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Drawing Black Characters Black

One of the very first entries I made on Comics Should Be Good back in 2005 (first month of the blog, at least) was a bit about how comic artists tend to use artistic shorthand when it came to drawing Asian characters, so almost no characters actually appeared Asian (here‘s the piece). While you would think the same wouldn’t be true for black characters, it really does seem to be the same basic problem (although yes, it is less frequent of a problem) – artists just drawing them the same as white characters, with the colorist making all the difference.

Karen Healey recently had a good post about Ed Benes’ Justice League, where Vixen basically looks just like she’s a white woman (there, though, Healey takes issue with the colorist, as well).

It really struck me, though, when I was reading this week’s Black Panther Annual, which featured very nice artwork by Larry Stroman, who excels at drawing black characters. He makes them all look, well, black! So it got me to thinking, “Where would I rank Stroman in terms of best depiction of black characters?,” and when I kept thinking of other good examples of artists who draw black characters well, they were almost all black artists!! Like ChrisCross, for instance – really good at drawing black characters and is also black himself.

It made me curious – do you think it is a conscious decision by a Stroman or a Kyle Baker or a ChrisCross? Like, “Well, no one else seems to be doing it right, so I better do it,” or do you think it just comes naturally?

44 Comments

As someone who’s black himself, I think it just comes naturally. I couldn’t imagine drawing a black person to just look like a white person colored brown, because I naturally have a lot of reference for black people in my family and circle of friends.

Of course it doesn’t explain why people like Jim Lee can’t draw Asian people, but I think from how he draws that Jim Lee is the kind of guy that fetishizes a certain type of white women, the Playboy/stripper/porn star looking bimbo type you’d see on Hugh Hefner’s arm. It’s not that he draws everyone like a white woman but rather than he seems to be obsessed with a certain subcategory of white woman.

I would say it’s probably a bit of both. If one presumes white artists who draw black characters to look like white characters with differently toned skin do so because they’re most familiar with white facial structure, then it follows that black artists, being most familiar with black facial structure, would not have that problem. At the same time, black artists are more likely to notice when white artists do it wrong, and thus more likely to take pains not to make the same mistake, both with black and non-black characters.

This is, however, all conjecture from a honkey. I’m completely open to being proven wrong, as I so usually am in matters of this kind.

Let me add, I think this post asks the wrong question. We shouldn’t ask why black people are accurate drawing black people any more than we should wonder why white people are accurate when drawing whites. It should be expected that a person draws their own race well since they have the most experience with that race just from looking in the mirror and having family of that race.

What we SHOULD be asking is what the issue with Asian artists is, and if there is some deep-seated issue going on in regards to their own race that makes them unable or unwilling to draw true to life Asians, or is it just that technically difficult to do?

I like to think, when it comes to black artists, that it’s a mix of both. It’s hard to deny that people tend to draw the things that they see quite often better better than the things they don’t. So if an artist is black or lives near heavily populated black areas, he or she will be more likely to draw black people who look like black people. And, even if it’s not always true, I like to think that artists like Kyle Baker and CrissCross go, “Well, no one else seems to be doing it right, so I better do it,” because it’s, unfortunately, true and it’s something that should change.

I would say that another part (but not all) of why some white artists probably have trouble drawing black characters who actually look black is a strange mutation of white liberal guilt. I just bet that a lot of white artists are scared to death of any characteristically black features on a character looking, to some viewer or another, too exaggerated, and perhaps minstrel-ish, even if they’re perfectly respectable, in actuality.

I know I heard this basic fear from the guys who do the webcomic Penny Arcade–and while that’s clearly a different thing than big, mainstream comic books, I think it’s a valid point. People can be very quick to cry “racism” these days, and that can scare white people who don’t want to be labeled as such.

Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not DEFENDING white artists who draw black characters like re-colored white people, just giving a possible reason.

Elijah – you may be onto something there. I remember a commenter on this blog accusing Paul Pelletier of being racist for drawing Black Panther and Storm
“ape-like,” even though to me it seemed he was trying to just make them look reasonably ethnic.

I think Elijah’s got it. In the case of some artists who are particularly limited (which is bound to crop up in other ways as well), maybe not; but when it comes to otherwise solid artists who have this problem? My guess is they’re afraid of their work looking like racist caricature. The solution, of course, is to…um…not…do that, I guess.

