Other Comics Studies Events @ MLA 2013 (updated)

Program for the 128th MLA Annual Convention, Boston, 3-6 January 2013

Updated, 26 Dec. 2012: Besides the three panels and the cash bar (!) sponsored by our Discussion Group (i.e. the Comics and Graphic Narratives Group), MLA 2013 in Boston will host several other sessions dedicated or strongly related to comics studies, as well as many individual papers that, as far as we can tell from the program, relate to the field. Though the number of comics-themed events this time around does not quite match the all-time high set by last year, interest in comics at the MLA obviously remains strong—a hopeful sign for the future!

Sadly, the MLA’s searchable online program does not include the search term comics or graphic narratives in its drop-down menus, and, though it is possible to type those words (or any words) into the search field, not every panel or paper related to comics studies is necessarily labeled as such. So, skimming through the entire program remains the surest way to find all the comics-themed events at the convention. We’ve done that—and, in hopes of spreading the word about comics scholarship at MLA, we offer the following two lists.

The first list, Other Comics Studies Panels, consists of entire sessions either clearly devoted to or declaring a substantial interest in graphic narrative. By substantial interest we mean that the session either includes more than one paper definitely focused on comics and/or spotlights “comics” or “graphic narrative” in its title. Some of these panels are special (i.e. ad hoc and independent) sessions, while others are sponsored by standing MLA Divisions or allied organizations.

The second list, Individual Papers on Comics, consists of single papers that appear to focus on comics, cartooning, or visual narrative but within sessions organized around other topics. These we’ve listed by session and paper title, without listing all the other paper topics involved in these sessions.

We hope we haven’t missed any comics studies sessions or papers. If you think we have (or if we’ve misrepresented your work), please drop us a comment here so that we can correct our mistake. Thanks! We hope these lists prove helpful as you plan out your MLA experience.

Other Comics Studies Panels:

90. Paintings and Photographs Remediated in Film, Graphic Narrative, and Newspaper

Thursday, 3 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., Riverway, Sheraton Boston

Program arranged by the International Society for the Study of Narrative and the American Comparative Literature Association

Presiding: Emma Kafalenos, Washington Univ. in St. Louis; Lois Parkinson Zamora, Univ. of Houston

  1. “The Remediation of Painting within Cinematic Narrative Discourse,” David Henry Richter, Queens Coll., City Univ. of New York
  2. “Remediated Photographs and Reconstructed Memories: Personal and Familial Pasts in Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic,” Genie Giaimo, Northeastern Univ.
  3. “Front-Page Ekphrasis,” Lisa Zunshine, Univ. of Kentucky

623. Gender(ed) Performativities in Latin American and Latina/o Graphic Novels

Saturday, 5 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m., Room 205, Hynes Convention Center

Program arranged by the Division on Twentieth-Century Latin American Literature

Presiding: Hilda Chacón, Nazareth Coll. of Rochester

  1. “Unbecoming Cuban American: Representations of Female Subjectivity in Bad Habits: A Love Story, by Cristy Road,” Irune del Rio Gabiola, Butler Univ.
  2. “Ashes and Masks: Gender according to Gilbert Hernandez,” Christopher Pizzino, Univ. of Georgia
  3. “Trans-nepantlista Visual Geographies and the Inked Latina Body: Ana Mendieta’s Graphic Life Writing,” Emma Ruth García, Colby Coll.; Magdalena M. Maiz-Peña, Davidson Coll.

676. Re–Understanding Comics

Sunday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Gardner, Sheraton Boston

A special session

Presiding: Margaret Galvan, Graduate Center, City Univ. of New York

  1. “The Citational Uses and Abuses of Understanding Comics and the Scholarly Futures They Forecast,” Michael Chaney, Dartmouth Coll.
  2. “Living Lines: Comics as a Phenomenological Encounter,” David Bahr, Borough of Manhattan Community Coll., City Univ. of New York
  3. “Drawing on Theory,” Samantha Close, Univ. of Southern California

Responding: Charles Hatfield, California State Univ., Northridge


709. Picturing Photography in Graphic Memoirs

Sunday, 6 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., Berkeley, Sheraton Boston

A special session

Presiding: Courtney Baker, Connecticut Coll.

  1. “The Queer Contest between Modern and Postmodern Modes of Vision in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home,” Robin Bernstein, Harvard Univ.
  2. “Drawn Photographs and the Performance of (Post)Memory in Carol Tyler’s You’ll Never Know,” Mihaela Precup, Univ. of Bucharest
  3. “‘I Saw It’: The Photographic Witness of Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen,” Laura Wexler, Yale Univ.

