“To Flip and Move and Shine”: Ebony Flowers’ Hot Comb

“…for it began to rain, and the women ran in tiny leaps through the grass for fear their straightened hair would beat them home.” – Toni Morrison, Sula

Rain clouds gather on the title pages of nearly every comic in Ebony Flowers’ exhilarating collection, Hot Comb. The sketched clouds darken and grow more ominous with each appearance, and the rain that falls on the unnamed black girl standing beneath stirs a bevy of emotions on her face: discomfort and dread, helplessness and panic. But something happens when the torrential downpour takes over. Her palms reach out and her lips curve into a curious smile. By the next installment, the curls bundled on the top of her head have loosened and begun to stretch. The image of her body fractures into three silent, frolicking pantomimes with tongues extended to catch the rain.

When at last the storm clears, the black girl is drenched. Her eyes, which until then have been watching the rain, stare resolutely ahead; her toothy grin and relaxed shoulders complement the long, frizzy strands of hair fanning across her head. The sun that peeks through the clouds brings to mind the magazine advertisement that young Ebony admired at the start of the book for Dark and Lovely hair care products. Beside the black model, whose hair and dress have been coiffed to perfection, the tagline reads: So True, So You.

In Hot Comb, hair is the visual narrative’s barometer of the self. The eight interlocking black-and-white stories use the social, historical, and economic politics of hair to chart the different phases of African American girlhood and illustrate how ideas about racial identity, trauma, beauty, sexuality, and power pass from one generation to the next. Some of the stories appear to draw on Flowers’ personal experiences as the basis of character and conflict, while a few shorter pieces read like journal entries of conversations in which hair is the main provocation. In the salon or at the kitchen stove, the intimate relationships that develop in these black women-centered spaces are cultivated to safeguard and to equip mothers, sisters, and daughters against the dangers beyond. During the funeral wake that frames the comic “Big Ma,” a woman named Cora reaches into her grandmother’s coffin to touch a lock of her hair. What unfolds in the pages that follow are memories of Cora’s younger self, stealing a moment in Big Ma’s room to play old soul records and try on one of her wigs. While the grown-ups argue outside the door, the panels chase the girl’s metamorphosis as she flips her new hair, dances on the bed, and admires herself in the mirror.

Such are the fleeting moments of connection and furtive joy that bind the comics, and like the title image of the metal hair straightening comb, Flowers skillfully enlists distinctive markers of black hair culture to expose the vulnerability deeply encoded in black women’s struggle for agency. Inky tactile sketches pull readers into a mode of contemplative storytelling that sets Hot Comb apart, even as it builds on the familiar structures of graphic memoir and quotidian slice-of-life comics. The loose, thick lines of Flowers’ drawing style generate bulbous body shapes and elastic facial expressions that shift easily between the nuanced perspectives of the characters and unrestrained moments of emotional intensity. While she is undoubtedly influenced by her work with cartoonist Lynda Barry, Flowers’ aesthetic approach has its own distinct cast, its own precision and creative flair.

Flowers is particularly adept at representing the dense, curly textures of black hair. Her images bring to mind a series of Twitter posts that cartoonist and publisher C. Spike Trotman wrote in August 2018 on “Black Hair for Non-Black Artists: a Cheat Sheet Thread.” Nearly all the referents in Trotman’s useful index can be mapped across Hot Comb, including a range of Afros, braids, locs, twists, chemically straightened bobs, curls, and weaves, along with the results of different styles and maintenance techniques. At times, Flowers’ staging of these looks seems designed to educate an unfamiliar audience, or even to appease the voyeur. And yet like the recent comic book, Wash Day, by Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith, Hot Comb brings an interior depth to Trotman’s black hair cheat sheet that rewards more knowledgeable readers. Flowers lingers more on the process of styling hair than on the finished product, braiding in complex emotions and collective aspirations along the way. One story called “Sisters & Daughters” includes a six-page conversation between two middle-aged sisters, Latreece and Gina. They reflect in halting starts and stops about the difficult years growing up, while one carefully parts, oils, and twists the other’s hair. The sequence invokes the step-by-step tutorials of black hair magazines but framed by a sense of nostalgia for the moments of mutual companionship and warmth not written into the instructions.

Within the individual stories and the paratextual features such as the hair care advertisements, historical context is key. Flowers tracks the legacy of black hair fashion in 1960s and 1970s (Afro Sheen, “Black is Beautiful,” and products inspired by pan-African royalty) through the waves and fades of the 1980s and 1990s (Jheri curls, hi-top fades, synthetic hair braids). For the young women who are caught up in these trends, hair exists at the intersection of self-care and self-doubt, where matters of appearance are at once a revolutionary rallying cry and a commercial slogan. All too soon they learn that what is described in the comic’s fictitious Pinnacle ad as “GORGEOUS, weather-proof hairstyling” promises a way of being in the world that no daily beauty regimen can provide.

As a result, while much of Hot Comb is focalized through the perspectives of black children, any temptation to locate them on the pages of Happy to Be Nappy (or the Sesame Street anthem, “I Love My Hair”) will be frustrated by the more ambivalent, open-ended stance of Flowers’s stories. She complicates the necessary affirmations of children’s books on the subject and builds instead on the fraught dynamics between mothers and daughters represented in Rita Williams-Garcia’s YA novel, One Crazy Summer and coming-of-age comics such as Whit Taylor’s “Finding Your Roots” and Jennifer Crute’s Jennifer's Journal.

