As comic book writer Ta-Nehisi Coates remarked in 2015, “Race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of [representing] ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy” (7). Coates’s observation foregrounds the ideologies that led to the construction of a racial caste system in Western society, one that established whiteness as the normative and unmarked default with blackness serving as its often deviant obverse (with other racialized groups falling somewhere in between these two poles). Any examination of racial representation in US comics must keep this history in mind, as US culture in general—and comics in particular—continues to be shaped by the racial classifications that support and sustain white supremacy. Further, since the rise of comic books depended on twentieth-century modes of mass production and distribution, racial representation in the medium often served to (re)inscribe and disseminate contemporaneous understandings of racial hierarchy via its display and consumption in the marketplace.
The ideology that produces racial representation in US comics derives in part from the eye-catching illustrative practices that flourished during the post–Civil War period in the nineteenth century—especially during the “circulation war” waged by newspaper magnates Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. During this period, Thomas Nast, the so-called father of the political cartoon in the United States, often aligned civic virtue with racial phenotype to establish a seemingly natural visual order of things, a commonplace understanding of a given racial group’s worthiness for citizenship. This is perhaps clearest in Nast’s December 9, 1876, Harper’s Weekly cover, titled “The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy” (see figure A.4), which featured an illustration of a barefoot Black man wearing a straw hat, flashing a vacuous smile, and sitting in the pan of a balance scale labeled “Black” across from a scowling and simian-visaged man in an Irish country hat, shabby cutaway jacket, and knickers in a scale marked “White.” Nast labeled the arm of the scale supporting the Black figure “South” and the opposite arm “North,” making the implication clear: allowing uneducated Irish immigrants in the North to vote imperiled the social order there in much the same way that enfranchising formerly enslaved men threatened the social hierarchy in the South. This illustration alluded to the still-in-dispute 1876 presidential election and anticipated the infamous Compromise of 1877 that awarded Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency after he promised to withdraw Union soldiers from the South. Black voters provided the margin of victory for Hayes, whom Harper’s supported, but the withdrawal of Northern troops enabled the establishment of Jim Crow by allowing revanchist whites to suppress Black voting rights in the South until the 1950s. Nash reified commonsensical anti-Black stereotypes by drawing an equivalence with a group of supposedly unassimilable immigrants—Irish Catholics—justifying discriminatory practices that would limit each group’s access to political power. (Interestingly, Notre Dame University’s “Fighting Irish” football mascot incorporates the same Irish country hat, cutaway jacket, and knickers that Nast used to denigrate the Irish.)
The illustrative practices of the editorial cartoons fathered by Nast would continue in the popular comic strips and comic books that emerged during the Great Depression, in part due to the exclusion of Black creators from the industry. It’s telling that the most accomplished Black cartoonist during this period, the New Orleans creole George Herriman (a particular favorite of Hearst), passed for white and that his most famous creation, the groundbreaking comic strip Krazy Kat, featured an elaborate and surrealist visual narrative that never explicitly engaged with issues of race. Hal Foster’s Tarzan comic strips—based on the best-selling adventure novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs—offered one of the earliest representations of Africans in a popular newspaper comic strip. But these illustrations included such perfidious stereotypes as an African chieftain clad in a grass skirt and headdress with a bone through his nose. The influence of these images was vast, for, as Frantz Fanon recalled about encountering such images during his youth in Martinique, “in comic books the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary ‘who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes’” ( 1984 146). Fanon’s observation about the illustrations he encountered in the 1930s in a Francophone Caribbean nation demonstrates the ubiquity of these kinds of images in the West and its colonies and supports the revolutionary thinker’s claim that one can only adequately represent people of color by challenging the logics that produce and justify racial hierarchy. Scholars interested in racial representation in comics must attend to these histories when investigating the complexities surrounding the reproductions of hierarchy.
Another way to engage with issues of race in comics—one that involves assessing the US history of empire and immigration—would be to trace the legacies of the so-called yellow peril. From the late 1930s through the end of the Vietnam War, comics offered stereotypical representations of an implacable East Asian threat to the West, exemplified in the ubiquitous figure of Fu Manchu. Often rendered in the court uniform of the Qing dynasty with yellow skin, long pointed nails, slanted eyes with all-white or all-black irises, sharp teeth, and the long mustache that has become affiliated with his name, Fu Manchu represented the inexorable threat of the Orient. Asian American creators such as the Chinese American cartoonist Gene Luen Yang have attempted to complicate this tradition in works such as the Shadow Hero and American Born Chinese, and scholars might place these more modern renditions in conversation with the earlier images in order to trace changes in East Asian representation.
Attitudes toward people of color evolved rapidly during the Cold War period, thanks to the civil rights movement domestically, the decolonial movement in Africa, and the perceived threat of communism spreading throughout Asia and across the globe. Despite this, pejorative illustrative practices proved surprisingly resilient. Thus in the 1960s, a decade marked by sit-ins; the eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr.; the assassinations in Mississippi of Medgar Evers, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and the enactment of several pieces of landmark civil rights legislation, popular illustrators such as Robert Crumb and Will Eisner offered images of Black Americans that trafficked in stereotypes established by Nast and Foster. While neither illustrator evinced the outright hostility toward Black citizenship that informed Nast’s work, their enthusiastic embrace of nostalgic plantation imagery—and how cherished and highly sought after that work remains to this day—demonstrates how the hegemonic logics that govern the illustration of race remain resistant to social change.
