In my previous post, I wrote about the graphic narrative/script assignment in my “Monsters, Race, and Comics” course this semester. Today, I want to look at one of the products that students created for this assignment. Specifically, I want to look at the finished product and how it relates to themes we discussed during the course but also how it interacts within a broader context of texts and themes that I have taught over the past few years, specifically John Jennings, Damian Duffy, and Robert Love’s “Profile” and Brent Staples’ “Just Walk on By: Black Men and Public Space.”
For the assignment, I gave students the option of collaborating with a peer. The product that two of my students constructed in a 5 page graphic narrative. The narrative takes place in 1995. We see a Black man talking on a pay phone with his wife, and as he steps out of the phone booth he accidentally hits a white woman, who is walking by, with the door. She drops the contents of her purse, and he helps her pick them up. The lady walks on, but the man realizes she left her change purse. So, he walks after her, trying to return her change purse. The woman sees him as a threat and calls the police. The police arrive and see the man approaching the woman. They draw their guns and shoot the man.
Initially, the story reminded me of Jennings, Duffy, and Love’s “Profile,” specifically because each ends with law enforcement shooting Black me. As well, I thought about the literal target on Black men in “Profile,” the fear of the father learning that he and his wife are having a boy because they see the target on the sonogram. The students’ story doesn’t have this, and they had not read “Profile” before creating their piece. Rather, they had read Dwyane McDuffie and Denys Cowan’s Deathlok, Pichetshote Pornsak and Aaron Campbell’s Infidel, and other texts. Both Deathlok and Infidel, in their own ways, deal with the stereotyping of Black men. Notably, I think about the scene in Infidel where Leslie is on the train and grabs her purse tighter as a Black man walks down the aisle.
What makes the students’ project different from “Profile” and other texts we read during the course, is the way that they set it up. The five panels on the first page show the man in the phone booth talking with his wife and accidentally hitting the woman as he opens the door. We don’t see the man’s face or any features, apart from his hair in a kind of shilouette image in the second panel. Thus, we do not know, specifically, that he is a Black man. We just know he is a man. The second page begins with a panel showing the man’s hands as he picks up the contents of the woman’s purse, and the third theirs panel shows the man holding the contents as we see his hands and the bottom part of his face. In these panels, we see that he is a Black man, but we still don’t see all of his features. We see him from behind in the last two panels on the page. Thus, he doesn’t really exist for the woman. Instead, she views him not a person but as a threat. We see this when she abruptly turns away from the man after he returns her belongings.
The third page shows the man and woman walking in different directons and the man finding the change purse. He picks it up and starts to follow the woman to rteurn it. The final panel on this page is interesting because as he stands at a crosswalk he narrates, “I pursued, hoping to catch up to her, but she was walking so quickly it was hard to keep up.” What stands out here is the use of “pursued,” a word that contains ominous connotations. When one pursues another person, we typically think about the pursuer having ill intent towards the person they are following. The narrator could have said, “I followed her” or merely “I tried to catch up to her,” but the use of “pursued” underscores the themes of the narrative and the woman’s unwarranted fears.
The panel where the woman sees the man following her continues this ominous feeling. We see the woman, in the foreground, looking down the sidewalk. At the other end, across a street, we see a silhouette of the man as he holds his hand up trying to catch the woman’s attention. The panel looks like a dark hallway, even though it’s a street, and that the woman is encountering something fearful. She immediately turns and calls the police. The man catches up to her and returns her belongings, and at this moment the woman realizes the error of her assumptions. On the final page, the officers approach the man and shoot him. As he gets shot, the narrator says, “The last thing I saw the regret in her eyes, but we both knew . . . It was too late.” The narrative ends with a panel showing the contents of the woman’s purse. We see the phone and the most recent call, which reads, “911.”
While there are some issues, for me, with the narrative, the students highlight the ways that Black men get stereotyped and labeled as threats, as we see in “Profile.” In another class this semester, I taught Staples’ essay, and as I read the students’ narrative I started to thinking about the opening paragraph of Staples’ piece where he writes, “My first victim was a woman — white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties.” Staples presents himself as a pursuer of a white woman, and the whole first paragraph positions him as such. However, Staples’ essay reverses this stereotype, switching to show how he is, in fact, the “prey.” Staples writes that the encounter with the white woman made him realize that his Blackness made him “indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto” to the woman.
Even though the Black man in the students’ narrative helps the white woman, she views him as a threat. She does not see his face, thus creating within her mind the image of the man as one of “the muggers” who she may hear about on the news or read about online. He exists for her as nothing more than a threat, and this invisibleness carries over throughout the course of the narrative. In fact, while we see the woman’s face, in some detail, in six of the panels, we only see the man’s face in three of them. In this manner, the man becomes the predator of Staples’ essay. He becomes the target of “Proflie.” He does not exist as an individual. He exists as a stereotype.
There’s more that I could say about this project, but these are some things that I thought about as I read it. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on twitter @silaslapham.