Courtesy of Vertigo via WeirdScienceDCComics.com
Even though I was well aware of the injustices that inspired Vertigo’s Black Death in America #1, I still ended up feeling angry and disgusted because the history it is inspired by is the epitome of betrayal. It is betrayal defined and as an Army veteran myself, I am disappointed that this happened to those who paved the way for me to have served in the military. Still, I’m so glad Vertigo took the opportunity to bring awareness to the savagery these vets experienced when they came back home.
Henry Johnson via US Army
Black Death in America tells the story of WWI soldier Henry Johnson, nicknamed “Black Death” for courageously dispatching over 20 Germans to the afterlife despite him and his battle buddy Needham Roberts being seriously wounded. Johnson killed off enemy soldiers who had ambushed them using grenades, the butt of his weapon, a knife and when everything else could no longer do the job, he used his fists. When the smoke cleared, reinforcements found German bodies everywhere and the evidence that Sergeant Johnson had been the one to take them out.
Upon returning to the United States, Johnson and his all-black regiment, the 369th Infantry, were treated to a grand ticker tape parade in New York City where people shouted his nickname and praised the 369th. Unfortunately, the war that was being waged against people of color in the United States showed no signs of ceasing, and once again they would find themselves fighting, Johnson included. This is where the ultimate betrayal begins.
Black Death in America #1 juxtaposes Sergeant Johnson’s actual words from a recorded interview with journalist W. Allison Sweeney for his book The History of the American Negro in the Great War with images describing the racism and inhumanity Johnson experienced, from being spit on and cursed at, to his descent into alcoholism and poverty because of his inability to work due to injuries sustained during the war.
Writer Tom King didn’t pull any punches when it came to the insults that would have been hurled at Johnson because of his race. It is also quite clear that King really did his research on Johnson which was vital so that readers can imagine how heartbreaking that level of racism and betrayal must have been for Johnson. The idea that one could pull themselves up by their bootstraps or earn the respect of their country for fighting in its wars was a myth and a lie for most American veterans of color, and King really drives that home in Black Death in America #1. The sad thing is that Johnson’s story was just one of many just like it. Veterans of color are still receiving the awards and the accolades they should have received in life posthumously. Johnson was finally awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in 2015. He died in 1929 at the age of 36.
Black Death in America #1 preview Courtesy of Vertigo Comics
Penciller John Paul Leon really complemented Johnson’s account of his fight against the Germans, while bringing King’s writing to life, by eschewing colors and opting for black and white, Frank Miller-esque art. I thought it was brilliant that Leon would intersperse images of Johnson fighting for his life in the French wilderness with images of the hell he went through back home in the States. The effect was to show that Johnson was at war whether he was in France or the United States. Sadly, it was the war on our shores that ultimately ended his life.
Black Death in America #1 was nominated for the 2016 Eisner Award for Best Short Story, and if you are an eligible voter, I cannot recommend this comic enough. At only nine pages, you can definitely take the time to check it out whether you’re a casual reader or an eligible Eisner voter. This comic is just more proof that comics can tell the stories that need to be told just as well as books can. Bravo, Vertigo.
If you’d like to learn more about Sergeant Henry Johnson, check out American National Biography.