Dr. Charles Johnson, UW professor emeritus of English, is a distinguished novelist, as well as a professional cartoonist. It is a pleasure to get to chat with him and consider a thing or two about the somewhat enigmatic comics medium and the creative process in general. In our conversation, we talk about the interconnections between comics, journalism, and creative writing. It is a subject I keep coming back to as it speaks to who I am, someone compelled to create with words and pictures. What is it that compels others to pursue both the comics medium and prose writing? It has to do with a desire to express one’s self. It is inextricably linked to journalism, an in depth reporting of one’s observations. And where does this all lead? It all depends upon the person, their temperament, and a number of other factors of luck and opportunity. In other words, it’s a fascinating topic for a good talk.
IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall
We spent a good amount of the interview discussing humor. We go over some samples from Johnson’s 1970 cartoon collection, Black Humor. This is a set of nearly 90 single panel gag cartoons. They are the kind you still find in a few magazines today, notably The New Yorker. But, back then, The New Yorker was not seeking to publish Black cartoonists. It was on one rainy night, after listening to a fiery talk given by Black activist poet Amiri Baraka, that Johnson set out on a mission to draw a whole book’s worth of gag panels, about and for the Black community. Johnson conjured up one joke after another. Over fifty years later, the gags retain a certain bite, perhaps more earthy than for today’s tastes. Some seem downright surreal. But Johnson dropped a key word into our conversation, a word that hinted at a far more expansive view. He spoke of the cartoon’s incongruity.
From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson
This interview is in connection with Dr. Johnson’s work included in the show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the book published by New York Review Comics. In partnership with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, New York Review Comics presents IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980, edited by Dan Nadel. Read my review here. This book focuses on nine Black cartoonists from the show at MCA: Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, Jun 19–Oct 3, 2021, which includes over 40 artists.
Excerpt from Black Humor
A special note: Washington University in St. Louis recently acquired the Charles Johnson Papers, an archival collection of materials related to Johnson’s work as an author and illustrator. “Spanning nearly six decades, the collection brings together manuscripts, drafts, correspondence, artwork and ephemera, and serves as a testament to Johnson’s wide-ranging career as a public intellectual.”
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Also, of note is Johnson’s recent role as guest-editor and contributor to a special edition of Chicago Quarterly Review, “An Anthology of Black American Literature.” Johnson wrote the introduction and contributed a story to the anthology — the journal’s volume #33 — called “Night Shift,” which he penned for the 2020 Bedtime Story fundraiser for Humanities Washington. The volume contains work by more than two dozen Black writers. An earlier special edition of the journal was dedicated to South Asian American writers, and an upcoming issue will focus on Native American literature.
Be sure to visit the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and view the Chicago Comics show!
Studies in Comics, Vol 11, No 1. Intellect Books. 2021. Bristol, UK. 234pp.
The case for comics having a place beyond the local newsstand or comics shop has grown to the point where it is now no surprise to hear about the latest comics course being taught at a university. We’re now, more than ever, accepting of comics in its many forms and purposes, not the least of which is its role in education. Comics and Education is the theme of the latest issue of the scholarly journal, Studies in Comics. And there is much to cover as the journal lists itself: teaching and learning with published comics; case studies of education comics/comics as education; teaching and learning by creating comics; comics, literacy and emotional development; and public information comics. While such a listing may sound rather dry, there is much life to be found in the comics medium–and that’s the whole point. Comics can breathe a whole new life into a myriad of subjects.
True Comics, 1941
But warming up to comics as an educational tool hasn’t been without its fits and starts as noted in the first article by Christopher Murray and Golnar Nabizadeh. Consider this early entry into educational comics: True Comics, from 1941, launched by The Parents’ Institute, publisher of the influential Parent’s Magazine. As to distance itself from the popular superhero, crime and adventure comics of the day, the cover boldly states: “Truth is stranger and a thousand times for thrilling than fiction!” That is a quote from the introduction by founder and publisher George J. Hecht, responding to a general misunderstanding of comics. For example, Sterling North, the Literary Editor of the Chicago Daily News, had recently attacked the comics industry on the basis that comics was, in his words, a “national disgrace” and a “poisonous mushroom growth.” And when comics did receive support from leading academics, as the authors of this article point out, it could be a mix of condescension and genuine interest:
“While the overall message is that comics are being utilized in many educational contexts, the use of the terms ‘invaded’ and ‘reduced’, and the suggestion that not even Sunday Schools are exempt, puts comics in a negative light. However, Zorbaugh and Gruenberg, along with Paul A. Witty (Professor of Education at Northwestern University), were among a handful of academics and educators exploring the psychological and educational aspects of the comics in the 1940s. In general, they presented the view that comics, far from being harmful, were a powerful way to engage children and especially reluctant readers.”
