On Racism and Racial Violence in the Comics

By Matthew Teutsch 

April 4, 2017

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

Some of the most visceral images of March: Book Two take place as the Freedom Riders arrive in Montgomery, AL, on May 20, 1961, encountering a mob who viciously attack them. In these panels, Nate Powell’s black and white artwork, like his work in The Silence of Our Friends (2012), juxtaposes and plays with our general connotations of white and black. This juxtaposition becomes most apparent in the panels that show a young, white boy, at the behest of his father, joining in the assault on the Freedom Riders. In one of the panels, the father’s words, “git them eyes!” carry over into an image of the boy’s face, in front of a black background. The boy’s eyes look as if they are glowing with demonic rage as blood splotches appear on his face and his fingers reach out towards the reader, eliminating the victim, James Zwerg, from the frame. The grotesqueness of these panels recalls Reginald Marsh’s This Is Her First Lynching and Paul Cadmus’ To the Lynching! from the NAACP’s 1935 exhibit An Art Commentary on Lynching.

As part of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign, Walter White organized An Art Commentary on Lynching in New York in 1935 with contributions from both black and white artists in various mediums. The exhibition ran for two weeks. Jenny Woodley notes that “White wanted the audience for his exhibition to be liberaled, moneyed, northern whites . . . who would normally shy away from a subject as unpalatable as mob violence and to provoke the many apathetic whites” who became desensitized to the atrocities of lynching. Out of the thirty-eight artists who submitted works for the exhibition, there were only ten African Americans and one woman. The others, including Marsh and Cadmus, were white males.

Like Powell’s panel, Marsh’s image is in black and white, and the inhabitants of the picture appear joyous yet grotesque, enveloped in hatred. We do not see the victim of the violence in This Is Her First Lynching; instead, we see the psychological effects of racism and segregation on the perpetrators of the heinous act that occurs in the “blank space” off stage.1 I have ever seen.”]  Marsh’s image shows a mob viewing a lynching, and in the middle of the crowd, a woman holds up a young girl. Unlike the other individuals in the picture, the girl appears inquisitive, as if she is learning a lesson like the boy does in March after he attacks Zwerg. She holds a finger to her chin, pondering the heinous act in the “blank space.” The woman holding the girl has a contorted smile on her face that exudes animosity and an abhorrence for the victim. Carmenita Higginbotham notes that Marsh’s image aims to confront an urban audience to the horrors of lynching, and she calls upon “us to question how the work operates and invites us to consider for whom it was intended.” Through this representation, Marsh delves into the psychological effects of oppression on the oppressors themselves. Margaret Rose Vendryes argues “Marsh’s matter-of-fact handling accentuates the macabre without overt condemnation” of the act itself. What does this removal do for a “liberaled, moneyed, northern white” audience whose exposure to lynching and mob violence may only be through newspapers and the media? How does this carry over to a work like March as well, a work that crosses time and space?

Paul Cadmus’ To the Lynching! presents another psychological effect, one of incongruous racism and bigotry that engulfs the very being of an individual and the community. Like Marsh’s This Is Her First Lynching, Cadmus’ lithograph presents the lynch mob with distorted features and visages. The man at the top left looks ghoulish, and his hand takes on the characteristics of an animal’s claw. The man’s face at the bottom appears to reverse stereotypical images of African Americans with his mouth, and the man’s hands on the right again look like claws or talons gouging at the eyes of the victim. Commenting on the framing of Cadmus’ image, Vendryes says,

To the Lynching! situates the viewer on top of the scene. We are drawn into the confusion, where the figures are disturbingly identical in color. Cadmus’s willingness to pull the viewer in so close might be a sign of his awareness that the majority of those who would visit the exhibition would be white. The triangle of white men, in their freedom, are the ones to be feared.

Cadmus’ image invokes chaos, bedlam, and violence through its swirling lines that draw the viewer’s attention to the victim in the middle of the carnage. Unlike Marsh, Cadmus displays the victim of mob violence, and like Marsh, Cadmus highlights the inescapable psychological effects of the act upon those holding the African American man down.

Through their varied depictions, Marsh and Cadmus both implicate the viewer in the act that occurs. While Marsh does not show the violence, he places the viewer in the crowd who observes the violent act off stage, and he draws the viewer’s attention to the ways that ignorance of the ongoing epidemic affects those who stand idly by doing nothing, thus associating the audience with the unseen act. Cadmus’ lithograph also draws the audience into a position of association by placing us above the scene, looking down into the swirling madness.

Powell creates the same type of grotesque, psychological imagery; however, the panels appear surrounded by images of the victims as well. During the attack, the faces of the mob members take on distorted characteristics, accentuating their loathing of the victims. In one panel, we see a victim of the mob’s violent aggression, and the older, white woman in the frame looks similar to the woman in Marsh’s image. She greedily, and lustfully, gropes for the man she wants to attack, saying, “KILL HIM!!” In this moment, the woman, and those with her, appear as non-human; they have lost complete control of themselves and who they are. Powell highlights the continuation of racism, oppression, and subjugation when he juxtaposes Barack Obama’s inauguration with images from May 20, 1961.

