Welcome to The (re)Collection Agency, a new feature on The Middle Spaces, where we bring you informal talks with comics scholars about their comics reading and collecting practices and how that intersects with their work. The idea is to open up the discourse a bit to integrate the personal experience of comics reading and material culture with the scholarly side of comics, historicizing, interpreting, and archiving.
I explained in the introduction of the first installment the origins of the term “(re)collection,” as I coined and theorized it in my dissertation project. While the coming installments of The (re)Collection Agency do not specifically focus on (re)collection, the idea behind it energizes my inquiries, and seeks to narratively suture the idiosyncratic experience of reading with a scholarly context that asks that reading serve a further critical purpose.
For our sophomore installment, I spoke with Qiana Whitted.
Qiana Whitted is Associate Professor of English and African American Studies at University of South Carolina whose research and writing about comics focuses on the intersections of race, history, and identity. She contributed to and served as co-editor of the essay collection, Comics and the U.S. South. Additionally, she has variety of other publications, including “‘And the Negro Thinks in Hieroglyphics’: Comics, Visual Metonymy and the Spectacle of Blackness” in Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics; “Black Culture, Speculative Fiction, and the Past as Text in Jeremy Love’s Bayou” in Essays on Teaching with Graphic Narratives; and “The Blues Tragicomic: Constructing the Black Folk Subject in McCulloch and Hendrix’s Stagger Lee,” in the Eisner-Award winning collection, The Blacker The Ink. This summer she will be a visiting professor at Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina (UFSC) in Florianópolis, Brazil teaching a course on “Race, Gender, and Graphic Novels in Brazil.” She is also an Associate Editor of Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society.
I met Qiana through her work on The Hooded Utilitarian, where we both once contributed with semi-regularity, and after striking up a correspondence she encouraged me to submit work to the International Comics Art Forum conference, and soon after that we ended up serving on the ICAF executive committee together. I was very happy that Qiana agreed to take part in this talk, because I have so much respect for her work, and have been really grateful for her support.
Osvaldo Oyola: So, it struck me as I was doing my homework for this talk (reading some of your work, checking your website) that I don’t know how you got into comics, like what was your trajectory into comics and from there making them part of your scholarship?
Qiana Whitted: I rediscovered comics in college during the early 90s — Spawn, Swamp Thing, and Sandman were early favorites — but when I started working here at University of South Carolina, I proposed a summer class on Sandman that focused on how the series represented world mythology and adapted elements of the hero’s journey. That would have been in 2005… doing the research for that class exposed me to comic studies as an academic field. Like many of the students that I teach today, it was a shock to discover that scholars could be allowed to take comics seriously. I wanted to participate in those conversations so I started to look for ways to bring my interest in the form into my research on African American literature and culture.
OO: You said “re-discovered”? You read comics as a kid?
QW: As a kid, I read a lot of Garfield and Mad, mostly humor comics.
OO: GARFIELD! I love the textless Garfield strips. Have you ever seen those?
QW: Yes! I love those kinds of comics remixes — with Garfield Minus Garfield, you get something funny and contemplative. I also had a friend in high school that snuck copies of the original TMNT [Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles] into class and whoa… I was not prepared for the kind of adult material in those early issues. So that was fun.
OO: I’ve been realizing lately how much MAD is a part of a lot of people’s youth. It always felt like a secret thing to me, well, if not a “secret,” something I rarely discussed with others, but I loved them. So, I can see going from TMNT to Spawn, from Garfield, not so much.
QW: Well I loved the inside jokes and spoofs in MAD, even the back page fold-in. It wasn’t until later that I began to realize that the satire was trying to say something more! Spawn appeared during a time when I was all about horror, plus it had a black protagonist. That’s a win-win.
OO: I always forget that about Spawn. I’ve never read any (save for an odd panel here or there). In my mind, Spawn was part of the stuff that drove me away from comics for a decade
QW: Why was that? Todd McFarlane’s style, etc.?
OO: Yeah. It seemed like typical over the top Image Comics stuff. Blood and spikes and rippling muscles on muscles, etc… I was foolish and mostly gave up on comics because I got tired of superheroes, but didn’t look to replace them with other comics genres (except for rare exception like reading Maus or Life in Hell).