790. Comics, Moving Images, and Intermedial Criticism

Sunday, 6 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Gardner, Sheraton Boston

Program arranged by the Division on Film

Presiding: Nicholas Sammond, Univ. of Toronto; Paul D. Young, Vanderbilt Univ.

  1. “Autobiographical Constructions: Authorial Absence and Presence in Julie Doucet and Michel Gondry’s My New New York Diary,” Frederik Køhlert, Univ. of Montreal
  2. Avatar: The Last Airbender and Shifting Intermedial Spaces,” Sandra K. Stanley, California State Univ., Northridge
  3. “Spiegelman’s Home Movie: Art at Auschwitz,” Brad Prager, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia

In addition to these panels on comics studies, we’d like to highlight a session on another, possibly related topic chaired by our Comics and Graphic Narratives colleague Hillary Chute:

361. Video Games

Sunday, 6 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Gardner, Sheraton Boston

Program arranged by the Division on Popular Culture

Presiding: Hillary L. Chute, Univ. of Chicago

  1. “Playful Aesthetics,” Mary Flanagan, Dartmouth Coll.
  2. “Losing the Game: Gamification and the Procedural Aesthetics of Systemic Failure,” Patrick Jagoda, Univ. of Chicago
  3. “Acoustemologies of the Closet: The Wizard, the Troll, and the Fortress,” William Cheng, Harvard Univ.

Individual Papers on Comics:

59. Francophonies numérisées / Digital Francophonies

Thursday, 3 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Room 301, Hynes Convention Center

3. “Bandes dessinées téléchargeables: Un nouveau moyen de mesurer la diffusion de la langue française au 21ème siècle,” Henri-Simon Blanc-Hoang, Defense Lang. Inst.

72. Representing Genocide and Civil Conflict in Nonfiction Narrative

Thursday, 3 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., The Fens, Sheraton Boston

4. “Graphic Conflict: War and Genocide in Sequential Art,” Susan Jacobowitz, Queensborough Community Coll., City Univ. of New York

154. Teaching Arab Novels in English

Thursday, 3 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., Room 307, Hynes Convention Center

2. “Intersections of Word and Image: The Lebanese Civil War in Graphic Form,” Carol N. Fadda-Conrey, Syracuse Univ.

178. Larger Than Life: Southern Heroes

Thursday, 3 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m., Beacon F, Sheraton Boston

2. “From the Old South to the New Frontier: Civil Rights, Black Masculinity, and Regional Superheroes in The American Way,” Brannon Costello, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge

220. Image, Voice, Text: Canadian Literature

Friday, 4 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Beacon D, Sheraton Boston

3. “Aboriginal New Media: Alternative Forms of Storytelling,” Sarah Henzi, Univ. of Montreal

Presenter Sarah Henzi, in her comment posted here on Dec. 21st, notes, “I will be discussing the Graphic Novel in the context of Aboriginal/Native Literature.” Thank you, Sarah!

268. Disability Discourses: Bodily Selves and the Embodiment of Deviance

Friday, 4 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Hampton, Sheraton Boston

3. “Drawing Disability in Japanese Manga: Visual Politics, Cultural Attitudes, and Wheelchair Basketball in Inoue Takahiko’s Real,” Andrea Wood, Winona State Univ.

444. The Kafka Factor in Post-Holocaust Film and Literature

Saturday, 5 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Room 313, Hynes Convention Center

This roundtable on “the influence of Kafka’s work on post-1945 literature, graphic art, and film” promises to include discussion of “graphic art by Bechdel, Satrapi, Shaun Tan, and Yang.” The website for the session’s sponsoring organization, the Kafka Society, clarifies, stating that participant Susan Jacobowitz of Queensborough Community College, CUNY (who is also presenting a paper on comics in panel 72, above) will speak on

new aspects of the Kafka factor in five award-winning graphic works that engage with Kafka’s works and transcend disciplinary boundaries. Two of them are films. They explore themes such as Kafka’s criticism of family and society, alienation, persecution, and the grotesque struggle with bureaucracy. Shaun Tan’s “The Arrival” (2006) features frightening and wondrous visuals without text. A. Bechdel’s “Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic” (2006) revolves around a dysfunctional family; G. L. Yang’s “American Born Chinese” (2006) thematizes fitting in and dual identity; M. Satrapi’s “Persepolis” (film 2007) illustrates an exiled Iranian girl’s experiences in Vienna and Paris; A. Folman’s “Waltz with Bashir” (film 2008 and book 2009), explores personal experiences of the Holocaust generation and the filmmaker’s involvement in the Palestinian conflict.

