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Comics Scholarship Joins Broader Discussions about Popular Culture, Region and Race: Review of Comics and the U.S. South

By Kerry Soper

Costello, Brannon, and Whitted, Qiana J., eds. Comics and the U.S. South, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012. $55.00 hardcover; $55.00 ebook. 304 pp.

In this excellent and wide-ranging survey of recent scholarship on representations of Southern cultural experiences and identities in comics, Costello and Whitted attempt to remedy some of the limited ways that comics scholarship in the past has dealt with issues of region in general, and discussion of the South in particular. For example, the editors point out that because comics mediums have traditionally been produced in, and associated with, urban life, and targeted toward a national audience, the dominant perception has been that Southern themes and subject matter appear only in comics as “folktales and local color peculiarities…” undergirded with “limiting assumptions about the region’s aesthetic complexity, storytelling potential, and modern relevance” (vii). By drawing together articles that deal with a broad range of both traditional and alternative comic texts that challenge that limited perception, the book succeeds in deepening the complexity and expanding the range of current comics scholarship. In addition, the editors effectively engage with lively, broader discussions about popular culture, region, and race going on in other fields by grounding their work in current scholarship about myth-making and identity construction in the South, such as Tara McPherson’s book, Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Gender, and Nostalgia in the Imagined South. And while there are no glaring weaknesses in this project as a whole, some of the individual articles point to a few persisting blind spots in the field of comics studies, or prompt one to consider new directions that comics scholarship could go as it expands its scholarly scope.

The collection is divided into four sections: The South in the National Imagination; Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance; The Horrors of the South; and Revisualizing Stories, Rereading Images. The first section includes treatments of Captain America and a number of comic strips containing Southern characters and themes such as Li’l AbnerSnuffyPogo, and Kudzu. Thomas Inge’s essay on Li’l Abner and Snuffy effectively grounds those texts in a complex history of Appalachian stereotypes in other popular media from the late nineteenth century onward, and Christopher Whitby’s discussion of Kudzu nicely highlights the sophisticated ways that Doug Marlette negotiated his own conflicted Southern identity through his brilliant strip. In terms of theoretical sophistication, and relevance to broader interdisciplinary discussions about race and region, nevertheless, the standout essays in this section are Brian Cremins’s discussion of Walt Kelly’s work, and Brannon Costello’s treatment of Captain America.

Cremins traces Kelly’s use of African American types and tropes through his early comic book work, into his mature comic strip, Pogo. Using Toni Morrison and Scott McCloud as starting points for understanding the construction and social functions of stereotypes, he highlights the complex and sometimes conflicted ways that Kelly employed blackface minstrel tropes and other ideologically weighted themes and images in his strip. By marshaling a variety of biographical data, and effectively considering the interplay of both image and text in Kelly’s work, Cremins illustrates that Pogo (the character) came to embody positive notions of blackness (such as “moral authenticity”), and the strip ultimately appealed to a midcentury notion of the South as a site of national redemption or regeneration. The essay is especially good at acknowledging the multivalent and shifting nature of visual archetypes while still endeavoring to identify the most likely cultural meanings and uses of a comics text.

Costello’s essay focuses on the “Captain America No More” storyline that ran from 1987 to 1989—a run in which the hero is replaced by a “well-intentioned but reactionary and violent southerner, John Walker.” Using Macpherson’s ideas about the South as a site that is both demonized and romanticized (representing for the nation both the “moral other” and the “moral center”), Costello illustrates how this Captain America storyline explored that dichotomy against the conflicted promises of the “New South.” The interpretative flexibility of this essay, as it grounds itself in regional particularities and charts this politically charged (but sometimes confused) revision of the Captain America myth, is an especially good model of comics scholarship that avoids the pitfall of making grand claims about connections between archetypal superheroes and national ideology or character.

