Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 21, 2022
Rebecca Wanzo The Content of our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging New York: NYU Press, 2020. 256 pp.; 6 color ills. Paperback $29.00 (9781479889587)

The past two years have seen a comic turn in African American visual culture. From Jean Lee Cole’s exploration of the earliest forms of Black humor in the final chapter of How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in American Culture, 1895–1920 (2020) to Danielle Fuentes Morgan’s analysis of contemporary Black comedy as a vehicle to expose and critique racial hierarchies in Laughing to Keep from Dying: African American Satire in the Twenty-First Century (2020) and to Richard J. Powell’s comprehensive examination of Black satire as a language of resistance in Going There: Black Visual Satire (2020), there has been a marked interest in analyzing the multifaceted dimensions of Black humor and its ability to comment on American culture. Rebecca Wanzo’s The Content of Our Caricature: African American Comic Art and Political Belonging joins these recent publications in analyzing the relationship between African American caricature and discourses of citizenship in the United States. 

Wanzo makes the stakes of her project clear through the title and the opening image in the book. Cleverly riffing off of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed 1963 speech, Wanzo’s title suggests that African Americans are evaluated not by their “character” as Dr. King had hoped, but through “caricature,” or the reduction of people to real and imagined excesses to reveal something essential about their character (5). She highlights this distinction between caricature and character in her opening discussion of African American cartoonist Kyle Baker’s illustration from July 7, 2002. The panel portrays a caricature of Thomas Jefferson sitting at his desk, drafting the Declaration of Independence with the famous words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . ” emerging from his quill in a flourish of cursive. Directly behind the founding father a small Black child standing outside the house presses their hands against the glass windowpanes and exclaims, “Daddy, I’m cold.” In the image, as Wanzo argues, Baker strategically deploys racist caricature to disrupt the idealized notion of equality in the United States. Jefferson, so-called Father of Democracy, argues for the equality of “all men” while his child, presumably with Sally Hemmings, is a literal and figurative outsider from this ideal of equality and citizenship. Through this strategic framing of the image, Baker reveals that caricature is employed to determine a citizen’s value. As Wanzo suggests in her reading of this image, African American figures are marked by excessive difference in and through racist caricature and are continually portrayed as representations of undesirable citizenship. Wanzo returns to this point throughout her book and successfully demonstrates how Black comic artists like Baker leverage the language of caricature to push against the established representations of what it means to be a “good” citizen.

The egregious caricaturization and stereotyping of Black bodies to justify discrimination—what Wanzo calls “visual imperialism” (4)—is a long-established practice in American visual culture. However, Wanzo offers the reader a more nuanced approach to this visual tradition by foregrounding the works of Black comic artists and centering Black perspectives in her readings in what she coins “an identity hermeneutic” (4). In doing so, Wanzo demonstrates how caricature can be used to challenge predominant stereotypes, critique representations of ideal citizenship, and create a sense of community. The Content of Our Caricature addresses over a century of African American comic art—from widely circulated comic strips and editorial cartoons to graphic biographies and underground comix. In each of the five chapters Wanzo explores a different “citizenship genre,” such as noncitizen, citizen-solider, or countercultural citizen, and how Black subjects negotiate these constructed identities in and through comic art.

In the first chapter, “‘Impussanations,’ Coons, and Civic Ideals: A Black Comic Aesthetic,” Wanzo uses focused case studies to examine how Black artists employed the racial grotesque to explore the dimensions of Black citizenship. While comic artists broadly utilized the racial grotesque to “mark” Black citizenship as a noncitizenship, thereby alienating African Americans from a sense of national belonging, Wanzo argues that Black illustrators adopted this visual language to negotiate and critique these predominant understandings. The chapter covers nearly a hundred years of comic art from the early twentieth-century comic strip Krazy Kat (1913–44) by George Herriman to the newspaper cartoons of Sam Milai in the 1960s to the Bitch Planet comics of Afro-Canadian artist to the dark Southern fantasies rendered by artist Jeremy Love in Bayou and the horror comics of Avy Jetter. In each case study Wanzo investigates the relationship between caricature and white nationalist discourses to show the development of a racialized hermeneutic across time and genres.

