I was invited to add my essay on "Comics and Emmett Till" to the archives of The Emmett Till Project, a digital platform commemorating the legacy of the murder of Emmett Louis Till by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. You can read a PDF of my essay and listen to a short podcast interview with me and project curator Myriah Towner. (There are a lot of other terrific resources on the site by scholars such as Courtney Baker and poet Akeema Zane.) I'm really honored to add my voice to the public memory surrounding Till's tragic death and I hope my essay can be of some benefit to others.
I've published a short article on Alyssa Cole's historical romance fiction for the online journal, Public Books. The piece focuses mostly on Cole's recent novel, An Extraordinary Union, which I really enjoyed. I had initially planned to discuss her work as part of these two collections: Daughters of a Nation: A Black Suffragette Historical Romance Anthology and The Brightest Day: A Juneteenth Historical Romance Anthology. I often teach the novels of Beverly Jenkins in my course on slavery, literature, and popular culture, so it was thrilling to come across two anthologies with such well-crafted, historically-informed stories within the romance genre. Daughters of a Nation is my favorite of the two and while I'm a big admirer of Cole's style, I was also impressed by Piper Huguley's story called "The Washerwoman's War" (featuring poet Francis Ellen Watkins Harper's daughter as the main character!) along with the contributions by Lena Hart and Kianna Alexander. If you are interested in fiction about black women's history - even if you've never picked up a romance novel - I would strongly encourage you to give Cole's books and these two anthologies a try. Check out my article here!
I'm honored to have been interviewed by Osvaldo Oyola at the comics and culture blog, The Middle Spaces, for his second installment of "The (re)Collection Agency." The feature is described as "informal talks with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices and how that intersects with their work." Osvaldo and I had a terrific conversation about my interest in comics about the South and my historical research on race and early 1950s comic books. Check it out!
Public outrage over the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri continues to amass its own tragic iconography. Handprints transform the so-called universal sign of surrender into a stronghold of dissent: “Hands up, Don’t shoot.” Hashtag memorials shape the interconnectivity of social media into a pictorial chorus of text: #BlackLivesMatter #JusticeforMikeBrown #ShutItDown. I think about my own son at two years old and already curling his brown fingers into Spider-Man web shooters, and vainly I hope that the right counter-visual will fix what’s wrong, or at least begin to impair what Matthew Pratt Guterl, refers to as “the familiar grammar of racial sight, through which a wallet becomes a gun or a Harvard professor becomes a burglar.”
I also had the chance to consider how the call for racial justice registers through image when I toured the exhibit on “The Long March: Civil Rights in Cartoons and Comics” at OSU’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum last month. Among the stately commemoration of landmark firsts – including incredible pages of original art from Pogo, Wee Pals, and Green Lantern/Green Arrow – the corner of the room displaying the editorial cartoons seemed louder and more demanding in their effort to picture the raucous discord of the moment. We can learn a great deal from the way Pittsburgh Courier cartoonist Sam Milai uses the Junior Astronaut Helmet as a visual metonym for the aspirations of a middle-class African American family (below), only months after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon:
In another image, Bill Crawford speaks to fears over militant Black Nationalism in a cartoon that invokes the Ku Klu Klan to set the boundaries of acceptable (and respectable) protest in 1968:
Originally posted as part of the Groensteen and Page Layout Roundtable at Hooded Utilitarian.
The previous contributions to our roundtable have raised important questions about Thierry Groensteen’s approach to page layout in Comics and Narration. While a rich array of images in Adrielle Mitchell’s post encouraged us to consider how frame irregularities produce meaning, Roy Cook set the stage for an important conversation about the values comics readers attribute to different panel arrangements. Roy’s post really got me thinking about the way Groensteen privileges the layout pattern of the “waffle-iron” by identifying stability, simplicity, and transparency as fundamental attributes of the orthogonal shapes. Groensteen further conceptualizes the grid in the narrative rhythm of comics as the “basic beat” against which the visual and verbal elements of comics can improvise.
