Comics criticism, or whatever

21 Sep

By Ayo

The Comics Journal features an interview of Benjamin Marra, conducted by Matt Seneca. You go and you read that here.

Okay great. Thanks for coming back, that was a long one.

I like Benjamin, he’s a friendly, personable guy with a deep knowledge and love of comic books. He’a a few years older than I am so his tastes are an earlier equivalent to what my tastes in mainstream comic books were. His influences are easy to trace and he wears them on his sleeve.

I’ve talked with him. Here we all are:


Matt Seneca, Darryl Ayo (that’s me), Jonny Negron, Michael DeForge, Frank Santoro, Benjamin Marra, Lala Albert, Aiden Koch.

Very important to convey the precarious nature of who I am and where I stand in reality. I have written this several times. And deleted it most of those times. I shouldn’t have to do this. But I’ve waited patiently an nobody else will step up to the plate.

So once again it’s on me to explain to y’all white folks what it is



Benjamin Marra is a satirical cartoonist, an ironic cartoonist. Not in a specific sense but in how he appropriates a certain period of Americana in his work. Appropriates and ramps it up. His drawings, subject matter and writing style are products of a certain kind of 1980s American comic book. His subject matter also reaches out into the 1970s pop culture and subcultures. Two that he mines frequently are sexploitation and blaxploitation. I have feelings about the sexploitation aspect of this kind of work (and I intend to speak at length about sex in comics one day) but what rarely gets talked about is racism and racial fetishism and exploitation.

It is very self-serving and I’ll go as far to say callous about playing in the sandbox of people whose degradation and oppression you do not share. Not writing about black characters or exploring the pain of black people but rather exoticizing the struggle, the pain, the humiliations, the inhumanity of the road to freedom.

Marra works in the domain of 1970s blaxploitation films but he lacks something: black people. When you watch a blaxploitation film, even if the filmmaker is white, you are seeing black people. Black performers whose frustrations are laid bare on the screen, even though the plots and dialogue were themselves exploitative. The presence of black actors made it real. “Actors,” meaning “independent agents,” not the profession. There are no black actors in a book such as “Lincoln Washington.”

I knew what I was setting myself up for when I bought and read “Lincoln Washington.” But somehow I didn’t believe. I didn’t want to think about how savage and brutal and soul destroying it would be. I didn’t expect to like it but I wanted to learn about what this Ben Marra fellow was about. Well now I know.


I could be way off base, but the emotion that I feel about “Lincoln Washington” might be similar to how many (not “all”) women feel about rape-revenge stories: this isn’t your story to tell.

It’s the way I feel. Spotlight on, all eyes looking, my cultural history paraded around to make an “awesome comic,” insults, rapes, whipping, murder, all for the vicarious benefit of destroying the “bad white people” so that the audience (“good white people”) can have a cathartic release and feel good about themselves. I’m not like those people. I’m on the side of the superhuman negro who punched those white folks’ heads clean off. Those were bad white people. Not like me. I rooted for the good guy.

When I finished reading “Lincoln Washington,” I was physically shaking, gritting my teeth trying to calm my nausea. This isn’t fun. This isn’t “radical,” this isn’t “awesome,” this isn’t a game. This is a brutal reality that a lot of you couldn’t possibly relate to or understand, emotionally.

This isn’t a black person’s fantasy, it is a white person’s fantasy. The ability to get on the correct side of history. The ability to both taste the lurid pleasure of breaking a human down and then switch sides and share in the vicarious thrill of revenge. Lincoln Washington doesn’t exist. He is Benjamin Marra’s own id. He isn’t real in any sense of the word.

Better to talk to would be my mother, an enthusiastic reader of the post-slavery period called “Reconstruction.” The heroism of the era wasn’t vigilante, beastlike super-blacks. The heroism was in the the way blacks rushed to assume political offices, attend law schools, work on a systemic level to bring America from a barbaric state into the beginnings of a humane state. This was before blacks lost many of their public rights such as voting.


