Black Bodies Swinging
Superheroes and the Shadow Archive of Lynching
Daniel Stein (Siegen)
On May 8th, 1940, writer Sterling North described comics in the Chicago Daily News as Â»lurid publications [that] depend for their appeal upon mayhem, murder, torture and abductionÂ« and glorify Â»[s]uperman heroics, voluptuous females in scanty attire, blazing machine guns, [and] hooded âșjusticeâčÂ« (n. pag). Mobilizing similar sentiments in the American Journal of Psychology at the end of the decade, cultural critic Gershon Legman attacked the Â»aggressive content of comicsÂ« and suggested that Â»[t]he Superman formula is essentially lynchingÂ« (475). Both mid-century attacks on the medium evoke the specter of lynching while failing to connect it explicitly with the ritualized mass murder of African Americans in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries.1
This failure is not surprising. As Amy Louise Wood and Susan Donaldson maintain, Â»lynching haunts our social memories, but we are reluctant to grasp it or hold it carefully up for viewÂ« (10). Ashraf Rushdy even speaks of a Â»collective American amnesia about the history and practice of lynchingÂ« (x-xi). Yet North and Gershon were not wrong to associate superhero comics with lynching. According to Chris Gavaler, the superhero emerged from a history of popular lynching narratives, most prominently Thomas Dixon, Jr.âs novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905) and David W. Griffithâs film adaptation Birth of a Nation (1915). Gavaler suggests that the Â»masked vigilantesÂ« glorified by Dixon and embodied in Griffithâs film Â»entered the American consciousness as an admired ïŹgureÂ« and Â»that the Klansmenâs characteristics â as introduced by Dixon, adapted by GrifïŹth, and emulated by actual Ku Klux Klan members across the United States â continue to shape present-day superheroesÂ« (191). Historicizing Northâs and Gershonâs de-racialized notions of lynching, Gavaler argues that Â»by the mid-thirties, [âŠ] Ku Klux Klan hero tropes had been absorbed into popular culture, distanced from their white supremacist roots and reproduced as generic formula in pulp adventure ïŹction.Â« This distance notwithstanding, the comic book superhero Â»originated from an oppressive, racist impulse in American culture, and the formula codiïŹes an ethics of vigilante extremism that still contradicts the superheroâs purported social missionÂ« (192).
According to this formula, superheroes are Â»champions of the oppressedÂ« but rarely grasp oppression in explicitly racial terms. They are defenders of the status quo, not regime-changing revolutionaries, and they are generally coded white: Â»The superhero is a white â and overwhelmingly cisgender, male, straight, and middle-class â ideological formation and has been so since its inceptionÂ« (n. pag.), Sean Guynes and Martin Lund note, identifying a hegemonic master narrative rooted in the Â»racist basis of the genreâs ingrained whitenessÂ« (n. pag.). The black superheroes that started to appear in the 1960s and 70s (Black Panther, the Falcon, Luke Cage, Storm, and those who followed) thus remain inherently paradoxical figures, as protecting the status quo has historically meant preserving Â»a racialized regime of power that extends social control over those deemed [âŠ] white and those marked as nonwhiteÂ« (Guynes and Lund, n. pag.).2 If the superhero is a vigilante fighter who generally acts self-righteously as judge, jury, and executioner, the figure aligns more closely with the actions of the white lynch mob than with the plight of the racialized oppressed. The genreâs lynching origins therefore remain the superheroâs most Â»spectacular secretÂ« (Goldsby).3
Intrigued by the connections between the superhero and what Jacqueline Goldsby calls Â»lynchingâs cultural logicÂ« (5), I want to examine two graphic narratives that are conventionally situated outside of the genre but whose critical reflections on the superheroâs lynching roots offer meaningful ways to Â»dishabituateÂ« and Â»denaturalizeÂ« (Aldama, n. pag.) the genreâs hegemonic whiteness: Kyle Bakerâs Nat Turner (2008) and Jeremy Loveâs Bayou (2009â2010). These narratives offer alternative frameworks for reading the comic book superhero by associating the figure with multiply mediated images of the lynched male black body and by creatively remediating scenes from the Â»shadow archiveÂ« of lynching, the photographs that Â»made the shadowy and uncertain face of white supremacy visibleÂ« (48), as Leigh Raiford suggests.4 Â»If lynching photographs were meant for white consumption, to reaffirm the authority and certainty of whiteness through an identification with powerful and empowered whites who enframe the black body,Â« Raiford asks, Â»what then did black looking affirm? What concept of the black self could emerge from an identification with the corpse in the picture?Â« (35). Bakerâs Nat Turner and Loveâs Bayou grapple with these questions, and they provide answers that can help us Â»illuminateÂ« (Raiford, 48; Jackson, 10) the superhero in new ways.
Black Bodies, Superhero Bodies
Three insights from superhero studies orient my analysis. I am intrigued by JosĂ© Alanizâs attestation of the superheroâs Â»iconography [âŠ] of hyper-masculinized vigorÂ« (5) and his interest in narratives that acknowledge the fragility of the seemingly invulnerable superbody. Following Alaniz, I believe that this body Â»incarnates the anxieties and desires of the ageÂ« by serving as Â»a site of elaborate, overdetermined significationÂ« (18, 5â6). I am also struck by Scott Bukatmanâs observation that Â»[s]uperhero bodies, despite their plasticity, are armored bodies, rigid against the chaos of surrounding disorderÂ« (56). Finally, I wonder about Ramzi Fawazâs assertion that Â»bodily vulnerability and gender instabilityÂ« cast the Â»superhero as a figure in continual flux, visualized on the comic book page as constantly moving among different identities, embodiments, social allegiances, and psychic states.Â« Noting Â»the monstrous powers and bodies of postwar superheroes,Â« Fawaz finds them Â»exhibit[ing] a form of fluxability, a state of material and psychic becoming characterized by constant transition or changeÂ« (10â11).
