Pitch Black

Don't Be Skerd

By: Anthony Horton / Youme Landowne
Illustrator: Youme Landowne

But here was the issue—how do you tell the story of a life that seems so bleak? Or, as Tony might say it, how do you turn your life into art?

Categories: Adult | All Books | Memoir


A graphic novel, a true story—a life lived underneath the New York City subway system.

How do you tell the story of a life that starts something like this?

I was born to people who didn't want me and so they gave me away. But I guess the people they gave me to didn't want me either. No one wanted me. That's why I ended up on the streets alone and uneducated. I couldn't read or write. I didn't know anything and the whole world knew it.

This is the voice of Anthony Horton. Born in 1968, Anthony is a homeless artist who lived underneath New York City. If you want to see his work, you'll have to walk along the tunnel walls in the darkest parts of the transit system. In 2005, he met Youme Landowne, another artist, there at one of the subway stops and they began to talk. They rode downtown and uptown and downtown again, discussing art and life, and they decided to begin working together. They decided to write a book which would tell Tony's story.

But here was the issue—how do you tell the story of a life that seems so bleak? Or, as Tony might say it, how do you turn your life into art? How do you bring light out of pitch black darkness?

Well, first the whole story had to be told, had to be heard, and that's where Youme comes in. Youme considers part of her art to be her ears—she listens, often long and hard. Her listening ears have taken her all over the world to hear the stories of people who have been marginalized and ignored—Haiti, Laos. SELAVI, Youme's acclaimed picture book, proves that Youme knows how to listen.

And the second part of her art is collaboration. She thrives in the context of public collaborative art.

The graphic novel was the form these two artists chose—rich, beautiful black and white drawings, gritty but tender, dark, with a minimum amount of text, allowing the reader to fill in all the places for which there aren't any words. With art and words from both of them, they map out Anthony's world—a tough one from many perspectives, startling and undoing from others, but from Anthony's point of view, a life lived as art, light infusing the darkness.

Awards and Accomodations

Top Ten Great Graphic Novels for Teens, 2009, YALSA
Skipping Stones Honor Book
Bank Street's Best Children's Books of the Year, 2009

8 reviews for Pitch Black

  1. Lee Stringer
    “I sat right down and read through [Pitch Black]… I found it immediately engaging and also interesting in the respect that at first you think it’s about homelessness then, as you read on, perhaps about race and, finally, you discover that it reaches for something beyond those thorny and somewhat shopworn subjects; the simple and pure light of hope.”

  2. School Library Journal☆☆☆☆☆
    “Gr 8 Up–After meeting on a subway platform in New York City, Landowne and Horton share a conversation about art and life while riding uptown and downtown. Youme listens carefully as Anthony tells his story of living on the streets after being abandoned by his adoptive family. At first he stayed at a homeless shelter where he witnessed, “things no kid should ever see.” He discovered a city below the city when one day the police chased him into a subway tunnel. In these dark passageways, Anthony built a makeshift home and found a canvas for his artwork. After showing Youme his life six stories below the city, the two artists begin a collaboration that ends in this beautiful, gritty biography. Both Youme and Anthony contributed text and art to the book–their black and gray watercolors are tender and raw, their words spare and poetic. This book’s unflinching look at homelessness and the ability to find hope and inspiration in the dark will appeal greatly to teens.”

  3. New York Times
    “Graphic Tale of Life in Subway Tunnels

    “Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd” describes the friendship of Youme Landowne, a Brooklyn-based artist, and Anthony Horton, a homeless man living in subway tunnels. (Images: Youme Landowne)

    In the four years that Youme Landowne, a Brooklyn artist, has known Anthony Horton, a homeless man who used to spend most of his nights underground, in nooks and crannies wedged around subway tunnels, Ms. Landowne learned several basic rules for subterranean life. The rules are spelled out in a spare, affecting book of illustrations, “Pitch Black,” published this month by Cinco Puntos Press, an independent publisher based in El Paso, Tex. Here are some:

    * Always keep a light on you.
    * Try to wait for a rainy day to look for a room. You don’t want to get things all set up and then find out there is a leak and you have to start over.
    * Always have more than one spot.
    * Anything you need can be found in the garbage.
    * Always clean out a spot before you go dragging a carpet down there. (It just makes it easier.)

