Growing up in Turner Station, Kumasi J. Barnett was always looking for something to do. He was introduced to the world of capes and escapades at a very young age, reading Garfield and other comics at the Turner Station Branch of the Baltimore County Public Library as a way to learn how to read.
“This is my culture and I’m changing it a little to be real stories of my culture,” Barnett says of his work. Barnett is classically trained in abstract art, having received a BFA from the University of Maryland, College Park and an MFA from the Ohio State University.
His current solo exhibition “The Amazing Black Man,” is on view at the Peale until July 16.
He used to be a longtime comics collector and reader, even reading the original Milestone Media runs of comics back in the ’90s. However, he stopped collecting in the early 2000s because of his dislike for the inconsistency within comic book storytelling. “It’s better if you read the comics in an individual case, because there’s so much retconning, and there’s so much changing, so many multiple universes, it’s hard,” said Barnett.
Nowadays, he pulls from his old collection as the medium for his art, but sometimes he gets the itch to come back to comic collecting, like a lingering shadow.
Barnett’s work revolves around repurposing the comic art from his childhood to tell a new story. “The Amazing Spider-Man” becomes “The Amazing Black-Man” and “The Hulk” becomes “The Thug.” In all of these, Barnett uses acrylic paint to carefully rewrite the story. Some of these comics are more altered than others. In the case of “The Policeman,” Barnett makes a point to illustrate a run of “The Policeman vs. Black Man.”
Barnett’s various collections and series within “The Amazing Black-Man” universe are a counter and defiance to Comicsgate: a campaign opposed to increased diversity in comic book characters, writers and artists. With characters like “The Thug,” “The Amazing Black-Man” and “Racist Man,” Barnett wants to “irritate the hell” out of Comicsgate supporters, and finds their logic boggling.
“The idea that we can take a different perspective than what’s traditionally been put out there by America is what I’m all about, because these stories are American stories,” he said. “I love the fact that people are butt-hurt because it’s not a white male who’s now your superhero.”
Resentment against new and diverse heroes isn’t a new phenomenon in this country. Comic book author Alan Moore said in an interview with Brazilian writer Raphael Sassaki that “a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ as the first American superhero movie.” And that case can be made — white men band together in a costumed garb with a distinct symbol to fight “evil” and protect the innocents. In the film, evil was depicted by white men in blackface playing racist stereotypes of Black people, painting them as incompetent lawmakers and deviants lusting after “white purity” during the era of Reconstruction.
To be clear, Superman and Batman were the product of Jewish creators who didn’t cite the Klan as inspiration for some of the greatest comic characters. Their characters fought hard against the tyranny of evil, and many creators over the years would make it clear their characters were not vehicles for white supremacy (look at the Punisher and his run-in with the police.)
On the other hand, that connection between superheroes and white supremacy can’t be ignored, because Comicsgate and the efforts to push back against new heroes and creators — just because they’re nonwhite — is real and harmful due to pop culture’s influence over how we see reality. This is what makes Barnett’s art and commentary so fascinating: they turn America’s heroes into symbols of our reality.
Barnett said that he chose superheroes like Spider-Man, Superman, Hulk and others because of the archetypes they represent. Superman is the standard superhero, Spider-Man is the hero who does what’s right because of a tragic origin story, and the Hulk is part of the Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic — the monster from within.
From there, he redraws the covers featuring these heroes into a discussion about issues that exists in America: racism, white supremacy and police brutality. Take, for instance “The Amazing Black-Man,” a character who has changed from Spider-Man’s red and blue spandex to a gray hoodie and jeans.
Black-Man’s enemies are the police, who constantly plot, cover after cover, to eradicate Black-Man’s existence. Their costumes aren’t too different from what the police would normally wear, but the person wearing the uniform might be a monster or demon in disguise.
Barnett said that he started creating “The Amazing Black-Man” series of cover art in the wake of Freddie Gray’s murder as a way to process his emotions. Although trained in abstract art, he found that it wasn’t effective at telling what he was was feeling.
“America is constantly giving you reasons to be weary, reasons to understand it’s not equal,” Barnett said. “It’s harder to tap out than tap in.”
“I was in New York and I saw a large neon sign that just said ‘The Amazing Black-Man,’” said Jeffrey Kent, chief curator at the Peale Center. The Peale has been under renovation for two years and The Amazing Black-Man is one of the first exhibitions open to the public since its renovation. When Kent saw the exhibition, it was on view at the Armory in New York City. The solo show has been traveling for about seven years, according to the artist.
“There are always more,” Barnett says of his collection of reworked comic covers. His connection with comic heroes and stories makes it hard to stop working. In the show there are dozens of covers and this is not the complete collection.
The Peale is hosting programming alongside the exhibition to engage audiences to think more critically about comics and the stories they tell. On July 14, Barnett will have a conversation on the “white racial imagination” in comic books, along with Kent and Darryl Peterkin. The Peale is also hosting a series of art workshops for children and adults to learn about comic book creation from artist Chrys Seawood.