Black Women, Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime: An Interview with Deborah E. Whaley

By Matthew Teutsch 

March 1, 2017

This month I interviewed Deborah E. Whaley about her book Black Women in Sequence: Re-Inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime (University of Washington Press, 2015). Whaley is an artist, curator, writer, and Associate Professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. She received degrees in American Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA), California State University, Fullerton (MA), and the University of Kansas (PhD). Her research and teaching fields include the institutional history, theories, and methods of American and cultural studies, 19th and 20th century American cultural history, comparative ethnic studies, Black cultural studies, popular culture, the visual arts, and feminist theory. Dr. Whaley has published original art, poetry, as well as articles on social movements, popular culture, sequential art, documentary photography, and film. Her recent book Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime explores graphic novel production and comic book fandom, looking in particular at African, African American, and multiethnic women as deployed in television, film, animation, gaming, and print representations of comic book and graphic novel characters. She is also the author of Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and the Cultural Politics of Black Sororities(SUNY Press, 2010). Her book in progress, Feeling Her Fragmented Mind: Women, Race, and Dissociative Identities in Popular Culture, examines dissociative identities as a narrative trope in popular literature, film, television, and memoir, with a particular focus on Latinas, White, Asian/American, and Black women. Dr. Whaley is on the editorial board of the journals American StudiesAmerican Studies: Euroasian Perspectives, and Lexington Press’s Africana Studies series.

Matthew Teutsch: In the “Preface,” you discuss your personal experience with writing Black Women in Sequence. Can you share with us your journey through the realm of comics and fandom that led you to write Black Women in Sequence?

Deborah E. Whaley: I came to the project as a researcher, although I am an artist and did some formal training in cartooning when I was a teenager. Reading comics was a part of my young life and adult life. Like many, I enjoyed superhero comics and mainstream male characters, but I also felt affinities to female characters of color like Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, Storm, and Vixen, because they represent strong women.

Teutsch: Black Women in Sequence covers artists and characters from the 1930s through the present in various genres, and you argue that we need to consider “sequential art as a viable form of understanding how popular literature and visual culture reflect the real and imagined place of women of African descent in nation making, politics, and cultural production.” Can you elaborate on this?

Whaley: Although sequential art is a burgeoning field, there is often a perception of comics as being for children or as having little intellectual merit. In the book, I expose how sophisticated narratives and images in sequence work together to provide a unique reading experience that I describe as optic-cognitive. Readers and creators are co-creating and processing words and images simultaneously, which is what makes comics and graphic novels unique. We can learn much about history, culture, and politics from comics, simply because its writers introduce such ideas in their work. The characters I explore in the book are a part of storylines that address many key historical moments and topics, including US and African relations, migration, civil rights, government surveillance, class inequality, racism, sexism, sexualities, and the dissemination of the Black female image in Asia.

Teutsch: You begin by discussing Jackie Zelda Ormes and her strips or gags that appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, and elsewhere in syndication from the 1930s through the 1950s. How did you discover Ormes and why is she an important starting point for this study?

Whaley: It made sense to me, as an Americanist and cultural historian, to organize the book chronologically from the 1930s to the 21st century to assess changes in representation and culture over time. Research on Black cartoonists led me to Ormes. I also contacted and began to interview women who were a part of the Ormes Society to provide a context in which to understand the impact Ormes has on contemporary writers and artists. I begin with Ormes and end with the Ormes Society to bring my work full circle. Ormes is the first recognized Black female cartoonist. As you note, her work appeared in Black newspapers during key times in Black history and culture. Ormes’s work depicted the migration of Black women from the South to the North, working-class Black women and their role in shaping ideas about domestic workers’ rights and patriotism during World War II, and how young women advocated for social change and strategized about social change during the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights era. She gave voice to Black women at a time when such voices were rarely discussed as a part of the historical record. In many ways, Ormes was marking historical change and inserting Black women into American history through her comic strips and gags.

“Friday Foster,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1972. Photo: Deborah E. Whaley.
“Friday Foster,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1972. Photo: Deborah E. Whaley.

Teutsch: The term “Black comix” appears in the final chapter when discussing artists such as Nara Walker and Rashida Jones, and you argue that they expand the term by presenting non-Black characters as “vehicles to explore the Black subconsciousness.” Through their depictions, they represent what you call the “affective progression of blackness.” Can you explain this process and why we should reexamine the way we define the term “Black comix”?

Whaley: Not all artists and writers working in the independent realm depict Black characters. Comic creators such as Rashida Jones, in Frenemy of the State, use a protagonist coded as white to explore a range of issues that affect people of color, but also depicts the relationship between citizens and their role in upholding or resisting policies of the nation. I argue that Black women’s narratives and art still reflect the diversity of Black consciousness and art even when their characters are not conspicuously Black. Writer and artist Leisl Adams, in On the Edge, uses animal characters and human-animal hybrid characters. Ashley Woods in Millennia Waruses human and elf characters. What both of these women share is an ability to explore different identity configurations to question binary identities and understandings of identity. The themes and topics that their work reflects strategically address issues of concern to people of African descent while having universal appeal beyond any one particular race. Their engagement with the psychology of the mind and the politics of domination are universal, but can have particular consequences for those disenfranchised by their identities. There is a common definition of Black popular culture as creative expressions that are by, for, and about people of African descent. I do not reject this definition but I do argue that artists and cultural critics should not be contained or constrained to that definition. Artists such as Nara Walker focus on formalism and the beauty of physical bodies to present affective images and narratives. Characters that appear female are male; characters that appear raced simultaneously question visible signifiers of race; and, she uses didactic, visual poetry to augment cyclical narratives. Visual poetry, that is, the calculated spatial arrangement of visual images and written verses to convey meaning, becomes a compelling approach for her to interweave stories of love, loss, and intense emotion. What all of these women share is that they complicate our notions of identity instead of being beholden to essentialist ideas of identity.

Jackie Ormes, Patty-Jo n' Ginger comic. Photo:
Jackie Ormes, Patty-Jo n’ Ginger comic. Photo:

Teutsch: Given the scholarly attention to sequential art over the past few years, where do you see the field going from here?

Whaley: The field is expanding to examine various forms of difference, including race, sexualities, and (dis)ability. There is still much work to do, especially interdisciplinary work. There are some in the field who believe print comics should take primacy in comic scholarship, or who bemoan the work on mainstream characters and companies and superhero comics and do not see merit in the film adaption of comics. In order for the field to grow, we should move beyond the past while we revisit past work. We also need more work on independent comics, gaming, virtual worlds, and film. I do not think scholars should abandon doing work on the superhero genre. For example, Nicholas Yanes has recently written a brilliant analysis of the Supergirl television show in SequartLawrence Ware and others have been and are writing about the new version of the Black Panther. Important conversations in fan and scholar communities are occurring about gaslighting and abuse in iterations of the Joker narratives and Suicide Squad. The recent Avengersfilms and the series on Netflix Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are interesting case studies on US nationalism and international conflict and gender, sexual, and racial trauma. What are we to make of the “browning” or gender remixes of mainstream characters like Spiderman and Ironman? Thus, there is still much to say about characters and narratives that remain popular. At the same time, there are forms of sequential art that are understudied in regards to female characters and female characters of color. The good news is that the archive is large and there is plenty of room for all of us to help the field grow, especially in relation to issues of difference and fandom.

Graphic Voodoo: Africana Religion in Comics

By Yvonne Chireau 

November 17, 2016

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

Brother Voodoo. Source: Comics Amino.
Brother Voodoo. Source: Comics Amino.

Graphic literature, including comics, cartoons, and sequential art, reveal discursive practices that give meaning to race, religion, and national identity in different periods and contexts. In this post, I discuss the representation of Africana religions, coded as Voodoo, in 20th century graphic narratives. Consider this cover from a World War II era series called Jungle Comics.

Jungle Comics, 1940.
Jungle Comics, 1940.

With the savage wilderness as its backdrop, the image dramatizes the terrible power of Voodoo in its deadly enactment, as seen with the menacing, dark figure and his supine white female captive. The violent tension of this scene, and its fierce rupture of the present, juxtaposes the branding of African aesthetics with a Kota sculpture, an ancestral mask, ceremonial accouterments, and well-formed, naturalized bodies. And although the text shouts suspense, we know it will not end well for the black man.

What can graphic literature tell us about representations of Africana religions? Visual narratives generate subjectivity by distilling categories like “religion” and “Africa” and re-presenting them in stylized forms. “Voodoo” is such a category. In graphic media, Voodoo has been used to both displace and appropriate black spirituality while authorizing the dualism between magic and religion that is emblematic of western classifications of indigenous African systems of knowledge.1

Weekly World, 1897.
Weekly World, 1897.