    Ms. Landowne, who graduated from the New School and has lived in New York City off and on for 20 years, met Mr. Horton in 2004, around the publication of her children’s book, “Sélavi: a Haitian Story of Hope,” based on the real experiences of street children who set up a radio station.
    Youme Landowne and Anthony Horton met shortly after she published a children’s book in 2004.

    As the book explains — in prose set against the black and gray watercolor images — the two met on a subway station downtown and struck up an intense conversation that continued on several train rides.

    Ms. Landowne, 38, is an artist and activist who grew up in Miami. Mr. Horton, 40, grew up in foster care in New York City and has struggled with homelessness and addiction. (He has a criminal record and is now serving time in prison.)

    The book details the filthy and often frightening conditions in the subway tunnels and introduces the readers to a handful of colorful characters, though its focus is on the two main characters’ friendship and collaboration.

    Ms. Landowne worked on the illustrations since 2004, even while spending about a year living in Laos. Mr. Horton’s words inspired the text, and he is given credit as a co-author; he also made drawings used at the beginning and end of the book.

    Although the book is suitable for a young audience, Ms. Landowne said in a phone interview that she hoped “Pitch Black” would inspire adults who ride the subway to notice more of their surroundings.

    “I don’t judge people who need a little bit of space when they’re on the train,” she said, “but I feel I benefit from all the stories that people share with me.”

    Too many riders, she said, just have their iPod earphones on. “I’m shocked by how many people on the train are tuned out,” she said.

    “Our memories and dreams walk beside us, informing everything we think we see,” Ms. Landowne and Mr. Horton write in the book. “We are scavengers of stories. We seek hidden messages of hope and find them. We gather evidence of resistance to oppression and despair.”

    Fifteen years ago, a book by Jennifer Toth, “The Mole People: Life in the Tunnels Beneath New York City” (Chicago Review Press, 1993), drew attention to the plight of homeless adults living underground, many of them suffering from substance abuse or mental illness problems. The book was criticized for geographical inaccuracies, and its depiction of large, well-organized, tribal underground societies of people who had eschewed surface life has been dismissed by many scholars as an exaggeration. Nevertheless, advocates for the homeless believe that there are adults who live semiregularly in subway stations and tunnels, though no reliable estimate of their numbers is available.

    Representatives of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs a homeless outreach program, said they had no comment on “Pitch Black.”

    Ms. Landowne said that Mr. Horton’s time underground was mostly spent in and around subway tunnels under the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The book depicts the spaces he inhabited as dark and dangerous and life there as anything but well-organized.

    Mr. Horton is no longer living underground. He is serving time at the Mid-State Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Marcy, N.Y. In March, shortly before his 40th birthday, he began serving a prison sentence of 18 to 36 months for criminal possession of stolen property in the fourth degree. He is eligible for parole in November and could be released as early as May. State records indicate that he was also in prison from 1990 to 1991 for attempted assault and from 1999 to 2003 for assault.

    In the phone interview, Ms. Landowne acknowledged that her friendship and collaboration with Mr. Horton had had its ups and downs, but pointed out that his life has been filled with struggles against addiction and despair.

    Mr. Horton was not available for a phone interview, but he wrote in a letter to his publisher: “I was real glad when I received my copy of the book. I thought that it came out real good. I want to thank you for the opportunity for giving me a chance to publish my book.”

