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‘BLACK COMICS’: Fresh off milestone Eisner Award, (Howard alumna) scholar goes deep beneath black-and-white of comics page at Fall for the Book [Q&A]


A QUARTER-CENTURY AGO, the late comics creator and pioneering minority-owned-business leader Dwayne McDuffie wrote a mock proposal for a new comic series, “Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers.” The Marvel memo unfurled a string of sharp sardonic points, including the pitch twists that this “new series” would feature skateboard-riding black superheroes with such names as Night Thrasher and Dark Wheelie; they would speak in “bizarre speech patterns” unknown to “any member of any culture on the planet”; and the side characters would include “a smart white friend” and “an attractive, white female friend” to aid them or assuage them when trouble or passions ran high. His brief note concluded with one last parry: “Have I made my point?”

In that lone internal memo from 1989, McDuffie — who wrote for major comics publishers and animated series, and soon after founded minority-owned Milestone Media — touched on long decades’ worth of ills and ignorance in terms of how black comics characters were portrayed on the page, and how black comics creators were treated at the board.

Published scholarship on the history of black comics — a part of popular entertainment that has often mirrored a nation’s larger issues and sins over the past American century — fills far, far too little space on the academic bookshelf. But more recent years have seen attempts to begin to redress this void. A decade ago, for example, Fantagraphics published Fredrik Stromberg’s “Black Images in the Comics,” a “visual history” that trips through a progression from racist caricatures to attempts at inclusion. The book received an Eisner Award nomination.

This summer, at the San Diego Comic-Con ceremony for the Eisners (“the Oscars of comics”), Dr. Sheena C. Howard reportedly became the first African American woman to win the award. Because this time, a highly illuminating work about the history of black comics, and black comics creators, was able to take home the prize, for Best Scholarly/Academic Work.

“Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation” (Bloomsbury), edited by Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II, is an especially essential work because it not only holds a clear and illuminating mirror up to the faces we see on paper, but it also attaches faces and personal back-stories to black writers and artists — pioneers who are all too overlooked, who faced struggles all too forgotten.

In many ways, this book — a collection of critical essays that spans early strips to superheroes, manga to modern comics — was born at Howard University. Dr. Howard did not grow up as an avid comics reader, but as a Howard critical-media student working on her dissertation, she was pulled in by the many social and cultural complexities embedded within the comic-strip version of “The Boondocks,” by Maryland-sprung creator Aaron McGruder. From there, Dr. Howard — now a Philadelphia-based assistant professor in the Communication and Journalism department at New Jersey’s Rider University — launched into a project of sure-footed intellectual rigor and engaging literary vigor.

Still fresh off her Eisner win, Sheena C. Howard will be speaking today at 1:30 p.m. at the Fall for the Book Festival at George Mason University. Comic Riffs caught up with Dr. Howard – who is also the author of “Black Queer Identity Matrix” — to talk about many of the issues raised by “Black Comics”:

MICHAEL CAVNA: So what do you plan to speak about, specifically, at your Fall for the Book event [today], Dr. Howard?

SHEENA HOWARD: I am planning to talk about how I wrote the book, why I wrote the book and the struggles of finding a publisher for the book. I am also going to spend time talking about the independent and collective agency of black artists since the ‘90s in circumventing the gatekeeping of the comics industry through utilizing social media, blogs, the Black Age of Comics convention, etc. I think the tenacity and persistence of black cartoonists is admirable as they continue to create new spaces and show mainstream publishers — despite being told otherwise — that there is a fan base for diversity and inclusion, and that as artists they are here to stay. Black artists are [challenging], and will continue to challenge, the structural constraints of the comics industry.

MC: What do you hope your book might most accomplish, or raise awareness about, or change? What do you hope readers will be most enlightened to learn?

SH: I hope that my book alerts young scholars to the fact that writing a dissertation on comics is a valid and important topic. Specifically for the book “Black Comics,” I want people to read the book and learn about the great black creators and writers that were writing characters during a time in which there was immense racism and hatred towards black people. These writers and creators were as much a part of the civil-rights movement as music artists, preachers and speakers.