680. Imagining Paradise: Nature, Ecology, and Culture in Kashmiri Literature

Sunday, 6 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m., Room 209, Hynes Convention Center

3. “Kashmir Pending: Kashmiri Militancy, Adolescence, and a Graphic Novel,” Patrick Colm Hogan, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

747. Oscar Wilde in Print and Visual Culture

Sunday, 6 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Jefferson, Sheraton Boston

1. “Late Victorian Publicity: Oscar Wilde from The Artist to Punch,” Loretta A. Clayton, Macon State Coll.

770. New Perspectives on Emotion and Narrative across Media

Sunday, 6 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m., Beacon D, Sheraton Boston

3. “Empathy and Shared Feeling in Visual Narratives,” Jo Kremer, Yale Univ.

MLA 2013—A Cash Bar, Our First Social Event!

Rodolphe Töpffer shows us how to do it!

Session 657. Cash Bar Arranged by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives

Saturday, 5 January, 7:00–8:15 p.m.

Independence West, Sheraton Boston

Please join us for this cash bar and informal get-together!

We are eager to meet with everyone at MLA who is interested in comics studies. Members of our Executive Committee will be on hand to chat about our future plans, ideas for programming and community-building, and the further growth of comics studies both at the MLA and across academia. We invite your input, and hope to connect with you!

For an overview of all MLA 2013 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here.

MLA 2013—New England DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Comics

MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo) 2012 poster, by Ansis Purins

Session 504. New England DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Comics

Saturday, 5 January, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m.

The Fens, Sheraton Boston

Presiding: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

DIY (Do-It-Yourself) comics and “minicomics” are distinct from the more familiar graphic novel in at least two fundamental respects: they are relatively cheap to produce, and they sell for little money or are entirely free. Liberated from the typical economic imperatives of mass appeal and marketability, minicomics have the potential to be more spontaneous, rebellious, personal, and experimental than longer-form graphic novels—and yet they are rarely studied due to their ephemeral nature. With a regional focus befitting our Boston locale, New England DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Comics will address this neglected area in comics studies by taking a closer look at subcultures in New England that create minicomics.

1. “Minicomics and the Graphic Nonnovel”

Isaac Cates, Univ. of Vermont

With focus on the experimental and literary qualities of minicomics by graduates of the Center for Cartoon Studies (White River Junction, VT), this paper will argue that some of the most compelling comics by the next generation of “alternative” cartoonists are minicomics that are never intended to be part of a larger narrative or graphic novel. Stand-alone minicomics are capable of effects parallel to those of the short story, the essay, or the lyric poem rather than the novel; they are also rich with effects distinctive to their own medium and format. But because our critical paradigms and the comics marketplace now focus on long-form narratives, many interesting and adept cartoonists escape notice. Attention to the first cohorts of graduates from the CCS reveals an emphasis on the economy of short fiction and the symbolic or allegorical potential of the fable. Recent graduates are also doing strong work in lyric modes like the diary comic and in the genre of literary adaptation. This paper will consider short literary works by Joseph Lambert, Alexis Frederick-Frost, JP Coovert, Colleen Frakes, Laura Terry, and Jon Chad, all affiliated with the Center for Cartoon Studies.

2. “Comics Culture and Community: Providence”

Martha B. Kuhlman

This paper will explore the art comics subculture of Providence, RI, with particular focus on the profound influence of Fort Thunder, an eclectic and rebellious artists’ collective of the 1990s known for minicomics, performance art, and music. A few of the individuals involved in the original movement (including Brian Chippendale, Brian Ralph, and Mike Taylor) are still producing DIY comics, and they have been joined by a new cohort of artists who are particularly interested in collaboration and community. Independent minicomics projects, Kuhlman will argue, constitute communities of like-minded artists who maintain a vision that transcends typical economic considerations—and represent a continuation of the collaborative spirit of Fort Thunder. For example, the Comics Consortium (funded by a state grant) brings artists into local libraries to work with schoolchildren in order to produce comics, thus challenging the distinction between artist and consumer, author and reader; in the Consortium’s publications, the students’ art is presented right alongside the work of more experienced artists. This paper will also situate minicomics production within the larger context of Providence, a city that deliberately encourages artistic production as central to its civic identity.