From this perspective, it’s not difficult to see how one might characterize the grid as “regular” or “neutral” or “invisible,” but I remain troubled by the relative nature of these terms, who defines them and in what context. To complicate the issue, my first instinct was to seek out comics that delight in the wildly experimental layouts that Groensteen might find “more sophisticated (or more hysterical),” but Adrielle’s post provides several excellent examples already. So I thought I would ask instead about comics that use the grid, but in unexpected ways: how do comics adapt the basic panel layout in order to stray from what Roy described as Groensteen’s “waffle-iron way of truth”? When is a grid not just a grid?
I wonder, for example, how a comic like “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” fits into our understanding of frame regularity and rhythm. Though we may be inclined to make assumptions about its uniformity at first glance, R. Crumb has not simply drawn 48 identical copies of the same man in the squares of this four-page comic about the different Harvey Pekars listed in the phonebook.
A few months ago, Sophie Campbell posted an update to her blog about her ongoing comic series, Wet Moon. After reassuring readers that she was making progress on the seventh installment, she shared the news that volume eight will likely be the last. “I’ll be calling it quits after that, at least for a while,” she writes. And though she hints at the possibility of some kind of spin-off, Campbell seems pretty clear about her need for creative breathing room away from Wet Moon, and perhaps even some closure. Her remarks are what prompted my question this week: when and under what circumstances should a comic series end?
Oni Press first began publishing Campbell’s series in 2005, so as she mentions in her post, it’s been nearly a decade since Cleo, Trilby, Audrey, and Mara started their first year at the art school in their hometown of Wet Moon, somewhere in the Deep South. The comic’s young aspiring poets, playwrights, and illustrators are chain-smoking goths and metal heads, young vegan swamp things who hang out in coffee shops and indie video stores between classes. Not surprisingly, a sense of panic, self-questioning, and irrepressible curiosity underscores their transition from high school to college. Even more interesting, though, is how Campbell’s narrative and aesthetic style values intersectionality in ways that the characters themselves are still struggling to appreciate. In the generous curves and angles of their bodies, gender, race, sexuality, ability, and regional identities are alternatively extolled and effaced according to the shifting cultural attitudes and language of youth. Elements of horror and mystery add even more energy to comic’s coming-of-age drama.
How do critiques of identification complicate Western models of empathy? What might empathy look like, and produce, when it doesn’t require identification? What about more difficult cases in which the reader is required to empathize with the oppressor, or with more complicated protagonists? – Megan Boler, “The Risks of Empathy”
I didn’t agree to participate in this roundtable on Octavia Butler because I enjoy her writing, but rather because I don’t. My admiration for her storytelling is nothing short of begrudging; I have to work at it. And I’ve always been careful to attribute my resistance to matters of personal taste. Butler is, after all, a beloved award-winning writer in science fiction, a pioneer who helped open a space for communities of black speculative fiction writers that I adore, including Nnedi Okorafor, N.K. Jemison, Tannarive Due, and Zetta Elliot. So if I find the slug-like aliens in Dawn nauseating or if the pedophilic undertones in Fledgling nearly keep me from finishing the novel, then I assume that’s my problem.
My displeasure doesn’t prevent me from recognizing Butler’s importance in my African American literature courses and I teach her fiction whenever I can, with her 1979 novel Kindred being the most popular. Students are eager to embrace the story’s invitation to see the interconnected perils of slave resistance and survival through Dana’s modern eyes, grateful that the narrative’s historical corrective comes at the comfortable distance of science fiction tropes. The book raises provocative questions for debate, although I admit to being troubled by how often readers come away from Kindred convinced that they now know what it was like to be enslaved. Too often, their experience with the text is cushioned by what Megan Boler characterizes as “passive empathy”: “an untroubled identification that [does] not create estrangement or unfamiliarity. Rather, passive empathy [allows] them familiarity, ‘insight’ and ‘clear imagination’ of historical occurrences – and finally, a cathartic, innocent, and I would argue voyeuristic sense of closure (266).
Much of Butler’s fiction doesn’t work this way, however. Estrangement and unfamiliarity, particularly in relation to ugliness and the repulsiveness of the alien body, are central to her work. And this is what gets me. The non-human creatures she imagines make me cringe and their relationships with humans in her fiction are even harder to stomach. My first reaction to the Tlic race in Butler’s 1984 short story, “Bloodchild,” was disgust, made all the more unnerving because of the great care Butler seemed to take in the description of the strange species; the serpentine movements of their long, segmented bodies resemble giant worms with rows of limbs and insect-like stingers.
