The (re)Collection Agency #12: A Conversation with Rebecca Wanzo

Welcome to the 12th installment of The (re)Collection Agency. It has been over a year since we’ve had the opportunity to bring you one of these talks, so in case you don’t remember, the (re)Collection Agency is a series 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 through historicizing, interpreting, and archiving—though in this post we focus mostly on the subject’s new book.

Original art from BAYOU, by Jeremy Love (photo by Rebecca Wanzo)

Dr. Rebecca Wanzo (art by John Jennings)

Today’s talk is with Rebecca Wanzo, Associate Professor and current Chair of the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. Dr. Wanzo earned her PhD at Duke University and is the author of The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling from SUNY press (2009) and numerous essays on comics, feminist media studies, and African American literature and culture. Her most recent book is The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging (NYU Press) and when I found out about it—when Rebecca excerpted a part of it for our Bitch Planet roundtable back in 2018—I knew I wanted to talk with her for this series once it came out. She also had an essay—“Superhero: Feminist; Superpowers: Killer of Joy, Destroyer of Worlds”—in the backmatter of Bitch Planet #9 (November 2016). We did get to meet in person later that year, at the Comics Studies Society 2018 conference Mind the Gaps, where she moderated the panel I was on and presented “Cartoonish-Subjectivity as Racial Subversion: Jennifer Cruse’s Jennifer’s Journal” as part of the Black Graphic Women in Contemporary Indie Comics panel. Most recently, she wrote an opinion piece for CNN asking readers to rethink removing “blackface episodes” from streaming platforms.

Nevertheless, given current events—the protests and police riots, the ongoing explicit corruption of the Trump administration, and a pandemic that has left many people feeling socially isolated in general and academics and other university employees feeling uncertain about the future of teaching on college campuses—focusing even on convivial activities like this talk can feel difficult, so I was grateful that Rebecca agreed to make time and participate. And while we did not end up talking about current events, the ideas she explores in her work are relevant to the discourse on race and art that is always a part of navigating national and local politics and thinking about its history.

Osvaldo Oyola (OO): So, I want to start by admitting that I didn’t finish your book. I got as far as I could between when I received it and now, but when I realized a straight read through was not gonna happen in time, I jumped around some, making sure to hit the chapters on underground comix and the Black Panther coda. But that has nothing to do with the quality of the book—I think it is fantastic, a really important work that unlike a lot of scholarly texts is actually readable—I just have been having a hard time focusing on anything right now given the state of the world.

Rebecca Wanzo (RW): I cannot focus well at all right now. I have largely been reading other people’s work and doing admin stuff.

The Content of Our Caricature (cover art by Jeremy Love)

OO: So, let’s jump into it! The thing that struck me right away about The Content of our Caricature is your work to make a nuanced distinction between stereotype and caricature— two words folks (even scholars) often use interchangeably and almost always in the negative. You write in the introduction, “Caricatures can be about individuals and thus are not the exact same as stereotypes, even as they can also circulate ideas about groups through stereotyping—the reproduction of a generalization about a group over and over again (5). Can you talk a little bit about how you came to make that distinction and build your arguments around it?

RW: It is indeed challenging to make that distinction, particularly since people use the terms interchangeably in our language. I worked with some intentionality as I moved back and forth between the terms in the book. As with many of my projects, one way I had at getting at the distinction was thinking about the terms historically and materially—stereotyping in print culture and caricature as drawing style. Thinking about how they work with each other—that a caricature is not always a stereotype is important in the history of comic and cartoon art. And as I began thinking about how certain comic characters—like Superman and Orphan Annie were ideal(ized) caricatures—it helped me think about caricature as a part of our visual vocabulary of citizenship.

OO: Right. I think your writing about caricature as “excess” really helped to establish that.

RW: Good! And for me, putting editorial cartoons back in conversation with sequential comic art helps think about that genealogy of both caricature and stereotypes in a useful way.

OO: I know that you’ve gotten a chance to discuss editorial cartoons on a pretty big stage, as when you wrote that opinion piece for CNN on the Mark Bright Serena caricature. And Content of Our Caricature examines Black editor cartoonists like Sam Milai and Tom Floyd. I am glad you bring those cartoons into comic studies. I have argued that one panel cartoons are comics since I first read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) and was aghast that he excluded them in his definition.

RW: Yep. But he’s not alone in being so tied to sequence.

OO: There is such a thing as a sequence of one!

RW: Indeed!

OO: Also, multiple temporalities can be at play in a single image—but I am not telling you anything you don’t know already.

