hughes, and boxer Aaron Lister “Dixie Kid” Brown. During his pilot career, he had a pet monkey named Jimmy who accompanied him on all of his combat flights.
Now Let Me Fly: A Portrait of Eugene Bullard captures the kinetic energy of Bullard’s biography but also gives it weight. It’s a sensitive portrait of a daring young man encountering the possibilities and complexities of the world beyond his birthplace—small-town Georgia at the dawn of Jim Crow. The book’s success is due to a seamless collaboration between cartoonists Ronald Wimberly and Brahm Revel; Wimberly’s deft script allows Revel’s emotionally rich, vintage-inflected art to speak for itself and makes use of a clever frame story that positions Gene as the author of his own story.
Bullard did tell his story to the American public more than once, most notably on the Today Show in 1959. By that time, he was an unknown figure working as an elevator operator at New York’s Rockefeller Center. Now Let Me Fly imagines Gene trapped in an elevator with a white advertising worker who’s spellbound by Gene’s stories and later arranges for him to appear on the show. This accidental interviewer serves as an audience proxy, giving us space to process the emotional highs and lows of Gene’s story but also bookmarking moments when Gene’s story complicates the expectations of a non-Black audience.
Gene’s story opens with trauma—the near-lynching of Gene’s father by the Klan after he stands up for himself against an abusive supervisor. The episode underscores the precarity of the family’s life in the Deep South, and despite a tender relationship with his father, Gene begins running away from home. At thirteen he leaves for good, joining a group of traveling Romani and learning to race and perform with horses. At this time, many African Americans are moving north in the Great Migration, but Gene is determined to go farther—he’ll make his way to Europe, where he believes he’ll find true racial equality.
Perseverance, charisma, and a stint as a stowaway allow Gene to make his way to Britain and then Paris. Racism is still present in his career as a street and vaudeville performer, but to Gene, none of it compares to the violent apartheid of the South. He trains as a boxer and settles into a seemingly charmed life as one of many African American exiles living in Paris—but then World War I strikes, and the city he loves requires defense. Gene enlists as an infantry soldier in the Foreign Legion, the boldness that’s defined his life propelling him to courageous feats amidst a dehumanizing war. Sent home with grievous injuries, he nevertheless talks his way into being selected as a fighter pilot, finishing out the war as one of the few Black pilots in the air.
In Wimberly and Revel’s hands Bullard’s story is powerful, but it’s rarely sensational. His story has room to breathe, with wordless panels lingering on the bittersweet beauty of the Deep South and lively adventure of Gene’s life abroad, as well as frankly depicting his experiences with violence, both at home and at war. This frankness extends to use of language; the book reproduces historical slurs, including “gypsy” to refer to Romani people. The inclusion of slurs in historical works is a debated topic, and this word in particular gave me pause, but the author’s intention appears to be an honest rendering of history, which includes sympathetic characters using problematic language. I do think it would have been useful to include an author’s note discussing this choice, as readers may be unaware that “gypsy” is now broadly considered offensive.
“A man can be a lot of things in life, and there’s a lot of ways to tell his story,” Gene says in the final pages of the book. Now Let Me Fly is particularly interested in how Gene’s travels shed light on the systems of power that define the modern world. As Gene escapes the uniquely American racism of his birth and makes new connections, he glimpses opportunities for solidarity among people of different oppressed backgrounds, whether they’re terrorized Black Americans, ostracized Roma, colonized Moroccans, or infantry soldiers of all ethnicities caught up in the mechanized horrors of modern warfare. Yet the book acknowledges how fragile these possibilities are—for instance, in an episode when a Jewish tailor calls Gene by a racial slur, only to make amends when passersby verbally attack both Gene and the tailor’s assistant. “Most people can’t see how they’re wrong till something similar happens to them,” Gene observes. “For some, they still won’t.”
I read Now Let Me Fly in a single sitting, and I think many readers will have the same experience—this book, and Bullard’s story, are just that compelling. This is a standout in the field of graphic biographies and highly recommended for adult and teen readers.
Now Let Me Fly: A Portrait of Eugene Bullard Vol.
By Ronald Wimberly
Art by Brahm Revel
Macmillan First Second, 2023
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18), Teen (13-16)
Creator Representation: African-American
Character Representation: African-American, First Nations or Indigenous