Open up a comic book or graphic narrative and you are likely to discover not only words and pictures that form a story, but also many colorful assumptions, predispositions and prejudices held by its creators (Royal 7). Critics have long associated comics with the perpetuation of racial stereotypes (Singer 108). Cartooning relies on simplification, generalization, distortion and exaggeration. When suppressing the individuality of a person’s appearance to conform to a preexisting racial stereotype instead of exaggerating an individual’s features to bring out his humanity, caricatures can become racist stereotypes (Aldama 33). Stereotypes in comic books commonly generalize simple ideas about a few people and apply them (often incorrectly) to their whole race.
Through repetition, the stereotypes in various media become normal to viewers (Singer 108). Case studies have demonstrated that once a cultural stereotype is internalized (often before the “age of judgment”), the person unconsciously interprets experiences to be consistent with the underlying stereotype, “selectively assimilating facts that validate the stereotype while disregarding those that do not” (Rifas 3). Even stereotypes without racist or prejudicial purposes can reinforce racism. There is always the danger of negative stereotyping and caricature dehumanizing characters and exposing prejudices (Royal 8). Most of the comics by white creators have typically shown non-whites as inferior and subhuman in comics, if they are present at all (Singer, 107-108). Stereotypes can be harmful or helpful in their depiction of race and should be used with care.
Stereotypes may not be all bad. Illustrator Lee Weeks said, “We need a certain amount of racial stereotyping in this medium. We have to define the limits who is what, then you can stretch it” (Agorsah 281). Will Eisner agrees that they are a necessary tool in making comics (Eisner 17). They are the most effective way to convey a character without words. Stereotypes create distinctions and make characters recognizable to the audience, easing communication of larger concepts (Agorsah 281). The stereotypes found in comics can actually make the narrative more effective. Will Eisner points out that comics are a heavily coded medium that rely on stereotyping as a way to concentrate narrative effectiveness. He argues that unlike film, where characters have more time to develop, graphic narrative, with its relatively limited temporal space, “must condense identity along commonly accepted paradigms” (Royal 7). Stereotyping “speeds the reader into the plot and gives the teller reader-acceptance for the action of his characters” (Royal 8). Stereotyping can create a means by which readers can become more “present” within the work (Eisner 17). In comic books, condensing the story along commonly accepted paradigms helps the reader to better absorb the story (Royal 8). The use and deployment of stereotypical imagery and narratives has a certain amount of creative utility, especially in the shorthand of visual media such as comic books (Agorsah 281).
Eisner explains that stereotyping has a bad reputation because of its use as a weapon of propaganda or racism (Eisner 17). It may be harmful or offensive when it simplifies and categorizes an inaccurate generalization. He says that the stereotype is a tool of communication that is an inescapable ingredient in most cartoons. Comic book drawings are a mirror reflection of human conduct and depend on the reader‘s stored memory of experience to visualize an idea or process quickly. This makes the simplification of images into repeatable symbols necessary (Eisner 17).
In his work of literary and visual criticism, Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud examines cartooning as a form of “amplification through simplification.” “When we abstract an image through cartooning, we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details. By stripping...