Not that this isn’t a viable concern, but I’m more concerned about various cultures & sub-cultures being written properly. Anyome remember Luke Cage from the 70’s? Or maybe how every Asian character was a martial artist for a while? Racial stereotyping is far worse than poor artistic depiction.

I would say that another part (but not all) of why some white artists probably have trouble drawing black characters who actually look black is a strange mutation of white liberal guilt. I just bet that a lot of white artists are scared to death of any characteristically black features on a character looking, to some viewer or another, too exaggerated, and perhaps minstrel-ish, even if they’re perfectly respectable, in actuality.

yeah, i wanted to say something along these lines, myself.

i’ve always been fascinated by Richard Corben’s drawings of black character’s though. the features are all so exaggerated (aren’t they on all his characters essentially?) but at the same time, sensitive. it’s clear that he takes much pleasure in drawing them, so much so that i once assumed that he was black himself.

T –

What we SHOULD be asking is what the issue with Asian artists is, and if there is some deep-seated issue going on in regards to their own race that makes them unable or unwilling to draw true to life Asians, or is it just that technically difficult to do?

are you including manga artists here or just, y’know, Asian-Americans?

Yeah, I’m more concerned with the writing aspect of the whole thing. If you can’t make the characters human, why bother with making them drawn realistically? I think it has to start with the character’s inner workings first. There are plenty of “not black looking when they’re drawn” characters who are damn good characters to begin with.

One name comes to mind of someone who has no problem with any of this: Alex Ross. Someone needs to ask him how to do it, right?

I doubt that it has much to do with guilt, liberal or otherwise.

More likely is that many comic book artists have an extremely limited number of faces that they can render to begin with. Clark Kent looks and awful lot like Bruce Wayne with glasses about half the time. Artists, like Kevin Maguire, who are noted for facial expression in their art tend to have no problem rendering different racial groups.

I was thinking about the Paul Pelletier incident, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s part of it for some artists. Although for most I’m sure it’s just because they’re not that good of an artist.

Along the same lines, who are some white artists that draw actual black characters and not white people colored black? I’d say Alan Davis and JR Jr both do a pretty good job. At least from what I’m picturing in my mind.

Are any of these pages Stroman’s? Or are they Ken Lashley’s pencils?

Yeah, Loren, but none of them really seem to have all that many clear shots of black characters, so I didn’t post them here.

If someone has some good scans from later in the issue, I’d appreciate it!!

One name comes to mind of someone who has no problem with any of this: Alex Ross. Someone needs to ask him how to do it, right?

We all know how Ross does it. He’s got models that he poses for almost every shot. Most comic artists don’t have the time to o to those lengths for a twenty-two page monthly book.

But that’s the point. They don’t necessarily have to get live models do they? The fact is that he is a successful white artist who can accurately portray *most* races (and I say most because I don’t want to be absolute here).

No, that’s not a fact. The fact is that he is a successful white artist who can accurately portray most races, using models.

The important difference being that most monthly comic artists don’t have the time to be drawing faces from models for every shot, live or not.

Daniel O' Dreams

February 27, 2008 at 6:42 pm

It seems to me there’s something less conscious going on here. Ed Benes doesn’t have a problem making Black Lightning or John Stewart look black just Halle Berry.. er… I mean, Vixen.

Storm (Ironically played by Vix.. I mean Halle in the movies)has also been consistently draw as a white woman over the years.
I think alot of White men are simply not attracted to black women (with the exception of the afformention Ms. Berry who is very white looking)and thus wanting to make a black female attractive subconsciously draw her as white.

It’s kind of like the poster said about Jim Lee and the porn women… he’s drawing his fantasy woman no matter the race.

In the case of storm it’s been going on so long I think she should be drawn white just to maintain consistency. ;)

white black, asian, i think it has little and or nothing to do with an artists ability to portray black characters. it can be argued that familiarity can be the cause, or lack there of. and we could go deeper with the subconciuos, and pschological aspects too. but there are plenty of white artists that have portrayed blacks in comics. to name some off the top of my head, Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, and John Bucema.

these guys had not only talent, but the “Skill” to recognise certain differences between cultures, and translate them to characters. being black myself, i find it didn’t come naturally for me. what came naturally to me was to draw the characters i’ve been exposed to, white charaters. so when it came to drawing black characters, i knew something wasn’t right, and it can be said, my “familiarity” as a black person kicked in. but i had to learn, as artist, to see these cultural differences,and translate it in my work.

my point, i see “laziness” as the real culprate.

peace out

No, that’s not a fact. The fact is that he is a successful white artist who can accurately portray most races, using models.