A selection of educational and information comics produced by Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS)/University of Dundee.
In fact, comics have proven many times over to be a powerful tool to process information. Anyone entering the world of comics, as a reader or as a creative, is setting foot upon an incredibly exciting journey. Another article among the eight full-length features here is one focusing on comics about healthcare and science, featuring Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (SCCS), by Damon Herd, Divya Jindal-Snape, Christopher Murray, and Megan Sinclair and it is really at the heart of what this journal is all about. For example, here is an excerpt on a comic about mental health and dealing with hate crimes that involved role-playing in order to unearth some solutions:
“The stories were fictional but they were drawn from their own real-life experiences of hate crime. This fictional aspect gave them space to ‘play the character’, creating a safe space to the discuss difficult subject matter (Jindal-Snape et al. 2011) by inhabiting the world of ‘the image of reality and the reality of the image’ (Boal 1995: 43). This was an educational and emotional experience for the rest of the team. For example, the Advocators insisted that the abusive language that had been directed against them was used in the comic. As they explained, ‘if we don’t show that it is a hate crime, then people reading might not know that it is’. Under the guidance of Advocating Together, the finished comic presented six hard-hitting stories that showcased the stark reality of the hateful (and criminal) experiences they suffer on a regular basis.”
Fibromyalgia and Us
This is a perfect example, of so many, that demonstrates the power of comics and the unexpected results that are possible both at the time of delivery and in the process of creating the work. In the case of a team-oriented event, this is known as a “comics jam” and, as this article explains, it is through this hands-on process that participants get to experience the comics medium as part of a creative team. It is an event that requires no prior art background and you can always partner with an artist as the project develops. The following is an excerpt representative of all the insights and goodwill derived from these team-oriented comics that led to a whole collection of healthcare and science comics, like Fibromyalgia and Us, from the University of Dundee:
“Fibromyalgia and Us (2017) was a project initiated by Divya Jindal-Snape (School of Education and Social Work), who has fibromyalgia and wanted to use the comics medium to inform the healthcare professionals and the public about this less-known and often-misunderstood ‘invisible’ condition that is characterized by chronic pain and fatigue. The comic opens with an auto- biographical story by Jindal-Snape, with contributions by her family, and artwork by Ashling Larkin. This story highlights the impact of fibromyalgia on the individual as well as their family and friends. Her colleague Lynn Kelly also wrote a story about her own experiences and benefits of gentle exercise, with artwork provided by Letty Wilson; and there were stories by Judith Langlands-Scott, who detailed the trauma of being misdiagnosed with fibromyalgia in a story with artwork by Zuzanna Dominiak. Judith’s son, Andrew Keiller, wrote a story that was drawn by Elliot Balson. This was an important addition as the general perception is that only women, or more commonly older women, have fibromyalgia. His story detailed his struggle with fibromyalgia while at school, where teach- ers and classmates were rarely understanding or sympathetic. Damon Herd and Letty Wilson drew stories based on the experiences of a doctor and a physiotherapist. This comic was launched at an event that received significant attention from both local, national and international press, and a digital version of the comic was subsequently downloaded over 13,000 times.”
A Hero’s Journey through Words and Pictures
Another process-oriented article comes from Zak Waipara, and his comics essay about setting up a new comics and animation curriculum at Auckland University of Technology. Comics and creativity go hand in hand and so why not use comics in order to better understand how to teach about the comics medium! In the above excerpt, Waipara quotes from Christopher Vgoler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers: “Magic is a good way to describe the synthesis between words and pictures.” Indeed, I believe he’s onto something!
