Abstract

Comics scholars have been talking about Rebecca Wanzo’s latest book, The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging, in the highest of terms ever since its publication. The book has won the Charles Hatfield Book Prize from the Comics Studies Society and the Will Eisner Comic Industry Award for the Best Academic/Scholarly Work. In addition, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies awarded The Content of Our Caricature its Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award. Indeed, this book has already become a cornerstone of Comics Studies in the twenty-first century as it successfully establishes a connection between two areas that have rarely been connected before: cartooning and political belonging. The book is a milestone because it shows that cartoons take part in a visual political discourse by representing the dreams, desires, values, and fears of communities, and Wanzo provides nuanced and captivating readings of how works by African American cartoonists take part in this discourse even if their most obvious and most visible topics are not citizenship and identity. Wanzo investigates how African American citizens are seen and how they represent themselves, and maps out the possibilities of visualizing political agency and self-expression in various ages and genres. As she writes, “comic and cartoon art have traditionally had a very small role in histories of black representation. Ignoring this tradition means neglecting a visual and political grammar of idealized and ugly typologies explicated in American comic and cartoon art” (5).In each chapter, Wanzo shows us how intricately visual representation in comics and cartoons is linked to politics and to the possibilities of citizenship. Regardless of genre or time period, “caricature becomes a language used to demonstrate a citizen’s value” (4). Caricatures express what kind of behavior is expected from good citizens, and particularly, from good Black citizens, and what kind of political agency racialized groups are allowed by the majority. Wanzo’s close readings are sensitive and eye opening, and she also carefully explores the wider cultural and political contexts of the cartoonists she is most interested in.One of the greatest merits of this book—apart from its topic and accessible style—is the wide range of the corpus Wanzo brings forward to prove her point. She provides an amazingly comprehensive picture by analyzing cartoons and illustrations from 1837 to 2015—almost two hundred years of visual culture from before Thomas Nast, to George Herriman, Sam Milai, Tom Floyd, Brumsic Brandon Jr., Jeremy Love, and many more. Her examples come from a wide range of genres and contexts, such as political cartoons (from various periods, naturally), nationally syndicated comic strips, underground comix, graphic novels, graphic biographies, superhero comic books, porn comics, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, illustration, and magazine covers.Instead of working chronologically, the book chapters are organized around questions of representation and politics, resulting in discussing canonical Krazy Kat strips from the beginning of the twentieth century in the same chapter as the provocative Bitch Planet comic book series from 2014–17, for example. This is a brave book that draws a complex picture of African American self-representation and the possibilities of political discourse. Wanzo is strong in establishing connections between seemingly disparate aspects of culture and/or knowledge, which makes the book difficult to put down and her argument well grounded and comprehensive.To show the role of cartoons in the history of citizenship discourse and to demonstrate that the figure of the good citizen is “mobilized in a variety of spaces beyond the ones attached to legal rights” (3), each chapter contains several images, including ones that might be considered offensive. The most important images are reprinted in color, too, allowing the reader to consider the material complexities of visual political discourses.The monograph opens with Kyle Baker’s caricature from July 2, 2007, titled “Happy Independence Day!” The image emphasizes the differences between elegant Thomas Jefferson, sitting in his study among his books and working on the Declaration of Independence, writing “all men were [sic] created equal” and his illegitimate Black child outside the house and behind Jefferson’s back, whose representation evokes the “pickaninny” figure of racist caricatures. The child is saying “Daddy, I’m cold,” and in the background a slave is being whipped. This image and Wanzo’s analysis create a strong statement with which to open the monograph: “Black people are outsiders of the Framer’s frame, literally and figuratively” (1). This visceral caricature has the power to disrupt conventional ways of framing and to redirect attention to “black injury in the nation’s founding” (2). The Content of Our Caricature brings about many similarly provocative images and displays many aspects of ambiguity, potentiality, and provocation in cartoons about political belonging, in order to support Wanzo’s thesis that “caricature’s language—visual and linguistic, excessive and indeterminate, mean and stereotyping—has been an indelible part of how citizenship discourses have circulated” (6).Caricature builds on the excessive