- The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art ed. by Frances Gateward, John Jennings
edited by Frances Gateward and John Jennings. Rutgers University Press.
2015. $90.00 hardcover; $29.95 paper. 356pages.
Embedded in the rise of comics studies has been an increased attentiveness to underground, alternative, and independent comics. In fact, one could argue that it is precisely because of alternative voices—cartoonists’ and scholars’ alike—that the respective sociocultural statuses of comics and comics studies have shifted. Alongside plotting the waxing and waning of print runs and charting the behind-the-scenes politics and dynamics of major publishing companies, scholars have been keenly interested in how cartoonists adopt, [End Page 155] adapt, challenge, and expand on existing conventions to theorize notions of identity. In particular, there has been a steady increase in journal articles, monographs, and anthologies that explore representations of Africans and people of African descent in comics, largely because this medium, more than others, is predicated on abstraction and simplification, and therefore often “traffics in stereotypes and fixity.”1
Pointing to Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Frances Gateward and John Jennings, the editors of The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, go a step further by asking “what else besides comics can be thought of as invisible,” and they argue that “proclaiming something to be invisible is still a way of seeing.”2 For McCloud, the tension between visibility and invisibility is at the heart of comics, and readers reconcile this tension through the process of closure; for Gateward and Jennings, exposing what is invisible, in this case black characters, is also a form of reading, one much more politically and socially conscious. They thus draw an important parallel between the history of comics as a marginalized medium and the history of the notion of Blackness “as a type of medium” itself that “has been used for various effects concerning peoples of African descent.”3 This parallel serves both as a guiding principle for the collection of essays and as a useful theoretical framework for thinking through questions of Blackness in comics. As the title suggests, and as Gateward and Jennings explain, the ink used for comics can be a useful metaphor for the construction of Blackness in that the fluidity of ink “defines the whiteness of the page, and in turn, the whiteness of the page begins to define it.”4 Building on important precursors, including Jeffrey A. Brown’s Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, Fredrik Strömberg’s Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History, and Adilifu Nama’s Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, the essays presented in this book contribute to broader interdisciplinary discussions pertaining to comics studies, African American and diaspora studies, and cultural and media studies, as well as engage with historiography and literary criticism.5
To continue the metaphor and to reiterate the potential affinity between comics as a medium and Blackness as a medium, the fifteen chapters are organized into four sections, or “panels”: “Panel I: Black Is a Dangerous Color,” “Panel II: Black in Black-and-White and Color,” “Panel III: Black Tights,” and “Panel IV: Graphic Blackness.” Despite an attempt to group the chapters according to specific comics formats (comic books, newspaper comic strips, superhero comics, and graphic novels, respectively), not all the chapters strictly adhere to this logic, and some even address the same comics, albeit from different angles and to different ends. Similarly, uneven chapter distribution among the four sections—three chapters for panel 1 and only [End Page 156] two chapters for panel 2, and four chapters for panel 3 and six chapters for panel 4—suggests a greater emphasis on the construction of Blackness in superhero comics and long-form graphic novels. This is not so say, however, that there is also an imbalance of quality; rather, all of the chapters offer close readings of selected primary texts and their respective contexts. Indeed, a closer look at the list of contributors, who hail primarily...