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  • The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging by Rebecca Wanzo
  • Maite Urcaregui (bio)
Wanzo, Rebecca. The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging. New York University Press, 2020. 256 pp, $89.00 HC/ $29.00 PB

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In The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging, Rebecca Wanzo explores how African American cartoonists reappropriate stereotypical caricatures of Blackness to question and reveal normative ideals of US citizenship. Taking up a long history of caricature in African American comic and cartoon art, the book provocatively asks, "Can the racist caricature be used in aesthetic practices of freedom?"1 By way of answering this question, Wanzo examines how African American artists formally exploit caricature's racial inheritance to point to the injury of racist images and the structures that produce them. Through their artistic reframing, they invite diverse and divergent affective responses to caricature that open alternative attachments to citizenship.

The book explicates how comics, like other forms of popular media, create and uphold narratives of "good" and "bad" citizens. Comic narratives participate in these discourses of belonging through what Wanzo identifies as "citizenship genres": "often masculine categories of representation that the state's subjects are interpellated to inhabit."2 Each chapter interrogates a citizenship genre within comics and the subjects they herald—the revolutionary leader, the soldier, the child, and the countercultural subject. After identifying the normative ideals these genres uphold, Wanzo goes on to examine how African American artists, recognizing the "racialized ideological work of these typologies," strategically play with the formal affordances and limitations of the genre to highlight the grotesque realities of racism and articulate resistant representations of Black identity and national belonging.

Chapter One lays the foundation for understanding "broad ranging articulations" of how comics artists utilize caricature across form and genre—including examples from [End Page 119] George Herriman's Krazy Kat, Sam Milai's Pittsburgh Courier editorial cartoons, and contemporary works, such as Jeremy Love's Bayou and Valentin De Landro's Bitch Planet—to critique and negotiate "how African Americans are marked by noncitizenship status."3 Chapter Two "explores the lasting legacy of black subjection in archetypes of heroism in the white popular imaginary" and looks to two graphic biographies, Kyle Baker's Nat Turner and Ho Che Anderson's King, that challenge the image of the frozen-in-time supplicating Black subject. Chapter Three takes up the superhero genre, putting Baker's Truth: Red, White, & Black in conversation with Jay Jackson's World War II editorial cartoons, to argue that Isaiah Bradley, the Black Captain America, simultaneously represents a desire for full citizenship and a recognition of that impoverished promise. Building on Anne Anlin Cheng's "racial melancholia," which explores the psychoanalytic consequences of racialization,4 Wanzo theorizes "melancholic patriotism" to describe African Americans' attachments to full citizenship "as a lost love object that both never was and is continually chased."5 In a powerful reading of Isaiah—who at the end of the arc has survived the war but has lost both his friends and his mind as a result of state-sanctioned medical violence, a fictional evocation of the Tuskegee experiments—in what is left of the Captain America uniform he was incarcerated for wearing, Wanzo says, "Truth constructs an African American love object, a black Captain America whose ambivalent figure represents a threadbare version of the American Dream to which not only African Americans but other Americans cling."6 Chapter Four engages with discourses of infantile citizenship and the aesthetics of cuteness to investigate how the nation pins its democratic hopes on the figure of the innocent White child and their futurity. In contrast, analyzing examples from Ollie Harrington's editorial cartoon Dark Laughter to Jennifer Cruté's life narrative Jennifer's Journal, Wanzo argues that African American cartoonists' use of "the black infantile citizen disrupts this representational regime" by challenging viewers to remember the nation's abuses and failures, "as opposed to the improbable white child ideals that encourage the nation to forget."7 The final chapter explores perhaps the most excessive or grotesque example of racist caricature...


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pp. 119-122
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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