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Review of Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels

By Dominic Davies

Ayaka, Carolene and Ian Hague, eds. Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Since the attacks on the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001 and the declaration of the “War on Terror” that followed, multiculturalism—as a philosophical concept, a set of social policies, and a political ideology pegged historically to the final decades of the twentieth century and geographically to Europe and the U.S.—has been under attack. Leading theorists of multiculturalism, Steven Vortec and Susanne Wessendorf, have described this discursive shift as “a backlash” that, despite originating primarily in Europe, is also on the rise in America (1-31). Now, over a decade after 9/11, one has only to glance at headlines from across the Global North to see a ferocious public and political offensive that, if it doesn’t take “multiculturalism as such” as its self-professed target, certainly lashes out at some of its central philosophical and ideological tenets. British Prime Minister David Cameron is currently engaged in long and fraught negotiations with the European Union, trying to persuade it to reassess its policies on freedom of movement for economic migrants. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, which advocates strict restrictions on immigration and asylum seekers by particularizing, pathologizing, and essentializing whole groups of people (namely, Muslims as terrorists), was leading in six of thirteen regions in the country’s latest municipal elections. They only failed to win any after left supporters voted tactically for other center-right candidates in order to keep them out. And in the same week, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose comments are becoming increasingly verbose, outrageous, and offensive as his campaign continues, demanded “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” (Trump)

Gone, it seems, are the multicultural policies of the late twentieth century that imagined nations comprised of co-existing communities peacefully practicing different cultural and religious behaviors alongside one another. The rise of right-wing nationalist politics that has plagued the Western world in recent years has forced liberals, once the main advocates and primary implementers of multicultural policies, to shift to a discourse of “integration.” Multiculturalism’s gridded frameworks of co-existence, which permitted practices of alternative cultures, have shifted to policies of “integration” and “assimilation” that seek to smooth over and homogenize cultural difference within the terrain of the nation-state. The issue of “representing multiculturalism” is, in any medium, then, clearly one with a timely political and cultural relevance. Arguably, the representation of these issues in a form that is as widely accessible as comics and graphic novels is of especial significance. For these reasons alone, Carolene Ayaka and Ian Hague’s new co-edited collection of essays, Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels, is a welcome addition to both the fields of multicultural and comics studies. Its fifteen chapters explore the numerous ways in which comics have responded to these tensions both historically and in more contemporary contributions, offering a comprehensive overview of the form’s relationship to the topic of multiculturalism.

Representing Multiculturalism is not the first multi-authored study to address this topic, and the collection’s introduction positions itself carefully within the critical trajectories that it is both in dialogue with and also departing from. As Ayaka and Hague note in their introduction, the “most directly related book” is Frederick Luis Aldama’s edited collection, Multicultural Comics from Zap to Blue Beetle, published in 2010 (6-7). They correctly point out the U.S.-centrism of Aldama’s study, a difficulty shared, somewhat surprisingly given the “transnational” claim of its title, by another recent contribution to the field, Transnational Perspectives in Graphic Novels: Comics at the Crossroads, published by Bloomsbury in 2014. Ayaka and Hague have sought to problematize and depart from this geographical bias in their selection, and therefore include only four essays that focus on American comics. However, whilst studies of comics from countries as diverse as South Africa, Israel, France, and Spain are included here, the overarching concept of multiculturalism that frames the collection—if there is one at all—is still rooted in American theorizations of it. This is not explicit, but perhaps this is also because their use of the term “multiculturalism” is never satisfactorily defined at all. Academic books that lay claim to terms as broad and unruly as “multiculturalism,” and, for that matter, “representation,” in their titles, might be expected to do the important work of specifying exactly how those terms are employed in their introductions. Ayaka and Hague, however, resort to a list of other terms to explain their topic, each of which is equally complex: “Coexistence, interaction, integration, intersectionality, negotiation, power” (1). Though comprehensively situating the collection in the critical field of comics studies, the introduction fails to cite any major social science or cultural studies of “multiculturalism,” instead leaving each individual essay to position itself (or not, as the case may be) in relation to the concept. Mel Gibson’s essay on Bryan Talbot’s Grandville trilogy, for example, cites British critic Stuart Hall, arguably one of the most important theorists of multiculturalism, along with comments from sociologist Ali Rattansi, author of Oxford University Press’s Multiculturalism: A Very Short Introduction, whose work also draws on predominantly British case studies (84). Meanwhile, the contribution from Jacob Birken spends more time grappling with the definition of multiculturalism than it does with comics, offering perhaps the most satisfactory explanation in the entire book:

In general, “multiculturalism” describes the situation of different cultures being practiced within a single society, or by the totality of a nation’s state’s citizens, of people performing different aesthetic practices, following different values or using different means of communication, but sharing the same sites and institutions. (146)

That this lucid sentence doesn’t appear until well past the collection’s midway point is a shame. Because the term is applied in less specific and divergent ways throughout, the potential synergies between the essays are often lost to a disjointed and ambiguous application of what is supposed to be the volume’s organizing concept.

