Interview: Deborah E. Whaley

Black Women in Sequence Whaley

We had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Deborah E. Whaley, Professor of American Studies at University of Iowa, about her new book, Black Women in Sequence: Re-Inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, published by University of Washington in 2015.  The book is a rich and insightful multi-disciplinary examination of black women creators, characters, and culture in comics, past and present. Read the book for Whaley’s analyses of popular black women characters like Storm and Catwoman, her search into the art and politics of cartoonist Jackie Ormes, and her fascinating look at contemporary women creators of African descent doing wide-ranging comics work today.  You can learn more about her book from Dr. Whaley’s website. 

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Paul F. Lai: Thanks so much for this time, Dr. Whaley.  To begin the conversation, I like what you suggest in your book’s subtitle, “Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime.”  Can you describe what you mean by “re-inking?”  Does that encapsulate what you accomplish in the book?

Deborah E. Whaley: I am an artist and a curator and writer; this book is a way to pay homage to the artistry, to read the visual in a critical way, to curate images and sources into one place with care, and to write about why comics matter. Re-inking is way to describe a reassessment of the characters, artists, and writers by examining their work and importance in the field. In chapter one, I work through this idea with my discussion of Jackie Ormes in regards to how she re-inked or rethought ideas and practices of the nation-state for people of African descent living in America via the comic strip form.

The term inking, of course, refers to the artistic process of creating sequential art and how the visual collides with the written text to create a new object. To say that Black women are re-inking or to say that my interpretations of their representations are a process in re-inking is a way to signal how these images and their circulation in the global marketplace should be closely examined in ways that did not previously exist. The idea of re-inking also refers to how historical scripts of Black women are changing or how I challenge those scripts throughout the book from the vantage point of an artist, curator, and cultural critic.

PFL: Can you describe your method of research for this book?  How did your rooting in American Studies inform how you went about this study?

DEW: As an American Studies scholar, that is, someone who has been trained in the field as an American Studies scholar (rather than as a specialist or sub-specialist in American Studies or someone who comes to American Studies to do interdisciplinary work or who wishes to study aspects of the US), every project I undertake aims at realizing the interventionist aims of my field.

Deborah Elizabeth Whaley

Deborah E. Whaley, University of Iowa Professor of American Studies

Many studies on comics are textual or historical, or textual and historical; they focus on the narratives of comics or on the artistic process. Some articles and books explore mainstream representations, others look at underground or independent artists. As an American Studies scholar, I am trained to examine culture in a cross-cultural, geo-political (or regional and political), transnational, self-reflexive, and interdisciplinary way. I therefore assess change over historical time, narrative, how region or space affects production, consumption, or representation, how I situate myself in the work and the stakes. I also engage with intersecting aspects of race, ability, gender, sexualities, class, and nation, and multiple fields, theories, and methods.  An American Studies method aims at creating new scholarship and new ideas that generate from a broad spectrum of sources and realizes a scholar’s ability to make sense of and create a synthesis of those sources.

PFL: You mention the last decade’s recuperative project in comics scholarship, deepening our awareness of sequential art and social relations.  What’s been the response of other academics in American Studies or Cultural Studies to your work in comics?  How has your research been received by other comics scholars?

DEW: Thus far, the response is encouraging, but the book just came out so I cannot say definitively what the overall response constitutes. Big Think ran a feature on my article on Catwoman and Eartha Kitt’s daughter responded positively to my arguments in that article, which was very gratifying. Nara Walker wrote to me and expressed that she felt positive about my assessments of her work, too. Other artists have said that they were happy to be a part of the project. As for critics, I have only heard from a few comics’ scholars who seem to think the book is timely and well done.

Having said that, when I first started the study, some advice that I received was to only look at comics and do textual readings. Others said I should not include the artistic ideas and voices of the women under discussion, and many questioned whether anime, television, film and video games were necessary to engage with in the book.  I received similar comments with my first book, as some questioned why I did not just do a “historical study” and why I was looking at film, performance, archives, legal issues, and doing interviews and participant observation all in one book. These types of questions even came from people trained in American Studies!