MC: Scholarship about comics can sometimes face its own kind of prejudice. Did you find Howard [University] to be highly supportive of your dissertation and comics scholarship? And if so, how?

SH: At the time, within my department, I did not know anyone at Howard that was doing work on comics, with the exception of Dr. Marc Singer. There were not many people I could go to for consultation — specifically about comics — but my dissertation applied Afrocentricity, black rhetoric and “cool pose” in analyzing representations in “Boondocks,” so those were the areas in which professors at Howard could really add to the depth and scope of what I was trying to explore across the strip. Dr. Byerly, in particular — one of my dissertation advisors — alerted me to the gender disturbances in [“Boondocks”], the symbolic annihilation of women.

I will say that writing my dissertation on comics did feel like uncharted territory, though I know there is a growing body of literature on comics scholarship, and I did question what impact my work would have once completed. I am very pleased that the ultimate writing of “Black Comics” has made an impact, and pleased that I could contribute to addressing a void in comics history.

MC: In your research, did you find differing degrees of prejudice and closed doors within different fields of comics and cartooning? For black creators, historically — that you’ve found — have the barriers been significantly different in comic books compared with comic strips, or political cartooning, or graphic narratives or animation? Or has there been a certain uniformity to the prejudice of the past?

SH: I think the struggle with visibility in newspaper comic strips has been a notable historical battle for minority artists, and the most striking to me. Comic strips date back to “The Yellow Kid” in 1895; black comic-strip artists could not publish in mainstream newspapers, so black artists could only publish in black-owned newspapers, which started around the 1920s. Representation across all forms of comics has suffered from stereotypical, damaging and destructive images of women and minorities. When it comes to superheroes, black superheroes are automatically racialized, i.e — the Black Panther, while whiteness is normalized.

The cultural gatekeeping of race and representation can be seen across all forms of comics, whether we are talking about comic strips, comic books or graphic novels. Still today, we see a very small percentage of black writers at DC and Marvel and there is still a problem with diversity as opposed to inclusion. Adding a minority character is “diversity”; however, [integration of] a superhero or character into the plot as more than a sidekick is inclusion.

Graphic novels are the most recent form of comic publishing, and though there are still some of the same elements of cultural gatekeeping, graphic novels are often stocked in libraries and bookstores making the audience a little more broad than just specialty comic-book stores.

MC: The director of the recent “Rise of the Guardians” [Peter Ramsey] told me he was called “the Obama of animation” because he was the first black director of an animated studio feature film, and he was very aware of how he might he viewed, and judged, as a “first” pioneer. Did you find that any past black pioneers in related realms of art — like perhaps Ollie Harrington and Jackie Ormes — felt such larger burdens beyond themselves as “symbols” of potential professional change? Or at the time, did they avoid being symbols for something larger?

SH: I had the opportunity to speak with Barbara Brandon-Croft, the cartoonist who wrote the strip “Where I’m Coming From” and the only black female comic strip artist to ever reach national syndication (Jackie Ormes was restricted to black newspapers during her time, though she was syndicated). “Where I’m Coming From” was a strip that depicted black females, and the artist made it a point to draw just the faces of the characters, because she did not want readers to focus on their bodies. Brandon told me in a phone interview, when I was gathering information for the book, that she knew as long as she was writing her strip, another black female writing black female characters would not be afforded a spot as a syndicated cartoonist on the funny pages in newspapers.

To my knowledge, there has not been another black female cartoonist or female of color that has been nationally syndicated.

MC: Do you think the openness of the Internet, and the ability to try to build your own audience without a gatekeeper, has been a boon to diversity in high-quality comics?

SH: I think the Internet has allowed an alternative mechanism for a variety of artists to get there work out to the public. However, publishing a webcomic will not afford an artist the same level of distribution and impact as publishing with a major publisher such as DC or Marvel. With that, with the Internet, you have high-quality and low-quality comics being published. With things like Amazon’s CreateSpace, essentially anyone with the ability to use Adobe suite can write, draw and publish a comic book. This is great — it gives consumers more options — but that does not replace the fact that major publishing houses have the resources and ability to promote, market and distribute comics on a much more robust level than the artist that has to rely on using the resources such as the Internet.

