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:
Several of the comics adapt iconography commonly associated with the racism and state-sanctioned bigotry of the American South. Among these, I appreciated Matt Wuerker’s efforts to complicate the way we think about privilege by replicating the familiar “White” and “Colored” entrances of Jim Crow alongside a new door marked “Blue” with an escalator accessible only to law enforcement.
Particularly problematic, however, are the comics that lean on images of the Ku Klux Klan like a visual crutch to characterize the nature of the treatment Mike Brown and his family have received. What role does region play in such a national epidemic of injustice? When I raised this concern among friends, I was reminded of the Klan’s national reach, especially in Midwest states like Indiana in the earlier 20th century. St. Louis, in particular, seems to defy geographic labels and has been called “the most northern Southern city and the most western Eastern city.” Cartoons such as Milt Priggee’s “Ferguson hood” or Rainer Hachfeld’s “Ferguson 24/11” may therefore have a point in placing the Klan hood over Uncle Sam and Lady Justice to condemn white supremacist rule beyond the Mason-Dixon line. But I don’t think the same can be said for a cartoon like “Southern Justice” by Jeff Danzinger (below). He appears to draw a more direct line between racial violence in the South and the circumstances under which an unarmed black youth could be murdered in 2014 without repercussion. It is perhaps because the Klan iconography is so highly charged that the kind of analogy attempted in Danzinger’s piece (or in Bill Crawford’s earlier cartoon) can be too easily muddled.
So do I.