Instead of presenting armored hyper-masculinized bodies, Bakerâs Nat Turner and Loveâs Bayou negotiate Â»representations of the wounded black male bodyÂ« and Â»the display of black bodily disfigurationÂ« (Jackson, 5, 3). These graphic narratives translate Bukatmanâs Â»chaos of surrounding disorderÂ« into the violence committed by lynch mobs on black citizens, frequently accused of transgressing the socially constructed and legally enforced sexual boundaries between black men and white women.5 They also reveal the limits of Fawazâs claims by showing black bodies whose publicly staged murder denies them any meaningful possibility to flux while they are still alive. The only viable transition for the victim is to become, in the words of Abel Meeropolâs anti-lynching poem (popularized by Billie Holidayâs jazz renditions), Â»strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,Â« a Â»strange and bitter crop.Â« Fluxability can only come after the murder, when the corpse becomes mediated and remediated through photographs and postcards but remains disempowered, fixed into an eternal stasis of victimization.
The lynching of twenty-seven-year-old George Ward in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1901, is a case in point. According to the New York Times, Ward was beaten, shot, and hanged from a bridge. His body was burned as 2,000 spectators watched: Â»[T]he east bank of the river, the bridges up and down stream, and hundreds of housetops were black with spectators, from whom not a word of pity escaped, although many deprecated the burning of the body. [âŠ] Souvenir hunters were on hand in force and fragments of the body are now scattered broadcastÂ« (Â»Negro Hanged,Â« n. pag.). These âșsouvenirsâč, as well as photographs and postcards of such events, were aimed at keeping the black body Â»frozen as a wounded subjectÂ« (Wanzo, 82), rendering it mute and still, rather than constantly moving and fluxable.
The local press described Ward in heavily racialized terms as a Â»black bruteÂ«, Â»murderer,Â« and Â»fiendÂ« and portrayed a Â»lifeless bodyÂ« that Â»was taken from the jail shortly after noon and swung to the Wagon BridgeÂ« (qtd. in Crumin, n. pag.). What Goldsby suggests about lynching photographs is therefore equally true of the written newspaper coverage: Â»lynching photographs figure the dead as signs of pure abjection who radiate no thought, no speech, no action, no will; who, through their appearance in the pictureâs field of vision, become invisibleÂ« (231). Yet while these photographs display the black body as a cipher for white power by erasing its humanity, they enable other uses. Shawn Michelle Smith speaks of Â»the malleable nature of lynching photographsÂ« (Apel and Smith, 18), while Raiford notes their reappropriation by anti-lynching activists who changed the Â»narrative of black savagery [to] one of black vulnerabilityÂ« and recast Â»white victimization [âŠ] as white terrorization (40). Here, Â»[t]he black body in the center of the photograph [âŠ] became a victim, and a victim not only of a crime against an individual, but a victim of a crime against law and order, against the nation, against civilizationÂ« (Rushdy, 72). An NAACP leaflet from the mid-1930s thus reframed a photograph of the lynching of Rubin Stacy in Fort Lauderdale on July 19, 1935, in an attempt to direct the viewerâs gaze away from the body and toward lynching as an instrument of racist indoctrination (ironically supporting the victimâs invisibility): Â»Do not look at the Negro. His earthly problems are ended. Instead, look at the seven WHITE children who gaze at this gruesome spectacleÂ« (qtd. in Apel and Smith, 59).6 Rushdy writes:
Even in the moment when they were most unashamedly used to celebrate lynchings as communal acts, those photographs remained unstable entities [âŠ]. The death at the very center of those photographs â the corpse that the mob and photographers thought they had contained and ïŹxed â would take on a haunting afterlife when those photographs became subject to a considerably more critical set of editors and readers. (67)
Like comic book superbodies, the bodies in these photographs constitute sites of overdetermination, and they incarnate anxieties and desires of their time. Staging Â»a pageant of excessive violence and torture situated in, on, and about the black body, lynching masks [âŠ] anxieties [âŠ about the] intersection of racial identity with gender ideology, class background, and associationsÂ« (Raiford, 39-40).7 Darieck Scott thus speaks of a Â»surfeit of signification [that] attends the image of black bodiesÂ« and Â»challenge[s âŠ] the always-spectacular black body: nowhere more readily a spectacle than in scenes [âŠ] of the black person sufferingÂ« (337). These bodies are always Â»enmeshed within the various overdeterminations which produce [them] as replete with readable meaningsÂ« (341). It is these anxieties and desires, and also these readable meanings, that Bakerâs and Loveâs graphic narratives register and contest.