Although the term Voodoo does not come into common usage until the 20th century, its rendition in graphic narratives originates with portrayals of blacks as denizens of an imaginary geography, as depicted in late 19th century newspapers and magazine cartoons with images that refracted “Africa” through a prism of grotesque and derogatory visions of its people. Since the diminution of non-Christian religions justified western imperialism, I also argue that theological alterity consolidated American whiteness into a shared national identity that disaffected black spirituality. Comics and cartoons stereotyped African religious authorities according to a visual rhetoric that cast indigenous religions as strange and uncivilized, personified by barbaric fetish priests, cannibal kings, and witch doctors. Such contrived views of Africana religions formed the basis of later representations of black spirituality as Voodoo.

In the first four decades of the 20th century, Africana subjects assumed conspicuous roles in newspaper “funnies” and animated cartoons. Promoted far and wide for comedic purposes, Voodoo morphed into a farcical symbol of religious debasement and superstition. It appeared more ubiquitously in consumable products as the technologies of mass culture expanded from print into film. It is noteworthy that the American theatrical cartoon industry endorsed flagrantly racist graphic formations even as it parodied black bodies and behaviors for entertainment and profit. The most enduring gags and memes manifested in stereotypes that elided distinctions between African and African-based religious cultures, as with the 1938 minstrel cartoon film Voodoo in Harlem. Visible signatures of black vernacular religion were ridiculed as little more than primitive folk practices, retrograde supernaturalism, and exaggerated fears of ghosts, Conjure, and witches—a hilarious yet harmless kind of Voodoo.

Voodoo Comics, 1973 (left) and 1952 (right).
Voodoo Comics, 1973 (left) and 1952 (right).

By the mid-twentieth century, Voodoo was rendered as less benign and more dangerous, and its depiction in graphic narratives was no laughing matter. Prior to the imposition of a stringent code of industry ethics and standards in 1954, publications such as Ajax-Farrell’s Voodoo Comics show cased macabre elements that suited the conventions of popular horror fiction. Voodoo joined spectacles of physical desecration to fantastic elements that linked African-based ritualism to human sacrifice, cannibalism, and a gruesome iconography of skulls and zombies.

The turn to Voodoo as an Africanized horror trope in the twentieth century coincided with U.S. military interventions in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, where black diasporic religions had historically rooted in post-slavery communities. An auxiliary to nationalistic propaganda, these forms of what I call graphic Voodoounderwrote ideological rationales for the expansion of American empire and projected domestic racial anxieties into the production of nightmarish imaginaries. Representations of Voodoo inhabited visual and narrative spaces that encompassed whiteness in jeopardy and blackness as a source of sinister malevolence, manifesting the prevalent and consumable themes of avenging violence, terror, and retribution that were constituted in the horror genre.

Donald Duck Hoodoo Voodoo, 1949.
Donald Duck Hoodoo Voodoo, 1949.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Voodoo’s depiction in graphic media telegraphed American uncertainty in an increasingly globalized cultural and geopolitical milieu that fostered the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, Vietnam, and the rise of revolutionary and anti-colonial independence movements in the Third World. In 1973, the Marvel comics supernatural horror series Strange Tales introduced a character by the name of Brother VoodooA transnational figure who drew from the broad lexicon of western renderings of Africana cultures, Brother Voodoo deployed Voodoo as dangerous and subversive magic, but with a twist: resignified, the Haitian religion Vodou became the weapon of choice in the superhero’s arsenal of enhanced abilities. The Brother Voodoo character, a repatriated black psychologist engaged in spiritual warfare against zombie gangs and evil bokors, enacted dominant tropes of comics’ masculinity while complicating African-based religiosity. Voodoo was used to appropriate a repertoire of superpowers that featured the divinities known as lwa, the ritual technology of spirit possession, and artifacts of protection and defense called wanga.

Left: The Katzenjammer Kids, 1906. Right: Jumbo Comics, 1938.
Left: The Katzenjammer Kids, 1906. Right: Jumbo Comics, 1938.

It is noteworthy that the appropriation of Voodoo as an Africanized superhero ability in the field of representations occurred at the same moment that graphic literatures added themes of black protest, political unrest, and cultural nationalism into their historical framing of the American social backdrop. In the last decades of the 20thcentury, Voodoo-inspired characters in comics would become more commonplace, portrayed with the likes of D.C.’s Papa Midnite (1988) and Jim Crow (1995) from Vertigo, who personified New Orleans’ distinct styles of African-inspired spirituality. Finally, with black female characters such as Vixen (1978), an African model who acquires her extraordinary abilities from a sacred totem, and Empress (2000), a crime fighting mambo (Vodou priestess), Hoodoo worker, and servitor of the Yoruba orisha Oya, Voodoo was generalized so as to fulfill a triad of meanings that were primarily useful for character flair. Although the formation of Voodoo as a symbol for black power developed in response to nascent demands for black representation in graphic literature, it has remained a stand-in for essentialized African religion – albeit the locus of supernatural empowerment, the expression of black identity, and a source of spiritual and cultural heritage for comics characters.

Empress, 2011.
Empress, 2011.

These representations of Voodoo have highlighted the tensions between worldview and imagination in referencing race, religion, and spirituality in visual and narrative forms. In their creation of Africana subjects, comics, cartoons, and other graphic media effaced the distinctions between African-derived traditions such as Haitian Vodou, black American vernacular spirituality, and indigenous African religions, and created an oblique, mutable trope that was viewed as alternatively benign and dangerous, ambiguous and inspiring, in its display of affecting presence and power.

Taken together, narrative depictions of Africana religions as graphic Voodoo are reducible to both their most egregious racialist expressions and their most spectacular and visually engaging aspects. Even as they articulate dominant interests and values in specific historical moments, graphic narratives are responsive to the exigencies of mass culture and its commodification by popular discourses. We look forward to future critical work on black culture and graphic literature as part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary research agenda for historians and other scholars of the black intellectual tradition.2

Yvonne Chireau is Professor in the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003) and the co-editor of Black Zion: African American Religions and Judaism (1999). She blogs on Africana spirituality, magic, and religion at The Academic Hoodoo. Follow her on Twitter @Conjurehealing.

  1. Voodoo is a creation. It is a metonym for African religiosity, construed as an insurgent and illicit spiritual force, a utility word that encodes a racialized metaphysical orientation. Semantically distinct, popular discourses usually conflate Vodou and Voodoo. Vodou is a West African term used properly to denote a cluster of sacred traditions and lineages associated with the worship of African spirits in Haiti. See Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, 2006. 
  2. Recent scholarship on race and graphic media includes Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II, Black Comics: The Politics of Race and Representation, 2013; Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, 2011; and Jeffrey A. Brown, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans, 2001; and Francis Gateward and John Jennings, The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, 2015; and Brannon Costello and Quiana Whitted, Comics and the US South, 2012. 

‘A Different Picture’: What’s Next for Luke Cage?

By Sam Knowles 

December 2, 2016

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


In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, my immediate response was an incredibly depressed one. These feelings only deepened with such news as a sharp rise in racist attacks in the wake of the election, or children expressing fears for the safety of their parents and the unity of their family as a result of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant views and beliefs such as that there should be a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ I thought about the genuine optimism with which I wrote – only at the beginning of this month– about the diversity of gendered and ethnic casting and the truly progressive racial politics of the 2016 Luke Cage. Writing just after this election and referring to the promise of Obama’s 2008 victory, NPR editors noted: “Eight years ago, the future of race relations in America looked, well, hopeful. Today, it’s a different picture.’

In the days that followed Trump’s victory, though, I started to put aside feelings of despair. This is a time for considered responses, not unfocused wailing, and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – the death knell for the progressive cultural politics espoused in Netflix’s Luke Cage. The NPR phrasing was right: there is ‘a different picture’; but it doesn’t have to be one that rejects the multiracial vision put forward by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker.

To this end, I returned to the first volume of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, to consider whether there were other stories – different pictures – that are as yet unexplored in the adaptation. (As I explained, the first season of the TV series was based solely on the first two issues of the first volume.) And in a world in which the incoming US Commander-in-Chief has repeatedly advocated repatriation and denounced immigration, are there interpretations of the original comic that could provide not only lessons for a reading public but a potentially productive opposition to the right-wing rhetoric of the incumbent political class? I would respond in the affirmative.

