Interview: Black Masculinity in Comic Books with Jonathan Gayles
Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Scholar and University of Georgia Professor, Jonathan Gayles, about his upcoming documentary entitled — Shaft or Sidney Poitier: black masculinity in comic books. The Professor’s film is a retrospective on the comic book industry, as Black [male] Superheroes emerged during the late 60′s to mid 70′s. The Profession had a lot to say about the industry and how like most mediums we discuss here at Shadow and Act, there was [and is] a pervasive trend of defining black men and women by these very narrow characteristics.
Check out my interview with Professor Gayles below and don’t forget to share your thoughts on this fascinating subject!
Monique: You have a PHD in African American studies and Applied Anthropology, I could imagine that having that educational background provided you a wealth of tools on how to approach this subject matter; but given your childhood love of comic books how were you able to take on this topic in an objective and analytical way?
Jonathan Gayles: This is a great question, I think first of all, I approached this project as an academic, qualitative research project. And by that, I mean that initially, I reviewed the research that was available to me pertinent to the kinds of analysis that had been done on the way black men were represented in comic books. Through my research I found that their had been a number of scholars whom had written articles, book chapters, web blogs and ect, who looked critically at this topic. So among those, I identified who I wanted to interview as well as artists and activists; I came up with a long list. I conducted over 40 interviews and from that, I transcribed what was said. Looking over the transcripts, I identified themes that emerged fro them and then matched those themes with the video footage to create segments which is essentially what the documentary became.
M: Shaft and Sidney Poitier, one is a fictional character, the other a real life person; why use these iconic figures and how do they relate to the subject matter you were covering in this documentary?
JG: Well you know, it’s funny that you asked this question because I just tweeted about this last night…[laughs] I think I’m going to have to change the title [of this film] but I’ll answer your question anyway. During one of my interviews with Dwayne McDuffie [may he rest in peace], he said that when you’re talking about black people or black men in comic books, you’re either talking about Shaft or Sidney Poitier. He said that, you’re either the baddest ass bad ass who ever bad assed or you’re better than white people. So I had this reference to Shaft being a bad ass and another reference to Sidney Poitier being this sort of elevated noble negro kind of character. And the point that Dwayne [McDuffie] was making, was that there’s this limited range of representation in regards to back masculinity in comic books; you’re either this super ethnic urban character or you’re someone like Robbie Robinson. However, if you watch the documentary one of the things you’ll see is that there’s really not that much Sidney Poitier going on. It’s primarily Shaft. And so that’s the origin of the title; it’s really something Dwayne [McDuffie] said, that I thought was was appropriate in terms of expressing the limited range of black male representation in comic books. I’m working on a new title now.
M: As an adult, when you first picked up one of your favorite childhood comic books and reread it, what specifically did you discover about the characters (and story) that became the catharsis to the path you’re on now with this film?
JG: Well, as a child my guy was Luke Cage and so, one day [as an adult] I was in a comic book store here in the city of Atlanta when I saw the paperback version of Luke Cage Volumes one and two. I bought it and started reading but, I don’t know, maybe because of the other work I’ve done on Black masculinity and the way in which we perform within the context of manhood, I started thinking about some of these storylines I had read. For instance, he [Luke Cage] was always in Harlem, he never got out of Harlem and his whole purpose seemed to be about getting paid. I remember one story that really made me start to think…it was when Luke Cage was hired by Dr. Doom to fight an army of Robot slaves, however, when Dr. Doom returns to Liberia and doesn’t pay him, he takes a rocket over there and defeats Dr. Doom! In the closing panel we see a headline that reads: Dr. Doom Defeats The Robot Rebellion; the implication being that Luke Cage is not necessarily interested in justice, he’s interested in money. And I said to myself, that’s really offensive. That particular story [among other things] really made me think about these patterns of representation and the more I looked at these early characters, the more it became apparent that there were these intersecting themes in how they were presented.
M: While making Shaft or Sidney Poitier, Did you talk to any working artists from the era these characters were conceived? And if so, did they speak about any push back from within and/or outside the industry in regards to these stereotypical archetypes?
JG: I interviewed Tony Isabella twice; he created Black Lightning and he also wrote Luke Cage. During our talks, Tony [Isabella] didn’t mention any kind of push back; he felt pretty confident that the image he presented in terms of Luke Cage was consistent with a lot of what was going on in popular culture at that time; in particular, Blaxploitation. There’s a segment of the documentary where Tony Isabella actually references Blackula, Foxy Brown and Superfly; in his mind, Luke Cage was consistent with what was being consumed not only by audiences but black audiences specifically.