While some of the horde congratulate each other and shake hands, as in the bottom left of the page, we also see the young boy who groped for Zwerg’s eyes at the top left of the page. As with the previous panel, we see his face against a black background; however, here the boy looks down at his bloody hands in disbelief, as if asking himself, “What have I just done?” We know what he has done, and why, and his father’s hand, resting on the boy’s shoulder, lets us know that even if the boy questions his actions, his father will “correct” his thoughts and teach him how to hate soon enough. Below and to the left of the young boy, we see Zwerg and John Lewis together, both bloody, symbolizing unity and equality. All of these images, and more, occur with a double page frame of Aretha Franklin singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

Within these pages, we see the past and the present coming together. Even though March flashes back to the sixties and forward to 2009, I cannot help but look at Powell’s Aretha Franklin in 2009, surrounded by images from May 20, 1961, as a commentary on how far we have come but on how far we still have to go before achieving equality. We see the Confederate Battle Flag, a passive policeman who stood by as the violence erupted, a young boy, a dead woman, and battered victims. As Franklin sings, “Let freedom ring,” she is surrounded by violence and oppression in the adjoining images. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, the Charleston Nine, and countless others encompass the page with their lingering presence.

By implicating the audience, and delving into the ways that mob violence and racism affect the perpetrator as well as the victim. Marsh, Cadmus, and Powell position the audience in a way that makes them think about their own roles in the continuation of racism and oppression. This is the same technique that authors like Ernest J. Gaines, James BaldwinGwendolyn Brooks, William Faulkner, and others deploy, placing the white audience member inside the chaotic absurdity of the situation, turning a mirror back at the viewer to implicate inaction and complacency. In many ways, the overlap of 1961 and 2009 in March confronts the reader head on, asking, “What will you do in the current moment?”

  1. Marsh was mostly known for his depictions of the urban environment. This is Her First Lynching originally appeared in the September 8, 1934 issue of The New Yorker and later in th January 1935 issue of The Crisis in An Art Commentary on Lynching. Marsh donated the piece to the NAACP, and Walter White called it “the most effective [image of lynching 

Call for Submissions: New Blog Series on The Black Panther

By AAIHS Editors 

October 1, 2017


“The World of the Black Panther”

Guest Editors: Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason

On June 9, 2017, the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed as the trailer for Black Panther made its debut. The trailer quickly went viral. Within days, it became one of the most viewed trailers ever released by Marvel. Building on the success of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, Black Panther promises a majority Black cast for a major motion picture release. While fans have long championed the character, the implication that Black Panther will be something different in style and substance has become a common refrain. The first Black superhero, the Black Panther and his world have captured the reality of new expectations linked to race and identity in the United States since his appearance in 1966. Is his cinematic debut the beginning of a new era? Is it the continuation of mediated tokenism?

Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), seeks essays that examine the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film. We invite new and experienced writers–including undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and independent scholars–to submit guest blog posts for this series. Broadly speaking, blog posts in this series will examine how this moment in the long history of the Black Panther addresses broader societal concerns in the United States.

We encourage potential contributors to submit guest blog posts that explore topics that include but are not limited to the following:

  • Afrofuturism in Black Panther
  • Colonialism, independence, and reparations across fictional Africa
  • LGBTQ narratives in Black Panther
  • Indigenous design and comic universes
  • Intersectionality and the world of wakanda
  • Technology, magic, and the black radical imagination
  • Religion, royalty, race, and nation in Marvel Comics
  • War, reconciliation, and gender in Wakanda

Blog posts should not exceed 1,500 words (not including footnotes) and should be written for a general audience. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis until December 30, 2017. Accepted blog posts will undergo a peer review process before they are published. Blogs can be submitted as an attachment to Microsoft Word to the guest editors at raceandcomics@gmail.com.


About the guest editors

Dr. Julian Chambliss is Chair and Professor of History at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States. He is the co-editor of Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, which explores the changing depiction of superheroes from the comic books of the 1930s to the cinematic present.Follow him on Twitter @JulianChambliss.

Dr. Walter Greason isthe Founder of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and an economic historian in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. He is currently the Dean of the Honors College at Monmouth University. He is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey andmore recently, The American Economy, (with Melissa Ziobro and William Gorman). He is also the creator of the #Wakandasyllabus. Follow him on Twitter @WorldProfessor.

The Soul of Black Comics: An Interview with John Jennings

By Julian Chambliss 

October 14, 2017


John Jennings, 2015 Black Comic Book Festival. Photo: courtesy of http://www.sugarcayne.com.

This month, I had the opportunity to speak with John Jennings, Professor of Media and Cultural Studies and a Cooperating Faculty Member in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. Jennings is a scholar and artist whose artistic work is deeply influenced by the African American cultural experience and explores intersectional narratives linked to identity. He illustrated Octavia Butler’s Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. He recently completed a stint as the Nasir Jones Hiphop Fellow at the Hutchins Center, Harvard University. While Jennings’ adaptation of Butler’s Kindred has generated excitement, his original creative work highlight a creative intervention designed to celebrate Black culture. Jennings is co-editor of The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art and co-founder/organizer of The Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival, co-founder and organizer of the Black Comix Arts Festival in San Francisco and the SOL-CON: The Brown and Black Comix Expo at the Ohio State University. I spoke with him about his latest graphic novel Blue Hand Mojo (Rosarium Publishing), an innovative publishing startup dedicated to bringing multicultural voices to the public. Follow Professor Jennings on Twitter @JIJennings.


Julian Chambliss: You have recently grabbed a lot of attention with your adaptation of The Kindred. How does Blue Hand Mojo offer a different creative experience for you?

John Jennings: The opportunity to do Kindred with my long-time collaborator and friend Damian Duffy has been a remarkable experience. Octavia Butler is one of the most important American writers to ever live. However, Blue Hand Mojo is totally my own creation from top to bottom. The experience of essentially collaborating with another writer is vastly different than controlling the entire narrative. With MojoI could make format changes, rearrange story elements, and enhance the narrative as I worked on it. You don’t have the same range of freedom when you are doing such a beloved book as Kindred.