In issue #8 of the first volume of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, the protagonist faces a threat that at first glance appears to arrive on three fronts. Whereas previous issues have pitted him against a single villain – like Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker, whose storyline made it onto TV in 2016 – this episode is different: he is either assaulted or starts an attack in three distinct directions. He is hired by a mysterious European individual to target a group of warehouse workers, he tracks down a criminal (one Georgie Simms) from a previous issue in the volume, and he comes face-to-face with an obvious super-villain: the armor-clad, cape-wearing, forebodingly monikered Doctor Doom.

Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker in Netflix’s Luke Cage (played by Erik LaRay Harvey).

Quickly, though, it turns out all is not as it seems. While Doctor Doom is presented as a villain – both visually, with an aggressive stance and a dramatic costume, and aurally, in the way that speech bubbles show his shouting of his stereotypically evil name – he in fact explains that he was behind the European man’s initial approach of Cage and is actually on the side of the ‘Hero for Hire.’ In spite of his villainous presentation, this antagonist is apparently keen to join forces with Cage.

This gesture towards cooperative intent is by no means unheard of in the world of superheroes — nor even in the world of Luke Cage. In the 2016 TV series, Luke agrees to an alliance with two of his erstwhile opponents (the corrupt politician Mariah Dillard and the gangster Hernan ‘Shades’ Álvarez) in order to defeat Diamondback, their common foe. It is strange, however, for this cooperation to be suggested at the very first meeting between a protagonist and an antagonist; and it makes this meeting a prime candidate for future adaptation.

Marvel's Luke Cage
Hernan ‘Shades’ Álvarez (played by Theo Rossi) and Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodard) in Netflix’s Luke Cage.

However, it is not only the narrative interest generated by this union between apparently opposed characters that makes Doom’s appearance of interest. The pervasiveness of the character is significant. In the course of this and subsequent issues, we learn that the multiple threats faced by Cage at the start of the current issue all actually stem from one source: Doom himself. In interrogating Georgie Simms after he fails in attempting to kill Cage, Luke finds out that the gangster was involved in a murder from earlier in the volume, which is eventually linked to Doom; and the European gentleman who sends him to the warehouse is one of Doom’s henchmen. Moreover, Doom himself is not what he seems, as he has no intention of paying Cage for his services in attacking the warehouse workers.

The identity of these warehouse workers is interesting. They are African-American men, and the environment in which they live is introduced using animalizing language, establishing a racially dismissive climate from the outset: captions explain that Luke ventures ‘into the worlds of people who call New York an animal, and live off it like tapeworms’ (Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, vol. 1, #8, 10.1). The ultimate act of ‘othering,’ however, is not linguistic but narrative. When Luke attacks the gang he is surprised by their stamina and willingness to keep fighting in spite of their adversary’s strength; he only discovers the reason for this when one of his blows shatters the face of one of the workers, and circuit boards and wires are revealed: Doom’s targets were robots.


This is intriguing. The 1972 comic, coming as the world – and America in particular – entered an era of technological progression and increasingly mechanized labor, unifies fears about these computerized advances with a mistrust of a racial ‘other’ that was making strides in social and political circles at the time: from the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s legislation against normalized racial discrimination, to the Supreme Court’s 1971 landmark decision to uphold the busing of students for integration in Charlotte, NC, or Shirley Chisolm’s 1972 run as the first major-party African-American candidate for US President (after her election to Congress in 1968).

Luke’s ‘stark, staring, stultifying amazement’ at the discovery of the workers’ identity is shared by the audience. In the case of the non-African-American readers of the comic, however, this consternation could have had two sides: it reveals the extent to which black communities were viewed as less than human by an overwhelmingly white establishment.

The narrative thread involving working African-American men and robotics, then, is another contender for adaptation — and a particularly important one. Pursuing this story line in a modern setting would have interesting consequences, both for ideas of cultural representation and for students of contemporary American history. If Cheo Hodari Coker, his fellow show-runners, and producers can construct a narrative that follows concomitant thoughts about computerization and racial inequality, then it may well be possible for the TV adaptation of the comic to interrogate the twin issues of economic disenfranchisement and racist politics that so dominated the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

Until these two trains of thought are united, the responses to this presidency are too often going to fall into an unproductive polarity: either anti-Trump protests or pro-Trump celebration, with neither side allowing contact with the other. When a lack of communication may be one of the reasons America got into this position in the first place, vocally and simultaneously addressing the economic and racial concerns of many of those involved may be one way forward. However, it starts with a continuation of this progressive comic adaptation. Now, more than ever, culture matters.

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. 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.

Crossover, Convergence, and the Cultural Politics of Black Comics

By André Carrington 

December 6, 2016

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

Static Shock (Milestone Media/DC Comics)

There has never been a better time to be a Black comics fan or a scholar immersed in Black nerd culture. This is a declaration: it aims to inaugurate a distinct situation by invoking it verbally. By announcing a breakthrough moment for Blackness and comics in the present, I echo the paradigmatic naming performed by the creator-owned superhero comics company Milestone Media.

Milestone’s comics gave new meaning to the term “crossover” in popular culture. Seizing the day by taking advantage of a unique set of conditions for the production and dissemination of knowledge has been a core strategy for Black culture workers ever since we fashioned ourselves into the “New Negro,” converging on a new self-concept through interventions across a variety of art forms, academic disciplines, and social movements. Crossover and convergence, two related concepts in media and communication, have a far-reaching intellectual legacy that helps explain the challenges and opportunities occasioned by the current proliferation of Black images derived from comics throughout other sites on the media landscape.

The term crossover typically connotes a product’s penetration into multiple segments of a consumer base constructed in demographic terms. In comic books and other narrative media, crossover refers to the appearance of characters and plot developments originating from one narrative in one or more installments of another narrative. As an example of the television equivalent, consider the 2015 appearance of the lead actors from the Fox series Bones and Sleepy Hollow on episodes of one another’s respective shows during the same night of primetime programming. Regarding the present context for these developments, critics describe convergence as the flow of content across media and the movement of audiences through these information flows. Daya Kishan Thussu and other scholars note that this flow of people and knowledge occurs in both directions, from Diasporic circuits to national capitals, and vice-versa.

I recommend using the notions of crossover and convergence to describe tendencies in cultural production that betray the organization of the popular imaginary by the social. Popular media doesn’t provide perfect reflections of the social world, nor does it simply give form to the collective fantasies of the populace—it mediates between these domains, passing perceptions and fantasies through a filter of institutions shot through with agendas, desires, and other ideological structures. These forces are often in conflict, and cultural institutions bring them together in contradictory ways.

While social conventions like compulsory heterosexuality and racial hierarchy have a powerful hold on our imaginations, masking persistent contradictions and allowing for the seamless reproduction of ideological “facts” everywhere we look, crossover names the incursion of otherwise unspeakable possibilities into venues where they do not belong. In this sense, crossover assigns cultural significance to moments that appear to represent “politics” intruding into culture by associating these developments with aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological currents already at work within an artistic tradition. By staging their interventions in cultural terms—as the inauguration of new schools of thought or movements that sediment into the historical record as periods—artistic innovators concerned with renovating race thinking can claim grounds besides the political for their departures from convention, if they so choose. In the process, they can call attention to the way the established norms of cultural production allow the status quo to masquerade itself as apolitical.

The conceit of the New Negro is one point of departure for questioning what’s new about Blackness in comics today and what we have inherited from prior generations. The New Negro is a cipher for many theoretical considerations, not least of which is the question of whether there is anything new about Black being in the “New World.” When millions of Black people chose to steal away from the country to the city, they brought their dilemmas with them. In the minds of some, planting seeds in new soil allowed the New Negro to escape being “more of a formula than a man,” conditions in which his “shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.” For others, the moment held no renewed promise of social mobility, only a temporary opening through which a fortunate few passed into the American capitalist hierarchy.

An image from Miguel Covarrubias' Negro Drawings (1997)
An image from Miguel Covarrubias’ Negro Drawings (1927)

Both these realities are mediated through the graphic arts of the period in the caricatures of Miguel Covarrubias. In his Negro Drawings and illustrations for books by W.C. Handy, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, Covarrubias exploded Black bodies and personalities to comic proportions. Caricatures are notoriously effective for visualizing racial difference and sexual pathology, but Covarrubias’s use of the technique remediated this legacy by conferring images of Black joy and wonder into a burgeoning repertoire of modernist illustration alongside portraits of white cognoscenti and socialites. His Negro drawings betray the quality of “animatedness” articulated by Sianne Ngai: susceptible to external prodding, liable to entertain, but possessed of overly expressive bodies that make them prone to slippage and spontaneity of their own accord.