3. “‘Like Us Be Free and Bold’: Innovation, Rebellion, and Self-Reliance in Boston Minicomics”

Susan E. Kirtley, Portland State Univ.

This presentation will link Boston’s revolutionary spirit and emphasis on self-reliance to the DIY aesthetic of local cartoonists such as Marissa Falco, Jerel Dye, Liz Prince, Cara Bean, and Jason Viola. These artists speak of and from Boston through the form of comic art, finding camaraderie in organizations such as The Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo and the Boston Comics Roundtable, which support and promote up-and-coming comic artists working in the New England area. Furthermore, these artists embrace the city’s tradition of innovation, utilizing new technologies such as blogs, Tumblr, Twitter, and Etsy to connect with a wider audience, all while staying true to the roots of the minicomics movement: i.e., small batches of individually crafted comics. These minicomic authors connect with Boston’s revolutionary spirit, resisting mainstream comics and crafting tiny masterpieces in hours stolen from corporate jobs and responsibilities. This paper will explore the Bostonian spirit in contemporary minicomics, one that draws on a rich heritage of invention, rebellion, and independence to create uniquely personal, DIY projects.

4. “The Illegitimate Sons of Superman: DIY Publishing and the Rutland Halloween Parade”

Craig Fischer, Appalachian State Univ.

This paper will examine the distinctive subculture of comics and zines linked with the Halloween parade held each year in the town of Rutland, Vermont. Since 1960, Rutland has hosted what city officials claim is one of the longest continuing Halloween parades in the United States. This parade is also unique because of its historically close ties to comics fandom: contemporary DIYers argue that the Rutland parade occupies a seminal place in comics history, a “first” that should be celebrated. Clearly, the parade stimulated a great deal of DIY fan publishing, virtually all of which was resolutely noncritical and focused on DC and Marvel superhero comics. However, no attention has been paid to the parade’s decline, or the ways that dressing up as superheroes may have negatively shaped the public’s perception of comics readers and fandom. Forty years on, similar conditions persist: superheroes still dominate the medium, even while some creators work in different genres to reach a wider audience. This presentation will consider to what degree DIY publishing can isolate, as well as bring together, a discourse community and a medium.


If ‘n Oof, by Brian Chippendale (2010)

For an overview of all MLA 2013 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here.

MLA 2013—Graphic Lives in Wartime

I Saw It (Ore wa Mita, おれは見た) by Keiji Nakazawa, 1982 EduComics edition

Session 303. Graphic Lives in Wartime

Friday, 4 January, 1:45–3:00 p.m.

The Fens, Sheraton Boston

Program jointly arranged by the Division on Autobiography, Biography, and Life Writing and the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Linda Haverty Rugg, UC Berkeley; Joseph (Rusty) Witek, Stetson Univ.

1. “Joe Sacco on Joe Sacco”

Julia Watson, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

Joe Sacco’s graphic memoirs trace a space between documentary journalism and the affective power of eyewitness testimony. They problematize the relationship of history and memory even as they take up unofficial and neglected histories and gloss them via the powerful and moving detail of visual images. While Sacco’s accomplishment as a journalist has been acknowledged, study of his self-presentation reveals both his narrative strategy and the kinds of claims his graphic memoirs make about the relationship of fact to historical truth, past and present moments for historical actors, and the role of the US in world events.

My paper will focus on Sacco’s Footnotes in Gaza (2009), which concerns the massacre of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers in two towns of the Gaza Strip during the Suez crisis of 1956. As the killings were not widely reported, they have not been taken into account as “the seeds of grief and anger that shape present-day events” in the Middle East, particularly among the descendents of resistance fighters. The lengthy narrative moves between the historical past and Sacco’s present-time narration of gathering evidence in 2002-03, and between personal and collective points of view. Sacco details his efforts to interview survivors of the incidents about their memories of a half-century ago and embeds their stories within a frame narrative that observes the encroachment of the impending Iraq war onto the narrating present. He creates a persona for himself: Joe the cartoonist, a naïve and bumbling quester who does research but is not typically depicted as the artistic shaper and evaluator of the narrative. By contrast, the narrating commentary that appears in text boxes over many of the comic’s frames is an authoritative voiceover mediating interpretations to the audience. This contrast between two autobiographical positionalities sheds light not just on the framing of events but also what constitutes evidence in Sacco’s memoir. Sacco’s method of the “footnote” embeds the cartoonist’s point of view in the specifics of historical detail by using them as visual tags.

