Menu Close

Review of The Blacker the Ink

By Eric Berlatsky

Over the past several years, discussions of racial and/or ethnic diversity in comics have increased by an order of magnitude. Big superhero comics publishers like DC, and especially Marvel, have finally, it seems, come to the realization that superheroes that are other than white and male are not only socially and politically necessary, but are also potentially profitable. Although this is hardly the first time these companies have dipped their corporate toes into more diverse superheroic waters, there is some cause for cautious optimism that superhero comics are likely to continue to become more diverse. Meanwhile, as “graphic novels” have gained in social and aesthetic stature, the comics medium has increasingly become an acceptable mode through which readers and creators can tackle matters of social and political import, including race and race relations, outside of the subgenre of superhero comics. Likewise, of course, comics have slowly become a common subject of academic interest and commentary. Within this confluence of circumstances, the slow trickle of academic books and articles devoted to race and comics is becoming a stream of increasing force. In reference to superhero comics and African-American studies, Jeffrey Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (2000) is perhaps the groundbreaking academic text analyzing race, followed by Adilifu Nama’s excellent Super Black (2011). Sheena Howard and Ronald Jackson’s collection, Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (2013) touches on black superheroes, but diversifies into other types of comics, including comic strips and graphic novels. Even more recently, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime (2015) focuses on representation of black women in comics and related forms.

To these volumes (and others), Frances Gateward and John Jennings’ The Blacker the Ink is a valuable addition, one that both builds on previously examined texts and characters and opens the conversation about others. While discussions of Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Jackie Ormes, Nat Turner, and The Boondocks have become somewhat de rigeur in discussions of race, blackness, and comics, their importance and canonical status justify continued (and continuing) interrogation and reveal new and productive meanings. In The Blacker the Ink, however, authors also productively examine less frequently analyzed texts like AyaThe Unknown SoldierDaddy Cool, and Stagger Lee, potentially expanding the canon of “black comics” and providing new insights into emergent discussion of blackness and graphic literature. As always, in any edited collection, some of the essays are stronger than others, but, in the aggregate, The Blacker the Ink is an excellent collection that should be read widely by anyone interested in researching, or teaching, race (and particularly blackness) and comics.

The book is divided into four sections: “Black is A Dangerous Color,” “Black in Black-and-White and Color,” “Black Tights,” and “Graphic Blackness.” Of these sections, only two have immediately recognizable coherence. The first, “Black in Black-and-White and Color,” contains two essays that focus on African-American experience in newspaper comics. Nancy Goldstein’s essay, “Fashion in the Funny Papers,” discusses the work of the trailblazing African-American cartoonist Jackie Ormes, and particularly her Torchy Brown strip, which principally ran from the mid-forties to mid-fifties in the Pittsburgh Courier, “one of the largest black weekly newspapers” (96). Goldstein’s essay provides some biographical background on Ormes (not surprising given that Goldstein has written an Ormes biography), some summary of the strips, and much praise of Ormes’ efforts to represent an aspirational and glamorous black middle-class lifestyle, focusing on fashion, social status, and sexuality.

For the uninitiated reader, Goldstein provides a good overview of Ormes’ work and explains why it is so important. As Goldstein emphasizes, it is no small matter that Ormes was a black woman comic strip artist when few existed and that her strip provided a view infrequently seen on the comics pages. The fashionable and glamorous life of Torchy Brown and her supporting cast was an instructive contrast to most strips in the Courier (and even in the broader white-dominated American media), which tended to focus on working class life, often played for laughs. Goldstein focuses on the “lofty status” (101) of Ormes’ characters and suggests that the presentation of African-Americans with such status potentially “‘improv[ed outside] perceptions of the group'” (101) in a claim not dissimilar from those made about television’s The Cosby Show in the 1980s. Likewise, Goldstein praises Ormes’ use of comparatively frank sexuality, noting that “her curvaceous, sexually charged female images…provide ‘a space and a way for “ordinary” African-Americans to view and publicly discuss sexual representations and ideas'” (99). In this context, Goldstein notes that Ormes’ work “follows in the lineage of the great pinup art of the era” (107). In all of this, Goldstein’s essay serves as a good introduction to Ormes’ work, but it is less than fully theorized and seems reluctant to ever be critical of that work. Nowhere does Goldstein suggest that, for instance, images of (hyper-)sexualized black women potentially collaborate with longstanding stereotypes of black femininity. Nor is there a sense that the “great pinup art of the era” (mostly created by and consumed by men) might be read, in the context of the male gaze, as less than “great” from a social, political, or ideological point of view. Even the contention that the presentation of a middle-class lifestyle that is somehow removed from the political/social difficulties and realities of African-American life during the period (including Jim Crow) might be read as problematic in some regard. None of this is to say that Goldstein must hold my own concerns about this material, but some acknowledgment that Ormes’ comics (like virtually any text) has both strengths and weaknesses, both positive impacts and troubling aspects, would be appreciated.