M: Among the scholars, writers and artists you spoke with while researching and filming the documentary, what were some common themes expressed about their experiences with comics?
JG: I think that, when these scholars were dealing with comic books, you start to talk about some of the tropes or rather, the core ways in which these characters [particularly black men] are represented in pop culture. And you’re really talking about the white fetish with the black male body; the idea of the black buck. Jeffrey brown, whose at Bowling Green, talked about the black body being “a threatening cluster of masculine signifier[s].” Historically speaking, the black male body has been seen as a threat and something that needs to be nullified. And so you have this emphasis on the body and the degree to which black male superheroes are angry, are quick to violence and are not necessarily known for being intelligent; that they are generally tied to these urban environments which speaks to a limited white understanding of what black life was. So, you have these recurring themes that are ultimately tied to preexisting notions about black men—in particular the bodily emphasis that many of the scholars indicated they often saw in the way in which these [black comic book] characters were represented.
M: Were there any ideas or opinions that surprised you—in other words did you learn something new about the industry and the artists who created these characters?
JG: I was not familiar with Tyroc; he was the first black legionnaire and his power was to yell. His uh, costume was really interesting too; he essentially wears a leotard with white boots and he looks like Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire [laughs]. On the face of it; he’s a really offensive character, [I mean] his power is to yell, so if the stereotype of black men is to be angry...Stanford Carpenter, whose at the Art Institute of Chicago, had an interesting take on this character. He [Stanford ] talks about Tyroc’s back-story being about Maroon Culture. So you have two takes on it; one is critical of the narrative that absent European colonial influence, black culture would develop in a similar way but Stanford’s take on it is…What you are talking about is Maroon Culture: what happens if black people are left alone historically. Tyroc’s civilization eventually becomes a very advanced civilization with technology and government and all kinds of structures and so that was a very interesting take. I think it’s a bit of a stretch but it was something that did surprise me.
M: Would you say that the comic book industry was a ahead of its time as far as diversifying publishing overall? If so, in what ways?
JG: I can offer an answer to that in two ways; one, I could say that diversity as a result is something that is important. In other words, a superhero like the Black Panther emerging in the late 60′s was a good thing, and perhaps for these representations of really powerful characters, yeah the comic book industry was ahead of its time. But I could also make the argument that so many of these characters were consistent with stereotypes of black men in popular culture and representations of old preexisting narratives about what black men are and what black men are not. With those facts, I could make the argument that the comic book industry was not ahead of its time; it was just a continuation of what we see in Birth of A Nation, just in a different genre.
M: Dwayne McDuffie, a groundbreaking and respected comic book artist was also featured in your documentary; sadly, he passed away recently — when you heard the news, did that effect how you approached the final steps of this film project?
JG: One of the things I did on my website was include a couple of short films on Milestone and expand the access that the public had to the interview I shot with Dwayne [McDuffie]. Honestly, I’m still editing the documentary and trying to figure out ways to include more of what he shared with me.
M: Was that kind of a poignant moment—in regards to how McDuffie tried to put a new image and voice to the black Superhero? What do you believe will be his and Milestone’s legacy?
JG: When I think about what Dwayne McDuffie represented for me, even when Milestone emerged; I was in college [Morehouse] at the time and when I read Icon, Static Shock and Blood Syndicate, I felt like there was someone out there taking care of me. And that was the first time I ever really felt that way about comic books; it felt like someone was looking out for who I was and who I wanted to be. I felt like I had a right to dream my own dream and I didn’t have to do some kind of process of where… ‘well I love The Falcon but he really doesn’t have that many of his own title series and he’s really a sidekick’. I didn’t have to do that with Milestone. I will never forget that sense that there was someone out there taking care of me and that’s very significant for me and will remain so to this day. His loss has really impacted a lot of people, thousands upon thousands upon thousands…all over the world.
M: In regards to comic books today, how can we avoid some of these stereotypical archetypes that plagued so many of the earlier Black Comic Book Heroes?
