U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Transnational Road to Graphic Novels and the American Superhero (guest post)

[The following is a guest post by Ravynn Stringfield, a first-year MA/PhD student in American Studies at the College of William and Mary.]

The Transnational Road to Graphic Novels and the American Superhero

by Ravynn Stringfield

Before I understood, or even knew, the word mimesis, I was looking for it the history and art I consumed. It was in French class that I finally found the brown faces I was seeking. Years of studying le Negritude, African oral tradition, and an intense interest in French rap later, I found myself standing before a graphic novel exhibition in Paris, with a pretty brown face smiling down at me.

The graphic novel on display at the exhibition, Aya of Yop City, written by Marguerite Abouet and illustrated by her husband Clement Ouberie, would become the turning point in my intellectual interests. When Aya was connected with L’Arabe du Futur by Riad Sattouf and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, graphic novels ceased to be the avid pastime of my youth. They became visual representations of diverse people—Ivorian, Iranian, Syrian— their lives, their culture. They became a time capsule containing clues to understanding a political moment in comparable time periods in different places. And with each graphic novel being written by people of color who migrated to France to tell the stories of their home countries, together they challenge notions l’Hexagone as La France propre and celebrate the French language as means of meaningfully linking seemingly otherwise unconnected countries.

As I prepared my undergraduate thesis on this topic, I thought, if I can find all of this in French graphic novels, imagine what I could find in America.

Turning back to American graphic novels, I began looking for some of the issues and themes that I had found so impressive in French bande-dessinee (graphic novel). Suddenly, I was hyperaware of the lack of Black bodies in the American superhero graphic novels that I loved, the over-sexualized nature of the women, and the ways in which capitalism played into these depictions—and once I began to see it, it was everywhere. Zendaya being cast as Mary Jane Watson in the upcoming Spider-Man movie became problematized: diversifying the cast by putting a Black woman in the role of a character that has been saturated for decades with white feminism and sexism does not erase that history. Even more disturbing was the creation of yet another iteration of Spider-Man that is being praised for its diversity, when there exists an Afro-Latino Spider-Man, with his own story line. Zendaya became yet another example of a larger problem of Black women’s bodies being used as cultural currency. Marvel, one of the two big comic-producing bodies, it seemed to me, was using Zendaya as a “diversity point,” which gave them a leg up over DC, the other large body, who, at being criticized for its lack of diversity, had cast a few Black women in supporting roles in their upcoming movies. Zendaya, in addition to the diverse, powerhouse cast and producing team of the upcoming Black Panther film and the Black intellectuals writing the new Black Panther comic run, solidified the argument that Marvel had indeed “won” the competition for “Most Diverse.”

In this one real-life example, issues of race that plagued me today were being immortalized in something seemingly as trite as a superhero film. I could see the usage of Black women as pieces in a power play; a dismissal of a person of color her in preference for the typical white hero; and the consistent dialogue about diversity that in many ways, largely misses the point.

Racial and gender politics are not only at play there, but also in the fan favorite superhero: Black Panther. In his book, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilifu Nama posits that T’Challa “symbolized a politically provocative and wildly imaginative convergence of African tradition with advanced technology, but he also stood as a progressive racial symbol and anti-colonialist critique of the economic exploitation of Africa.”[1] His chapter on the role of T’Challa as being racially progressive and an Afro-futuristic commentary on the ability of Black people create technologically advanced and a relatively peaceful society outside of the regular constraints of American racism and the history of slavery, is particularly relevant given the current revival of the character. Nama correctly notes that though the character of T’Challa was created by white writers, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, outside of the influence of the creation of the Black Panther Party and the movement in Lowndes County, Alabama, it is impossible to dissociate him from the “Black is Beautiful” moment of the 1960s and 1970s.[2] In the current political discussion of Black Lives Matters and in the wake of police brutality, it seems only appropriate that Black intellectuals such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ryan Coogler have made bold attempts to reclaim the character so representative of Black culture for Black people in the new comic run and upcoming film, respectively. With Professors Roxane Gay and Yona Harvey rounding out T’Challa’s current creative team as the writers on both the Black Panther[3] comic and the World of Wakanda spin off, every effort is being made to avoid marginalizing Black female voices, as has been done historically.

As a scholar of language and literature, nothing has ever been more powerful than the written text for me. However, upon rediscovering the graphic novel, in a new and academic light, the form has much more to give than what meets the eye. The content is not only what can be political and transformative, but the art itself. In Understanding Comics, author Scott McCloud takes the reader through an excellently laid out investigating of how to unpack a graphic novel in the same manner one would a novel.[4] It is not merely understanding how to interpret and analyze either words or the art, but instead a combination of the two, reading it as its own form, with its own specific truths it has to offer. In Girls and their Comics[5], the author Jacqueline Danziger-Russell notes that Marjane Satrapi’s story of trauma could only, in some aspects, be accurately depicted in art, as there as some feelings, memories, and experiences simply cannot be conveyed with words, in particular through translation. Graphic novels in combining two forms allows words to communicate where art cannot, and vice versa, creating an even more powerful message than could have been achieved alone.

I’ve found that graphic novels and superheroes are lens through which we may begin to think through the world we live in. Part of the difficulty I face though is the dismissal of the form as trivial, for children, even banal. I was able to teach a course on the phenomena of using graphic novels to uncover currents of American society thought and one of my students argued that there was no point in studying things that are so clearly meant only for entertainment—the artist’s intent, he said, was not to be political or make a statement; it is, in effect, everyday entertainment.

I believe, however, this banality is precisely what makes graphic novels and superheroes a perfect medium for understanding American society, and what role African-Americans play as a part of this. These graphic novels are such an entrenched part of our culture that our heroes take on our values, and what we as society view as important at any given time period. Our superheroes are a reflection of us, the values we hold dear; our villains, our fears. In many ways, main stream American graphic novels differ in content and form from those I familiarized myself within France, but the political, social and historical analysis one can do with them is the same.

The heroes of our graphic novels are the best part of each of us; through them, we can shine light on what America is truly made of.

[1] Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Popular Culture and Black Superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press. (2011) 43.

[2] Nama, Super Black, 39-40.

[3] Ta-Nehisi Coates & Brian Stelfreeze, Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet Volume 1. Marvel. 2016

[4] Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperPerennial. 1994.

[5] Jacqueline Danziger-Russell, Girls and Their Comics: Finding a Female Voice in Comic Book Narrative. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press. (2013) 186.

One Thought on this Post

  1. Ravynn, thanks so much for sharing this guest post with us here at the blog. We’re looking forward to your next installment! (Though I should probably get busy binge-watching Luke Cage first.)

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