Cover Girl: Island #15 by Dilraj Mann

This month, the Cover Girl team has convened to discuss the cover of Island #15, by Dilraj Mann, from Image Comics. It hits stores on February 8, 2017.

What is your initial reaction to this as a piece of art? (Who is it for? What does it say?)

Clara Mae: I’m having conflicting feelings about this one. I love the colors, the crisp lines on the shirt, and the little details on the jewelry. But I’m not entirely sure who this is for. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe this artist is Asian, not black? If the artist is black my reservations are lessened, but if the artist is Asian, I do have questions about what he’s trying to say by using this particular skin tone coupled with drawing the lips that way. It calls to mind old timey blackface caricatures, which then leads me to concerns about anti-blackness in the Asian community. So, I don’t know. I am conflicted.

Melissa Brinks: My first instinct on seeing this cover was fawning over the colors and contrast and texture and patterns. At first glance, it’s lovely; the colors are stark, bright, eye-catching, wonderful, but then you realize that’s contrast is coming from its placement against a woman’s skin color, which, especially with the choice of red, smacks strongly of blackface and historical anti-black art. Looking through the artist’s portfolio, this appears to be part of his style. But even so, I see this and I think, why here? Why that particular shade of red? Why the shape of the eyes and the roundness of the lips? Despite my initial positive response to the colors, as I look more at the image, those stark contrasts I like so much feel like othering rather than a celebration of color. I haven’t read Island, and to be honest, I don’t know anything at all about it. But this cover seems to scream that nobody considered the implications of this art style at all or found the style to be more important than the message it sent. People had to approve this along the line, right? And nobody thought to question if this was appropriate?

Stephanie Tran: Like Clara Mae and Melissa, I was immediately drawn to the bright colors of the piece, but upon further inspection, I am put off by the artist’s style in rendering the woman who is the focus of the piece. Both Melissa and Clara Mae have pointed out the starkness of the woman’s completely black skin and the red of her lips as hearkening to blackface and anti-black propaganda. Both these things are highly problematic, and it’s undeniable that the woman depicted is meant to be black. Aside from the blackface and stereotypically red lips, the woman’s raised fist, which is most likely a reference to black power and pride, and the round, curly hair, most likely an Afro, all lead to this impression.

Claire Napier: Allow me to digress a little in order to answer, eventually, this question with as much truth as I can muster and as much fairness as I hope is appropriate. When discussing the work of artists whose art makes me feel unrealised, which as a white member of a cultural majority with no physical disabilities has almost always been men’s drawings of “sexy women,” I’ve encountered readers who have misunderstood me. The drawing cannot consent, I have said, and “she thinks the paper is going to be raped!” They have scoffed. In fact this is not my worry. My worry is that I read in the drawings a falsified, artist-born permissiveness which has been expected of me and which I cannot perform as it is contrary to my sense of life. And I also read an equation of this specifically, personally appalling permissiveness with the subject of the drawing, which is almost always suggested to be “an attractive woman.” My rejection of the art and any argument for its merit is visceral, because the art is communicating a demand (a demand) that I have encountered and suffered from. If art asks a question, my response in these cases is no. But art doesn’t only ask a question; art suggests statements, answers questions too.

For black women, there are more vectors of oppression informing more nos to more modes of art. This piece uses, as listed by the women above, motifs special to racialised humiliation, which have been used directly in the belittlement of black people in the eyes of their peers, for the profit of people who are not black. The use of those may be intended to be benevolent, affirmational or challenging, or subversive, or intellectual, but there is nothing in a (any) piece of art that unmakes the weight of a NO that falls onto the shoulders of a viewer who has encountered and suffered from the demand (the demand) that they associate themselves with the fruits of the evil history of blackface and sambo cartooning. I’m concerned for the joy of the black women who will experience that abrupt vertigo upon their viewership of this cover.

J.A. Micheline: Claire has essentially covered it, but I will add my visceral, emotional reaction to her assessment of art as political text: it feels like mockery. I doubt that that’s the intention. I don’t really follow Dilraj Mann’s work, but I’ve at least understood that he frequently draws black women this way and that some portion of this is meant to be–in a positive light–fetishized and/or sexualized. That is, these stereotypical elements are supposed to be attractive.

I like the draughtsmanship. I like the lines. I like the texture. I like the fashion choices. I like the patterns. But I don’t know what to make of being sold attractiveness via Sambo-esque vibes. The argument, maybe, is that this is meant to make the politically undesirable into something desirable, that it is subversive. But I’m looking at it and feeling laughed at–almost independent of the creator’s intent. It’s not that I feel specifically that he is laughing at me, so much as I feel that the world has laughed at me for these things for so long that I simply do not trust that he isn’t laughing. It’s hard to tell whether I’m responding because there is something bad here, with this particular image, or simply because the world itself is bad. I don’t trust the invocation of stereotypes as erotic without also attaching violence. Black women are punished for these things so I don’t know what it means to take them in an image and have an audience assume that you mean well. I don’t know why I would assume that.