RW: Temporality also became really important to me as I developed the project, and crosses over into other work I’ve done around race.

OO: Can you talk a little more about that?

RW: In my first book, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised as well as the essay “Proms and Other Racial Ephemera,”  I’ve discussed “progress narratives” around race and how people deploy the idea of African American progress to deflect from issues of  intransigent structural inequality.

OO: Sure. I beat that drum a lot.

RW: People often want to place racism in the past. So, as I sat with the medium, I thought about what kinds of knowledge editorial cartoons are required when you look at them, the histories readers need to carry in their moment. And then I began thinking about the emphasis on temporality in comics studies that doesn’t really think about identity in relationship to that concept. So, I wanted to bring content and form together to think about what comics can do specifically with exploring history and identity on the same page.

OO: So, you don’t mean seriality (which is my hobby horse) you mean in that moment of recognition connected to a past or multiple pasts/histories?

RW: Well, I mean a few things. In Jeremy Love’s Bayou, for example, historical violence and the present are on the same page but fragmented through the gutter. In some other works, editorial works and also sequential art, histories of caricature and stereotype are embedded in how we encounter the image.

OO: I think the flipside to the “racism is in the past” fallacy you mentioned, is the idea that those racist caricatures and the stereotypes they may propagate only belong in the past—but I was really impressed how you tackled the notion that there might be a reductive problem with assuming these images always mean the same thing in all contexts no matter who is using them or how or when or where we encounter them.

Slaughter of the Innocents (They Might be Guilty of Something) — Kara Walker (2016)

RW: And the thing is, we know they don’t always mean the same thing. African American performers have long deployed representations that might be considered racist. Sometimes it is a negotiation with the industries in which they work. Sometimes—as with stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor or Chris Rock—it is an effort to make political interventions. Artists like Kara Walker and Michael Ray Charles run afoul of other artists as well. But such representations are a part of our performative and aesthetic vocabulary.

OO: When I was reading the book’s introduction I was wondering if Kara Walker would come up, and I was glad she did.

RW: I teach her every year. Students struggle with her and have strong feelings. But I also feel like we need to talk about how quickly people presume every racist representation is meant to attack with that representation. One of the easiest ways to get at that was to focus on what African Americans do, but I included Barry Blitt’s 2008 New Yorker cover intentionally to show that sometimes white artists can be misread too. Not everyone will agree with my interpretation—but I’m sticking to it!

Barry Blitt’s controversial cover, “Fistbump: Politics of Fear” (from the July 21, 2008 issue of the New Yorker). [click to enlarge]

OO: That was the New Yorker cover with the Obamas depicted as Muslim terrorists/militants, right?

RW: Yes—with the caption—“Fistbump: The Politics of Fear”—removed, which is important.

OO: Yes. I agree. I also thought it was crucial how you pointed out that while some critics of the image (like Rachel Sklar) called it an “illustration,” others called it a “cartoon,” a distinction that matters to your analysis and thinking about medium and genre. I thought in your amazing analysis of Robert Crumb’s work you might bring up his controversial New Yorker cover too—but I guess that would have been a tangent.

RW: Oh, that chapter had so much going on. As it was, I worried I focused on Crumb way too much…

OO: I think you do a great job of framing just about everything. I always knew why you were spending time with whatever you were spending time with because you lay it out clearly.

RW: Thanks. Crumb is so essential to this conversation and also gets at this “equal opportunity offender” humor aesthetic and why it can be such a problem.

OO: Yes, “edgy” and “insult” humor are commonly defended as “equal opportunity humor”—the notion that insults carry “more or less, equal weight in the eyes and ears of the audience” as “both the teller and the audience are ‘in on’ the joke” because they both know “discrimination is bad” (173-4)—that I was glad you spent time with it.

RW: As I worked through the argument, I realized that [“equal opportunity offender humor”] was really important in thinking through a problem we need to contend with in reading racial representation. That’s the chapter that I think ultimately has the most offensive images and representations. And Black cartoonist, Larry Fuller gave me such a gift in providing a brief oral history of his time doing that work.

from “Grass” Green’s “Thesis on Sex” in Un-Fold Funnies (1981) [click to enlarge]

OO: Let’s unpack that chapter a little bit since readers will probably not have read it yet. In it you mostly discuss first Crumb and then Fuller and Grass Green—the latter intervention is work I have seen very little about. I was happy to learn about it.