The Ethics and Aesthetics of Looking at Black Bodies
Recognizing a long genealogy of surfeit signification, Harvey Young observes in his work on embodiment and critical memory:
The black body, whether on the auction block, the American plantation, hanged from a lightpole as part of a lynching ritual, attacked by police dogs within the Civil Rights era, or staged as a Â»criminal bodyÂ« by contemporary law enforcement and criminal systems, is a body that has been forced into the public spotlight and given a compulsory visibility. It has been made to be given to be seen. (12)
This observation is particularly relevant in the context of the Â»spectacle lynchingsÂ« of the late nineteenth and early-to-mid-twentieth centuries (Wood), those Â»public displays of tortureÂ« that, as Robyn Wiegman notes, Â»function[ed] as a panoptic mode of surveillanceÂ« and reinforced a permanent Â»threat of always being seenÂ« (13) for black citizens.8 Considering the implications of retroactive engagements with the photographic archive of these lynchings, Bettina M. Carbonell urges us to Â»analyze the ethics and aesthetics of our encounters with the afterlife of lynchingÂ« (198). Engagement with lynching images, she suggests, should never only focus on the visual material and its retrospective reframing, just as it should never concern itself with ethical questions at the expense of the aesthetic dimension. Â»How does one go about trying to represent what initially appears beyond description, and how does one do so without reimposing upon those victims of past atrocities the utter debasement and abjection they experienced in ritualistic acts of violence and murder?Â« Wood and Donaldson ask (7). Â»Who has the right to tell their stories, and how should one respond to them?Â« (7). These questions voice an obligation to take the ethical implications and the aesthetic appeal of lynching images seriously, and they express the need to reflect on oneâs own historically and culturally situated viewing position. Ignoring them would render one atrocious instrument of white supremacy invisible, and it would nullify a painful part of black history. Nonetheless, there is a risk that comes with examining these images:
[B]ecause lynching was so often perpetrated through spectacle and sensationalism, any attempt to represent it risks re-engaging in that spectacle or exploiting the sensationalism once again. [âŠ] Any public representation of lynching renders an individualâs most excruciating moment [âŠ] public once again. [âŠ] But to represent or denote lynching without using direct imagery or description also risks diluting or sanitizing the atrocity and its effects. (Wood and Donaldson, 16-17)
There is no way out of this conundrum, but Cassandra Jackson and Rebecca Wanzo offer suggestions on how to approach the lynching archive. Explaining her rationale for selecting representations of wounded black bodies, Jackson writes that she Â»excluded those that [âŠ] simply reinscribed the imagery of woundedness without illuminating itÂ« (10). Wanzo, in turn, wants Â»us to think about how we might defamiliarize the treatment of the body in ways that may call attention to the horror as opposed to routinizing itÂ« (67). As I will show, Bakerâs Nat Turner and Loveâs Bayou do not routinize lynchingâs body horrors. They defamiliarize the treatment of the black body in order to illuminate the figure of the superhero by remediating archival lynching imagery in a medium that invites its readers to Â»impart significance, through affect, to otherwise inert, insensible imagesÂ« (Chaney 2016, 146).
Lynching in Jeremy Loveâs Bayou
Writing in 2008, Wood and Donaldson discern Â»a larger effort to activate social memory about lynching, to create a new kind of popular consciousness about Americaâs racist and violent past in the face of what has been a profound mis-remembering of lynchingÂ« (6). Bakerâs and Loveâs graphic narratives are part of this effort. In addition to activating social memory about lynching, they illuminate the secret origins of the comic book superhero by coping with lynchingâs visual legacies, mining the Â»historical archive of racist visualizationÂ« (Chaney 2009, 73) through a process of Â»visual signifyinâÂ« (Chaney 2007, 198), a graphically specific Â»repetition with a signal differenceÂ« (Gates, xxiv).
Loveâs two-volume Bayou is a meditation on Southern racism that commemorates the life and lynching of Emmett Till. Fourteen-year-old Till was on vacation in Money, Mississippi, when he was kidnapped and killed on August 28, 1955, for allegedly whistling at a white woman. In Bayou, he appears in the guise of Billy Glass, whose corpse the black girl Lee Wagstaff must retrieve from a river. Love announces Billyâs indebtedness to Till in a character sketch at the end of the first volume, a pencil drawing of Billy with the name Â»EmmetÂ« [sic] next to it with the caption underneath stating: Â»Notice that Billyâs original name was not âșBilly.âčÂ« Connecting the comic with Tillâs murder is crucial because it underscores that lynchings have an Â»afterlife.Â« This afterlife includes a photograph of the boyâs mutilated face, taken by David Jackson, which was printed in Jet magazine and newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and the Pittsburgh Courier, and which was contextualized with an image of a dapper-looking Till in the Chicago Defender (Apel and Smith, 61-66). Taken together, these photographs Â»became the turning point for the representation of the black subject in lynching imagery,Â« Dora Apel suggests (Apel and Smith, 64). Tillâs mother Mamie Till-Mobleyâs decision to have an open-casket showing resulted in a Â»spectacle funeralÂ« (Apel and Smith, 45) that contested the logic of white supremacy and held the vulnerability of the black body against Â»the creation of sympathy and pity for a grieving mother and of anger for the outrageous violation of sacrosanct motherhoodÂ« (Raiford, 53). As Apel observes, Â»[t]he image of the black subject as a subject violated the code of lynching photographs by which black bodies were always objects to be acted on by white subjects.Â«9 The image of the casket, footage of the sobbing mother, and coverage of mourners grieving over the teenagerâs death countered this code. They Â»reclaimed and [âŠ] re-endowed [âŠ] the humiliated black body [âŠ] with dignity and humanityÂ« (Apel and Smith, 64).10
Turning Till into a comic book character, a mythical creature whose butterfly wings suggest the possibility of transformation, and responding to the black-and-white photographs of his funeral with the colorful Bayou, Love and colorist Patrick Morgan suggest that lynching images can be Â»made to signify differentlyÂ« (Raiford, 35). Â»Bayou dares to imagine an afterlife in which the young black victim can find a measure of comfort amid a sacred, loving communityÂ«, Whitted concludes, conceding that Â»[t]his is not to say that the trauma Billy suffered can be erasedÂ« (2015, 201â02).