There isn’t much to say. People are going to do what they’re going to do. Benjamin Marra is going to make whatever comics he feels like making and I’m not trying to stop him. You are going to read whatever comic books you want to read and I won’t try to convince you otherwise. I really believe that: “you should read whatever you want to.”

But with works like these, please be aware of what you’re getting into.

25 Responses to “Comics criticism, or whatever”

  1. shoopy September 21, 2012 at 4:37 pm #

    I didn’t actually read anything, but these comic panels remind me of Jack Chick in some horrible way…

  2. R.S. David September 21, 2012 at 6:46 pm #

    Thank you for the piece Mr Ayo. I’ve been waiting for a critical piece like this on Mr. Marra’s work. I’ve read Lincoln Washington, and though I appreciated his artistic style, I did not care the comic as a whole and figured I would revisit it later to see if I was missing something.

    I do find that tagging LW as satire seems to be more of empty disclaimer than authorial intent especially after reading the TCJ interview. Mr. Marra seems more interested in resisting self-censorhip than making a statement about racist/sexist imagery.

    Mr. Marra seems to just be playing around with the power of racialized imagery than really doing anything with it. Like playing with fire, such images can be used to illuminate the brutality of opression or it can just burn shit up. Like you, I am not in the business of telling an artist what he can or cannot do, but as audience member, I retain the right to judge it accordingly, and with Mr. Marra working, I find it wanting and shallow.

    It is also nothing new. Boris Vian wrote “I Spit on Your Grave” decades ago as a frenchman masqurading as a black man. His reasons however were not artistic, but purely to settle a bet he could write a bestseller.

    It also reminds me of the early days of punk rock when some bands played around with Nazi Imagery. Thie defense that it was an ironic rebuttal against 60’s hippie ideology, but now it just seems shallow and superficial nonsense.

    Thanks again for the piece and sorry for rambling on yer blog.

  3. jonathondalton September 21, 2012 at 6:52 pm #

    Darryl Ayo is the best at comics criticism.

    • Don Druid September 24, 2012 at 11:10 am #

      While the interview actually got me more revved up on Marra than I ever was from my glancing experience with his racially charged work (Lincoln Washington) by letting me know more about his background and the stuff he’s done in other contexts, I think Ayo’s statement that

      “Marra works in the domain of 1970s blaxploitation films but he lacks something: black people.”

      . . . applies equally to the TCJ interview with Marra. I think both Marra and Seneca might cop to that (although they have mouths and keyboards of their own).

      I don’t have the slightest clue how TCJ matches interviewers and interviewees, but as a reader, I would have appreciated it if Marra’s interview had appeared alongside a roundtable discussion with more diverse points of view. It wouldn’t have had to have been about Marra alone, and almost certainly wouldn’t have ended up that way. That sort of straight talk could have gone places that might not be appropriate for an interview with the subject. As it stands, the interview alone lacks the sort of scalpel work on Marra and race that I’d expect from TCJ.

      • Graham Sig September 26, 2012 at 12:48 am #

        I think, and I may be wrong, that a good number of interviews on TCJ are “freelance”, in that the interviewer sat down with/contacted the interviewee.

      • vollsticks October 3, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

        Matt Seneca is a TOTAL Marra stan.
        I haven’t read this comic but I have read Night Business and Gangsta Rap Posse #1 and both made me feel pretty uncomfortable…to say nothing of Marra’s (to me!) irritating stylistic tics! With GRP I initially thought my discomfort came from some sort of white liberal guilt…”whoa how can this white dude be writing about this stuff in this way” and I appreciated that it kind of made me analyse and confront those feelings a bit more than I would if I was, say, listening to an NWA album. And Gangsta Rap Posse did not feel like satire to me, nor did it feel like blaxploitation–it read more like a failed attempt to pander to the sort of Vice-reading (white) hipsters who dig that sort of thing…”post-racial” “ironic” posturing that for all it’s(reasonably) sophisticated intent is really some lowest common denominator type of stuff.
        I did find the TCJ interview really interesting, though, and I have re-evaluated Marra as an artist somewhat…those small hands still piss me off, though! I’d be really interested to read your thoughts on the sexism in the work(s), Mr. Ayo, and also I’m wondering if you read “The White Rhinocerous” that was serialized in Mome? That comic’s raison d’etre is basically a “fantastic” examination of race, I’d be very interested to hear your take on that. Sorry if this comment is kind of garbled or incoherent I’m not great at expressing myself straight off the top of my head!