QW: It was definitely over the top and it had been easy for me to ignore those kinds of comics before. When I stumbled upon Spawn and these other 90s series, I happened to be dating this guy who was into airbrush painting in college…
OO: Airbrush painting? Like t-shirts and the sides of vans? Frank Frazetta stuff?
QW: Ha. Do you remember when people were doing all those drawings of hip-hop Looney Tunes characters? Like angry Daffy Duck with gold chains and a hoodie? So he would airbrush those on jeans and t-shirts, maybe add your name and personalize it.
OO: Oh yeah! That was very 90s!
QW: IT WAS! But it also helped him pay the rent. There was a small used bookstore near the campus and I went with him to browse the special magazines they sold for artists and designers. I wasn’t really interested in those, so while I was waiting and trying to look cute – (For this guy! Now my husband!) – I roamed around the store. There were used paperbacks, a room in the back for porn, and a wall of comics. I picked the comics.
OO: Nice! So, I’ll be real and admit I haven’t read your non-comics work, but I was wondering if this interest in horror comics intersects at all with your work on “The Problem of Evil.”
QW: Yes, there are connections between my interest in the problem of evil and comics. My first book focused on how African American writers have explored the question of God and religious dissent, and I find that many of those same issues come up in the kinds of comics I enjoy. Swamp Thing was a good early example of that, weirdly enough. When in the Swamp Thing Annual #2 (1985) he goes down to the underworld in the Alan Moore run to rescue Abby, there are some fascinating otherworldly meditations there.
OO: Yes. I was reading your chapter on Swamp Thing and Bayou in Comics and the U.S. South just yesterday and it made me realize I need to re-read Moore’s Swamp Thing. They were the first complete sets of trades I bought when I got back into comics in the early 00s.
QW: A great choice! Yeah, I write about part of the story arc from “American Gothic” in that article.
OO: Your current project is on EC comics?
QW: Yes, I’m writing a book on race and social justice in EC comics for the Rutgers University Press Comics Culture series. I’m finishing the last chapter now.
OO: That doesn’t sound like an intuitive connection, though my little exposure of old horror comics makes me immediately think of their concern with a twisted form of justice. Can you talk about how you came to see the comics through that lens?
QW: My focus in this project is not so much EC’s horror comics, although those were publisher’s top-selling comics along with MAD.
OO: Oh right! Duh! I hear “EC” and I immediately think “horror,” but of course they printed comics in a variety of genres.
QW: EC had a particular way of approaching justice and moral retribution in order to add the shocking twist that would entertain readers. Perpetrators of wrongdoing may get away with a crime temporarily, but in EC they always got what was coming to them – usually in a deliciously cruel or violent way. That was essential to the EC style, whether we are talking about criminals, monsters, or aliens. In this book, I’m asking questions about the comics from EC that dealt with current social and political issues in the 1950s. What happens when the “villain” is a white supremacist? When discrimination is his crime? What results are some really fascinating morality tales that attempt to work within the formulas that EC associated with crime, shock, and science fiction genres.
OO: Can you give a brief example from such a story?
QW: In “Blood Brothers,” from Shock SuspenStories #13 (1953), a white family man named Sid living in the suburbs discovers that his neighbor who also appears to be a white has “Negro blood.” The story follows Sid as he terrorizes the neighbor and makes his life a living hell. The neighbor gets fired from his job, his wife gets sick and can’t get medical attention, his kids are ostracized. So, in the end, the so-called Negro neighbor kills himself.
QW: At the end of the story, a wise old doctor speaks out against this false notion of “Negro blood” and informs Sid that he actually received a life-saving blood transfusion from a black man as a child. In the story’s shocking conclusion, it’s the white racist who has to accept the fact that his own blood is tainted. Gasp! The End.
OO: Is that story situated somewhere specific geographically?