representation of real or perceived character traits, and caricatures of Black people reveal the hypervisibility of racism in the history of Black representation. Often, drawing Black people with the excessive features of a non-Black funny character would result in racist stereotypes. Black characters do not occupy the same representational economy (15), and the character of Franklin, the perfect child entering Charles Schulz’s Peanuts in 1968, is a good example of this. In the case of Franklin, the only Black child in the series, the very same flaws that make the other characters funny would only confirm stereotypes about Black failure. Instances when Black characters are part of the same representational economy as other characters can show how difficult it is to overcome existing and often racist tropes, as we can see in the case of superheroes standing for excessive masculinity. Black superheroes like Luke Cage or Black Panther inevitably mobilize caricatures of Black men as figures radically reduced to their strength. As a result, creators of Black superheroes have to perform the double job of challenging the existing racial stereotypes and giving the image new, progressive meanings.At this point, a further issue becomes visible: superheroes fight in international conflicts or they take part in conflicts across multiple universes. However, a Black superhero cannot be what Anthony Appiah calls a “cosmopolitan patriot” (127), as this character almost automatically embodies problems in the United States. A Black superhero represents social critique. Wanzo’s interpretation of Truth: Red, White & Black, a seven-issue Marvel series written by Robert Morales and drawn by Baker (2003), is a fascinating chapter about the possibilities of a Black Captain America, the objecthood of Black superheroes, and the inevitable racial melancholia of these characters. In Morales’s Truth, the US Army develops the serum they would use on Captain America by first testing it on Black soldiers. Whereas Marvel is the most mainstream of the sources Wanzo analyzes in The Content of Our Caricature, this chapter is one of the most personal ones, as she builds on the experience of her own ancestors and includes a photo of her grandfather, who served in the segregated military during World War II. The sensitive reading of Truth reveals that its three Black supersoldiers, who represent revolutionary sentiment, nihilism, and the importance of family respectively, in fact embody three ways to compensate for the racism they had to face in the military and in the world. Whatever they do, they are haunted by “the specter of entitlement to full citizenship” (129), but they cannot have the career of non-Black superheroes: they die or go mad, embodying loss and heroism at the same time. The double identity of superheroes plays out very differently in the world of the Black supersoldiers of Truth.The first chapter of The Content of Our Caricature surveys ways in which artists have approached the possibility of a Black comics aesthetic. Here we see diverse responses to similar problems: during the Civil Rights movement, Milai portrayed the ideal Black citizen in his political cartoons. Having rejected the aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement, Milai contested Black radicalism and Martin Luther King Jr. alike, and attempted to create new Black icons by drawing on traditional gendered iconography. Another response to the question of how to create a Black comics aesthetic is almost antithetical to Milai’s classical lines: post-Black aesthetics and blaxploitation. In the comic book series Bitch Planet (written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, drawn by Valentine De Landro), Wanzo sees an example for comics that reuse and mobilize white fantasies and fears in order to “take pleasure in representing resistance and nonconformity” (57). In Bitch Planet, the source of pleasure is found in non-normative bodies and imagined futures for bodies that have been associated with exploitation and pornography. Each page “resists the idea that the white and male gaze overdetermines possibilities for black women” (59).The figure of the good African American citizen is an issue Wanzo approaches from multiple angles, and one of the most intriguing ones for this reviewer was Wanzo’s analysis of violence and passivity in drawn images of African American subjects. Wanzo contrasts the representation of the violent Black masculine subject in Baker’s Nat Turner (2006) to representations of King and to a visual tradition of drawing the ideal Black citizen as a frozen subject. The expectation of passivity has not changed much since the nineteenth century, and African Americans fighting for their rights have been and are still often drawn as unable to move forward. Nast, for example, drew the “Compromise with the South” (1864) without depicting Black people. Wanzo studies several cartoons that are “illustrative of Nast’s discomfort with seeing African Americans as full citizens,” and Nast is not the only one. Wanzo shows, for example, Josiah Wedgeworth’s abolitionist emblem “Am I Not a Man and a Brother” from 1837, where the Black man is kneeling and pleading. Black people, particularly men, were seldom shown standing up in nineteenth-century white American visual journalism and visual culture; their bent bodies expressed mental and