The Construction of Race and Identity in Comics
Updated: Jun 19, 2019
By manny aguilar
The rise in popularity of superheroes and comics can be traced back to the Golden Age of Comics in the 1930s, during which superheroes like Superman, Batman, and Captain America saw their inception. It is apparent that these superheroes all fit a common mold of privilege: white, male, and usually wealthy. The recent success of superhero films centered on non-white characters, such as Marvel’s Black Panther and Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, break away from this traditional mold. They are indicative of a wider trend of increased inclusion of minoritized identities in popular forms of media. This trend is rooted in the belief that people want to see their own identities and lived experiences reflected on the big screen in theatres around the world as well as in the comic books that these films tend to be based on.
In this post, I will explore representations of race and cultural identity in recent popular comics centered on Latinx, Black, and Afro-Latinx characters. Through the combination of visuals and text, the author-artists create narratives that illustrate what exactly it means to be one of these minoritized identities for the reader-viewer. Based on the construction of race and identity in the comics BLACK by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith III, several short comics in Tales From La Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology, and Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez’ La Borinqueña, I will answer the following questions in an American context: What is Latinidad? What is Blackness? What is Afro-Latinidad?
What is Latinidad?
The answer to this question will vary depending on who it is being posed to, given that Latinx identities have many different manifestations. However, Latinidad offers a unique, unified lens for Latinx identifying people to overcome cultural barriers in building a sense of community, especially for diasporic communities. Through the short comics “Wongo-Wongo” by Amber Padilla, “El Entender” by Vicko Alvarez, “Latinx” by Serenity Sercesión, and “Que Significa?” by Ivan Velez Jr, which can all be found in Tales From La Vida: A Latinx Comics Anthology, we can make some insights on what Latinidad is and what it means to be Latinx.
In one panel of “Wongo-Wongo” by Amber Padilla, she writes “I knew that my grandparents spoke Spanish, but both my parents did not. I associated Spanish with Latino/Hispanic Identity. Who was I to claim that I was Latino if I did not speak Spanish.” This quote illustrates one of the most common perceptions of Latinidad—the ability to speak Spanish, or lack thereof, plays a huge role in shaping your identity. This is a problem that arises for many Latinx immigrants to the United States, especially later generations. Padilla notes in her comic that she is a fifth generation Mexican-American immigrant living in Santa Ana, CA. While her surrounding community is predominantly Latinx, her family does not speak Spanish. For Padilla, her inability to speak Spanish was a barrier separating her from her Latinx identity, culture, and surrounding community. However, as I will briefly discuss, she later learns that Latinidad is not defined by language. It is of utmost importance to also note that not all Latinx identifying people speak Spanish because not all Latin American countries are Spanish-speaking countries, including the largest Latin American country, Brazil. Other Latin American countries with official languages different from Spanish include Belize (English), Suriname (Dutch), and Guyana (English/French). Furthermore, there are thousands of Indigenous languages, some still spoken and many that have been lost through colonialism, throughout Latin America. Fortunately, language is not the only denoting factor associated with Latinidad. In subsequent panels, Padilla explains that leaving her hometown of Santa Ana for college is what made her realize she was Latina because people read her as different based on the color of her skin. In this case, Padilla did not self identify as Latina but was certainly read as one on the streets of Santa Ana. This idea of being read as a different race than what you self-identify as falls in line with the concept of “street race” explained in What is your “Street Race”? as “how other ‘Americans’ perceive your race at the level of the street” (see Lopez et. al for an in-depth look at the concept of street race). For Padilla, her brown skin lead her to be read as Latina in Santa Ana whereas she was read as Latina, Filipina, and Egyptian on multiple occasions at her college where there were fewer people who looked like her. Based on the final panels of the comic, we see that Latinidad for Padilla, as well as for many people, is rooted in the kinds of food she eats, the Spanish slang she is familiar with, and the holiday traditions in her family.