QW: “Blood Brothers,” like many of these comics, take place in the kind of generic suburban space. What’s interesting is that EC was always very careful not to locate their stories in a particular region. They wanted people to know that these incidents could happen anywhere in America. There were certainly associations made with places like Levittown, NY that was known for excluding African Americans. But the target was largely middle class whites.
OO: Right. So like a generic white suburban imaginary. . .?
QW: Yes, exactly.
OO: Speaking of location or region in comics…as you know, I struggle a lot with the limits of representation in comics, even as I am fascinated with what and how the medium can represent in ways others can’t. I was wondering about that in relationship to representing place, whether that is specific to the U.S. South or any other “region” or particular locale.
QW: My research has always been interested more generally in black southern culture and as Brannon [Costello, Qiana’s co-editor on Comics and the U.S. South] and I say in our book, there is a lot about the South and race that lends itself to a concern with the visual, with what we think we can see and the ideas we project onto others based on those assumptions. Modern comics have often been reluctant to represent the South outside of a few common stereotypes and genres such as humor. Whether this is based on a lack of knowledge or the notion that the region is only suitable for certain types of stories, the result is, in my opinion, a missed opportunity for those of us who enjoy visual narrative. This is why I get so excited by comics that take risks and try to offer more complexity in representing southern life and culture.
OO: Like Stuck Rubber Baby?
QW: SRB is a great example! I’ve taught it a couple of times, mostly in my class on race, gender, and graphic novels.
OO: What about it makes it Southern to you? Or perhaps, another way to ask the question: is it exemplary of a kind of counter-narrative of what the South is like because of its protagonist?
QW: SRB definitely stands apart as one of the earliest graphic novels to reflect upon the Civil Rights Movement (although there were several titles that appeared during the 1950s and 1960s that represent civil rights activism too). For Howard Cruse to do this in a way that also explores the protagonist’s identity as a white man who is gay also adds an important dimension that many of my students don’t consider.
Aesthetically, Cruse’s background as an underground comix artist is another way to introduce students to different artistic movements and approaches. I don’t try to convince my students that Cruse set out to “represent the South.” I think he just wanted to tell a story (based on his own life) that meant something special to him, a turning point personally as well as politically. But the graphic novel also exposes the form’s potential to capture southern experience – potential we see realized in other texts like John Lewis’ graphic memoir trilogy, March, or in the recent adaptation of Octavia Butler’s novel, Kindred.
OO: I think SRB kinda does its own convincing in Cruse’s careful attention to his characters and their setting.
OO: If we can backtrack a little bit, earlier you said that your turn towards comics studies was kind of instigated by your desire to teach a class on Sandman, and the subsequent research that led to your discovery of the comic studies field. To what degree is what you teach or what projects you take on influenced by what comics you just happen to like?
QW: I do tend to write about comics I personally enjoy, but more than this, I am fascinated by the way the form can be used to tackle difficult topics, particularly where it concerns race and history. I have a deep respect for artists and writers that can tell these stories well, or at the very least, make the attempt. I have a forthcoming essay on comics and Emmett Till that compares how several cartoonists have attempted to represent his murder.
OO: Ooh! I want to read that! Where can I find it?
QW: It comes out in March in a collection entitled: Picturing Childhood: Youth in Transnational Comics. I think comics—like all visual narratives—can challenge us to think more carefully about social constructions of identity in ways that we can’t always access through prose, poetry, or film. And the fact that the form has its own history of horrendous stereotyping makes the task of depicting multi-dimensional black experiences fraught from the start. This is one of the reasons why I love talking about Jeremy Love’s Bayou (and why other cultural studies critics like Rebecca Wanzo and Jonathan Gray are attracted to it as well).
OO: I am just recently learning about Bayou, but haven’t gotten a chance to read it. Can you give an example of how it does this?
QW: Love’s comic explicitly takes up racial caricatures that have been a staple of American popular culture. He turns the psychic toll of their oppressive “power” into a force that the story’s heroine can interact with and battle against; Sambo and the Golliwog, for example. The comic can be easily mistaken for a children’s story – and too often our most insidious narratives about race start out that way – but Love isn’t afraid to use a child’s perspective to venture into dark places and spin the kinds of tales that we praise writer Zora Neale Hurston for (or bluesman Robert Johnson) by addressing complex social realities through folk imagination.