The Internet did provide black artists with a mechanism for collective agency in challenging and showing the world that there is a need and audience for diverse characters, and as a result diverse artists and writers.

MC: Aaron McGruder told me after he launched “Boondocks” as a TV show that his real goal was never newspaper comic strips — that it was a steppingstone, and that many people he knew his age and younger did not read newspapers. Do you think this shift in readership patterns — and syndicated strips having a less central role in the national conversation in terms of entertainment — has significantly affected black artists even having *interest* in newspaper cartooning?

SH: Yes, at comic conventions today, no one talks much about comic strips or the history of comic strips. No one really even knows a great deal about comic strips, let alone black comic strips. The focus today is superheroes. Now, with [all the hit movies] featuring superheroes, comics are enjoying a larger, more broad audience base.

Most young comic fans today are not even aware that “The Boondocks” started as a comic strip. They are aware, however, of the animated cartoon. It is a shame because the comic strip was so much better as far as wit, relevance, writing and cultural significance, in my opinion.

MC: Like Feiffer in the ’50s, and Garry Trudeau in the ’70s, McGruder emerged in the ’90s with a young man’s bravado and fearlessness in his political passion — not that Aaron isn’t bold now, what with “Black Jesus,” but there’s that twentysomething’s sense of freedom and fresh vision when such an artist first gains a big stage and platform. What was your reaction when you first discovered “Boondocks” the strip? Was it striking, or exhilarating, or troubling — you dissect the strip’s “cool poses” and “playing the dozens” so beautifully in your book — and what was it about Aaron’s creation that most pulled you in?

SH: “The Boondocks” pulled me [in] because of the use of “signifying” — there were so many double meanings to strips and underlying meanings and symbolism across the strip. Its ability to be culturally relevant to the African American community, comment on race relations, challenge the political structure — yet still draw in a variety of readers — is astounding to me. Especially within a medium, that has historically been difficult for black artists — let alone black artists writing black characters – [to survive in].

“The Boondocks” inspired me to look closer into my history, as well as the American political landscape. For example, Huey and Riley went to a school called Edgar Hoover Elementary. Reading the strip where Huey questions why he has to go to this school — as the family stands outside the school building with Hoover’s name displayed in the strip — is SO witty. As a reader, you have to have the historical knowledge of who and what Hoover did as director of the FBI for that strip to even make sense or be funny. One strip, the teacher asks Huey to read a sentence from a history book and Huey begins to read a page from a book about black history [not the page from the required text]; this one strip comments on education, being a minority in a predominantly white school and the disconnect between minority students and the educational system.

Even the names of the characters meant something historical. There is just so much in that strip. So much. My dissertation from Howard University, which focuses on “The Boondocks” comic strip, goes in depth on hundreds of [those] strips.

[THE COMIC RIFFS INTERVIEW: Aaron McGruder on life as a 21st-century satirist]

MC: In Gene Luen Yang’s speech on diversity … last month at the National Book Festival, he spoke about being influenced by the late-great creator Dwayne McDuffie. [One point Yang made was] that though Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were ham-handed in some aspects of how they created the Black Panther — even needing to include the word “black,” which goes back to what you were saying about normalized whiteness in comics like superhero books … — McDuffie as a kid focused on just seeing a character who looked like him, in a comic book, so … there was merit even in the flawed attempt, because it inspired a brilliant creator of color. …

SH: It still troubles me that black superheroes have to be racialized, you know? It’s not the White Captain America – it’s just Captain America. [It’s not] White Wolverine. Normalization of whiteness and othering blackness is interesting — some people want to live in a “colorblind” society, while others want to acknowledge cultural markers in media. Race is so touchy for people due to our history. I really think the Falcon and the way he was represented in the last [“Captain America”] movie is a step in the right direction, but at the same time, writers and creators should not be afraid to incorporate cultural markers while being aware of racialization and stereotyping. It is a fine line. …

