Ayo came through today with a quick piece on the history of the depiction of black people in comic books that should really be checked out. What’s interesting about the piece for me is that I firmly believe that those caricatures can be stripped of their racist elements in order to reveal the clean, powerful design beneath—even when depicting human beings. You can see it in Ayo’s work and in the work of artists like Frank Miller and Lance Tooks.
But a pressing question remains: how do you strip the racism from the trope? I think the first step is to apply the design elements evenly regardless of subject matter. Sharp contrasts and exaggerated features should not be limited to blacks alone. That is where the trouble resided in earlier comic books and strips. These design elements were reserved for one particular racial group in order to portray them negatively—and were later cobbled together as an unspoken instruction manual on how to draw black individuals (and only black individuals). Even when the prose had progressed and strained to show black people as human beings it was hamstrung by lazy art referencing earlier works borne from malice, segregation, and hate.
I think the second step to stripping the racism from the art is to respect the design elements as design elements and stop using them as artistic shortcuts to get away with not truly examining the subject matter. In order to draw an accurate caricature, you must first see your subject in order to exaggerate what is before you. And if you don’t see black people as fellow human beings, as a group of individuals who come in a delightful variety of shapes and colors, you’ll simply rely on a black circle containing two white circles and a red one. Each and every time. And that’s nothing more than the boring choice of a lazy artist. And a racist one.
We need more art archeologists like Ayo—educated and eager. We need artists who are willing to dip into the refuse and carefully brush aside the racist residue from our old relics so that what is true and worthwhile and of value can be spared.