physical subordination and the expectation that African Americans would never quite be ready for freedom. “That African Americans are still bowed down after emancipation in Nast’s imagination is illustrative of the temporal resilience of black subjection as a preferred image of African Americans in the nineteenth century,” Wanzo argues (80). The idea of stagnation and being “frozen as a wounded subject” (82) can be seen in the famous triptych from Harper’s Weekly in 1863 titled “A Typical Negro,” which represents the three-step story of an enslaved person becoming a free person. Yet the composition makes it impossible to progress from step two, which shows a beaten-up figure, whose posture is closed and who is looking backward, to step three, that is, to the image of the free soldier.A hundred years later, representations of King emphasized the stillness and stoicism of his expression. This representation of the face of the Civil Rights movement as expressionless, Wanzo argues, contributed to “a narrative of frozen black activism in general” (97). King stands for “noble stasis” (108); he is remembered as “a King that is frozen in perfection, instead of struggle, depriv[ing] us of a model for the present” (109). As in popular culture, representations of “black citizens and leaders who voice rage, disappointment, and uncertainty” (109) are missing, Wanzo values Baker’s Nat Turner, which draws the violent slave rebellion and the figure of Turner by mobilizing superhero tropes. As Black leaders cannot be angry in pop culture, Wanzo values that now they are. Baker’s representation of anger, fury, and violence, which are considered normal in superheroes but excessive in the case of Black subjects, “makes the character an active body” (87).Child characters also take part in the visual discourse of citizenship, and Wanzo is interested in how representations of children in various genres of visual narratives challenge mainstream, mostly white, visual discourses. Together with the concluding chapter about pornography and racism, the analysis of the representation of children is significant because Wanzo focuses on genres that are at the (semi-)periphery of Comics Studies and Visual Culture Studies. Wanzo starts out by stating, “black children have been a binary other to romanticized depictions of white children” (139), and argues that Black children in comics and cartoons have placed pressure on the idea of innocence, which is associated with the idea of childhood in popular imagination. Graphic narratives featuring Black children do not shy away from showing child poverty, pessimism, vulnerability, and pregnancy, among other topics, and in this way they have challenged the dominant ideological scripts of the child citizen since the Yellow Kid. As Wanzo writes, “Idealized, infantile citizens model the possibilities for the nation, but black infantile citizens illustrate that the future shows no signs of transforming possibilities for the most vulnerable citizens” (154).Wanzo finishes the book with a chapter about what she calls “equal opportunity humor aesthetics” (171). First, Wanzo analyzes the frequently articulated “white masculine ethos” (176) in works by underground comics icon Robert Crumb, whose comics have raised more and more questions recently.1 She compares the racist scripts performed by the (mostly female) characters and the aggressive humor in Crumb’s strips to images of sex and interracial desire in White Whore Funnies by Larry Fuller and Thomas “Raye” Horne (issue #1 in 1975, #2 in 1978, #3 in 1979). Fuller and Horne draw sexually explicit parody comics, provoke, and call attention to racial anxieties in the way white American subjects are constructed, and are aware of the political provocation they cause. They satirize the discourse of the mythical, feared, and desired figure of the Black Rapist (192), for example, and “[b]y integrating black male abjection with white desire, these cartoonists craft black fantastic subjects who can overcome the ways in which white people control racial and sexual narratives” (186). In this way, Wanzo sees a connection between the sexually explicit images of White Whore Funnies and the fantastic, while she also repeatedly acknowledges that these abject and transgressive images can be seen as offensive.The Content of Our Caricature performs the very important work of breaking taboos by clearly pointing out, explaining, and analyzing racial anxieties and biases, layers of desire, value judgments, and political statements in practically the entire history of American comics and cartooning. Often, the images are offensive, and, as Wanzo emphasizes, shying away from them can be as inaccurate a response as explaining these images away from an intellectual distance. Wanzo’s book makes its point very clear and offers an inclusive and comprehensive interpretation of canonical works and pieces by well-known artists as well as of lesser-known or forgotten comics. As such, the book promises to influence future visual theory and comics scholarship. I must also add that, as an Eastern European, I believe that Wanzo’s insight, method, and conclusions can help navigate and reinterpret visual political discourses on race, inclusion, and exclusion in an Eastern European context, as well as in the US context that is her main focus.

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