There's been a renaissance over the last few years in academic writing devoted to comic book criticism. Charles Hatfield's Hand of Fire was a terrific and intelligent look at the career of Jack Kirby while other monographs, such as Joseph Witek's Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Johnson, Art Spiegelman, and Harvey Pekar and our own Eric Hoffman's Dave Sim: Conversations provide intelligent perspectives on creators whose careers are worthy of academic analysis.
Comics and the U.S. South, edited by Brannon Costello of Louisiana State University and Qiana J. Whitted of the University of South Carolina, adds to that ever-expanding shelf. This 300-page hardcover places a dozen smart essays on that long list of criticism. The articles span most of the history of the medium, from the classic Li'l Abner and Pogo strips all the way up to Preacher, Kyle Baker's Nat Turner and Josh Neufeld's A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge.
The best theses in this Comics and the U.S. South give the reader both a thoughtful understanding of a notable comic and an appreciation of how that work integrates with the mythology or reality of the American South.
For instance, Nicolas Labarre delivers a thoughtful discussion of Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's classic Preacher. Labarre artfully puts Preacher in perspective as a series that belongs both to America's myth about the South and its allied myth about the West, seeing the comic as an interesting convergence of multiple American legends, the congruence of which helps give Preacher its considerable emotional power. Labarre does a smart job of untangling many of those myths, providing a keen viewpoint that has deepened my reading of the series.
Perhaps the essay that will be the most interesting to fans of mainstream comics is Brandon Costello's examination of race in Captain America during the time that the series was written by Mark Gruenwald. During one section of his run, Gruenwald had Cap hang up the red, white and blue uniform in order to be replaced by the Southern hero formerly known as Super-Patriot. Costello take a fascinating deep dive into the topic of masculinity in the Reagan era, the depiction of Walker as a political reactionary, and a specific exploration of Walker in relation to white supremacist politics. Maybe most intriguingly, Costello also explores the elevation of Walker's nominal sidekick Lemar Hoskins, a black man from Chicago, as the new Bucky. I was fascinated by Costello's exploration of racial stereotyping in the name "Bucky" and the unequal power relationship between the two men. It's always fascinating when insightful critics find deeper meaning in comics that were created as throwaway items, so I was very absorbed by Costello's thinking.
Speaking of throwaway items, two of the most interesting essays in Comics and the U.S. South discuss a pair of the most popular and influential newspaper strips about the South. M. Thomas Inge does a wonderful job of tracing the history of the portrayal of hillbillies in popular fiction straight through to the creation and massive popularity of Li'l Abner – which was a blockbusting smash hit strip in its time. I was tremendously impressed by the research that Inge put into his article. He seemed to leave no stone unturned in his exploration of all the different antecedents to Abner, naming names and providing real clarity.
Similarly, Brian Cremins explores the classic Pogo in relations to myths about the South, specifically the myths that creator Walt Kelly either perpetuated or addressed. The greatest irony about Pogo is that it was about the South but was created by a white liberal. Cremins looks at the tension between those two statuses, and especially Kelly's tremendous ability to create a "safe world" in which controversial ideas could be read and enjoyed by people from all over America. This is an insight not connected to the South or to topics of race, of course; the best writers in this book are successfully able to provide smart criticism that's not necessarily connected to regionalism.
The piece that caused me to select this book was Qiana J. Whitted's essay on Alan Moore's Swamp Thing. I've been a fan of Moore's for most of my adult life and wanted to read an essay on his work from a different perspective from mine, that could shake me out of my complacency. Whitted does that adroitly, pointing out the ways that Moore gets horror and the South both right and wrong in his "American Gothic" stories. She discusses the choices Moore makes to not follow traditional portrayals of zombies, slaves or even of vampires but instead follows his own vision. In doing so, Whitted finally helps me figure out why some of Moore's stories have always bothered me so much. She points out that Moore was simply off on some of his interpretations. He simply didn't do the research or ask the smarter questions that would help him deliver something more transgressive.
Other essays explore interesting topics with varying degrees of complexity. Kyle Baker's stunning slave narrative Nat Turner merits a thoughtful discussion, as does Mat Johnson and Warren Pleece's smart but problematic Incognegro. As well, Gary Richards delivers a deeply insightful piece on how Howard Cruise's Stuck Rubber Baby mangles the relationship between race and homosexuality.
Since all of these articles are quite long and are written by academics, there is frequently a tendency for the writers to get stuck in jargon rather than clarity. This writing can sometimes be difficult to navigate and even turgid, with labyrinthine sentences and a huge number of re
petition. The best pieces manage to balance intellectualism with a genuine enthusiasm for material; the worst can be a real slog to get through.
It’s great to see the shelf for smart comics criticism continue to grow. University of Mississippi Press has a deep list of similar books about the artform, as do several other publishers. These essays help me improve my craft as a critic; they can also improve your abilities as a reader of comics.