This trauma also haunts the superhero. Bayou was published by DC Comics and features a benevolent green swamp creature (the titular Bayou) that evokes Marvelâs Hulk as well as DCâs Swamp Thing (Whitted 2012). Love revises these (monstrous) superheroes in a scene in which Bayou is whipped by one of General Bogâs hooded henchmen (fig. 1a/b). The whip cracks open his back in panels that reference a key trope of antislavery discourse, the whipped slave, which presented Â»the suffering black male body as an object of white desireÂ« (Jackson, 12). But Love affords Bayou an interiority that complicates traditional representations. As I have suggested elsewhere (Stein 2016), the swamp creatureâs decision to maim his hooded punisher follows Leeâs cry for help, which activates a recollection of two children with chains around their necks who are yanked away by an unknown force as they scream Bayouâs name. As he recalls this scene from the past, a tear runs from Bayouâs left eye. This depiction retains a core element of the superhero narrative (trauma motivating righteous violence), but it also creates a signal difference by portraying Bayou as a victim of racially motivated torture and racially induced trauma whose own act of aggressive resistance against his punisher becomes justified as the only available means of fighting back.
Remediating the movie poster for Griffithâs Birth of a Nation in the first volume and including several lynching scenes throughout the narrative, Love persistently comments on the superheroâs secret origins.11 The story begins with a sequence of splash pages that first show a pastoral Southern scene, a cabin surrounded by trees and cotton fields, and then a pickup truck racing past a welcome sign with Charon, Mississippi, written over an image of the confederate flag. The next page features an insert panel of a lynching next to a Â»colored entranceÂ« sign with a crow on top, linking lynching with the system of racial segregation as enforced by the Jim Crow laws (fig. 2).
Fig. 2: Empty-faced onlookers, a truncated black body, and an unusual perspective in Loveâs Bayouâs first lynching scene.
The lynching image shows two bleeding black feet next to a tree, with five white men and a white child looking on. It remediates central elements of lynching photographs, such as the morbid juxtaposition of onlookers and victim. Yet it also challenges these photographs, refusing to expose the victim, presumably Billy, and resigning itself to depicting the feet as a pars pro toto for the lynched body. In addition, the point of view differs from the historical positioning of the camera.12 Located slightly below the feet, this point of view suggests a ÂŹposition of powerlessness. Placed near the lynched body and away from the white onlookers, it does not specify who in the diegetic world might have watched the scene. The challenge, then, Â»is to recognize the objectifying gaze of the perpetrators and to position ourselves in relation to that gazeÂ« (Wood and Donaldson, 15), to combine aesthetic observation with an ethical assessment of our position vis-a-vis the contents and composition of the image.
The five orderly-looking men who gaze at the lynched body and into the readerâs direction do not evoke the chaos and mayhem associated with mob violence. We cannot tell whether they are bystanders or Billyâs killers. That their faces are empty, devoid of individual features, gives the image a timeless quality without making it a random snapshot. The archive is filled with photographs of white audiences standing by or looking at dead black bodies. Some photographs show children attending, so Loveâs remediation is rooted in recorded history.
Yet leaving the onlookersâ faces empty while keeping traces of the pencil sketch visible informs us that what we are seeing is a hand-drawn, personally authored, and carefully remediated representation of historical events â not a replication, but a repetition with a signal difference. As Hillary Chute observes about Â»what is captured with a lens and what is captured by handÂ«: Â»A comics text has a different relationship to indexicality than [âŠ] a photograph does. Marks made on paper by hand are an index of the body in a way that a photograph, âștakenâč through a lens, is notÂ« (20). What Love captures by hand, decades after the fact, foregrounds an urge for a different aesthetics of lynching. It remediates the black body from black-and-white photographs into a colorful graphic narrative by surrounding the victimâs feet with butterflies, which are often associated with beauty and grace as well as with resurrection and immortality (Werness, 63â65). Connecting the victims of Americaâs lynching past with these peaceful insects, Love counteracts the popular association of black bodies with the grotesque and the monstrous (Sharpe). The page that follows the initial lynching image (fig. 3a) introduces a change from the opening splash pages to the multi-panel organization of the main storyline (the use of opening splash pages is a typical element of superhero comics, so Bayou also references the genre on a structural level). This panel shows Lee Wagstaff wading through the bayou, a Â»bad placeÂ« where Â»nuttinâ good ever happened.Â« About to dive for Billyâs corpse, she grabs a rope in her right hand, her father Calvin holding the other end for her safety. The rope reaches out of the left-hand side of the panel and thus points back to the previous page, tying what is about to happen to the lynching logic of the Jim Crow South. When Lee finally discovers Billyâs body, the rope around his neck signals his cause of death (fig. 3b). As Lee is about to Â»t[ie] the rope around his foot,Â« she sees Â»Billyâs soul on his way to gloryÂ« Billy is visualized as a black boy with butterfly wings whose body has transitioned into a creature of beauty rather transformed into a piece of desecrated human flesh (fig. 3c).
Bayou contains additional lynching scenes, the most harrowing of which involves Lee as she is running away from Cotton Eye Joe, who has just swallowed Lilly, the white girl Leeâs father will be falsely accused of kidnapping and raping. Lee comes across the lynched bodies of five men and a woman in a scene that mirrors the readerâs initial encounter with the lynching victimâs bloody feet (fig. 4a). Instead of a single, fixed image, Love creates a three-page sequence that unmoors lynching photography from its static nature.13
Fig. 4a: Leeâs horrified reaction as she encounters dead bodies hanging from trees in Loveâs Bayou.