I used to watch “The L Word,” a show that was on Showtime about a group of female lesbian friends living in San Francisco. I even wrote a study about the show, in the book “Sexual Minority Research in the New Millennium.” During the early 2000s and still today, there are limited representations of black lesbian women in media. On “The L Word,” there was one black female lesbian character — who was depicted in a stereotypical and disturbing fashion; she lost her job, had no black friends and was an underdeveloped character. However, I still watched and loved the show. My point is that, just because you are being represented in the media, does not mean that you like the representations. But when there are NO other representations of who you are in a medium which you love, you [are] forced to accept what you are seeing. At the end of the day, you want to see someone that looks like you in a comic book or on a show, but that doesn’t mean you like the representation. When there are no other options, you are limited.

Dwayne McDuffie did something, through his talents, about [those] problematic representations he was seeing, but not everyone gets that chance, especially when you consider the cultural gatekeeping involved in breaking through all of those barriers. I was disturbed about the lack of books in American comic history that featured cartoonists of African descent, so I wrote a book to help fill that void. The timing of writing the book won me an Eisner Award — it does not negate the structural constraints of the industry for people of color.

MC: Your book spotlights so many such flawed characters — could you speak to any characters of color that you believe were particularly crucial and essential along the longer historic arc of comics, that you especially found value in, even if their creations were flawed … or tone-deaf?

SH: As Chapter 2 of the book notes: Pre-2000’s, you will be hard-pressed to find the names of Ollie Harrington, Samuel Milai, Jackie Ormes, etc., in any encyclopedias.

I appreciate the strips of Jackie Ormes in the 1950s. … I think “Torchy Brown” dealt with a range of issues, particularly around gender. Dealing with rape in one strip, which was unprecedented at that time, dealing with romance and emotions during a time where the territory and precedents for her work [were] uncharted. I found great value in Captain America: Truth (Red, White and Black), which was an idea inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, in which the serum that made Captain America was lost and they used black troops — many of whom died due to this experiment — in order to re-create the serum.

In “Boondocks,” I found value in Riley, though he was the result of media saturation and hip-hop culture that gave him a less-than-stellar image in the strip. Riley was usually the butt of jokes, therefore McGruder was making a statement that subscribing to stereotypical representations — such as being a thug, a menace or gangsta — is not the best path to take as a black male.

Huey provided a nice contrast to Riley, as he was all about uplifting his community. He was intelligent and witty. Huey and Riley were different sides of the same coin, and that variation of representation in “Boondocks” is what I like to see in media. There are many people who do not agree with me and feel as though the strip was a harmful representation of the black community. Along the lines of gender, I would agree. There was no black female voice in the strip — the kids had no mother, and when moms were mentioned, they were mentioned as a part of a “yo momma” joke. For example, “yo momma so fat, when she jumps up she gets stuck in the air” is one line from a [“Boondocks”] strip I remember reading. …

Boondocks wasn’t perfect — it had its flaws — but it was a cultural icon across the historical arc of comics.

MC: Dwayne McDuffie himself is so fascinating partly because, before he died at just 49, he had created Milestone Media to support minority comics, yet [by many accounts] he was so frustrated on so many fronts with major comics publishers in their hiring of creators of color, and their writing of characters of color. … For black creators, do you believe things are getting any better at DC, Marvel or other major comics publishers? Are barriers being overcome in any real numbers?

SH: As far as behind the scenes, I do not think it is changing. There are a number of minority artists at DC and Marvel. However, when it comes to writers, the numbers are abysmal. Brandon Easton’s [the Watson and Holmes comic book series), documentary “Brave New Souls” notes that there are only 2.3-percent people of color employed as writers between the major comic publishing houses. Comic creators have explained it to me like this: In the NFL, there are a lot of talented minority players, but few get to be quarterbacks.

MC: Related to that and Yang’s belief that creators need to give themselves “permission” to write about characters from cultures or worlds outside their own: Max Brooks told me this year he was concerned that his World War I historical graphic novel “The Harlem Hellfighters” could be rejected by readers on the grounds that he’s a white creator. … Are there any non-black comics creators who you believe write especially great and compelling black characters? And within comic strips, you cite “Doonesbury” as one of the few to feature diverse casts effectively that is not produced by a black creator.

