From Jeremy Love's Bayou

Three years ago at the bi-annual conference for the Society for the Study of Southern Literature, Brannon Costello and I began considering the possibilities of the question: how do comics represent the South? To what extent do comics creators wrestle with what Scott Romine calls the “qualitative geography” of the region, that elusive sense of place and specter of history that shadows nearly every author, poet, or artist whose creative aspirations wander below the Mason-Dixon line?

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The oversimplifications that have been used to characterize southern life and history in popular culture are certainly well known, and comic art is no exception: magnolia blossoms that frame an antebellum veranda, mountain yokels with their moonshine, or the sounds of old Negro spirituals along dusty roads. But what of those comics that endeavor to see the South as more than mere setting, more than stereotype?

Our collection, Comics and the U.S. South, published this January from University Press of Mississippi, aims to advance this dialogue between comics studies and southern studies, interrogating points of convergence and contention among lively characters like Snuffy Smith, Pogo, and Kudzu Dubose, and in the sobering realities of more recent southern graphic novels such as Stuck Rubber Baby, Nat Turner, Incognegro: A Graphic Mystery, and AD: New Orleans After the Deluge.

The thoughtful work of the book’s twelve contributors demonstrates how a critical focus on the South sheds new light on comics that are receptive to the uneasy complexity of an American past that is, as James Baldwin once wrote, “longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.” While some of the risks that the writers and artists take yield mixed results (as when a new Captain America from Custer’s Grove, Georgia refuses to break cover to save his black sidekick “Bucky” from a lynch mob), I have always been impressed by the ways in which the form and content of these comics remain attentive to competing scripts of national identity, race, and power.

Co-editing this collection has given me a deep admiration for comics that take full advantage of the history and culture of their environment without neglecting the kind of character-driven fantasies that are so closely associated with the medium. This includes the monsters of the Deep South that I write about in my essay on Swamp Thing and Bayou, but extends also to the White City in Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland, and the post 9/11 New York City of Ex-Machina. And it is a pleasure to see comics like these discussed in recent scholarly collections like The Comics of Chris Ware and Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence.

These days whenever I mention the work I’ve done on Comics and the U.S. South, colleagues and students eagerly direct me to new texts, new characters and scenes that deserve further study. An experience at October’s International Comic Arts Forum lead me to the adventures of two Union soldiers in Les Tuniques Bleues. Last semester a student alerted me to Chris Sims’ preview of Civil War Adventure that was distributed on Free Comic Book Day: “I was expecting, well, a graphic adaptation of history, but that pretty much goes out the window right around the time the zombie shows up.” (Definitely my kind of story!)

How, then, is the South represented in the comics that you read? And what other qualitative geographies do you think are worth deeper consideration in comics studies?

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About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

6 responses »

  1. roytcook says:

    Qiana,

    Great topic!

    One interesting issue is the relationship between the geographical ‘identity’ of the makers of comics and the characterization of geography in the comics they make. Demographically, comics are a ‘Northern’ and perhaps ‘West Coast’ phenomenon. The cities that are known for housing particularly large populations of comics creators and large important comics publishing houses include New York, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, and a number of others, but notice that there ain’t (yeah, I used that on purpose – I’m a Virginia boy) a Southern city among the bunch. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t immensely talented Southerners working on comics. But it does mean that the vast majority of comics are not being made in the South, and this makes it likely that the vast majority of comics aren’t being made with any real insight into or reflection onto what makes the South what it is.

    This issue goes deeper than merely a lack of Southern representation in comics. For example, consider Marvel Comics. Marvel Comics are not only created in New York – in addition, most of the stories take place there (to the point where when they don’t this is explicitly noted in the title of the comic – e.g. West Coast Avengers, Great Lakes Avengers, etc. – note that the X-men are in a well-to-do suburb!) In addition, however, it is a conceit of Marvel Comics continuity that Marvel Comics (the comic book company) exists within the fictional New York protected by the X-men and the Avengers, and that the comics they produce within the fictional world are historically accurate records of the doings of super-heroes and super-villains (John Byrne developed this idea to best effect in his runs on Fantastic Four and Sensational She-Hulk). So it isn’t just that these comics are produced in New York in the actual world – in addition, it is part of the fiction that the very same comics are created in (the now fictional version of) New York. This metafictional device, it seems to me, really emphasizes the “Northernness” (or perhaps “New England-ness” or “New York-ness”) of the Marvel universe.