Whether they are dancing or praying, Covarrubias’s cartoon Negroes often hold arms akimbo and mouths agape, the angularity of their hats brimming with potential energy. These caricatures valorize primitivism by translating the performance of racial distinctiveness in everyday life from three dimensions into two, and they also consign Blackness to the register of the cartoon, a formal precursor to the work of art.

The concerted effort to construct the New Negro in visual, musical, literary, and scientific discourse enlisted print cultures as diverse as Vanity FairOpportunitySurvey Graphic, and Fire!! in the work of placing a new protagonist on the world stage. The dramatization of the New Negro’s emergence through literature and theater corroborated tabloid accounts that conjured nightlife and other exotic scenes for readers.

Survey Graphic, March 1925 issue.
Survey Graphic, March 1925 issue.

Later twentieth-century comics reiterated this pattern by propagating stereotypes and cashing in on Blaxploitation imagery. While the minstrel idiom produced the first Black images in print and material culture, including comic strips, some instances of blackface imagery crossing over into comics, such as Ebony White in Will Eisner’s celebrated The Spirit, betrayed a striking contrast between the continued use of caricature to objectify Blackness and the realistic visual style that idealized whiteness. In the later example of Blaxploitation comics, a cluster of body types, naming conventions, and formulaic plots suffuses one art form and then another. Just as Blaxploitation cinema commoditized the iconography of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, the floating signifiers of Black macho gave rise to comic book figures like Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, Black Lightning, Black Manta, Black Goliath, Black Panther, and Brother Voodoo. Like their white counterparts in print and their predecessors on screen, these muscle-bound Black heroes recapitulated patriarchy, notwithstanding the influence of women on Black militancy and the emergence of Black feminist exemplars from the same social ferment.

Where exploitative images of Black womanhood crossed over into comics, they enacted the pornotroping tendencies that account for the resemblance between Misty Knight and the title characters of films like Coffy and Cleopatra Jones. However, the longevity and subsequent renovation of these iconographies has extended their meanings in unanticipated ways. Media consolidation and the concomitant revitalization of comics through convergence–with blockbuster films and television series mining the archives of comics for content–have given a second life to some of these bygone icons. For instance, the television rendition of Luke Cage calls for the specific task of Black women’s performance, casting Simone Missick in the reimagined role of Detective Mercedes Knight.

Rather than a continuous flow of hegemonic gender ideology and race thinking from one cultural task to another, the contemporary contra-flow of Black innovation reintroduces fragmentation into convergence culture. In the hands of Black people, image-making practices that once normalized exploitative relations of representation become the means to reconfigure the politics of representation.

In the interventions of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and Yona HarveyAmandla Stenberg and Ashley WoodsJohn Jennings, and Erika Alexander, crossover names the efforts of Black artists who have proven their talents elsewhere to learn from and contribute to new endeavors, and convergence names the migration of audiences and their desires to new horizons. The singular quality of work produced in this moment is not that it’s unprecedented, but rather, that it sustains the trailblazing efforts of elders like Rupert Kinnard and ancestors like Jackie Ormes.

André Carrington is an Assistant Professor of English at Drexel University. His research focuses on the cultural politics of race, gender, and genre in 20th century Black and American literature and the arts. He is the author of Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction (University of Minnesota Press 2016). Follow him on Twitter @prof_carrington.

Activism and “Good Trouble” in the March Trilogy

By Leah Milne

 December 14, 2016

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

Steve Schapiro: John Lewis, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1963
John Lewis, Clarksdale, Mississippi, 1963 (Photo by Steve Schapiro)

In the pages of John Lewis’s graphic novel, March: Book Three, Civil Rights leader C.T. Vivian faces down the sheriff and other authority figures at the Dallas County Courthouse in 1965. As a backdrop to this confrontation, reporters’ flash bulbs burst as policemen attempt to corral the crowd away from the building. The rain slashes violent vertical lines across asymmetrical panels as Vivian struggles to complete his rebellious act: registering to vote.

“If we’re wrong,” Vivian asks the sheriff, “Why don’t you arrest us? It’s a matter of facing your sheriff and facing your judge. We’re willing to be beaten for democracy.” Cutting through the rain and the divisions on the page is John Lewis’s narration, explaining Vivian’s dedication to equality: “He’d been there in Nashville in 1960, he was with us on the Freedom Rides. He did time in Parchman. He was in Birmingham in ‘63, in Mississippi in ‘64, and now here he was again—making good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Figure 2. The March trilogy

In this post, I place March within a tradition of comics illustrating and inciting “good trouble,” Lewis’s catchphrase to describe what, for him, has been a lifetime of peaceful protest and civil disobedience. Leading a sit-in this summer at the House of Representatives following the Orlando massacre, Lewis described the impetus behind good trouble to fellow occupiers: “There comes a time,” he explained, “when you have to say something, when you have to make a little noise, when you have to move your feet… Now is the time to get in the way.” In fact, March does more than make a little noise: Along with co-author, Andrew Aydin, and artist, Nate Powell, Lewis has received numerous distinctions, including an RFK Prize for March: Book One and an Eisner Award for March: Book Two, an honor that Esquire‘s Jonathan Valania likens to “the Pulitzer Prize of comic books.” Most recently, Book Three won a National Book Award.

Finally, at the 2015 Comic Con, Lewis donned a trench coat and backpack—a cosplay mirror image of his outfit on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma—and led a march through the convention center followed by his fans, many of whom were children.The phrase “good trouble“ embodies John Lewis’s tumultuous life story, the highlights of which include leading the Nashville Sit-ins as a teenager, participating in the 1961 Freedom Rides, chairing the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, and marching in the face of violence for voting rights on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma in 1965.Georgia would elect Lewis to Congress in 1986, where he remains the last living member of the Big Six leaders which included A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. who organized the 1963 March on Washington. Lewis’s biography would find its way to the pages of a bestselling graphic trilogy, March.

March tells the story of Lewis’s involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the fight for suffrage, but it also advocates for good trouble even as those same rights continue to be under threat today. The trilogy presents Lewis’s story in intricate black-and-white images, words spilling over the gutters and across panels, far-flung from the stable, rectangular panels of more “traditional” comics. Some words and actions are illegible, speaking to the chaos often characterizing this period. Readers are transported to stark scenes of racism and violence, as well as Lewis’s dogged resolve to march despite the danger. Just as the words themselves struggle to break free from the constrictions of panels and pages, the voices of Lewis, Jim Lawson, Amelia Boynton, and others continue to reverberate in more recent events and protests.

Figure 3. From March: Book One
Image from March: Book One

Lewis was himself influenced by a comic that embodies the concept of “good trouble.” The idea for the trilogy came when staffers teased Aydin, his then-press secretary, for spending his vacation at a comic convention. Coming to Aydin’s defense, Lewis recalled, “I read a comic book called Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story that told the story of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. And this little comic book inspired me and many other young people to get involved in the Civil Rights movement.” Published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the widely-distributed comic features King’s early life and details of the Civil Rights movement, ending with an examination of the “Montgomery Method” of nonviolent activism.

The Montgomery Story (1957)

Aydin identifies the comic as the model for March, crediting the former’s “role in some of the earliest sit-ins, as early as 1958. It had been used by students leading the sit-in movement, and… spread throughout the country. We felt it was very important to use history as our guide, as John Lewis did, and frame the story this way.” In fact, the 1957 comic crystallized the movement for Lewis, giving insight and direction. (Montgomery Story played a similar role in the 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square.) The significance of nonviolent protest is a prominent theme both in TheMontgomery Story and March, which motivates a new generation of readers to continue Lewis’s struggle for equality.

Comics have always portrayed struggles for equality, even in the medium’s most prominent genre: the superhero comic. For example, Issue #76 of the Green Lantern, “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight” (1970), portrays the superhero grappling with African American inequality: A man draws attention to his fight for the “blue skins,” “orange skins” and “purple skins,” even as he “never bother[s] with the black skins.” Today, superheroes of color continue to emerge in “conventional” comics: Robert Morales and Kyle Baker unveil the story of Isaiah Bradley, the black protagonist of Captain America: Truth. The series complicates Captain America’s legacy, placing Bradley within the context of eugenics and the WWII Tuskegee syphilis experiments as a test subject for the serum that gave Captain America his superpower. Meanwhile, in a different kind of hero tale, James Sturm and Rich Tommaso depict the story of baseball legend Satchel Paige to highlight Jim Crow and southern race interactions. Envisioning the athlete through the eyes of fictional rookie, Emmet Wilson Jr., the authors show readers the pervasiveness of Jim Crow inequality.