Vicko Alvarez presents us with another lens through which we can understand certain aspects of Latinidad in her comic “El Entender.”This comic is particularly relevant for Latinx immigrants to the United States. These side by side panels are designed to mirror comparisons of what it is like to be a first- versus a 1.5- or a second-generation Latinx immigrant in the United States. First, we see ‘El Escape.’ On the left is the daughter going to a university, likely to escape her family’s condition of poverty. On the right, we see the Latinx family crossing what I believe to be El Rio Grande to immigrate to the United States, likely to escape poor living conditions in certain Latin American countries. This is a common lived experience for many first-generation college students (regardless if they’re 1st, 1.5 or 2nd generation immigrants) whose family escaped to the United States in hopes of providing a better life and better opportunities for their children. The next panels, ‘La Esperanza,’ are depictions of this hope of the American Dream. In the first image, we see the student holding graded assignments while in the second image we see the mother holding money she presumably worked for as a maid (note the bucket, mop, and broom beside her). These panels depict the lived reality experienced by millions of Latinx immigrants who take on low-paying, labor intensive jobs to earn the money necessary to provide for their family and ensure that their children can attend university. The comic ends with a couple of sentences in which Alvarez explains her process of realizing that she and her mother are totally alike. Both escaped their home to work hard elsewhere in hopes of bettering their lives, despite the overwhelming difficulty of this process.
The last two comics explore gender norms, patriarchy and heteronormativity, and racial profiling, all of which play a large role in shaping Latinidad. Serenity Sercesión’s “Latinx,” encapsulates the expected gender norms for Latinx children and the problems faced by those who do not fit said expectations. The girl, presumably a young Sercesión is depicted as a “strong” tomboy and is subsequently berated by her mother who explains that proper girls do not act the way she does. This implies and reinforces the notions that girls and women need to be feminine and frail. Additionally, Sercesión highlights other expectations of Latina women such as wearing makeup and being an “ama de casa” (a housewife). While these gender norms are not exclusive to Latinidad, they are certainly very traditional norms in Latinx households. This is illustrated by Sercesión’s quote, “My family didn’t understand and followed traditional gender roles in Puerto Rico. To them, this was strange and hopefully a phase I would grow out of.” Sercesión ultimately learns that there are many other genders beyond boys and girls and feels more comfortable as they met other gender-nonconforming Latinxs. Her interactions with them highlight a supportive community of nonbinary Latinxs who are accepting and understanding of each other’s shared experiences. While this process of challenging gender norms is a recent development, adopting terms like ‘Latinx’ is one of many steps being taken to break down gender roles in Latinidad.
Ivan Velez Jr.’s “Que Significa?” explores the most significant event in his life as a Latino. While the entirety of this comic deals with significant Latinx events, I will focus on a few events he highlights. The first event he illustrates is the moment he told his mom that his “peepee stood up when [he] watched Hercules.” Her reaction was one of pure fear, anger, and alarm. His mother’s reactions is representative of broader trends in Latinx discourse on sexuality and heteronormativity. As demonstrated in this study by Sociologist Lorena Garcia, heteronormativity is consistently reinforced for Latinx youth by teachers and sex education classes that frame anything but heterosexuality as abnormal (for more on the findings see Garcia, Lorena). This process of learning heteronormativity via school, parents, and religion creates numerous difficulties for the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ+ Latinxs who struggle to come out to their family and their community.
Ivan goes on to highlight other problems frequently found in Latinx culture. These include expectations for boys “to be macho, to be strong, or to be sexy.” Perhaps these gender roles for boys are what leads to the issue illustrated by the second significant event he talks about, where men have drunken fights with women. On the note of racial profiling, Velez highlights two particular events. First, Velez illustrates his experience with the White Gaze at a predominantly white house party. In this panel, he is read as different by his White peers who ‘jokingly’ refer to him as “HIRED HELP.”
Figure 1: Ivan Velez, Jr. “Que Significa?” Source.
This comic, and in particular this panel, brings forth some of the racial dynamics of what it means to be Latinx and have brown skin. While Ivan has aqua-blue skin, as do the other Latinxs throughout the comic as seen in figure 1, the white party-goers all have a more white/grayish skin color. I believe Ivan made this decision to go with a more visible skin color for Latinx characters to emphasize how out of place the dominant group will read you based on the color of your skin. The next event Velez refers to is his experience being hired by a multicultural comic company whose only Latinx character was the main hero’s maid. Based on the events depicted by Velez, Latinidad encompasses a number of lived experiences in which you will be read as ‘other,’ be racially profiled, and be reduced to caricatures of your identity. Velez expresses this phenomenally in his second to last panel, where he states, “This identity—this construct called ‘Latino’—started from blood and pain and suffering, but all anyone cares about is the rice and beans and salsa.”
Based on the aforementioned short comics, Latinidad is many things: It is being able to speak Spanish or not. It is that feeling of comfort when you get to eat arroz y frijoles or any ‘cultural’ food. It is understanding the sacrifices your parents make to escape poverty and chase the American Dream. It is being taught that boys and girls are supposed to fit into the mold of specific gender roles while at the same time learning to challenge these heteronormative, patriarchal pressures.
What is Blackness?
