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Review of Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation

By Francesca Lyn

Howard, Sheena C., and Ronald L. Jackson, eds. Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Edited by Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation is an ambitious work that covers a wide range of critical perspectives on the diverse comic contributions of Black comics creators. The 2014 Eisner award-winner for Best Academic/Scholarly Work, Black Comics is an impressive volume that represents a major accomplishment of comics scholarship. This collection of essays examines the ways in which Black comics creators have depicted the experience of being Black in different media, including comic strips, political cartoons, manga, and graphic novels. The anthology emphasizes that Black comics creators have always been vital to the American comics tradition.

Many books on the history of American comics fail to mention the significant contributions of Black writers and artists. As a result, the work of many of these creators has not had as much critical attention or scholarship devoted to it until fairly recently. Written by Howard and Jackson, the introduction of Black Comics gives a very brief history of Black cartoonists in the American comics tradition and stresses how important imagination and escapism can be. Comics have limitless potential in the kinds of characters or narratives that can be portrayed on the page. Not only does Black Comics chronicle the development of works created by Black comic creators, it explores the political, social, and larger cultural implications of these comics.

This remarkably well-structured collection of essays is divided into three sections. The first section, “Comics then and now” explores critical commentary surrounding Black comics through comparisons of past and present examples of the art form. Part two focuses on intersecting representations of race and gender in comics. The third section examines comics as political commentary. The essays are organized thematically. For instance, the final essay in the second section, “From Sexual Siren to Race Traitor: Condoleezza Rice in Political Cartoons” provides a good transition to the final section on comics and political commentary.

One of the most impressive sections of Black Comics is on Black newspaper comics. Sheena C. Howard’s “Brief history of the black comic strip: Past and present” provides a useful, condensed overview of these works from the 1920s onward and situates them within American comics history. This essay also serves as a great introduction to the various challenges Black comics creators have faced over time. One of the strongest chapters is Angela M. Nelson’s “Studying Black Comic Strips: Popular Art and Discourses of Race.” Nelson identifies two strategies for analyzing Black comic strips: (1) as artifacts of Black popular culture (2) as examples of American racial discourses, and proceeds to investigate Black comic strips such as Jackie Ormes’s Torchy Brown using these approaches. This chapter is particularly useful for pop culture scholars who may have limited experience with studying comic strips, as well as comic scholars who are interested in delving into issues of race and representation.

Nancy Goldstein’s “The Trouble with Romance in Jackie Ormes’s Comics” examines the work of the first black female newspaper cartoonist and argues that the depiction of romantic relationships within Ormes’s comics should be considered revolutionary for the time period. Goldstein also highlights the difficulty of studying many Black newspaper comics. Until fairly recently Black newspapers were often overlooked by comics historians. Viewing these comics today can be challenging due to difficulties finding full runs of the strips, as well as the deterioration of microfilm. The next chapter, Tia C. M. Tyree’s “Contemporary Representations of Black Females in Newspaper Comic Strips” provides a textual analysis of how Black women have been represented in more recent newspaper comics. This essay transitions nicely from the chapter on Ormes by continuing the discussion on the stereotyping of Black women.

Another essay, Derek Lackaff and Michael Sale’s “Black Comics and Social Media Economics: New Media, New Production Models,” discusses how Black cartoonists are using online platforms and social media. Since cartoonists are increasingly using online platforms to promote and disseminate their work it is important that works of comics scholarship address this topic. However, the discussion on how social media is changing the publishing culture of comics is limited in scope within this anthology. Since crowd sourced funding platforms are becoming viable options for many comics creators, this is an area that comics scholarship cannot afford to ignore.

Other essays investigate how Black superheroes are represented within comics. In “Panthers and Vixens: Black Superheroines, Sexuality, and Stereotypes in Contemporary Comic Books,” Jeffrey A. Brown analyzes how black female superheroes in mainstream comics have been depicted according to racial and sexual stereotypes. Brown states that most black female superheroes have been represented as primal and hyper-sexualized. In “Will the ‘Real’ Black Superhero Please Stand Up?!”: A Critical Analysis of the Mythological and Cultural Significance of Black Superheroes,” Kenneth Ghee analyzes the cultural significance of mainstream black superheroes. Ghee argues that many black superheroes have what he refers to as a “black superhero identity complex” where the hero is purported to be saving America while also upholding the current dominant ideology of white supremacy.

While some of the comics mentioned in Black Comics are available online, the anthology would have been strengthened by including scholarship on web comics or born-digital comics. Additionally, Black Comics would have benefited from more illustrations. Since many of the comics examined are not currently being reprinted it can be difficult to view examples. In particular, it would have been helpful to include images of Smith’s work in Casey Brienza’s “Beyond B&W? The Global Manga of Felipe Smith,” especially since many scholars may be unfamiliar with the distinctive drawing style. In the absence of images, Brienza provides detailed description of the manga’s visuals, often compromising on the actual analysis.

Overall, Black Comics is an extremely well rounded and impressive work of scholarship. Though this book spans a wide breadth of critical perspectives on various Black comic creators, its critical inquiry is focused and sustained. In his afterword, Jeet Heer reiterates that the contributions of Black comics creators have largely been marginalized and that this book makes great strides towards the monumental task of rediscovering and celebrating these creators, while also indicating many areas where further research is needed. Black Comics is as an ambitious, essential text for any comics scholar and should be regarded as a canonical example of American comics scholarship.

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