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Imagine Otherwise: Rebecca Wanzo on Visibility and African American Comics

Imagine Otherwise: Rebecca Wanzo on Visibility and African American Comics

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March 4, 2020
Rebecca Wanzo wearing a black blazer and black and orange glasses

What role have Black cartoonists played in the history of superheroes, weekend newspaper funnies, and graphic biographies? How have they harnessed the visual power of the comic form to speak back to racist stereotypes and claim space for themselves and their communities?

This episode’s guest, Rebecca Wanzo, argues that Black cartoonists in both mainstream and underground comics have tackled these questions since the very beginning of the medium. She also suggests that they’ve done so by reworking some of the most troubling visual tropes shaping Black representation in the United States.

In episode 106 of Imagine Otherwise, host Cathy Hannabach interviews gender studies professor Rebecca Wanzo about how and why Black cartoonists have turned to caricature to resist racist stereotypes, the many ways progressive movements have used visual culture to create social change, how faculty and staff can meet the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work on university campuses, and why teaching students how to see the world differently is how Rebecca imagines otherwise.

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Guest: Rebecca Wanzo

Rebecca Wanzo is an associate professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

She is the author of the books The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (SUNY Press, 2009), and The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press, 2020).

Her research interests include African American literature and culture, critical race theory, feminist theory, the history of popular fiction in the United States, cultural studies, theories of affect, and graphic storytelling.

In addition to her numerous publications in scholarly journal articles, art exhibition catalogs, and edited collections, Rebecca has also written for CNN, the LA Review of Books, Huffington Post, the Conversation, and Bitch Planet.

Rebecca Wanzo wearing a black suit and orange glasses. Quote reads: What you're trying to do [as a teacher] is to get people to see the world differently and teach the ability to craft an argument or present an idea in a way that transforms the ways in which people have understood what they thought was just common sense. I think it's the best world that we can make and the best thing we can do. It's an extremely hard thing to do, but in the end, I think it's what being an intellectual is about. Quote from episode 106 of Imagine Otherwise

We chatted about

► Rebecca’s new book The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (2:20)

► Rebecca’s journey into studying comics (7:43)

► Rebecca’s first book The Suffering Will Not be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (9:56)

► How to tackle the challenges of interdisciplinary scholarship (13:19)

► Supporting interdisciplinary work in the academy and beyond (16:39)

► Imagining otherwise (18:25)

Takeaways

The Content of Our Caricature

The book is interested in the ways in which African American cartoonists might use negative representations or even what we might understand as a racist caricature occasionally in their work to comment on what I understand as genres of citizenship.

Studying comics

Part of what brought me to comic studies as a field was working at Ohio State and here’s my chance to plug the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum….It has one of the biggest archives of comics and cartoon art related materials in the world. It was there that I discovered some archives that were really important for my work. Samuel Milai, who was an editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier, Brumsic Brando Jr.’s Luther, his original art for his strips are there. There’s a lot of work on George Herriman there and there were other scholars who were doing work in the field and being able to sit with their art and really think about the fact that these are artists who are often left out of black visual cultural histories and what a shame that is and that people should know about them and celebrate them and understand that they were doing really interesting, critical and theoretical work through their cartooning.

The importance of interdisciplinary humanities centers

It’s those connections, really seeing how we could be more in conversation with each other in a place like a university that can be really deeply siloed, which is just the deepest pleasure. I love talking to people and learning from people across disciplines because I think it makes my work better….For people who want community and want more of an audience for their work, both in the academy and outside of it, interdisciplinarity is the way that we begin to cross bridges in all kinds of contexts.

Imagining otherwise

In the end, I think it’s what being an intellectual is about: It’s about trying to get people to see the world differently in ways that make the world better for more people.

More from Rebecca Wanzo

► Rebecca’s WUSTL faculty profile

► Rebecca’s new book The Content of Our Caricature

► Rebecca’s first book The Suffering Will Not Be Televised

► Rebecca on Twitter

People and projects discussed

Comic studies

Jackie Ormes

Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

Avy Jetter

Kara Walker

Wangechi Mutu

Samuel Milai

Brumsic Brando Jr.

► Brumsic Brando Jr.’s comic Luther

George Herriman

Leigh Raiford

Sasha Torres

Jean Allman

St. Louis Public Library

St. Louis Art Museum

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.

Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Episode transcript

    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]:

    Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build a better world. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Cathy Hannabach [00:23]:

    What role have black cartoonists played in the history of superheroes, weekend newspaper funnies and graphic biographies? How have they harnessed the visual power of the comic forum to speak back to racist stereotypes and claim space for themselves and their communities? My guest today, Rebecca Wanzo, argues that black cartoonists in both mainstream and underground comics have tackled these questions since the very beginning of the medium.