RW: People tend to talk about Larry Fuller and Richard “Grass” Green’s black superhero work. But Green in particular was so prolific, and his work around sexuality, his satire, was really provocative and worth discussing. Fuller created and edited a comic called White Whore Funnies (1975). Green was also included in those issues, and I also talked about some of Green’s other work. Part of what I was interested in is how they really took on the idea of hypersexual black men and black male rapists. They knew that was how people see black men—so here’s the question: why put that out there? Which leads to the question I really wanted to explore—in terms of how the comics were structured—could you see a difference between how Crumb might tell such a story and how people who were the object of such racist humor might tell it? I think there is a difference. Hopefully, I’ve put enough examples in there and readers can come to their own conclusions.

OO: I think the triangulated interpretive structure you lay out really helps to thread the needle between over-emphasizing what a reader must see and leaving the imagined reader out completely. Articulating this structure is something I’ve struggled with. Let me just quote your book so readers know what we’re talking about: “Cartoons using a triangulated structure depict a subjected person or event of interest and also show someone else’s reaction to that person or thing. Some other referent in the cartoon then positions the reader to make the commentator the true object of the satire” (20).

RW: Good! I had some stuff in the book early on about Charlie Hebdo using that interpretive structure that I eventually had to cut. I think there’s a tendency to treat an artist or work as clearly racist or anti-racist, progressive or not progressive, because of who the artists are. That irritated me with the Hebdo discussions.

OO: You mean people assuming the Hebdo works were always anti-racist because the cartoonists were Leftists?

RW: Yes. What do specific cartoons or comics do? Why can’t we see that some things may be more or less successful than others? Sometimes even with intent, some works can be more successful than others, and part of that is about form and, quite often, I think, a transparent triangulated structure.

OO: So, who is making what for who matters?

RW: Well no—I want people not to focus on intent so much because they may not know what that is. What is structurally going on in the cartoon is what tells us who the object of criticism is. That’s why the Blitt example works so well. On its own, that might be an image you’d see in a conservative paper. But the magazine title—“New Yorker”—was possibly considered by readers (because of creative content and venue) marking the cartoon as progressive. In other words—some people suggested to me that the reputation of the New Yorker tells us how to read the image. But really the caption—”The Politics of Fear” (which was inside the magazine)—tells us who the satire is targeting.

OO: That makes sense, but that image was replicated endlessly without the caption.

RW: Yes. But as an editorial cartoon with the caption, it works beautifully in being clear about the target. Even with the caption, some people would object to the image existing at all. But when it’s there you have to willfully ignore who it targets [to read it at face value].

Brumsic Brandon Jr.’s Luthor, 1970. Chapter Four of The Content of Our Caricature explores representations of black children in comics.

OO: So, do you think our current digital era of endless iteration and wide circulation complicates this since the context is not guaranteed (or sometimes intentionally obfuscated)?

RW: Well, things can always be used in contexts we don’t know. That happens with language all the time. But we can’t stop producing things that do provocative work for fear of how it might be misappropriated. If we censor because of bad use and bad readers, stupid discourse wins.

OO: I agree. Let’s segue from that to the cover of The Content of Our Caricature. The cover art is from Jeremy Love’s Bayou. You received some pushback about using it?

RW: Yes. I was so grateful I could use that image on my cover, but I had to fight for it. There was some concern about the Golliwog doll offending people. People are disturbed by it—and should be.

OO: I know when I got your book in the mail, I laid it down on the credenza and my wife (who is white) had a very visceral response to it before knowing what it was.

RW: I am sure many people do. One of my friends said she was troubled by the cover.

OO: Personally, I think being troubled by it is why it works. The cover itself invites a reader to start to do the work you layout in the book.

RW: It does. And I will say anecdotally, white people have been more likely to tell me they are troubled by it than Black people. And I think it works best because there is also a somewhat realist image as part of it, too. the two images work together. What’s so brilliant about Love’s work there is that it is clear that something/someone monstrous is trying to drag this little girl down. But there is also something about the Golliwog that draws us in too.

OO: I think certain white people have been trained to police or perform their reactions to that kind of troubling racial imagery…

RW: Yes. And look, I am sure lots of Black folks won’t like it either. But it does what I want it to do. It’s powerful, that’s for sure. The press ended up loving the cover, I think.

The cover to Bitch Planet #3 (by Valentine De Landro)

OO: So a couple of more things about the book and then maybe we can move on. I was curious about the time you spend with Bitch Planet #3 in the first chapter to discuss Valentine De Landro’s art and aesthetic. I was struck by the irony that that issue was drawn by Robert Wilson IV, who is white (though the character designs are by De Landro).