My copy of Joel Christian Gill’s new graphic novel arrived in the mail last week shortly after I read Frank Bramlett’s post on the way editorial comics depict Michael Sam, the openly gay, black football player who was recently drafted by the NFL’s St. Louis Rams. Of particular interest to Frank was how few of the comics he found rely on metaphor to convey meaning and instead invoke more literal representations of Sam to comment upon the significance (or insignificance) of his social identity. As the post makes clear, scrutinizing the visual and verbal shorthand that comics use to illustrate abstract ideas like race or sexual orientation can reveal a great deal about how society negotiates changing attitudes, institutions, and avenues of power.
Gill’s collection, Strange Fruit: Uncelebrated Narrative from Black History, provides us with another opportunity to raise questions about the figurative modes of expression that today’s comics creators use to represent race and racism. Readers of the short stories in Strange Fruit quickly learn to appreciate the playful succinctness of Gill’s iconographic language. He knows when to use humor and sight gags to advance the story. (On the experience of enslavement, Henry “Box” Brown remarks: “This stinks.”) But Gill knows when more serious cultural cues are needed too, as in the two-page spread where Brown’s body, shown curled inside a wooden box, silently tumbles from slavery to freedom.
I have been thinking about access in comics studies lately, about the way the availability of resources can be used to steer critical interests in the field. Publishing houses and archivists, collectors and copyright holders, even cultural guardians – there are a lot of people and institutions involved in making decisions about which titles to seek out, preserve, and keep in print. Of course, anyone who works among the ephemera of popular culture faces similar challenges, but my question focuses on the implications for comics scholarship: How does access to materials shape the choices you make about the comics you study, teach, or review?
Last week, I visited the comic book archives at the Library of Congress in DC and at Virginia Commonwealth University’s James Branch Cabell Library in Richmond. Although I arrived with a list of rare comics and fanzines that I wanted to read, the best part of spending time in archives was getting the chance to talk with the reference librarians who maintain the collections and know where to look for hidden gems. Thanks to Cindy Jackson at VCU, I got to turn the pages of The Adventures of Black Eldridge: The Panther, a newly-acquired underground comic produced by Ovid P. Adams in 1970. Megan Halsband at the Library of Congress introduced me to Joel Christian Gill’s recent series of Strange Fruit Comics that uses satire and comics culture to dramatize obscure black historical figures (along with great bonus features like “Lil’ Nino Brown in Slumland”).
Originally posted at Fledgling: Zetta Elliot's Blog.
It is unlikely that anyone who reads comics regularly will be surprised by Zetta Elliott’s answer to the question posed in her January 6, 2014 post, “Do Comics Empower Black Girls?” She’s doubtful, and understandably so, given the hypersexualized objectification of women that dominates superhero comics. Nevertheless, comics can tell deeply rewarding, complex stories about black women that affirm their intelligence, compassion, strength, and beauty on multiple visual and verbal registers. So I come away from the question with a different response, not only as someone who studies race and comics, but also as a black girl who has found much to love in a comic book.
Let’s be clear, though, about the term “comics.” Critics often take issue with the depiction of women in superhero titles produced by Marvel (Disney) or DC Comics (Time Warner), but it’s a mistake to equate the superhero genre and its transmedia properties with the entire comics form. This isn’t to say that mainstream superhero comics completely ignore the lives of women of color or refuse to engage contentious social issues. Storm is one of the most well known heroines of any race to wear a cape and a Wakandan princess has held the title of Black Panther. The new Ms. Marvel is Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American teenager from New Jersey.
Yet one need only look back at Don McGregor’s account of his exchange with Stan Lee over Marvel’s first interracial kiss – or more recently, “Batwomangate” – to get a sense of the effort required to take even small, measured risks in a mainstream superhero comic. But what about fantasy, romance, horror, slice-of-life, and adventure stories? What about small and independent presses or self-published titles? What about comics produced outside the United States?
An archive of my online writing on comics, literature, and culture.
- Race and the Risks of "Kiddie Garbage" Cartooning
- What is an African American Comic?
- Ugliness, Empathy, and Octavia Butler
- How do Comics Visualize Racist Speech?
- Sound and Silence in the Jim Crow South
- Is Comics Reading Immersive or Expansive?
- Blues Comics