Black Masculinity in Comic Books: An Interview with Jonathan Gayles

This month, I interviewed Dr. Jonathan Gayles, Associate Professor of African-American Studies and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Learning at Georgia State University. He is the producer, director and writer of White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books—a groundbreaking documentary exploring early black superheroes. He received his PhD. in Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida. His primary areas of interest include the anthropology of education, educational policy, black masculinity, race and ethnicity and critical media studies. He recently finished his second documentary film entitled The E-Word: A Documentary on the Ebonics Debate, which examines the context of the national furor in response to the Oakland Unified School District’s Resolution on Ebonics. Released in April 2012, White Scripts won numerous awards, sparked the creation of the NYPL Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival, and helped clarify an emerging scholarly dialogue around race and comic books in the United States. As our blog series has demonstrated, the documentary’s themes remain salient to current debates. Follow Dr. Gayles on Twitter @JonathanGayles.

Julian Chambliss: Your documentary, White Scripts, Black Supermen ushered in a new era of scholarly engagement around race and representation in comics. Can you talk about the scholarly narratives that prompted you to pursue making the documentary?  What was being said and what was your hope in creating the documentary?

Jonathan Gayles: All the “scholarly narratives” that I encountered prior to even conceiving a documentary film on black masculinities in comic books placed comic books within popular culture and critically engaged comic books as we do other popular culture genres. Jeffrey Brown’s work on Milestone Comics was an important initial point of reference – particularly his assertion that black superheroes represent a “potentially threatening cluster of masculine signifiers.”  Stanford Carpenter’s work on the forces that influence what is eventually made available to comic book consumers helped frame my initial examinations of the topic. Adilifu Nama published Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011) as I was completing the interviews and I was extremely fortunate to be able to include him in the film. Mark Anthony Neal’s New Black Man (2015) has, for some time, provided me with a critical lens in relation to the performance of black masculinity. It was great to include him in the film, if only for a moment. The historical perspective offered in your own work is particularly important as well.  This is not an exhaustive listing.

Without exception, the aforementioned scholars situate these images within broader historical, anthropological, sociological, and artistic contexts (among others). Comic books and the images contained therein are attached to serious social phenomena that render comic books worthy of serious critical consideration. Ultimately, this became the aim of the documentary: a serious interrogation of the manner in which black men are represented in comic books and the degree to which this representation reflects broader understandings of race and gender.

Chambliss: Your anthropological training and work on masculinity deeply informed the documentary. What still needs to be done in terms for exploring ideas linked to masculinity and blackness?

Gayles: I remain enamored of Athena Mutua’s conjoining of black and men into the “single social position” she names “blackmen.”  This category reflects the specific and concurrent raced and gendered reality of black men (blackmen) in this nation. The history of the United States makes it extremely difficult to disentangle the race and gender of blackmen. I think that there is considerable potential to do more in this area. This includes the social construction, representation and performance of black masculinity. Even in what we might call “intentional spaces” in which the black community resists hegemonic notions of race and gender, the responses of blackmen can mimic this hegemony in ways that privilege only blackmen at the expense of others in the community.

Returning to the notion that what we see in comic books are tied to serious social phenomena, we must continue to explore the real-world consequences of the formulaic and racist representations of blackmen as being inherently threatening that extend back through slavery, Jim Crow, and to the present.  In truth, much of the documentary engages the way in which this threat is mitigated in the representation of the earliest black superheroes.

Chambliss: Questions about community, identity, and agency are deeply rooted in the superhero genre. What have your conversations around the documentary made clear in terms of how the audience negotiates these ideas as comic fans of color?

Gayles: The “Black Age Movement” in comic books is key here. This movement represents a broad and expanding community of fans, illustrators and writers that has moved beyond critique of “mainstream” representations of people of color in comic books to creating their own universes, characters, story lines and communities. For me, joining this community is perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the documentary. The patterns of representation that the documentary highlights have been in place for so long that there is a sense of resignation that this is what we should expect from the “mainstream.” This resignation does not mean that we accept the images or the premises upon which they are built, but rather that we should no longer be surprised, for example, when War Machine is the first casualty of Civil War II, just as Giant Man was the first casualty of Civil War I. While Adilifu Nama offers some very interesting interpretive “recovery” of some of these early superheroes, most in this community are not interested in doing such work.

The death of War Machine in Civil War II (Source: Marvel Comics)

Chambliss: Your documentary makes clear the challenge linked to black masculinity intersecting with power, even if it is imaginary. However, you did not touch on women’s representation in superhero comics. Why not?

Gayles: I wanted to! My initial outline included a chapter on the representation of women. My interview protocols included questions on the representation of women as well. In reviewing the transcripts, it became clear that the most coherent documentary would focus on some of the earliest black men in comic books. The fact of the matter is that during the time period that the film engages (late 60’s to mid 70’s) there were far too few black women in comic books – both as characters and creators. Of course, this remains true today. Even in the largely indie arena of the “Black Age,” most of the creators and characters are men. Additionally, the documentary form can be more limiting than traditional long-form academic manuscripts. Film distributors in the higher education realm have a strong preference for films with a running time around 60 minutes. As a result, I made a decision to pursue depth instead of breadth. If I am honest, I sometimes linger upon this decision with a bit of regret.

I have considered a separate project on the representation of black women in superhero comics. Ultimately, White Scripts was, in some ways, personal for me and I believe another scholar or filmmaker will bring a similar personal focus to a project on the representation of black women in comic books. A more important point is that there are many black women that we can critically engage—beyond (and before) Storm. From vanguard characters like the Butterfly, Bumblebee, and Storm to more current characters like Amanda Waller, Spectrum (it’s hard to keep up with her name changes), and Moon Girl, a project (documentary or otherwise) that focuses exclusively on the representation of black women is beyond necessary. There is also Martha Washington, who is a fascinating character. I would love to see more work on her as well. With the Black Panther film scheduled for a 2018 release and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocative storyline in the comic book, such a project could also concurrently consider the Dora Milajae’s history in comic books and cinema. Considering the degree to which the comic book genre is marked as a predominately masculine space, this project would be more than necessary, important, and interesting—it would be disruptive.

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Julian Chambliss

Julian Chambliss is Professor of English at Michigan State University. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States. He is the co-editor of Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, which explores the changing depiction of superheroes from the comic books of the 1930s to the cinematic present. Follow him on Twitter @JulianChambliss.