Charles Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” and Single Panel Cartoons

Johnson 3

The cover of Johnson’s 1970 collection Black Humor.

Early in Chapter Two of Comics and Narration, theorist Thierry Groensteen extends some of the questions he first posed in The System of Comics, also available in an English translation from the UP of Mississippi. “Can an isolated image narrate?” he asks. “Can it, on its own, tell a story?” (Groensteen 21). I’d like to consider this question in relation to “It’s life as I see it” from Charles Johnson’s 1970 collection Black Humor. Groensteen borrows some ideas from film theory in order to explore the narrative potential of single, static images: “Some film theorists,” he points out,

most notably André Guadreault, have asserted that an intrinsic narrativity is associated with movement, because it implies a transformation of the elements represented. Obviously, the same cannot be said of the still image. Given that its narrative potential is not intrinsic, it can only arise, where it does arise, out of certain internal relationships between objects, motifs, and characters represented. (Groensteen 21-22; English translation by Ann Miller)

With Groensteen in mind, I’d like to consider the “internal relationships” of the “objects, motifs, and characters” in this single-page cartoon, in which an African American artist explains his work to an older, white visitor. As I took notes on Johnson’s work, I thought again about Qiana Whitted’s “What is an African American Comic?” from earlier this year on Pencil, Panel, Page. I am thinking about how theories from African American literary theory and philosophy might inform our readings of comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels. But I also have larger questions in mind—what secrets will Johnson’s cartoon reveal when also read as part of the tradition of American literary discourse? What affinities might we discover, for example, if we juxtapose Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” with Phillis Wheatley’s poem about the work of artist Scipio Moorhead, for example?

Of course, by writing about Johnson’s cartoon, I’m cheating a little. Is this really a single-page comic? It might be read as a work containing at least three panels—the image itself, as well as the artist’s two paintings: the one hanging on the wall and the other work-in-progress on his easel. So I should revise what I asked earlier: how do we read a single panel or page like this one that includes other, smaller images embedded within a larger frame? Here is “It’s life as I see it” from Black Humor:

 Johnson 1

Johnson, as Tim Kreider points out in his 2010 TCJ essay on the artist, is best known as one of the most influential and visionary American novelists and of the last thirty years. Middle Passage, which won the National Book Award in 1990, is now a perennial text in 20th century American and African American literature courses—I’ll be teaching it again in one of my classes this fall—and Dreamer, his 1998 novel about Dr. Martin Luther King’s experiences in Chicago in 1966, is, like Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, one of the most complex and evocative historical novels of the last two decades.

Scan 5

Jill Krementz’s 1974 publicity photo of Johnson for the writer’s first published novel, Faith and the Good Thing (Viking).

Writing about Johnson’s early work as a cartoonist, Kreider writes, is like trying “to give a magnanimous little career boost to a struggling unknown cartoonist named Wolfe or Fellini.” But as his introduction to Fredrik Strömberg’s 2003 book Black Images in the Comics makes clear, Charles Johnson has a deep affection for comic books and comic art. In the conclusion to his essay, Johnson includes a discussion of the kinds of comics he would like to read:

I long—as an American, a cartoonist, and a writer—for a day when my countrymen will accept and broadly support stories about black characters that are complex, original (not sepia clones of white characters like “Friday Foster” or “Powerman”), risk-taking, free of stereotypes, and not about race or victimization. Stories in which a character who just happens to be black is the emblematic, archetypal figure in which we—all of us—invest our dreams, imaginings and sense of adventure about the vast possibilities for what humans can be and do—just as we have done, or been culturally indoctrinated to do, with white characters ranging from Blondie to Charlie Brown, from Superman to Dilbert, from Popeye to Beetle Bailey. (Johnson 17)

Johnson’s argument here raises interesting questions about the page from his 1970 book. As readers, with whom do we identify? With the artist who shows his work or with the man who stares at the black canvas? Do we immediately identify with one or the other based on our race? What role does gender play? Do we identify with neither but find ourselves observing what Groensteen calls the “internal relationships” between these two men and the objects that surround them? I think an answer to these questions might lie in the juxtaposition of the artist’s two canvases. One is abstract. The other, the one on the easel, is the more realistic of the two, although it is less figurative than the one hanging on the wall. “It’s life as I see it,” the artist explains.

