American Art · Books

A New Graphic Novel Introduces Edmonia Lewis

As a big fan of 19th-century African-American and Native-American sculptor Edmonia Lewis, I was excited to find out that she’s the subject of a new graphic novel, Seen: Edmonia Lewis. Thanks to publisher BOOM! Studios, I was able to read and review an advanced digital copy ahead of its official release.

While I haven’t traditionally been a graphic novel devotee, I’m starting to appreciate that the genre is very well suited to making historical figures fun and approachable. Telling Edmonia’s story in a clear and engaging manner, Seen: Edmonia Lewis is a perfect example of this. I really enjoyed the novel, and I found myself smiling the entire time I was reading it. In particular, I love how Edmonia’s cheerful and resilient spirit shines through in both illustrations and text.

Graphics

Seen_EdmoniaLewis_SC_PRESS7.0.326.12
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

Seen: Edmonia Lewis has attractive and inviting visuals, which were illustrated by Bex Glendining and colored by Kieran Quigley. They include enough detail to set the scene nicely without overwhelming to the eye. The figure of Edmonia clearly comes from this photograph but adds lots of life to her formal, 19th-century portrait. Imbued with a wonderful, spirited personality, Edmonia quickly feels like a friend.

Additionally, I really enjoyed the illustrations of Edmonia’s most famous sculptures, which appear liberally throughout the novel. As someone who’s familiar with her work, finding key pieces appearing in the background of studio and exhibition scenes was like spotting old friends on the street.

Story

Seen_EdmoniaLewis_SC_PRESS7.0.326.11
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

The narrative presented in Seen: Edmonia Lewis tracks very closely with Edmonia’s story as I understand it. I get frustrated when representations of artists cherry-pick or over-interpret facts for the sake of creating a desired effect, and I truly appreciate how that’s not the case here. This novel is firmly in the realm of true (rather than fictionalized) biography.

There’s lots of compelling material to cover in Edmonia’s life story, from her dual Native-American and African-American heritage to her struggles against gender and racial prejudice and her journey to becoming an internationally-successful sculptor. The text, written by Jasmine Walls, handles all of this beautifully. Walls is frank about everything that Edmonia went through and overcame but keeps the tone upbeat. Seen: Edmonia Lewis celebrates of Edmonia’s spirit, persistence, and creativity. She is presented as a determined, independent, and quirky lady who didn’t always get things right at first but always triumphed in the end and refused to be perceived as anything less than she deserved.

Her life and her story are too important to let fade, not just because of her art, but because of her whole self. Hers is a narrative we rarely get to see, of a black and indigenous woman, born free before emancipation, educated, artistic, joyful in her craft, and successful at it.

Walls, Jasmine, Bex Glendining, and Kieran Quigley. Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers – Edmonia Lewis. Los Angeles: Boom! Box, 2020.

The only area I found lacking in the novel was information about Lewis’s sculptures themselves. Not all of the works that appear in the book are identified by name, and I feel like they should be. Some information in the back of the book about where to see her art would also have been nice. However, this is really my only complaint.

Towards the end, the novel mentions some of the 20th-century scholars and others who have fought to keep Edmonia from being forgotten. Obviously, Walls, Glendining, and Quigley now deserve to be included in that company, because I think they’ve done an excellent job here.

Overall Thoughts

Seen_EdmoniaLewis_SC_0.326.17
Image courtesy of Boom! Studios.

Seen: Edmonia Lewis is the first in BOOM! Studios’s new series Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers. As a minority artist who still doesn’t get enough recognition today, Edmonia Lewis is certainly a perfect person to begin the series. I’m eager to see who appears next.

This graphic novel will be a great way to introduce anybody, but especially young people, to Edmonia Lewis’s story. I hope that it will allow her story will inspire lots of people, because I certainly felt inspired after reading it.

Seen: True Stories of Marginalized Trailblazers – Edmonia Lewis will be released on September 29, 2020. I highly recommend pre-ordering a copy here or through Amazon.

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