Interview with the editors of Comics and the U.S. South: Qiana Whitted and Brannon Costello
How did you personally get into comics?
Brannon: I came to comics early on, reading books off the convenience store spinner racks and eventually graduating to subscriptions and then discovering the few direct market retail outlets in central Mississippi. I can’t really remember a time when I wasn’t reading comics, but the series that made me a fan was probably the J.M. DeMatteis/Mike Zeck-era Captain America of the early 1980s.
Qiana: I read newspaper strips as a kid but I didn’t become genuinely interested in comics until I was an undergrad at Hampton University in Virginia. I dated a guy who earned extra money in college by airbrushing pictures on jeans and t-shirts (early 90s, remember those?) and he spent a lot of time in a nearby shop called Bender’s Books & Cards, flipping through the graphic design magazines for ideas. While he was busy, I browsed through the stacks of old paperbacks, sci-fi and fantasy collectibles, and occasionally peeked into the small room of porn and erotica in the back. But I ended up spending most of my time with the wall of comic books and back issues that filled half the store. At first I was self-conscious of the fact that I was often the only black girl there, but then again, I’ve always been considered a little odd – I was reading Toni Morrison and Anne Rice, watching “A Different World” and “Star Trek” – so I was anxious to figure out my relationship to this space and its stories, regardless of whether or not I always felt welcomed. (It’s no mistake, then, that one of the first series I started reading regularly was Spawn… or that I ended up marrying that guy.)
What is your favorite comic or graphic novel and why?
Brannon: Tough call here! I’d have to say that it’s still Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!, a book that enthralled and perplexed me as an adolescent and that has continued to reveal new layers each time I’ve returned to it as an adult. My childhood sentimental favorite is Peter Gillis and Sal Buscema’s What If? #44, “What If Captain America Were Revived Today?”, which is the story I credit with sparking my dormant political consciousness. The final showdown is Captain America, Spider-Man, and a cadre of black radicals vs. the red-baiting 1950s Cap. Captain America wins by giving a speech, of course.
Qiana: Horror comics are my favorite with DC’s 1980s Swamp Thing (Moore, Bissette, Totleben, Veitch) and Love’s Bayou at the top of the list. I love the broody, ontological questioning of Swamp Thing and the trippy cast of villains – I still get a little choked up over “My Blue Heaven” (#56, 1987). Bayou is a series that takes full advantage of what the comics form can do in its incredible rendering of southern culture. I admire the risks that Love takes in the story’s inter-discursive mash-up of folklore and history, seeing in and through racial caricature and appropriation in ways that are both gruesome and gorgeous.
If you had to specify to non-academics what it is that comics can do that no other medium can, what you say to them?
Brannon: There’s something very powerful about the way that a collection of panels on a single page of comics can jump back and forth across both miles and millennia and in doing so suggest a whole proliferation of connections and meanings beyond those contained in the traditional left-to-right, top-to-bottom way of reading that page. I think that ability, not coincidentally, is well suited to fostering questions about the contested nature of history, memory, and narrative that are central to a lot of the essays in Comics and the U.S. South.
Qiana: So earlier this year, I posed a question on the blog, Pencil Panel Page, about the benefits of approaching comics reading as an expansive, rather than immersive experience that speaks a bit to the comparative differences of the form. My speculations focused on the extent to which the interaction of visual and verbal elements in comics produce narratives that are outward-looking, that encourage us to participate in world building –including even “inner” worlds – while attending to the rhythms of plot and character development. The more I read and study comics, the more I believe this to be true. I think that getting lost in a comic book is altogether unlike what we typically associate with prose or film, and certainly you don’t need to be an academic to value this distinctiveness.
What is the story behind the genesis of your collection? How did you get together to work on it?
Qiana: Long before we began collaborating on Comics and the U.S. South, Brannon and I became friends through the bi-annual academic conference of the Society for the Study of Southern Literature. It wasn’t until I organized a comics studies panel at SSSL in 2008 that we realized how much our teaching and research have in common. Brannon was already working on the book Howard Chaykin: Conversations and had written about comics like Captain America, Black Panther, and Hellboy, while my interest in black folk culture and history motivated my own work on Stagger Lee and Nat Turner. The study of American comics is expanding in all sorts of fascinating, cross-disciplinary ways, but we felt that few scholars had paid close attention to how the South operated in comics and rarely looked beyond the clichés and caricatures of the region and its people to consider the full implications of these representations. Having studied southern literature and culture in other mediums, I think we were also excited to explore how the issues that are most prevalent in Southern Studies – such as a profoundly conflicted engagement with history, class and racial politics, and the idealized agrarian landscapes – would manifest through the comics form. In selecting contributions for the collection, we were especially pleased to see how well the depiction of the U.S. South intersected with questions about heroism and the limits of power that preoccupy superheroes, for instance, or informed the ways in which comics grapple with the economy of visual and verbal stereotypes.
