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Reviewed by:
  • Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation ed. by Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II
  • Kathryn M. Frank (bio)
Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation edited by Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II. Bloomsbury Academic. 2013. $26.30 paper; $22.39 e-book. 288 pages.

When Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II won the Eisner Award for Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, I was in attendance and witnessed firsthand their joy at the recognition of their efforts.1 What I did not realize at the time was that I witnessing history, as I later found out that Howard is the first black woman to win an Eisner. The fact that it has taken this long for a black woman to win comics’ highest honor is in itself evidence that Black Comics is a necessary and important volume. Although somewhat uneven in the scope and depth of the research presented, the collection provides exceptional breadth and illuminates a variety of potential paths for scholars to examine black comics.

The volume is divided into three parts: “Comics Then and Now,” “Representing Race and Gender,” and “Comics as Political Commentary.” In a volume containing analyses of multiple types of comics—including comic strips, superhero comic books, graphic novels, political cartoons, and manga—and using numerous theoretical approaches to these texts, presenting the chapters in thematic parts makes sense and provides a through line for the reader to make connections among the chapters. There is also thematic crossover between sections, and most of the chapters are arranged in such as a way as to facilitate such transitions.

The introduction and chapter 1 present brief histories of black comics. Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II provide a straightforward introduction to the historical development of various black newspaper comic strips in the first chapter, setting the stage with a broader overview of black comics in the introduction, providing a chronological overview of black newspaper comic strips, and [End Page 181] mentioning a few superhero series and graphic novels. At times Howard and Jackson’s writing feels disjointed and rushed, particularly in the introduction; some comics are described in detail while others are only briefly mentioned. Howard and Jackson argue that black comics are understudied and thus provide the rationale for the volume; although this is certainly true, the introduction does not note that black superhero comics have been examined, to an extent, in scholarly publications.2 Noting the very few aspects of black comics that have been studied would provide a clearer picture of the gaps in the scholarship on the subject. The introduction only scantly describes comics other than newspaper strips and presents some inaccuracies, such as referring to Milestone Media as currently “[b]lack-owned and [black]-controlled” (the company was sold to DC Comics in 1997).3 Chapter 1 does a more thorough job by focusing only on black comic strips and providing helpful context for other chapters on comic strips in the volume.

The second chapter, Nancy Goldstein’s analysis of the 1950s black newspaper comic-strip character Torchy Brown, is the volume’s standout.4 Goldstein’s chapter argues for the value of a romance-focused comic strip that has been largely ignored by scholars because of its seeming frivolity. According to Goldstein, Torchy in Heartbeats (Smith-Mann Syndicate, 1950–1954) and the accompanying Torchy Brown paper dolls present a black woman as a sexy and complex character without emphasizing stereotypes of dangerous or uncontrolled female sexuality; the paper dolls address the reader directly and provide an image of a desirable, cosmopolitan black woman that was largely unavailable in other media. This chapter is also helpful for scholars interested in other kinds of historical and archival work not limited to comic strips. Goldstein describes the comic strips’ look and content, which, given their publication in a regional black newspaper, few readers have seen, as well as linking them to the larger social context of depictions of black femininity and romance and to the structure and editorial processes of newspapers’ comics pages. Goldstein establishes the context of the strip, explaining that while both romance comics and black comic strips...


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pp. 181-186
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