Chambliss: In Blue Hand Mojo, you focus on the figure “Half Dead” Johnson. What is it about “Half Dead” Johnson that you wanted to bring to life as an African American scholar, writer, and artist?

Jennings: “Half Dead” is the fictional first cousin of the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. I wanted to take something from our cultural history that was already a piece of folklore and then push it even further. “Half Dead” represents the raw anger and pain that was the burden of Black men and women working under the weight of the Jim Crow South. His revenge on his white attackers and his subsequent curse to work for the Devil represent the fact that those experiences followed Black people with them during the various stages of the Great Migration. I wanted to explore what that does to a person but also use the supernatural as the lens through which to view the narrative implications.

Chambliss: Your story is steeped in the cultural legacy of the African American experience, but shows a depth and complexity around race, community, and identity. What were your goals in crafting this story?

Jennings: I am from Mississippi and I carry a lot of the weight of the racism in our country in my own personal experience. It’s a haunted existence sometimes. This is why I coined the term (with Stanford Carpenter) the “EthnoGothic.” It is dealing with very complex tensions around the Black experience in the United States and in particular the Black Southern experience. It’s also dealing with how trauma acts as a revenant of our continually contentious narratives around race, class, and history. Even as I answer these questions, protesters use their bodies to occlude a white woman’s painting of Emmett Till. Our past isn’t done with us. It’s not even the past.

Chambliss: You have been a consistent voice helping to create space where scholars and practitioners are in dialogue. Your work seems to model that process. How do you see this kind of creative intervention evolving in the future?

Jennings: I think that I can see my practice evolving into one of producer, editor, and facilitator. I have a knack for being able to find overlaps across disciplines and between scholars from various modes of discourse. My most important asset, however, isn’t a skill set at all; it’s a point of view that I fervently believe and constantly put into practice. I truly want us all to be successful. I truly believe that by working together we can achieve anything. So, I have dedicated my career and my energies to creating opportunities where many individuals have the potential to move forward and find agency in the experience. I think that if we can make collaboration the norm and not the exception, we would be totally amazed by what we can accomplish.

Chambliss: What is on the horizons for your creative work exploring the Black experience and Black identity?

Jennings: I just finished up toning pages for a book with Tony Medina and Stacey Robinson called I AM ALFONSO JONES. It’s a black and white graphic novel from Lee and Low/Tu Books that deals with the death of bi-cultural teenage boy named Alfonso Jones. The entire story is told from the boy’s perspective as a ghost. The book deals with social justice, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter Movement.

I just signed a contract with Rosarium Publishing to put out a 10 part maxi-series with Ayize Jama Everett called BOX OF BONES. The story follows a Black queer Southern woman who is doing her dissertation fieldwork around a mysterious artifact that punishes people who have wronged people of color throughout the African Diaspora. The scholar, little by little, realizes that the artifact is real and that her destiny is connected to it. It’s not for the squeamish. I use the elevator pitch of  “Afrocentric Hellraiser” to give the context in a quick sound bite. The terror begins this Fall.

Damian Duffy and I are currently finishing up BLACK COMIX RETURNS. It’s the follow up to our 2010 art book Black Comix: African-American Independent Comic, Art and Culture. This book, which was fully backed on kickstarter, will be a 12 x 12 in., hardcover, full-color art book with double the amount of independent Black comics creators inside. It should be coming your way in early Spring 2018. There are more things coming but I am not at liberty to talk about them just yet. Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about this work.

When It Ain’t Broke: Black Female Representation in Comics

By Alyssa Collins 

January 9, 2017

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

“If it ain’t broke” (Credit: Image Comics)

In a 1976 essay appearing in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker notes that an absence of models, or literary representations, is an “occupational hazard to the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect—even if rejected— enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence.” She warns that without such models entire artistic communities suffer. Walker goes on to provide a glimpse of her own models, listing several influential artists, not all of them women, not all of them black. She insists that these writers are in the business of “saving lives”: representing the misrepresented, the distorted, the erased or lost. She argues that this kind of representation is the business of art.

I’ve returned many times to this passage in considering the ongoing conversations about representation and diversity in the comic book industry. There has been much discussion of industry trends and failed attempts produced by mainly white writing staff. While industry-wide campaigns to represent minority characters sound exciting, what kind of stories can and are being told when the makeup of comic book writing teams hasn’t shifted dramatically? Is witnessing various lives in print or on-screen sufficient as Walker seems to suggest? What does changing the face of comics but not the artistic producing bodies do to the genre of comics? More specifically, what does the increased number of black women in comics (not necessarily written by women of color) offer a comic book readership?

I would argue that some comics have much to offer, and that recent series like Image’s Bitch Planet and Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur offer new and fuller models of intersectional embodiment that we haven’t seen in popular comics thus far.

Bitch Planet, November 2016. (Credit: Image Comics)

Questions and problems of embodiment, of strength and weakness, of the post-human, gender, and monstrosity, could be considered standards of many mainstream comic book franchises and these conversations were once solely focused on white bodies that aligned with a presumed white male readership. Traditionally, we have seen that white male embodiment is slow or reluctant to reveal systemic problems and do the work of representing how we live with the weight of historical oppression and violence.

