After Viral Racist Encounter, Central Park Birder Shares Experience in Comic Form

A panel from It’s a Bird (DC Comics, 2020), by Christian Cooper (all images courtesy DC Comics)

No matter how far things have supposedly come, living as a Black person in the US is to be constantly reminded of displacement, and immense state-encouraged hostility which touches even the most serene of hobbies. The viral video that showed Christian Cooper being harassed and threatened by a white woman in Central Park for simply asking to leash her dog is one such event, and has sparked the creation of the digital comic It’s a Bird. The first installment of DC Comics’ Represent series — meant to highlight under-represented creators and experiences in comics — It’s a Bird was written by Cooper, with illustrations by Alitha E. Martinez, inks by Mark Morales, colors by Emilio Lopez, and lettering by Rob Clark Jr.

The comic is a semi-fictionalized account of Cooper’s personal experiences, drawn from his own life and love of birdwatching, as well the aforementioned incident that occurred on May 25 this year. On that same day, George Floyd was murdered by the police, sparking national protest that has persisted through the summer, and to this very moment.

From It’s a Bird (DC Comics, 2020), by Christian Cooper

It’s A Bird draws on the interconnectedness of these experiences, with its story of Jules, a young Black birdwatcher gifted with a pair of binoculars that allow him to learn the stories of slain Black people like Amadou Diallo, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Despite their similar backgrounds, Jules is more than just a stand-in for Cooper, perhaps even a vision of what the next generation might look like to the author — younger Black people navigating experiences in the same way that Jules inherits knowledge from his father’s binoculars. Jules himself is the most hopeful element of Cooper’s comic, empowered by clarity rather than ruled by intimidation; he simply ignores the white woman as she screams at him.

It’s A Bird isn’t just a canny reaction to current events, it’s also a return to comics for Cooper. Just as confrontational as his past works, Cooper’s latest takes on racist dog whistles (pun not intended) with necessary straightforwardness. The art matches this sentiment, grounded with naturalistic colors and character design — fantastical apparitions appear to Jules through his binoculars, briefly intruding with shocks of red.

From It’s a Bird (DC Comics, 2020), by Christian Cooper

Perhaps the most powerful element of It’s a Bird, and the most encouraging sign for the Represent series, is the intersectional experience that bleeds into the work. Martinez, the artist known for work such as Black Panther: World of Wakanda, expanded on this to Hyperallergic: “It’s a Bird was based on Christian’s encounter, but the facial expressions for Jules, the main character, came from my son. Teenagers are very expressive, but there were two particular expressions that I wanted to capture: the way my kid looks when he’s had enough and [a] look of silent resolve,” such as when he endured an incident of racial profiling by the TSA. “My son was worried, frightened, nervous, angry and then relieved but left permanently aware of our status as the other”.

The comic is quite literal in its metaphors about otherness; Jules is haunted by knowledge of a history of police violence and racism even as he takes part in peaceful activities; he’s harassed by an older white man who hisses dehumanizing, racist dog whistles and again by a nameless white woman in a scene that replays Cooper’s experience of May 25. Through that mysterious pair of binoculars, racist aggressions large and small, past and present, are connected. As Cooper highlights through his writing, these are situations replicated time and again.

A promotional image for Represent (DC Comics, 2020–)

It’s hard not to be skeptical of initiatives like Represent, when the promise of greater inclusion has also been repeated time and again, only for things to remain static or slowly revert back to status quo. In normal times, the series’ digital format, as opposed to print, might seem like a limitation placed by the publisher. But immense shifts in the industry — not least of all the breaking of Diamond’s distribution monopoly following DC’s decision to cut ties with the company earlier this year — makes digital distribution (for free, no less) a much simpler and more accessible avenue.

Perhaps the only discouraging sign is the lack of outline for further stories in this series. It’s a Bird has long since landed, and there’s still little news about follow-up stories, other than that there will be more come in 2021. There is at least that promise of intersectionality, though perhaps one that lacks urgency.

With It’s a Bird, Cooper hopes the comic will help “keep the focus where it needs to be, which is on those we have lost and how we keep from losing more” – one can only hope that this sentiment carries over to the rest of the series, even if the directions that it will take are yet to be made clear.

It’s a Bird, by Christian Cooper (DC Comics, 2020) is available for free on participating digital platforms, including readdc.com, Comixology, Amazon Kindle, Apple Books, and more.

A semi-fictionalized account of Christian Cooper’s own experiences, It’s a Bird takes on racist dog whistles with necessary straightforwardness.Read MoreArticles, Christian Cooper, DC Comics, New York, RacismHyperallergicRead More

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