Two early queer graphic novels, racism in early comics, and the next generation of radical cartoonists
[This essay was written by Annie Mok and funded through Patreon under the ZEAL project. ZEAL aims to provide high quality criticism of rarely discussed games and comics, and showcase the talents of exciting new writers and artists. For details and information on how to donate, please check out our Patreon!]
Cartoonists and other image makers often wield a cloak of neutrality, or the armor of satire. Robert Crumb makes women into headless shrews, happy to be abused. The French Charlie Hebdo cartoonists, taking pages from Crumb, drew racist caricatures with what they called anti-racist intent — and as we all know, if we had a dime for every time some racist had good intentions, we’d wipe the national debt clean. Noah Van Sciver, another artistic descendant of Crumb, made a comic for the Suspect Device anthology in which Jon (of Garfield) ejaculates on a photo of Sluggo (of Nancy); the punchline, as far as I can figure, is that the man wants to rape a kid. In the same book, Josh Bayer draws Nancy with a dick, calling attention to it, presumably as a “Weird Thing.” I’ve said my piece about Johnny Ryan.
Part of Crumb’s artistic bloodline comes from Carl Barks, the cartoonist who created Uncle Scrooge and anonymously drew Donald Duck in the ‘forties through the ‘sixties. A couple days ago I came across a page in a Fantagraphics reprint of Barks’ Duck comics that depicted viciously racist blackface caricatures of “savage” African men. The cover is in bright pastels, with no volume numbering so that one could read them in any order, and historical notes relegated to the back; all these choices make clear that they’re marketed to kids, as well as adults interested in classic comics. A long thread followed my posting it on Instagram, with some creators defending Fanta’s choice to reprint without even an explanatory blurb, as some reprints of older comics have included — or, as Austin English suggested, placing the worst of this material in a separate, scholarly volume. Simon Hanselmann said,
“Complete Carl Barks” predominately for nerdy adults / calm the fuck down […] There’s far more important things to get upset about.”
Dustin Harbin and Austin English talked about selling these comics to kids or parents buying them for kids at their comic book shop jobs. I’ve looked for the series at the kids’ section in Philly libraries, and they’re often out.
As Richie Pope pointed out in the thread,
“More important things to worry about” is a classic deflection and something I’m used to, especially when it comes to any anti-black imagery […] Also, I get people are thinking about images that black children take in. I’d like to add that anti-blackness affects black people of all ages. I don’t have a metal shield from it because I’m grown.
Sab Meynert added:
When I worked in the comics shop, the only people who expected me to appreciate this stuff as history were white elderly folk who miss the loud point that THAT imagery is where someone like myself would end up in a history book. No need to appreciate shit that sought to dehumanize. And as for reprinting without one writeup acknowledging the triggering nature of the content for black kids & kids of colour and adult readers of colour alike, just dismisses the gravity of ill feeling we get when looking at this stuff […] I feel sick when I see this stuff! It is linked to a damaging mentality that kills […] no white person on this thread or in general should really be commenting on the propriety or necessity of an image that does not reflect them, but instead portrays a situation where they are in favour!
Fantagraphics Associate Publisher Eric Reynolds weighed in:
I have a 7YO daughter and I prefer to decide what she can and can’t read rather than let Annie Mok make that decision for me. When we published this very volume a couple of years ago, I consciously chose NOT to read this story to my daughter, because I was uncomfortable with it. But that’s my responsibility as a parent. Every one of these books has been solicited to distributors with an EXPLICIT note that there is antiquated, racist imagery in them.
Which, as I replied, ignores all the kids who go to libraries on their own after school, who are predominately PoC, as well as speaking over, ignoring, and steamrolling the PoC voices in this conversation.
Fantagraphics publisher Gary Groth responded with a subtweet-style post on Banned Books Week, missing the point that Banned Books Week aims to celebrate books that challenge authority rather than uphold it.
Responses like Simon’s, Reynolds’, and Groth’s point to why power structures remain so strong in comics. As Sab said, “This is heavily linked to why there aren’t [a lot] of black/POC comic artists out here.”
