Revisiting Island #15: a critique of critique

Recently on a trip to Vancouver for VANCAF, I visited fellow cartoonist and my ol’ college pal, Johnie Christmas. He has a studio up on a hill and you can look out over the city to snow capped mountains in the distance. Johnnie’s made a great life for himself in Vancouver, but what do I know; we often only see each other’s highlight reels. We chatted. Caught up on who’s married, who’s dead. I critiqued his book shelf and the various bits of pop culture he cheerfully brought up; he gracefully endured, always with his own carefully stated observations. Then my eyes fell on a familiar image, the cover to Island #15.

Full disclosure, before I go any further, Image comics, the publishing platform that published Island, also publishes several of my works. That said, I don’t hesitate to criticize the individuals who are part of the collective. And despite my occasional public dragging of Brandon Graham, and occasionally finding some of his public behavior reprehensible, I count him as a colleague and comrade and care enough about him and his work to hold him accountable in public and in private.

Now, if you follow me or comics and spend too much time on twitter you may remember Island #15, or at least its cover. The cover features Dilraj Mann’s illustration of a black woman, blond afro, outsized glasses, chunky jewelry, large earrings (a hotdog and an ice cream cone), her fist raised in the black power salute. The cover is well designed; it’s a striking image. The character is process black; her lips are red. Viewed through the critical framework of the history of racist caricature in the western world, she looks an awful lot like a Sambo or a Gollywog.

The image went viral. In a flash, before I even knew there had yet been 14 issues of Island I was on twitter reading a twitter feed of Brandon Graham trying to defend Dilraj Mann (and his work), all while chewing on his own foot. Clara Mae, Melissa Brinks, Stephanie Tran, Claire Napier, J.A. Micheline, and Ardo Omer spoke at length about it on Women Write about Comics (I suggest you read it if you haven’t).

At the time I found the image striking and, in its context, irresponsible. I joined J. A. Micheline, Darryl Ayo Brathwaite, Cheryl Lynn Eaton, Jonathan W. Gray, on Julian Lytle’s Ignorant Bliss podcast to discuss the image. I expressed then that I wanted to sit with my thoughts and the material for a bit to form a more informed critique. I wish I had.

None of us had read Island #15. It hadn’t come out yet.

Nearly a year later, in April, I got an apologetic message from Dilraj on IG. After reading/hearing the response online, particularly the Ignorant Bliss podcast, Dilraj felt remorse over the whole incident. He hadn’t intended or foresaw the reaction to the image. He was attacked by strangers online and retreated from the online discussion. Dilraj had come away from the whole thing sorry that he had ever made the piece and sorry that it had caused people pain; knowing he couldn’t change that, Dilraj resolved to learn from the incident and make better work in the future.

I wasn’t sure I felt the work should be erased from history. Even then I felt like the imagery already was doing some sort of work in sparking the conversation. The work had fueled a critique of the function of these aesthetics; they had sparked a kind of political subjectivity regarding the depiction of black bodies, women’s bodies, and sambo. I told Dilraj as much. I told him I didn’t need his apology, but accepted it in the spirit of how he intended it. I told him to stay off the internet, “People are mostly on the internet because they can’t do what you do. Listen to the feedback and keep it moving.” Then I forgot about the whole thing.

…until a month later, standing in Johnnie Christmas’ studio with Island 15 in my hand. I flipped through it, stopped at Dilraj’s story, read. The following is my critique of the piece and what I learned from the prior critical reception of it.

Spoiler Alert: If you’d prefer your opinions spoiled by a critical reception of a piece’s cover and not its contents, skip to the end of the review.

I like this piece, but that is besides the point. This is a critique of what it presents and the function of its aesthetics. Dilraj’s piece and its aesthetics question identity; public vs. private life; politics of performance and performance of politics; and how trauma and structural antagonism inform those things.

Dilraj’s piece is titled January, January is also the name of the comic’s central figure. The piece starts with the cover, an illustration of January making the black power pose. January is a stylish black woman with a blond afro; she wears what appears be Cazal shades, a Gucci buttoned all the way up, capris and platform boots; on the cover she wears the earrings I mentioned before. A pudgy, pock-faced interviewer in clothes unexceptional but for the amount of wrinkles in them, offers her their first question, “No earrings?”. January responds, “Oh, they were just for the cover shoot. Way too heavy to wear for fun. Cumbersome”. From the start Dilraj is interrogating identity and performance and the gap between public and private life. The entire thing plays out juxtaposing January’s thoughts and her dialogue with the interviewer.

When asked about her childhood she replies with an innocuous canned answer, but in her memory a black child stands by while a police officer roughly bends a black figure over the back of a car. Next the interviewer questions January’s politics, asking, “Is your fist raised”. January replies with reservations in being too political; she’s worked hard; she’s not sure she’s ready to sacrifice as much as someone like Ida B. Wells has, but she believes there are other ways to be politically active. Dilraj is interrogating the role of the artist as political agent.

