In this post-President Obama, post-Black Panther America, Black representation has been on the rise. Charlie J. Eskew’s debut novel, Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark, joins the likes of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout in expanding Black representation. After getting struck by lightning, Donald McDougal develops electricity-related superpowers in a world where other superheroes openly fight Super Predators. Driven by his financial troubles and his sense of duty, Donald sets out to join a team of superheroes.
Hilarious, self-aware, and poignant, Eskew captures the intricacies of the Black male experience. For years in American literature and film, Black representation has focused on the strife of being Black. Until recently, stories about African Americans that had little to do with the characters’ Blackness were few and far between. Growing up Black in the South, the types of stories I would see about people like me made me think that the entertainment industries—and maybe even the world at large—believed that if people like me are not suffering, we are not existing. Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark subverses this trope in the literary canon by showing the full complexities of Donald’s Black experience. Eskew comments on the canon when he writes, “. . . I’m aware that two more racially aimed comments will officially land this little memoir in the dusty African-American section of your local bookstore.”
The novel finds its strength when commenting on the strangeness of geek culture (“Detective Comics Comics? Does that bother anyone else?”) and the fluidity of the Black experience when it comes to interactions with friends, strangers, and code switching with other members of the community (“We switch codes like skipping stones across a lake.”). This humor and authenticity makes the world that Eskew creates feel so full, and in some ways, fuller than our own. The novel is unapologetic about its self-referential nature. The reader who is steeped in geek culture and understands references to things like Uwe Boll’s poor performing films and manga series from the early 2000s, will see themselves reflected in Donald’s rollicking journey as he comes of age as a superhero. Overall, Tales of the Astonishing Black Spark is a novel that should be read and reread for its fresh humor and its nuanced commentary on race in America.
Kat Lewis is the author of the short story collection, In and of Blood. Lewis graduated from Johns Hopkins University where she held the Saul Zaentz Innovation Fund Fellowship. In 2018, she received a Fulbright Creative Arts grant in South Korea. She is currently an MFA student at the University of San Francisco.
Kat tweets at @iRkat525.