BLACK by Kwanza Osajyefo and Tim Smith III, is built on a very unique premise in the world of comics (read issue #1 of BLACK here). The story is founded on the idea that only Black people can have super powers. We follow the story of Kareem, a Black young adult who is fatally wounded by two white police officers and miraculously comes back to life. He goes on to discover that he is not the only Black person with these kinds of abilities. Throughout the entirety of the comic, Osajyefo and Smith III construct the lived realities of Black people in contemporary America. As we explore Blackness in this section, we will see how the author-artists construct issues of gender roles, police brutality, and broader systematic inequalities which can be seen through my interpretation of the color palette of the comic and both the cover and chapter art.
The story begins with the questioning of Ellen Waters, a Black police officer who witnessed the ‘fatal’ shooting of innocent Black boys including Kareem. In this opening scene, Officer Waters is asked by her white superior if she can call her “Ellen.” While this initially seems to simply establish a friendly dynamic between the characters, we can tell by Officer Waters’ stern “Nope.” that this is not a first-time occurrence. This is proven to be true as the story unfolds. This same question asking to refer to Officer Waters as Ellen is posed to her on three different occasions. The first is the aforementioned encounter between Waters and the white women who appears to be her higher-up. The second occurrence, depicted below in Figure 2, happens when Waters is having a conversation with one the the white officers involved in the shootings. In these panels, the culprit is a white male officer of a lower rank than Waters, who was seemingly promoted to detective in place of this white officer. The final incident occurs between Detective Waters and Juncture, one of the leaders of the Project.
Figure 2: BLACK Ch. 2. Black Mask
Each of these three separate instances points toward one common experience of Black womanhood—Black women are subjected to the lowest rungs of the social ladder regardless of who is encountering them. A White woman, a lower-ranking white man, and even a Black man all try to refer to Detective Waters as Ellen with the underlying intent of delegitimizing her role and status as a detective. Ellen Waters’ experiences reflect a prominent problem for Black women in America. One study on women working in corporate America found that women of color, especially Black women, are significantly underrepresented, much more likely to face everyday discrimination and harassment, and less likely to receive support from their managers (for the full summary of the report on women in corporate America, see Thomas et. al). This is what it means to be a Black woman in the United States.
Perhaps the most important themes regarding Blackness in the comic are racial profiling and police brutality. As mentioned previously, the opening sequence of the comics is centered on Officer Waters witnessing the shooting of a group of young Black men. These young adults are shot and presumably killed because they fit the description of “Black males, 20s, In basketball shorts and T shirts,” (Osajyefo and Smith III Ch. 1). As Officer Waters notes in this scene, this description could have been any Black person in New York City and, to the cops, they always fit the description. In a matter of moments, two white male officers open fire at a group of three young Black males who seem to fit their very general description. According to the “POP!” onomatopoeias, a total of fifteen rounds were fired at these young men.
While you and I would love to think this type of situation is something out of a fictional story (which it is in this case), it reflects the real problem of increasing racially motivated police shootings. Unarmed young Black people, especially women, are significantly more likely to be shot by a police officer than any other race. Innocent Black lives have been brutally stolen, including those of Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and too many others to name. While only 13% of the population is Black, police officers disproportionately kill Black people at a rate of 31%. The statistics can go on and on but the fact is simple: being a Black person in America puts you at a greater risk of being shot and killed by the police than if you were white (see Angus and Crichlow for a critical race theory lens as to how this kind of police brutality perpetuates systematic racism in America). This is a clear message that Osajyefo and Smith III effectively capture and represent to the audience throughout the entirety of the comic.
Next, I posit that the reason this comic is illustrated in a black and white scheme (besides the red that can be found in the cover and chapter art pages which I will discuss later) is that Osajyefo and Smith III wanted to represent a Black versus white dichotomy in the United States, especially in the policing of communities. You’re either white or you are not white and in the case of racial status and social capital, the opposite of whiteness is Blackness, so you are either White or you are Black. I believe that Osajyefo and Smith III purposely chose to capture this dichotomy in the form of a black and white color palette. In doing so, we can clearly see the racial markers and differences between those who are read as Black and those who are read as white characters in the story and in real life. I also want to note that Osajyefo and Smith III also seem to reference the one-drop rule and bi-racial order (white vs nonwhite) in the United States (see Bonilla-Silva for his thoughts on the bi-racial order and how he believes we are moving towards a tri-racial order that includes whites, honorary whites, and nonwhites in the U.S.). When Detective Waters first learns that only Black people can have superpowers, we learn that even if only one of your parents is Black, you can have superpowers and even Zero, who is an albino character, has superpowers. They explain, “Powers don’t seem related to melanin,” (Osajyefo and Smith III Ch. 5). This suggests that if you have any Black phenotypic characteristics, you will be perceived by others (mainly white people) as non-white (aka Black) regardless of the color of your skin. Subsequently, any of the Black characters can potentially have superpowers but will also be subjected to the legitimate racial consequences that come with being Black.