I find myself working in collaboration with Johnson as I read this page. First of all, where are we? This appears to be the artist’s studio. Is this a studio visit by a curator? By a patron? Why is the middle-aged, balding man so startled? Was he expecting something else? The artist’s other work appears more conventional—a variation on Pollock’s Abstract Expressionism. Now the artist is a minimalist. Then again, I don’t know if the painting on the easel is finished. Maybe it’s still in progress. The painter, after all, is holding a palette and brush and he is wearing a white smock.

The questions raised by Johnson’s cartoon are also present in Charles W. Mills’ “Non-Cartesian Sums: Philosophy and the African-American Experience,” the essay that opens his 1998 book Blackness Visible. In the essay, Mills describes the obstacles he faced as he designed a course on African-American philosophy. First, for example, he “had to work out what African-American philosophy really was, how it related to mainstream (Western? European/Euro-American? Dead White Guys’?) philosophy—where it challenged and contradicted it, where it supplemented it, and where it was in a theoretical space of its own” (Mills 1). Mills turned to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man as a guiding text. As he reflected on the experiences of Ellison’s narrator, Mills began to formulate a conceptual basis for his course:

African-American philosophy is thus inherently, definitionally oppositional, the philosophy produced by property that does not remain silent but insists on speaking and contesting its status. So it will be a sum that is metaphysical not in the Cartesian sense but in the sense of challenging social ontology; not the consequent of a proof but the beginning of an affirmation of one’s self-worth, one’s reality as a person, and one’s militant insistence that others recognize it also. (Mills 9)

In Johnson’s cartoon, the artist asserts his subjectivity. The painting, like the cartoon’s caption, is a simple statement of fact: life as he sees it. The painting breaks the silence that Mills refers to in this passage. The humor in this cartoon—the disconnect between what the man in the suit expects to see and what he finds on on the easel before him—is part of Johnson’s narrative, I think: a cartoon is a work of popular art that challenges our notions of fine art, just as the painter’s canvas challenges the observer’s narcissistic complacency.

This new painting, then, is like a course in African American philosophy, one that makes certain demands on the curriculum as it articulates “a (partially) internal critique of the dominant culture by those who accept many of the culture’s principles but are excluded by them. In large measure,” Mills continues, “this critique has involved telling white people things that they do not know and do not want to know, the main one being that this alternative (nonideal) universe is the actual one and that the local reality in which whites are at home is only a nonrepresentative part of the larger whole” (Mills 5-6). The subject of Johnson’s narrative is the dissonance between what the observer believes and what the artist knows to be true.

As I look at the cartoon, I also wonder if I might trace its origin to one of the earliest collaborations of words and pictures in American literature, that of Phillis Wheatley and artist Scipio Moorhead.

Wheatley’s poem about Moorhead’s work appears in her 1773 book Poems on Various Subjects, a text that includes an engraving based on Moorhead’s portrait of the poet (you can read more about Wheatley and Moorhead here and here). “To S.M. A Young Painter, On Seeing His Works” opens with a question as the speaker studies one of Moorhead’s paintings:

To show the lab’ring bosom’s deep intent,

And thought in living characters to paint,

When first they pencil did those beauties give,

And breathing figures learnt from thee to live,

How did those prospects give my soul delight,

A new creation rushing on my sight?

An important difference between Johnson’s cartoon painter and Moorhead, however, is that Moorhead’s work, with the exception of his portrait of Wheatley, has not survived. As we read this poem, we must imagine his drawing, the evidence of his “lab’ring bosom’s deep intent” which has brought life to these “characters” and “beauties.” After a detailed description of her response to Moorhead’s work, Wheatly concludes the poem with a plea:

Cease, gentle muse! the solemn gloom of night

Now seals the fair creation from my sight.

But while night and shadow might obscure Moorehead’s drawing, it remains vivid and startling in her memory. When I first saw Johnson’s cartoon, I immediately thought of Wheatley’s poem (and of Adrielle Mitchell’s early Pencil, Panel, Page essay on comic scholarship and ekphrasis). At the end of the poem, as night falls, the speaker can no longer see Moorhead’s painting, so she does the next best thing: she writes it from memory and, therefore, gives her friend the lasting fame that Shakespeare’s speaker promises to his subject in the Sonnets. The poem, like Johnson’s panel, is filled with light and meaning that some observers, like the old man in the suit, might fail or refuse to see.