What consequences may be drawn from Sacco’s work about the way graphic memoir, with its combinations of cartoon and text in various-sized boxes, frames war? Sacco’s focus on finding interviewees to testify to events not recorded in official histories and on documenting their testimonies in four appendices is important journalistic work. But the visual depiction does kinds of affective work, both by representing the particular characteristics of individual witnesses and locales and by presenting scenes of violence and brutality as spectacles that evoke empathy as well as horror. That is, the graphic dimension of Sacco’s work goes far beyond “objective” reportage. Its filtering through the modest persona of the cartoonist and his local-informant collaborators is crucial for engaging the situated testimonies of others. Sacco artfully combines auto- and biographical points of view into a narrative of collective witness to forgotten lives.

2. “Ethical Obligation in the Wartime Graphic Memoir: Theorizing the Face in Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis

Joseph Darda, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

Recent comix criticism, particularly that of the graphic memoir, centers on the instabilities inherent in the multimodal text. Hillary Chute, Theresa Tensuan, Gillian Whitlock, Rocío Davis, and others focus on the disjunctures between word and image, across panels, and in the present narration of a past self. According to this scholarship, it is from the medium’s tensions and instabilities that it gains its political force, undermining hegemonic social structures, representing the unrepresentable, and positioning the reader as an intimate participant in its construction and implications. In this, the wartime graphic memoir comes to represent a substantial ethical presence, even as the War in Afghanistan continues into its second decade.

While I agree in general, this scholarship fails to articulate how textual destabilization leads to the reader’s critical obligation. How does the text, in a state of tension, compel the reader to assess their ideological orientation to a transnational conflict? Critics indicate that the graphic memoir is in a unique position to make an ethical appeal to the reader. But it remains unclear what this mechanism is or how it functions in the text. In the present paper, I introduce an ethical framework to the graphic memoir, a graphic ethics. In doing so, I, first, trace the origin of the debate within “autographic” criticism in order to contextualize the present intermediation. Second, drawing from Judith Butler’s post-9/11 work on Levinas’ notion of “the face,” I establish an ethical framework to substantiate the (up to this point) imprecise claims connecting formal destabilization to reader obligation. Third, I demonstrate this ethical import and its potential function in narrating memories of war through a reading of Marjane Satrapi’s Iranian émigré graphic memoir Persepolis.

3. “Atomic Bomb Manga”

Hillary Chute, Univ. of Chicago

Drawn from research for my second book, “Disaster is My Muse”: Visual Witnessing, Comics, and Documentary Form, this paper focuses on Japan, where Hiroshima survivor Keiji Nakazawa’s pioneering war account I Saw It and subsequent series Barefoot Gen proposed comics as a form of witness across national borders. In 1978, Barefoot Gen was the first manga translated into English, by a group of international peace activists.

I Saw It, Nakazawa’s inaugural “atomic bomb manga,” established a serious documentary mode for comics in Japan. I analyze its publication history to contextualize its innovation. Nakazawa’s early attempts to create comics about Hiroshima in the late sixties, all fictional, were considered politically radical and therefore had been marginalized. I Saw It (1972), his eyewitness account of August 6, 1945, became an unexpected success despite the climate of the early 1970s, a time when the atomic bomb was associated with embarrassment and shame—and silence. I Saw It visualizes the effect of the intense physical disfigurement inflicted by the bomb, such as bodies with flaps of dissolving skin dripping off of their frames. These graphic details show that Nakazawa’s intervention resides as much in his visual idiom as in his political content.

I conclude by presenting 1972 as a world-important moment for comics, a moment when artists in Japan and in the US produced major, field-establishing works of nonfiction comics—on the other side of the globe, Art Spiegelman created, for an underground comic book, his three-page comics story “Maus.” By looking at substantive innovation occurring at the same time in work explicitly engaged with different sides of WWII, we can begin to see why the early 70s gave rise to what, perhaps, has become the most trenchant kind of work within today’s comics field: nonfiction, and nonfiction specifically addressing the fallout of war.

4. “Views from Nowhere: Journalistic Detachment in Joe Sacco’s Palestine

Marc Singer, Howard Univ.