One Dead Spy by Nathan Hale
Comics need not be mistrusted or misunderstood. We’ve come such a long way from the clumsy efforts to slap a portrait of Winston Churchill on the cover of a comic book and lecture to kids that truth is far better than fiction! We are more “sophisticated” general readers: less patient; more prone to criticize; less accepting of authority. The end result should be a good thing: We are better positioned today to question the content we digest. That brings us to the work of cartoonist Nathan Hale and the article about his work by Brianna Anderson. The book in question is generally intended for middle graders and Anderson explores the book’s benefit to this group. Anderson hits upon the author’s use of inserting himself into the work, a fairly common practice in comics, particularly indie comics; and how the author presents information, whether innovative, irreverent, or whatever it might be. Anderson concludes that the author has done a great job of opening up the subject for discussion but does take issue with some choices:
“However, the paratext also reinforces racist and sexist paradigms by displacing black and female voices to the comic’s supplemental endpapers, underwriting the comic’s well-intentioned attempts to educate readers about important voices excluded from white-centric narratives. Thus, while One Dead Spy demonstrates how historical fiction comics can provoke much-needed discussions about the inherent biases and erasures of dominant historical discourses, it also reveals the dangers of relegating opportunities for children to learn about marginalized perspectives in history to the literal margins.”
The difference between how True Comics was judged in 1941 and the way that One Dead Spy is judged in 2021 is as stark as night and day. All in all, that has to be a strong indication of progress being made. A cartoonist like Nathan Hale and an academic like Brianna Anderson can sit down and compare notes. One discussion leads to another. What’s important, as Anderson commends Hale for doing, is to question authority. Anderson claims that Hale is “relegating” already marginalized voices. However, that is a debatable point, just to be fair. The story of Crispus Attucks is certainly worthy of a book all its own. So, for Hale to include a small story about Attucks in a book about American spy Nathan Hale, is reasonable. For a book with a more decided focus on marginalized perspectives, Anderson may want to check out Hale’s book on the Haitian Revolution. That said, this is not to negate but to celebrate Anderson’s analysis. We now live in a time with no simple cookie-cutter answers but, instead, we welcome robust discussion.
Studies in Comics is an essential resource in the ongoing discussion of the comics medium. You will find a treasure trove of useful and insightful content from some of the best minds on the subject of comics as art and as a communication tool. Studies in Comics is published by Intellect Books. Visit them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
John Cei Douglas has a nice light whimsical style that serves him well with themes of mental health and relationships that he explores in picture books, comics and editorial pieces. In his latest book, All the Places in Between, he brings together all he knows to create quite a wondrous work. An “auteur cartoonist” is your best definition of this unique hybrid of artist-writer. And it is best to let that creative run wild and pursue their vision. While I was in London, my first stop was the House of Illustration where I gazed upon the works of such visionaries as Posy Simmonds. Her work follows a more traditional comic strip format but nonetheless is uniquely her own. Douglas has all the great vision and skill at his disposal and I absolutely look forward to seeing more of his work.
Douglas published a first collection of stories in conjunction with Great Beast Comics and completed his MA in Illustration from the prestigious University of the Arts London in 2013. This long form work of comics is wordless and the narrative is open to interpretation. It is not so much a story, per se, as a visual essay on the struggles one can face in processing reality and expressing one’s own reality. You are more following a feeling, a dream, than a storyline. Notice the simple set of lines separating the “panels,” as opposed to framing each moment within its own individual square as you usually find in mainstream comic books. It’s a relatively minor consideration but it could be a sticking point with some publishers who feel obligated to keeping to a set pattern. All it does is hem in the artist.
Douglas has a very light and graceful style that is endearing and inviting. Essentially, this narrative of sorts involves two girls. We never learn their names or much of anything about their background. They might be living in two separate worlds–or they might live right next door to each other. The blonde character appears to be pulled into the world of the brunette character. And this new place, seems to be, or feels like it is, set in some post-Apocalypse dystopian nightmare.
The characters find each other, become splendid companions, then they lose each other and ultimately find their own unique paths. It’s a weird and offbeat journey filled with a lyrical and haunting quality. In the end, it’s more about the journey, finding your way, and keeping your feet steadily upon the ground meeting challenges along the way.
Douglas’s work will intrigue and lift the reader’s spirits. His spare and clean line work is deceptively simple. As I have pointed out, Douglas forgoes the traditional panels you often find in comics in favor of basic dividing lines. Douglas strives to pare down. In general, comics is about paring down. It is a sensibility that you find among the best work in the comics medium whether indie/art house or more traditional comics. And in Douglas’s case, overall, it is this simplicity that affords his work with a more zen-like vibe that transports the reader. If you enjoy those quirky cartoonists, like Quentin Blake or Jean-Jacques Sempé, who always manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat when you least expect it, then you’ll certainly enjoy the work of John Cei Douglas.