RW: Yes. I took a bit of a showrunner approach to that issue, which is a bit risky methodologically. It is entirely reasonable if someone wants to take issue with that. The criticism would be fair.

OO: Maybe the framing there was not as clear as it was when you took the time to explain, for example, why you spent so much time on Crumb?

RW: Fair. But like the underground comix chapter, that chapter also has a lot going on: the number of time periods and artists I try to move through, how I try to make it speak to debates in Black aesthetics. . . I am not sure how successful the chapter is.

OO: Personally, I don’t think it undermines any of your claims at all but I figured it was worth giving you a chance to address because I can imagine some reviewer or critic waiting with the “GOTCHA!”

RW: Well, it would be a fair criticism. So, we’ll see.

OO: Which leads to my other question: do you think you’ll get much pushback on your Black Panther criticism in the coda?

RW: Ha. Do you think I’ll get pushback about my Black Panther criticism in the coda?

OO: Hahahah… Well, I can imagine you will from some uncareful readers and/or others with a lot invested in the success of the Black Panther film. Among other things, you write, “I was skeptical of the revolutionary potential of a comic book adaptation that was not only an attempt to respond to Black social movements, but tempered by the containment of black revolutionary politics for popular consumption” (207).

RW: Look, the entire point of my book is that binaries of good and bad in terms of Black representations are reductive and not useful. I am not the only scholar to speak to this, lots of media scholars do. I really like the film, which I hope comes across. And I like many iterations of the comic book. But there are some messy complexities there.

OO: I think your enjoyment of the film does come through. It definitely came through in your thoughtful consideration of the character and film for The Black Scholar around when the film was released. I had my problems with the film too, but it is probably up there in my list of favorite MCU films (which I both like and tend to be fairly critical of).

RW: In general, I think statements about the revolutionary potential of popular cultural productions tend to be overstated. Revolution is rare. People use the terms “radical” and “revolutionary” too loosely.

OO: Word. I am much more interested in how folks use (or can use) those cultural productions, than in labeling them good or bad or progressive or reactionary (though they can be all those things too).

RW: Me too.

OO: The most difficult question people can ask me about a movie or show is “Is it good?”

RW: I always think about whether or not something fulfills the promise of what it is supposed to be. So, for me, Deep Blue Sea is GREAT. It is a B-movie creature flick that fulfilled all my expectations and then some for that genre. But it is apples and oranges if you put it in conversation with art cinema.

OO: So, let’s change gears and talk a little about how you came to comics studies. Did you start as a fan or did you come to comics professionally/academically first?

RW: I continue to wonder if it is a sign of where comics studies still is as a field that this question still has to be asked—it is not how you came to your project, but how did you get into the field. And it is always asked.

OO: Well, I ask it because I am genuinely interested, probably because of my own journey there. It is also part of the mission statement of this interview series.

“[Sam] Milai’s work is an explicit attempt to shape and shore up black icons – those advancing in the civil rights struggle through institutions and nonviolent action – and place other kinds of African Americans outside the discourse of good citizenship” (47) “The Gravediggers” from The Pittsburgh Courier, October 1, 1966. [click to enlarge]

RW: I started reading comics in grad school for pleasure. But then I started a job at Ohio State, which has, of course, one of the biggest archives of comics and cartoon related materials in the world and a number of narrative theorists who work on comics. So, while I was working on my first book, I was also gradually moving into the field. The current book would not have been done if I hadn’t started my career there, as the archives were so important to it. Also, Sam Milai’s work (editorial cartoonist at the Pittsburgh Courier), Brumsic Brandon Jr.’s strips, their comix collection—all key.

OO: So, what were you reading for pleasure back in grad school?

RW: I started with Vertigo—Sandman, Preacher. Then read Truth: Red, White, and Black, which became my first comics article in the Journal of Popular Culture and eventually this book.

OO: Was picking up those Vertigo comics a whim or a recommendation?

RW: That’s an interesting question… You know, I don’t remember. I feel like I must have heard Sandman was good somewhere, and I was in the midst of exams and reading a novel a day. I wanted to still read for pleasure but reading novels was out of the question.

OO: Did you read comics much as a kid?

RW: No…Or, let me take that back. I loved Bloom County and some other strips. But I didn’t read comic books.

OO: That seems like a common experience

RW: Yes, in general, but not in comics studies.

OO: When I got to grad school and started studying comics I kept having to re-adjust my “comics reading origins” further and further back until I decided that I didn’t know when I started reading comics—probably before I could read. My original notions of a “beginning” were because I had a very stilted idea of what “counted” as comics.