SH: This is a tough question for me, so I will stick to what I know — and that is comic strips — and answer this in general terms. I believe it is always better to have people write their own stories and characters. Not to say that black creators do not write stereotypical, damaging characters — they do and they do often; think: Tyler Perry — but great writers and creators who are black should be writing their own stories as they have lived [experiences and can tell] them the best.

Shonda Rhimes created “Grey’s Anatomy” and has now, upon her success, gone on to created “Scandal” and “How to Get Away With Murder,” both featuring black female leads. White creators simply don’t do things like that because they claim there is no audience for shows with black female leads. Now, there are concerns with the representation of Olivia Pope in “Scandal,” as well, but how many hit shows are there with a black female lead?

“Doonesbury” made a concerted effort [toward] diversity, but at the end of the day, minority characters are done justice by people writing characters that look like them, as you tend to be more sensitive, aware and connected when you are writing from your own lived experiences. This has been proven over and over again.

MC: A number of years back [in 2008], some creators banded together to speak out against what some called the “ghetto-izing” of syndicated strips by minority creators. Part of the statement was that — as had long occurred at comedy clubs — minority creators, be it because of race, ethnicity or gender — were seen as filling a “slot.” [“La Cucaracha” creator Lalo Alcaraz called it “the one-minority rule.”] So the practice among too many newspaper editors, these participating [11] creators said, was that as long as a slot was filled, the editor didn’t fairly consider more creators as long as “a minority was represented.” Could you please speak to striking types of systemic prejudice [within comics industries], overt or subtle, that you found in more recent decades [in your research]? [My former Post Style colleague Teresa Wiltz wrote at the time of the comics-page statement: “In each strip, the artists will portray a white reader grousing about a minority-drawn strip, complaining that it’s a “Boondocks" rip-off and blaming it on “tokenism."]

SH: What you are talking about here is “tokenism” and the idea of “diversity.” Comics reflect real life in so many ways. There is a push for diversity – however, diversity is not inclusion. Adding one minority [character] or writer is a superficial way of increasing diversity. However, minorities are not included in the hiring, decision-making process or depicted as characters that are actually heroes. The most recent “Captain America” movie did a great job with inclusion — the Falcon was not portrayed as a sidekick, but as a hero that was responsible, along with Captain America, for saving the day. Still, across many institutions in America, once an organization has its one or “token” minority, they feel they have diversified and do not, or will not, hire other minorities. These are the subtle instances and examples of the systemic and organizational prejudice that still pervades society, whether its comics or any other form of media.

I hope this concerted effort to diversify continues to result in inclusion of the characters as essential fixtures in the plot. Inclusion means developing minority characters, hiring the best writers to add substance to these characters, using minorities and women to tell their own stories and developing the female and minority characters that are already created, such as Storm, the Falcon, Wonder Woman, etc.

MC: So, what are you working on now?…

SH: I don’t want to give away all of my secrets, but one of the things I am working on now is writing about the impact of comics during the civil-rights movement, and how comics by black artists took a political stance for civil rights during the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. I am going to do this by infusing black liberation rhetoric literature with the content of these comics. I am also working on another book that will hopefully put me in a position to win another Eisner, but I don’t want to give away too much about that at this time. …

MC: As we talk about civil rights, what did you think of Book 1 of Congressman John Lewis’s memoir “March”? Did you find value in it?

SH: I was so excited to see “March: Book One” nominated for an Eisner. It is work like “March” that provides a fun and creative way for a variety of readers to learn history — American history. The life of John Lewis as depicted in “March” is so rich and for me, it made me want to learn more about him, as well as revisit and re-think some of the historical events of the past, such as Emmett Till, segregation and de-segregation. This very sentiment [is] why I loved “Boondocks” so much, as well — it inspired me to dig deeper into history and explore parts of history that are not readily taught in schools.

I would love to see more comics, in general, like this.