Pinko Joe: A New Kind of Graphic Novel. Christopher Sperandio. Argle Bargle Books. 2020. 96pp. $21.99
Artist Christopher Sperandio is onto something. As he related to us in a recent interview, it dawned on him what he could do with public domain comics and it just killed him that he hadn’t thought of it sooner. As reviewed here at Comics Grinder, the latest book in this series is Greenie Josephinie. We are going to go back just a bit and focus on the title that kicked it all off last year, Pinko Joe.
Enter a man in a bright pink suit.
Due to the pandemic, I think this series, like so many titles, is still getting on reader’s radars. But this is not a problem in the long run. There’s an eerie timeless quality to this multi-layered work that defies easy categorization. The source material is from the past (shifted and unmoored) in the service of subverting various issues from the present and let loose upon an uncertain and distant future. We see testament to the beauty of this process from the very opening page, filled with disparate images (featuring a guy in a bright pink suit that David Bowie would have been pleased to wear) from some long forgotten past, images that are being propelled into a loopy present and future. Enter a man in a bright pink suit, nicknamed, “Pinko Joe,” by the merciless right-wing media.
“Capitalism is always evaluated against dreams! Utopia is a dream! It doesn’t exist!”
My theory is that every comics genre gives off a certain vibe, even if the excerpt you are viewing is totally out of context and you can barely figure out what is going on. That is part of the beauty behind what Sperandio is up to since his source material runs the gamut of genres: crime, romance, science fiction and horror. Then you lay on top of that the subversive adventures of Pinko Joe, a down-on-his-luck wage slave/activist from another planet! It becomes a battle royale between the socialists led by Pinko Joe and the uber-capitalist gangsters in an alternate reality where Eisenhower is at the helm of a third term and the rise of the very military-industrial complex he warned about–and which he can dismantle with a little help from his friends!
The wild and droll world of Pinko Joe!
The narrative to this graphic novel is broken up into episodic chunks just as you find in a comic book. While this is definitely a very different kind of graphic novel, and will definitely appeal to a certain discerning reader, the droll political humor is really funny and has broad appeal. Think of the audience for The Daily Show or for Real Time with Bill Maher. Let’s break down a random full page. Based upon the list of sources at the back of the book, this is probably originally a page from a comic book, Crime Must Pay the Penalty, published by Ace Magazines, October 1950. On the page, a dapper young man appears to defend a wealthy family from thugs. In the Sperandio treatment, it is Pinko Joe who is defending a father and daughter business from capitalist gangsters. The dialogue is fun and irreverent. Panel 2 makes a nice stand-alone as Pinko Joe knocks out one of the “fascists.”
“Knuckles for you, fascist!”
There’s a pure vision to what Sperandio is doing and I’m sure it will guide him onwards. Many an artist has come before with a tribute or a revisiting of past art. This tribute and revisiting by Sperandio, a manipulation of comics, and a comic all its own, is something Andy Warhol would have applauded. Maybe Warhol would never have ventured in such a direction himself or maybe he might have hired Sperandio to join him. My guess is that Sperandio would say thanks, but no thanks.
Find PINKO JOE and GREENIE JOSEPHENIE, along with other fine books, at Argle Bargle Books!
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. Art and text by Sharon Rudahl. Edited by Paul Buhle & Lawrence Ware. Rutgers University Press. 2020. 142pp. $19.95
There once was a time when it would have been as common to find a framed print of Paul Robeson (1898- 1976) as it would have been to find one of Bob Dylan. Paul Robeson became ingrained in the public mind from his landmark performances in such classics as 1933’s The Emperor Jones, and 1936’s Showboat. Robeson went on to become a popular champion of progressive ideals stemming from his scholarship and activism. With the same spirit as a powerful painter or incisive novelist, an industrious cartoonist like Sharon Rudahl (Wimmen’s Comix, A Dangerous Woman) can transport, enlighten and entertain. So is the case with Rudahl’s graphic novel adaptation of the life and times of Paul Robeson.
Onward to England.
Sharon Rudahl’s comics narrative provides the kind of compelling content that goes a long way to helping the reader process this multi-layered narrative. Images and concise passages of text are highlighted in subtle and direct ways by Rudahl, all the better to be suitable for lingering upon by the reader. It is a long and compelling journey for Paul Robeson, already a promising star during his time as a student at Rutgers University. Robeson was a major figure in the rise of anti-colonialism in Africa and elsewhere, and a tireless campaigner for internationalism, peace, and human rights. Later in life, he embraced the civil rights and anti-war movements with the hope that new generations would attain his ideals of a peaceful and abundant world. This graphic novel is published in conjunction with Rutgers University’s centennial commemoration of Robeson’s 1919 graduation from the university.