Green Lantern: “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight”

In fact, one significant characteristic that Truth and Satchel Paige share with Marchand other good trouble narratives is the message of shared responsibility: For instance, Captain America fans enjoy Steve Rogers as the titular hero specifically because Truth’s Isaiah Bradley struggled before him. In fact, Rogers finally realizes the true cost of his powers and visits Bradley, only to discover that the serum has depleted Bradley’s mental faculties. In March, the story takes on the Lewis’s perspective, even hovering at child’s level for his earlier days on an Alabama farm. However, March also does not shy away from taking on the gaze of Americans terrorizing protesters, blocking entry to voters’ registration lines, and attacking marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. March reminds us that we have a choice on where we stand, and—if we are to follow Lewis’s lead—we should stand in the way of injustice and oppression.

Graphic memoirists such as Marjane Satrapi and Art Spiegelman also employ the good trouble approach. Satrapi, for instance, allowed artists to update her controversial autobiography about Iran in the Islamic Revolution as a webcomicPersepolis 2.0, about Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Meanwhile, in Volume 2 of Maus, Spiegelman’s Holocaust comic, author-protagonist Artie reacts with self-conscious horror to Volume 1’s success: At his drafting table, Artie is surrounded by bodies of Holocaust victims. Rather than allowing readers distance from the repulsive scenes on the previous pages, Artie’s guilt inspires readers to question their own motives and responsibility in reading.

By their nature, good trouble narratives are hard to categorize, deliberately spanning multiple genres. Joe Sacco‘s coverage of Palestinians under Israeli occupation—in comics such as Palestine—are both narratives and journalism, while Seth Tobocman‘s War in the Neighborhood is part-story and part-political manifesto. Writing in 1946, Miné Okubo detailed her life in a Japanese American WWII concentration camp in Citizen 13660, a book that is a memoir, archive, and historical document. The fight for equality in popular culture—including comics—means that boundaries of genre and division are bound to be broken.

Addressing newly-minted graduates in Wisconsin, Lewis stated, “History will not be kind to us. So you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble…. You must never, ever give in. You must never, ever give out. We must keep the faith because we are one people. We are brothers and sisters. We all live in the same house: The American house.” Even now, Lewis understands that his house is in jeopardy. As the fight for equal representation in comics, in politics, and in social justice continues, John Lewis stands, a real-life superhero.

Leah Milne is an assistant professor at the University of Indianapolis, where she teaches literature and composition. She earned a doctorate in English from the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, in 2015. She specializes in 20th century multiethnic American literature.  Follow her on Twitter @DrMLovesLit.

The Racial Politics of the Urban Saçi Graffiti Series in São Paulo, Brazil

By Reighan Gillam 

January 4, 2017

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

Graffiti in Brazil depicting the Urban Saçi (Source:

Graffiti covers many of São Paulo’s walls like a creative and colorful blanket laying upon the concrete. In The World Atlas of Street Art and Graffiti, authors Rafael Schacter and John Fekner write that street artists “infuse a site with personal energy, vivid stories, and a ‘sense of place.’” The Urban Saçi graffiti series constitutes one vivid story among many graffiti images found throughout the city. A Saçi is a folkloric figure in Brazil commonly represented standing on one leg, wearing a red cap, and smoking a pipe. He assumes the role of a trickster figure that engages in everyday pranks that inconvenience his targets. For example, if something goes missing someone might say, “Saçi took it.” Saçi’s red hat enables him to disappear and reappear at will, facilitating the execution of his pranks. Saçi is commonly represented as an Afro-Brazilian boy. Significantly, the urban graffiti series visually references Brazil’s slave past in the public sphere.

Graffiti artist Thiago Vaz created the Urban Saçi graffiti series. His images adorn walls, bus stops, park benches, and buses. He selects the street as his canvas based on its accessibility. In an interview he states:

I only depict Urban Saçi in the built urban environment. I like this space of the street because it is part of everything that is public. The newspaper, you have to buy the newspaper. When you have to buy the newspaper you have a culture of readership. Many people do not have a culture of readership (cultura de leitura) and aren’t interested in the newspaper. But in the street, going by bus, on foot, in a car, you are seeing. So it’s something very direct isn’t it? So I think it [the street] has a very broad canvas for the people.

Vaz notes the democratic potential of representing his art in the street. Everyone who passes by his work has access to it without paying for a newspaper and without having to be an avid reader. He also chooses spaces that align with Saçi’s characteristics, which he has described as “non-typical” such as on partially hidden walls around the city. The unexpected nature of such placements suits the legend that Saçi can appear and disappear at will. Instead of sequencing Saçi images on paper to be found in a book, newspaper, or other written document, Vaz presents the Urban Saçi sequentially throughout the city of São Paulo.

Vaz depicts Saçi through three themes. As a mischief-maker Saçi uses artful feats to accomplish deeds deemed impossible by others. Here Saçi waters a tree through seemingly impossible means.

Urban Saçi as Mischief Maker (

Vaz also depicts Saçi as, what he considers, a Brazilian super hero. “The superheroes for many decades have had a very strong presence here with various youth,” he noted. “I include super man, spider man etc. characters that came from outside,” he continued, “Brazil doesn’t have a hero. Why doesn’t it have a hero? Let’s create a hero. So Urban Saçi can be a hero.” “For me, Saçi represents a Libertario (a liberated figure) because he appears in the street freely and he can’t be sold, he can’t be commercialized,” Vaz concluded.

Although Vaz calls Saçi a super hero, perhaps he is best understood as a folk hero that sides with the common people by exposing unequal social conditions. Several of Vaz’s images depict Saçi against U.S. American cultural icons like Mickey Mouse and Spider-Man. The third way he depicts Saçi is as a marginal member of society. For example, he depicts Saçi as a catadore or trash picker, one of the men and women who take their carts around the city of São Paulo picking up recycling to make money.

Urban Saçi as a Catadore or Trash Picker (Source: Reighan Gillam)
Urban Saçi as a Catadore or Trash Picker (Source: Reighan Gillam)

In this image, Saçi pulls a cart with the Banespa building inside of it and the sign of recycling on the outside of the cart. Trash pickers scour dumpsters to find recyclable materials. At the end of the day, one can see them with their carts piled high with cardboard boxes and plastic bottle heading to the recycle center to collect their daily wage. By placing the Banespa building, an icon of the city and the former headquarters of the Bank of the State of São Paulo, in the cart of a trash picker the image asserts the centrality of trash pickers to the everyday functioning of the city. Many of the trash pickers are black and brown, which attests to the racialized structure of economic inequality in São Paulo. Again, Vaz’s image of Saçi communicates that if he were another black man in the street he might be pulling a recycle cart.

While the Urban Saçi series can entertain, it also narrates slavery through Saçi’s bodily presentation and clothing. In July 2014 I came across an installation called “Legends in the Street” on Paulista Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in São Paulo. The installation, produced by the SOPA Art Br studio as a public project, gave information about different Brazilian folkloric figures for those passing by.

Legends in the Street Exhibition (Source: Reighan Gillam)
Legends in the Street Exhibition (Source: Reighan Gillam)

The plaque dictated Saçi’s story in the following way: “There are days when nothing goes right. The alarm does not ring, a sock is missing and the milk is sour. You’re late and do not find the keys. Your dog wakes up weird, tail down. Watch out, he may be having fun at your expense. He, the bad thing, the master of small evils. Always hidden, ready to prank someone. Born in the heart of the forest, but had learned to travel in a whirlpool and now walks everywhere. Also, he was seen wandering around town here.”

The plaque offers a standard rendition of Saçi folklore that communicates his identity as a trickster figure who plays pranks on his unsuspecting victims. I juxtapose that with the way that Vaz narrates the story of Saçi during an interview about the Urban Saçi series: “Saçi was the son of a slave that lost his leg. He wanted to take off his leg to live freely because he was imprisoned by the shackles. And he lived alone in the forest. He had freedom. And the Portuguese added the red hat to symbolize that he is no longer a slave. He got the pipe from an Indian.”

To be clear, there are probably as many Saçi narratives as there are people who tell them. Vaz’s narrative diverges from more mainstream renditions through his emphasis on slavery and freedom. The mainstream narrative for popular consumption on the street makes no mention of Saçi’s slave heritage. Vaz makes reference to the violence of slavery in referencing Saçi’s need to rip off his leg to free himself from the shackles that confined him.

This attention to the violence of the slavery and the loss of his leg is portrayed in Vaz’s images as well. In mainstream depictions of Saçi, that I can find, he is shown with one leg. I have read some legends that state that Saçi was born with one leg. However, in Vaz’s series, one can consistently see the tear in the jeans, which signifies that a leg was present, but is now missing. The shredding of the pants alludes to the tearing off of Saçi’s leg in his effort for liberation.

