- The South, Humor, and Race
Southern literary humor—from the early frontier humorists such as Augustus Baldwin Longstreet and Henry Clay Lewis to large-looming later figures like Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, and Zora Neale Hurston—tends to be vivacious, rough-and-tumble, and willing to engage with a regional history fraught with abjection, violence, and terror. It becomes an urgent challenge to understand what we are laughing at, and what it means to laugh, when confronted by texts containing the abduction of the corpse of a black infant (Lewis’s “Stealing a Baby”) or a mother swapping her son with her charge to ensure him a life of white privilege (Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson). We may consult many theorists of humor to grapple with such discomfiting comicality, ranging from Thomas Hobbes to Sigmund Freud, from Mikhail Bakhtin to Ralph Ellison (his essay “An Extravagance of Laughter” is brilliant). The best scholarship on humor, however, leans lightly on theory, allowing for challenges to theory to arise where they may. Editors Brannon Costello and Qiana J. Whitted’s Comics in the U.S. South and Marvin McAllister’s Whiting Up enter [End Page 120] into scholarly conversations about southern humor, and other facets of southern history and culture, by turning our attention to other forms often rich in risibility—namely, comics/graphic novels and performance, respectively. Both books are about much more than humor for they exhibit critical approaches that carefully utilize humor theories while also constructing complex, shifting historical understandings of the U.S. South as a region, especially its diverse discourses on race.
As a collection of essays, Comics and the U.S. South is coherent in its engagement with southern literary, artistic, social, and political issues. In their introduction, editors Costello and Whitted explain that the collection is meant to “demonstrate how comics studies can participate in, and even suggest new avenues for, the ongoing transformation of southern studies, as well as to demonstrate how engaging key questions in southern studies can contribute to comics studies.” Many of the individual essays succeed. Costello and Whitted divide the book into four sections, a thoughtful decision that delineates some critical questions at stake: “The South in the National Imagination,” “Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance,” “The Horrors of the South,” and “Revisualizing Stories, Rereading Images.” The editors use the term “comics” to include “serial comic books, graphic novels, comic strips, editorial comics, webcomics, and other forms of visual narrative,” a broad definition that opens the study up to beautifully serious works like Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner and Josh Neufeld’s A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge. One finds three essays (M. Thomas Inge’s essay on Li’lAbner and Snuffy Smith, Brian Cremins’s on Pogo, and Christopher Whitby’s on Kudzu) that deal directly with funny comics, but nearly all of the essays necessarily confront theories of the South’s humorous traditions, particularly in relation to the grotesque and visual/linguistic inscriptions of stereotypes.
The editors’ and their contributors’ views of these media are heavily inflected by Scott McCloud’s seminal theories in Understanding Comics (1993), such as the importance of sequence, of iconic and stereotypical images, and of the reader’s role in interpreting silences and space (“closure”). One of the most intriguing efforts of the collection, for scholars of southern studies, is its call to redefine “the South as a visual, rather than primarily an oral, culture.” Indeed, it is the attention to the additional visual component of comics—the wide variety of graphic choices that illustrators make—that unifies the various essays in Comics and the U.S. South. As with most compilations, there are stronger and [End Page 121] weaker pieces, and the strongest ones create excellent analyses of the visual and textual art of the comics through the lens of southern studies. Brian...