Ancestors denied justice.
The story of Paul Robeson begins by looking back a few generations. This graphic novel begins in North Carolina in 1828. We steadily progress to 1901 and the struggles of Rev. William Robeson, at odds with Princeton University for daring to “rise above his station” and for actually speaking out about lynchings. He is chastised for “stirring up trouble between the races” and fired from his post at Witherspoon Presbyterian. The reverend’s firing was finally triggered by his repeated requests for Princeton to admit his son, Bill. It’s interesting to note how Rudahl cuts into the space to cleanly highlight various pieces of text. The Princeton committee members tower over Rev. Robeson and he is trapped by a series of hateful statements. But the tide would indeed change.
The Emperor Jones leads to iconic status.
What really strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how organic it is and how her free-flowing approach totally supports the narrative. I have a number of theories about comics and one essential one is that auteur cartoonists need to have the freedom to pursue their vision. Some cartoonists have a signature style and others have their own particular approach. Both style and approach are very closely aligned. For instance, an artist like Milton Caniff has a very distinctive look. Maybe it’s a marriage of style and approach. It’s a balancing act. In general, an artist-cartoonist in pursuit of art does not want a signature style to rule over them. It’s better to have a robust set of options in your tool kit and so you follow your own particular approach–and that’s what I see coming from Rudahl, a pure artist doing her own thing.
Show Boat meets Black Power
You see what I’m saying with each and every example here. It’s like any given page could be turned into a painting. The potential to do that is there. So, with a cartoonist too caught up in just delivering a signature style, you can run into issues of it getting too repetitive and descending into, more or less, eye candy. But with an artist like Rudahl, you have someone who is genuinely invested in telling a story. It’s this kind of artist who will get into a zone, create a vision, that will resonate with the reader.
Paul Robeson, the activist.
The story of Paul Robeson is one of struggle and perseverance. Robeson was an exceptionally gifted, talented, and driven individual. And, despite that, he had to struggle to prove himself. Even after he had gained undisputed recognition and notoriety, he still had to overcome obstacles thrown his way. First, he overcame racial barriers. Later on, with a platform to voice his views, he could find himself at odds with the U.S. government. And, finally, with the passage of time, he had to overcome any distrust from a younger generation that might have seen him as somehow out of touch with current trends. It is fitting to have a visionary like Rudahl tell Robeson’s story. It is all the more fitting to have Robeson’s alma mater, Rutgers University, publish such a work. Also, it is worthwhile to mention that it is a university press that will most likely be most receptive to more artistic material like this than other publishers. That said, Sharon Rudahl, and editors Paul Buhle and Lawrence Ware, have all worked together to create a unique tribute to an All-American hero, Paul Robeson.
Singing at the Peace Arch, in Blaine, Washington, bordering the U.S. and Canada.
The Black Panther Party: A Graphic Novel History. writer: David F. Walker. artist: Marcus Kwame Anderson. Ten Speed Press. 2021. 192pp. $19.99
There’s the myth and then there’s the reality. The fact is that the core of what became known as the Black Panther Party began in 1966 in Oakland, California, under the leadership of Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. But there are a number of other facts that add up to give you the full picture. That is what this graphic novel does so well. Step by step, the reader gets a historical context and an in depth exploration into the lives of very real people.
June 5, 1966: Civil rights activist James Meredith is shot by a sniper during his March Against fear campaign.
The truth is that Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, despite any human shortcomings, became consequential and transcendent. It did not happen overnight. And you learned as you went. The important thing to keep in mind is that the Black Panthers had purpose, real purpose that meant going out and helping the Black community. It had a manifesto and it had a newspaper. And it had guns. It was another time, of course. Back then, Seale and Newton decided to test the existing gun laws in California which allowed the open carrying of firearms. It won’t be lost on any readers that open carry laws still exist in some states with Texas having some of the most lenient gun laws in the United States.
September 27, 1966: 16-year-old Matthew “Peanut” Johnson shot in back and killed by police setting off the Hunters Point Uprising.