My response to those types of questions and suggestions is straightforward: as an Americanist, I am trained to move beyond disciplinary boundaries and to always think through the object under examination in relation to cultural, social, and political contexts. Some see interdisciplinary work as combining a field or two or a subject or two; but true interdisciplinary work, as theorist Roland Barthes reminds, is about creating a new object out of seemingly disparate materials and fields and in so doing, the writer/artist/practitioner and the work should be transformed by the process. Americanists find in many sources a way to provide a more complex analysis than history or literature or one or two fields in combination can provide.

PFL: You have fascinating contrasts in cartoonists like Barbara Brandon-Croft and artists like Ashley Woods, all doing vital work.  How do you connect such disparate, but equally important, voices?

DEW: Their voices reflect different historical moments, but are not disparate; they are doing the same type of cultural work. In the 1990s, Brandon-Croft began critical conversations about Black womanhood and about Black cultural politics in new ways and set the groundwork for other Black women to follow. The connection is to think of all of the artists as presenting aspects of Black postmodernism and using the form of sequential art to rethink Black women’s relationship to culture and politics as characters or as creators. Their work is also linked through theoretical categories I offer, some of which are well known, but others are new or are in theoretical formation: Afrofuturism, Afropunk, Afrophantasmagoria, and Afroanime.

Ashley Woods Millennia War

Ashley Woods’ Millennia War. (self-published) ashleyawoods.blogspot.com

Though there are certainly overlaps between these categories and many of the artists reflect more than one of those categories, I connect these works as being indicative of the Black fantastic, drawing, of course, from Richard Iton’s important book In Search of the Black Fantastic. Richard Iton writes that the “Black fantastic” in popular culture comprises “the experiences of the underground, the vagabond, and those constituencies marked as deviant.” Additionally, as a product of postmodern Blackness, the Black fantastic reveals “notions of being that are inevitably aligned within, in conversation with, against, and articulated beyond the boundaries of the modern.”

All of the women are presenting new ways of thinking about race, gender, and sexualities, and often times, of blackness in all of its variety and complexity. Posthuman, anthropomorphic, mixed-species, and trans* characters are identity tools they use to discuss cultural life in contradictory and fresh ways. After reading the chapter on Black women comix creators, I hope the reader is encouraged to think about identity and culture in new ways and that they are encouraged to read and view the works under discussion.

PFL: In talking about Nara Walker, you say, “the Black fantastic is a space of invention and can serve as an intellectual contribution, artistic subversion, and signify(ing) practice.”  What are the most hopeful or encouraging signs of invention or reimagining that you see in the media landscape generally, and comics specifically, for black women?

DEW: A lot of what I see in media does not constitute encouraging signs of invention or reimagining, but when I write about film or popular culture, I try to focus on moments or aspects that reflect progressive ideals, or I critique images that are limiting and I offer other sources that represent fresher ideas and more complex portrayals. Insofar as comics are concerned, most of the women artists I describe in the book – those who were a part of The Ormes Society as well as those who were not – reconfigure identity categories and work through problems in culture from the social, to the political, to the wider cultural with great self-awareness and care about the human condition.

This type of reimagining offers a way to rethink the real world we inhabit. This type of invention of cultural production also reimagines in a way that brings more people into the fabric of the nation even while questioning problematic aspects of nation-making. I think popular culture can play an important part in this type of work because of its wide, mass dissemination. As theorist Stuart Hall remarks of popular culture, it constitutes “the grounds upon which transformations are worked through,” and it is the site of “resistance and conformity.” This is why popular culture matters and this is why comics matter.

PFL: That’s inspiring. Your book is such an essential contribution to comics. We appreciate the conversation.

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Be sure to get your copy of Whaley’s book, as well as some of the other works mentioned in this interview:

Posted in Ethnicity & Race, Gender, Interviews, Interviews, Paul Lai