Representation, specifically as it is practiced by comics, is more adequately defined in the introduction. Perhaps Ayaka and Hague’s most important contribution is the bold assertion that “comics is an inherently multicultural form, given that the modes of representation that it has available to it implicate both cultures of images and cultures of words, along with other modes of expression that are more or less culturally specific” (3). The notion that comics as a form is somehow especially suited to representing the cultural politics of multiculturalism builds on Derek Parker Royal’s assertion, made five years earlier in his “Foreword” to Multicultural Comics, that “given its reliance on symbols and iconography, comic art [transcends] many of the national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries imposed by other media, giving it a reach that is as democratic as it is immediate” (x). Ayaka and Hague nuance this argument to focus on the “nature and negotiation of boundaries” that is so central to notions of multiculturalism, with its emphasis not on the transgression or eradication of boundaries (that might be identified by intercultural or integrationist social policies), but rather on separate, co-existing spaces of different kinds of cultural practice (8). Most fruitfully, the editors implicitly connect this conceptual framework to the borders, frames, and gutters from which the comics form is constituted. The connections between the sociocultural world comics represent and the literal framework of the page is worked out through their engagement with the term “representation,” as they reiterate the necessity to take account of how these comics are “shown and/or produced”: “what is depicted (and what is understood from these depictions) is determined by both the way in which they are physically produced and the social and cultural contexts that produce them” (2, 11).

Nevertheless, despite the admirable qualities of this project and the perhaps idealistic but legitimate politics of the argument, the following chapters work to complicate, if not on occasion to disavow, the titular project: Representing Multiculturalism. Several of the chapters that focus on the form’s generic and historical legacies are in fact concerned not with the representation of multiculturalism in comics, but rather with the tradition’s tendency to produce and reproduce damaging racial stereotypes. For example, Corey K. Creekmur examines Robert Crumb’s Underground Comix to highlight “the movement’s blind spots or missteps” around race (20). Meanwhile, Ian Horton draws on Edward Said’s Orientalism to show how “colonialist values” were “still evident in traditional British boys’ adventure comic books right up to the 1990s, long after the collapse of empire” (130). Finally, Maria-Sabina Draga Alexandru returns to multiculturalist Steven Vertovec and postcolonialist Graham Huggan in her attempt to nuance the now common assumption that Hergé’s Tintin comics reproduce offensively racist imagery (163-176). These chapters document the way in which comics produce damaging stereotypes that exacerbate animosities and inequalities between different racial, ethnic, and cultural groups located within the borders of various global, national, or social spaces. Comics are as complicit with inter-cultural conflict as they are with multicultural harmony, it seems, and these essays productively complicate the collection’s overarching argument.

This being said, it is still the ambiguous application of the term “multiculturalism,” which is generally taken to signify anything that is non-white (be it the comic’s content, author, geographical location of production or consumption—and any one or more of these) that is the collection’s greatest flaw. The project is undoubtedly an admirable one and, as the political contexts mentioned at the beginning of this review should imply, also incredibly important. However, it overlooks the power politics of its own position in the critical field, and its own role as an enunciation into the discursive space of comics criticism. Jenny E. Robb and Rebecca Wanzo, in their 2010 essay “Finding Archives/Making Archives: Observations on Conducting Multicultural Comics Research,” pointed out that “[g]iven the relative youth of the field, shaping canons, and more importantly archives, is an enterprise in which everyone doing or facilitating research in the field can participate” (Aldama 203). In this respect they are undoubtedly correct, and Ayaka and Hague’s collection is certainly going to be not only a landmark text in the field of “multicultural comics” studies, but is also going to contribute, through its selection of texts and its engagement with its material, to the formation of the canon that is already coming into being. Robb and Wanzo continue:

Would we define a “multicultural” canon as U.S.-based, since the multiculturalist enterprise has a particular genealogy as a U.S. theory emphasizing a diversity of voices, largely racial and ethnic, in the construction of a pluralist national identity? Does the canon include the representation of racial and ethnic minorities, texts produced by racial and ethnic minorities, or both? […] To truly understand this canon, should we include racist representations, as they so often—given the referential nature of comics—haunt the storytelling of those who are trying to challenge that visual history? (202-203)

Whilst Ayaka and Hague’s answer to Robb and Wanzo’s first question is, as already noted, a tentative “no” (tentative because, after all, a third of the essays in their volume are still U.S.-based), their responses to all the following questions are a resounding “yes.” Ayaka and Hague’s text implies that, basically, the criteria for including a text in the field of “multicultural comics” is that it deals with race in some way: it doesn’t need to be politically progressive; it doesn’t need to advocate cultural and social integration or co-existence; it doesn’t even need to actually depict race issues at all, but simply be authored by an artist belonging to a minority ethnic group. If we invert the criteria listed here, then a real problem begins to emerge: what is in fact meant by “multicultural comics” is not a comic that somehow deals with “multiculturalism,” but any comic that deals with anything other than the lives of white Anglo-Americans, and is produced and consumed by anyone who is not white Anglo-American.