  4. Publishers Weekly Comics Week
    Living and Drawing in the Subway
    “Artist and writer Youme Landowne was standing on a New York City subway platform in 2005 when a black man standing nearby came over to talk to her. Landowne, a white woman, was staring at graffiti on the wall and before long she and the man, Anthony Horton, were talking about a mutual interest in art. As it turned out, Horton was both an artist and homeless and he lived deep down in the maze of tunnels in the New York subway system.

    Eventually Landowne would follow Horton down into the pitch black darkness of the subway tunnels to get a close up view of Horton’s life in the underground. They two not only came to know each other as fellow artists and friends but have collaborated on, Pitch Black: Don’t Be Skerd, a children’s book released this past fall by Cincos Puntos Press that tells the story of their friendship and Horton’s life as homeless man living and drawing in the subway. Pitch Black is a hybrid children’s picture book that also uses comics to tell its story.

    The book has also been nominated for a series of book awards that will be presented at the American Library Association midwinter meeting held later this week in Denver, Col. The book has been nominated for Best Books for Young Adults, Reluctant Readers’ Quick Picks and Great Graphic Novels. Pitch Black is drawn in a simple almost child-like manner in black and white ink washes. It is both the story of how Landowne and Horton came to be friends, but also a primer on Horton’s life as a homeless man in New York City. Among other things, Horton talks about his friends, fellow homeless folks who live in the tunnels. He even offers tips on how to survive living in the subway (“always keep a light on you; anything you need can be found in the garbage; and never leave food lying around—it brings lots of rats”).

    Cinco Puntos co-publisher Bobby Byrd said the press has released 10,000 copies of Pitch Black. This is Landowne’s second book for Cincos Puntos. The first, Selavi!: That is Life A Haitian Story of Hope, is the true story of a group of Haitian street kids who organized their own homeless shelter and even managed to launch a radio station, Radyo Timoun or Children’s Radio, in Port-au-prince. Byrd said the book sold more 30,000 copies.

    Landowne created the illustrations for Pitch Black, and her drawings are based on Horton’s sketches. Landowne said that while she stays in touch with Horton, he was recently arrested and jailed. But she was very optimistic that he would eventually be released and continue to make art and tell his story. She points to a sense of “trust” that developed between the two of them that allowed her to follow him down into the subways. But it seems as though helping powerless people to tell their own true stories seems to be Landowne’s specialty. “I try to encourage people to tell their own stories and Tony’s a great storyteller with a great sense of humor.””

  5. Kirkus Reviews
    “A white, female artist looking at subway posters meets an African-American man, and they strike up a conversation about life and art as they ride the subway up and down the line. He tells her the story of his life: He was given up for adoption as a baby, but his adopted family didn’t want him and he found himself on the streets, which, although harsh, were preferable to the shelters. “That is where the real pain started. People died there every day. And every day they came back.” Sleeping on subways lasted until the cops chased him into the tunnels, where he found a whole new way of life.

    Muralist and book artist Landowne met Horton shortly after the release of her 2004 picture book Selavi; the two collaborate here to bring Horton’s story of perseverance and hope to print, and the fluid black-and-white sequential panels tell it well. The horrors attendant on homelessness are not sugarcoated, and the language is as raw and gritty as one might expect. Powerful.”

  6. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
    “One Man’s Solitary Life Beneath NYC Subway Told in New ‘Sketch’ Book

    YOUME LANDOWNE met ANTHONY HORTON four years ago while waiting on a subway platform. She was a multimedia artist based in Crown Heights, he an artist living in the subway tunnels beneath the city. The two talked extensively about life and art, and eventually Anthony invited Youme into the tunnels to help her understand what life is like below the radar.

    Over a period of time the two decided to make a graphic novel-style book together, beginning with an accelerated account of their meeting, to tell Anthony’s story:

    “I was born to people who didn’t want me. So they gave me away. But I guess the people they gave me to didn’t want me either.

    “That’s how I ended up on the streets alone and uneducated. I couldn’t read or write. I didn’t know anything, and the world knew it.

    “It had been bad on the streets. But it was worse in the shelter. I saw things no kid should ever see.”