    Cathy Hannabach [00:47]:

    She also suggests that they’ve done so by reworking some of the most troubling visual tropes shaping black representation in the United States. Rebecca Wanzo is an associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Her first book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling, traces the racialized representations of suffering in US popular and political media. Her newest book, which we talk quite a lot about in the interview, is called The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging and it was just published by NYU Press.

    Cathy Hannabach [01:24]:

    Rebecca’s research interests include African American literature and culture, critical race theory, feminist theory, the history of popular fiction in the US, cultural studies, theories of affect and graphic storytelling. In addition to her numerous publications and scholarly journals, art exhibition catalogs and edited collections, Rebecca has also written for CNN, the LA Review of Books, the Huffington Post, the Conversation, and Bitch Planet.

    Cathy Hannabach [01:51]:

    In our interview, Rebecca and I chat about how and why black cartoonists have turned to caricature to resist racist stereotypes, the many ways that progressive movements have used visual culture to create social change, how faculty and staff can meet the challenges of doing interdisciplinary work on university campuses and why teaching students how to see the world differently is how Rebecca imagines otherwise. Thanks so much for being with us today, Rebecca.

    Rebecca Wanzo [02:18]:

    Sure. Thank you for having me.

    Cathy Hannabach [02:20]:

    So you’re the author of a brand new book called The Content of Our Caricature: African-American Comic Art and Political Belonging. Can we maybe start our conversation off today by you telling our listeners a little bit about what that book covers and what you argue about it?

    Rebecca Wanzo [02:36]:

    The book is really interested in the ways in which African American cartoonists might use negative representations or even what we might understand as a racist caricature occasionally in their work to comment on what I understand as genres of citizenship. So one of the things that I’ve long been interested in is what happens when we see a racialized caricature and obviously the vast majority of them in the history of the world have been to demean black people. But there are times when there are other things going on and sometimes I think the conversations are too fast or too quick and I think that looking at black cartoonists to use them might be a way of getting at those questions. And also someone who works more broadly in the field of comic studies, and there’ve been a lot of works more recently on black comic art, but people have often neglected things like editorial cartoons and some comic strips that no one’s really talked about in depth.

    Rebecca Wanzo [03:35]:

    And so I was really interested in bringing what’s most talked about like superhero comics, which I only have really one chapter on and talk about another one in another chapter in conversation with the breadth of work being done in black comic and cartoon art over the course of history and to think about how they’re often responding to the ways in which these ideal types like Superman or Little Orphan Annie or editorial cartoons that sort of depict heroism or just sort of representations of white heroic ideals are ones that black cartoonists that are really thinking about and they’re thinking about stereotype and caricature and how to get people to think more critically about the ways in which they’re deployed in the US, including idealized stereotypes like what the ideal citizen looks like.

    Cathy Hannabach [04:24]:

    The range of artists and comics that you analyze in this book is really impressive. And one of the things that struck me as I was reading through this book is the role of gender in this history that you trace. And you make a point that it’s often at least historically more commonly that male black cartoonists have been deploying these abject or grotesque caricatures to critique them. And you make a point that there’s something going on there about the gender of the artists. Why do you think that is? What is going on with gender in terms of how these caricatures get reworked and remade?

    Rebecca Wanzo [05:02]:

    So really when you look at the gender imbalance in this book, there aren’t many women cartoonists that I discuss and that’s about the fact that there have been more black male cartoonists over time. Jackie Ormes was publishing very early in the 20th century, but she is not someone who was a mainstream cartoonist in terms of outside of the black press. A lot of what I talked about are people in the black press, black women cartoonists have had a hard time just like black artists in general, making it in to sort of the big comic companies like DC and Marvel.

    Rebecca Wanzo [05:39]:

    It’s only more recently that we’ve seen more of that happening. So part of it is just how few black cartoonists and black women cartoonists specifically have been working over time. There have been some. So I think that that’s a really important thing to talk about in terms of the archive. My first book was only about African American women and their relationship to histories of representations of sentimentality and who you should feel sympathy for and their engagement with sort of mainstream genres in relationship to that.

    Rebecca Wanzo [06:12]:

    So this is sort of my male counterpart to that book, thinking about another aesthetic mode and how African Americans take part in it. But now there have been more African American women cartoonists working over the last few decades that we’ve seen. And I do think that there is something about constructions of black women as grotesque and abject that some black women artists have been, I think, less interested in doing. I’m really intrigued by the work that I mentioned in my book of Avy Jetter. I think she’s someone who might do some of that.

