Racial Division and Trauma in the Comics

By Sam Knowles 

October 19, 2016

This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.


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Luke Cage | Netflix

In the twelfth episode of the 2016 TV series Luke Cage (based on a Marvel comic from 1972) the protagonist – on the run from the police – interrupts an armed robbery. His bulletproof skin means that his body is unharmed when the robbers turn their guns on him; his clothing, though, suffers somewhat, and holes are torn in his hoodie. Luckily, a by-stander (a cameo from rapper Method Man) is wearing a similarly sized hoodie, and Luke swaps his bullet-ridden top. The destruction of Luke’s clothing is a running joke in the series. We have already heard him threaten to bill Mahershala Ali’s gangster ‘Cottonmouth’ Stokes for a ruined shirt, but on this occasion it takes on added resonance. In the following montage it is clear Method Man has licensed a copy of his hoodie, and several black Harlem residents are seen from passing patrol cars in replica hoodies, throwing the police off the scent of the fugitive Cage.

In the series, commodification is turned to the advantage of the defiantly anti-mercenary Cage, so that copies of the ‘punctured black self’ critique police violence. Using this punctured black body as metaphor for a wider social interpretation recalls the collocation of physical and mental traits intrinsic to the English word ‘trauma,’ with its roots in the Greek ‘τραυμα’, meaning ‘wound.’ The metaphor renders both physiological and psychological traumas of life in Harlem visible.

This representation of the perforated black form is nothing new. It represents a pattern in the comic books produced throughout the African diaspora for more than twenty years. As the example of Luke Cage reveals, the comic form is often ‘ahead of the curve’ in presenting both the subject of racialized trauma and potential solutions to divisive political situations. This is true for my main focus here: Jean-Philippe Stassen’s Déogratias (French, 2000; translated into English, 2006), a graphic novel fictionalization of the 1994 Rwandan genocide told from the perspective of Deogratias, a Hutu ex-child-soldier, by way of flashbacks that interweave pre-war, wartime, and post-war storylines.

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The comic follows Deogratias’s attempts to come to terms with his role in genocidal brutalities and the accompanying psychological trauma. In one particular instance, Deogratias believes he is turning into a dog. In these flashbacks we see his personal development and relationships with the Tutsi sisters Benina and Apollinaria, and the girls’ experiences of increasing racial tension in the country. Deogratias’ memories of the brutalities, including the raping and killing of Benina, Apollinaria, and their mother Venetia, dominate the work. Finally, there is the story of the lethal vengeance enacted by Deogratias on those he feels forced his involvement in genocidal events, the full story of which we learn when he confesses to a priest, turns into a dog one last time, and is arrested.

Stassen uses comic form in a number of ways to focus readers’ attention on his subject-matter. This centers on the events of April 6, 1994, when a plane was shot down in Kigali, Rwanda, carrying several politicians, including the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana. Habyarimana was a member of the Hutu ethnic majority forming eighty-five percent of the population, vastly outnumbering the Tutsi who made up fourteen percent. The assassination was blamed directly (though without evidence) on the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and indirectly on the entire Tutsi populace; and waves of anti-Tutsi genocide swept the country, until the RPF took control of Kigali in mid-July.1

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Firstly, the palette used in Stassen’s Déogratias shifts between scenes, with events after April 6th presented in a more somber tone than episodes from preceding months. Then, a number of episodes highlight interethnic conflict through comic form. For example, one pre-war flashback takes place in Deogratias’s schoolroom: a teacher stands in front of a blackboard, children sit in rows, and hands are raised. In depicting this simple situation, Stassen reveals significant undercurrents of tension through his words, graphics, and structure. Hutus and Tutsis are called on to identify themselves separately, and are described, in turn, both positively (the Hutu are ‘proud[,] honest[,] courage[ous…]’—so the fact that some of the children are Hutu is ‘very good’) and negatively (the teacher asserts that, historically, the Tutsi ‘took advantage of the natural integrity of the […] Hutu’—by implication, Tutsi children are ‘treacherous’).

