Our two Forum panels this year (and our cash bar!) and some other panels to note:

Saturday, 7 January

581. Alien Lines: Science Fiction Comics

1:45–3:00 p.m., Grand Ballroom Salon A, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the forums GS Comics and Graphic Narratives and GS Speculative Fiction

Presiding: Aaron Kashtan, Univ. of North Carolina at Charlotte

1. “Don’t Let Them Touch and Despair You: World Construction in the World of The Wrenchies and It Will All Hurt,” Phoebe Salzman-Cohen, Penn State Univ., University Park

2. “‘This Is How an Idea Becomes Real’: Bodies in Saga,” Daniel John Pinti, Niagara Univ.

3. “‘I’m Getting Too Good to Ignore’: The Feminist Politics of Sharon Ruhdal’s Dystopian Comics,” Margaret Galvan, New York Univ.

4. “Feeling The Puma Blues: The Dilution of Science Fiction and the Decline of the Creator within Independent Comics’ Golden Age,” Keith McCleary, UC San Diego.


Saturday, 7 January

676. Cash Bar Arranged by the Forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

7:00–8:15 p.m., Franklin 4, Philadelphia Marriott


Sunday, 8 January

787. Graphic Narrative, Comics, and Temporality

1:45–3:00 p.m., Independence Ballroom Salon III, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the forum GS Comics and Graphic Narratives

Presiding: Martha B. Kuhlman, Bryant Univ.

1. “Past and Present Colors: Drawing Style as Temporal Framework in Comics,” Rikke Platz Cortsen, Univ. of Texas, Austin

2. “‘Paradise Now’: Messianic Time in the Iranian Graphic Protest Novel,” Charlotta Salmi, Univ. of Birmingham

3. “Drawing the Anthropocene? Intimacy and Antihuman ‘Deep Time,'” Aarnoud Rommens, Univ. of Liege

4. “Reading in the Deep: Time and the Z-Axis in Richard McGuire’s Here and Dan Clowes’s Patience,” Joshua Kopin, Univ. of Texas, Austin


Additional comics-related panels of note:

189. Reading and Seeing Modernism and Graphic Narrative: Form, Medium, Aesthetics

Friday, 6 January8:30–9:45 a.m., 111B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

A special session 

Presiding: Andrew Hoberek, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia

Speakers:Olivia Badoi, Fordham Univ.; Sheila Liming, Univ. of North Dakota; Ben Novotny Owen, Ohio State Univ., Columbus; John Paul Riquelme, Boston Univ.; Janine M. Utell, Widener Univ.

Responding: David M. Ball, Dickinson Coll.


285. Graphic Queer / Queer Graphics: Seriality and Sexuality in Graphic Form

Friday, 6 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Independence Ballroom Salon III, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the forum TC Sexuality Studies

Presiding: Ramzi Fawaz, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

1. “Serial Sex: Intimacy as Method and the Polaroid’s Queer Aesthetic Legacies,” Ricardo Montez, New School

2. “Mapping Danny the Street: Theorizing Trans-temporality with Doom Patrol,” Kadin Henningsen, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

3. “The Pornographic Aesthetics of Fluidity in Comix,” Yetta Howard, San Diego State Univ.

4. “Desiring Blackness: A Motivated Reading of the Value of Black Panther,” André Carrington, Drexel Univ.


646. Placing Gender in the Graphic Novel

Saturday, 7 January5:15–6:30 p.m., Independence Ballroom Salon III, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the forum TC Women’s and Gender Studies

Presiding: Pamela Brown, Univ. of Connecticut, Stamford

1. “Cuba My Revolution: Una novela gráfica e histórica para mejor cumplir las políticas del mercado,” Mabel Cuesta, Univ. of Houston, University Park

2. “The Latent Image: Biopolitics and Diegetic Levels in Lila Quintero-Weaver’s Graphic Novel Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, in an Aesthetics and Human Rights Course,” Karina Elizabeth Vázquez, Univ. of Richmond

3. “Transnational Bodies and Gendered Representations in Operación Bolívar, by Edgar Clément, and La perdida, by Jessica Abel,” Tania Pérez-Cano, Univ. of Pittsburgh


650. Invisible Made Visible: Comics and Mental Illness

Saturday, 7 January5:15–6:30 p.m., Grand Ballroom Salon I, Philadelphia Marriott

A special session 

Presiding: Jessica Gross, St. Louis Coll. of Pharmacy; Leah Misemer, Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison

Speakers:Jeanine Ashforth, Univ. of South Florida; Elizabeth J. Donaldson, New York Inst. of Tech., Old Westbury; Keegan Lannon, Dominican Univ.; Claire Latxague, Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier 3

Session Description:

Panelists explore how the visual medium of comics paradoxically explores invisible mental illnesses by depicting internal emotional and mental states. They also consider the historical relation between comics and mental illness and discuss how comics can create communities of people who feel—or are—invisible within society at large.


