Sunday, November 16, 2008

Drawing Race

The day after the election, I spent the afternoon at the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont, as a guest in the drawing workshop taught by Stephen Bissette. Steve had invited me to teach a class on drawing ethnicity and race.

At the time I scheduled the gig, I hadn't actually processed the fact that November 5 was the day after that November 4. I was a bit tired the morning after. But the timing was perfect.

Much commentary during Obama's candidacy and since his election has considered the question of whether our nation is entering a post-racial era, with a number of commentators stating outright that we've arrived at such a milestone. I think they're skipping over a few stages. My view is that we are becoming a society with a conscious awareness of our multiracial identity. Examining how to do that in comics was an ideal way to spend the day after the election.

I talked about moving towards a big vision: authentic, respectful, recognizable depictions of the glorious diversity of humankind. (Of course one of the hallmarks of comics is making fun, but the skewering shouldn't be based on racial and ethnic characteristics or stereotypes.)

This means that Caucasian can no longer be the sole reference point. All too often in comics and graphic novels, the normative characters are all white. Non-white characters are defined by their difference from the norm, such as darker skin or differently-shaped eyes. In this model, some characters are depicted simply by race: the balding man with the paunch, the Goth chick with pointy glasses, the black guy. But race alone does not give you a full person. Every character of every race should be developed as an individual.

Students shared the results of an exercise I'd assigned: Find a comic artist who draws characters of more than one race. Make sketches of the characters, examining what the artist is doing. It was fascinating to see the wide range of techniques for effectively describing racial and ethnic variety.

I also got to make some of my own recommendations, such as graphic novelists Gene Yang (American Born Chinese), Derek Kim, Jillian Tamaki (Skim by Mariko Tamaki, which just made the New York Times Best Illustrated list) and Shaun Tan. Tan's exquisite and moving wordless picture book about immigration, The Arrival, is my current favorite book. The endpapers alone provide an entire course in depicting race and ethnicity.

In younger picture books, I love the multicolored children drawn by Le Uyen Pham, Jon Muth (Come On, Rain by Karen Hesse), and Sheila Hamanaka (All the Colors of the Earth), among many others. Aren't we humans gorgeous?!

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