From General Standards Part C of the 1954 Code of the Comics Magazine Association of America
We know, of course, that the anxieties surrounding the Comics Code Authority’s strict guidelines opened up a space that mid-1960s underground comix would seek to fill. As Leonard Rifas states, “comix artists often tried to outdo each other in violating the hated Code’s restrictions,” deploying irony, satire, and caricature – notably, “extreme racial stereotypes” – to assert their freedom of expression.
In an interview from Ron Mann’s 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential, R. Crumb explains:
We didn’t have anybody standing over us saying, “No, you can’t draw this. You can’t show this, you can’t make fun of Catholics… you can’t make fun of this or that.” We just drew whatever we wanted in the process. Of course we had to break every taboo first and get that over with, you know: drawing racist images, any sexual perversion that came to your mind, making fun of authority figures, all that. We had to get past all that and really get down to business.
Caldwell illustrates how an entrenched politics of racial respectability intersects with ongoing debates within black communities over the social function of art. Comics are derided by the woman in the strip as a frivolous medium through which white cartoonists are afforded the luxury of feelings, but a treacherous, irresponsible choice for a black artist with a greater obligation to his people. This is what is at stake when the chastising voice says, in other words: “No, you can’t draw this.” And yet four panels into exposing what is presumably a private exchange, Gilbert has already claimed his existence as a comic artist during the Black Arts Movement, rebuffing the viewer’s objectifying gaze with a question of his own. Taboo is drawing one’s self into being as an indie black cartoonist.
This is the context that shapes my reading of the comics of Jennifer Cruté. The two collected volumes of her comic strip, Jennifer’s Journal: The Life of a SubUrban Girl, feature autobiographical sketches of her upbringing in New Jersey suburbs as well as her life as a freelance illustrator in New York. With round, expressive black and white cartoon figures, Cruté’s characters appear to come from a charmed world where “ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible.” The wide faces tilt back and break easily into open-mouthed grins and scowls. Her freckled persona wears teddy bear overalls, while an older brother’s Afro parts on the side, Gary Coleman-style. Like the cursive “I” that is dotted with hearts on the title page, the comic adopts a style more closely associated with the playfulness of a schoolgirl’s junior high notebook. The title foregrounds the space of socio-economic privilege and gentrification that her family occupies during the 1980s complete with Cabbage Patch Dolls, family vacations to Disney World, and copies of Ebony and Life side by side on the coffee table.
The first volume’s cover image further aligns Cruté’s work with the confessional mode of popular small press and indie comics; a young African American girl nervously pulls down the pants of a plush toy bunny, while surrounding her are other undressed stuffed animals posed in various sexual positions. The fact that young Jennifer’s inspiration comes from an art history book open to a painting of a nude Adam and Eve speaks to the notion that visual images have the power to confer an uninhibited sense of expressiveness and wicked curiosity. Likewise when her reflections turn to religion and sin, Cruté confesses her nightly struggle to abstain from masturbation. She portrays the temptation as she tries to go to sleep beneath a pictorial thought balloon that recalls the image from the book’s cover, although this time the nude Edenic bodies that entice her to “Come on, Jenn! Touch it!” are created in her own brown-skinned image.
I have tried to be careful not to suggest that black artists and writers are the only ones entitled to complex images of blackness in comics, nor are they the final arbiters of how best to represent and confront racism. As Darryl Ayo points out in his post about Benjamin Marra’s Lincoln Washington: “People are going to do what they’re going to do.” But as Darryl goes on to suggest, there should be a more meaningful, substantive awareness of historical context in our interpretations of comics that explore racial conflict. I believe we should also ask tougher questions about how and why particular notions of absolute freedom are idealized in underground, indie, and small press comics. And why there isn’t more room in these discussions for the “kiddie garbage” of Jennifer Cruté and the other creative risks that black comics creators are taking right now.