The memory of slavery continues to generally be submerged in Brazil. Ana Lucia Araujo writes,

Despite the development of celebrations and the presence of Africa in public speeches, the Brazilian slave past has remained concealed in the public space. The persistent obstacles in creating permanent public spaces dedicated to the memory and history of slavery indicate how difficult it is for the nation to deal with its slave past – this is correlated with the problem in Brazil where the majority of the population of African descent are still relegated to the lower ranks of society.

In fact, the violence of slavery must be submerged in order to assert that contemporary race relations are harmonious. São Paulo contains one public monument to slavery called The Black Mother (Mãe Preta). It depicts a black woman nursing a white infant. Micol Siegel reveals that this monument was “one of the sites of elaboration of what would come to be termed ‘racial democracy,’ the celebration of racial mixture increasingly important to Brazilians’ sense of their national identity in the 1920s.” Racial democracy refers to a Brazilian national narrative of harmonious race relations achieved through racial mixture, which downplays the presence of racism in the country. Images of slavery that emphasize interracial closeness, such as the Black Mother Monument and the telenovela Escrava Isaura , which emphasized romantic relations between masters and enslaved people, support the narrative of harmonious race relations. Narratives that emphasize the violence of slavery undermine ideas of racial harmony by exposing a history of persistent racial inequality. Vaz verbally narrates this violent history and makes it visually manifest in Saçi’s ripped pant leg.

Ana Lucia Araujo outlines the stakes of recognizing the role of slavery in Brazilian society:

Indeed, the construction of monuments, memorials, and museums underscoring the slave past could eventually lead to the official recognition of the significant Brazilian participation in the Atlantic slave trade, recognition that could be interpreted as an act of repentance that could encourage demands for material and financial reparations.

São Paulo is making strides in commemorating slavery through the Museu Afro, which houses exhibitions on the history of slavery and exhibitions that explore slavery through photos. The Urban Saçi graffiti series publicly rewrites a Brazilian national folk figure from one of national love to that of a legacy of the slave past that continues to walk among us.

Reighan Gillam is an Assistant Professor in the Department and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan. Her research examines the relationship between race, visual images, and power in media produced by Afro-Brazilians in São Paulo, Brazil. She is working on a book manuscript entitled, Strategic Visionaries: Afro-Brazilian Media Producers and the Politics of Representation. Follow her on Twitter @Reighangillam.

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.

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.


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


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.


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). 

Luke Cage and the African American Literary Tradition

By Matthew Teutsch 

November 1, 2016

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


Marvel’s Luke Cage debuted on Netflix on September 30, 2016. One day after its appearance on the streaming service, Netflix’s servers crashed because so many people flooded the site. The mere fact that Luke Cage crippled Netflix for a few hours after its debut highlights the importance of this show in an era dominated by social media. While Luke Cage’s sheer invincibility and his place within the Harlem community speaks to our current social milieu, the show, along with the first few issues of the comic that appeared in 1972, serves as a pop culture classroom that provides a history of African American letters in the latter part of the twentieth century that may not necessarily appear within the hallowed halls of academia.


Tara Betts has collected a list of literary references in season one of Luke Cage on Black Nerd Problems.  She notes numerous books, including the scene when Luke Cage sits on his bed and picks up Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) in “Moment of Truth.” As a cornerstone of the African American literary tradition, Ellison’s novel does not come as a shock in a show that not only references literature but also history and culture as well. However, the show quickly takes viewers down another path in “Code of the Streets,” guiding the audience through a literary history that encompasses more than Ellison and the canonical authors that viewers would most likely encounter in the classroom.

As Cage sits in a barber chair reading Walter Mosley‘s Little Green (2013), an Easy Rawlins mystery, he tells Pops, “I just never got into Donald Goines.” Through this simple statement and his reading of Mosley, Luke sets up the conversation that ensues between him and Pops, an exchange that draws the viewer into the history of African American pulp and crime writing. After commenting on the authors themselves, Pops expressly states, “Goines invented Kenyatta. The best black hero this side of Shaft.” Cage asks whether or not Pops thinks Kenyatta is better than Mosley’s Rawlins. Pops does not dispute the importance of Rawlins and simply responds, “Kenyatta is my favorite. Took the fight to the man, in the streets. By hisself. Just like somebody else could if he wasn’t sweeping hair and washing dishes.”

The dichotomy between Kenyatta and Rawlins may appear like nothing more than a barbershop debate between two friends, but in the context of the series-and the literary history that it presents-the discussion becomes so much more. For one, Luke Cage, at the beginning of the series, expresses a reticence about his role in protecting the community, much like Easy Rawlins and his questioning of the job he chooses to do for DeWitt Albright in the first mystery, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). As the series progresses, Cage becomes more like Goines’ Kenyatta, fighting to rid the community of criminal elements such as Cottonmouth and Diamondback, who prey on the residents of Harlem for their own personal gain.1

Along with Cage’s movement from Easy Rawlins to Kenyatta, the exchange in the barber shop links the Netflix series and the original comics from 1972 to the noir and hardboiled tradition in African American letters from Chester Himes through Goines and Iceberg Slim to Walter Mosley and beyond. In America Is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture (2013), author Erik Dussere argues that the “black authenticity,” which arose during the 1960s, is related to the history of “noir authenticity,” a history that presents the urban and ghetto space as authentic, in contrast to the suburban consumerist space.

Additionally, Dussere notes a move toward novels and films, which highlight counter conspiracy narratives that “eschewed the passive mapping of conspiratorial networks in favor of active resistance.” Luke Cage emerges during this period, albeit with a majority white creative team (except for the inker Billy Graham). Cage becomes a “hero for hire” who fights back against crime in Harlem; unfortunately, he does not provide an “active resistance” against racism.


In the introduction to the Marvel Masterwork’s collection of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire 2 issues 1-16, Steve Englehart writes about the impetus for creating Luke Cage, drawing connections to the economic viability of Blaxploitation films and to Marvel’s desire to present readers with a diverse range of characters. Englehart comments on the cultural climate of the period saying,

At the time, anyone who believed in human rights was in his element. The progress that blacks made socially made for a more vibrant popular culture, and that, to focus in on why we’re here, had led to a series of films starring confident people dealing with the injustices in the world they lived in. Made on shoe-string budgets and labeled “blaxploitation,” these films nonetheless did good box office in black theatres, putting Richard Roundtree, Pam Greer, and others on the moviegoing map for anyone interested in the world around. It was a saleable genre, to whites as well as black . . . so other people decided to sell some, too. Nature of capitalism.

Englehart’s statement about the milieu that led to the genesis of Luke Cage presents the superhero’s initial appearance in between two conflicting poles. On the one hand, the apparent progress of the Civil Rights movement and the emergence of the Black Nationalist movements in the 1960s and early 1970s created social change, including changes within popular culture. On the other hand, Blaxploitation films arose out of this period, and since they put warm bodies in the seats and brought in money, Marvel saw an opportunity (for a discussion of Blaxploitation cinema during this period, see Brooks E. Hefner’s “Rethinking Blacula: Ideological Critique at the Intersection of Genres”). Thus, Luke Cage walked onto the stage.

While Luke Cage’s 2016 incarnation provides its audience with mini-lessons on African American literature and history, the 1972 version, despite its moves to create an authentic, non-stereotypical African American superhero, suffers from populating Cage’s world with the racism of popular and historical culture without any confrontation from Cage himself. After opening the series with an issue that highlights Cage’s strength, resiliency, and humanity during his origin story, issue two, “Vengeance is Mine,” sees two instances where Cage comes into contact with symbols of oppression.


The first instance occurs when Cage goes to a costume store to purchase an outfit. After trying on clothes, Cage asks the owner if he has “[a]nything left in that trunk with a little flash?” The white owner produces chains, asking Cage, “Who can relate to an escape artist’s props?” Cage looks at the man and responds simply, “Maybe me, friend . . . As a kind of reminder.” The owner proceeds to cut the chain, and Cage fashions it into a belt. Here Cage comments on the symbolic nature of the chain; however, by referring to it as only a “reminder,” one may think back to the first issue where Cage is in prison. Cage does not bring up the history of slavery, nor does anyone else. In a mass-market comic that came out during the era of Blaxploitation films and after novels like Ernest J. Gaines The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), this scene presents a missed opportunity to comment on the history of slavery that the audience might not even catch.


The second scene referencing racial oppression in the U.S. is when Cage rents his office above a movie theater. When he enters the room, Cage encounters a blonde haired white teenager sweeping the floor. The boy introduces himself saying, “I’m Dave Griffith. My movie freak friends call me D.W. . . . After the director, y’know?” Again, Cage does not question the symbolism of the name; instead, he just asks D.W. for a tour of the space. Even though the audience may get some commentary on the chain belt, readers do not get any questioning of D.W.’s nickname, one that references the infamous director of Birth of a Nation (1915).