Showing Leeâs shock at her first sighting of the dangling feet (one foot bare, the other one wearing a shoe) and again when she feels the feet closing in on her (fig. 4b), Love contrasts the un-shocked facial expressions of the white onlookers in historical photographs with the girlâs horrified reaction. Recalling Meeropolâs poetic revision of the dead corpse as strange fruit, the sceneâs visual âșsignifyinââč complicates rather than replicates the horrors of lynching, including the butterflies and other insects that continue the nature metaphor in a visual vein and add a sense of movement as well as swamp sounds to the otherwise still tableau (fig. 4c).14
Fig. 4b: Another view of horrified Lee as she recognizes the victims of a mass lynching. / Fig. 4c: Loveâs remediation of lynching photography as a beautified comic book panel.
This intrusion of lynching imagery into the pages of a DC comic book Â»visualizes precarious identification with the mute and illegible objects of traumatic history,Â« as Chaney notes about John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powellâs March (2016, 147). Love gives the scene a special shine, which may be sunlight seeping through the foliage but suggests a heavenly glow, emphasizing the beauty of these elongated black bodies as they seem to be swinging ever so gently in the Southern breeze evoked in Meeropolâs poem, rather than their physical abjection. Billyâs murder is narrated in Bayouâs second volume, where Love takes poetic license by imagining the events that led to the killing, showing Billy as he is beaten and cut in a sequence of close-ups. These panels detail the acts of the faceless murderers as much as they foreground Billyâs humanity as a defiant boy whose fears are mitigated by the mythical Motha Sista, who tells him, Â»Be brave. Donât cryâŠ They will not prevailÂ« (fig. 5).
Motha Sistaâs words are the consoling message of a spiritual mother figure, but they also point to Tillâs spiritual survival, his afterlife as part of American history in the extratextual world and his reappearance as Billy in Bayou. This sequence is followed by Â»a sepia tone lynching photograph that callously misrepresents Billy and his worth: âșNegro LYNCHED for RAPE, Charon, Mississippi, by Newman. $4 DollarsâčÂ« (2015, 201), as Whitted summarizes (fig. 6). Whitted rightly notes that Â»[t]he postcard joins other intratexts â newspaper clippings on the opposing page as well as other documents from supposedly objective, trusted sources that reinforce the systemic dehumanization of black southernersÂ« (2015, 201). The image foregrounds this dehumanization by displaying the murdered black body in a strange posture that insinuates the transition from the once living human body to its present state as inanimate flesh. The rope is still wrapped around the boyâs throat, and his head is twisted back to mark the broken neck and thus the moment of death, but the body has already been taken down from its fatal elevation in order to perform its role as a ghastly reminder of black subservience (the posture suggests genuflection) in this remediated depiction of a photograph. Yet, as Whitted observes, Â»Bayou does not allow readers to adopt this objectifying gaze for longÂ« (2015, 201) as it contextualizes the photo with numerous additional sources that complicate its message. These sources include a newspaper article that clarifies what happened after the image was taken and Billyâs body was dumped in the nearby river. They also entail the comicâs alternative depiction of the events that led to the lynching and what happened afterwards, including Leeâs underwater search for the body and the appearance of the spiritual mother Mother Sista, who comes to claim Billyâs soul.15
In the remediated image of the postcard, Billyâs face remains empty except for a few pencil traces, which once again foreground the hand-made-ness of the drawing and indicate the panelâs status as a creative remediation. This aesthetic decision also acknowledges that lynch mobs reduced their victims to physical objects, detaching the black body from the human being in order to torture and kill, and it reverses Mamie Till-Mobleyâs decision to display her sonâs disfigured face in the open casket. The onlookers stare into the camera and thus directly at the reader, which prevents voyeuristic pleasure by demanding an ethical response to the history of Â»pornotropic representations that eroticize black sufferingÂ« (Wanzo, 88).1 The effect is heightened by the fact that the readersâ efforts to read meaning into Billyâs empty face and perhaps even supplant it with recollected images of Tillâs photographically recorded face are met with the onlookersâ opposing gaze.
Loveâs graphic âșsignifyinââč on superhero comics becomes most apparent in the sequential depiction of Billyâs passing. Billyâs death, the moment when the rope breaks his neck, occurs in a panel that diverts the gaze to his feet, repeating one of Loveâs most powerful visual tropes and working against pornotropic pleasure (fig. 5). The panel includes the sound word Â»ACKâŠ,Â« which signals the end Billyâs life and recalls a major event in superhero history: the death of Gwen Stacy, whose passing was marked by a single Â»SnapÂ« in Amazing Spider-Man #122 (July 1973). Gwen also dies at the end of a suspended rope, as Spider-Man shoots his webbing to break her fall, managing to catch her feet but snapping her neck in the process. Love therefore asks his readers to connect Billyâs death, and thus the history of lynching, with one of superhero comicsâ most tragic events, juxtaposing the death of a fictional character whose function in the comics had been to afford Peter Parker with a sex life (never explicitly shown) with the sexual politics of lynching, which punished any sense of sexual transgression (e.g. Emmett Tillâs alleged whistling at a white woman) with torture, dismemberment (including castration), and death. Loveâs depiction of Billy as a child rather than a teenager works further against the fatal myth of a monstrous black sexuality that can only be contained through lynching and other forms of racialized violence.