The important difference being that most monthly comic artists don’t have the time to be drawing faces from models for every shot, live or not.

No, but they should have the time to look up race-appropriate models while they are designing a character as well as when they are doing sketches to get comfortable with the characters when they are being placed on a comic.

Of course it doesn’t explain why people like Jim Lee can’t draw Asian people, but I think from how he draws that Jim Lee is the kind of guy that fetishizes a certain type of white women, the Playboy/stripper/porn star looking bimbo type you’d see on Hugh Hefner’s arm. It’s not that he draws everyone like a white woman but rather than he seems to be obsessed with a certain subcategory of white woman….

Let me add, I think this post asks the wrong question. We shouldn’t ask why black people are accurate drawing black people any more than we should wonder why white people are accurate when drawing whites. It should be expected that a person draws their own race well since they have the most experience with that race just from looking in the mirror and having family of that race.

What we SHOULD be asking is what the issue with Asian artists is, and if there is some deep-seated issue going on in regards to their own race that makes them unable or unwilling to draw true to life Asians, or is it just that technically difficult to do?

Why wouldn’t Jim Lee draw Asian women like the women we see him drawing? What are you talking about?

What makes you think Jim Lee’s white women aren’t Asian women drawn with hair colored blonde, red, and light brown? What group of white women look more like a group of Jim Lee drawings than any group of Asian women? Have you SEEN white women? Guess what: comic books aren’t a good place to find out what white women look like. They’re a good place to find out what Angelina Jolie looks like, and no white person I’ve ever met looks like her. The closest resemblances I can think of are all ethnically mixed. And that fetishizing of Playboy models? Well most Playboy models nowadays have Asian features. The white women we see out on the street look more like the playmates of the 1960s than they do of the 2000s.

When white artists get paid extra for a fidelity to ethnicity, they’ll learn to do it. Until then, it would have to be a labor of love — which might seem creepy in a white artist if they don’t demonstrate a general level of dedication of a Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, or John Buscema, which most superhero artists don’t.

where all the mixed race characters at? even the light-skinned girlfriend of harry osborn they just introduced in amz spidey is getting darker each issue…it’s like they were worried people wouldn’t notice they were being ‘diverse’

Arnold Normalpants

February 28, 2008 at 7:57 am

Mike said: “most Playboy models nowadays have Asian features.”

What?!

Let me add: How are the nymphettes in Paul Dini’s animated superhero series, including the Dana Delany Lois Lane, not drawn Asian but with red, blonde, and brunette hair?

I’m a bit confused. Is it that you guys want to see black characters portayed as stereotypical black? i.e. dark-chocolate skin, wide/flat noses, large, full lips and tightly curled “nappy” hair? not that there is anything wrong with that particular portrayal..there is not… it’s just that in this day and age where there is so much mixing of the races…(and I know a thing or ten about this beacause I am a child of said mixing, what exactly is “White-looking” “Black-looking” and “Asian_looking” unless you plan to fall back on the afore-mentioned stereotypical images, which I think is an absolute shame in and of itself, indicative of an artist with very limited talent and imagination. Granted, the both parents of Storm, Black Panther and Vixen are black, should they then be more “black-looking”? As you ponder this, please keep in mind that not all the Negroes of Africa (and I am referring to the ENTIRE continent here)fall into any pre-supposed, stereotypical “look”. They, as a people, as an Ethnic race, are as diversified in their appearance as the tribe, country, religious and cultural backgrounds and societies in which they live.

I agree with Mike’s point. I’ve always thought Jim Lee’s women had supermodel bodies with an asian head pasted on them. They all have round faces, high cheekbones, and slender eyes. All pretty traditional asian features (Or at least of Korean women).

It could be worse; I picked up an issue of the Gold Key “Star Trek” series yesterday in which Uhura a) was called “Uhuru” throughout, b) had completely unrecognizable facial features (including an aquiline nose in one profile shot), and c) was colored as white. (Many of the panels were composed to show only the back of her head; the artist was clearly uncomfortable when diverging from reference shots for the secondary characters.)