Yet over the past several years, comics readers have seen a proliferation of characters of color, especially of women and girls of color. And once we begin to focus on the embodiment of these women’s realities come into sharp focus. The questions and problems raised by their bodies become scripts or models through which we can read the actualities and limitations of the comic book’s world. Similarly, we can see the serialized and ephemeral nature of comics easily reflecting the real-world racism, sexism, and classism that structure American society.

The two character models I highlight below, Penny Rolle of Bitch Planet and Lunella Lafayette of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, prompt readers to see these series through a womanist, black woman centered, or black feminist, framework. These series focus on articulations of particular black womanhoods and allow us to consider and ask questions that we cannot answer with other bodies.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet is a self-described “women-in prison sci-fi exploitation riff.” The series is set in a technologically fortified patriarchal world in which “deviant” women are sent off-world due to “non-compliance.” In the first two issues, readers are dropped into a main narrative that offers slivers of world building through dialogue and setting, yet we are not privy to the total picture until Bitch Planet #3: Too Big to Fail. In this issue readers are given inmate Penny Rolle’s backstory.

Penny is part of the ensemble cast and does not seem to be an integral part of the unfolding plot. Yet we find that Penny’s presence—her body—is incredibly important to the narrative. She is central—the key—to seeing and beginning to understand the realities of this imagined near future. As readers, we are shown that everything about Penny’s body from her large frame, mixed race parentage, desire to be physically strong, interest in laughter and play, explosive tendencies, all the way down to her “unruly” and unpredictable mixed curl-pattern hair make her an enemy of the white patriarchal “Fatherhood” state.

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Penny of Image Comics’ Bitch Planet. (Source: Image Comics)

Penny, who often visually exceeds the limits of the frame, loves her body. Her “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude poses a serious challenge to the structures of power that operate in the series. In fact, her body is a threat to the prison “Bitch Planet” itself. Within the issue, we see authority figures struggle with an insubordinate Penny whose confidence in her body can withstand even the “cerebral potential integration and extrapolation matrix”— technology that is supposed to reveal her “true” feelings about her appearance. Nothing, it seems, can break her.

(Credit: Image Comics)
“Ideal version” (Credit: Image Comics)

DeConnick and De Landro offer Penny’s body, as the framework, the tone, and intent for the series. We see the sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic work of the Fathers refracted through Penny’s body. While there are many bodies in the world of Bitch Planet that are different, powerful, and renegade, Penny’s body, which is part of her crime, and her persistence in loving herself, is fugitive, interrupting the system if only for a moment. Instead of being inexplicable or illegible, Penny Rolle is the nexus through which the reader interfaces with the world. Penny allows us to re-center conversations of equity, justice, and revolution through the lens of a black woman, and a womanist framework. Such a change of focus is certainly something new.

The second model we might look to is Lunella Lafayette—one of the youngest, smartest, and, by way of these characteristics, one of the most isolated people in the Marvel Universe. Unlike Penny, Lunella’s body is not specifically rendered as oppositional to the state. Yet her concerns about her body, her age, and her genius, as well as her imminent transformation into an Inhuman, structure the narrative and design of the series.

Written as an attempt to attract not only a more racially diverse but also an age-diverse readership, in Moon Girl Reeder, Montclare, and Bustos effectively render the realities of black girlhood by doubling down on Lunella’s difficulties. She is not only different from her classmates, but also isolated her from other geniuses by educational access and age. She cannot take solace or comfort in her family because she fears what will happen to them once she transforms.

Yet once Lunella does transform she finds her body unchanged. The transformation leaves her DNA intact, but allows her to swap brains with her sidekick, Devil Dinosaur. Throughout the series Lunella’s small frame, intelligence, and her methods as Moon Girl are juxtaposed with Devil Dinosaur’s and when they switch places Lunella is forced to adapt new tactics of embodiment: self-making through inventing and technology must be translated into terms of the body. In these moments we can see that Lunella is aligned with a literary tradition of black inventors or “tinkerers” like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Lunella feels most like herself, most in control, when she is building.

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“Being me” (Credit: Marvel Comics)

As Lunella, begins to work through the problems of (monstrous) embodiment: how to exist and problem-solve in a deviant dinosaur body, we see such transactions isolating her own body further from her human and superhuman counterparts. For each time Lunella returns to her 3-foot frame, she is restrained. Interestingly enough, these moments leave her not with the same worries of isolation but instead with a growing determination to change her reality instead of hiding or ignoring problems as she once did. Her connection to Devil Dinosaur reframes the way in which Lunella (and the reader) can read her own embodied situation. Devil Dinosaur is simply an accessory to this exploration.

moongirlfig5
“What’s the use” (Credit: Marvel Comics)

Nine-year-old Lunella provides a new lens for the “growing up” and “identity” questions that are comic book standards. To witness a black girl dealing with isolation, awkwardness, and owning herself is not only empowering for readers, but is a narrative of black girl valuation. Lunella, as a model, persists without structures of authority (super-powered or otherwise). Even as the “weakest” of the inhumans, Lunella’s story can be recognized and read.

In these ways, comics like Bitch Planet and Moon Girl are narratives that are focused on and refracted through black women. They offer models, or the kind of valuable representation Walker highlights. They take steps away from metaphorical blackness, stale monoliths, and expected symbols towards lithe narratives interested in shifting focus and investigating possible lived realities that have traditionally been misrepresented and misunderstood. It would seem that when it comes down to a question of representation and models, these particular comics are doing the work. Hopefully others will begin to do the same.


Alyssa Collins is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. Her research interests include 20th Century American, African American, Global and Transnational Studies.  Follow her on Twitter @LyssaDee.