Cognizant of the long history of Â»black suffering and abjectionÂ« (Young 2015, 276), Loveâs transformative treatment of Tillâs lynching suggests a need to unfix public memories of black history from an otherwise static narrative. It does so by contesting the shadow archive of lynching images that confine the black subject to an eternal state of corporeal negation, displaying the black body only at the moment when it has just become a corpse.17 Love affords Till an afterlife as Billy Glass, but he also pairs the figure with a young female companion, Lee, who Â»functions [...] as [a] fugitive/revolutionary body whose resistance to racial subjectionÂ« (Young 2015, 276) breaks with the compulsory visibility of the murdered male black body by substituting it with the potentially less threatening image of a brave black girl.
Lynching in Kyle Bakerâs Nat Turner
Bakerâs Nat Turner, a graphic adaptation of Thomas Grayâs Confessions of Nat Turner (1831), also centers on a fugitive/revolutionary figure. The historical Turner was the leader of a slave rebellion in Southampton, Virginia, in 1831. He was eventually caught and hanged; Gray recorded his life story shortly before the execution and published it as a book. Marc Singer has criticized Baker for his choice to tell the story through Â»fight scenes and huge Frank Miller heroes who battle dozens of guys in silhouette.Â« Lamenting that it is a superhero comic Â»in slave-narrative dragÂ« (qtd. in Fischer, 260), Singer sees a weakness that I read as one of the bookâs major achievements. If Â»African American agency is depicted almost entirely through black bodies in actionÂ« (Wanzo, 89), and if superheroes showcase amazing feats of physical plasticity, then Bakerâs portrayal of Turnerâs execution asks us to see the more fragile and vulnerable yet no less powerful black body. That Baker generally separates the written narrative, mostly taken from Grayâs Confessions, from his overwhelmingly wordless images, prepares the visual resonance between the execution scene (analyzed below) and the equally still lynching photographs Nat Turner evokes.
Bakerâs superhero references include spectacular fight scenes at the beginning of the narrative, when slave catchers invade an African village, and later during the slave resurrection, when the slave, Will, attacks his white pursuers in a Hulk-like fashion (Chaney 2013, 281) that also recalls the vicious postbellum stereotype of the Â»Big, Black BuckÂ« (Fischer, 265). Early on, Baker depicts an African woman (possibly Turnerâs fictionalized mother) trying to escape her pursuers by leaping off a cliff (fig. 7a). Wanzo correctly notes that her leap Â»mimics images of flying superheroesÂ« (88), but the image also revises Floraâs melodramatic suicide in Griffithâs Birth of a Nation (Stein 2020, 28) and thus references the superheroâs lynching origins.18 Such remediation of Griffith-like Â»cinematic spectacleÂ« and Bakerâs twisting of the archival record Â»in favor of fantasy, mythology, and pop-ÂŹcultural clichĂ©Â« (Singer, 195, 199) might seem suspect from a historical perspective, but these depictions are significant interventions in the superheroâs lynching logic.
Fig. 7a: African woman leaping off a cliff to evade the slave catchers in Bakerâs Nat Turner./ Fig. 7b: The womanâs fall arrested by a rope in mid-air in Bakerâs Nat Turner.
Baker announces this logic in the preface of the graphic novel edition, where he presents Turner Â»as a hero with superhuman abilitiesÂ« and associates his life story with Â»lots of action and suspenseÂ« (6). Of course, placing a superhero filter over an antebellum slave narrative is problematic if we expect historical accuracy. If we read it not simply as an ahistorical fantasy of revenge but as commentary on the superhero genre, however, new interpretive possibilities arise. Then, the leaping woman, for instance, appears as another critical reformulation of Gwen Stacyâs death. Her descent is arrested when one of her pursuers catches her right foot with his lasso, albeit without snapping her neck (fig. 7b). Instead, the woman is shackled and chained. She becomes one of the nameless bodies caught up in the transatlantic slave trade in a panel that conjures up Bayouâs traumatic recollection (fig. 7c).
Even though it is feasible to criticize Bakerâs linking of transatlantic slavery and US popular culture, I would still argue that it enables a productive reflection on the superheroâs roots. Think of Bakerâs decision to afford Turner an origin story that not only evokes Bruce Wayneâs loss of his parents but identifies Africa, the Middle Passage, and slavery as points of departure and narrative beginning. While Bruce must witness his parentsâ murder in a Gotham alley, young Nat is orphaned when his parents are sold to a new owner at a slave auction. If the traumatic experience inspires Bruce to become Batman and dedicate his life to fighting crime, Turner transforms himself into a religious insurrectionist set on toppling the peculiar institution. While Bruce will serve as a defender of the status quo, a masked vigilante upholding order by constantly acting outside of the law, Nat will attack the status quo in his pursuit of racial justice. He does not emerge so much as a black superhero than as a revolutionary figure whose vigilante violence is directed at the slave system and its beneficiaries.
The climax of the narrative, Turnerâs lynching, is carefully prepared by repeated references to ropes and chains that associate slavery with white supremacy. From the lasso that catches the leaping womanâs foot and the shackles that bind the slaves, to the whips that mutilate unruly slaves, Baker makes sure that the final lynching scene appears as the logical outcome of a perfidious system of racial subjugation. The execution appears in a segment called Â»Triumph,Â« which evokes a sense of martyrdom that recalls Billyâs endurance of the torture administered before his death while acknowledging the slaveâs afterlife as the subject of Grayâs Confessions and later retellings, including Bakerâs.
Fig. 8: A peaceful Nat Turner as a counterimage to the
abjection of back bodies in lynching photography in
Bakerâs Nat Turner.
