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?
Originally posted at The Hooded Utilitarian.
In the comics memoir, Sentences: The Life of M.F. Grimm, Percy Carey tells of his experiences growing up in New York, finding success as an emcee in the early 90s, and getting caught up in the drug trade and gang shootings that would eventually leave him paralyzed from the waist down. Artist Ron Wimberly sketches Carey on the graphic novel’s cover in a wheelchair as he is now, rather than surrounded by fans or performing on the stage he once shared with names like Snoop Dogg and Tupac. The choice is fitting, given Carey’s interest in conveying the social and economic realities of his life behind these scenes and after spending time in prison.
But in the epilogue subtitled “Standing Ovation,” Carey grasps the wheelchair’s arms and pushes himself up. A microphone dangles in the air above him. With his arms stretched out, chin raised, he steps forward and says: “Damn! Feels good to do that! Fuck it, I figure if I can’t do it in real life…yet…might as well do it in my book!”
When we are asked to consider what makes comics unique, I think that our conversation should include scenes like this one. We know that the distinguishing features of comics can extend beyond formal elements to include stylistic practices that develop and advance whenever a sequence of words and pictures tell a story. In this case, Sentences provides an opportunity to talk about what happens when genre conventions refuse to stay put in graphic narratives that are based on actual events.
Originally posted at The Hooded Utilitarian.
When Philadelphia journalist Orrin C. Evans published what would become the first and only issue of All-Negro Comics in 1947, he boasted that the comic book showcased original stories about black life and adventure with African and African American characters in positions of authority, strength, and trendy style. The comic’s commitment to wholesome, affirming images of black people was underscored by the fact that its artists, too, were African American. Evans even included a photograph of himself inside the cover, thereby confirming the extent to which the comic earned the “all” Negro distinction.
By the mid-1950s, readers of black-owned newspapers had become accustomed to seeing the work of black comics creators like Chester Commodore and Jackie Ormes included among the reprints of syndicated comics. When the daily edition of the Chicago Defender failed to include black comic strips, readers wrote to complain:
This question, posed in March 1956, may sound all too familiar. Nevertheless, much has changed since the 1950s. So much so that “African American Comics” could easily constitute a category of its own (and not just as a display during Black History Month). But exactly what kinds of comics would fall under this designation? Would it only include publications that follow the All-Negro Comics model where black writers, artists, and editors can claim “every brush stroke and pen line” of the final product, or should the term be expanded to any comic about African Americans? Should the stories reflect particular ideological investments? Be recognized by a specialized community of readers and critics?
Brannon Costello and I were interviewed about our collection, Comics and the U.S. South, by Dartmouth professor Michael Chaney on his blog. I am a deep admirer of Michael's scholarship on comics and literary studies, as well as his poetry and art. (He does it all!) We really appreciate him taking the time to ask about our book and to give us space to reflect on how we got started studying comics.
Originally posted at The Hooded Utilitarian.
In their essay collection, Thinking about Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, editors Lorraine Daston and Gregg Mitman assert that “humans, past and present, hither and yon, think they know how animals think, and they habitually use animals to help them do their own thinking about themselves.” Prompted by the ubiquitous manifestations of anthropomorphism in the arts and sciences, religion and folklore, advertising, and nature documentary filmmaking, the collection’s introduction charts the various psychological, religious, and ethic orientations toward ascribing human behaviors and characteristics to animals and asks: “Has the animal become, like that of the taxidermist’s craft, little more than a human-sculpted object in which the animal’s glass eye merely reflects our own projections?”
The question provides us with an opportunity to linger on the cat and mouse game at the center of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. We might consider what the comic strip’s premise has inherited from Anansi, Aesop, Brer Rabbit, and other tales of talking animals in its serial run from the First World War to the Second, through Women’s Suffrage, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and the Segregation Era. Or we can reflect on how the strengths and weaknesses of Krazy Kat shape our interpretation of animal characters in the comic art and animation that followed Herriman’s lead. Felix, Mickey, Woody, and Fritz come to mind, but anthropomorphic animals as a trope touch a remarkable number of genres and styles, including titles such as Fables, Mouse Guard, Beasts of Burden, Pride of Bagdad, Bayou, Blacksad, and We3. And of course, given the subject of recent conversations on HU, we might even wonder: if it wasn’t for Krazy Kat, would we even have Art Spiegelman’s Maus?
Originally posted at Pencil Panel Page.
I am looking for more effective ways to talk about color and the strategies that colorists use to convey meaning in comics. I’d be grateful, too, for examples of comics that you feel are particularly striking or innovate in their use of color.
In my comics course this semester, I have found myself alluding more frequently to McCloud’s brief chapter on color in Understanding Comics, but I’d like to build upon these terms and concepts to analyze coloring more convincingly as a signifying tool. The class’s most recent discussion of Jeremy Love’sBayou referred often to how the southern landscapes of the comic were made all the more lush, haunting, and gruesome by Patrick Morgan’s distinctive use of color, a vivid palette that recalls children’s picture books and Disney cartoon animation. Color frames readerly expectations about the content in this example, but the interplay between text and image ultimately enlists these very color choices to critique the aesthetic expression of the southern past as idyllic nostalgia.
Color is particularly useful in exploring how socially constructed ideas about race negotiate the realities of skin color (something I also discuss here in this post’s thought experiment). Another example that I find interesting comes from the 1953 story “In Gratitude” by Al Feldstein and Wally Wood from Shock SuspenStories. In this scene, the parents of a Korean War veteran named Joey visually recount the incidents narrated in their son’s letters from the frontline. Described in the letters are the heroic deeds of a fellow soldier named Hank who ends up giving his life to save Joey.
An archive of my online writing on comics, literature, and culture. (Illustration above by Seth!)