Writer Deborah Elizabeth Whaley on the influence of black women as creators and characters in comics

Illustration by Cheryl Graham
Illustration by Cheryl Graham

In her recent book, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley, an associate professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Iowa, considers black female creators and characters working and appearing in sequential art. Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime introduces readers to a variety of creators from the past and present, and investigates the ways black female characters are portrayed and interpreted in a variety of stories and settings.

Little Village: Black Women in Sequence is broad in scope, investigating both black female characters and black female creators in sequential art forms. What were the challenges involved in considering both the created and creators?

Black Women in Sequence, published by University of Washington Press.
‘Black Women in Sequence,’ published by University of Washington Press.
Deborah Elizabeth Whaley: Investigating representation, production and circulation was a pleasure. My inclusion of the voices of creators and readers enhanced the project and provided me a better understanding of the narratives and characters I discuss in the book. However, I did have some trepidation about how the writers and artists would feel about my assessment and interpretation of their work.

Specifically, after writing the book, I wondered if the women creators I discuss in the book would feel I did their work justice and that I accurately reflected their intents. I had a brief exchange with Nara Walker, the author and artist of Songbirds and “Legacy of Light,” after the book came out. She felt my assessments of her books and art were fair, though she did say that some aspects of the narrative in Songbirds were more implied and less explicit than I depicted in my interpretation, but she acknowledged that meaning is also up to reader interpretation, which is the beauty of sequential art. Walker’s response helped allay my fears. As I write in the book, sequential art is a co-creation process between reader and producer.

Similarly, you explore art intended for (or at least engaged with by) various niche or specific audiences, as well as works that are part of the mainstream American culture. What are the different implications of black female characters and creators in, say, the DC and Marvel universes versus those appearing and creating in independent or niche spheres?

Sometimes there is a divide in the comics’ subculture between mainstream and independent production. In particular, some readers and critics see DC and Marvel as less progressive and maintain that the more alternative or edgy portrayals are in the titles that are self-published or are indie productions. You see an emphasis on this divide in social media.

Yet, what my book tries to establish is that no representation is without problems and that some titles, characters or moments in mainstream publications are essential to assess for their cultural work and cultural havoc. What can we learn, for example, from erroneous depictions of Black womanhood in mainstream titles? How is there a reproduction of ideas about gender, class, sexuality and nation in dominant produced comics, graphic novels, videogames, film and anime? In other words, by looking at mainstream representations, one can make connections between those representations and larger issues related to international and domestic policy and social relations and politics. Additionally, it establishes what types of images and ideas independent outlets and titles are contesting.

Having said that, my exploration of women working in the independent realm establishes the advantages of producing autonomous work … that speaks to the diversity and complexity of Black female experiences. This is not to say that some of the independent works are also not problematic and do not in some cases present stereotypes and binary thinking. It is to say, however, that the large majority of women creators I write about bring to the writing and artistic process a genuine desire to rethink and re-present culture, politics and social relations in opposition to dominant and narrow depictions of Blackness. In the book, I refer to this process as “re-inking.”

As your research developed, were there surprises or key revelations that shaped your overall arguments in new ways?

Reader responses to some of the titles I discuss did pivot my analysis and shape my initial research questions. For example, in my chapter on Catwoman, I came to the project with the assumption that readers and viewers would not approve of the Black iterations of the character because of racial assumptions and discrimination. While a minority view did reflect this bias, the viewing and reading process in the comics’ world was much more complex and malleable in regards to readers’ and viewers’ ideas of race. Readers and fans bring a high level of sophistication to the reading and interpretive process and a great deal of genre competency. Their investment in characters, titles, writers and artists are connected to wanting to maintain continuity and believability, but most readers and viewers of all racial, ethnic and gender groups consulted for the chapter desire diverse portrayals of characters.

I also began to see a closer correlation between the desire of male and female readers that I would have otherwise anticipated before my research. Many male readers, for example, did admit to being attracted to sexual portrayals of women, but they also looked for the same attributes that women readers espoused were important: character development, strength and vulnerability and the circle of relationships that the character develops.

In [researching] my chapter on depictions of African female characters, I was surprised to learn that some writers did research or aim to pay tribute to aspects of feminism and African culture to develop storylines. However, this attempt was too often cursory, leading to impoverished ideas about social justice for women, African women and African culture.

Will you continue to explore sequential art in your scholarship? What is up next for you in terms of research and writing?

I am writing separate articles on the comic strip Friday Foster and the Afrogoth comix of Calyn Pickens-Rich. However, my next book is on women and dissociative identity disorder (formerly called multiple personality disorder) in popular culture.

Rob Cline seeks out the good and bad across the comics landscape as the Colorblind Comics Critic. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 192.