One scene in this book that provides a window into the making of the Black Panther Party is when a group of members led by Seale decided to voice their concerns at the state capitol in Sacramento. The goal was to act as representatives of their organization, complete with their militaristic attire and guns, and protest a proposed bill that would outlaw carrying loaded firearms in public, a direct response designed to disarm the Black Panther Party. The protest did not go as planned. Seale and his group, meaning to sit in the public assembly chamber, ended up opening a door that placed them on the main floor. They were immediately disarmed and escorted out. But they had the full attention of the press and so Seale’s protest was not in vain.
The compelling script by David F. Walker and the equally engaging art by Marcus Kwame Anderson bring history to life for the reader through a steadily paced narrative, informative profiles, and numerous examples of the interconnections between then and now. Progress is slow. In some cases, it is surreal as in lynching being outlawed only last year, in 2020. Hills keep being climbed and issues keep being confronted, like equity and police brutality. But you can’t chart the future without understanding the past.
Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams. Verso Books. 2021. 80pp. $17.46
“In this particular historical moment when young Black people are engaged in a renewed struggle against state violence, Mary Turner’s story resonates. She insists that we #SayHerName too.”
– Mariame Kaba, founder and director of Project NIA, from the introduction
The phrase, “Seeing is believing,” is apt when thinking about the killing of George Floyd. It echoes lynching in America, done in plain sight, the perpetrators confident there would be little to no consequences. But these heinous acts were seen nonetheless, witnessed and documented. Rachel Marie-Crane Williams, an artist and teacher, has created a visual testament to one of the most horrific of lynchings: on May 20, 1918, in Valdosta, Georgia, Mary Turner, 8 months pregnant, was brutally murdered, set on fire, her live baby pulled out and stomped to death. The mob then shot at Mary Turner’s corpse hundreds of time. Mary Turner was lynched because she dared to object to the lynching of her husband, Hayes, the day before.
A work like this achieves not only the goal of informing but also of haunting the reader. These images, not meant to shock but to testify, will stay with you. The full-color art and collage work names those who were killed, identifies the killers, and evokes the landscape in which the NAACP investigated the crimes when the state would not. In the big scheme, these lynchings occurred only yesterday. A book like this one brings home that fact.
Page excerpt from Elegy for Mary Turner
Williams chronicles all the events related to a series of lynchings which included Mary Turner. It all began as a quarrel between Hampton Smith, a plantation owner, and Sidney Johnson, a modern-day slave working indefinitely for Smith who had an ongoing scheme of paying off jail fines in return for indentured servitude. The quarrel became heated. Smith beat Johnson. Subsequently, Johnson returned and ended up shooting Smith and his wife. He killed Smith. And he nearly killed his wife. She was pregnant at the time. This incident triggered a lynching spree, between May 17 to 24, 1918, of any Blacks in the surrounding Brooks and Lowndes counties. This resulted in a mob killing 10 men, one woman, Mary Turner, and her baby.
C. Tyrone Forehand (great-grandnephew of Hayes and Mary Turner) provides a postscript. There you will find vivid chilling details like this:
“Rufus Morrison was only ten years old when he was hiding in a cornfield along Ryalls Road in the town of Barney and witnessed Mary Turner’s execution. The memory of a frightened and bewildered woman was forever etched in his mind as he saw the mob tie a rope to her ankles and hoist her upside down from a tree. They taunted and jeered a terrified Mary as they began to roast her alive. One of the members of the mob took a swig of moonshine from a jug and spat it on her as another dared him to slit open her abdomen where her unborn child was oblivious to the fate which was about to befall it.”
The fact is that “seeing is believing” but it’s reading the facts that will give you an deeper picture.
Here’s a scene that looks like it could be a satire on woke sensibility: a white man is besides himself trying to convince a black woman that he’s not inherently racist. In fact, this is not recent at all but part of a comic strip from the 1940s. This is just one of the gems that you will find in a fascinating collection of comics by Black cartoonists. It’s Life As I See It is published in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, running from June 19 – October 3, 2021, and curated by Dan Nadel.
A sly riff on Edgar Rice Burroughs.
This scene is from the comic strip, Bungleton Green and The Mystic Commandos, from 1944, by Jay Jackson. As is the case with all the comics in this collection, Jackson’s comic is part subversive satire and part giving back to the Black community. And, like all the work found here, this is a comic strip that ran in a Black publication. All this work was mostly intended for a Black audience since it was shut out of any white publications at the time. So, at the very least, this is an example of necessity being the mother of invention. You go where you’re wanted. Getting back to this satirical Sci-Fi comic strip, the idea here is that Jackson took what he knew about science fiction and turned it on its head, particularly the John Carter from Mars pulp fiction saga going back to 1912, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In that story, a confederate soldier must confront red and green people from Mars. In Jackson’s twist, white people are at the bottom of the totem pole and must navigate life subjegated by the green Martians. It doesn’t seem right, does it? Like it’s out of some Sci-Fi nightmare!