Police brutality is not the only form of structural racism and inequality introduced and referenced in the comic. In chapter two, we quite literally see a lynch mob trying to burn a Black man alive at the stake for supposedly having tried to burn down the home of a couple of white folks. It is revealed that this mob also murdered this man’s brother in the same fashion, which would explain why he tried to burn their homes. The setting appears to be a rural part of the Deep South, as the scene immediately before this one takes place in New Orleans, LA. While instances of police brutality have often been called modern-day lynchings, it is not surprising that several actual lynchings have taken place in some parts of the Deep South in the last decade. The legacy of white supremacy and slavery some regions of the South can also be seen through the continued prominence of the Ku Klux Klan in the states. One editor of an Alabama newspaper went so far as to suggest that the KKK should clean up D.C. through raids and lynchings. While these racialized incidents are not exclusive to the South, its specific history and culture of white supremacy create an atmosphere in which these blatantly racist events occur more frequently. As such, Osajyefo and Smith III rightfully represent these experiences in chapter two of the comic and in the cover art of several chapters.
Figure 3: BLACK Volume 1. Black Mask. Source.
Khary Randolph, the cover and chapter artist of the comic, remarkably illustrates some of the most pressing issues facing Black Americans today, including the aforementioned lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, Randolph and the authors pay homage to Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, and the #handsupdontshoot movement. The cover and chapter 1 art (as seen in Figure 3 above) features a black and white depiction of a young Black man wearing a blood red hoodie holding his hands up, with guns pointed at his face while he is surrounded by police officers. This image echoes the image of Trayvon Martin who was wearing his gray hoodie in a similar fashion to the red hoodie when he was killed. Additionally, it represents the “hands up don’t shoot” slogan that was adopted at protests against police brutality following witness accounts of Mike Brown being shot and killed despite having his hands held up to signal he was unarmed. These are two of the most high-profile instances of racial profiling and police brutality in recent history so it makes perfect sense for Randolph and the authors to include them on the cover art of a comic filled with social commentary on Blackness in the United States. The decision to include red as the only color besides black or white in the comics is a symbolic one. For one, the color is often associated with intense emotions, violence, blood, and anger. For Randolph and the authors, the choice to use red likely represents the violence experienced by Black people in the U.S. for simply being Black.
Figure 4: BLACK Ch. 4. Black Mask. Source.
Finally, I found it necessary to briefly examine the cover art for chapter four of the comic because I feel it encapsulates the experience of Blackness in the United States. As seen in the above Figure 4, Randolph mimics the 8-bit classic video-game Mario vs. Donkey Kong. On each level, the same figure in the red hoodie is seen having to traverse the challenges of an armed police officer, a member of the Ku Klux Klan, a judge which represents the institutional racism of the U.S. criminal justice system, and the final boss atop the level, Donald J. Trump. Having already discussed the first two issues, I will briefly touch on racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system. To put it simply, the experiences of impoverished people of color in the justice system is significantly worse than that of their wealthier, white counterparts. In 2016, Black Americans comprised 27% of arrests the United States. Moreover, Black youth accounted for 35% of juvenile arrests despite making up only 15% of the youth population. In 2010, the ACLU found that a Black person was 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person despite their similar rate of marijuana usage (The Sentencing Project 2018). If that isn’t enough, the United States Sentencing Commission found that Black men receive federal prison sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those of white men for the exact same crime (Schmitt et. al). All of these statistics, and Randolph’s depiction of them in his art, point towards the broader systematic inequalities faced by Black Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system. As for Randolph’s inclusion of Donald Trump, all you need to do is take a look at this article highlighting Trump’s historically racist views and try to understand how he somehow became the final boss, that is, the President of the United States.
Before going on to the final section of this post, I would like to make one brief author’s note. I am not Black. I do not have any of the lived experiences of being Black in the United States. I understand that Blackness is more than just having to persevere through systematic racism and inequality. However, these are the main lived experiences addressed by Osajyefo and Smith III which is why I focused entirely on them and not on things related to culture and language as I discussed in the section on Latinidad.
What is Afro-Latinidad?
