Academic journal article MELUS

Drawing on History in Recent African American Graphic Novels

Academic journal article MELUS

Drawing on History in Recent African American Graphic Novels

Article excerpt

[W]e should no longer naively expect that statements about a given epoch or complex of events in the past "correspond" to some preexistent body of "raw facts." For we should recognize that what constitutes the facts themselves is the problem that the historian, like the artist, has tried to solve in the choice of the metaphor by which he orders his world, past, present, and future.

--Hayden White, "The Burden of History" (47)

"Repetition with a signal difference" (xxiv) is one way of understanding signifyin' as an African American figure of expression and, according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the principle tropological framework for approaching African American cultural production. Although such definitions of the "black trope of tropes" (52) emphasize its roots in the acoustic sphere of communication, signifyin' also takes vivid, if less examined, shape in the visual field. Rich examples may be found in graphic novels by African Americans where narrative drawings combine with strategies for revising the boundaries between black and white, past and present, performance and history, and a range of other binary formulations central to the maintenance of Western culture. In a medium that presents inimitable possibilities for representing trauma through the expressive spatialization of time, graphic novels by Ho Che Anderson, Aaron McGruder, Kyle Baker, Lance Tooks, and others explicitly thematize what Hayden White locates as the burden of history within the particular registers of an African American context and milieu. Rather than reflect the putative facts of history from some transparent or bounded notion of a "black" perspective, these texts question institutions of recollection, such as documentary photography and Hollywood cinema, upon whose premises any such thing as the past is produced for scrutiny in the first place.

This essay examines revisionist historicity as expressed in Ho Che Anderson's critically-acclaimed multi-volume biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. titled King (2005). Anderson draws on, redraws, and draws over the visual archive of experiences that have come to be associated with black existence in the United States. King will play a central role in this essay, but I will also contextualize its aesthetic procedures by examining their operation in Lance Tooks's Narcissa (2002), an artsy melodrama of raceconsciousness, and later in the essay the slap-stick political spoof Birth of a Nation (2004), jointly created by Aaron McGruder, Reginald Hudlin, and Kyle Baker. However disparate in style, subject, and sentiment, these visual narratives by black graphic novelists signify on and reconstitute the political past to intervene in the enduring legacies of slavery, minstrelsy, apartheid, and commodification that haunt the present.

Informed by historical structures of spectacle, the display of black bodies undergoes a process of media negotiation in graphic novels by black authors and writers. Lance Tooks's Narcissa provides a case in point. While the main story is about a young avant-garde black filmmaker who suddenly learns that she has only a few days to live and so sets off for Europe before completing a film project, there appears early on a set piece of racist Hollywood images against which the graphic novel establishes itself as a counter-narrative (fig. 1). (1) Diegetically we come to learn that these are the images that Narcissa, the title heroine, actively opposes in her own films, but their addition works non-diegetically as well, interrupting narrative coherence with a dream-like temporality that recontextualizes the graphic novel as a conscious revision of media constructions of black embodiment. Political resistance to institutional configurations of visibility link character and author, since Narcissa's status in the film industry is doubly minoritized (being both black and a woman); this marginalization is perhaps all too familiar to Tooks, a minority working in a predominantly white and male world of comics. …

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