    “Pitch Black” could serve as a tool for educators when approaching the difficult subjects of homelessness and cultural differences (the publisher would like to place it in school libraries to make it accessible to young readers), but it is likely to be most appreciated by adults for its thoughtful and forthright handling of the material.

    Here, Youme talks about the writing process.

    * * *
    “This is a sensitive subject. The book doesn’t really address that going into the subways is illegal. I don’t want people to put themselves at risk, but I do want them to look each other in the eye. “When Anthony invited me down, I was totally interested. I didn’t feel uncomfortable, but I didn’t think about the trespassing part. I’ve done some traveling and taken some self-defense, and the first rule of self-defense is to trust yourself.

    “The book is pretty much all his words, with me putting them in some kind of order. It became a lot softer in the process of writing it. Tony’s story is more violent: It was and continues to be compelling and disturbing. He’s a remarkable person.

    “‘Just cause you can’t see don’t mean aint nothing there’ is my favorite quote of Anthony’s. I think it sums up the book.

    “The first version I made of woodcut and collage. We wanted to show how the city is layered. I’m hoping to do something with the woodcuts because they took a long time!

    “He sketched most of the panels, but I reworked them to fit the dimensions of the page. Reading, writing and drawing has been a solace to him. He draws on his own or through shelters.

    “‘Pitch Black’ is kind of a love letter to New York. In this city, we are humane with one another because of the proximity. The subway brings us closer, the streets bring us together.

    “There is an unspoken piece to it about cultural differences and reaching across cultural differences that is open ended, about ‘seeing where this goes.’

    “I’m not a social worker, but worked as a visiting artist in District 75, so I have some experience with people in an emotionally undesignated category. I take a lot of responsibility with that — the division between mental health isn’t who is in a hospital or not. And who decides who is in and who is out?””

  7. Library Journal
    “”Just cause you can’t see, don’t mean ain’t nothing there” could be as true for this graphic novel as it is for Horton’s philosophy. Many lives of rejection, despair, survival, and hope live underground beneath the drawings just as Horton lived underground in New York subway tunnels. Landowne was admiring some graffiti and waiting for the Seventh Avenue line when Horton opened a conversation. When the train came, they rode up and downtown a few times, telling stories and swapping art. Horton lived “six stories below the city” and took Landowne down for a tour.

    This spare but rich gray-and-black graphic novel about his life draws on both of their words and art. Growing up rejected by parents and then foster care, Horton ended up on the streets and then in the hell of the city’s shelters. Eventually, he escaped into the subway tunnels and found mentors and a life where “anything you need can be found in the garbage,” but where rats, safety, and staying dry are daily concerns. We want to know more about Horton, but like peering down a dark tunnel, we only catch glimpses. How did he learn to read and draw? What art did he first show Landowne? Landowne wrote previously about street children in Sélavi, That Is Life: A Haitian Story of Hope. For academic and high school libraries, and teen as well as adult collections in public libraries.”

  8. Voya
    “This short, collaborative graphic novel introduces teens to a life unheard of by most. While riding the subway in New York City, Landowne met Horton and began talking about art and life. Soon Horton tells his life story. He was homeless most of his life. After living in a shelter that felt more dangerous than the streets, Horton left to try to survive on his own. Running away from a police officer introduces Horton to the subway tunnels and the people who lived in there. Learning to live in the pitch black lifestyle of the tunnels gave Horton the strength to know himself and his art.

    Sharing his story in this full-page graphic novel style helps the reader perceive the darkness surrounding Horton’s life and the light that his artwork gave him. The artwork done in black, white, and gray watercolor tones is realistic and sparse with subway details illustrating a wide range of multicultural characters riding the subway. Hardcore graphic novel enthusiasts might not be the real audience for this title because it has little in common with manga or superheroes. Handselling or booktalking to readers who like true life stories or gritty fiction will find this special title and format and format an audience.”

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