The three essays in the second section, “Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance,” deal with comic works that take on serious and often harrowing subject matter: a violent slave rebellion (Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner), midcentury lynchings in the South (Warren Pleece’s Icognegro: A Graphic Mystery), and a first-hand account of the complex racial and sexual politics of the South in the 1960s from the perspective of a gay cartoonist (Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby). Consuela Francis’s essay on Baker’s work operates within some of the same constructs used by Cremins and Costello, reveling in the ambiguities and contradictions of a text that taps into already ideologically loaded types and myths. In particular, it highlights the ways that Baker’s treatment of the Nat Turner story revises the traditional slave narrative by refusing to impose easy moralities on the tale or to shy away from depicting horrific images of violence. Francis could have productively complicated her essay a degree further, nevertheless, by pointing to one unexplored source of the uncomfortably conflicted codings in this text: Baker’s reliance on aesthetic tropes that have more to do with Hollywood filmic techniques than conventions inherent to the comics medium. Indeed, Baker’s visual narrative flow resembles the storyboard for a Hollywood action adventure flick in which disorienting close-ups and jump and flash cuts are used to aestheticize violence and amplify decontextualized and largely visceral reactions to scenes of terror. That cross-fertilization of aesthetic methods (between comics and film) points to a new direction that comics studies in general could emphasize more prominently in coming years: a move away from umbrella “comics” studies (which are already awkward because comics mediums often have very little in common—other than their inclusion of some brand of cartooning), toward interdisciplinary treatments of themes and types across a variety of visual cultural texts from related, cross-fertilizing media (like story-boarding and popular film).

Tim Carron’s essay on the graphic novel Incognegro, like Cremins’s work, is nicely grounded in theories of how stereotypes are aesthetically and ideologically constructed. Moreover, he brings a solid understanding of the interplay of verbal and visual elements in a comic work to illustrate the ways that Warren Pleece pushes and pulls readers’ expectations about cartooning representations to question fundamental notions of race and identity. It is a fascinating illustration of how a cartooning text can destabilize visual types that were largely constructed by cartooning in the first place. Moreover, Carron’s elaborations on Pleece’s subdued and thoughtful methods (taking advantage of the limitations of black and white, and dampening physiognomic markers of ethnic identity, for example), effectively highlight the limitations (or conflicted codings) of Kyle Baker’s visually histrionic work on Nat Turner in the preceding essay.

The third section, “The Horrors of the South,” contains essays on The Swamp Thing (Qiana J. Whitted), Hellboy (Joseph Michael Sommers), and Preacher (Nicholas Labarre). Sommers’s piece is similar to the opening essay by Thomas Inge in that it grounds its discussion effectively in a broader, historical understanding of a particular regional myth and stereotype—in this case, the racially mixed Melungeon people living in remote mountain enclaves along the border between Tennessee and Virginia. Although Sommers’s optimism about the intellectual curiosity or high level of ideological engagement of an everyday comics reader may be slightly misplaced, he convincingly argues that Mike Mignola, the creator of this Hellboy mini-series (Crooked Man) based in that region, taps into, but then moves beyond, those constructed myths and types. Specifically, he shows how Mignola creatively questions those stereotypes by situating them in a “complex narrative of history, myth, and memory and by giving a voice to people long silenced in official histories” (218).

LaBarre’s piece is a theoretically sophisticated discussion of how an Irishman (Garth Ennis) and an Englishman (Steve Dillon) played in postmodern fashion with a variety of established Southern archetypes in Preacher, a dark and fairly nihilistic comic book series that ran from 1995 to 2000. Labarre is especially good at analyzing the interplay between verbal and visual elements in the comic, and acknowledging the cinematic techniques employed by the creators. In his ideological reading he asserts that although these creators ultimately reinforced a number Southern types in this sometimes heavy-handed work, they did succeed in questioning and revising foundational myths and narrative conventions tied to the South by introducing those tropes into another regional frame—the American West. After reading this essay, nevertheless, one is left with the a couple of nagging questions that might be productively answered in additional studies of texts like Preacher: first, are there criteria for judging the relative “alternativness” of comics that engage in stylishly existential poses and creatively mash up traditional texts and types, but do little ultimately to deconstruct the ideological assumptions supporting those conventions? And second, how do European comics creators and readers construct their own identities and national myths in dialogue with American myths and archetypes? (And based on the evidence in Preacher, why might it be more ideologically useful for them to amplify and reinforce those visual and narrative icons rather than question them?)