From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson
Well, there’s more of that fine satire to be found here. I was especially struck by the gag cartoons by Charles Johnson. Again, we happen upon a piece that could just as easily be tweaking the woke generation but is, in fact, from another era. Would today’s youth be able to handle such a joke? In the gag, you have a Black couple sitting on a stoop, apparently making plans for the evening. One character asks, “Do you have a date for tomorrow’s riot?” It is droll humor indeed. It’s a joke, a jest, a way to relieve pressure.
You either cry–or you find a way to laugh.
Finally, one last example of the wicked humor that you find here. This one is by Tom Floyd. And I believe we have got us here a trifecta since, yet again, this cartoon is just as relevant today as it was in 1969. This gag cartoon depicts a Black man navigating his way through the white-collar workforce and the clumsy reaction from white co-workers. Yes, we’ve made progress–but we still have many more hills to climb. It is important to note that Floyd’s gag cartoons were collected into the book, Integration Is a Bitch!, published in 1969. And that title goes hand in hand with the collection of gag cartoons by Charles Johnson, Black Humor, published in 1970. Both these books were beloved by fans and provided inspiration for so many, including a whole new generation of Black cartoonists.
And there’s much more. The book features the work of Tom Floyd, Grass Green, Seitu Hayden, Jay Jackson, Charles Johnson, Yaoundé Olu, Turtel Onli, Jackie Ormes, and Morrie Turner. It is a wonderful comprehensive collection. Dig deep and you’ll be absorbed by such work as Morrie Turner’s radical mixed-race strip Dinky Fellas or the Afrofuturist comics of Yaoundé Olu and Turtel Onli. I was very moved by the creative journey of Charles Johnson who, always drawing comics, went on to become a successful novelist, winning the National Book Award, and a professor at the University of Washington. If you are new to Johnson, I highly recommend reading OxherdingTale. Growing up with dreams of becoming a professional cartoonist, Johnson convinced his father to let him take a two-year cartooning correspondence course taught by novelist and longtime Best Cartoons of the Year editor Lawrence Lariar. While fully aware it would be an uphill climb, Johnson had to overcome plenty of reasons to be discouraged such as The New Yorker being a virtually all-white publication with no intention, at the time, of bringing in Black cartoonists. You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. Johnson was compelled to keep on creating work. He chose to laugh. He succeeded many time over those who would do him harm. I’m fascinated by the fact that, in 1970, then only 22 years-old, Johnson hosted Charlie’s Pad, a how-to-draw show on PBS. It was based on the cartooning course he took from Lawrence Lariar, and inspired by Lariar’s own TV spots in the ’50s and ’60s where he would create a cartoon at the end of a news program. The seeds were sown. Johnson would indeed have the last laugh.
The Tulsa Race Massacre, taking place one hundred years ago today, is being discussed now more than ever in various media. One attempt to present this event in comics is Across the Tracks, a compact book that packs a lot of information. It is part of the imprint, Megascope, within ComicArts, published by Abrams. Megascope is a great way to showcase graphic novel projects that focus on people of color through the prism of speculative and nonfiction works.
Lively Greenwood Avenue
This book is a prime example. Writer Alverne Ball and illustrator Stacey Robinson take the reader on a tour marked by tragedy but not without hope and inspiration. In fact, a good part of the narrative is devoted to the marvel that was the original Greenwood community of Tulsa, an all Black community known as The Negro Wall Street. In the span of 58 pages, the reader is provided with great insight into systemic racism as seen throughout American history. It is a straightforward approach that lets history speak for itself.
Of all the restless ruminations occupying the mind and the tools of the alternative comics artist, none has so strayed so far from the funny-pages mainstream as the memoir. If commerial artists showed themselves at all, it might have been a fleeting glance at a generic father and son in a landscape (famous Frank O, King Sunday page drawings) or a banalization of social relations (Dennis the Menace, Family Circle and about a million others), Justin Green’s “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” with the artist’s own mental breakdowns on view, opened up a dramatically different way forward. As taken most famously by Art Spiegelman in Maus, but also by Alison Bechdel in the slightly fictionalized Fun Home, by Lynda Barry in her recollections of severely troubled childhood, Aline Kominsky’s bodily self-contempt, Joe Sacco’s personal travels thorugh war zones, or by Marjane Sartrapi’s Persepolis, to name only some of the best known—these are rightly among the most celebrated comics of recent decades.