I’m also angry, actually. I’m angry that this non-black person feels that they have the right to wield this. I’m angry about the use of this in conjunction with the black power fist. I’m angry because did you have to make me feel this way? And also did you have to make me feel this way? What makes you think you can play with this? Why should I trust you? Why do you think you’re trustworthy? This all seems mean, I’m sure, because maybe I should just give this guy the benefit of the doubt but in truth: I’m a little bit bored of being taught what the world thinks of me and then being chastised for having learned.

Ardo Omer: My first impression is the feeling of being uncomfortable. Then I got angry like J.A. did. Everything about this is deliberate, and it’s in the details. You have the pitch black skin and the red lips which together gives off the blackface and Sambo-esque aesthetic that J.A. mentions. You have the big bracelet, the buttoned all the way up shirt, blonde hair, long nails, and funky earrings that gives off a “ratchet” or “hood” feel. Ratchet does automatically mean bad (I spent my childhood in the hood), and I’ve enjoyed comics with characters who are hood or ratchet, but also beautiful. Beautiful in their fullness of humanity, but they’re also done well because they’re usually by black creators. Otherwise, ratchetness is treated as a negative symbol. It’s a stereotype wielded against black people, and throwing in the blackface/Sambo vibes, it morphs into a swirling of stereotypes.

But wait. You have the Afro and the black power fist on the cover as well. Is this meant to subvert this Lego tower of stereotypes? Am I supposed to let this feeling of discomfort go because of an expectation that these two things are enough to counter it? To shift it into something else? It’s hard to do given that 1) those stereotypes are so potent, but also 2) her mouth. They’re drawn in a way that doesn’t give her power or self awareness. It’s not a knowing smirk or a powerful straight mouth filled with conviction. It instead feels like she’s moronic with the upturned exaggerated lip. Disclaimer: I’m a black woman, and I feel like I’m the joke. I’m the punchline. I’m the object to be viewed. I feel out of control.

What is Mann trying to achieve?

Clara Mae: The raised fist is a symbol of resistance, defiance, and also solidarity. Within these last few years it’s become synonymous with protesting police brutality as enacted on the black community. It’s an important symbol, especially in these times. But what does it mean when it’s drawn like this? I stand with you? I’m visibly showing my support? Or is this just using the aesthetic and robbing it of meaning? Is this showing respect, or is it mocking? Again, conflicted!

Melissa Brinks: I’m with Clara on this one. I see the raised fist, and I think resistance, but then I see the art and I wonder what she’s resisting against. Being drawn in such a way? Something within the comic? Is there some context for this that will absolve it of looking the way it does? Even so, I don’t think that would be enough for me. It feels like the artistic equivalent of clickbait. Mann’s artwork is gorgeous, and I see why he was chosen, but I can’t help but be put off by this, and I’m not sure that’s the message the comic I’m meant to get from this cover.

Stephanie: The raised fist indicates black power and resistance, but that message is undermined when combined with the blackface-esque coloring. The bright, cheerful colors of the quirky clothes and accessories the female figure is wearing also seems ill-suited to such a grave and historical topic as black resistance. Dilraj might have wanted the female figure to look stylish and fashionable, but he doesn’t quite pull it of, unless he’s hypothesizing that black resistance and power have become faddish and trendy or an aesthetic, as Clara Mae suggests?

Claire Napier: As Melissa mentions, Dilraj Mann often uses women of this build and this facial structure in his comic and illustrative work. In many examples this has been a positive difference from the illustrative norm, and I like the sort of mystic silence in his narrative work. I like seeing teeth in drawings, very much. I don’t comprehend the choices made here, so I feel unequipped to evaluate them, to be honest.

JAM: I don’t know. As I said above, my best guess–based on the interpretation of a friend who is more familiar with his work–is that this was meant to be a positive depiction of black women. If I had more faith in the creator, I might even argue that it’s an undermining of the typical image of black power, which is less associated with someone enjoying her life than it is with “the struggle”–a good undermining, since black power does not just come from misery but joy as well. Still, like Claire, I don’t understand the choices made here. My answer is a resigned shrug.

Ardo Omer: Like I said, I think Mann wanted to subvert black stereotypes with the black power fist–the sign of resistance–his character is employing. I think that’s what he was trying to achieve and if so, he failed. I’m also hesitant to say that the pitch black skin is part of the elements he’s trying to subvert in this cover since Mann seems to regularly use this approach in depicting his black characters. At the end of the day, the cover answers for itself and intention becomes irrelevant, unless you plan to be there every single time someone purchases a copy so you can explain your intention.

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Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.