These divisions are reinforced on the blackboard, which shows racial categories as percentages of a divided Rwanda. The images—through details of body language – highlight this establishment-sanctioned discord: the teacher’s teeth are bared in a dismissive snarl and his bottom lip juts out; the divisive words of his speech are echoed in the graphics. Finally, and most importantly, there is the complex structure: there are seven panels, with shifts in perspective (the classroom is seen from the point of view of the teacher, then from the pupils’ viewpoint, and lastly from a general angle) to illustrate the changing dynamics of racial identity in this scene—the very structure of this sequence is a metaphor for the tensions in ethnic identity leading to genocide.

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Then there is the announcement of Habyarimana’s assassination. This takes place in the room of Deogratias, who has just had sex for the first time with Benina — two individuals on opposite sides of the supposed ethnic divide. Here, Stassen portrays an important narrative event without using graphic representation: we do not see the plane explode, but this is instead an opportunity to explore the animalizing details of anti-Tutsi rhetoric, as the explosion is blamed on ‘this race of cockroaches.’ Also, the graphics provide an unsettling juxtaposition of a post-coital situation with politically significant news, heightening the sense of abnormality surrounding the genocide. And the graphic form of Benina’s reaction, physically reaching across Deogratias’s naked torso, suggests a variety of metaphorical readings: is the text saying ‘enough’ to sex? Is Stassen making the point that the genocide says ‘enough’ to supposedly ‘interracial’ relationships? Finally, there is the protagonist’s reaction: both protective of Benina and a definite attempt to corral and control her. In the frames that follow, Deogratias pushes her under his bed to hide her from a Hutu patrol. In the pages that follow, however, it is clear that he is holding her prisoner when she complains he has kept her confined ‘for two days! Holed up in this room!’

Apart from scenes such as these, there is an obvious visual marker, and fore-runner of Luke Cage’s hoodie: the t-shirt worn by Deogratias. The garment is clean, white, and whole in the run-up to Habyarimana’s assassination, whereas after the traumas of war the same t-shirt is dirty, greying, and filled with holes. In this way, any confusion over rapid leaps between time-frames is avoided: readers are immediately aware of their place in the narrative, with a simple glance at the condition of Deogratias’s shirt. Not only is this a handy artistic technique – avoiding reader uncertainty – it is a central narrative device, echoing the theme of rupture and trauma/wounding structuring the work.

The holes that appear on the person (in the garments) of Deogratias reflect both the violent breaches enacted on the bodies of Tutsi people and the psychological marking undergone by this Hutu boy. Furthermore, the speckling of the shirt is echoed in the stippling on the book’s cover; though this could be construed as a simple depiction of the night sky, the pervasiveness of the pattern – stretching across front and back covers and onto the title-page – indicates its importance to this narrative of marking and breaking.

All these aspects of comic form – words, structure, images, and graphical motifs – let Stassen present a nuanced response to a complex, traumatic racial situation. More than this, though, and opening up a broader reflection on comics (and adaptations like Luke Cage), it may also be the case that comics production is a response to a government’s reluctance to confront history. In a country in which the details of history are often considered to be matters for debate, obscured by political maneuverings and media re-presentations, certain manifestations of comic form provide a fundamentally different, vital way of confronting and coming to terms with the past. What consequences are there, then, in another complex, multi-ethnic society like contemporary Harlem?

Luke Cage—with its many musical and literary references—uses a variety of narrative vehicles to present its stories, recalling Stassen’s use of the comic form’s combination of words, graphics, and structure. And it is again the silencing of history—the exclusion of certain groups of people, the inherent valuing of certain accounts over others—to which this cultural mix is responding. In a year in which the treatment of other races worldwide is at an all-time low, comics form—whether written or televised—provides a reminder that there are those still pushing for silenced voices to be heard.


Sam Knowles is a teacher, lecturer, and writer specializing in the study of race and form in culture. His first book, Travel Writing and the Transnational Author, was published by Palgrave in 2014, and concentrated on structure, genre, and canon in postcolonial writing. He remains focused in this area and a forthcoming research project will consider the political histories of a number of transnational island spaces. He is also pursuing research into the uses of graphic novel/comic form in representing the political and social complexities of postcolonial existences.Follow him on Twitter @life_academic.

  1.  For more on the centuries-old history of ethnic division in Rwanda, stoked by European colonialism, see Alain Destexhe’s Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century (1995), the HRW report Shattered Lives: Sexual Violence During the Rwandan Genocide (1996), or Linda Melvern’s A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (2000). 

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