I recently sat through a lecture about the history of comics that happened to be full of white male creators as examples. The slights of omission grated at me and distracted me. My discontent squirmed in my mind while a familiar mask of neutrality tightened over my face.
I didn’t say anything aloud for, oh, so many reasons. The main ones being: I’m slow in processing, I’ve been trained not to speak up about small slights, and I dislike direct confrontation. Besides, I can always make art about it later, I reasoned to myself.
Turns out ‘making art about it later’ is my default way of dealing with shitty things that happen in the world these days.
After the lecture, brainstorming for ideas, my mind kept returning to the lecture — I wanted to make some kind of counterpoint that showed how many women, queer people, and people of color have been present but underrepresented in our collective history(s). I came up with some clever ways to present this alternate history, and I had some good points that could be highlighted with this new piece...yet I felt a familiar shadow creep back into my process: acid at the back of the throat, a grimace behind the brow. The work now carried the burden of a cause. The process of making it now carried an emotional weight because it would require processing in order to make it (an emotional labor which those in the margins tend to bear the brunt of.)
I felt resentment that this was the direction I was headed. Why couldn’t I go back to doing something fun and for myself? Instead of creating something that had the potential to light me up, I was now making work born out of anger and frustration.
Right before this lecture business happened, I had found the space and time to play, and I had given myself personal permission to unplug from the world's noisyness. In my bubble, I spent a blissful two days following my own curiosities: learning a new tool and creating fiction that transported me. It left me feeling excited to share, bubbly with the kind of energy where you’re smiling for no reason. It was contagious and leaked into my other interactions, my other work. It was a simple joy in the work of artmaking that I hadn’t felt in a long long time. Looking back at the political climate, the despair, and the fight-back-mode that had dominated the past few years...no wonder I hadn’t felt joyful in the making of my art for a long long time.
I couldn't help wondering: What else would I be making, if it weren't for all these triggers and fires? What happens to all the stories that I have inside of me yearning to be told, when I’m too busy fighting for social justice to tell them? Instead of creating the original stories that can spring only from me and my heart, why do I feel stuck creating alternate histories: a million ways to set YOUR record straight instead of focusing on what’s one way to tell my own story?
The prospective emotional weight of this new project — the alternate comic history — already made me feel heavy and tired, but now I felt like the only way I could release the energy was to make the damn art. If I didn’t make this art — having already failed to correct it in the moment — would I be conceding this point and relinquishing my role in the conversation? If I didn’t make this art, would I be saying that the history lecture I sat through was somehow okay, as culpable in my own silence as the lecturer was in their omission?
Even after I worked to make the thing and then put it out in the world, I was left feeling hollow.
Where could I find healing in all of this?
I suddenly understood the deep burn-out stories I’ve heard from activists and justice workers who are constantly in defense mode — always trying their best to protect who and what they care about in reaction to a world hostile to their causes. When we were researching homelessness in Austin, the metaphor the non-profit workers used was ‘putting out fires.’ Always putting out fires with no time to plan and no time to pull back long enough to actually build radical solutions. Together we started to ask new questions: How might we make space and time for being architects instead of firefighters?
BUT: How do we do that when there are so.many.fires? How do we take a step back and figure out what we need to build? How do we breathe again?
I am troubled by the narrative that these traumatic times in our nation are “good for art.” Even if we would be making art regardless, it’s as if these mediums we love are being contorted and perverted towards purposes of REACTION instead of CREATION.
It’s subtle, so I have not in the past been able to distinguish between the two modes. I automatically assumed that all artmaking was fruitful because at the very least I was making art. But now, I can feel the difference between my body when I’m working on something that’s reactive as opposed to my body when I’m working on something that is self-directed and generative from inside of me (in that way that’s channeling something mysteriously bigger than me). Knowing that, I can choose to actively follow the projects that make me sit up a little straighter, that crinkle my eyes in anticipation, that breathe life into my heart. Knowing that, I can choose whether or not I want to continue working on projects when I notice myself grimacing, when I notice the tightness in my throat, when I realize I’m wading into emotional processing that I did not enthusiastically sign up for.
I am beginning to understand — in my body — what Toni Morrison meant when she said “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction.” She elaborates:
“It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms so you dredge that up.
None of this is necessary.
There will always be one more thing.”
None of this is necessary.
In the transcript of this speech titled “A Humanist View” given at Portland State University in 1975, Morrison begins by detailing how human beings and individuals had been systematically reduced to numbers in the accounting records of slave ships and builds to countless examples of how history perpetuates a willful ignorance rooted in an unwillingness to look at the truth.*
The paragraphs above that were excerpted from this speech were familiar to me; the paragraphs that followed it were not:
“And since not history, not anthropology, not social sciences seem capable in a strong and consistent way to grapple with that problem [of distraction], it may very well be left to the artists to do it.
For art focuses on the single grain of rice, the tree-shaped scar, and the names of people, not only the number that arrived. And to the artist one can only say: not to be confused, not to be confused. You don’t waste your energy fighting the fever; you must only fight the disease. And the disease is not racism. It is greed and the struggle for power.
And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore.
You can go ahead and talk straight to me.”
If I’m being honest with myself, nothing I could have made to address the way that mostly-white-male-comics-industry-people talk about their mostly-white-male-comics-history would have been all that satisfying to me as a woman of color making comics today. Though sometimes playing defense is necessary, I have to acknowledge that anything I provide as a counterpoint to their history also reinforces that version of history.
In actuality, I can leapfrog all of that firefighting. I can pull back long enough to do the more radical acts of connecting and creating. I breathe, and I am power.
What’s powerful is me focusing my time on writing the stories inside of me that are aching to be told in this world — the stories that only I can tell. In making them directly for the readers who are yearning to see themselves reflected on the page, I can talk straight to us.**
We know we’ve always been here, and we know we are changing things through the very mundane process of making the art that we in our true essence make. We are making the future history of comics, right now.
And they can just try to keep up.
*It's almost spiritual how Toni Morrison lays out her arguments around the mental gymnastics of racism in the name of power, greed, and resources. In reality, no one is superior or inferior to another, and not even the racists actually believe it. The whole speech and Q&A are worth reading or listening to.
**"And when that happens, very strangely, or rather, very naturally, what also happens is that you speak to everybody. And even though it begins as inward and private, and gets its own juices from itself, the end result is it’s communication with the world at large.” ~Toni Morrison