The mechanics of traditional comics may uphold kyriarchy as well as imagery. merritt kopas posed the idea of “queering play” in videogames: you examine how a game’s mechanics, rather than the just the surface elements of representation, might covertly uphold colonialist values, and imagine how to move past those boring ideas. If we apply that to comics, “straight” mechanics in comics appear. In the graphic novel It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, cartoonist Seth follows his theoretically autobiographical protagonist (it’s actually fiction). Supporting characters, including fellow Toronto cartoonist Chester Brown, and a woman Seth fucks who I don’t think is even named, exist solely to ask Seth’s character questions so that he might talk about himself unimpeded. In Daniel Clowes’s work, a sometimes suffocating slickness pervades the visuals; Clowes took visual models from mid-century superhero cartoonists like Superman artist Wayne Boring. He used this illusion of the artist being “not there” to convince you that Ghost World is a story of a sad teenage girl, when some of the sexualized poses that Clowes puts his characters in seem to say that much of the story is about Clowes leering at teenage girls. Like merritt’s ideas of “queering play” indicate, and like the vitriolic letters of James Kochalka to The Comics Journal said in 1996 (in a boneheaded way), craft can be a trap. Craft, when canonized as it is by the establishment that crowned cartoonists like Seth and Clowes, can be a glass ceiling to keep creators out, or to keep artists from trying new things.
“I’m still making mini-movies,” the cartoonist Sam Sharpe lamented, specifically referring to the rules of Hollywood films, and most cartoonists stay stuck to that structure. Lady Dane Figueroa Edidi said, “Colonialism is the root of all evil, y’all,” and like all products of colonialist influence, the narrative and aesthetic strictures of comics can be hard to subvert because it can be hard to even see them. Why colonialist? If old-guard white dudes made it, it’s got colonialist influences. (I say this as a woman who’s white racially, mixed ethnically: I’m white, so obviously I have these influences, too.) I often look to artists who work in zines, music, or other mediums besides comics, because that’s where I find more makers willing to rip it up and start again.
I saw Alex Smith, Maggie Eighteen, and Rasheedah Phillips of the Philly-based QPoC sci-fi crew Metropolarity Collective read at RIPExpo in Providence, and I felt the ground move. Rasheedah’s work uses time travel to unearth Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and to explore the possibility of experiencing time in all directions. She writes in Recurrence Plot, “Her brain was trying to communicate a message to her body that her mind would not accept.” I was sober, unless I had smelled weed and had gotten secondhand high without realizing it. As Rasheedah spoke, the room shifted as if on a gyroscope. I went outside to breathe, where lights reflected on the slick street. Queer, anti-colonialist art makes room for possibilities for different kinds of perception around time, around having a body and inhabiting it.
Who’s gonna look at Juliana Huxtable and her work and tell me she’s not from the future?
Sab Meynert’s comics take from the Rhizome Theory, a theory based on rhizome root structures that sprout horizontally, continually growing. Sab’s images twist into themselves, and display remarkable emotiveness without resorting to figurative-based standards of comic book making.
I try my best to show fragmentation, and show how different things are echoed on different planes all at once. I have certain mental health issues that overamplify things and become debilitating… I really like rhizomes, because they can grow whether you’re paying attention to them or not, and they are always active. I feel like [rhizomes are] a true example of time and of growth — in that it is fragmenting, and happening at different times and on different levels all the time… the Rhizome Theory helped me understand time is non-linear and full of multiplicities, that make my life a lot easier. It’s just a matter of balancing what you’re paying attention to.
In Higu Rose’s comic White Boy Thirst, they place a black circle over the face of every white boy in the narrative, emphasizing the distance they feel between them and these objects of complicated desire. “What if he wants to fuck,” Higu writes with the note at the bottom, “(Bonus! Asexual Anxiety!)” and “WHAT IF HE WANTS TO COLONIZE ME.” They explored self-imaging, mental health, and monstrousness in Sulk, a diary comic that resists the slickness implicitly demanded of most cartoonists. Red pencil layouts show underneath inked lines, and red marker bleeds through the paper.
Two graphic novels from 1996, Horror Hospital Unplugged and 7 Miles a Second, appeared to me as signposts towards new strains of comics. Queer writers and artists came from from the outskirts of fine art and literature, outside traditional comics scenes. They released these works in a bit of a vacuum, years before the early 2000's “graphic novel boom” of Persepolis and Fun Home. Horror Hospital and 7 Miles explode with multiplicities of approaches. “My mind cannot contain all that I see,” David Wojnarowicz writes in 7 Miles a Second, which he worked on almost until his death from complications from AIDS. “The minimum speed to break the Earth’s gravitational pull is seven miles a second. Since economic conditions prevent us from gaining access to rockets or spaceships, we would have to run awfully fast to achieve escape from where we are all heading.”
