ART: THERE ARE OTHER WAYS TO DIE
Written by Suprihmbé
[TW// mention of suicide]
"All of that art-for-art's-sake stuff is BS... What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren't writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn't… We've just dirtied the word 'politics,' made it sound like it's unpatriotic or something… My point is that it has to be both: beautiful and political at the same time. I'm not interested in art that is not in the world. And it's not just the narrative, it's not just the story; it's the language and the structure and what's going on behind it. Anybody can make up a story." - Toni Morrison
People told me comics and cartoons were for children when I was growing up, and then for boys and men as I grew into adulthood, but I knew better. My love of comics began with Marmalade Boy by Wataru Yoshizumi. I then read MARS by Fuyumi Soryo, Love Hina by Ken Akamatsu and many more. As I got older I fell in love with Adventure Time and many other cartoons. I read MAUS and Persepolis and Blankets and Habibi. But I yearned for faces like mine. I mean, there was The Boondocks. But it’s so male-and-masc-centered. Black Comix by Damian Duffy and John Jennings introduced me to a lot of Black female creators, but I still feel a thirst for more comics featuring women like me; sex workers, single moms. Yeah, there are some. But not enough.
I wasn’t sure I could make comics. Yes, I had read about Jackie Ormes, and I knew I was an okay artist and a good writer. I even saw the work of Afua Richardson, but what got me really thinking I had a place in comics was two creators: Ashley Woods and Spike Trotman. I met Ashley Woods at C2E2 in 2015. I was seeing a guy in Chicago who knew her, and he told me to talk to her. He always spoke about her success in an envious sort of way, the same way he did his more successful brother, who is a producer. All I remember is hearing her speak about how much she worked and how this was her life. And she is around my age, from the southside of Chicago. I read an interview recently where she said: “some people may not understand you and overthink what you are doing just because you are Black. It’s a concept that I myself didn’t fully grasp until I became an adult. At times you may feel ostracized but continue to focus on your art, the right people will make their way into your life eventually. Truly, the ONLY thing you need to do is draw, so draw to your heart’s content.”
Ashley Woods was the first (and only) Black woman in comics I had met in person, and her presence at C2E2 made a huge impression on me. This was before she started working with Amandla Stenberg on Niobe she is life. When I asked her what I should do to move forward as an artists she basically said: Work.
Spike Trotman, founder of Iron Circus Comics, is one of my most major inspirations. I can’t remember how I first discovered her. What I do remember is seeing Smut Peddler, a queer erotica comics anthology. I found out a queer Black woman was behind it and I was shook. I bought the 2014 Edition in 2015 and it was phenomenal. There were women of color, having sex and enjoying it; queer men and women and nonbinary folks; Brown women and Black women and trans and disabled characters, loving it up. There were men getting pegged, and it wasn’t a trope, it was pleasure, it was erotic. As a sex worker who wants to create comics about sex, eroticism, and my experiences with stripping, prostitution, and camming as a Black woman, that spoke to me. Maybe I could be one of those who pushes the medium further, by writing about me.
A few months ago I had a conversation with a [Black male] friend about my comic. He asked me: would you ever create some art that doesn’t have a message, or isn’t political? The question confused me because as a Black woman, every move I make is politicized and even the things I create for fun will be politicized. “Choosing” not be political is either privilege or ignorance. Much of the time diversity usually means a man of color or a white woman. The Latina women we see in comics are usually white or racially ambiguous. The Asian women are fetishized, and rarely dark brown. The Black women are fewer and most aren’t darker than me (medium brown).
I once had an argument on Twitter with a white male comics writer who made a comment about loving that comics don't have an “agenda” and are “fun.” Usually this is code to describe QT/POC or feminist comics. I responded to him essentially saying that’s fine for him, but unfortunately all art is politicized/political whether we want it to be or not, and it is a mark of his privilege that you can claim that it is not. He said I was racist; called me an “SJW.” I am told that women like me are ruining comics yet I see the work of Zainab Akhtar with Comics and Cola, and I smile.
I logged back into Twitter during a period of despair in my personal life. I had entered a steady decline into suicidal thoughts and despair following my break-up, and I had stopped making art. That year, 2016, I read Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, and it renewed my fervor for comics. At this time I was still only a consumer, dazzled by glossy pages and creator-owned image titles. I was reading Saga, Bitch Planet, Shutter, Sex Criminals, Descender, ODY-C and WicDiv. Quite a list, I know. I decided either suicide or art, then I jotted down some ideas and went to sleep on it. For a week I mulled it over. On the last day I decided to write a comic about my experience. That became my ever-stalled webcomic stranger., a story about a young woman who drives 10 hours to see the long distance boyfriend she just broke up with and tell him that she’s pregnant and still wants to be friends. It is a story about love and humiliation and figuring things out.
When you can see practically every version of yourself in any form of media, of course you can claim that what you’re making isn’t political. You’d be lying though because everything we create as artists is imbued with our sensibilities. There is always a why, or a reason, we chose to make a character a specific race, why white is seen as the unquestionable default. Everything from the skin tones we pick to the dialogue we write is influenced by our experiences and when your experience is racist, or you don’t spend time around people of color, you end up creating insensitive or racist things. Our experience informs our art, always. I will always make art which reflects my Black-queer-femme-mama-sex worker intersections. Like Morison, my work is “highly political and passionately aesthetic.” I can’t make it any other way.