JG: I don’t read current comic books that much because most of my interests is on the older books and engaging them critically. But we have to remember that the audience for these [modern] comics are primarily young white men and there are certainly similarities between that which we are going to see in comic books and what we see in hip hop. When you have young white men as the primary consumers, what you offer has to be palatable to them. And perhaps they are not inclined to buy really nuanced representations of black people. There are some…I think the range of representation is wider than it was then but not much. I mean you have characters like Mr. Terrific that’s really impressive and Luke Cage has certainly evolved as a character. But the problem is market share and also the fact that in the industry, there are very few African American writers or writers that understand the degree to which black people are nuanced and that we are not all the same. And so in terms of avoiding it, I’m not sure that we can stop the industry from creating these stereotypical characters. But what we can do as consumers is support those products that do represent more nuanced representations of black people. Blacksuperhero.com has a huge listing of independent characters and the Black Age Movement hosts a yearly convention that provides the public direct access to many of these independent artists. I also have links to many of their sites on my website.
M: Speaking of the Black Age Movement, what exactly is it, can you explain further?
JG: There’s a short film on the Black Age Movement on my website…the founders speak for themselves and they are the best source. But I will say this, that it is a movement primarily of independent artists that seek to represent more humane images of black people in science-fiction and comic books in particular. So when you come to a Black Age Convention you will see many African-American artists that have their own books; men and women who have comic books that are completely distinct from what you see in the mainstream. You’re not going to see many stereotypes, instead you’re going to see characters that really embody the richness of African-American life and African life across the diaspora. It’s a movement that in many ways is a response to the limited representations of black people in comic books.
M: Back to your film, Were you surprised by the reception your work received during its festival screenings?
JG: Absolutely, I thought [to myself] that this is a little pet project and it wouldn’t go far. The International Black Film Festival of Nashville selected it first and that was incredible to me. It’s really interesting that there are so many people that remember these characters and read these book growing up and when I go to these film festivals, people come up to me and say ‘you know that always bothered me about Luke Cage or that always bothered me about this character or that character…’ and then some people come up to me and go, ‘Man why you have to do that…leave Luke Cage alone…we don’t got much. Why you gotta take Luke Cage from us?’ It has been very validating to have all these different festivals select the documentary and to have the kind of response that I’ve gotten. It’s humbling. I’m really pleased with the response I’ve gotten thus far.
M: Do you expect the film to be finished soon and do you have a distributor for it yet?
JG: [Well] I have a few more interviews I would like to do but I hope to finish it [the film] soon then send it to a distributor; my hope is to get an educational distribution deal this Summer. The longer version will include a short film on the Black Age Movement, with the implication being that from the late 60′s to the mid 70′s you have all these characters being created and written by white men, but that’s not the end of the story. The story continues with the Black Age Movement. So the longer version [of this film] will say, yes we have these problems but here we have people that are attempting to offer solutions to the problem. So yes, I’m still working on it but getting close to finishing.
M: What do you hope viewers come away with after seeing your film?
JG: Well, speaking to the comic book community, they are a very knowledgeable group of people and my primary goal for them is to learn at least one thing they did not know about comic books and about these heroes, their back-stories, plots and images. I want everyone—in particular those hardcore comic book readers—to come away with at least one moment, if not many more, where they say, ‘wow I didn’t know that’. But the primary goal is to offer a serious critique of the stereotypes in the representations of these characters and why it is important; because the more we are able to cast a critical eye on these characters and the comic book industry, the more we are able to be critical of present day representations that are consistent with these long standing stereotypes.
M: Looking toward the future, do you have plans to make more films [particularly documentaries]? Will we see a Foxy Brown or Cicely Tyson documentary in the works or have you pretty much achieved what you wanted to?
JG: I really am troubled by the fact that I could not do more with the representation of women—Black Women in particular. At this time, you are talking about very very few characters and the industry is still very much male dominated. And so as a filmmaker, at some point I had to decide what is the most coherent message? And it became apparent to me that the documentary should focus on some of these black male superheroes. However, to answer your question directly, yes, I think that as far as this subject matter in concerned, I don’t think I’ll be doing another documentary. I would like to keep adding to this topic through my website and linking to independent artists. But this will not be my last documentary, I’ve fallen in love with filmmaking as a form of scholarship. I plan on starting production on another film later this Summer.
M: Wow, another film?! May we get a sneak peek at what you’re working on?
JG: Okay, I can tell you this…my next documentary will retrospectively engage a historical moment in which African Amercan culture or an aspect of African American culture was at the center of public debate in the United States.
I would like to thank Professor Gayles for taking the time to speak with Shadow and Act about his upcoming film, tentatively titled, Shaft or Sidney Poitier: black masculinity in comic books. To learn more about this and future films by the Professor, visit his website at blacksuperherodoc.com .
Until next time!