Whitted’s essay on Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing (1984-1987) is perhaps the best work of scholarship in this entire collection. Theoretically astute and written with great precision and clarity, the essay uses Toni Morrison’s notion of “rememory” to show how Moore’s comic effectively used themes of nature, reciprocity, and memory to introduce readers to complex and morally grounded examinations of slavery and the Southern racial divide. Analyzing fantasy and horror conventions, as well aesthetic devices unique to comics, Whitted engages in close readings of several storylines, moving from an analysis of nuts and bolts elements to larger ideological codings. That grounded and knowledgeable progression could serve as a good model for other comics scholars who have a tendency to bypass the methodical examination of the building blocks of a text in order to jump to meatier speculations about meanings and uses. And Whitted also does a good job of considering the reader’s role in constructing the meaning of these texts; borrowing Hatfield’s notion of “the invocation of learned competencies” in comics readings, she ties her interpretation to the likely assumptions and predictable decodings made by typical comics readers.

The final section, “Revisualizing Stories, Rereading Images,” features two essays: the first on a book of essays by Randall Kenan that address the cultural status of comics (Alison Mandaville’s “A Visitation of Narratives”); and the second on Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge (Anthony Dyer Hoefer’s “A Re-Vision of the Record”). Mandaville’s piece explores both Kenan’s essayistic and prose treatments of how comics helped him as a young man to negotiate his emerging, queer identity. The essay is grounded in a solid understanding of the postmodern cultural shift and there are fascinating passages on how distinctions between high, low, and folk culture played a role in how young people in the South used comics in identity construction through the midcentury.

The concluding essay explores Neufeld’s narratively and visually inventive comic about the aftermath of the Katrina storm disaster in New Orleans. According to Hoefer, Neufeld’s text accomplishes a great deal of cultural work: it challenges the visual record of a highly mediated event, moving between the iconic and general to the unfamiliar and particular; it challenges claims to objective representation of reality/experience of trauma and suffering on this scale; and it encourages the audience to find a deeper understanding of the event by exploring the issues beyond the comic in extratextual materials such as hyperlinks, discussion threads and podcast interviews. That is a tall order for one text to achieve, but Hoefer convincingly proves his point by emphasizing how a student assigned to study this text with some depth (as opposed to a casual comics reader) might come to these sophisticated insights or conclusions. The fact that Neufeld and his publisher market the book as a graphic novel that would work well in a high school or college setting (replete with an online teacher’s guide and other supporting materials for educators) backs up Hoefer’s claims.

In fact, seeing how Neufeld’s supplemental materials effectively orient readers to both aesthetic and ideological issues—giving them the tools to read comics at a deeper level—one wishes that there were similar online tools for framing the other texts highlighted in this collection. Perhaps this is a critical next step for academic treatments of comics in general: finding better ways to bridge the gaps between scholarly work, creators, fan sites, supplemental/contextual materials, classrooms, and the texts themselves. With those types of complex, intertextual exchanges occurring on a regular basis, perhaps the persistence of reductive Southern myths and types (or other regressive treatments of regional themes and identities) will diminish; in addition, the productive deconstruction of those tropes will occur not just in academic collections such as this excellent book, but in a an organic and decentralized fashion on fan sites, classroom discussion boards, and exchanges between academics and creators. And perhaps those exchanges will allow for a new wave of especially complex, Southern-themed comics texts, like A.D. or Incognegro, to emerge.

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