Gentrifying Luke Cage: The Racial Failure of Nostalgia

By Joshua Plencner 

January 15, 2017

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

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Cage! (Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

In superhero comics, nostalgia is often structural. Woven into the formal codes of serial storytelling, it both supports the production of fantastic visions and undergirds a culture of amnesiac longing. While at times an effective creative tool, within the overwhelmingly white context of superhero comics history, nostalgia is also necessarily a means of maintaining and defending the cultural fantasies of institutionalized white supremacy. The desire to reconstruct some bygone sense of the past, then—especially when expressed amidst the present uniquely black creative moment in the history of mainstream superheroes—should be understood as a form of cultural gentrification: sharp-elbowed white re-imagination that legitimates itself by pushing contemporary black cultural producers from view.

Cage! (2016)—a planned four-issue limited series published by Marvel Comics, with writing and art by renowned cartoon animator Genndy Tartakovsky—shows us exactly what such nostalgia-driven cultural gentrification looks like. It’s a comic book that steals energy from the present black creative moment, substituting instead a purportedly rejuvenated essence of 1970’s-era Marvel. By linking nostalgia for 1970’s-era aesthetics and a kind of garish, depoliticized post-racial fantasy, Cage!fetishizes the Blaxploitation-boom roots of its central character while simultaneously emptying out any potential to reclaim those roots for subversive, critical ends. It exaggerates stereotypical hyper-masculinity and an effusive sense of cool while downplaying the earlier prevalence of systemic critique and Black Power social consciousness. In the growing world of black superheroes, Cage! is a gentrifier’s comic, an apolitical morass, and a racial failure.

Although the project was first announced almost a decade ago, Tartakovsky’s Cage! initially languished in production. When Marvel released the first issue on October 5th, 2016, however, the comic’s titular hero, Luke Cage, was in the middle of a cultural moment. Driven by the excitement surrounding Marvel’s Luke Cage television series, which debuted on Netflix less than a week before Cage! hit the comics shop shelves, Luke Cage had captured the American zeitgeist. Under the guidance of Luke Cage writer-producer Cheo Hodari Coker, it seemed like Power Man, Marvel’s original “Hero for Hire,” had finally arrived. And lots of folks were taking notice.

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

The public conversations prompted by Coker’s series help us see how Luke Cage has proven a valuable vehicle for expressing political demands in the #BlackLivesMatter era. But Tartakovsky’s Cage is different from its contemporaries, on screen and in the comics. Rather than engage the fertile black political consciousness that surrounds it, Cage! disappoints by locking itself away from challenging political questions or real-world social problems. Instead, it employs the past as a Make-Mine-Marvel playground for the creator’s childhood affinities. “I grew up with comics,” Tartakovsky explained in one 2007 interview, “especially Marvel’s comics – and I always dreamed about doing my own take on one of their preexisting characters.”

With Cage! so situated in the dreamt and imagined past, Tartakovsky explained, “This series takes the essence of Luke Cage and pushes him more in that direction. If we were going to make a Cage film set in the 70’s, this is how it would be.” Thus, Tartakovsky’s storytelling style is a kind of commercial resource extraction, drilling down into the character’s Blaxploitation-era history in search of an “essence” that he can further exploit and amplify.

Taking him at his word, I think it’s clear that Tartakovsky’s concern with identifying the essence of Luke Cage is quintessentially nostalgic. But because his nostalgia is framed personally as “his own take,” he props up his vision as a faithful adaptation of Luke Cage’s essence—a rhetorical move that attempts to establish the authenticity of Tartakovsky’s Cage! as representative of an earlier, truer, version of the character, as well as confirm Tartakovsky’s authority to “push” Cage further in that direction. Nostalgia, in this case, licenses Tartakovsky to sell his vision of a gentrified, post-racial Luke Cage—a vision ostensibly appealing to white audience expectations, for whom a post-racial Blaxploitation narrative can be coherently packaged as “essentially” true.

How does this nostalgia work? Two examples from the first issue are illustrative. First, consider the spare language of the captions on the first page in Cage! In a few short words the story is placed temporally and geographically. Readers are in “1977, New York,” officially set in the story-world. Yet it’s the outsized scale of the “city of big,” with its “big buildings,” “big shoes,” and “big shirts,” that most directly set the scene, which in turn distorts and amplifies the “big crime” in the story. While such spare language might be read simply as a fast-paced establishment of narrative place, the page’s drumbeat emphasis on sheer magnitude does far more work on the visual register, establishing tone, style, and overall feel of the comic.

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

And it’s the feel of “1977, New York” that’s so troubling. That affective space–the entry into the story-world–is devoid of people (save for shadowy outlines). It’s also lacking any sense of socio-political weight linked to the tension of social movements, police violence, urban ghettoization, and white flight that defined the decade.

Second, when characters are featured in the art, they’re yoked to an exaggerated, rubber-limbed style that highlights the comic’s confused attachment to a post-racial Blaxploitation. Tartakovsky’s rangy figure-work is most effective when communicating theatrical emotion and physical violence. In this way, he references the distortive effects of the original Blaxploitation narrative fueled by largely white audience expectations.

But Tartakovsky goes further, using his art style to amplify some aspects of the original while obscuring others. In one scene, for example, Tartakovsky’s Cage smashes a table, shouting that Misty Knight will have “hell” to pay when he mistakes her missing a dinner date as being stood up. The sequence is jarring—perversely suggesting that, when he confronts Knight, the consequences of his misunderstanding will be violent. In another scene, Tartakovsky’s Cage tortures a prisoner for information, strips him naked, and leaves him beaten in his cell. This is appalling stuff—shifting Cage into the role of an erratic, state-sanctioned, hyper-masculine oppressor—yet in Tartakovsky’s hands they’re breezy plot points. Together, we should read them as the utter failure of this comic’s purported nostalgia for 1970’s-era Marvel. Whatever nostalgia might be here, Cage! forgets more than it claims.