Thankfully, this is rarely a problem elsewhere in the book, as Goldstein’s essay is the outlier in regard to theoretical sophistication and critical acumen. In the same section, Robin Means Coleman and William Lafi Youmans’ essay on The Boondocks productively explores the ways in which the popular strip’s protagonist, Huey, partakes of the discourse of black nationalism that historically precedes his own existence. In doing so, the strip’s creator, Aaron McGruder, is able to critique both a “Civil Rights Era” quietist/integrationist approach to race relations (represented in the strip by Huey’s grandfather) and a more contemporary “hip hop” ideology, that focuses on materialism and personal aggrandizement (as represented by Huey’s brother Riley). Coleman and Youmans effectively reveal McGruder’s sympathy toward a Black Panther-era nationalist ethos, while still noting the ways in which Huey is presented as an extreme, belated version of such an ideology, and thus is still a source of humor to the reader. Positioning The Boondocks as a conversation/struggle between various eras of African-American resistance to white hegemony sheds light both on the strip itself and on the history of race relations in America, and particularly the conversation within the African-American community about how to most effectively achieve real equality, real freedom, and real justice in a less than accommodating America.

“Black Tights,” the second of the more coherent sections, includes four essays on black superheroes. The sadly recently deceased Conseula Francis begins the section with an excellent reading of the fascinating Truth: Red, White, and Black miniseries, authored by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker. In Truth, the reader learns that the super-soldier serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America was previously tested on African-American soldiers with disastrous results. The series works as an alternate reality account and critique of the real-world Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which African-Americans were tricked into becoming the human test subjects for observing the natural progression of syphilis from 1932 to 1972. As Francis points out, the majority of Truth serves as a devastating critique of those experiments, through the portrayal of sympathetic African-American characters who are either killed by the super-soldier experiments, or devastatingly harmed (and also by linking the United States’ medical experiments to those of the Nazis they are fighting). However, Francis’ own critique of the end of the series is also insightful, as she points out that the choice to include the series in standard Marvel continuity leads the creators to bring Rogers into the story. When it becomes apparent that Rogers was ignorant of the experiments that preceded his own, and that he is therefore “not to blame” for what happened (and in fact, is sympathetic to the sole surviving victim, Isaiah Bradley), the effect is to absolve “America” (as signified by Captain America) of blame for its horrifying, racist medical experiments and thus to soften the critique that the majority of the series’ carries out. Francis’ subtle and even-handed reading of what is one of the best and most controversial Captain America stories is one of the highlights of The Blacker the Ink.