OO: There seems to be a pretty strong tension there at the same time, right? Like there is a possibility that a shift in context or reading practice recapitulates the ugliness or misrepresents its intention.
QW: Sure, but I think this kind of anxiety about misreading follows most black speculative fiction, especially when it comments on the past. I think Love does it well and is not afraid to venture into problematic interpretive territories… John Jennings is another visual artist that is excellent at this. I’ve written about Derek McCulloch and Shepherd Hendrix’s Stagger Lee, too, which I think does a good job.
OO: But comics fail. . . or at least struggle. . .
QW: True. I don’t think Southern Bastards (by Jason Aaron and Jason Latour) always has a good handle on the slipperiness of racist iconography. The comic seems to struggle with how to represent a multi-racial contemporary South in which the self-interests of black, white, and brown people are all tangled up together. Sometimes the non-white characters can come across like set pieces being moved around in a series that doesn’t really want to be “about race.” But it’s still relatively new and there’s potential. The artwork is pretty amazing.
QW: Itchy is a great way to describe it!
OO: I think you are right about not letting the fear of misreading keep a creator from taking risks, though.
QW: This is actually one of the reasons why I am spending a lot of time these days researching pre-Code comics about race. I am genuinely impressed with the kinds of comics that black and white creators were trying to produce for a larger reading public.
OO: You mentioned Zora Neale Hurston before and talking about “risk” made me think back to her because, in my experience teaching her, work: students (especially white students) really struggle with her writing and ideas. Some students try to easily frame her to fit some idealized notion of race or colorblindness. The difficulty comes in, I think, because Hurston reveal the complex ways she performs race, which is risky, since you can’t know how a mixed audience will understand it.
QW: Yes, Hurston reclaimed folk imagery and even elements of black speech that were sometimes considered embarrassing to upwardly mobile black elites. I emphasize to my students that she wanted to re-categorize black culture and racial difference as a matter of pride, as something she could freely claim, despite the ways that whites had used these images and ideas – whether it was via Uncle Remus tales or minstrel performance, etc.
OO: I think comics can do things with juxtaposition and simultaneity that neither prose nor film can do, and that helps it convey complexity as a medium.
QW: Yes, I’ve always appreciated Charles Hatfield’s description of the way visual and verbal codes in comics “clash and collaborate” on the page and this is something that works very well when it comes to exploring race and social identity in comics. I like the fact that some of the best comic art about blackness these days doesn’t just abandon the form to the gross oversimplifications of stereotype.
OO: But doesn’t necessarily shy away from it either.
OO: So one of my earlier questions was supposed to lead to us talking about your own comics collecting/reading practice and your work as scholar or teacher, but we didn’t get there, which is fine because I want these conversations to be organic, but…
QW: You want to know how I select what to read and write about?
OO: Yes, and how that intersects with what you are buying/reading on the regular (if it does at all).
QW: I prefer narratives that play with the form and really try to use the page to convey multiple ideas. I love the marginalia in American Born Chinese… the back matter in Bitch Planet… and the way Harvey Pekar breaks the fourth wall… things like that. I tend to bring a lot of these things into my classes and in my research, to think about the way black artists (or artists representing blackness) use those same tools.
QW: In addition to Bitch Planet, I’m keeping up with Saga, Sex Criminals, Black Panther, Paper Girls, and I just got my copy of [the graphic novel adaptation of Octavia Butler’s] Kindred a week ago.
Oh! And I started picking up that comic you recommended at ICAF! Forgot the name… about the kids on the bus trip who get lost…
OO: No Mercy, which is increasingly an apt name for that series
QW: Yes! Oh, and Southern Bastards.
OO: You didn’t give up on it?
QW: I want to see this story arc through. They added a black woman character so…
OO: I’m behind on Southern Bastards. I wait for the trade.
QW: Honestly, I’m a few months behind on all of these. I really haven’t read anything lately. I’m just trying to finish this book.
OO: So do you still read Spawn comics?