First of all, it seems doubtful that such comics exists at all—as Representing Multiculturalism testifies, racial and multicultural issues are folded into every facet of today’s globalizing cultures and societies, and as products and depictions of these, comics are no exception. Almost all comics can, and should, be read as dealing with these issues in some way. But the political problem implicit in the formation of a canon of “multicultural comics” is that it presumes a normative “whiteness” that is somehow de-racialized; it maintains the idea that a comic that doesn’t depict, isn’t written by, or isn’t read by a non-white group is somehow not dealing with race. Surely the opposite is the case: in today’s fraught multicultural societies, which are marked by rising racisms, nationalisms, and fundamentalisms, comics that fail to depict these realities are in fact more complicit with the perpetuation of an ideology that drives various kinds of informal and institutionalized discriminatory policies and practices.

The point here is not to dismiss the huge body of critical work that has gone into the reassessment of twentieth-century comics and the documentation of new twenty-first century ones, much of which, including the essays in Ayaka and Hague’s new volume, is both productive and essential. Rather, it is to assert that in a world in which a Republican presidential candidate can claim that Muslims were “dancing on the streets of Manhattan” when they saw the 9/11 attacks taking place (and thereby dismiss the fact that the label “Americans” includes millions of American Muslims), the implicit distinction in the project between an unacknowledged normative “white” comics canon, and everything else as a non-white, “multicultural” one, is a very dangerous line to draw. Furthermore, whilst the collection claims a global perspective, some of the essays overlook discriminatory geopolitical realities that might in fact be intensified by certain multicultural interactions. The case in point here is Lily Glasner’s essay, “Embracing Childish Perspective: Rutu Modan’s A Royal Banquet with the Queen,” which argues that Modan’s comic “uses the cultural differences between the traditional English decorum, which maintains certain codes of dress and manners, and the Israeli nonformal attitude, in order to advocate a new path in which mutual respect leads to a genuine dialogue and to a mutual transference of values between the two groups” (188-189). Whilst this assertion is undoubtedly correct, it overlooks the fact that the resulting “dialogue” between Israel and Britain that Modan’s comic facilitates might be complicit with Israel’s ongoing colonialization of the West Bank and its discriminatory policies towards Palestinians, which are deeply antagonistic to the notion of multiculturalism. The multicultural relationship documented here in fact works to legitimize the Israeli state in the eyes of the British one, and thereby in turn legitimizing what many commentators view as Israel’s actively anti-multicultural policies.

It might therefore be useful, in conclusion, to point to another volume of comics criticism, which also appeared this year, that confronts this problem head on. Binita Mehta and Pia Mukherji’s edited collection, Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities, also published by Routledge, positions many of the sub-topics listed by Ayaka and Hague as “multicultural” beneath the alternative title of “postcolonial,” and justifies this reclassification with a politically necessary caveat:

The distinct agendas in Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities may be introduced by looking to the useful notion of “canonicity” to help place and then differentiate the present project in relation to an established body of contemporary comics criticism and texts that reference Western (post)imperial and mainstream cultures and concerns. […] an overview of the field must bring to our notice that the “comics exceptionalism” of current scholarship in such Anglo-American or European traditions misses how contemporary “ninth art” production in global contexts records historical critique, political action, or emergent transnational narratives of trauma, gender, protest, and global exchange. (4-5)

Directly addressing the issue of canon formation, Mehta and Mukherji here warn against the way in which a normative whiteness might be implicitly inscribed into the selection of texts and works that, because of the critical attention they receive, will come to be more widely read and will form the backbone of university syllabi in the U.S. and beyond. This process surely perpetuates an ideology that arranges the world into reductive and divisive categories of “white” and “non-white”—hardly multiculturalism’s stated goal. The recent rise of criticism that addresses itself to the emergence of more culturally and geographically diverse comics production is to be celebrated, but to neglect the implicit politics of such a project is a mistake: the emerging field of multicultural comics needs to talk to the field of postcolonial comics, and both need to remain self-reflexive and aware of the work they are doing as they go forward. Ayaka and Hague’s Representing Multiculturalism in Comics and Graphic Novels is just one important step forward in this process, and, given the abundance of this year’s critical offerings, we must look forward to the directions in which these adept scholars will continue to move in the future.

Works Cited

Aldama, Frederick Luis, ed. Multicultural Comics from Zap to Blue Beetle. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

“Donald J. Trump Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration.”

Mehta, Binita and Mukherji, Pia, eds. Postcolonial Comics: Texts, Events, Identities. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

Parker Royal, Derek. Foreword to Aldama, Frederick Luis, ed. Multicultural Comics from Zap to Blue Beetle. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.

Vertovec, Steven, and Wessendorf, Susanne, eds. The Multiculturalism Backlash: European Discourses, Policies and Practices. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

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