Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The history of comic books in America is proof that you can't kill an art form. When Dr. Fredric Wertham's "Seduction of the Innocents" came out in 1958, on the eve of the Superman-dominated "golden age" of comics, many thought that comic books had been squashed forever. Wertham's book indignantly pointed out the sexual, violent and even homosexual inclinations in popular comics, resulting in strict regulation and the shriveling up of a once-lucrative industry. The moral outcry against comics destroyed the popular audience for comics so thoroughly that many doubted the art form would survive.
Instead, comic books simply went underground. Through the '60s and '70s, comics proliferated under the censorship radar. Although it had lost its place in mass culture, the comic book evolved into a more diverse and esoteric form of expression, attracting artists who embraced subversion and sarcasm, violence and sexuality. Although superhero-esque protagonists persisted, they were of a more nuanced, morally ambiguous variety.
These days, comic-book artists so vary in style and content, they defy generalization. That diversity is reflected in the exhibit "Other Heroes: African American Comic Book Creators and Characters" curated by John Jennings and Damien Duffy, showing at Jackson State University.
Jennings and Duffy share an effervescent enthusiasm for comics and an encyclopedic knowledge of comic-book history. Jennings, a JSU alum from Flora, Miss., is a professor of graphic design at the University of Illinois. Duffy, a native of Illinois, is a graduate student in library sciences at the same university, where he received a bachelor's in creative writing. Jennings, Duffy and Dann Tincher are co-founders of "Eye Trauma," a company dedicated to educating people about comics, and helping comics artists get exposure to a wider audience. But Duffy and Jennings aren't just fans and promoters. They're also artists with a deep understanding of the history and the theory behind graphic representations of race. "Other Heroes" reflects this sensitivity, focusing not just on black artists, but also on black comic-book characters and racial issues in comics, regardless of the creator's race. As stated in the show's catalog, this approach avoids the risk of "implying that the art is exhibited not for aesthetic merit, but for demographic status." The catalog goes on to state that "to exhibit only work by African-American artists felt perilously close to an affirmation of the idea that black and white people live in separate worlds, unrelated and unrelatable. … There's enough of that nonsense around already."
Almost every viewer should find something in the show that resonates. My favorites include a poster by Mikhaela Reid advertising "Freedom Gravy," the Bush-family solution to the post-Katrina food shortage in New Orleans and coastal pollution problems all at once. "Let Them Eat Toxic Sludge!" the poster proclaims while a wrinkly, pearl-wearing Barbara Bush offers a green spoonful of Freedom Gravy to a young black girl, saying, "Open up dear—I'm sure this is much nicer than what you people are used to eating." Also interesting is Masheka Wood's "Ask CEOs" comic strip, where she asks hideous white male CEOs "How do you spend your $13,000 an hour?" Replies from the executives range from the hilarious—"Imported cashmere wipes for my delicate buttocks."—to the disconcertingly realistic—"Oh ya know, buying politicians and whatnot." By juxtaposing both types of answers, Woods asks a pointed question: "Which is more outrageous: Cashmere butt-wipes or buying out politicians who are supposed to represent our best interests?" Also noteworthy for his biting political and racial satire is Keith Knight, whose understated visual style allows his wry observational genius to shine through.
On the other side of the spectrum is Kyle Baker, creator of two critically acclaimed and immensely popular graphic novels "Nat Turner" and "Nat Turner: Revolution." Although meant to be part of a sequential layout, Baker's drawings (printed large for this exhibit) stand on their own. In his depictions of a screeching preacher or an axe in a black hand lingering over two sleeping white faces, one finds exquisite gestural line drawing and perfectly calibrated lights and shadows. In each drawing, Baker creates a sense of dramatic tension that is sometimes simmering, sometimes explosive.
The show also includes historic work such as original drawings by Denys Cowan, one of the founders of Milestone Media, the first African American comics company. Also featured are drawing by icons such as Jackie Ormes, the first black syndicated comic artist. Sales of the beautifully designed catalog will benefit Scholarship America's Hurricanes Katrine and Rita relief funds, which help low-income hurricane victims seeks post-secondary education.
"Other Heroes" is on display through April 25 at the JSU Art Gallery. Call 217-355-8595 or 217-244-8539.
That is so cool. I remember the days when I was a kid and wanted to make my own comic strip. I actually wanted to be like Charles Schulz.
Thank you so much for writing about my CEOs cartoon. I'm glad you liked it. By the way, I'm a guy. No worries. My fiancee's name (cartoonist Mikhaela Reid) and my name are very similar, so it can get confusing, even to me sometimes. -Masheka
- Masheka Wood