  4. steven samuels September 23, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

    Sounds like he’s taking Robert Crumb’s exact position- self-expression (or self-indulgence) for the sake of it without taking any responsibility for how people may perceive it.

    “plus ça change….”

  5. Nate A. September 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm #

    I think you do a good job talking about the problematic (hello euphemism!) nature of the Marra comics, though I’d say you go awfully easy on the Seneca-Marra conversation. It was a bunch of mutually justifying twaddle. But hey, I was pissed from the get-go thanks to Seneca’s assertion that what alt comics readers needed was a “blast of unfettered Americana and masculinity.” That’s why we have Gary Panter.

  6. Don Druid September 24, 2012 at 9:28 am #

    I read a bit of Lincoln Washington and the whole thing stopped me cold on Marra. But the Seneca interview got me wanting to read . . . well, any and all of Marra’s stuff that doesn’t go where that goes with race. (I have to question why I’m more okay with pin-ups, to be honest . . .)

    I think readers should probably encourage Marra (if I can say that in a way that doesn’t sound condescending, because it’s not that meant that way) to spread his wings a little wider. The interview left me with the impression, fair or not, that Marra thinks there’s something organic about his work courting the exact response he got here. He’s bound to get much, much more of that reaction if his work surfaces in the mainstream, without half the kindness you’ve demonstrated here, and maybe that’s not where he needs to take his dedication to his influences. What I guess I mean is that I don’t think Marra needs to put so much energy and time into work where his (and its) authenticity has to be questioned from the get-go.

    I was surprised Matt Seneca didn’t push Marra harder. To focus on the ‘wrong’ side of the interview, there’s a big jump between “it seems to be a legitimate expression of admiration and influence” and “that’s kind of a more authentic expression from the culture that you’re trying to evoke”. Admiration and influence, yes. Authentic . . . I don’t know if that’s clear.

  7. James W September 24, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    Thanks for writing this, Darryl.

    I’m curious as to how you felt about Afrodisiac, if you read it? I like Jim Rugg’s cartooning a lot, but I couldn’t get past the “L O L pimps” stuff. Obviously very different subject matter, but on the same spectrum of inappropriate appropriation, maybe?

    • darrylayo September 24, 2012 at 11:26 am #

      I have not read Afrodesiac in full. I’ve looked at a few pages here and there, anthology segments with the character, but not closely or fully. I suspected that there might be some ironic intent there but I honestly don’t know.

  8. Leah September 26, 2012 at 4:51 am #

    Yes, thank you for this article. I’ve been thinking a lot about cartoonists (mostly those who already come from a position of privilege) who make shocking work for the sake of being shocking without really seeming to care about the sensitivities about those they offend (really they just seem to be selling to the 90% white and male comic audience readership!). so mostly i’ve been going through the (many, many) comics that use either misogyny in a joking manner (remember, rape is funny again) or think it’s like, ‘kinda funny/kewl’ to use nazi imagery (oh yeah, that stuff is funny again too?), but considering the, er, lacking presence of prominent african-american underground cartoonists/critics, this article was really helpful for me to get a different perspective, for once.

    I remember i asked my blog followers once what they found offensive in indie comics. i got a couple of “nothing offends me” (ugh, ok), but one message from someone saying ben marra’s work greatly offended them (was it you, even? i think it may have been!) I hadn’t seen lincoln washington until now to be honest, but i did love “night business”, and remember thinking that it hadn’t even occurred to me that his work was offensive (!). which got me thinking what a fine line “offensive” is, especially in underground comics which i believe has this deeply engrained kind of “fuck the status quo i’m a rebellious motherfucker with a pen!” kinda mentality.

    i also think there are probably less examples of “ironically racist” comic work out in comparison to “blatantly misogynistic” ones, so it definitely interested me to investigate this area of marra’s work. although i’m not going to lie — i recently got a submission for “happineness” that was – I AM NOT KIDDING – garfield cumming black sperm onto his face, thus turning into garfield-with-blackface. submitted to me by a staight white dude. um, wait, what the fuck makes you think that’s ok to do? or moreso, ok, i get that you know you’re being offensive and are flaunting it, but why is it your aim to be a fucking idiot? (also the use of garfield in any context offends me)

    anyway, thank you ayo for beating me to the punch and setting a great example of comic criticism. great respect.

