Launched at a time when there were very few Black male syndicated cartoonists, Barbara Brandon-Croft, creator of the groundbreaking comic strip Where I’m Coming From, became the first nationally syndicated Black woman cartoonist in the mainstream press. A retrospective collection of Where I’m Coming From, which is centered on the lives, relationships and viewpoints of Black women, will be published by Drawn and Quarterly February 7.

First published by the Detroit Free Press in 1989 and syndicated by Universal Press Syndicate from 1991 to 2005, Where I’m Coming From was a revelation. The strip featured nine recurring, distinctively conceived Black women characters—among them Lydia, a socially aware single-mom; Nicole, a common sense fly girl; Monica, fair-skinned and outspoken; and Lakesa, pro-Black and pro-woman—in a lively and funny ongoing conversation about their lives and the world around them.

PW spoke with Brandon-Croft about the creation and beginning of the strip and the impact and support of her father—Brumsic Brandon Jr, an equally groundbreaking Black cartoonist and animator—on her career.

Publishers Weekly: What was the hardest part of putting this retrospective collection together?

Barbara Brandon-Croft: The hardest part was finding everything. Although Drawn and Quarterly had my first two books that Universal Press [Andrews McMeel Publishing] put out, but I was syndicated for a decade beyond those two publications. Rereading past work was difficult enough (no one wants to revisit past work. It’s kind of scary). I also went through tons of old boxes in my basement to find other artifacts Drawn and Quarterly wanted, like letters.

It was interesting to read those letters. Can you talk more about how people interpreted your work and expressed their concerns about Black representation in the comic strip?

Well, I learned from my dad’s experiences. He did Luther [one of the earliest nationally syndicated comic strips to feature an African American protagonist]. He found that certain papers wouldn’t pick his strip up because they already had Wee Pals by Morrie Turner or Quincy by Ted Shearer. I guess they thought that too much Blackness would be too much. I find that Black folks are often categorized as one of two things, a threat, or a nuisance. When I was trying to sell my strip and I found one newspaper to pick me up, Detroit Free Press. And even though they actively came looking for this voice, some editors were still concerned about how it would play to their wider audience, which is still dumbfounding to me. But they had the spine to go with it and l appreciate that to this day.

I remember once being interviewed on television. Right before the cameras started, the interviewer said to me, “How are you going to sell this to cities that aren’t Black cities?” And then, it was like, action! and I was on air. I must admit, I had a tinge of attitude. The idea that only Black women would be interested in what my Black women had to say is just insulting. It’s a lack of being able to see us as human, to see our humanity, to realize that our concerns are universal concerns that’s so confounding. That’s what I hope I did.

What was your life like during your formative years?

I was born in Brooklyn, and before I turned one, we moved to New Cassel on Long Island, which is technically an unincorporated village in Nassau County. It was one of the few communities where Black folks could buy houses on the island. I had such a rich upbringing. It was a place where we could feel free to be ourselves and be supported. I always felt a great sense of belonging. It was just pure fun.

What's interesting to me is that when you have this neighborhood––a place where only Black folks could buy homes––you have a wide range of Blackness. My friend’s great aunt is Fredi Washington, the [1920s Black] Hollywood movie star! There was this special thing that happened when they made everybody live together. People in my neighborhood were working class and that work ran the gamut––bus drivers, park laborers, my dad was an animator, one family’s dad was one of the Harlem Globetrotters! I mean, it was just that kind of richness.

I have friendships that have lasted for over 60 years. I'm still friends with folks I went to kindergarten with. I'm still friends with my high school buddies. By the time I went to high school, we'd been bused into the neighboring school district, and our school was fifty-percent Black and fifty percent white. It's an enriching experience —especially for white kids — for us all to be together, to know everybody instead of thinking of each other as “others.” And I had a lot of male friends from the beginning, all the way through. I think that informed my strip as far as showing relationships and how you're not going to agree with everything your friend says.

What was it like growing up in the household of a syndicated cartoonist?

So, my dad was a cartoonist and an animator. When he became syndicated, his studio was our dining room. We had to be quiet in our house when dad was working. I can remember thinking, “Geez. My dad’s a cartoonist. Isn’t he supposed to be fun?” but he was doing his thing. Fortunately for me, I had a living, breathing role model in my house. He was looking for help in doing his strip. He asked me and my siblings to do a drawing test, and I happened to win. I was chosen to put on the Zip-A-Tone [sheets of dotted paper that had to be transferred on to the original art to depict skin tones], which is what he used back in his day. It's tedious but that's what I did, and I got paid for it.

I didn’t know it then, but I was in training. I ended up doing the same process for my strip––I used Letratone. I still use his techniques. I work on a lightbox because that’s what he did. He kept files of his characters. I keep files of my characters. He kept notebooks for ideas for a strip. I do the same. He wrote it out, penciled it in, and inked it in. Me too. For Luther, I colored in the silhouettes and put on the Zip-A-Tone. And, in one instance, I did the lettering because he’d had back surgery and couldn't do it. You never can take off when you do a daily comic strip. I guess I was in junior high or high school when I started working for him. I was getting trained and didn’t realize it. I didn't know what I wanted “to be” at the time. I was just a free spirit.

How did becoming a mother influence your comics?

When Lydia [a WICF character] had her baby, I was speaking from my experience with my girlfriends who were having babies. I honestly thought I knew a great deal about motherhood. And then, I had a baby. I was like, holy crap. I did not know. It was so mind blowing, everything changed. At first, Lydia’s baby, Aretha, Re-Re, was just this round head, oval body swaddled in a blanket with tiny hands peeking out. By the time WICF ended, Re-Re had a full body. I could see before me the kind of gestures and motions and things babies do.

And because I had my son when I was almost 40, I overthought everything. I was second guessing myself and thinking about the world and how he was going to fit in, and how I was going to do this. After I had my son, Lydia got a little deeper in her way of expressing things. Where before, she had not necessarily been worried about the world. She worried about her world, but not the world in general. It kind of opened up that character. And you can see how the baby changed from just a circle to a toddler. And that doesn't happen all the time in comics, but it was fun for me because I was watching my kid grow.

What hopes do you have for the future of comics?

I would like to see them more respected. My dad would often say that, as a cartoonist, our job is to observe, interpret, and record. It's so true. We are telling our history. When we put our pen to the page, we are showing what our life is like, and what we see. One of the best ways to understand history is to look at comics.

Is there anything you’re currently working on?

I haven’t retired my girls. I still create strips and I’m so pleased that Drawn and Quarterly included some of my post-syndication work. I post them when I feel the need. You can find them on Instagram here: @barbarabrandoncroft

I’m also trying to keep my dad’s legacy alive. We just had an exhibit at the Billy Ireland Library at Ohio State, [one of the world’s largest research libraries of American cartoons and comic art]. It's called, Still: Racism in America – A Retrospective in Cartoons. The exhibit looks at all the aspects of racism that he talked about, and I ended up talking about. Next to each comic, we have just the year. I thought it was phenomenal for us to be talking about the same issues, decades apart. I want the exhibit to travel to different places.

Ebony V. Flowers, PhD, is the author of the 2019 graphic short story collection Hot Comb, which was awarded a 2019 Eisner Award, Ignatz Award, and was chosen as a PW Best Book. She is currently a 2023-2024 Mary I. Bunting Fellow at the Harvard Radcliffe Institute.