Consider the title story, for instance, in which young Ebony’s hair becomes the primary means of tracking her development from her early years through her adolescent encounters with identity formation, peer rejection, and community belonging in an all-black neighborhood outside of Baltimore. Her pleasures are all hard-won, while shame never seems to be in short supply. Ebony’s earnest narrative voice is at turns puzzled and resentful of the ways her difference is racialized (her mother accuses her of “acting too white”); her appearance stigmatized (her friends tease “Girl you need to do ya hair!”); and her body over-sexualized (she is whipped by her father for singing TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg” at a talent show).

In the climactic scene of “Hot Comb,” the reader peers over Ebony’s shoulder for one of her most important rites of passage – her first hair relaxer. Her anticipation is initially thwarted by the long wait at the East Side Baltimore salon. She is likewise unprepared for the way the chemical’s tingle begins to itch and burn her scalp. Still she is convinced that if her hair can be transformed into that idealized state – “to flip and move and shine” – the pain will be worth it. Time stamps mark each hour, while visual renderings of the other clients’ conversations, the ammonia smell, and the Babyface songs on the radio crowd the panels and track the rhythms of life in the salon. Ebony eventually leaves the hair stylist with soft, glossy hair and curled bangs. But it is clear that something else has changed, something that we can only see in her mother’s quiet contemplation of her daughter’s face. Ebony remarks, “On the way home I noticed… my mom crying.” The two halves of this tender observation bookend a six-panel sequence in the car outside the salon in which Ebony’s mother shifts from stony silence to a flashpoint of rage, only to grip the steering wheel in tears with a look of utter resignation.

What registers in these scenes are echoes of the trauma depicted in works such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Sula. The black women in Hot Comb are constantly grappling with the meaning of their hair as a signifier of Otherness and some even succumb to the self-abnegation behind Pecola’s desire for whiteness in Morrison’s novel. Importantly, Flowers foregrounds these identity crises in ways that are emphatically not resolved through platitudes of “inner beauty.” Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom points out that black women have developed compelling counternarratives to combat the idealized standards of beauty that exclude them. Yet she also argues that these alternative visions of beauty can inadvertently “do the dominant culture’s work of disciplining other black people’s identities, behaviors, and bodies.” As Cottom explains:

“Beauty has it all. It can be political, economic, external, individualized, generalizing, exclusionary, and perhaps best of all a story that can be told. Our dominant story of beauty is that it is simultaneously a blessing, of genetics or gods, and a site of conversion. You can become beautiful if you accept the right prophets and their wisdoms with a side of products thrown in for good measure. Forget that these two ideas—unique blessing and earned reward—are antithetical to each other. That makes beauty all the more perfect for our (social and political) time, itself anchored in paradoxes like freedom and property, opportunity and equality.”

The paradoxes that Cottom describes are aptly illustrated in “My Lil Sister Lena.” The narrator tells the story of her sister, a softball short stop and lead batter, who is also the only black player on her Tennessee team. A dunk in the pool prompts her white teammates to gaze in wonder at the “magic trick” of her hair. When Flowers writes that “Lena had long shiny black coils,” images of the letters curl out of the tendrils of the girl’s damp hair. And later, “When Lena’s hair got wet, it went from tight kinks that reached toward the sun to loose curls that draped over her shoulders. Her hair became more recognizable as the kind of hair that grew from her teammates heads.”

Dazed by this magic trick, the white teammates praise her hair’s length and texture, and their hands reach for her in ways that the comic likens to jellyfish. Lena withers under the relentless attention, being touched and treated like an oddity, and she begins to pull out her own hair: “She’d feel a pinch of pain and then a little wave of relief. She’d do it again and again.” No story in the collection more profoundly captures how the struggle against colonized desire can endanger the self. The narrative further makes clear that Lena’s resulting embarrassment at the bald patches on her head are only temporarily eased by counseling and medication. Replicated throughout the comic is the black girl’s devastating ritual of self-harm. A lone picture of Lena’s finger wrapped around a single strand is first; the next panel encapsulates the hair pulled taunt from the scalp; the final panel shows it yanked free. The sequence distills the tragedy at the heart of “My Lil Sister Lena” and reflects the devastating contradictions of the social construction of beauty as both “unique blessing and earned reward.”

Other shorter vignettes in Hot Comb further dramatize the impact of (and resistance to) the white gaze. A black woman’s covered hair on the train sparks a barrage of questions about her racial and religious identity in “The Lady on the Train.” Multiple encounters are depicted in “Fieldwork Follies” and “The Spaniard” with non-black people who treat black women’s hair like a costume or even a form of deception, rather than a means of expression and identity. All of the stories in the collection confront the attitudes inscribed in the commonplace language of black hair that is wild, untamed, and raw in its natural state, and yet so fragile when fixed that it can be undone by a drop of water.

Just a glimpse into this maelstrom invites a deeper understanding of the unnamed black girl, the one who is chased across Hot Comb by storm clouds and is caught unexpectedly in the rain. It is a wonder that she chooses not to run for cover, but pauses for a time, to see and touch and taste what the world may have to offer. What Flowers show us is that the substance of this girl’s life, like so many of her daring sisters, is more than a question of survival or strength, and much finer than any magic trick. How extraordinary it is to see her palms reaching out of the page to claim that life as her own.

Qiana Whitted is professor of English and African American Studies at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of EC Comics: Race, Shock, and Social Protest and co-editor of the essay collection on Comics and the U.S. South. She is also the editor of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society and chair of the International Comic Arts Forum.