Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers

Review by Britt Runeckles

Drawn & Quarterly, 2019

180 pages, paperback, $24.95 CAD, 978-1-770-46348-6

Ages 12+, Grades 7-12

Young Adult, New Adult, Graphic Novels, Contemporary Realism

What does your hair mean to you? To your identity? Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers is a collection of raw short stories about black women who face adversity and demonstrate strength, in a world where they are frequently tokenized, rather than accepted.

Flowers ties together themes of not fitting in, racism and white washing, to reveal the complicated battle between maintaining one’s culture and being accepted in society. The authenticity of the writer’s lived experiences in this graphic novel, as well as highly expressive artwork, were so affirming. This authenticity is established in the title story, “Hot Comb,” which is about the first time Flowers got a perm. She talks about the bullying she receives in school and how she thinks that getting a relaxer may change that. A particularly poignant moment is her mother’s reaction to the idea of her getting a relaxer, when she expresses a fear of her daughter being white-washed. This is beautifully and heartbreakingly demonstrated by her mom telling her to stop tucking her hair behind her ears like a “white girl” before breaking down in tears.

Additionally, Flowers doesn’t try to resolve all of the problems that the protagonists has to deal with. For example, in the story “My Lil Sister Lena,” we see Lena deal with having an addiction to trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), due in part to the toxic environment on her softball team. In this story, as well as in “Hot Comb,” Flowers doesn’t try to resolve the problems faced by the characters, but rather focusses on the fact that many young Black girls encounter these same issues, and that there is no easy solution.

The chunky, cartoonish style is reminiscent of Lynda Barry’s artwork and the while tone of the pieces are light, the messages underneath the surface have a power and universality to them. It’s no surprise, then, to find out that Ebony Flowers studied under Lynda Barry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Another interesting artistic choice was to leave everything in black and white. In some of the stories, there is no differentiation in skin colour between white and black characters, but the black characters have detailed curly, dark hair and larger lips. This choice emphasizes the role hair plays in the graphic novel and the characters’ lives.

This collection would be incredibly impactful for both young adult and adult readers. Some of the stories feature older protagonists, but there is still a relatability for teens, due to the style and the messages. It is critical to have more stories like this available as they fill a much needed gap in the publishing industry of “own voices” books that deal with identity as a member of a marginalized community. I strongly recommend that readers support this book and Flowers, so she can continue to tell raw, relevant, and impactful stories about racism and living as a black woman in America.

Britt Runeckles is an English Literature and Creative Writing student at the University of British Columbia, where she writes fiction, non-fiction and screenplays. She is currently working on her first novel and loves writing stories about characters with weird hobbies and intersectional identities.

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