When I was seventeen, I took a pre-college comics course at NYC’s School of Visual Arts, taught by Keith Mayerson and Gary Panter in summer 2004. In his kind Texan drawl, Gary told funny stories about Matt Groening and Paul Reubens (Gary co-designed the puppets and set of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse). “You should be going through big bottles of ink,” he’d say. “But don’t drink it, because it’s poisonous.” He came off like the Wizard of Oz, but not hiding behind the curtain.
Keith emphasized worldbuilding. He said that Akira hit him hard in the 80's because the anime, like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, used subjective motion to put you with the moving character as the world streaks by. My classmate Harry Bogosian, who was dreaming up an Evangelion-inspired epic, asked Gary and Keith, “Are we gonna get to see your comics?” In unison, they both said “NO.” I stumbled on a used copy of Keith and Dennis Cooper’s Horror Hospital Unplugged at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis years later, and I saw why. It blew my stack more thoroughly than Akira or Spider-Man ever did.
Keith, like Gary, made paintings as well as comics. A few years before Horror Hospital, Keith gained notoriety with Pinocchio the Big Fag, a William Blake-informed series that emphasized the polymorphousness of the Disney Pionocchio and the Carlo Collodi original. Keith worked with the writer Dennis Cooper, known for his intensely violent homoerotic stories, to adapt Cooper’s story about a queer post-Nirvana California punk band.
Keith introduces the band in an illusionistic, heavily rendered “realist” style, before turning to bigheaded, Muppet-like cartooning. This bubbly look anchors the story, but the visuals diverge from this style, rhizome-like. The shifts happen so often that there’s not much of a baseline to speak of. Mayerson seems to ask the reader not to look for a center to hold onto.
Singer Trevor Machine wanders around and plays Frogger at a gay bar after being pursued by Doug, a chickenhawk from a record company. Dull’s friend Tim runs into Trevor and introduces himself just before a bear zeroes in on Trevor, and Trevor asks Tim to pretend to be his boyfriend.
Trevor (getting eaten out) and Tim hook up, and the visuals change to an ethereal yaoi manga look. Their eyes sparkle, and flowers cascade arund the open-layout pages. The two leave the hard-edged world of men to sink into each others’ soft gazes.
An unnamed record company executive catches wind of the band’s memorial song for River Phoenix, and he plots with notorious company head David Geffen in-between doing lines off of the gold album plaque of Nevermind. Mayerson references Raymond Pettibon with his chunky linework and floating brush lettering. Pettibon explores power in his fine art drawings, and he illustrated album covers and fliers for Black Flack, the grossest of the hyper-masculine California white punk bands.
While the studio heads make designs over Trevor’s career, he lies in the grass in jorts with drummer Kimberly. Trevor tears off the limbs of a cockroach, in lieu of flower petals, to play a game of, “I love him… I love him not…” After having grown closer, Trevor still keeps his distance. Tim asks Trevor to say “I love you” to him, as a favor. “But it’s a BIG favor,” Trevor says.
Then the ghost of River Phoenix visits Trevor while Trevor picks up a phone call from his dad.
“Tell him you love him. And do it pronto,” River says. “I hate to tell you this, but in twelve days and seventeen hours from now you’re going to die of an accidental drug overdose, just like I did. I tell you this so you won’t do what I did and blow your last couple of weeks.”
The night that Horror Hospital is slated to play a show with David Geffen in the crowd, Trevor works up the guts to call, and gets Tim’s answering machine. Tim hears him give in and say it, and Tim picks up right as Trevor hangs up. Tim and his friend gear up to drive to the show in separate cars. At the show, Tim’s friend comes up to Trevor and says that he has to tell him something.
Trevor runs onstage and up to the mic as a mass of jittering fractured lines. “My boyfriend’s DEAD. Oh fuck. He just died in a car accident, and,” he says, and the audience yells, “Fag! Oh, boo hoo!” Giant skull-like heads of the crowd dwarf Trevor and the band. The startled band plays at Trevor’s command, and he screams, “He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead.” Geffen, in the audience, says, “Pretty funny stuff. But the problem with novelty bands who have theatrical stage shows is…” Trevor stands onstage and wails “I WANT TO DIE” as the lines that form his face detach to thick sharp gestures, fast little suggestions.