Many comics scholars note that navigating the archetype-laden myth-worlds of superheroes is an unsteady march, and black superheroes seem prone to suspect creative tinkering. Rebecca Wanzo attributes these failures to the fact that “the U.S. superhero body has paradigmatically been white and male, leaving women and people of color to possess liminal status.” Even when present, she argues, women, black folks, and characters of color are subject to pervasive caricature and stereotype. Thus Wanzo asks a perennial question: “How do cultural producers transcend the history of black representation, as these representations inform productions and readings of bodies? Can a comic book character not be read as a stereotype?”

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

The history of Luke Cage challenges Wanzo’s question, and various iterations of Cage can be read as implicit attempts to answer it—if largely from the margins. A frustrating turn by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Richard Corben in Cage (2002), a five-issue “age of hip-hop” restyling of Luke Cage that Adilifu Nama calls a “nearly unreadable mess” that morphed Cage into a “creepy…ghetto mercenary,” gave way to more nuanced tellings. By the mid-2000s Luke Cage figured centrally at Marvel, notably coming into his modern personality in the pages of writer Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias (2001-2004) and The New Avengers (2005-2010). More recently, in early 2016, writer David F. Walker and artist Sanford Greene rebooted Power Man and Iron Fist—a long running Marvel comic book series from the 1970s originally showcasing Luke Cage. After the first issue went on sale in February, one critic lauded Walker and Greene’s subtly expanding buddy-cop drama as having the “voice and vision” necessary to evolve Luke Cage into a new era, one that “utilizes the past”but isn’t weighed down by it.

Clearly nostalgia can undermine racial stereotypes when it utilizes past narrative as raw storytelling material. But the creative risk is real, and for black superheroes that risk entails a particular kind of racial failure within the white context of American superhero culture. Through its mixed up and questionably inventive nostalgia for Blaxploitation-era Marvel, Cage! shows us such racial failure. Tartakovsky all but abandons the Black Power history of Cage in favor of a gentrified, whitewashing glance backward. As mainstream comics culture increasingly organizes around woke racial politics, Cage! stands out—a retrograde project better left on the shelf.


Joshua Plencner is an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University. His research explores the intersection of American visual culture and the politics of race, with specializations in the study of racial formation in popular culture, affect theory, comics studies, and American Political Development. Follow him on Twitter @joshuaplencner.

Racebending and Representation in Comic Books

By Bryan Cooper Owens 

February 6, 2017

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

Spider-Man is black. Or more precisely, Miles Morales, the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother is currently Spider-Man. Well, he’s one of the Spider-Men. It’s complicated. Miles Morales’ Spider-Man originates in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Ultimate Marvel was an attempt at rebooting the Marvel universe and starting fresh, ostensibly giving creators license to tell new stories unburdened by years of continuity heavy history. Comic book continuity is the collection of character and comic book world history that shapes and evolves the medium’s fictional landscape. The Ultimate Marvel experiment has now been scrapped. The Ultimate Universe came to an end, its inhabitants either meeting their own end or ending up collapsed into the main Marvel Comics continuity. Miles is one such character who made the jump. He is now Spider-Man, along with Peter Parker and Ben Riley (Peter Parker’s once thought dead clone). I told you, it’s complicated.

The unmitigated whiteness of popular superheroes is part and parcel of their origins. Superhero comics have been going strong since the late 1930s. This is when many of the iconic superheroes were first published: Superman (1938), Batman (1939), Captain America (1941), and Wonder Woman (1942). They have a legacy that has helped to propel them into popular culture as near mythic characters. By contrast, the first black superhero published by a major company is Marvel’s Black Panther in 1966 (and he doesn’t get his own series until 1973). The marked lack of black superheroes has an insidious inertia to it; their “history” is brief. The most popular characters tend to be those that were created during comicdom’s golden and silver ages.  These superheroes were created during times when racial representation was not prioritized for the comics industry (or the nation as a whole for that matter) but also, the lack of creators of color meant that there was zero impetus on the creative side for racial inclusiveness.

Thus the golden and silver age superheroes represent a tableau of stark whiteness. The superheroes that have become fixtures of pop culture are almost entirely white. Additions to this modern day pantheon have often not fared well. New comic books and their characters are released and cancelled on a revolving basis. Comic book audiences have shown a predilection for familiar heroes, the ones that they grew up with. The repercussions of this for new superheroes of color are that they are often relegated to side characters or simply forgotten. Superheroes of color have failed to capture a wide enough audience that generates enough sales to justify their existence.

The Ultimates (Source: Marvel Comics)

Racebending already established characters is a tactic that has been used to sidestep this problem. Racebending refers to the practice in comic books (and other media) of taking an established character and rebooting them as another ethnicity. Racebending is often conflated with the practice of whitewashing. I argue that whitewashing and racebending are two distinct practices, with different motives and consequences. They exist in entirely different contextual histories. Whitewashing contributes to the erasure of an already miniscule pool of non-white characters. The reimagining of established white characters as African American, Asian/Asian American, and Latinx allows audiences of color to see themselves represented within popular comics narratives. It does not seriously threaten the white hegemony of comic books.