When the interviewer questions January about her friends, Dilraj flashes back to an incident where a gang of five white kids accosted her and three of her friends in the street. A kid in a Charlie Brown striped polo thinks he recognizes one of January’s friends, Darren. Charlie Brown polo believes that Darren “did” his brother. Darren runs. When January and her friends finally find Darren he’s dead, bled out in the street. Back in the present, January pinches her lip but says nothing.

The interview concludes when, after the interviewer perceives a discrepancy between public record and how January has represented her past, January responds in a way that throws the entire performance of her public identity into scrutiny. It’s a critique of the this performance and virtual life.

Dilraj’s comic appears in the 15th issue of the Island Anthology, curated by Brandon Graham and edited by Graham and Emma Rios. #15 is square bound, about the heft of 2 or 3 standard comics and a little wider. The cover stock is nearly as light weight as the interior pages. There’s no cover copy and the Title of the magazine is incorporated into Dilraj’s cover.

The fact that Dilraj’s cover is a part of the narrative makes the entire magazine, as an object, a part of the story. Dilraj is using the form to express the grand idea in the story.

Inside, Dilraj uses four values in January, (black; the white of the page; and two shades of grey, on the lighter side). Island is printed on coated matte paper, giving images a non-porous feel. The light reflects off of the surface. There is no perceivable variation within those four value; the blacks are solid and unwavering. It’s hard to tell if Dilraj’s marks are virtual or digital; the backgrounds seem mechanical, like vector art, which, though not to my liking in particular, kind of works with the theme of the comic. Are these marks real?

All of the black figures are solid black with the occasional highlight. Their lips and hair are offset as white; this seems to be a design function (like mickey mouse’s gloves and face) and not necessarily any racial signifier. This made me acutely aware of how race craft resists the abstraction of the black figure. Our world is racist, always demanding a racialized representation or racialized critical framework of black bodies and their aesthetic. Because racial framework is so important to our society, we demand our aesthetics to be explicit about race.

The same can be said about sex and gender. There are a variety of bodies in this strip, more than I am used to seeing in Dilraj’s work. I can’t say that they are sexualized or gendered in any explicit way… though Dilraj is certainly indulging in a certain voluptuousness. This voluptuousness however can be found indiscriminately in the lips, eyes, folds of nearly all of the characters. It’s his vernacular, his baseline. The fact that it is so different than the norm calls the eyes attention.

Actually the one major exception regarding gender presentation is the presentation of the white mail antagonists in the Darren Flashback. These are white boys. The Charlie Brown Polo is explicit. Another boy wears a Black Flag shirt, which I saw as a scathing criticism of the hypocrisy of the white left.

The fact that the cover to Island, the first page of January, caused such a stir before many had read the interior pages is a testament to its power as a comment on the theater of identity and fame. In a way we all played out materially, what Dilraj put down in that magazine. The material reality of the lack of political subjectivity in the creative environment that produced, published, and critiqued that magazine was made apparent. Brandon Graham demonstrated his editorial blind spot and his lack of social intelligence in how he discussed the work. Many of the critics, myself among them, demonstrated a lack of political, historical, and critical subjectivity when we rushed to contribute our hot takes.

One thing in particular that bothered me was a sentiment that these aesthetics would somehow be better if the author was black.; Dilraj Mann, as I understand, is south asian. I don’t ascribe to this. I think given the context we have to judge the aesthetics on their own. And if we are going to expand the subjectivity and say that people who were wounded by those aesthetics get a crack at using them, the fact that historically, the aesthetics of Sambo come from the depiction of a South Asian boy (I go into this history in LAAB#0), should also carry some weight. I mean, take a hard look at Mr. popo.

I mean, who are they really talking about?

Deep down I also feel like people don’t really want to talk about this stuff. Not in any real way. We want to put an embargo on it. White people just don’t want to be wrong about it. And for us –as reductive as this is, can I speak on behalf of black people for a moment?– There is a legit desire not to face the pain of these images or their underlying politics. There is an internalized racism that sees mocking in every representation of the black body, and for good reason, the mockery has been there so often, particularly in our field. Why should we trust artists to mean anything but harm? Here’s where I think it’s our responsibility as critics to cultivate an environment of thoughtfulness and possibly to build tools for us and the audience to deconstruct the function of these aesthetics. Instead of building a levy, we need to build a critical framework to break down the function of these aesthetics to power our discussions and creative production.

In the end, I am glad that seeing this image on the Island cover made people disassociate themselves from the depiction. We should question representation, what’s its function, regardless of where it comes from. I am thankful for the subjectivity that January sparked among the critics on Women Write About Comics and Ignorant Bliss. Ultimately I think Dilraj did good work and sparked an important critical moment in comics. I hope he continues to do so.

Ronald Wimberly is a cartoonist and critic, his latest work is LAAB Magazine #0, published by Beehive Books.