RW: Interesting. But I think I can say pretty definitively that I didn’t identify as a comics reader. I was very much a genre fiction reader. Romance and mystery novels in particular. Later I became more of a science fiction and fantasy novel reader in my 20s, although I had always been a big fan of sci-fi television and film.

OO: My mom and sister had a lot of influence on my early comics reading and neither of them would identify as a comics reader, even though they did read comics.

RW: It is sort of like electronic games. They are associated with men. But women play tons of games, just not games that are often associated with “gaming.”

OO: Right, so it shapes our constructions of identity related to them.

RW: Yes. If I really go back, I think having Mike Peters as the editorial cartoonist for my local newspaper was also probably an influence.

OO: I am not familiar with Peters. Where was that? What paper?

RW: Dayton Daily News. You may also know him as the cartoonist for Mother Goose and Grimm. He’s a tremendous cartoonist, and I think my early love of editorial cartoons probably started there.

OO: Oh yeah! So, you were reading/viewing editorial cartoons at an early age?

RW: I just looked at his cartoons in the paper a lot, and my mother really loved him. And when I was a kid I used to draw more, took art classes until I was 18. Always interested in doodling faces.

Steve Rogers examining evidence of the degree to which Isaiah Bradley – the “Black Captain America” – “gained mythic stature in black culture that endlessly signifies the complexities of black patriotism” (135). (Image from Truth: Red, White, and Black by Robert Morales & Kyle Baker)

OO: I see. I was curious if that was part of an early political consciousness.

RW: Hmmm. Well, that’s always an interesting question. I don’t really remember not having a political consciousness. People sometimes have these stories about suddenly discovering feminism or racial consciousness or thinking about class, but from my positionality—I was the child of a Black single mother in the Midwest—how could I not have a political consciousness? The world quickly tells you that you’re politically situated.

OO: That makes a lot of sense. Nevertheless, I think a lot of folks keep themselves from seeing it. Or are trained to deny it.

RW: That may be true.

OO: Like personally, I grew up in a “don’t draw attention to yourself” family and expressing political views or identifying yourself that way was something my Puerto Rican single mom saw as dangerous—which it can be and is. . . but I got radicalized eventually.

RW: My mom was very much someone who grew up in the Civil Rights movement. So, while she wasn’t an activist and seemed pretty quiet to most people, she just had a sense of justice that was kind of an everyday thing. Since I went to a predominantly Black high school, I think my feminism was more transparent there, but when I went to a predominantly white institution for undergrad, struggling over racial politics became more everyday.

OO: Yes, that is what affected me too: going from predominantly Black/Latinx public schools to a primarily white prep school on scholarship—which fucked me up forever.

RW: Ha, yes. If only PWIs knew how they can radicalize folks. Maybe they’d start acting right.

OO: Ha! Maybe, but I doubt it even still.

RW: But there’s also a way that some folks and communities can question your blackness. And I can say one thing I love about our teeny tiny Black comics community is that we feel so at home with each other.

OO: That’s important. Finding your people among your people is important.

RW: It really is.

OO: Well, thank you, Rebecca for taking the time to talk with me and for writing such a crucial intervention regarding African American comic art. I know I will be citing it heavily for years to come. Is there anything else coming up we should keep an eye out for?

RW: Well, I have a roundtable on the HBO Watchmen coming out in Film Quarterly any day now [Ed’s note: And here it is]. And the Asian American comics version of my argument on caricature but regarding Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese (2006) just came out in Inks.

OO: Ooh! I’m looking forward to reading that! I have had some intense convos about that book!

RW: I love it. But obviously, caricature, temporality—it is all there.

OO: As I have said about it, “The cringe is the point!”

RW: It is. And Yang has actually said that if he had it to do over again, he might even try to make it more egregious, as some readers thought Chin-Kee was cute. Bad reading. What can you do?

OO: Wow.

RW: Thanks for doing this!

OO: Thanks again for agreeing to it! And don’t worry, I plan to finish up The Content of Our Caricature and will always keep an eye out for all your future work. I hope The Middle Spaces’ readers will as well.

Final thanks to Dr. Rebecca Wanzo for taking the time to talk with us. The Content of Our Caricature is currently available from NYU Press and other booksellers. As I hope this talk makes clear, it is worth picking up and spending time with.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity).

3 thoughts on “The (re)Collection Agency #12: A Conversation with Rebecca Wanzo

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