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?
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?