What does a focus on comics contribute to the larger academic project of Southern studies?
Brannon: Southern studies has been undergoing an interesting evolution over the course of the last decade or so, growing less concerned with how and whether texts reflect an “authentic” depiction of the South or appropriately channel some sort of southern essence and growing more interested both in the uses to which the fantasy of “the South” is put in various political or cultural discourses and in how that fantasy shapes and constrains and enables the lives of individuals and communities inhabiting the geographical region historically identified as the South. Comics are a vein of tremendous, largely untapped potential for thinking through and gaining a new perspective on those issues, partly because the formal properties of comics that we mentioned above provide a different set of tools for artists to engage the South with, and partly because of the rich variety of ways that the South has traditionally been figured in comic strips and comic books of all genres. Any attempt to account, for instance, for the ways in which the South has been represented in US culture that doesn’t take into account strips like Li’l Abner and Pogo – popular and influential strips with wide mass appeal – is only going to be partial at best.
In the course of completing your edition, what surprised you most? What did you discover?
Qiana: When we first proposed the book’s section headings based on the abstracts, I figured that there would be at least one unit that highlighted racial issues. What surprised me the most as the completed essays began to come in was that so many of the critical discussions included complex, meaningful engagements with racial representation (even when the essays weren’t “about” race). And so while there is a section on “Emancipation and Civil Rights Resistance” that includes outstanding work by Conseula Francis on Nat Turner, Tim Caron on Incognegro, and Gary Richards on Stuck Rubber Baby, interested readers can also find a compelling interrogation of blackness in Pogo in Brian Cremins’ essay or in Brannon’s analysis of Captain America. My take on slavery and Swamp Thing appears alongside Joseph Michael Sommers’s essay about Hellboy’s trek into Appalachia and Nicholas Labarre’s analysis of Preacher. When it comes to comics studies, the most visible and popular black characters seem to come from urban superhero or jungle settings and so I am really impressed by how this collection pushes against that prevailing notion.
Brannon: I was a little surprised and very pleased to see how well the essays all spoke to each other once they started to come in. There’s always a danger with a book like this that you’ll end up with a lot of essays talking past each other, but the four sections of the book really fell together pretty organically. I was also thoroughly impressed with a couple of cases in which contributors shed new light on books that I had not thought much of and would not necessarily have believed were as complex and rewarding of close analysis as they ultimately turned out to be. Tim Caron’s discussion of Incognegro in the context of the history of caricature in comics gave me a new appreciation for that book, and Andy Hoefer’s careful reading of Josh Neufeld’s transformation of the photographic record of Hurricane Katrina persuaded me that A.D. is a much more sophisticated work than I’d initially thought.
What do you see as the future of comics studies? Where would you like to see the field going?
Qiana: I see the future of comics studies in the exciting array of academic perspectives that are beginning to demand greater attention in the field. Interdisciplinarity is more than a buzzword in comics studies – it reflects the increasingly rigorous practices of a number of academic specializations (not just literature!) that offer insight into what comics can do. I think about collection such as Linguistics and the Study of Comics edited by Frank Bramlett, and The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach, edited by Roy Cook and Aaron Meskin. I am encouraged by studies such as Do the Gods Wear Capes: Spirituality, Fantasy, and Superheroes by Ben Saunders, or the way Jared Gardner explores the relationship between cinema and comics in Projections: Comics and the History of Twenty-First Century Storytelling. And Comics and the U.S. South is not the only collection that attends to region in the study of comics; there are also publications such as Comics and the City edited by Jorn Ahrens and Arno Meteling, while James Bucky Carter and Derek Parker Royal are working on Comics and the American Southwest and Borderland.
Brannon: I concur with everything Qiana just said, and I’d also add that I’m excited to see how comics studies helps rewrite the history of the medium as more and more work from the past comes back into print or becomes accessible digitally – what’s it going to mean to critics who write about the development of the superhero to have Miracleman easily available to write about and teach, for instance? What other works from past eras are going to resurface to challenge our assumptions about the medium’s evolution? It’s an exciting time to be working in an exciting field.