Johnson’s “It’s life as I see it” is an interesting test case for Groensteen’s theories, not only because it is a single image that narrates, but also because it is part of a collection of other cartoons. At the end of Chapter Two of Comics and Narration, Groensteen discusses Frans Masereel’s woodcut novels and Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage (see Groensteen 35). These examples, of course, are not collections of single-page cartoons, but Groensteen’s suggestion on how we read and respond to these texts might shed light on how we read a collections like Black Humor. “In works of this type,” Groensteen explains, in which “there are never more than two images visible to the reader at any one time, split across two pages,” the reader’s imagination and memory play a crucial role: “The dialogue among the images depends on the persistence of the memory of the pages already turned” (Groensteen 35).

The next page in Johnson’s book, for example, shares affinities with “It’s life as I see it.” An older white gentleman and his wife listen to a Beethoven recital. The pianist, his hands perched dramatically over the keyboard, is about to begin. A gray-haired old man in the audience whispers, “Psst, he’s a mulatto…pass it on.”

Johnson 2

The cartoon that appears on the page opposite “It’s life as I see it” in Johnson’s Black Humor.

By placing these two cartoons together, Johnson, according to Greonsteen’s theory, is also challenging the reader—how does our reading of one page shape our understanding and recollection of the images on the pages that preceded it? Both of these cartoons invite us to consider two African American artists–a painter and a musician–and the white audience members who observe them.

But how do you read “It’s life as I see it”? Is it a single-panel cartoon , and, if so, what can it tell us about “the persistence of memory,” as Groensteen describes it?


Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2013. Print.

Johnson, Charles R. Black Humor. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, Inc., 1970. Print.

Johnson, Charles. “Foreword” in Fredrik Strömberg, Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2003. 5-18. Print.

Kreider, Tim. “Brighter in Hindsight: Black Humor by Charles R. Johnson.” The Comics Journal. January 18, 2010. 9:00 am. Web.

Mills, Charles W. Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998. Print.

Wheatley, Phillis. “To S.M. A Young African Painter, On Seeing His Works.” Poetry Foundation. Web.

Transcendental Style in Comics

Notes on Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant    

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 6.00.36 PM 2

Renée Falconetti as Joan of Arc in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc (about 20:22 into the film)

I’ll tell you a secret: the Captain Marvel book I’m writing began as a riff on Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film. Schrader’s book is a study of Yasujiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Th. Dreyer, directors whose work is usually described as austere or hypnotic . I thought I’d write a book about comics and mysticism—chapters on Will Eisner, Edie Fake, John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch. But I also had an outline for a chapter on Captain Marvel, and the split between Billy Batson and the World’s Mightiest Mortal. I decided to shelve the mysticism idea and focus on Billy Batson. Working on the project over the last two years, I’ve read boxes of letters, DC vs. Fawcett trial transcripts, and various interviews and first-person accounts. But as I pieced together these stories from the Golden Age of comics, I began to lose sight of the metaphysical concerns that had inspired me to write in the first place. I felt disconnected—not only from those I’m writing about, but from my own memories and consciousness. I lost touch with whatever spirit animates my practice as a writer. After reading this passage from Walter Benjamin, I decided to address these paradoxes more directly:

A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour—and that day is Judgment Day. (Benjamin 254)

Suddenly I longed for the certainty of my Catholic school years. Is there some sort of shadow narrative that sits behind or beneath the one I am telling? How do I make sense, for example, of the sudden, tragic death of Otto Binder’s daughter in the late 1960s? Is that a detail I should include in the book? I can barely make sense of my own life. Why would I try to find a pattern in someone else’s, especially a someone like Binder who died when I was just a year old in 1974?