    Rebecca Wanzo [06:51]:

    And obviously we see it in black woman artists, I think when get to Wangechi Mutu and Kara Walker for example, they make use of that kind of a grotesque sensibility. But I think black people in general tend to shy away from it. Not just sort of black women for obvious reasons, but there are examples of where black men have just been more interested in it. So again, that’s sort of pure speculation and again, it’s really a numbers game. It’s a lot about what I’m talking about here. But I think that it’s something that black women hesitate to do given the nexus of blackness as abject and gender as abject. And it’s sort of to reinstantiate that can be a complicated enterprise for black men too. But it’s something I’ve been sort of trying to think through as I think about that absence in my book.

    Cathy Hannabach [07:43]:

    You tell this really great story in the book at the very end about how, although you grew up with comics, like a lot of us as kind of just in the air around us, it was only in graduate school that you really started identifying as a comics fan. I’m curious about that turning point. What was that turning point for you where you shifted from a casual reader to someone who really got involved in the comics world and wanted to actively study them as a scholar?

    Rebecca Wanzo [08:11]:

    Well, more specifically, I didn’t start reading comics until graduate school. So I don’t even know if I would up it to saying being a comics fan. And in fan studies, what it means to claim fandom is a really complex question. So what I would say is that reading comics in grad school as I say in my book was something I was doing because I wanted to read for pleasure. And at the time I was having to read a monograph a day for my exams and I just couldn’t read anymore of just straight words on a page. So I just wanted to still be able to consume pleasurably and wasn’t able to otherwise. But part of what really brought me to comic studies as a field was working at Ohio State and here’s my chance to plug the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum and if anyone’s ever passing through Columbus, it’s on Ohio State’s campus.

    Rebecca Wanzo [09:05]:

    It has one of the biggest archives of comics and cartoon art related materials in the world. It was there that I discovered some archives that were really important for my work. Samuel Milai, who was an editorial cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Courier, Brumsic Brando Jr.’s Luther, his original art for his strips are there. There’s a lot of work on George Herriman there and there were other scholars who were doing work in the field and being able to sit with their art and really think about the fact that these are artists who are often left out of black visual cultural histories and what a shame that is and that people should know about them and celebrate them and understand that they were doing really interesting, critical and theoretical work through their cartooning.

    Cathy Hannabach [09:56]:

    Your first book, The Suffering Will Not be Televised, has some really interesting connections here I think. And I know in that book, as you pointed out, you’re focused more on representations of women’s suffering in various media forums, but I’m struck by kind of connections with this new book around how violence is depicted and resisted in narrative as well as visual forms. Why do you think so many progressive or social justice movements and scholars have turned towards the visual to make political and cultural change? What is it about visuality or visibility or invisibility perhaps that can provide something to social justice movements like these?

    Rebecca Wanzo [10:36]:

    Well actually my first book isn’t really focused on the visual exclusively. It’s actually much more focused on narrative. It’s really about the kinds of stories you have to tell to make your suffering legible to the state or other kinds of communities. And there’s some context in which the visual representation becomes really key. So like this book, I start in the 19th century, slavery is really important I think to thinking about the history of racial justice and seeking success through legislative efforts through sort of transforming hearts and minds and African Americans have been very skilled in both the ways they tell stories and the way they use visual representations. And the civil rights movement, as a number of scholars have talked about like Sasha Torres and Leigh Raiford, was really the most successful deployment of mass media for social justice movement that we’d seen.

    Rebecca Wanzo [11:38]:

    They were really skilled at using the news media, using magazines, using photographs to make sure that people would see these representations and feel shame or feel anger, be mobilized. And so there is a kind of immediacy of the image, obviously, that does something, right, that sometimes it’s often pre-thought, right? You see an image and you have a reaction and then the story sometimes comes later. But I do think that images and narratives work together and if there is something that my work is about, it’s about this nexus of political discourse and narrative broadly speaking in a variety of genres and representation, broadly speaking and how it’s impossible to have any kind of political success without interweaving these things in order to seek attention for your efforts.

    Cathy Hannabach [12:46]:

    Both this new book and your previous book I find are very deeply interdisciplinary. You’re drawing on a variety of different academic fields and departments. You’re drawing on different forms of studying popular culture and media production and cultural production and certainly interdisciplinarity is a value that you foregrounded across the various parts of your career. At this point I’d love to talk a little bit about the work that you did at the Center for the Humanities as an associate director and maybe how that connects to some of your other projects as well.

    Cathy Hannabach [13:19]:

    Interdisciplinarity is certainly something that a lot of academics, a lot of universities champion, but it can be challenging. Right? And one of the things that I’ve liked talking with people in the show about is kind of how that plays out on the ground. What does it actually look like to do interdisciplinary work and what are some of the difficulties or the opportunities for that? So either at the Center for the Humanities with your work there or maybe in some of your other projects, what are some of the major challenges that you’ve experienced when bringing scholars together to do interdisciplinary work and maybe how have you navigated those challenges?

