Review: The Black Mage

April 1, 2020

Publisher: Oni Press

Writer/ Co-Creator: Daniel Barnes

Artist/ Co-Creator: D.J. Kirkland

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a fantasy or sci-fi tv show or film and noted the one or two token Black characters in a mostly white cast. There’s Dean Thomas in Harry Potter, Gwendolyn, and Sir Elyan in Merlin, and that one time Gina Torres played Cleopatra in Xena: Warrior Princess. Given how prevalent this, it was a pleasant surprise and to see the “token Black character” become the protagonist of the fantasy graphic novel The Black Mage.

The book stars the titular Black mage Tom Token, as he becomes the newest student at the prestigious magical university St. Ivory. Due to the Magical Minority Initiative, Tom is now the first Black mage to attend the historically white school. However, Tom soon discovers that something sinister is hidden just underneath the school’s charm. With the help of student liaison Lindsay and the spirits of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Henry, Tom must solve the mystery of a conspiracy that dates back to the American Civil War.

Besides the book’s premise, Daniel Barnes’ smart and satirical writing charmed me. He perfectly captures both the delight and the frustration of a Black person in speculative fiction or anything else that is white-dominated. As soon as Tom is introduced to the other students, Lindsay and other white students try to pick Tom’s brain by asking questions like, “Is it true that Black mages use grape juice to restore their mana?”

Of course, Tom Token doesn’t take any of that sitting down, especially when it comes to a racist white-dude bro character Bryce. In a few pages, Tom and Bryce have a fight reminiscent of a Street Fighter game mashed up with spells from the Japanese video game franchise Final Fantasy. The influences of these and Japanese anime are clearly shown in D.J. Kirkland’s bright, dynamic artwork and colors well as Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou’s visually striking letters. In one of my favorite panels, Tom punches Bryce in a fiery uppercut called Firaga Fist and lands a critical hit.

Meanwhile, there is also a clever depiction of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and John Henry. Without giving away too much, let’s just say that every one of these characters gets a moment to shine together with Tom Token and that the best involve Harriet Tubman and John Henry. In addition to providing plenty of action, these characters also add to the narrative as Black historical figures who play a major role in Tom Token’s story.

In fact, the most notable thing about this book is how it reclaims space in the fantasy genre for Black people while calling out racists who try to exclude us or eliminate our contributions entirely. The heavy-handed commentary on race will turn off some readers, especially when it comes to the character Lindsay. Despite being on the cover, Lindsay reads very much like a supporting character. She is no white savior.  She is a literal embodiment of the white mage character class from the Final Fantasy games: a back-row character who heals and occasionally attacks.

On the other hand, Tom Token as a literal Black mage is very awesome and fun. He is a Black wizard, but he also fights with the spells of the black mage Final Fantasy character class. As mentioned earlier, this is one of many pop culture nods throughout the book that serves to show the creators’ artistic influences and balance out the serious themes. The Harry Potter-inspired magical school is another, but some of my personal favorites are more subtle. One is a really cool nod to the video game cover of the Japanese video game Chrono Trigger, and the other is a search engine named after the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air character Geoffrey. 

All in all, The Black Mage parodies and retells fantasy fiction in a fun, smart way. Combining history, speculative fiction, and pop culture, it gives magic to Black people and literally fights anyone who would try to it take away. If you love video games, anime, or any kind of speculative fiction whatsoever, then this stand-alone graphic novel will delight you as it did me.


Latonya Pennington is a freelance writer from the southern United States specializing in entertainment and pop culture. In addition to, her pop culture work can be found on The Mary Sue, Black Girl Nerds, and Buzzfeed. When she isn’t freelancing, she can be found tweeting, reading, doing creative writing, or streaming music, shows and anime online. Find her on Twitter.

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