- Multicultural Comics: From Zap to Blue Beetle
Over the last decade, comics have experienced an explosion in scholarly criticism and investigation, reflecting their increasing visibility in popular discourse. Dedicated forums for comics scholarship that have existed for years, like the International Journal of Comic Arts and ImageText, have been joined by newer outlets such as the Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics. Modern Fiction Studies recently dedicated an issue to "Graphic Narrative," as did MELUS, and the University Press of Mississippi has led the way in publishing and translating important books about graphic narrative among a growing number of academic publishers addressing this market. Frederick Luis Aldama, author of Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez (2009), has assembled an important collection in Multicultural Comics. The essays take a critical look at race and culture in comics, a powerful medium that has often been used to stereotype and marginalize the Other, but also holds the power to address ideas of marginality, subalterity, hybridity, and identity. As Derek Parker Royal states in the book's foreword, "the attitudes and prejudices of a culture can be greatly shaped by its caricatures, cartoons, and other forms of manipulated iconography" (ix). Multicultural Comics explores how comics both react to and shape these prejudices in what Aldama identifies in the introduction as the "multiplicity of shades, colors, and sexual orientations expressed in comic book storyworlds" (1).
Aldama gives a brief history of work that falls outside "the typical chiseled white-guy comic book fare" (3) before outlining seven common genres "to give readers a sense of the range of multicultural comic books out there" (6). These may provide a primer for those [End Page 801] unfamiliar with comics, but are otherwise unremarkable. More important are the central questions he asks to develop an idea of what makes a comic multicultural: "If one is to determine that a given comic book is multicultural through and through, is it so because of a character, a style of writing or drawing, a plot? Is there a specific narrative type (form and content) that we as scholars, students, and readers generally associate with 'multicultural' comic books?" (19). He argues "that multicultural comics are a unique expression . . . within a world of experience and a world of comic books" (19). Aldama finds the "aesthetics of multicultural comics . . . neither in the object nor in the subject," but rather "a form of relationship between the subject and the object," and that the act of composing comics is about "deciding which gaps to leave and which gaps to fill in" (19). It is in the important work of investigating these "gaps" that Multicultural Comics succeeds.
The collection is made up of two sections: "History, Concepts, and Methods," containing eight essays, and "A Multicultural Comic Book Toolbox," made up of five pieces. Aldama characterizes the former as concentrating "on how author-artists resist, complicate, and occasionally capitulate to simple scripts of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality" (20), while he says that the latter "focuses on how author-artists create comic book worlds that trigger very different emotions in their reader-viewer" (22). In practice, there is no clear distinction between the sections, and it is unclear why essays such as Margaret Noori's "Native American Narratives from Early Art to Graphic Novels," which investigates comics in the context of Anishinaabe culture, or Jared Gardner's "Same Difference: Graphic Alterity in the Work of Gene Luen Yang, Adrain Tomine, and Derek Kirk Kim" appear in the first section rather than the second. Disappointingly for a book whose title includes the word "multicultural," the focus is largely on comics published in North America; the notable exception is Suhaan Mehta's "Wondrous Capers: The Graphic Novel in India," an investigation of non-mainstream Indian comics. That said, this volume uncovers works that fall outside of both the public's view of comics and as well as the general body of comics scholarship. None of the pieces focus on Superman, Captain America, Wolverine, or Batman, and although they are mentioned...