The Representation of Race in American Comics and Graphic Novels (Panel)


Cultural Studies and Media Studies / American

Teresa Feroli (New York University)

From the beginning of the twentieth century, when comics first appeared in American newspapers, this popular medium has been involved in perpetuating racial stereotypes. Because comic artists rely on a shared visual language to portray characters, they are more susceptible to using well-known “caricatures” that originate in and perpetuate racist attitudes. Will Eisner commenting on George Cruikshank’s illustrations of Oliver Twist observes that his “misuse of a necessary staple in portraying Fagin, one that was so common to contemporary publications, is a contribution to further reprehensible stereotyping of Jews.” His 2003 graphic novel Fagin the Jew counters Dickens’s text, and yet he, much to his later regret, also created Ebony, the African American sidekick to the hero of his 1940s comic series The Spirit, deploying a host of what were then acceptable stereotypical features–the use of dialect and a propensity for slapstick humor. More recently, comics artists have embraced the medium to challenge the way readers see race. Dwayne McDuffie’s Icon (1993-97) series reimagines the “standard” superhero comics Superman and Batman by creating an African American superhero who learns to see the way race infests every aspect of daily life only after he has been tutored by his teenage female sidekick Raquel, who in turn is inspired by Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000) demonstrates how the legacy of slavery shapes the lives of white protagonists in 1980. Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece also take up the question of race and visibility in Incognegro (2003), a text that portrays light-skinned African American activists who went undercover, in the South in the 1930s, to expose lynchings. The release this month of Ta Nahesi Coates’s Black Panther further instantiates the importance of this medium to the American dialogue on race and culture.

American comics have a long and checkered history in the way they have portrayed racial difference, though more recent comics/graphic novels have used the medium to comment effectively on American racial politics. As the genre grows in popularity in bookstores and on college campuses, now seems an opportune time to take stock of the ways this medium has both fostered and critiqued racist attitudes. This panel welcomes submissions on this topic from any era of American comics/ graphic novels and from any literary critical or cultural studies perspective.

American comics have a long and checkered history in the way they have portrayed racial difference, though more recent comics/graphic novels have used the medium to comment effectively on American racial politics. As the genre grows in popularity in bookstores and on college campuses, now seems an opportune time to take stock of the ways this medium has both fostered and critiqued racist attitudes. This panel welcomes submissions on this topic from any era of American comics/graphic novels and from any literary critical or cultural studies perspective.