    • darrylayo September 26, 2012 at 6:46 am #

      Hi Leah,

      Yep that was me responding to your inquiry about offensive artcomics. I think that I removed that from tumblr but here I am again!

      One thing that I’d like to mention here is that there is a common idea that *some* cartoonists have that they are challenging people’s fears by being offensive. That they are pushing buttons because society is becoming complacent.

      The truth is, of course, that these are white men who insist that they alone have the wisdom to determine that others are “too serious,” “too sensitive.” People at the very top of our culture’s social order insisting that other people simply lack their iron will. Insisting that people who have been continually sidelined and oppressed in every aspect of culture simply lack the sophistication to see the lovely absurdity of it all.

      Of course, this in itself is offensive. And absurd. A person who isn’t under attack has no grounds to accuse people who are under attack of being too sensitive. But that’s one of the many and various abilities of privilege.

      Thank you.

  9. Royce Icon September 26, 2012 at 5:51 am #

    This was a really great article and I’m hoping to see further discussion about it. I felt really weird when I first picked up Marra’s work dealing with race and couldnt get past the first few pages, it just came off as shitty poorly written exploitation. I really enjoy some of his other raymond pettibon style work though.

  10. vito September 26, 2012 at 10:40 am #

    Jesus, America is really taking a hard turn for the wuss.. this thread feels like one of those episodes from portlandia…

    i mean “the way women feel about rape and revenge movies”?! this is one of those things that if you can´t grasp how stupid it sounds than there´s no point arguing..

    i saw you tried to be careful there (being off-base, not all women, etc): another sign of wuss…

    BTW I´m not even american – a non-white brazilian living in the “third world” so don´t even think about getting offended – yes I get immunity 😉

    and don´t get me wrong – marra´s stuff seems stupid as well..

    • darrylayo September 26, 2012 at 11:19 am #

      So you know all about how wussy America is, but you’re in Brazil? Okay.

      Anyway listen: there is no “immunity.” Who do you think you are? “I get immunity,” not true, you wouldn’t get a pass to finish one godforsaken sentence if you came up to the States and started telling us how much of a bunch of wusses we are. You do not understand the politics of racism and I find that lots of times, folks outside of the USA don’t understand the nature of our internal problems. That said, you could have easily learned if you didn’t have such a chip on your shoulder. No, I’m afraid your comment just makes YOU look ignorant. It is doubly sad because you claim to be a non-white person and one would think that you’d be aware of the wide-reaching effects of white supremacy but hey, it isn’t your personal fault that you are ignorant.

      If you cared to discuss race, culture or society, none of the nonsense things that you said would even occur to you. Well, anyway, you earned a moment of my time. You’ll be able to tell your children and grandchildren about it for all time.

    • Tea September 26, 2012 at 11:43 am #

      Seriously, dude? Darryl is one of the bravest people I know because he has the guts to talk about this stuff in a community that is largely white. Being careful is being respectful; as a woman, I appreciate that he points out that some, not all women, have strong feelings about this stuff.

      Just because you don’t have strong feelings about this kind of appropriation does not mean that other people don’t have a right to object to it for the very reasons Darryl does. It’s not about being a wuss; it’s about having the right and privilege to be the one to tell your own story, and not having to deal with people writing exploitative fantasies trying to snatch your story from you, or audiences believing that that version of the story is the real deal.

    • Marguerite September 26, 2012 at 12:00 pm #

      If your comeback to this article is to just use the term “wuss” all damn day, it’s clear you have zero clue what is actually written in it.
      Why not, you know, ACTUALLY respond with a legitimate argument? Your response is boring internet drivel.

