The Blacker The Ink: Construction Of Black Identity In Comics And Sequential Art edited by Frances Gateward and John Jennings (book review).

Just in case you don’t know what ‘The Blacker The Ink’ edited by Frances Gateward and John Jennings subject matter is concerned with, I included the sub-title, ‘Construction Of Black Identity In Comics And Sequential Art’. In other words, the presence of our dark-skinned kin in the comicbooks. Don’t expect this book to be comprehensive but amongst the 15 chapters, it covers a lot of ground.

Something that did occur to me when reading about the early stories, apart from the few black creators there were at the time, is the same also applies to other ethnics like Jews and certainly other colours in the form of oriental, outside of villains, and Hispanic. All have taken their time to establish their identity if that. Japan tends to look after itself with manga and even Hispanic has a presence today. When you bear in mind that many American creators were Jewish, there’s a general consensus for an average person. It becomes problematic when a darker skin isn’t seen as average.

When it gets into the culture itself, I suspect it’s also true today, that a lot of writers shy away because they aren’t familiar with it, beyond maybe a local area, in case they get it wrong. As a fan of Chester Hymes’ books, I wouldn’t think I was capable of writing the culture or how it affects people correctly. I’m sure none of this was helped by who the readership was and, for the most part, any comicbook publisher had to target the market that would buy it. I think the same also applies in any country and I’m including my own UK in this. For the record, when it comes to the colour of someone’s skin, I tend to be colour blind and see everyone the same.

I loved Daniel F. Yezbick’s example of ‘Judgement Day!’ from EC Comics of turning things upside down in a story about prejudice in an SF setting and glad that samples of the art was shown. When it comes to earlier films, outside of domestic roles, there were few roles for black actors let alone many of them available. The observations about Fredric Wertham was against racism and actually had black patients was something I wasn’t aware of or that the Comic Code Authority went further than he wanted. Then again, when you start a tidal tide, you can’t anticipate where or how the waves will fall.

The second section dealing wth newspaper strips introduced me to the work of Jackie Ormes (1911-1985), the first black lady cartoonist with her lead black character Torchy Brown and the first to get a black doll based off Patty-Jo on the market in 1953. Although this wasn’t a success, it brokered the changes.

I remember vaguely about how Captain America/Steve Rogers’ revised origin showing he wasn’t the first test subject for the super-soldier serum and Conseula Francis goes into all the details about how black soldiers who were tried first. Considering how experimentation was done in those days, it was the only way the writers could examine it. Her analysis is worth a read.

The examples used from the 1970s of black comicbook characters focuses on the usual suspects like Luke Cage and Storm from Marvel and Black Lightning, Cyborg and the Vixen from DC Comics. It’s a shame no time was spent with the Falcon and Misty Knight or John Stewart/Black Lantern or even the poorly used and mishandled Tyroc of the LSH. The preference for not wearing a gaudy super-hero costume, even with Luke Cage eventually, could be constrained by them not wanting to be seen as an even bigger target. Even so, the articles did make me think. Then again, there is no mention of any black super-villains and looked that up and found just over 100, some of which, like Killer Croc, you would have to look at twice to realise beneath that green or grey crocodile skin that he’s actually black. At least the change in physique and green colour as a result isn’t left only to the white folk. Another check shows there are far more black super-heroes than villains which is reassuring.

In many respects, the super-hero is often seen as the vigilante that supports the establishment and, unfortunately, even today, the establishment doesn’t get on as well as it should with the black community. Oh, something that appears to be forgotten here is that Storm’s tiara also conceals her lockpicks so doesn’t necessarily reflect her goddess role, just that she had no other place to conceal them.

I didn’t recognise any of the more recent comicbooks or graphic novels sited but I do think Dwayne McDuffie’s ‘Icon’ graphic novels need to be re-released to make them more accessible than at the high prices the old copies are currently going for and out of the hands of those who need to read it.

Although the focus is on the comicbook medium, there is little said about how white writers/artists covey black characters outside of Luke Cage. Paul Gulacy’s ‘Sable’ barely gets a footnote. I raise this point if only as a comparison to how black creators do when either taking over existing black characters and what changes they make. John Stewart/Black Lantern got a serious heavy build make-over that has varied over the years.

There is no mention of Kyle Baker, probably the first black comicbook illustrator which also seems a shame.

I also wished they addressed how black characters, pretty much as on TV and film, become token characters with only one included as representative is also reflected in comicbooks. This has become so absurd that film characters of traditionally white characters have been turned black to fill a quota than stay true to their roots. Granted, more people of colour could have been used earlier and, for various reasons, weren’t. I would like more black characters used but not in a game of tokenism. If memory served, distribution in the southern states would have been affected had the Big Two tried.

As you should tell by now, this book has made me think. The fact that I’m going beyond what they covered means I’ve not disagreed with the things they’ve said but been really thinking about what they missed and that there is much more they could have covered. Hopefully, I hope to see more books on this subject in the future because the more we accept and want to buy them, the more any barriers of thinking some books aren’t for us will be eroded.

GF Willmetts

September 2017

(pub: Rutgers University Press. 343 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £27.50 (UK), $29.95 (US). ISBN: 978-0-8135-7233-8)

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