Page excerpt from Chartwell Manor
To this list, add another: Chartwell Manor. As in the other memoir-comics, the artist recalls and recoils simultaneously. The story is told because the story must be told, a burden presumably lifted when it is completed and, at last, in print. We see on the cover that Robert Crumb has called it a masterpiece. Crumb himself, as is well known, suffered the beatings and humiation of his father, the military lifer. Drawing was an escape in search of survival (with a lot of help from Harvey Pekar, as it turned out). Head’s story is also a survivor’s story, typically American in some crucial ways: no war zones, no desperate poverty but deeply screwed up social relations and self-destructive habits.
Head is the kid in the 1960s with real artistic talent but no aptitude for school otherwise. His parents struggle, his mother with great sympathy for his plight, then decide to send him to a prep school/boarding school in his native New Jersey. There, to be brief, the schoolmaster turns out to be a pedophile as well as a self-righteous religiious hypocrite.The trauma suffered here connects with Hedd’s life in all the predictable ways including self-hatred, heavy drinking, strictly transactional womanizing, and decades of depression. The comaraderie of his fellow students at Chartwell didn’t help much at all and neither does his return to public school. It’s an unhappy and sometimes violent story, with a degree of bitterness in particular toward his father, the businessman, who considers manhood to be the art of taking blows without complaint, or (later on) without joining the alleged character weakness of joining AA.
He wants badly to explain to us, in a Foreword, that human behavior but epsecially sexual behavior and its consequences interests (better day, “obsesses”) him as an artist, and that he found himself attracted to the world of underground comics beause they gloriously exposed “what society insisted remain hidden.” His experiences, eating away at him for a large portion of his life, are a wound reopened.
Veteran readers of Head may properly regard this as the summa of his decades of creative work and of the tortured life of a rebellious artist in the post-1970 era when threats to the system seemed minor compared to self-harming impulses of the young and not-so-young.
They could also regard this as the summa of what can be called Punk Comics. Head described it perfecting in a YouTube interview with Noah van Sciver, but to summarize a bit: the dozen comic projects in Greater New York of the 1980s-90s, pulled together conceptually, so to speak, in Crumb’s own Weirdo magazine, published in distant California. Historians of comic art usually place Weirdo against RAW, because the first had no editorial policy whatsoever on skill, and the second was a high-concept Euro-American creation successful, as Ben Katchor has said, by proposing a new art form as a relative of French literature.
RAW set a new standard for comic art, while Weirdo is remembered mainly by specialists and Crumb devotees. But to put it that way obscures the path through DIY culture taken by a field of artists discovering themselves and their skills by plunging in, almost indifferent to the consequences. The excellent and revealing Book of Weirdo lays this out beautifully and should be basic reading in the history of the field.
But not to confine Head to the undertalented. Not at all. Born in 1958, raised in Brooklyn, Head became a student of Art Spiegelman at the School for Visual Arts in the early 1980s. Shifting with the times from Underground Comix to Alternative Comics, he published his own H in 1988, later expanded into a Fantagraphics book, contributed to a variety of anthologies and found a home-away-from-home amongst the crew at Robert Crumb’s and Aline Kominsky’s Weirdo magazine. His solo Chicago (2015) is a grim saga of a would-be comic artist facing a variety of despairing moods and self-destructive tendencies unavoided.
Chartwell Manor could rightly be called the details of predation, consequences and much-delayed redemption. The reader learns from page to page and panel to panel that if details have been invented to make the story work, the protagonist really is Head himself, and that the predatory, pedophile schoolmaster is as real as the bad vibes and drugs. Ever so slowly, as his own art pulls him out,
The art is very much Glenn Head art, straightforward but imaginative at the edges, figures exaggerated larger or thinner than in life, and particularly horrific characters, grotesquely semi-human. His use of the brush is decisive, as he explained in an interview on Noah van Sciver’s YouTube channel. Does he successfully capture himself, or the self of the comic? Perhaps this is a question better asked of the larger framework of the Punk comic genre. Self-abuse wears thin pretty fast, especially without a comic element, and at times, the pages seem to drag. But Head, the hard-working artist, has overcome Head, the punk. He has captured some version of himself convincingly.