  11. devilistas September 26, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

    I support the notion that no artist should ever censor themselves. What I don’t support is that this total freedom exempts them from criticism. I personally find the work of S. Clay Wilson to be repulsive and sophomoric, though I respect his skill as an artist and as an influence on others.
    There is also a fine line between satire and outright racist/sexist/homophobia. Let’s take R.Crumb, for example. Many of his early 70s strips are unrelentingly misogynistic and are downright violent towards women. They are also brilliantly drawn and clearly serve some kind of cathartic purpose for the artist—a kind of revenge against the imagined or actual somebody who causes them pain. Crumb himself says that he has no defense or rationalization for these strips—they’re not satire, just what was in his head.
    On the other hand, strips like “When The Goddamn Jews Take Over America” are charged with over-the-top anti-semitic imagery and verbiage, but are clearly satirical. For the most part, I put Marra’s work squarely into this category. There’s an awareness of his position and what he’s doing (especially in something like Gangsta Rap Posse, where he offers an overt nod to the idea that this is the daydream of a white kid in the suburbs.)
    Johnny Ryan is another example of an artist who firmly believes that self-censorship is bullshit and that everyone is an equal-opportunity target. Some of the strips he’s done in the past have upset gay readers, for example.
    In all three cases, these are white men touching on the experiences of Others. In some cases, the strips are hostile and view the Other as an enemy. In some cases, the fact that the culture is hostile to the others comes up as a subject of satire—“defending” them in a voice that certainly comes from privilege. In the case of Ryan, he’s telling “transgressive” jokes in as over-the-top a manner as possible. I think it can be argued that the line between transgressive humor from a white man and jokes that actually are representative of homophobia/racism/sexism, etc is extremely thin. Which is why I think that sort of thing has much more power coming from the likes of Ishmael Reed, Darius James or Diane DiMassa.
    I wouldn’t say that critics or artists have a duty to address abuses of privilege or racism/homophobia/ sexism in everything they do. Honestly, that road would lead to a hectoring and didactic train of thought that would be helpful or useful to no one. That said, when someone does tread very specifically on one of these topics, it certainly doesn’t hurt to perhaps be a little more open-minded and sensitive going into a piece, or at least making the attempt to see points of view other than your own. And I outright reject the idea of “It’s a joke, toughen up.”
    –Rob Clough

  12. david brothers September 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    I know I pushed this on Twitter, but from one wuss to another, Darryl, this was a great read. I’d be interested in seeing an interview that hit a bit harder. Not hostile, really, but challenging him rather than agreeing with him. “What do you think about how fictionalizing NWA’s already fictional, but truth-based, narrative puts across as a message?” but better phrased, mayhaps.

    I’ve been interested in Marra’s work for a while, but haven’t gotten a chance to check any of it out, beyond that webcomic he did and the odd album cover here and there. It’s interesting, and interesting-looking, but I feel like it could go either way.

    Related: Django Unchained looks amazing, but if we get a Dead Nigger Storage-type scene like in Pulp Fiction, I’m done.

  13. Milton Compton (@rivalsanlendo) September 28, 2012 at 8:56 pm #

    I greatly enjoyed this article, and because of it will not be reading Marra’s work. i’m tired of people attempting to be edgy using racism/sexism/classism/homophobia “ironically”. how is it edgy to use the tools of the conservative rich people who have run this country since it began? lame.
    i liked your reply to Leah in which you point out that it’s incredibly insulting for someone to say a reader is “too sensitive”, etc. it puts me in mind of a comment Tom Tomorrow made about how offense is not judged by the offender, but by the offended. if these comics offend you, it’s because they’re offensive, not because you’re a “wuss” as that weird brazillian commentor seems to think, or because you “can’t take a joke”.
    and finally, i greatly appreciate that you have in no way advocated censorship of this or any other work. this artist can write and publish whatever he wants, i plan to “vote with my dollars” and not buy it, and making valid criticism of it and informing others is another great tactic.


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