This 6-panel webcomic (three rows with two panels each) features the Black male body in the context of being just a Black male body. Whereas other items in this exhibit have the Black body in dialogue with Western art, American history, existentialism, and more, Keith Knight keeps the Black body within itself. No other body appears in this comic but that of a Black character. Knight keeps the Black body as a Black body. That is the point of his comic -- to see a Black body as it is and see what it means. To this comic’s sole speaker, the police officer with the smoking gun, a Black body is a dead body.
There is quite a bit of presuming one has to make with this comic. We never see the police officer, yet we know the sole speaker of the comic is a police officer. Each panel’s first sentence mirrors the beginning sentence structure of Miranda Rights. It alternates between “You have the right…” and “I have the right…” Other textual clues, such as the “my police chief” of the top right panel and the “I have the right to be investigated by people I work with” (see Fig. 2) insinuate this character’s profession, it is the parroting of the Miranda Rights that is most telling of this figure’s authority. Like in Captain Confederacy and (Forever Free): Dress Your Best, this white figure commands authority despite being merely omnipresence and never fully embodied for the reader. However, in Knight’s work, that authority is heightened by the fact that the character is presumably alive while the black body is dead. Seeing this police officer murder a Black body, yet speak to it in the same manner as if the body were alive -- the lack of individual distinction between a living Black body and a dead Black body -- is chilling. The fact that those words are about rights is haunting.And what of the black body in this scene? We know it is a body of a man of color because his hand is colored more darkly than the officer’s (see Fig. 1). The body lies face down, back containing three holes presumably from bullets fired by the smoking gun. Despite the rightful assumption that the Black body is dead, the corpse contains one of the only visual movement throughout the comic. Whereas the smoke of the gun and the dialogue in the speech bubbles imply movement, the comic becomes a comic -- it shows sequencing -- through the increasing amount of blood seeping through the bullet holes from panel-to-panel (compare Fig. 1 to Fig. 2 to Fig 3). Warhol used an image of a real, living Black man being attacked, yet Knight’s cartoon representation of a Black male is more violent than Warhol’s. Warhol’s darkening of the image and removal of its context took away the humanity. As such, the violence to that Black man is not as troubling -- the viewer can gaze upon that image with relative comfort. Knight’s Black body is a simplified symbol of a Black body. Like Warhol, we can also not see this character’s face. And yet, the Black man here is so much more human and effective.
This is possibly because of the character’s lack of realism. Scott McCloud calls this “amplification through simplification”: “[b]y stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning,’ an artist can amplify that meaning in a way that realistic art can’t.” (McCloud 30). By reducing the Black body to two distinguishing physical features (darker skin and curly hair) and a sociopolitical one (police brutality towards Blacks), Knight humanizes and elicits strong emotions from a Black cartoon. Knight’s comic relies on the reader’s understanding of 2015 American politics and history to understand the comic. There is less visual narrative help and more reliance on the reader’s knowledge and presumptions. This pays off in creating a comic that has the reader see and feel for the brutalization of and indifference towards Black bodies.
- McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, First edition ed., HarperPerenniel, 1994.