The page that precedes the segmentâs title page shows an image of the hanged Turner that foreshadows the events to come (fig. 8). This image evokes the shadow archive of the lynching photographs, offering an iconic encapsulation of the execution as Turnerâs body is bathed in a ray of light streaming down from heaven, which suggests spiritual absolution for his deeds (the killing of and incitement to kill slave owners and their families, including women and children). The body is drawn in a slightly more realistic style than the surrounding white onlookers. Baker thereby references the photographic archive while placing Turner in a different ontological realm than the spectators, memorializing the historical figure at the expense of the white mob. Using a graphic style Singer describes as Â»black ink and a sepia wash that evokes late Victorian photographyÂ« and Â»depict[ing] much of the [preceding] rebellion in small oval panels that derive their form, if not their macabre subject matter, from cameo portraitureÂ« (218), Baker deploys a set of anachronistic aesthetics to associate the antebellum execution with the superheroâs lynching origins.
Rebecca Wanzo notes about the ensuing lynching scene that Turner Â»is depicted in profile, with a strong silhouette, and at peaceÂ« in contrast to Â»the white audience whose faces are contorted and grotesque.Â« She concludes:
Bakerâs attentiveness to the face is an intervention into traditional slavery representations because the iconography was never about the face. The whipped back, the supplicating body, and other unindividuated representations contribute to a discourse that fails to see black people as individuated subjects. (94)
Turner comes across as anything but the black brute who deserves to be killed for allegedly committing monstrous acts. His death is symbolically charged with another ray of light and a leaf falling from a tree. The leaf marks the moment of his passing from the realm of the living into the realm of historical remembrance, when he becomes a revolutionary figure incompatible with superhero conventions. While Turnerâs body is dismembered during the autopsy â perhaps for medical reasons, perhaps to sell off body parts as souvenirs â his life story survives in the form of his confessions. These confessions, bound as a book, end up in the hands of a female black servant, who takes them into a dark corner of the house and begins to read in a narrative denouement that recalls the illicit quest of many enslaved to attain literacy, perhaps most famously depicted in Frederick Douglassâs Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) (fig. 9).19 This may not be an act of superhero fluxing, but it visualizes the transubstantiation of Turnerâs body into a book that will not only outlast his earthly existence but also inspires Bakerâs graphic adaptation.20
Fig. 9: The transubstantiation of Turnerâs body into its
afterlife as a book in Bakerâs Nat Turner.
Bakerâs Nat Turner and Loveâs Bayou foreground a central contradiction of American modernity. They visualize the bitter irony that comic book superheroes act as powerful beings whose agile bodies enable them to scale the heights of the (post-)modern metropolis, swinging from building to building to save innocent people from the hands of evil criminals, while the nationâs black citizens must contend with ever-new forms of lynching, such as the murder of George Floyd and many others by US police forces, Â»as racial âșupliftâč in its most perverse, literal, and structural formÂ« (Alexandre, 23).21 When Bukatman speaks of the superheroâs Â»corporeal [âŠ] mapping of the subject into a cultural systemÂ« (49), lynching and its current iterations appear not only as the superheroâs secret origin but as a phenomenon central to American modernity: as a publicly staged, mass-mediated, and frequently remediated practice centered on the compulsory visibility of the violated black body, rather than an aberration in an otherwise progressive nation.
This finally leads me to my choice of the phrase Â»black bodies swingingÂ« from Meeropolâs Â»Strange FruitÂ« and Holidayâs haunting vocal rendition of the poem, which makes up a part of the title of this essay.22 The phrase raises difficult questions of agency. In the poem, the lynched bodies are Â»swinging in the Southern breeze,Â« evoking the black person as an object that has been violently rid of its agency. But I think we can read Bakerâs and Loveâs works as attempts to recuperate lost agencies through processes of graphic remediation: to contest the hegemonic whiteness of the comic book superhero by investing it with a deviant visual lexicon that insists on an engagement with the genreâs and the nationâs racist visual archives and demands an ethical stance. To quote Sandy Alexandre: Â»[T]he emotionally and physically moving image of what Holiday croons as âșblack bodies swingingâč works not as merely an effective synecdoche for lynching but also as a political signifier of and (indeed) a strange metronome for recording the very unsteady, unstable place of the black body scourged, dangling to and fro, on the American landscapeÂ« (27).
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List of Figures
- Fig. 1a: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 1b: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 2: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig 3a: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 3b: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 3c: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 4a: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 4b: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 4c: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 1. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 5: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 2. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 6: Love, Jeremy, and Patrick Morgan: Bayou. Vol. 2. New York: DC Comics, 2009, p. .
- Fig. 7a: Baker, Kyle: Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008, p. 27.
- Fig. 7b: Baker, Kyle: Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008, p. 28.
- Fig. 7c: Baker, Kyle: Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008, p. 29.
- Fig. 8: Baker, Kyle: Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008, p. 186.
- Fig. 9: Baker, Kyle: Nat Turner. New York: Abrams, 2008, p. 200..
- 1] By the beginning of the twentieth century, lynching was widely Â»understood [âŠ] as a form of white supremacist violence, perpetrated largely in the SouthÂ« (Wood and Donaldson, 11). Over 4,000 Â»racial terror lynchingsÂ« between 1880 and 1940 are documented (Equal Justice Initiative, 4), approximately 90 percent of which involved white mobs killing black men (Wood and Donaldson, 11).