Based on these scenes, what do we make of the creator’s goals with the 1972 appearance of Luke Cage? As the 2016 small screen version presents audiences with engaging discussions of historical and literary topics, the 1972 version presents allusions and leaves them hanging in the air without any commentary. What does this do for an audience, especially an audience encountering a black superhero’s genesis in the Marvel universe? How should we read the 1972 and 2016 iterations of Luke Cage in relation to the noir tradition that each draws upon? These are questions that need to be explored further, especially when thinking about a character like Luke Cage who emerged during the early 1970s and has reemerged, at least on a massive scale, in the 2010s during the era of Black Lives Matter.

Matthew Teutsch is an Instructor of English at Auburn University. He maintains Interminable Rambling, a blog about literature, composition, culture, and pedagogy. He has published articles and book reviews in various venues including LEARMELUSMississippi QuarterlyAfrican American Review and Callaloo. His research focus is African American, Southern, and Nineteenth Century American literature. Follow him on Twitter @SilasLapham.

  1. Justin Gifford, in Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing (2013) provides a detailed discussion of the Kenyatta series (70-87) 
  2. The term, “Hero for Hire,” brings to mind the private investigator of noir fiction. Indeed, for the first few issues, citizens seek out Cage as a type of private investigator to help them solve personal problems. 

Can Superheroes Be Woke?: Black Liberation and the Black Panther

By Vincent Haddad 

February 24, 2018

*This post is part of our new blog series on The World of the Black Panther. This series, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, examines the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film.

Photo: Black Panther & The Crew/Marvel.

Coinciding with the multi-year production of the Black Panther movie (formally announced in 2013), Marvel hiredrenowned political commentator Ta-Nahesi Coates to write what would become a highly anticipated and successful run of the comic series (2016-2017). In subsequent and short-lived spinoffsWorld of Wakanda and Black Panther & The Crew, Marvel hired well-known writers Roxanne Gay and Yona Harvey to work alongside Coates and develop more narrative arcs for their highly valued, superhero property. Through these hires Marvel signaled their (financial) interest in securing niche audiences with varying levels of investment in anti-racist politics and the concurrent rise of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Given the optimism that swelled around the releases of these comic books, it is clear that there was a sincere belief among readers and writers that superheroes like the Black Panther can “be woke.” In Black Panther & The Crew (2017), this is the very raison d’être given when T’Challa (Black Panther) and Ororo (Storm) ask a veteran civil rights organizer why they have been summoned to Harlem to investigate the murder of a prominent Black activist: “for y’all to wake up.” Yet as Marc Singer argues, any imaginative potential for Black radicalism in this genre needs to be tempered by the fact that “the handling of race is forever caught between the [superhero] genre’s most radical impulses and its most conservative ones.”1

Set against the backdrop of a BLM protest, this particular spin-off offers an excellent case study to test the basic assumption of a “woke” Black superhero against the actual politics of the BLM movement, whose construction and imagination are in no small part indebted to Coates’s own work on police brutality, housing discrimination, reparations, and mass incarceration. Similarities and differences between the two can help answer some crucial questions about the intersection of superhero comics, race, and politics: how effective is the superhero genre as a vehicle for progressive, anti-racist politics? How do the models of justice imaginable through this genre compare with those imagined by current Black liberation activists? Does the very concept of the superhero empower or impede the political imaginary of Black liberation?

Each issue of Black Panther & The Crew chronicles the parallel narratives of Ezra Keith’s construction of a Black superhero team during the civil rights era and the modern-day Crew’s investigation of the suspicious murder of Keith while in police custody.2 Issue #1 offers a glimpse of the potential of the superhero genre in giving shape and form to a radical political imaginary of Black liberation. The narrative opens in the Bronx in 1957. After deploying his superhero team to take down all of the rival crime bosses in New York, Keith confronts the final kingpin, Mr. Manfredi, in his warehouse. After Keith’s team destroys Manfredi’s inventory, he makes a decision uncharacteristic of the genre: he does not take Manfredi to the police. Against a fiery background and buttressed by his muscle-bound superhero team, Keith simply lets Manfredi free: “Go home, Mr. Manfredi. Kiss your wife. Hug your kids. Honor your friends. Love your neighbors. Because I promise you, should you ever threaten my neighbors again . . . the next story they tell will be about you.” A scene-to-scene panel transition immediately transports the reader to modern-day Harlem where a BLM protest has gathered following Keith’s murder while in police custody. Among a host of small, hard-to-read signs with slogans like “Black Lives” and “Justice for Ezra,” one sign stands out in bold, red ink: “NO POLICE.” Side-by-side these scenes suggest that the superhero genre might offer ways of imagining accountability outside of the now-default framework of policing and incarceration.

Specifically, these scenes evoke a practice advocated by BLM activists–such as Mariame Kaba, Mia Mingus, and Barbara Arnwine–called “transformative justice,” defined as “a liberatory approach to violence . . . [that] seeks safety and accountability without relying on alienation, punishment, or State or systemic violence, including incarceration or policing.” Issue #1 suggests that the superhero genre might provide an aesthetic shape and form for conceptual frameworks and social practices circulated and applied among some anti-racist community organizations but that can seem unimaginable to many in the current political mainstream. The fictional space of superhero comics offers at least the potential for a place to visually experiment with imaginative social structures like transformative justice, and to provoke readers with questions of “what if” that easily fit into their expectations of the genre.

Issue #1 fulfills much of the promise of this narrative frame, exploring how superpowers do not place the members of the Crew outside the realm of racial injustice and terror. Detective Misty Knight becomes disillusioned with the system when her suspicions of corruption are confirmed: the police and correctional officers instinctively, if unknowingly, act to abet and cover-up the still-mysterious murder of Ezra Keith. Afterwards in a scene evocative of ProPublica’s report that software used to predict the likelihood of a person to commit future crimes had a racial bias, Knight and Storm are racially profiled and attacked by mechanized “Americops,” “a mix of Stark tech and counterfeit crap,” while sitting together in a park. As part of a long history of cosmopolitan super-teams who Ramzi Fawaz argues, “offered sustained exploration of the conflict between loyalty to national citizenship and a broader commitment to global justice,” the Crew provides an opportunity to consider the issues of BLM in a national and even Pan-African context. While Misty Knight and Luke Cage are Black Americans directly enmeshed in the systemic racism of US policing, T’Challa (fictional Wakanda), Storm (Kenya), and Manifold (Australia) each confront their own connection to these social forces on the level of not superhero identity but a broader based solidarity through racial identity and oppression.

Photo: Black Panther & The Crew/Marvel

After the first issue, however, the reader instantly confronts the structural limits of the superhero genre as an aesthetic vehicle for Black liberation. As the parallel historical narrative unfolds across the six issues, the reader discovers that Keith’s super-team betrays the cause of fighting crime and white supremacy, falling in with Hydra, the ur-villain of the Marvel universe. While Keith spends his later years attempting to atone for his involvement by fighting for the cause “the right way,” he ultimately serves as the fall guy in his nephew Malik’s Hydra-funded plot to co-opt the BLM movement, motivated simply out of personal greed. In an escalation of the threats facing the Crew, Malik joins forces with Zenzi, the antagonist of Coates’s previous Nation under Our Feet (2016), whose superpower is intensifying the pre-existing emotions of crowds of people. Because apparently Black protestors’ righteous anger can be easily manipulated—remarkably a framing device not unique to Coates’s series—the protestors listening to Malik’s rhetoric quickly fall prey to Zenzi’s power.3 Marked with possessed green eyes, the BLM protestors break out into violence and prove to be the ultimate villain for the Crew to fight. In a bizarre climax, Cage and Knight beat, kick, and body slam BLM protestors into Manifold’s magical transports in an effort to disperse the crowd, while Storm simultaneously electrocutes the Americops who are also committing violence against the protestors.

The distrust of bottom-up Black liberation movements like BLM—organically initiated by three women of color using a hashtag on social media no less—is not limited to Black Panther & The Crew. Recent widespread hand-wringing over Russian bots creating fake “Blacktivists” on Twitter and Facebook and Russian-funded Black self-protection classes serves as examples of a longstanding fear of what may be if Black grievances are not shepherded through trusted leadership and hierarchical gate-keeping institutions. While Coates’s body of work displays no evidence of these attitudes, quite the opposite, these bias fit all too comfortably within the logics that govern the superhero genre. When asked about how the BLM movement influences his writing, Coates offers a mixed response that suggests what is inherently limiting about the superhero genre: “It becomes clear in the first issue that the activist is not just an activist. There’s something more going on there.”

