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.

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).