Andre Carrington’s account of Milestone Media’s Icon is also fascinating, as it engages with a storyline in which a teenage African-American girl (and also the superhero Icon’s sidekick in crimefighting), Rocket, becomes pregnant. Carrington traces Icon’s treatment of what is both a “real-life situation” and a stereotypical one, effectively teasing out what was, and is, socially, ideologically, and politically at stake in the depiction of Rocket’s pregnancy, and the fan response to it. In the same section, Reynaldo Anderson provides a window into the little known 1997 superhero comic, Ramzees: Prince of Planet Heru, published by Ghettostone publications. As Anderson notes, Ramzees “attempts to promote African cultural motifs in a postapocalyptic future America,” with varying degrees of success (171). Using Afrofuturist theory, and analyzing Ramzees within the history of that context, Anderson ultimately, and convincingly reveals the text to be less liberatory than it self-consciously intends. Anderson finds Ramzees to ultimately subscribe to hegemonic binary oppositions, to treat men as subjects and women as objects, and to be resolutely heteronormative in orientation. In his reading of Ramzees, Anderson questions the value of the depiction of a supposedly Afrocentric superhero that unquestioningly repeats many of the dominant and problematic tropes of 1990s superhero comics. The final essay in “Black Tights” is Blair Davis’ reading of the visual depiction of black superheroes, particularly their costumes. Davis’ close look at the bare chests of superheroes like Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Cyborg, and Vixen, Cage’s tiara, Lightning’s removable afro, Storm’s radically changing hairstyle, and Cyborg’s mechanized body parts, reveals volumes about the ways in which stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and animality have been encoded in and around the bodies of black superheroes. Though Davis’ treatment of each hero is brief, the essay calls attention to the importance of costumes and the role they play in making what is often troublesome meaning. It also opens the door for more extended readings of superhero costumes, whether in comics or film, or both.

The remaining two sections of the book cover a wide variety of material ranging from more superheroes and comic strips, to canonical graphic novels’ unacknowledged racial significance, to comics adaptation of Blaxploitation novels, to American graphic novels set in Africa, to francophone African graphic novels translated into English. In “Black is a Dangerous Color,” Sally McWilliams examines Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie’s Aya graphic novels about a young woman coming of age in West Africa. McWilliams provides a convincing overview of Aya as a feminist narrative that negotiates the typical binary of “good girls” and “good time girls” in West Africa, and focuses on the ways in which this stereotypical binary is “problematized and displaced” (53) in Aya. Even more interesting, and wide-ranging, is Patrick Walter’s insightful reading of Joshua Dysart’s Vertigo/DC series The Unknown Soldier. As Walter shows, Dysart’s series grapples with the recent postcolonial history of Uganda and the rebel group, The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), in an effort both to condemn the human rights abuses of the LRA upon the Acholi, and to critique the opportunistic attention to Africa paid by celebrity humanitarians like Angelina Jolie. Walter insightfully shows that despite Dysart’s best efforts, he often ends up repeating longstanding stereotypes of Africa, in which Africans are represented simply as a mass of sick, dead, mutilated, and/or victimized bodies, while whites are represented as individuals, each of whose lives matter. Likewise, Walter reveals how Soldier links heteronormative desire to whiteness and coherence, while blackness is linked to queerness and disintegration. While Walter acknowledges several attempts in the comic to transcend or reject discursive constructions of Africa in general, and Uganda in particular, and even occasional moments that gesture to a “radical emancipatory politics” (87), in most ways, Walter convincingly shows that the Unknown Soldier traffics in images of Africa that place black subjects and black bodies on the margins of their own story.

The final section of The Blacker the Ink, “Graphic Blackness,” contains essays on Donald Goines’ comics adaptation of the Blaxploitation novel Daddy Cool, Jeremy Love’s increasingly canonical Bayou, Derek McCullough and Shepherd Hendrix’s Stagger Lee, Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner, and Chris Ware’s well-known Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid On Earth. A final essay discusses several texts, including a return to both Icon and The Boondocks. All of these essays are interesting, informative and provocative despite the lack of a clear thematic unity to the section.

Kinohi Nishikawa’s reading of Don Glut and Alfredo Alcala’s 1984 adaptation of Daddy Cool focuses on the way in which the book both reinforces stereotypes of black masculinity and femininity and occasionally reveals non-stereotypical depths. Qiana Whitted’s discussion of Derek McCulloch and Stephen Hendrix’s Stagger Lee does an excellent job of outlining and explaining the “real history” of “Stack Lee” Shelton, the many versions of that story told and retold in story and song (including its potential origins in West African folklore), and the ways in which the comics adaptation negotiates those various stories and their variable meanings. Whitted shows how the comic draws distinctions between “white” versions of the Stagger Lee folk tale and “black” versions, how the story frequently deploys stereotypical versions of black masculinity, and how a man’s hat (the supposed cause of Stagger Lee’s barroom killing) bears symbolic significance.