In the post–civil rights era, representing race has become simultaneously a question of artistic codes—how to properly depict so-called minorities—and a question of political sensibility as the social valiance of race continued to evolve. Yet even this more tolerant period produces a wide divergence of mimetic practices. Commenting on her own representational practice as an illustrator who works primarily in black and white, Alison Bechdel (1998) noted that she has “never used any kind of shading to differentiate the skin color of my African-American characters…. A lot of white cartoonists… used shading as the only way of indicating that a character was black. They would basically draw a white person, give them curly black hair, and fill in their faces with grey shading. So I tried to convey my characters race by focusing on their features.” While this comment seems to represent both an artistic and a political choice, later in the same passage, Bechdel confesses that she finds the meticulous use of shading employed by other artists “prohibitively labor-intensive,” undermining its salience as an injunction from a celebrated cartoonist about how to “properly” represent racial difference. Indeed, Bechdel notes that Howard Cruse, another queer white cartoonist who works primarily in black and white, “creates an incredibly rich palette of skin tones, shading even his white characters with a delicate cross-hatching. But assuming I could find the extra time… that level of fine detail isn’t consistent with my drawing style” (70). Bechdel’s comments here reveal how progressive-minded artists might arrive at different techniques for depicting race after carefully thinking through how to balance their commitment to accurate and affirming representation with their illustrative style. As Bechdel’s discussion reveals, there’s no single way to present the realities of race in comics.
The post–civil rights period also produced a proliferation of Black characters, particularly at Marvel and DC Comics, the two dominant US-based publishers of the period. Between 1966 and 1974, Marvel Comics introduced the Wakandan ruler Black Panther, the Harlem-based social worker the Falcon, the Kenyan mutant X-Man Storm, and the falsely accused ex-con Luke Cage, four Black superheroes that brought much-needed diversity to the Marvel Universe and remain popular to this day. DC followed suit by introducing a Black member of the Green Lantern Corps named John Stewart, the bioelectric high school teacher Black Lightning, and the technohero Cyborg between 1972 and 1980 in an attempt to match their competition. In more recent years, both Marvel and DC have built on the precedent established by John Stewart by introducing racialized iterations of previously established characters. This “reskinning” has resulted in two African American Iron Men (James Rhodes and Riri Williams), a Chicano Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes), a Pakistani American Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan), a Chinese American Atom (Ryan Choi), an Afro-Latino Spider-Man (Miles Morales), a Lebanese American Green Lantern (Simon Baz), a Korean American Hulk (Amadeus Cho), and a Congolese Batman (David Zavimbe), among many others. This creative direction has been criticized as pandering by those who prefer the original iterations of these characters and as reinscribing the centrality of the white archetypes by those calling for even greater diversity in comics. Less remarked upon is the reality that contemporary comic creators are loath to offer their original intellectual property to Marvel (owned by Disney) or DC (owned by Warner Brothers) in perpetuity and so choose to reinvigorate preexisting characters rather than lose control over their own ideas. The convergence of these issues of marketplace, audience, intellectual property, and race offers rich ground for scholarly inquiry into a creative environment unique to comics published in the United States that remains largely underexamined.
However, while superhero comics have diversified over the last fifty years, comic creators—both those laboring at DC and Marvel and independent writers and cartoonists either self-publishing or working for smaller, more creator-friendly publishers like Image, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and others—remain overwhelmingly white and male. Comparing the winners of the Harvey Awards—the US comic industry’s highest honor—for best writer and best cartoonist (which is to say, the figure that best balances the duties of writer and artist) between 1988 and 2016 with the winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction over the same period provides one important metric to assess inclusion, since college instructors are more likely to include critically acclaimed books on their syllabi: There were fifty-six possible winners of these two Harvey Awards over this twenty-eight year period, which included exactly two creators of color—the cartoonist brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, creators of the celebrated Love and Rockets series. Over the same period, there were twenty-eight possible winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, a group that included seven different authors of color, among them Toni Morrison, Jhumpa Lahiri, Junot Diaz, and Viet Thanh Nguyen. Indeed, the most prominent contemporary writers of color working in mainstream comics today, such as Coates, Eve Ewing, Nnedi Okorafor, Marjorie Liu, and Saladin Ahmed, established themselves as writers in other fields before being invited to write comics, while independent creators such as Ron Wimberly, Jeremy Love, Jerry Craft, and Kyle Baker fail to attract the critical attention reserved for their peers.
Comics scholarship has to this point been dominated by a diacritic formalism that directs undue attention to the logics that inform the marks on the page while granting less attention to the politics of what is represented there. The work of W. T. J. Mitchell on the image offers one way to engage both. In Picture Theory, he calls for the modern interlocutor to partake in
a postlinguistic, postsemiotic rediscovery of the picture as a complex interplay between visuality, apparatus, institutions, discourse, bodies, and figurality. It is the realization that spectatorship (the look, the gaze, the glance, the practices of observation, surveillance, and visual pleasure) may be as deep a problem as various forms of reading (decipherment, decoding, interpretation, etc.) and that visual experience or “visual literacy” might not be fully explicable on the model of textuality. Most important, it is the realization that while the problem of pictorial representation has always been with us, it presses inescapably now, and with unprecedented force, on every level of culture, from the most refined philosophical speculations to the most vulgar productions of the mass media. (1995, 16)
While there are numerous studies of visuality and the institutions that make comics publishing possible, the investigation of race in comics demands more attention be paid to both the discourse and the bodies—the persons represented within the images as well as the ways that an audience might receive those images. The bodies represented in comics shape meaning in important ways, and scholars of the medium must not avoid this reality in a misbegotten attempt to avoid producing readings that some may find controversial. A fearless engagement with the various permutations of race in comics will enrich our understanding of the multivalent ways that images implicate us in their address even as they circulate as material and digital images.