Racebending is one of the major paths that comic book publishers have taken to address criticism that claims that people of color are underrepresented within the medium. When Marvel launched their new Ultimate Marvel title, The Ultimates (a take on the Avengers), their SHIELD Director, Nick Fury, had been reimagined as a black man with a striking resemblance to actor Samuel L. Jackson. The racebending of a previously established white character was successful enough that the Marvel Cinematic version is based upon this portrayal. By racebending an established character, Marvel created a new character that seems to have some staying power. Of course, it is probably neither a coincidence, nor does it hurt that Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing African American actor (and second highest grossing actor overall) in Hollywood.

Captain America, The Atom, Nick Fury, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), and Spider-Man all have been racebent, that is, reimagined as being of different racial identities. Recently, Marvel has released a new Iron Woman, RiRi Williams, an African American teenaged prodigy. In DC’s WB television universe both Wally and Iris West are now African American. Actor Idris Elba portrays the character of Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movie. The reimagining of these characters ethnicities has helped to create comic book universes that more accurately reflect our own society’s multiculturalism. Rather than replicating the original starkly white tableau of superheroes, we are now seeing stories that more accurately reflect society. People of color are not merely background characters in these new representations; they are heroes. Racebending effectively creates multiculturalism within the comics’ medium, while also giving fans the characters that they have cherished for decades. It is also a practice that has engendered a great deal of criticism from audiences and creators.

Captain America (Source: Marvel Comics)

Why is there such resistance in the comic book community to racebending? The comic book community is imagined to be a largely white audience. If one examines the online spaces devoted to comic books, they would find the pushback from many fans is that they want the comic book world to remain a bastion of whiteness. Racebending of popular white superheroes is perceived as an explicit attack on white dominance over comic books. White comic book fans seem to view this as a zero-sum game. Greater visibility for people of color equals an erasure of whiteness for these fans. White characters are engulfed by blackness; white supremacy loses tractable ground. For many comic book fans, the default whiteness of their favorite characters is integral to their being. The arguments from comic book fandom are often couched in notions of authenticity. By this logic, changing the race of a comic book character invalidates their authenticity.

This argument is steeped in notions of white supremacy. This is especially apparent when the authenticity argument is juxtaposed with the ever-changing narratives that constitute comic book continuity. The Batman of 2017 is not the Batman of 1939. The Superman of 2017 is not the superman of 1938. Their characters, powers, and even history have evolved over the decades. This is true for all of the heroes that have lasted since the early half of the 20th century. There is very little that is historically “authentic” about characters that are constantly being reinvented to meet audience demand and continue to tell new stories. The authenticity argument is merely a smokescreen for arguing that comic book characters must conform to white racial expectations. This is a transparently invalid argument in a medium where reinventing is the name of the game and history is rebooted and reimagined every couple of years.

In the minds of comicdom’s largely white audience, non-whiteness needs an explanation. When characters are racebent, critics are quick to decry “political agendas,” they claim that the integrity of the character is being erased. The inclusion of newly imagined black versions of superheroes is labeled as pandering to political correctness. All of this calls into question the idea of authenticity. Are the characters authentic? Are the people who wish to see non-white superheroes authentic fans? Ultimately, why is authenticity in comic books linked to whiteness? Comics luminary and professional curmudgeon, John Byrne, opined on his website:

It is currently a fad in Hollywood — bordering on a fetish, it sometimes seems — to swap out White characters for other races and ethnicities. And I am frankly amazed that the Black community is not outraged by this patronizing modern version of blackface.

Ignoring his ahistorical comparison to blackface and minstrelsy, what Byrne has failed to address is new superheroes don’t sell broadly. The established superheroes are the ones that have cache. Audiences of color have a desire to see themselves represented in the medium. The simplest solution to both of these dilemmas is racebending. Critics like Byrne have made the argument that racebending is akin to erasing the ethnic identity of characters. The counter to that argument is that whiteness for most of these characters are not a part of an ethnic identity; it is merely a default setting.

Accepting this argument necessitates that one accept the just-world hypothesis, the idea the world is just and fair and that everyone is on equal footing, and ignore the context of structural and systemic racism that prohibited creators of color from becoming established in the golden and silver ages of comics. It requires one to ignore the dearth of characters of color and the overwhelming whiteness of superheroes. It requires one to assume a stance of “color-blindness,” where race is not a factor in representation. This “color-blind” world that critics like Byrne appeal to does not exist. Of course if it did exist, it would preempt their rejection of racebending. Racebending of characters would just be another flavor of superhero identity. Miles Morales’ multiethnic Spider-Man is a representation of what the comic book world could be.


Bryan Cooper Owens is an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, CUNY. He is an educator who has split his time between both the museum world and academia. He holds graduate degrees in both African American Studies and African Studies with areas of focus in art history, anthropology, and history. At Queens College he teaches courses in African American history, and African history and culture.  Follow him on Twitter @anansithespider.

How “Black” Is Your Science Fiction?

By I. Augustus Durham 

February 7, 2017


Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko.

Depending on the context of its usage, the Spanish term género is definable as “gender” or “genre.” This conflation suggests that whenever deployed, the contextual gesture is never not haunted by the subtextual one. In this same manner, when one speaks about “race,” one could imagine that for some bodies of color, black ones in particular here, that social construction contrives that “[t]he fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time” (Ecc. 9:11, NLT). While these platitudes may seem trite, they prove that doublespeak is itself paraliterary, à la Samuel R. Delaney, and, as per Alexander G. Weheliye, that the “indispensable contributions to Black studies, literary studies, science fiction, fan fiction, fandom studies, and Afrofuturism” made by Speculative Blackness arrive in the right place at the right time.