…that is why it is important to write in the first person. It would be very difficult to get that feeling across if you were pretending you were not even there, as traditional US journalism does.

—Joe Sacco, 2003

In comics such as Palestine and Safe Area Goražde, Joe Sacco offers not only vivid, compelling accounts of life in wartime, but also criticisms of how contemporary journalism represents violent conflicts. Sacco insistently foregrounds his own position as a reporter, an outsider, a tourist, and an artist whose work depends on appropriating stories of other people’s misery, dispelling any claims to journalistic objectivity. He rejects attempts to draw false equivalences and openly criticizes appeals to neutrality, whether diplomatic or journalistic. While journalists and scholars have devoted considerable attention to Sacco’s representation of his own subjectivity, they have not yet examined how Palestine, his first novel-length work of comics journalism, replicates many of the same journalistic practices that Sacco disparages.

Some of the testimonies Sacco records in Palestine, particularly stories of intra-Palestinian violence, prompt Sacco to fall back on neutralistic detachment and professional objectivity, presenting secondhand accounts and conflicting views without expressing his own opinions. This practice, popularly known as “he said, she said” journalism, allows reporters to maintain the appearance of impartiality that press critic Jay Rosen (adapting a term from philosopher Thomas Nagel) calls “the view from nowhere.” Contrary to its reputation, Palestine periodically resorts to this viewpoint, selectively suspending Sacco’s willingness to comment on the events and people he observes.

These practices extend to Sacco’s visual narrative, where similarities in framing, panel
composition, and body language sometimes equate Israeli and Palestinian violence. These
comparisons can be read as humanistic criticisms of any and all political violence, but
also as recourses to the very equivalency Sacco criticizes earlier in the book when an
Israeli soldier compares Palestinian and Israeli extremists. Caught between its gestures
toward observation and commentary, participation and detachment, subjectivity and
objectivity, Palestine remains complicit in the journalistic conventions Sacco denounces,
a dilemma that Sacco confronts in his graphic and reportorial styles.

Framing present and past experience, from Sacco's Footnotes from Gaza (2009)

For an overview of all MLA 2013 sessions organized by the Discussion Group on Comics and Graphic Narratives, see here.

MLA 2013—Black Studies and Comics

Incog600

Session 132. Black Studies and Comics

Thursday, 3 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m.

Back Bay D, Sheraton Boston

Presiding: Qiana Joelle Whitted, Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia

1. “(In)Visible Bodies: Rewriting the Politics of Passing in Incognegro, a Graphic Mystery by Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece”

Christophe Dony, Univ. of Liège

How can passing across racial lines be described and conveyed in the comics form? Can the medium develop specific strategies to comment on the themes of transgression and crossing inherent to the trope of passing? This paper shows how the graphic novel Incognegro (2008) goes beyond the traditional socio-historical analysis of passing and plays thematically, generically, and visually with the politics of the trope. Incognegro, set in the US in the early 1930s, depicts a light-skinned African American reporter who passes for white in order to investigate lynchings of blacks in the deep South. Because white papers do not consider these events to be news, the reporter condemns these dreadful acts in the column titled “Incognegro” that he writes for a New York-based newspaper, The New Holland Herald. Thus he risks his life using his “passing abilities” to protect the rights of the community he is trying to defend from white hegemony. In this way, Incognegro challenges the conventional tragic mulatto figure that passes for white to avoid racism and violence or to improve his/her social status. In addition, it echoes the common black trickster figure who practices “masking” to outwit his enemies or opponents, and calls into question the biological, social, and cultural representations of race as perceived by the white dominant group. Here the racial passer functions as an “outsider from within” who can challenge the black vs. white binary model. Moreover, the text subverts narrative paradigms from superhero comics and detective fiction to point out the arbitrariness of racial ideologies and the fallibility of notions of justice and truth. This subversion is further complicated by the comic’s “color free” art (black and white, sans halftones or gray tones), which defies essentialist representations of race. In sum, Incognegro argues that the ambiguities of racial categorization are best represented through a similarly ambiguous literary genre—one that not only challenges generic norms and traditions but also “writes back” to both the mainstream and alternative wings of American comics production.