QW: Ha Ha! No, not anymore. Is Spawn still being published?!!?
OO: I think it is, but I don’t know for sure. I wanted to go back to that because you mentioned Spawn as part of a moment of discovery. You said something about seeing a black protagonist being important when you stumbled on that wall of comics in the used bookstore with your airbrushing future husband?
QW: Yes, well, we are all accustomed to seeing certain tropes and patterns in our favorite genres. I loved horror and by the time I got to college, I was familiar with some of the basic superhero stories, but seeing a black character in the midst of that was a surprise. I like when the assumptions of genre fiction (and comics) are used for new purposes. This is one of the reasons why I’m attracted to EC stories.
OO: But isn’t their approach formulaic? The twist tale? Like a creeped out O’Henry story…
QW: Right, exactly! And you would think that if you read one, you’ve read them all. But Bill Gaines, Al Feldstein, and the artists that worked for EC were also quite good at turning those assumptions back on the reader. Their “social justice” comics were a great example of that and in stories like “In Gratitude” or “Judgment Day,” the plot twists revolved around mistaking virtuous black characters for white.
OO: Makes me want to look at them again…more…
QW: We could make a similar case for the way Dell, Fawcett, and other Golden Age publishers tried to attract black readers in the late 1940s and 1950s.
OO: Can you elaborate?
QW: In the years shortly before the [Comics] Code [Authority] was put into place, non-superhero genre comics were much more popular than people realize. Fawcett had a line of sports-themed comics that were doing well, so they gave Jackie Robinson his own series in 1950. Romance comics had a solid market, but had started to decline, so they colored the faces brown and tried out Negro Romance.
OO: And these comics turned assumptions back on themselves?
QW: The formulas are still there, which can make for some crazy combinations, but there were subtle adaptations too that suggest an effort to explore cultural differences and reach a broader market. Among early indie comics, a publication like like Orrin C. Evan’s short-lived All-Negro Comics (1947) placed black protagonists in roles that had been reserved for whites in mainstream comics: the detective story, the imperial “jungle” comic, the fantasy tale, etc.
OO: Is there anything else you want to mention, to make sure we cover before we finish up? Any other projects or topics?
QW: I finished an essay on March recently and I’m writing notes for a conference paper on Wet Moon, another southern horror/romance comic!
OO: Wet Moon? Something else to look up
QW: Oh it’s great… Sophie Campbell’s work is incredible.
OO: I still haven’t read March. I am working on something currently about The Private Eye.
QW: You haven’t read March??? For shame!!! Private Eye…that’s Brian K. Vaughan, right?
OO: Yes, I should be ashamed, and yes, The Private Eye is by BKV and Marcos Martin.
QW: Did you read Ex Machina? I loved that.
OO: I was meh on it
QW: What?! Ah man.
OO: It has its moments, but I put it low on scale of BKV stuff. Not as low as Pride of Baghdad, which I just don’t get what the fuss is about.
QW: It’s because Ex Machina takes place in NYC right? All those clunky post-9/11 plotlines?
OO: I mean, that is part of it, maybe. Certainly, as a New Yorker I feel a certain degree of 9/11 exhaustion, though Ex Machina deals with it better than most stuff has. No, I think it’s that the politics are weird or something. Maybe I need to re-visit. I remember feeling betrayed by main character in a way that the narrative did not do the work to earn.
QW: Mitch Hundred (the protagonist) did do a lot of self-righteous moralizing. He was also an EC fan, by the way. I remember that he and his black chief of staff had some fascinating exchanges.
OO: Yes, that was good stuff… Maybe the arc of the narrative in general left me so cold that I am forgetting the moments worth lingering on.
So, that’s it! Thanks for participating and I look forward to your book! I’ll be sure to come back and update this chat with a link to ordering it when it is available.
QW: Thanks for inviting me to chat!
Thanks again to Dr. Whitted for taking the time to talk about comics with us!
Stay tuned for more installments of The (re)Collection Agency featuring more conversations with comics scholars, from the well-established, to the junior faculty, to the recent PhDs and even graduate students. Until then!
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).