So, to answer these questions, I took notes in my Benjamin Marianne Hirsch books, but I also read some comics. And the comic books I’ve enjoyed most this summer are the ones that ask these questions, too. In June I picked up a stack of minicomics at this year’s CAKE! (Chicago Alternative Comics Expo). The two I’ll talk about here, Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash and Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant, both seem to be articulating a kind of transcendence. In the introduction to his book, Paul Schrader defines his terms:

Transcendental style seeks to maximize the mystery of existence; it eschews all conventional interpretations of reality: realism, naturalism, psychologism, romanticism, expressionism, impressionism, and, finally, rationalism. To the transcendental artist rationalism is only one of many approaches to life, not an imperative. (Schrader 10-11)

I like Schrader’s last line the best: the transcendental artist is not bound by rationalism, but, then again, doesn’t work in the realm of the irrational or of the uncanny either. The transcendental artist weaves together the rational with the irrational, the real with the imagined, and the material with the spiritual. To borrow a phrase from Benjamin, the artist doesn’t differentiate between the “major and minor,” but sees all of history’s actors—from the enslaved and the martyred to the kings and queens—as playing roles of equal weight and significance.

In his 1973 collection of Dreyer’s essays and notes on film, scholar Donald Skoller reminds readers that Dreyer himself was a curious mixture of the sublime and the practical: “It is important to begin to qualify the popular impression of Dreyer as a mystic with the very canny, down-to-earth ways in which he went about representing the events giving rise to this reputation” (Skoller 47). For example, in the essay that follows Skoller’s introduction, Dreyer describes his process while working on La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, the 1928 silent film starring Renée Falconetti. Dreyer’s film has inspired a range of visionary, experiemental works, from Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s stunning novel Dictee to performance pieces by the Nature Theater of Oklahoma. If you’ve seen the film, you know that Dreyer devotes long sequences to close-ups of Falconetti’s face as she, in the role of Joan of Arc, faces her accusers.

“In order to give the truth,” Dreyer explains, “I dispensed with ‘beautification.’ My actors were not allowed to touch makeup and powder puffs.” One of Dreyer’s other actors in the film is playwright and theorist Antonin Artaud, who plays the role of Jean Massieu. In his notes on the film, Dreyer also explains the role of his cinematographer: “Rudolf Mate, who manned the camera, understood the demands of psychological drama in the close-ups and he gave me what I wanted, my feeling and my thought: realized mysticism” (Dreyer 50). As Skoller points out, however, this “mysticism” only becomes possible through Dreyer’s “down-to-earth” sensibility. The austerity of the film is the result of an indirect pursuit of the mystical or of the transcendent. The irrational will only speak with the voice of reason. In The Passion of Joan of Arc, very little is said because Falconetti and her fellow cast members exist in blank, white spaces where few words are necessary.

 Scan 5

The cover of Julia Gfrörer’s Palm Ash, 2014

On the second page of her new minicomic Palm Ash, which made its debut at CAKE, Julia Gfrörer works with silence and, by the end of the story, shares with the reader other moments of “realized mysticism.” The story, as Gfrörer explains on her Etsy page, concerns itself with “martyrdom, both interpersonal and religious,” and takes place “during the Diocletianic Persecution” of the fourth century. On this second page, Simeon, a Christian, sits in what appears to be the center of the Colosseum. In the first panel of this nine-panel grid, he sweats, and, to his left, we see a word balloon that reads “rrrr”:

 Page 2

Page 2 of Palm Ash: Simeon, the lions, and Dia

Gfrörer’s intricate style, which will be familiar to readers of her recent Fantagraphics book Black is the Color, expresses Simeon’s fear and distress. The blank space behind him articulates what a word balloon would only conceal: although his mind might be as clear and as pure as that expanse of green, Simeon cannot ignore the slow, steady growl of the lion that dominates the right corner of the next panel. Simeon’s face resembles Falconetti’s: death is certain, but, with faith, isn’t redemption possible? Maybe. But the title of the book implies that we can expect some kind of sacrifice (Gfrörer has also been collecting images of martyrdom on this Tumblr page).

Then, in the third panel, a miracle: the lion pauses. Another stands frozen in place. If the blank space of the last two panels suggested Simeon’s intense concentration—his unspoken prayers—the dirt of the Colosseum in this third panel tells us that Simeon, like the lions, is now back on earth. While his eventual martyrdom is certain, it will not happen today. Like the purring lions—who, in the next three panels, fall asleep—it, too, can wait.