2. “Birth of an Imperium: Tragedy, Comedy, and the Graphic Representation of African American History”

Jonathan W. Gray, John Jay Coll. of Criminal Justice, CUNY

Both Sutton Griggs’ 1899 novel Imperium in Imperio: A Study of the Negro Race and the 2004 graphic narrative Birth of a Nation speak to the persistence and generative power of state-sanctioned racism. These rogue texts challenge the official construction of “societal racism codified into law” (Gloria J. Browne-Marshall), at once chronicling the social conditions that produced such flawed legal reasoning while also positing the construction of utopian spaces where true equality might finally be achieved.

Imperium in Imperio describes a nation organized to defeat the aspirations of Black Americans, in part by restricting African American political participation. This corrodes the spirit of American democracy, for the practice of “cheating the Negro out of his right to vote…was unjust to the Negro and fatal to the morals of whites” (26). The novel’s protagonists find hope in the Imperium, a secret society that intends to realize the promise of American democracy by seceding from the United States and establishing an all-Black nation; yet the novel ends with the Imperium betrayed, an admission that Black Americans must struggle to reform America from within. Birth of a Nation, a collaboration between Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker, share this theme, suggesting that the integration of African Americans into the larger American polity remains, in the words of Langston Hughes, a dream deferred. However, Birth is a Janus-faced text that simultaneously supports and undermines such a reading: it is a comic revision of Imperium that uses conventions unique to comics to commemorate (while commenting on) the emancipatory artistic tradition that helped sustain African Americans into the twenty-first century. If Imperium functions as tragedy, lamenting the perseverance of American racism, Birth mocks the continuing marginalization of Blacks by a nation that ought to know better. This progressive and hopeful attitude invokes two forms of cultural critique: on the one hand, a comic tradition that seeks (in Michael Chaney’s words) to “understand the triumphal efforts of redress and revision inherent to Black representations of Black experience”; on the other, a comic tradition that springs from (as Glenda Carpio remarks) “a wrested freedom, the freedom to laugh at that which was unjust and cruel in order to create distance from what would otherwise obliterate self and community.” Indeed, Birth of a Nation merges these two distinct forms of cultural critique.

3. “A Work of Its Time and a Timeless Work: The Spirit, Ebony White, and Will Eisner’s Legacy”

Andrew James Kunka, Univ. of South Carolina, Sumter

While scholars, historians, and fans agree that Will Eisner’s The Spirit was a groundbreaking series, especially in regard to narrative and visual storytelling, the series yet poses problems for contemporary readers through its caricatured and stereotyped depiction of racial minorities, especially the Spirit’s African American sidekick, Ebony White. Because The Spirit has been reprinted almost nonstop for decades, readers have struggled continuously between respect for Eisner’s innovations and influence on the one hand and rejection of his regressive racial stereotyping on the other. Eisner himself struggled with this tension and the impact it would have on his reputation, a struggle evident in the public responses he made to criticisms of Ebony White—from the early Kitchen Sink and Warren reprints through Eisner’s own challenging of Jewish stereotypes in his late work. This paper examines the public discourse surrounding the controversy over Ebony White, including Eisner’s revivals of the character in new work starting in 1966, letter column debates among readers and editors that occurred in the Warren magazine reprints of the 1970s, Eisner’s recollections of his own changing attitudes toward racial stereotypes while he was producing The Spirit, and later apologies and explanations by Eisner scholars, biographers, and supporters who have tried to strike a balance, treating The Spirit as both a work of its time and a timeless work.

From the 1960s to the present, the image of Ebony White has remained visible to generations of readers. As Eisner lived to see audiences’ reaction to Ebony change, he was forced to adjust his public image and personal history in order to control the potential damage to his reputation. In these responses, Eisner vacillated between defensiveness and apology. His later responses refashioned or revised the history of The Spirit as a work that broke new ground in the positive depiction of African American characters, especially through the introduction of the black detective named Grey, who assisted the Spirit on a couple of adventures. Eisner asserted that he recognized the problems with Ebony White’s depiction soon after returning from World War II and immediately began adjusting the character’s speech and appearance, while also creating more realistic and positive black characters. Biographers and historians (e.g. Andelman, Schumacher, yronwode, and Greenberger) have reinforced this assertion to varying degrees in their own assessments of Eisner’s career. However, Eisner’s relation to racial caricature is more complicated and ambivalent than this progressive narrative maintains. Therefore, without settling for the obvious—that readers’ tolerance toward racial stereotypes has decreased since 1941—and without seeking to condemn Eisner as a racist, this paper traces the often contentious trajectory of a creator and audience coming to grips with a revered but troubling creation.

The Spirit #7 (Warren Publications, April 1975)

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