    This is not necessarily a bad thing. But it is something that we should be aware of when interpreting comics.

    • Hi Roy, thanks for this response. I hadn’t thought about just how much Marvel’s ties to New York extend into the fictional world (that is actually one of the meta-devices that I REALLY loved about She-Hulk). I can see how strategies like having the actual company exist within the imagined landscape — with the comics serving as historically accurate records — could create a continuous cycle that further affirms NYC as the standard by which all other locales are considered provincial offshoots. Did you know Marvel once considered starting an Avengers South? (I hope to have more details about that up on southerncomics.com in the next few weeks!)

      To your first point, though, it is interesting how so few of the comics used for the collection feature writers and artists who are from the South (or self-identity as “southern”), a few are not even from the U.S. I’m actually really pleased by this; if more and more southern studies scholars can accept that a writer or artist need not prove his/her credentials in order to be able to write about the South, then certainly a medium that put Krypton and Wakanda on the map can be allowed the same creative freedom. Neither Brit Alan Moore or New Englander Steve Bissette seem to think they did a very good job capturing the South in Swamp Thing, but I’m not as interested in accuracy as I am in what their particular approach says about how the region is regarded and the implications of those views.

  2. Qiana, your question is something that interests me from a professional viewpoint and a personal viewpoint.

    How is the South represented in the comics that I read? The short answer is that the South — the people, the places, the cultures, the history — is largely erased from comics. Roy’s comment is insightful: as vast as the comics universe(s) may be, there are frequent, reliable places that we see, that we grow accustomed to, that we expect in many stories.

    There are some interesting exceptions, though. What comes to mind is an Alan Moore story, “The Jungle Line.” In this story, Superman is very sick and is suffering from a fever and hallucinations, etc., and he is eventually healed with the help of the Swamp Thing. Although I don’t have the comic in front of me, there is a very brief comment, indicating that Superman is driving to a place where there are no native superheroes, i.e., the South. That really struck a chord with me. Having grown up in Alabama myself, I felt my understanding of the comics world shift ever so slightly, expanding to acknowledge this dearth. I think I knew intuitively what Moore was talking about, but it became much clearer to me when I encountered it in the comic.

    A different example is the ongoing comic series, Scalped, which occasionally makes use of linguistic features common in the South. Ironically, the writer, Jason Aaron, is creating a world that is largely Lakota in its identity, being set in the northern plains on a reservation similar to the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. Many of the characters use the pronoun “y’all”, for example. And although “y’all” has a growing presence across the United States for a variety of reasons, it is surprising in this particular comic. In the interest of full disclosure, though, Jason Aaron grew up in Jasper, Alabama, not too far from Birmingham. As a native speaker of that English dialect, Aaron is writing Southern English into a distinctly non-Southern setting. This is a rare instance of the export of “the South.”

    I recently read “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow” by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso, and I’m currently rereading “Stuck Rubber Baby,” which you mentioned in your post. Both of these look at important historical periods, and I’m also interested in learning about comics that look at current places, people, and cultures of the South. I look forward to buying a copy of your and Brannon’s book.

  3. Hi Frank, wow these are some really terrific examples. I am going to look around for the Superman story – I would love to get a look at those remarks! No native superheroes…hmm. I have also been hearing a lot about Scalped and it’s interesting to see how your knowledge of Aaron’s background influences your thinking about the way he uses language. I wonder, if he were from California, would we see the “y’all” as an error?

    Satchel Paige is one of my favorite comics to use in the classroom. I think it really does a good job of placing his baseball stardom in context by juxtaposing the explicit racism of the time with smaller, more subtle cruelties and slights. The full page spread where the main character and his son are forced to work together in the fields just blows me away.

    Last thing – talking about no native superheroes in the South – you need to read Jack Butler’s novel Jujitsu for Christ! Right away!!!!

    • If the artist were from California, I wouldn’t see “y’all” as an error but an appropriation of a linguistic form (and concomitant social identity) for artistic purposes. The question for me would be whether the linguistic form were used to stereotype the character who uses it.

      Also, there are doubtless tens of thousands of people who live in California who use “y’all” as part of their home language or home dialect. In particular, I’m thinking of members of the African American community, Latino community, and Asian American communities who have adopted that pronoun and made it part of their own language. In that case, it would be neither error nor (inappropriate?) appropriation.

      Thanks for the reference to Jack Butler. I will look this up a.s.a.p.

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