If Horror Hospital Unplugged deals with death as a bleak fairy tale (that is to say, a fairy tale), 7 Miles a Second sits with the process of dying.
The story begins as David stands on a Times Square sidewalk. He’s a young kid of twelve or so, with shaggy early 70's hair. “The worst thing about the wait between customers,” he says in a caption, “was having to move every five minutes so the vice wouldn’t get wise; and my little legs hurt.” Janet Mock said, “A lot of people talk about, ‘Choice, circumstance, and coercion,’ and I think for trans women, or even just queer youth, who are trading sex for money or a ride home or a roof for the night, I think it’s all three of those things.”
After that and many other bad nights, David keeps moving with a friend so that they can watch each others’ backs. “I met Willy in a halfway house for ex-convicts. We both got kicked out within a few months. In prison he’d spent eight years in the unit for the criminally insane because he’d tried to kill his foster parents with rat poison. This is after they locked him in the attic for a month while they went on holiday.”
The story later jumps to David in the late 80's and early 90's, as he’s making paintings, and getting sicker and sicker from complications from AIDS. David Wojnarowicz was an artist, musician, and an AIDS activist, and he worked with his friends, the artist couple of James Romberger (who drew the linework) and Marguerite Van Cook (who colored the book in watercolor). James and Marguerite completed the book after David died in 1992, and Vertigo published the first edition in 1996. Some of David’s words also appear in Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.
David picks up a cheap plastic toy of Frankenstein’s creature as he talks to a friend. This is before antiretrovirals, before PrEP. This is back around the time when my mom’s friend, the ACT UP activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya, helped to fight and win against the Communications Decency Act because he knew that the internet needed to stay an open channel for information. Kiyoshi knew traditional channels would never serve people who lived on the margins: people with AIDS, queer and trans people of color, incarcerated people. Years later, one of the last times I saw my mom, she drove me down Lombard Street in Philly and she pointed out where Kiyoshi had his last apartment.
Frankenstein’s creature walked alone, nameless and enraged, because his father denied him care. David pops off the toy’s head with his thumb.
“The only act of kindness I can remember from my father,” David writes as he sees a dad watching his son play near a gas station in a desert, “was one day when he took me into the playroom to beat me as he regularly did, and just before starting he asked me what he should do. I replied, ‘don’t beat me.’ I remember he looked at me with a very tired and sad face, thought about it for a moment and said, ‘Okay.’”
“The man on the TV has a replaceable head,” David writes as he reaches into the TV with an explosive shock. “He can have the face of a doctor, or a politician, or a research scientist, or a priest […] he talks about me in words that make me sound like an insect: ‘carrier’ and ‘infected’ […] he says I must suppress my sexuality […] and he says I must not fuck and I must not suck and I can’t have desires… And it is ironic when he takes on the face of a family man who wants to protect his children because I am his child and I have AIDS.”
The skeleton of a mastodon appears behind David, first deep in the background, then looming large as his body decays to bone by the light of the screen.
“And I’m carrying this rage like a blood-filled egg…”
Sab Meynert interview in Comics Workbook Magazine #7, conducted by me.
Horror Hospital Unplugged, by Dennis Cooper and Keith Mayerson. RE/Search Press and Juno Books (1996 original printing), HarperCollins (2011 reissue).
7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarowicz, James Romberger, and Marguerite Van Cook. Vertigo Comics (1996 original printing), Fantagraphics Books (2013 reissue).
Janet Mock in conversation with Salamishah Tillet at Moore College, 5.19.15. Quote appears 42 minutes into the video.
Carl Barks + Basil Wolverton = Genius R. Crumb, a video by the Oregon Cartoon Institute featuring Charles Boucher and Patrick Rosencranz.
Jeet Heer, The Aesthetic Failure of Charlie Hebdo for The New Republic.
Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz, Vintage, 1991.
Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, Fantagraphics, 1997. Image from “A Lost Daniel Clowes Interview” on TCJ.
Vom Marlowe, “Ghost World: Hateable Girls, Part Eleventy-Billion,” The Hooded Utilitarian, 2009.
Recurrence Plot by Rasheedah Phillips, House of Future Sciences Books, 2014.
Interrupting Play: Queer Games and Futurity (PDF), merritt kopas’s 2/14 NYU Poly workshop.
Thanks to Aevee Bee.