La Borinqueña by Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez is a comic about the super-heroine Marisol Ríos de la Luz, a New York born Puerto Rican, or a Nuyorican. The comic tells the story of how Marisol gains her power while spending a semester studying abroad in Puerto Rico. Through the use of beautiful visuals and enticing story-telling, Miranda-Rodriguez constructs what it is like to be Afro-Latinx in the United States.
Marisol is an environmental studies major at Columbia University and she lives in Brooklyn with her Afro-Puerto Rican father and her lighter-complexioned Puerto Rican mother. While studying at the University of Puerto Rico, Marisol stays at her Puerto Rican grandparents’ home on the island. Katrina Martinez writes in her thesis “Up, Up, and A-Wepa: Performing Puerto Rican Identities in La Borinqueña,” “Marisol effectively occupies the middle space of having roots in New York City but still having another ‘home’ on the island.” In writing this, both Martinez and Miranda-Rodriguez illustrate the feeling of what it is like to be part of a diasporic community as is the case for many Afro-Latinxs living in another country besides their country of origin (or their family’s country of origin), especially the United States. Furthermore, it signals that Marisol is potentially living in this space of “triple consciousness” discussed by Jessica Jones, who builds on W.E.B. DuBois' "double consciousness.” For Marisol, and U.S. based Afro-Latinxs in general, the identities or parts of their triple consciousness would be her ties to the U.S. as an American as well as her Blackness and Latinidad represented through her ties to the island and Puerto Rican culture (see Jones for more information on triple consciousness).
Figure 5: La Borinqueña Issue #1. Somos Arte, 2016.
Next, Miranda-Rodriguez challenges the notion of who is allowed to be a superhero. Traditionally, the superhero role has been reserved for very masculine white men followed by hypersexualized white women. However, Marisol’s character challenges these traditional portrayals on multiple fronts. First, Marisol is made to be very obviously Black and Latina, which she embraces at multiple points in the comic. In one of the opening panels, seen above in Figure 5, Marisol claims her identities when she states “es que yo soy grifa y pura negra” (it’s because I am curly-haired and pure black). Her dark brown skin and luscious curly hair are both markers of her Afro-Latinx identity which challenge the white-centric standard of beauty generally found in all forms of media, including comics. In the same panel, she goes on to embrace her Afro-Latinx identity and culture as she explains her love for Bomba, an Afro-Puerto Rican style of music and dance, and sancocho, a traditional Caribbean dish. In constructing Marisol’s identity, the author-artist is able to create an Afro-Latinx character that readers can identify with, whether they’re a part of the diaspora or are from the island.
Regarding appearance, Marisol’s hair and skin color are not the only visibly different things about her character. Marisol is also physically built differently than how most hypersexualized super-heroines are portrayed. Instead of being hypersexualized with an extremelely thin waist and slender yet curvy body, Marisol has a thicker body frame that, according to Martinez’ personal communications with the author, is based on the Afro-Puerto Rican women in Miranda-Rodriguez’ life. While Marisol does appear to be muscular and physically fit, it is shown in the story that she bikes a long distance to school on a regular basis, so it would explain why she is in good shape. Her outfit (illustrated below in Figure 6), which is based on the Puerto Rican flag, also differs significantly from the outfits of some of the most popular superheroines. It covers her body from head to toe and lacks the overtly sexualized knee/thigh high boots normally paired with superheroine outfits. In making all of these stylistic choices about Marisol’s appearance, Miranda-Rodriguez creates a character with which Afro-Latinas can readily identify without dealing with Eurocentric expectations of the female body.
Figure 6: La Borinqueña Issue #1.Somos Arte, 2016. Source.
Based on Miranda-Rodriguez’ La Borinqueña, to be Afro-Latinx is to embrace the culture: from the food to the music and dance styles as well as the curly, kinky hair and thicker built bodies. Afro-Latinidad goes beyond that though. To wrap this section and blog post up, I want to leave you with one key idea. Afro-Latinidad is, in addition to the material discussed in this final section, a combination of the things that construct Latinidad and Blackness discussed in sections one and two. Experiences related to Spanish language proficiency (or lack thereof), racial profiling, and overpolicing, are all experiences that belong to Afro-Latinxs because they are also a part of Latinx and Black narratives in the United States.
manny aguilar, born and raised in El Monte, California, is a queer punk chicanx activist majoring in Environmental Studies with a concentration in Latinx Studies at Williams College. They are most passionate about environmental justice, immigrant rights, and socialism and the ways in which these issues intersect. Follow me on twitter @handlefoo and instagram @burritodefrijoles
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