Craig Fischer’s reading of Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner focuses on the significance and the purpose of an image in the graphic novel that depicts a stereotypically monstrous, dangerous and/or animalistic black man (named Will) decapitating a “cherubic white child” (255) as part of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Fischer openly wonders about the motivation, the efficacy, and the meaning of such an image and uses a single question (“What does this image mean?” [255]), as a way of exploring the ideological valence of Nat Turner, its historical context, and the career and style of African-American cartoonist, Kyle Baker. Fischer’s multiplication of the contexts in which Nat Turner can be read and (perhaps) understood helps to undercut the notion that the story, if it is to be politically and socially liberating, must somehow avoid depictions like the one of Will described above. Rather, Fischer insists that the purpose of such an image (and others in the book) is to complicate the idea of Turner as hero, without necessarily denying it, and certainly without somehow justifying slavery, something that Nat Turner certainly never does. Fischer argues that Nat Turner goes beyond the “praise/judge valence” (272) and instead enters into the realm of the polysemic, where it spawns meaning, interpretation, and conversation. Following Fischer’s essay, Hershini Bhana Young’s reading of Jeremy Love’s Bayou helps to contextualize that graphic novel within its spatial milieu in what Young calls a “performance geography,” (275) discussing the historical and symbolic significance of the swamp as it relates to the history of U.S. race relations.

One of my favorite essays in the book focuses on Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000). Ware’s formal pyrotechnics are frequently discussed in comics criticism, but as James Ziegler points out, rarely is his engagement with racial issues highlighted, even though it recurs frequently. Ziegler focuses on the storyline in Jimmy Corrigan in which present-day Jimmy is discovered to be of partial relation to a black woman, Amy, adopted by his biological father, James (a man who abandoned Jimmy’s mother before Jimmy ever got to know him). The story of Amy and Jimmy goes back to 1893, and Chicago’s Colombia Exposition (also known as the White City). The Exposition, as Ziegler reminds us, celebrated the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America (a white Eurocentric viewpoint if ever there was one), while denying the display of the accomplishments of African-Americans (and also segregating black people’s access to the displays). During the time of the Exposition, Jimmy’s great-grandfather William both abandons his son and impregnates his African-American servant. Ziegler productively reads Ware’s portrayal of the Exposition and its long familial aftermath as an examination of the history of race relations in Chicago, the history of miscegenation in and around that city, and, via Alan Trachtenberg, the ways in which these two relate to the corporatization of America. Ziegler’s reading of Ware strikingly illustrates the ways in which both comics and criticism can give new insight both to the texts we consume and the world in which we live, in which racism, both personal and structural, continues to impinge on nearly every facet of American life.

The Blacker the Ink is an impressive collection that covers quite a bit of ground. It focuses principally on texts originating in the United States, but it also includes analyses of African graphic novels (and graphic novels about Africa). It covers superhero comics, newspaper comic strips, bandes dessinées, and graphic novels. It deals with depictions of blackness and race relations by both white and black creators. Though the variety of texts approached has the potential to make the collection somewhat diffuse, The Blacker the Ink is effectively held together by its essays’ common interest in the cultural construction of race and the ways in which that plays a significant role in the sociopolitics of race relations. Although a particularly activist agenda is never explicitly articulated by the editors of the book, it is inevitable that any book devoted to the analysis of the depiction and construction of race will enter into the political arena. Pushing its readers to consider the many troublesome and empowering ways in which race gets constructed in comics form invites them (and us) to examine the contexts which yield those representations, both celebrating “progress” and indicating the many ways in which we have a very long way to go. While there are occasional missteps, it is rare to find a collection that has so many valuable and insightful essays. Anyone with an interest in comics and race (or just one of these topics) should take the time to read it.

Related Articles