2] Following Cunningham, Ryan discerns Â»a somewhat paradoxical mixture of physical vulnerability and social insightÂ« in black superheroes (68). For Francis, Â»[i]t is entirely possible that a successful black American superhero is impossible because it seeks to combine two ideals that are antithetical to each other: superheroes and American racial thinkingÂ« (138).
3] For recent scholarship on black superheroes, see Nama; Whaley; Austin and Hamilton.
4] Cloutier uses the term Â»shadow archiveÂ« to describe the Â»absences, removals, and delayed restorations in the history of the black literary archiveÂ« (1). By focusing on the male black body, I do not mean to gloss over the fact that black women were also victims of lynching. On the lynching and memorialization of the nineteen-year-old, eight-months-pregnant Mary Turner in Lowndes County, Georgia, on May 19, 1918, see Armstrong. Turnerâs murder is memorialized in Rachel Marie-Crane Williamsâs Elegy for Mary Turner: An Illustrated Account of a Lynching (2021), which mixes sepia-toned page coloring, old-fashioned handwritten lettering, historical photographs, telegrams, letters, an overall woodcut style, and newspaper articles that are pasted onto the page so as to evoke private clipping files. On the marginalization of black women in representations of lynching and its gendered implications, see Apel; Simien.
5] Jackson argues: Â»[T]he lynching of black men is inseparable from the policing of white womenâs bodies and the sexual exploitation of black womenâs bodies by white menÂ« (3).
6] For reasons explained below, I refrain from reproducing lynching images in this essay. Such images are widely available online. See, for instance, James Allenâs website for his photo book of lynching photographs, Without Sanctuary (2000): https://www.withoutsanctuary.org/. See also the photographs owned by Getty Images: https://www.gettyimages.de/fotos/lynching.
7] Cf. Smith: Â»Making a photograph became part of the ritual, helping to objectify and dehumanize the victims and, for some, increasing the hideous pleasureÂ« (Apel and Smith, 16).
8] The title of Brundageâs Under Sentence of Death (1997) underscores this sense of permanent surveillance.
9] Wanzo speaks of Â»agency despite victimizationÂ« in a related context (64).
10] See also Alexandre (ch. 5).
11] Love shows one of General Bogâs henchmen, dressed in military clothing in the style of the Confederate Army, racing on a fierce-looking horse while holding a modern version of the confederate flag. This panel recalls the theatrical release poster for Birth of a Nation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation#/media/File:Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster.jpg), which displays a hooded rider in KKK regalia and a burning cross on a black steed. But it also evokes a similar depiction of Batman on a horse in Frank Millerâs The Dark Knight Returns (1986).
12] It also differs from the vantage points of the lynching tableaus in Mat Johnson and Warren Pleeceâs Incognegro (2008). Chaney criticizes Incognegoâs Â»politics of viewer positioning in plenary scenes of lynching,Â« i.e., the narrativeâs allowance of readerly distancing and affective de-involvement: Â»The deliberately aerial view that obscures the lynched body reflects the graphic novelistsâ retreat from the burdens of historical representation into fictive enclosures. [âŠ] The distance afforded the viewer to apprehend these parts in their panoptic totality revises privilege, redefining it as a comforting, unifying distance from spectacleÂ« (2016, 154, 155, 156). See also Caron; Fine; Kunert-Graf.
13] Cf. also Young (2015, 283) on this scene. Loveâs tableau may be based on a photograph of a lynching in Sabine County, Texas, in 1908, which was reprinted on a postcard (https://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-texas-lynching-1908-nfive-blacks-hanged-from-a-dogwood-tree-in-sabine-95409012.html) alongside a poem: Â»Let this a warning to all negroes be, / Or theyâll suffer the fate of the DOGWOOD TREEÂ« (qtd. in Whitted 2015, 200). Another possible visual intertext is the postcard that displays the bodies of Virgil Jones, Robert Jones, Thomas Jones und Joseph Riley, who were murdered on July 31, 1908, in Russelville, Kentucky (https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Lynching_postcard).
14] Moten finds a similar Â»phonic substanceÂ« in the Emmett Till photographs: Â»[T]he aesthetic and philosophical arrangements of the photograph [âŠ] anticipate a looking that cannot be sustained as unalloyed looking but must be accompanied by listening [âŠ] even though what is listened to â echo of a whistle or a phrase, moaning, mourning, desperate testimony and flight â is also unbearableÂ« (200).
15] Cf. also Jenkinsâs reading of the postcard (311).
16] See Spillers; Hartman. Cf. also Jackson: Â»The power to look is also the power to police and govern that body, imbuing it with an erotics of controlÂ« (5).
17] As Smith suggests, Â»the corpse functions as the negated other that frames, supports, and defines a white supremacist communityÂ« (127).
18] Here, the black fugitive is trying to evade her white pursuers; in the film, the white woman prefers death over being raped by her stereotypically brutish black pursuer. Singer elaborates on his critique Â»of the many lapses, shortcuts, creative distortions, and outright errors that punctuate Bakerâs narrativeÂ« (218). Other scholars â Kunka; Francis; Gray; Chaney (2013); Fischer; Bruno; Scott; Stein (2020) â offer more appreciative analyses.
19] Cf. also Scott on Â»Turnerâs apotheosis-via-hangingÂ« (345).
20] Baker associates Turnerâs death with the resurrection of Christ, an association Turner himself makes when he counters Grayâs question Â»Do you not find yourself mistaken now?Â« with the question Â»Was not Christ crucified?Â« (189).
21] On lynching as a modern phenomenon, cf. Raiford (37-38); on the superhero, modernity, and race, see Regalado.
22] I provide a close reading of the poem in Stein (2011).