281. “Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Bound”: Psychoanalysis, Comics, and Architecture

Friday, 6 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 112A, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the American Psychoanalytic Association

Presiding: Vera J. Camden, Kent State Univ., Kent

Speakers:Frederik Byrn Køhlert, Univ. of Calgary; Jimenez Lai, Univ. of California, Los Angeles; Nick Sousanis, San Francisco State Univ.; Jon Yoder, Kent State Univ., Kent

Session Description:

Once considered pure pulp, comics now prevail in architecture studios, psychoanalytic institutes, and university classrooms, as well as in myriad public spaces. This session represents architecture, psychoanalysis, educational psychology, and literature to consider the ways that comics “bound” over disciplinary silos to capture buildings, bodies, and minds in lived environments.


27. Getting Religion: Children’s Literature as Sacred Text

Thursday, 5 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 111B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the forums GS Children’s and Young Adult Literature and TC Religion and Literature

Presiding: Lisa M. Gordis, Barnard Coll.; Karin E. Westman, Kansas State Univ.

1. “Intertwining Histories: Catechisms and the Emergence of Eighteenth-Century Children’s Literature,” Gabrielle Owen, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln

2. “Christian Science Children’s Fiction, 1900–10,” Anne Stiles, St. Louis Univ.

3. “Nazi Children’s Literature and the Formation of the Holy Reich,” Michael Lackey, Univ. of Minnesota, Morris

4. “Characterizing Religion: The Lives and Afterlives of Stock Religious Characters in Japanese Picturebooks from the 1950s to the Present,” Heather Blair, Indiana Univ., Bloomington


210. Graphic Narratives

Friday, 6 January8:30–9:45 a.m., 410, Philadelphia Marriott

Program arranged by the forum LLC Luso-Brazilian

Presiding: Cesar Braga-Pinto, Northwestern Univ.

1. “Superbacana: Songs, Graphic Narratives, and Social Tension in the Late 1960s in Brazil,” Carlos Pires, Universidade de São Paulo

2. “Comics Poetry and Poema/Processo,” Jonathan R. Bass, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick

3. “Brazilian Quadrinistas and the Franco-Belgian Market of Science Fiction and Fantasy Graphic Novels: A Marriage of Convenience,” Henri-Simon Blanc-Hoang, Defense Language Inst.

4. “Graphic Spaces of Rights,” Leila Maria Lehnen, Univ. of New Mexico, Albuquerque


282. “I Die Daily”: Police Brutality, Black Bodies, and the Force of Children’s Literature

Friday, 6 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 106B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: Michelle Hite, Spelman Coll.

1. “Postracial, but Not Postracism: The Romanticization of the Plantation South and the Whitewashing of History in Raina Telgemeier’s Drama,” Michelle Ann Abate, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

2. “The Promise and Challenge of History: Reckoning with Racism in Out of Darkness,” Ashley Pérez, Ohio State Univ., Columbus

3. “Runoff: Young African Americans with Disabilities in Landscapes of Sacrifice,” Elizabeth Anne Wheeler, Univ. of Oregon

4. “Brown Girls Dreaming: Violence, Narrative, and the Politics of the Interior,” Samira Abdur-Rahman, Univ. of Rochester


353. What Next? Adventures in Episodic and Serial Form

Friday, 6 January3:30–4:45 p.m., Franklin 11, Philadelphia Marriott

A special session 

Presiding: Katherine Fusco, Univ. of Nevada, Reno

Speakers:Jacquelyn Ardam, Colby Coll.; Katherine FuscoDonal Harris, Univ. of Memphis; Andrew Hoberek, Univ. of Missouri, Columbia; Heather A. Love, Univ. of South Dakota; Carter Neal, Indiana Univ., Bloomington

Responding: David M. Ball, Dickinson Coll.

Session Description:

The presentations query how historical moments give rise to the episodic or serial forms they need (or deserve?). With topics including modernist drama, Dada art exhibitions, children’s films, comic books, and the realist novel, the panelists use a PechaKucha format of automatically advancing slides—an innovative style fitting for a session on series and episodes.


475. Graphic Style and Big Data

Saturday, 7 January10:15–11:30 a.m., 104A, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the forum LLC 20th- and 21st-Century American

Presiding: Amy Hungerford, Yale Univ.

1. “Illusions of Progress: Visualization and the Politics of Stylized Time,” Ed Finn, Arizona State Univ.

2. “Excavating the Present: Richard McGuire’s Here and the Wayback Machine,” Alexander Manshel, Stanford Univ.

3. “Chris Ware and R. Crumb: From Data to Disgust,” Rebecca Clark, Univ. of California, Berkeley

4. “The Visual Universalism of Bing Xu’s Book from the Ground,” Lee Konstantinou, Univ. of Maryland, College Park


524. The Life of the Child’s Mind: Rethinking Education and Intellect in Literature for Young People

Saturday, 7 January12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 106B, Pennsylvania Convention Center

Program arranged by the Children’s Literature Association

Presiding: David Aitchison, North Central Coll.

1. “Adolescent Fiction as a Boundary Condition: Exploring the Meaning of Reading in a Transitional Genre,” Elisabeth Rose Gruner, Univ. of Richmond

2. “Smart Equals Queer: The Intellectual Child in Sex Is a Funny Word,” Gabrielle Owen, Univ. of Nebraska, Lincoln

3. “Unbounded Time, Unbounded Intellect: A Teenage ‘Song of Myself’ in John Green’s Paper Towns,” Susan Leary, Univ. of Miami



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


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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