In her second chapter, “The Revolutionary Body: Nat Turner, King, and Frozen Subjugation,” Wanzo analyzes two Black comic biographies: Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (2006) and Ho Che Anderson’s King (1993). Wanzo examines the artists’ responses to the “frozen aesthetic of black subjectivity” (25) through their critique of the historical narratives of the “good” slave and the noble Black leader. By putting these graphic biographies in conversation with contemporary editorial cartoons, Wanzo demonstrates how Baker’s and Anderson’s works place tension on the static representations of Black leaders, add to the discourses of Black citizenship, and broaden the construction of Black heroism.

Wanzo’s third chapter, “Wearing Hero-Face: Melancholic Patriotism in Truth: Red, White, and Black,” continues the discussion of Black heroism through the figure of the first Black Captain America (also drawn by Kyle Baker). Wanzo examines the 2003 series alongside World War II promotional posters and cartoons to explore the ways in which race intersected with the citizen-soldier ideal. She argues that a Black Captain America embodies the “melancholic patriotism” that many Black soldiers felt during and after the war. Wanzo claims that as defenders of American ideals abroad, Black soldiers invested in the narratives of patriotism and democracy, and upon their return home felt the melancholia of being denied the rights of full citizenship.

The fourth chapter, “‘The Only Unamerican Thing about Me Is the Treatment I Get?’ Infantile Citizenship and the Situational Grotesque,” explores the figure of the Black child as pessimistic cultural critic. Through the situational grotesque in which the body of the figure and the context are both caricatured, comic artists show how the Black child exposes systemic problems, like poverty, discrimination, and police violence, and pushes against on the notion of American exceptionalism. Wanzo argues that by taking the trope of the innocent and carefree child of cartoons, like Little Orphan Annie, and using it to render the wise, Black child in comic strips, such as Luther (1968–86), Dark Laughter (1938–56), and The Boondocks (1996–2006), comic artists expose the nation’s failures and call attention to the systemic racism that continues to oppress Black children.

Wanzo’s final and most provocative chapter, “Rape and Race in the Gutter: Equal Opportunity Humor Aesthetics and Underground Comix,” deviates from the mainstream comics and serials discussed in her previous chapters and instead takes as its focus underground comix produced from the 1960s through the 1990s. In her analysis of Richard “Grass” Green’s and Larry Fuller’s works, Wanzo argues that the artists capitalize on offensive humor to upend the racialized and gendered mythologies that circulate in American culture. While the chapter is a strong evaluation of how offensive humor can be leveraged to critique cultural ideologies, at times the chapter veers away from the main argument concerning caricature and the discourses of citizenship. Wanzo begins the chapter by stating that she will be examining the “countercultural citizen” through the underground comix of Green and Fuller (172). In what is some of her best visual analyses in the book, Wanzo deftly unpacks the racist and sexist tropes that the artists leverage, such as the “black rapist” and “white whore” (175), to challenge the notion of Black masculinity. While a powerful reading of caricatured gender, it is oftentimes unclear how this reading or the caricature in these works relates back to the countercultural citizen and her discussion of Black citizenship as a whole.

Overall, the strength of The Content of Our Caricature lies in Wanzo’s discussion of comic strips and the artists who until recently were either intentionally overlooked or lost to time and the archive. She notes in her introduction and conclusion that many of the images in this book have been deliberately ignored because they are offensive. Whether due to their overt racism, highly problematic messages, or sexually explicit scenes, these images elicit discomfort in the reader. However, it is by embracing this discomfort and looking at these images that the generative work can unfold. In foregrounding her discussion of citizenship in the visual language of racist caricature, Wanzo reveals what is lost when one decides to ignore images: an entire conversation concerning Black citizenship in the United States. Thus, by centering Black artists and perspectives in her text, Wanzo demonstrates how a racist visual language intended to mark Black bodies as separate from ideal citizenship can be used as a political and social tool to critique notions of Black citizenship. In the end, Wanzo leaves the reader wondering what else can be discovered in the archive, if they just choose to look.

Meaghan M. Walsh
PhD Candidate, Department of Art, University of Virginia