As the racial injustices that stage the narrative become entwined in the larger evils in the Marvel universe, the power to resist and overturn these social structures ultimately belongs to superheroes alone. In the denouement of the story, the Crew renews their commitment to fight for the city that abstractly binds them, as Luke Cage shouts the titular phrase, “We are the streets.” Yet this “we” quite clearly excludes the BLM protestors represented as too unpredictable and too easily frenzied by simple rhetoric.4 For this very reason, Black Panther & The Crew ultimately cannot effectively imagine the collectivity necessary for Black liberation. It remains up to BLM activists alone to organize and fight against a villain untranslatable to the superhero genre: widespread, diffuse, and ordinary white supremacy.

  1.  Marc Singer, “Black Skins and White Masks: Comics Books and the Secret of Race,” African American Review 36.1 (2002): 110. 
  2.  Keith is inspired to organize the group of heroes during the Asian-African Conference in Bandung, Indonesia, 1955. 
  3.  See Episode 10 of Marvel’s Netflix series Luke Cage
  4.  These qualities are the very antithesis of the reasoned and intellectual Illuminati member, Black Panther. 

Black Panther, Surveillance, and Racial Profiling

By Matthew Teutsch 

March 10, 2018

*This post is part of our new blog series on The World of the Black Panther. This series, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason, examines the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film.

Photo: Jungle Action Featuring: The Black Panther, “Panther vs. The Klan,” #21

In 1972, the reemergence of Black Panther, and the foregrounding of T’Challa as a central character, took place in correlation with Marvel’s launching of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, a series that looked to capitalize on the rise of blaxploitation films during the period. While the first few issues of Steve Englehart’s Luke Cage fails to confront racism and subjugation in the urban environment, McGregor’s Black Panther directly confronts these issues in the United States in the “Panther vs. The Klan” story arc that occurred in Jungle Action Featuring: The Black Panther #19 through #22 (January 1976-July 1976). While McGregor incorporates references to James Baldwin and Eldridge Cleaver throughout the arc, racism and subjugation are still exhibited through stereotypical images such as T’Challa eating fried chicken at the Lynnes’s home. Even with these issues, McGregor’s Black Panther attacks and critiques the myth of equality in America.

In the Black Panther: Marvel Masterworks, Vol. 1 (2010), McGregor examines the cultural milieu that led to the creation of Luke Cage and the resurgence of T’Challa as the Black Panther. Most striking about McGregor’s discussion recalling his time at the helm of the Black Panther story arcs is how his comments differ from those of Luke Cage’s writer Steve Englehart. McGregor points out that he fought for Jungle Action to contain an all-African cast of characters since the first story arc, “Panther’s Rage,” which takes place solely in Wakanda after T’Challa leaves the Avengers and returns to find individuals questioning his loyalty to the nation. McGregor also discusses how he incorporates queer characters, Taku and Venomm, into the series; but, as McGregor says, “I could not bring these characters out of the closet at the time.” On the “Panther vs. The Klan” arc, McGregor notes that it starts during “America’s bicentennial, and [he] would joke that it was [his] birthday gift” to the nation. McGregor makes it a point to explain that his work has a political tilt, and this aspect becomes very obvious when he tackles lingering issues that affect our country and the rest of the world in issues #19 through #22.

As Julian Chambliss and Sean Howe point out, McGregor’s “Panther vs. The Klan” received pushback from the Marvel offices because they considered it controversial. The arc centers on T’Challa coming to Georgia with Monica Lynne. In Georgia, T’Challa and Lynne encounter the Klan and the Soldiers of the Dragon while trying to determine the true events that led to the death of Lynne’s sister, Angela. Was it suicide? Or, was it murder? After introducing the arc in Jungle Action #19 (January 1976) when T’Challa fights with the Soldiers at the cemetery and the Klan at the Lynnes’s house, issue #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe,” opens with T’Challa, in full Black Panther costume, shopping with Monica as two Klan members stalk them around the store.

The scene in the grocery store provides a space to confront and highlight racial profiling through the ways that the other customers in the store, all white, view T’Challa. When Monica points out that T’Challa appears to attract attention from the other customers because of his costume, he comments on the way that the customers view him: “They do not mask their curiosity until I turn to look at them—and then they avert their gaze busily eyeing everything but me with an embarrassed shame not quite hidden in their eyes!” (emphasis in original) Monica responds by telling T’Challa that they stare because he is either “a celebrity or a side-show freak”; however, T’Challa offers a third option, “a threat” because he “wouldn’t imagine many of them are aware that a Black Panther really exists. Wakanda is far from the realm of their concerns”

This conversation takes place within one panel in which McGregor confronts white readers through the ways that T’Challa feels when the white customers look at him. There are two items at work here that we need to take into consideration. The first is the mask. Why would T’Challa, in Georgia, wear the Black Panther costume to the grocery store with Monica? This is what initially sparks the conversation, but T’Challa turns it around and claims that those who gaze upon him “do not mask” their thoughts until he faces them. This imagery must be considered in relation to W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of  “double consciousness” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask.” While in costume, T’Challa does not represent his true self; instead, he represents the superhero, the Black Panther, a masked individual.

We also need to pay close attention to T’Challa’s claim that those who see him in the store appear to view him as “a threat.” Essentially, T’Challa notes that the white customers and the store’s staff are profiling him, keeping him under surveillance, to make sure he does not do anything to harm them or the store. T’Challa then alludes to the staff and customers not viewing him as a person but as a non-entity, invisible to themselves because the space that he, and I would argue Monica, inhabits “is far from the realm of their concerns.” Again, we need to consider literary antecedents to this assertion, looking back, of course to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952). The eponymous narrator of Ellison’s novel begins by stating, “I am an invisible man. . . . I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. . . . When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.”

T’Challa’s pose provides another aspect that warrants examination. Unlike in other panels, in this one he appears to be either cringing or menacing with his crouched shoulders and right arm just underneath his chin. What does this ambiguity say? Does he appear as the threat that the customers possibly view him as? Is he the one who is scared and apprehensive? If this is the case, then the white customers are the threat, not T’Challa.

Jungle Action #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe” 

Unlike Monica who has been to Wakanda, the older white woman Rebecca Winthrop, who eyes T’Challa, has never left the small Georgia town. As goods fall off the shelf at Rebecca’s head, T’Challa saves her from being injured. After the two Klan members attack Monica and T’Challa fights them off, the police enter the scene and a mob begins to cheer on the officers as they attack T’Challa. Rebecca looks on and hits him in the head with a can of cat food. She tells him “I knew you was up to no good when you come leapin’ at me. Scare a body half-to-death.” Even though T’Challa saves her from injury, Rebecca still views him as a threat to her own safety and well-being. As a police officer pistol-whips T’Challa to the ground, the narration comments on the scar he receives from the can of cat food: “The scar may be slight, hardly noticeable, but he will carry it for the rest of his life.”

Over the course of the events in the grocery store, from the gazes to the fight, the scar is much more than a physical reminder of the altercation. It serves as a metaphorical reminder of the ways that the white customers continually gaze at T’Challa and Monica as they shop for groceries. Couched within the overall fight in the aisles, McGregor subtly comments, in 1976, on the surveillance of Black bodies in public spaces through his depiction of Monica and T’Challa in the store. The scene could have taken place elsewhere; but having it in a public space like the grocery store heightens the attention we should pay to the ways that others view and treat T’Challa, even when he tries to save and protect them from harm.

Jungle Action #20, “They Told Me A Myth I Wanted to Believe” 

Perhaps the entire scene is best summed up in two panels. In one panel, Rebecca tells Monica, “Don’t take it out on all of us, Ma’am. It’s not exactly all our faults,” implying that she has done nothing wrong even though she gazes upon T’Challa as a threat to her safety. As they leave T’Challa notes that Monica appears madder than he does, and she responds that she does not like how the community reacts, especially since T’Challa is not the threat. Monica, without saying it, comments that the customers and police treat her and T’Challa in the way that they do because they view the couple as other, and as “a threat.”

After T’Challa saves Rebecca from the falling goods, her actions, and those of the other customers, signify that no matter what, Rebecca will view T’Challa as a threat, not as an equal. McGregor points out what James Baldwin does in Notes of a Native Son (1955) when writing about the events outside of the Hotel Braddock in Harlem in 1943. After setting the record straight, Baldwin states, “[N]o one was interested in the facts. They preferred the invention because this invention expressed and corroborated their hates and fears so perfectly.”