In andré m. carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, genre leaves an indelible mark insofar as it “functions as an organizing principle in the field of cultural production . . . not a property intrinsic to a text . . . but a condition and a product of interpretation” (2; 6); in turn, genre elicits performances of/in the social, namely race, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, via Delaney’s notion of the paraliterary (6), carrington deploys a reading of speculative fiction that is assuredly paracanonical. That is, he departs from using “stalwarts of Black science fiction,” such as Delaney and Octavia Butler:

I have selected authors and works that emblematize particular situations in the development of speculative fiction across media. . . . this study compose[s] no discernible canon formation, and I acknowledge that the perspective afforded by this approach is less than global. . . . this book rehearses the kind of interdisciplinary curiosity about Blackness and speculative fiction that I hope to stimulate among specialists in these topics and nonspecialists alike.

The candor of carrington’s admission is provocative: although carrington sets limits on the parameters of what Speculative Blackness theorizes, that liminality allows him to read genre through the raced and gendered epistemologies from which his research emerges—“a distinctly African Americanist and feminist practice of scholarship” (3)—and thus signifies, no different than the aforementioned ecclesiastical rhetoric, that “saints”, literary and otherwise, are not necessarily canonized. That said, under the umbrella of the “Whiteness of science fiction” and the “speculative fiction of Blackness”, vis-à-vis Afrofuturism, surrealism, Otherhood, and haunting (22-8), Speculative Blackness uses racial categorizations as bookends for the synonymy of a genre with different spellings (21-2). This ideation manifests itself in carrington’s chapter formulations.

“Josh Brandon’s Blues: Inventing the Black Fan” charts amateur science fiction publishing in fanzines. carrington opens this first chapter with the historiography of an early twentieth century Harlem science fiction club called the Scienceers started by James Fitzgerald, “a light skinned Negro, about thirty years of age.” Perhaps the “first group in the United States devoted to the discussion of science fiction” (30), this club situates blackness at the origin of sci-fi fandom. Pivoting to Carl Joshua Brandon, or “Josh” as the chapter’s title suggests, carrington constitutes Fitzgerald as a progenitor of Brandon’s “blackness” (41; 65-6), even as we soon learn that “Brandon” is a white Bay Area fan named Terry Carr (33). The archival work encountered in the chapter shows a level of care for the objects of inquiry, even as this recent revelation exhibits what Fred Moten considers “[t]he paraontological distinction between blackness and blacks [that] allows us no longer to be enthralled by the notion that blackness is a property that belongs to blacks.”

In the second and third chapters, “Space Race Woman: Lieutenant Uhura beyond the Bridge” and “The Immortal Storm: Permutations of Race in Marvel Comics,” respectively, carrington highlights constructions of black women in science fiction as both reducible and irreducible to long-held stereotypes regarding race and gender. Employing feminist and black feminist critical apertures, whether Nichelle Nichols’s own theorizations of her groundbreaking character on Star Trek and her work with NASA as a catalyst for Mae Jemison’s own space travel or Storm of the X-Men franchise as a “magical Negro” (94), these chapters are set against the backdrop of the long twentieth century, more specifically the Cold War.

In line with the culture wars that would be given rise in the latter part of that time period, carrington outlines paths of escape from such battlements via chapters four and five. Centering black aesthetics in speculative fiction, “Controversy and Crossover in Milestone Media’s Icon” examines futurity and the urban center as shown in the success of a comic book franchise marketed by a black-owned publishing group, just as “The Golden Ghetto and the Glittering Parentheses: The Once and Future Benjamin Sisko” thinks through the valences of speculative fiction singularly and episodically occupied by Avery Brooks on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In these two moments, on par with Mark Anthony Neal’s reading of Brooks as Hawk and Sisko in Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities , carrington conveys what happens when a fictionalized character has a foot deep in the culture. That is to say, he theorizes what these portrayals betray, albeit positively, about blackness when one “writes” the self into being such that in Icon, Raquel contrives Rocket—the superhero with the interstellar name who will defend the concrete jungle that is Raquel’s home—who is, in fact, Raquel (118-21); or Brooks-cum-Sisko embarks on a voyage back to the future where fictional author Benny Russell, played by Brooks, has visions “Far Beyond the Stars” to conjure that selfsame time traveler (158-63). In the final chapter, “Dreaming in Color: Racial Revisions in Fan Fiction”, transnationalism is the mode through which carrington considers the genre, juxtaposing the Harry Potter series with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as both vehicles utilize characters who are black British women. Tracking fandom in cyberspace, carrington reimagines génerounder the auspice of diaspora.

In this indeterminate season of #alternativefacts, it appears that the admonition to speculate may somehow lessen the burden of the contemporary ubiquity of the fictitious, while also spurring self-generated fact-finding missions. Therefore, if Speculative Blackness interrogates how “black” one’s science fiction is, then perhaps a proper response is to posit what black is and ain’t. Then, with hope, the inquirer may gauge how black speculative fiction can and will be.

**This piece was originally published on NewBlackMan (in Exile) and is reprinted here with permission.


I. Augustus Durham is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in English at Duke University. His work focuses on blackness, melancholy and genius. He is the author of several articles including  “A Loving Reclamation of the Unutterable: Patricia Hill Collins, Hortense J. Spillers, and Nina Simone as Excellent Performers of Nomenclature” in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow him on Twitter @imeanswhatisays.