That Old Black Magic

12 Aug
By Darryl Ayo

For those of you just joining us (in Western Civilization), there has been a past of some level of acrimony between white European-descended people and black African-descended people. Rumor has it that this hostility continues to this very day. The above panel is from a well-regarded comic called The Adventures of Tintin in which we see the title character being carried about by crudely-drawn black Africans. Today, such images are generally frowned upon and not encouraged.

This man is not amused by what he sees in that comic book. Can you blame him? The Africans in Tintin in the Congo, along with several other of the books in the series are depicted as barely sentient slabs of black ink with few individual characteristics and little sense of humanness. The depictions are harmful both in the visual sense of how Africans are drawn and how they are written. In Tintin and many other early comic books, black persons lack personhood on the page and that ties directly into the extreme degree to which blacks had been pushed out of society and treated as “there-but-not-there” by the white mainstream of society.

In later years, we would see a retreat from such imagery in mainstream comic books, but there was a cost. After some point in history, comic publishers began to feel it not wise or politically inopportune to allow such images in their products. What ended up happening, however, is that black characters largely vanished from many comic books.

And eventually they returned, drawn more naturally, and even starring in their own adventures here and there. But what I find particularly interesting is the way black characters fell from being marginalized figures in society to non-existent for a period in time. And to be sure, to this day, black characters, major or minor, are fairly rare in Western comic books, given the relative population; particularly since many Western comics are set in cities–where blacks tend to live.

I was reading through some old racist comics (because I like old racist comics) and suddenly I felt a burst of lightning; at one point in time, black people were acknowledged in Western comics, followed by a period in which they weren’t. Granted, the portrayal of African people was usually condescending to say the very least–but it was an acknowledgement. There was an awareness of different people, persons different from the white authors and their intended audience. There was a very crude attempt at indicating that Western society is comprised of various cultures. Subcultures that operate within as well as without the white base of power.

And this is where I get into trouble:

I actually like some elements of the racist depiction of black figures in old comics. It first happened to me years ago, I believe in 2003 when I was reading Jim Woodring’s The Frank Book featuring his strange fantasy monsters. Here’s an example of Woodring’s designs:

I kept feeling uncomfortable when I saw Pupshaw and Pushpaw in the pages of Frank due to their graphic similarity to old racist comic strips. Woodring’s iconography is borne of the early Twentieth Century cartooning style. Then it hit me all at once: this is good design. Damn good design!

These are my sketches. I’ve been toying with this idea mentally and decided to lay it out on paper to see how it works in reality. The idea that I came across as I went through Woodring’s work is that the images derived from old comics are very graphically powerful–but not for their political and social implications alone. These images are powerful because they use strong, solid and bold black shapes, detailed with white slivers cutting the ink into recognizable planes. It doesn’t reflect the reality of having dark skin, but it makes a figure stand out and be bold against any graphic background.

In Woodring’s work, this graphic power is harnessed and allowed to run free because it’s used on characters that don’t even approach being human. It’s removed enough from the original context to avoid being hurtful to people. But what if I wanted to bring this graphic approach full circle? What if I wanted to bring it all the way back around to being about humans again. And what if I wanted to take the concept further and use it to show dark skinned humans not as creatures, but as beautiful, stark and striking figures on their our own? WHAT IF I WANTED TO DO THAT?

5 Responses to “That Old Black Magic”

  1. Anthony August 12, 2011 at 8:27 am #

    I think you’ve done a good job with these images. Whilst I think the older depictions are obviously rascist, I think it’s also important to keep in mind that characatures do exaggerate features. In european person this could be a huge pointy nose etc. I think your drawings reflect this also.

  2. meisterjazz August 12, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    I think it’s an interesting experiment, but be aware of what the mouth does. I understand the graphic idea you’re experimenting with but that is so far removed I’m not sure how well it works anymore. I think the other aspects you’re toying with work, but the doughnut mouth I think it a weak point in your design and statement.

  3. Dorian Legodick Lafferre August 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm #

    I agree with meisterjazz – the mouth is a bit too blackface, but I like this experimentation.

    I’ve been fond of the way the upcoming Black Dynamite cartoon embraces black shapes into the lines. Ironically, considering the blaxpoitation theme, the black shapes never have a racial connotation. They are just beautiful shapes that support the unique art style.

  4. Tea Fougner (@teaberryblue) August 13, 2011 at 3:36 pm #

    What I love about this post– and which I keep trying to figure out how to express exactly– is that generally discussions of racism in art have to do with social messages, not aesthetic. People talk about how portrayals of black characters in comics infantilize, desexualize, or even depersonalize black people (or fill in the treatment usually applied to other characters of color), but not about how the aesthetic choices made by those early racist cartoonists change the semiotics of modern comics to such an extent that a contemporary black cartoonist like yourself loses an entire chunk of vocabulary that you could be using to depict black characters (or even yourself if you are doing auto-bio!) without having to deal with the implications they forced onto those aesthetics through years of combining the aesthetic with the racist message.

    The illustrations you drew are really nice and I like what you’re doing in re: expressing planes of facial architecture. I love the little girl with her tongue out. But the comments above me point out the intrinsic problem– people can’t help but see the racist message that we’re all so used to being connected to some of these signifiers.

    I also am really interested in your point about how white creators’ solution to getting rid of racist stereotypes was to remove other races completely.

  5. Rob Clough August 17, 2011 at 8:36 am #


    This is a very interesting experiment. I tend to agree that the most problematic aspect centers around the lips (always the white artist’s center for racist depiction), but your drawings change the context of the shadings and (admittedly striking) graphic design of the depiction of black folk. Namely, the depiction of black characters was almost always for comedic effect. White artists drew the big puffy lips because they thought they intrinsically looked funny and thought their audiences would agree. As a result, once the audience was given the message of “this is a funny image”, anything those characters would do on panel would also be funny. For example, in that Wonder Woman panel, two otherwise ordinary black people get turned into instant comic relief thanks to their lips, and the “joke” is carried further by their big, puffy bodies (another common characteristic) and use of slang.

    On the other hand, your drawings strip the design of the “instant punchline” nature of what we would expect. These are just regular people feeling various emotions. The design even heightens these feelings. It’s a bold move. I’d be curious to see this at work in a short story.

    By the way, your overall character design is getting really good.

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