Representing Race & Disability in Comics: A Quick Q&A with Jonathan W. Gray in Anticipation of his Seminar (City, University of London, 20 February 2023 6pm GMT)

  • What: Professor Jonathan W. Gray from City University of New York will be giving a seminar titled “Social Depths: Race & Disability in Comics & Graphic Novels” at City, University of London. 
  • When: Monday 20 February 2023, 6pm GMT.
  • Where: On campus at City, University of London, Room AG07b, College Building. [Campus Map].  An option to join online is available for those who register.
  • How: Registration has now closed. The recording can be found here.

Senior Communications Officer John Stevenson (City, University of London) had a quick Q&A with Professor Gray in anticipation of his seminar. We share it below:

JS: How has the academy contributed to an awareness of the need for representation and diversity in graphics and comics? How do you assess your own contribution at CUNY?

JWG: I taught the first comics class offered at CUNY 15 years ago. Danny Lore was one of my students (there are two links there) and they’ve gone on to have a great career. So I feel like I’ve already made a contribution to comics with my scholarship and also through mentoring writers like Danny and Margaret Galvan.

JS: To what extent have the stereotypical portrayals of Black people in comics, starting from Lee Falk’s side-kick character Lothar (in Mandrake the Magician) morphed into the virtual world of gaming and other immersive experiences?

JWG: One way to address this question is through the work of my colleague Rebecca Wanzo. She asserts in her recent book that caricature possesses both positive and negative qualities.

JS: Who are some of the emerging Black authors of illustrators who are coming to critical attention now?

JWG: There are a number of Black American creators emerging. From creators like Ronald Wimberley, to Barbara Brandon-Croft to Afua Richardson! But most writers don’t make a name for themselves until their mid-30s. That’s the primary difference between white and Black creators, at least in the American context.

JS: How have Afro-futurism and artistic creations of the Black Fantastic figured into the work of Black comics and graphic novels in America?

JWG: Those ideas have been prevalent and influential from adaptations of Octavia Butler to comics written by Nigerian American sci-fi writers.


Social Depths: Representing Race & Disability in Comics & Graphic Novels

Comics play an important role in the political and cultural imagination of its readers, with representation contributing to objectification and marginalization of people of color and disability.

As Frantz Fanon noted in Black Skin, White Masks: “In [comics] the Wolf, the Devil, the Evil Spirit, the Bad Man, the Savage are always symbolized by Negroes or Indians; since there is always identification with the victor, the little Negro, quite as easily as the little white boy, becomes an explorer, an adventurer, a missionary “who faces the danger of being eaten by the wicked Negroes.” While recent representation challenges these stale stereotypes and stigmas, we must attend to how the comics medium offers unique potential for transforming our understanding of race and disability in truly profound ways.

Understanding Comics Scott McCloud’s foundational analysis of the comics form presents an able-bodied white masculine subject as its point of view subject.

McCloud attempts to quantify a reader’s response to cartoon representation by positing an affective identification with comics illustration that enables the reader to supplant his identity with that of the illustrated subject on the page.

But this act of imagination depends on the presumed universality of the illustration, the ability of every reader to project himself—and this pronoun is used deliberately—into the image. McCloud fails to consider apprehension that occurs when the reader or the character under consideration is in fact racialized or disabled or gendered as other.

In this talk, Dr Jonathan W. Gray will address this oversight by collapsing McCloud’s separation between the photo and the cartoon to observe that entering the world of the cartoon might produce not identification but the realization of one’s self as “an other.”

In order to explain this, Dr Gray will examine the social and material meanings embedded in the origins and permutations of the disabled figure of Victor Stone, better known to comics reading and movie going publics as Cyborg.

This talk is organized in collaboration between the Centre for Human-Computer Interaction Design, School of Science and Technology, and the Department of Media, Culture & Creative Industries, School of Communication & Creativity.

It should be of interest to students and academics interested in areas such as Black Studies, Digital Justice, Disability Studies and the Cultural Politics of both design and popular culture.

About the speaker

Jonathan W. Gray, Associate Professor English at the CUNY Graduate Center and John Jay College, is the author of Civil Rights in the White Literary Imagination (University Press of Mississippi) and is currently working on the book project Illustrating the Race: Representing Blackness in American Comics.

Prof. Gray contributed the essay “Race” to NYU’s Keywords for Comics Studies, co-edited the essay collection Disability in Comics and Graphic Novels for Palgrave McMillian and served as the founding editor of the Journal of Comics and Culture (Pace U. Press).

Prof. Gray’s meditations on race and representation in popular culture have appeared in Film Quarterly, The New Republic, Entertainment Weekly, Medium, and Salon.