At the end of the page, Gfrörer introduces her protagonist, Dia, who watches this miracle from behind a set of bars. We meet Dia and we find ourselves back on page one. Gfrörer compresses the action of the story’s first fifteen panels and leaves us with the final three panels of page 2. We now see Simeon and the lions from Dia’s perspective: first, she looks with terror and concern at what she is about to witness. Next, her left hand now gripping the edge of the window, she braces herself for Simeon’s violent death. Then, perhaps as the lions fall asleep, she covers her mouth and begins to cry.

Notice, however, that Dia’s world is far more claustrophobic than Simeon’s. As the story progresses, we learn more about the forces that have confined her and her son Maioricus. Like Dreyer, Gförer’s linework resists the “beautification” that might render the story precious or melodramatic. Her characters sweat, cry, and bleed, but they also smile and laugh as they move in silence and wonder.

I’ll stop before I give too many clues to the rest of the story, but let me add one more thing about the story’s title. I attended Catholic school from kindergarten until my senior year of high school, and one of the mysteries I could never unravel was the meaning of Ash Wednesday. I guess I understood some of it—“…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”—but where had those ashes come from? Had they burned last year’s palms in the rectory? In a furnace in the basement of the church? Of our school? Although I often complained about 4:15 mass on Saturdays, I loved the smell of the church on Palm Sunday, and the cool, delicate feel of the palm branches between my fingertips.

 Scan 2

The cover of Jessie Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant

Jessi Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant is an 11-page minicomic, full-color and sewn together with thread. Zabarsky also writes food comics, including the collection Never Full, which I also picked up at CAKE. In addition to her comics work, Zabarsky makes stuffed animals and charm necklaces. Just as Gförer works with silence, Zabarsky works with scale: she creates miniature jars filled with clay strawberries and asparagus. When she signed my copy of Ghost Giant, she used a technical pen to draw a miniature rabbit and flowers. I’ve written before at Pencil, Panel, Page about tiny, evocative images embedded in comic book panels, but Zabarsky’s miniatures, like Gfrörer’s silences, also have a spiritual dimension, one reflected in the series of single panels that make up this minicomic.

The subtitle of Zabarsky’s book is (I live in a valley now). She might be telling the story of a ghost, or of a mountain, or of a young man or woman. All of those readings are possible. Zabarsky lays the story out like a picture book, with words on the left-hand pages and images on the right. Each of the five illustrations employs a different palette, from the light green of the first page through orange and blue. The colors suggest a cycle, from summer to fall and winter and back to spring again. We also pass from the sunrise on the cover to sunset on the last page where the mountain–or the ghost, or both–comes to rest, at least for now, until autumn arrives. Unlike Gfrörer, Zabarsky does not include any panel grids. Rather, the one-page gaps between her illustrations suggest the slow passage of time that, like the purring of Simeon’s lions, is both puzzling and miraculous. Both Simeon and the Ghost Giant are waiting for something, maybe the Judgment Day Benjamin describes, when everything that was forgotten will suddenly be remembered.


The Ghost as she appears on page 5 of Zabarsky’s Ghost Giant

My notes on these two comics are reminders for me of the questions I’ve had since I first read James Sturm’s The Revival, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s I Want Everything to be Okay, all of which depict various states of “realized mysticism.” If it’s possible to identify a transcendental style in the mise-en-scène of certain films, can we also find it in the pages of the comic books that we love? That is, is there a “transcendental style in comics,” and, if so, what does it look like and what does it seek to express?

Meanwhile, don’t forget to read Palm Ash and Ghost Giant.



Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History” in Illuminations (Trans. Harry Zohn). New York: Schocken Books, 1968. Print. 253-264.

Dreyer, Carl Theodor. “Realized Mysticism” in Donald Skoller (Ed.), Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print. 47-50.

Gfrörer, Julia. Palm Ash. Thuban Press, 2014. Print.

Schrader, Paul. Trancendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1972. Print.

Skoller, Donald (Ed.). Dreyer in Double Reflection. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1973. Print.

Zabarsky, Jessi. Ghost Giant. Hugbox (no date). Print.

Thanks to Julia Gfrörer and Jessi Zabarsky for help with scans and also for answering a few questions via email.