    Rebecca Wanzo [13:55]:

    I mean, I think that people sometimes struggle to talk outside of their disciplines to each other. I mean one of the things that in my first book that occurred to me when I was thinking about sentimentality, my background is in English, that’s what my PhD is in, although I have variety of training in other fields, which is why I ended up in the interdisciplinary departments, is that in talking about sentimentality which is so central to literary studies, there are also people talking about the same themes in moral philosophy. There’s a version of this in social movement theory for sociologists. There’s a version of this for psychologists and so what does it mean to really think about the fact that people are talking about the same things but often not talking to each other or citing each other. So one of the things that I’ve always been interested in doing my work is trying to bring people in conversation with each other in my writing that may not be in conversation with each other in the world.

    Rebecca Wanzo [14:58]:

    Similarly, I think that when you are at a humanities center, which is a space I love being in and not only was I associate director, I spent a year at Cornell’s Humanities Center. I really love that kind of space. If people come there, part of why they are gathering usually is because they want to be in conversation with other people. It’s really interesting when we would do say the reading groups for people’s work for the faculty and graduate student fellows every year. Usually what people shared was an intro, but sometimes it would be another chapter. What was really interesting is that this is the opportunity to see how a smart, educated audience might read your work and what are the things in other people’s fields that might be useful, right. I mean there’s a way in which we can all talk about structures of argument and what makes writing better, that kind of thing.

    Rebecca Wanzo [15:46]:

    But it’s those connections, really seeing how we could be more in conversation with each other in a place like a university that can be really deeply siloed, which is just the deepest pleasure. I love talking to people and learning from people across disciplines because I think it makes my work better and so it’s not for everyone. I think the biggest challenge is that some people really think that humanities centers should just be about people staying in their lane and giving money to people to just finish their books and no one needs to talk to each other, but that’s not a really intellectually engaging space for people to live in or inhabit. Right. So for people who want community and want more of an audience for their work, both in the academy and outside of it, it seems that interdisciplinarity is the way that we begin to cross bridges in all kinds of contexts.

    Cathy Hannabach [16:39]:

    Do you have any advice for other research center staff or leaders on how to foster those kinds of interdisciplinary collaborations and projects on their campuses?

    Rebecca Wanzo [16:50]:

    I mean obviously it always helps if you have money to give people resources to come together to encourage it. I mean I think that that’s one of the things that’s really useful. And then also some of the work we’ve done and my director, Jean Allman, did in getting some grants from the Mellon Foundation that allowed us to build some bridges with community members and to do a lot of programming that was with community institutions. So that does a few things. I mean I think that people really like to bring their work or engage with people outside of the academy when they can. And humanists in particular can often feel like they have less to offer or people can think that humanists have less to offer. But actually we can be in all kinds of spaces and one thing I love about living in St. Louis is that people really come out for all kinds of intellectual programs.

    Rebecca Wanzo [17:42]:

    I’ve given programs with the history museum, I did a program on comics at the St. Louis Public Library on a hot summer night at 7:00 PM and my mother was like, “Is anybody going to show up?” Quite a few people showed up and there was this 12-year-old boy who had tons of questions. I’ve done programs at the art museum or multiple art institutions actually in the city. And so there are lots of ways to reach out and I think that also makes you legible to your institution and institutions supposedly care about outreach, right? And they like to see that kind of visibility and then it sort of can encourage them to support your work economically and institutionally.

    Cathy Hannabach [18:25]:

    So this brings me to my absolute favorite question that I get to ask folks, which really gets at that reason or that impetus behind all of these different projects that you do. And that’s that version of a better world that you work towards, that version of a better world that you are working on when you create your books, when you teach your classes, when you design these collaborative community events and programs. So what kind of world are you working toward? What kind of world do you want?

    Rebecca Wanzo [18:53]:

    I think that with both of my projects and in my teaching, as someone who is a theorist, right, and there’s a lot of discussion often that theory isn’t valuable and I always tell my students that you don’t start with the abstract concept with theory, particularly when you’re doing something like critical race theory or feminist theory. You actually start with the thing or the problem. What you’re trying to do is to get people to see the world differently and [teach] the ability to craft an argument or present an idea in a way that transforms the ways in which people have understood what they thought was just common sense. I think it’s just the best world that we can make and the best thing we can do. It’s an extremely hard thing to do, but in the end, I think it’s what being an intellectual is about. It’s about trying to get people to see the world differently in ways that make the world better for more people. Because you see them suddenly in ways you hadn’t seen them before.

    Cathy Hannabach [19:56]:

    Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all of the amazing ways that you imagine otherwise.

    Rebecca Wanzo [20:02]:

    Thank you for having me.

    Cathy Hannabach [20:08]:

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guests as well as find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.

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