The Superhero in the Archive: Black Pulp!

Exhibition Review

  • "Black Pulp!"

  • University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, FL
  • 02 Jun 2017 - 22 Jul 2017
  • Black Pulp!

  • By William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson
  • 88 pages, fully illustrated
  • Published by Yale School of Art, New Haven, CT, 2016

Installation view: “Black Pulp!” (2017), University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum, Tampa, FL.

Recent protests against white supremacy and Confederate monuments in the American south have made it clear that the complexities of our history continue to influence and confound contemporary perspectives on race, rights and equality. While history will always be vulnerable to contested interpretations and dangerous distortions, it remains a powerful tool that can inform, inspire, transform and mobilize. In the multifaceted exhibition “Black Pulp!,” researched and curated by artists William Villalongo and Mark Thomas Gibson, history is a beacon illuminating the realities of social, cultural and institutionalized racism in 20th- and 21st-century America. Following earlier iterations at the Yale School of Art and the International Print Center New York, “Black Pulp!” was recently on view at the University of South Florida Contemporary Art Museum. Its subject is Black resistance to racism through the use of print and visual media. The show brings together a breathtaking collection of rare historical documents and artifacts produced by Black literary and artistic leaders from 1912 to the present, as well as art—mainly prints and drawings—by 21 contemporary artists, including Kerry James Marshall, Kara Walker, Laylah Ali, Derrick Adams, Renee Cox, William Downs, Wangechi Mutu and Hank Willis Thomas. These two bodies of work—archival materials and contemporary art—set up cultural and stylistic contrasts, but also come together to articulate a legacy of struggle.

On display in seven glass vitrines were book covers and pages, magazines, posters, pamphlets, photographs and newspapers. Vibrant, beautiful, courageous, satirical, witty, edgy and provocative, these objects constitute a fascinating lesson in the history of African American publishing: there was an issue from the groundbreaking All Negro Comics (1947); a 1953 newspaper page featuring Torchy Brown, a character developed in 1937 by Jackie Ormes (1911–1985), the first African American woman cartoonist; and dust jackets from books published by Associated Publishers, the oldest African American publishing company, founded in 1920 by historian Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950).

Black Panther Party, cover of Counter Attack (New Haven: New Haven Panther Defense Committee, May 1970). Courtesy of Stuart A. Rose, Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library at Emory University.

While there are serious themes embedded in this exhibition, the curators underscore the significance of the comical, the spectacular and the unsavory in the history of Black liberation struggles. A strange, earthy and playful word, “pulp” derives from the rough, inexpensive wood pulp paper on which cheap magazines, novels and comic books were printed. It became shorthand for escapist entertainments that appealed to audiences from all walks of life. Grounded in American racial politics, Black pulp—in the form of popular literature, cinema and music—entertained, promoted pride and incited resistance. The pulp world of superheroes, larger-than-life detectives, criminals, outrageous and sensual women, mystery and adventure exploded in the mid-20th century. Intentionally or not, Black writers and illustrators politicized the genre by asserting Black characters who could be just as bad and bold as white ones.

Chester Himes (1909–1984) was among the most prolific authors of pulp fiction, and copies of novels from his famous detective series were included in the archival display, including early editions of Real Cool Killers (1959) and For Love of Imabelle (1957). In 1970 Himes’s popular novel Cotton Comes to Harlem (1965) became the first blaxploitation film, represented here by a movie poster. Directed by actor Ossie Davis, it brought a range of funny, self-directed and unapologetically Black characters to the big screen. Intimately connected to pulp literature and film were the music genres of jazz, funk, disco and hip-hop. Album covers for the Sun Ra Arkestra’s Nubians of Plutonia (1958), Donna Summer’s Bad Girls (1979), Kurtis Blow’s The Breaks (1980) and Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982) highlight artists of various music genres who embraced pulp themes, tropes and imagery.

Villalongo and Gibson reached deep into several distinguished archives and galleries, revealing a substantive lineage of literary and visual treasures that emerged from the Black imagination and served to rebut and dismantle deeply ingrained racist stereotypes.1 What we learn from this collection of newspapers, posters, satirical advertisements and “race” magazines is that the popularity and influence of print media during decades of Jim Crow segregation cannot be overstated. Social movements would not have existed without them. Black Panther Party publications such as Counter Attack (May 1970) and the Anti-Fascist Front (1968–1969) reached out to a global community in the fight against poverty, racial segregation and police brutality. Preceding these radical publications were works that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance, including The Crisis magazine, founded in 1910 by W.E.B. DuBois; Opportunity, the journal of the National Urban League, first published in 1923 by Charles S. Johnson; Alain Locke’s book The New Negro (1925), which embraced themes of African pride and Black freedom; and Fire!! A Quarterly Devoted to Younger Negro Artists (1926). Displayed in either original or facsimile form, these documents attest to the evolution and multiplicity of issues these scholars and creative thinkers were willing to address in the name of Black humanity.

Renee Cox, Chillin with Liberty (1998), cibachrome print, 40 x 60 x 2 inches. Edition of 3. Courtesy of the artist.

Villalongo and Gibson give gratifying attention to the dust jackets of classic texts and journals. Aaron Douglas (1899–1979), the leading painter and muralist of the Harlem Renaissance, was commissioned by DuBois and Johnson to create covers for The Crisis and Opportunity. Douglas also created the dust jacket for Locke’s The New Negro. As a painter, Douglas often used palettes of soft lavender, blue and gold, in a geometric style. His graphic work for these publications shows the influence of ancient Egyptian and West African art in distinctive silhouettes showing people of African descent bravely moving toward freedom. Among the designs on view by the brilliant Loïs Mailou Jones (1905–1998) was the black, gold and white dust jacket for Women Builders by Sadie Iola Daniel (1931), which visually condenses the vital contributions of Black women to business, education and social services. A frieze of profiles, marching toward a shining sun, presents Black women as inspirational leaders, disrupting their stereotypical depiction as mammies or jezebels. The dust jackets by Douglas and Jones were works of art and offered images of a capable, hopeful and strong Black community.

The vital role of popular printed matter and visual art in Black self-definition is the focus of “Black Pulp!” Both historical and contemporary artists employed pulp images and archetypes to dismantle racist stereotypes. Socially conscious Black superheroes were the focus of comic artist Billy Graham’s (1935–1999) Luke Cage: Hero for Hire (1973) of the Dwayne McDuffie’s (1962–2011) proposed but never executed Marvel comic, Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers (1989). In the contemporary art section, a video documenting Pope.L’s performance The Great White Way (1990), shows the artist dressed as Superman crawling along the 22 miles of Broadway as it traverses Manhattan, in a commentary on poverty and wealth. Contemporary artists also clearly feel the urgency to create lasting, significant social change and to keep moving forward. Consider the Black woman superhero in Rene Cox’s Cibachrome Chillin with Liberty (1998): her beautiful locks, her glamor and her high fashion merely accentuate the dignity, confidence and power she possesses as she seats herself in the crown of the Statue of Liberty, looks over New York Harbor and prepares to lead her community to liberation.

  1. Historical materials and contemporary art for this exhibition were contributed by a number of institutions, including Emory University Stuart A. Rose Library; the Schomburg Center, Library of Congress; Yale University Art Gallery; the LeRoy Neiman Center,  Lower East Side Printshop, Gagosian Gallery, Mitchell Inness-Nash, Paul Kasmin Gallery, Steve Turner Contemporary, Pace Gallery, Jack Shainman Gallery, Metro Pictures, Fredricks & Freiser, Gladstone Gallery, James Cohan Gallery, and Matthew Marks Gallery. []