Arts and Culture Deep Dive: Exploring Black Empowerment Within Comics and Media

Dominant cultural narratives have not always accurately reflected the diversity of reality. The origins of media—specifically arts and literature—have traditionally centered around and catered to the white perspective, and the point at which both mediums intersect with each other and diverge into popular culture is where we see the white narrative pushed for in the most obvious and accessible way: comic books. 

Harmful stereotypes and exclusion in the graphic novel genre reinforced the discrimination of marginalized communities, but on the other hand, they simultaneously provided an effective platform for introducing reform—a tactic taken on by many to push back while establishing their significance not only in the present but also in the past. Playing a significant role in the artistic subversion of oppression, the Black community is one of many that continues to push for justice in specifically tackling the obstinate yet highly influential sphere of the graphic novel world. 

Especially throughout the 20th century and even leading up to the present day, the portrayals of Black characters in mainstream media were often suppressed to make way for ‘righteous’ and powerful white superheroes. Casey Alexander Smith, Instructor in Studio Art, described the development of the heteronormative, White standard in comic book narratives as highly toxic.

“Our country was founded with the belief that, unfortunately, older white men are the experts, and everything would fall below that. So, naturally, when you’re telling stories about good and evil, there is that kind of ‘white saviour complex’ that [it] plays into, and your ideal hero has to be, not necessarily older, but an established white, usually cisgender man,” said Smith.

To double down on the suppression of Black identity, Black characters were often defined in the mainstream by racial stereotypes and negative depictions. This was especially apparent in visual media during the decades preceding the Civil Rights Movement. In cartoons and comic strips, African Americans were intentionally and exaggeratedly drawn with caricatured features. 

Will Eisner’s cartoon character Ebony White as seen in “The Spirit” is especially representative of this. Drawn in blackface, White spoke with a heavy Southern accent and reflected the caricatures of Black people often found in minstrel shows, according to “Ark Republic.” Even worse than the racially insensitive depictions of Black characters was a ban on their representation in comics altogether. In the 1950s, the Comics Code Authority (CCA), a commercial juggernaut, censored numerous stories that included Black characters, under the pretense that it would corrupt young audiences, according to “An Injustice!” magazine.

However, the lack of substantial Black representation in mainstream media did not indicate an absence of Black culture being celebrated in the comic book world. From brands and works like the “All-Negro Comics” in 1947 to “Black Panther” in 1966, Black characters were gradually integrated into popular culture, standing their ground against the racist ideologies and serving as a beacon of hope for Black audiences, according to “Ebony” magazine

Similarly, many modern Black comics have also taken to exploring and celebrating Black successes in their work, integrating specific elements of culture into their narratives in an effort to reclaim power over their identities. According to Comic Book Resources (CBR), “Bitter Root,” created by David F. Walker, Chuck Brown, and Sanford Greene, uniquely represents Black identity with respect to family with a genre-bending story following the Sangerye family’s efforts to save Harlem Renaissance New York from supernatural forces. All the while, this engaging narrative addresses the relevant issues of racial trauma and systemic discrimination. Characters and stories have also started to take on a more ethnic examination of Black identity as well; notably, Nigerian comic-book creator Hameed Catel’s “Champion of Dema” utilizes American comic book and Japanese manga storytelling to represent aspects of African and Nigerian culture that are commonly misinterpreted or neglected by Western society, according to NBC News.    

While we see advancements in Black representation in the more contemporary era, there is still reform and opportunities for empowerment to be implemented from a perspective of the past. For Kumasi J. Barnett, an artist based in Baltimore, rewriting oppressive history in comic books is just as crucial to promoting representation with new content in the present. As described by Smith, who organized his exhibit to be shown at Andover, Barnett’s trademark is “retelling of familiar narratives through the lens of comic storylines.” To subvert the 20th century racist portrayals of reality in comic narratives, Barnett conveys that he aims to tell the true stories of that time. 

I look at the books themselves and the covers, and I see what the narrative is there and what true story would actually happen in that moment. It’s a little more of taking the ‘gloss’ off of what the story is and telling what really happened so that we can all have a better understanding of history… I am painting on top of history and changing the narrative as it goes along to create something that could be inserted back into the past that would change the feeling of what [the] history of Black people in comics is,” said Barnett. 

As more Black comics and superheroes take to the shiny magazines and silver screens, thorough and well-developed Black representation leaves its mark on society by being more than ‘just a fictional character.’ According to Smith, the connections between our media and our reality are inextricable. 

“Representation is and should be just a simple reflection of reality, and reality of media and so forth. If you are not exposed to different viewpoints, different racial identities… you are going to mentally believe that they are on the outside—they are not normalized, they are something else,” said Smith. 

However, when representations that people can resonate are incorporated in narratives, Barnett believes that those stories that have multiple viewpoints, people, shades, and genders only enriches us. 

“It doesn’t take away from the stories that we’re had before… I just want media to represent people. Not just one person, but people. The way we get there is really hard because every time we have some sort of diversity, there is a hard retaliation because it’s something new and it’s something different. But it means so much for someone who isn’t traditionally represented,” said Barnett.