Fun Fact: I don’t do a great job of following DC, but I did read the latest relaunch of the Justice League. I honestly didn’t think Vixen was black. I figured she was some variety of dark-skinned human, but…the only name I ever saw for her was Mari, and her features being not remotely African, I just figured she was Hispanic. I didn’t know any better!

Yeah, Loren, but none of them really seem to have all that many clear shots of black characters, so I didn’t post them here.

Yeah, they’re Stroman’s pages, or yeah, they’re Lashley’s?

‘Cause I just finished reading the issue, and I’m pretty sure most (if not all) of the pages I linked to were pencilled by Ken Lashley. I think Stroman’s contribution might’ve been limited to the slavery flashback.

I am pretty positive it’s the other way around, Loren. Lashley on the flashbacks, Stroman on the main story. Stroman’s character designs are fairly unique.

But just to make sure, I checked, and yes, this here is a Stroman original page.

Hmm. On second thought, I suppose you’re right. I guess this just means I’m rather unimpressed with Stroman’s artwork.

(And for a story set “several decades from now,” 2057 according to the solicit, nobody seems to have aged much in the interim.)

I think it’s meant to be a nod to comic time. Just like the comics are currently set in 2007, even though clearly 46 years haven’t passed since FF #1, another 50 years only results in about 20 or so years of Marvel time passing.

So when the caption box explicitly says “several decades from now,” it means “two decades from now”?

It’s a stand-alone story set in the future. There’s no reason to intentionally exaggerate how far into the future. For instance, when Kurt Busiek set part of “Camelot Falls” in the future, he didn’t claim it was an unreasonably far-off future. Or Batman #666, where Morrison’s future was stated as being a reasonable and expected 15 years off.

So when the caption box explicitly says “several decades from now,” it means “two decades from now”?

Probably!

Like Chuck Austen’s story about Nightcrawler’s birth, and the caption said “20 years ago,” when that wasn’t Austen’s intent in the story.

So here, we’d go by Hudlin’s intent, which is clearly that the story is 20ish years from now (as Danielle Cage is a young woman).

Like Chuck Austen’s story about Nightcrawler’s birth,

You mean “The Draco”? Wasn’t that story remarkably terrible on several levels?

So if the implication is that Hudlin’s writing evidences the same level of quality and internal logic as Austen’s Draco (“Utterly dreadful. If you like this comic, you are objectively wrong. I can prove it with graphs.”), then I can live with that.

What?!

¡Qué?

I’ll have to check this out . . .always liked Stroman’s work.

Loren, your grudge is showing.

As for the question at hand, it’s definitely a combination of things. Most superhero artists can’t really draw any people. AND people tend to draw what they know/want to know. AND the race guilt keeps them away from anything that can be even remotely construed as racial charicature.

John Byrne is a White artist that draws Black people very well, and not in a stereotypical way, either.

I’m a white artist who is working on a graphic novel with many races I never realy gave much tought to drawling the diffrent races or appearing racist. If I have a black character I draw him black. It’s quite simple for me. I use magazines, the internet and real people as guides. I take the character and make him look cool. It seems to me if I think he looks realy cool then there should be no problem. But there are people who are going to be affended no matter what. To those people I wish them well because it seems they have a rotten life and look for things to complain about. I will say that, for me, asian people are the hardest to draw. The GN I am currently working on has mainly white and asian along with black and hispanic. Some days they just look white, scrap it and draw it again. I think that all the races give this world character and depth. I think it would be quite boring if we all looked alike.

As an artist who happens to be a black women myself , I would say that to be honest sometime it’s hard to draw black or any other ethnic characters that actually look good without taking up to much time and effort, (Not Saying It’s Not Possible Though) also people cry racist for everything these days so someone will most likely find something to complain about .

Being a teenager, the question of what my peers think is a big factor. I am currently working on a project for my Language Arts class in which I am going to draw Huck Finn and Jim from the novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. While sketching various facial features for Jim, a Black man, I find myself worrying if they look too exaggerated, ape-like, or if a Black friend would be offended by the image. I really wouldn’t want to make a fool of myself by drawing a character offensively. So… I don’t know if it’s just me, but I think it’s worrying about what a Black person would think when viewing the image.

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