Representing visual difference is a tricky thing in the illustration business.

It would be nice to get to a place in our society when we can represent the diversity of the people on our planet simply as they are without people feeling as though you’re making a comment specifically on who is being represented. The default is inevitably middle-class white men; deviating from that norm, in the public eye, often means that you must be saying something pertaining to that non-normative person you’re representing. For instance, if you depict a person with a disability in your illustration, the illustration must be making some sort of comment on disabilities or folks who live with them. I’m of two minds about this issue – I wish that our society was at a point where a disabled person in an illustration could just be interpreted as reflecting the diversity of humankind rather than a comment on disabilities. However, we’re not.

The illustration industry reflects that. What’s in an illustration must be there for a reason. Good illustrators are in a constant state of paring away the excess – they start with a good idea and an image or two in their heads and work constantly to distill that idea and its visual representation to its most simple and clear form. All the information that viewers need, they should get from deciphering the illustration. If it’s not clearly communicated visually, your viewers won’t get it.

Enter: the illustration/cartoon below. This was published in the Toronto Star on July 17th, 2012 – just after a recent surge in gun violence in the city, but in particular after a large shooting in Scarborough. The illustration is by Michael de Adder.


I have a lot of concerns about this piece, both on an ‘is it a good (effective, concise, communicative) illustration’ level but also on a social responsibility/representation level as well. As illustrators it’s vital that we’re mindful of who we are representing, why we’re representing them, and how we’re representing them. A lot of folks are reading this work as – to put it kindly – irresponsible, and to put it not-so-kindly, racist (racially irresponsible and/or ignorant). I’m inclined to agree on both counts, and I’d like to tell you why (especially since ‘racist’ is a loaded term, and not everyone may read this work in that way).

Let’s pick this apart. What are some signifiers that exist within this cartoon? Well, there’s the representation of class via middle-class clothing (this child looks rather put-together and not scruffy in my opinion), and there’s the representation of race via the child’s skin colour and facial features (she is depicted as having some stereotypically black facial characteristics). We also have an image of someone who is young. That’s about all we have to work with here – those are the only three things being represented. Whatever else you’re seeing (“this could be about all children!”) literally isn’t there. There is no signifier of universality.

The lead-in: “Things to expect before they are two:” also begs some questions. Who are “they” and what exactly can they “expect”? Once we read the cartoon we understand that “they” can expect a bullet wound to the head. But again, who is this “they?” Children? Middle-class people? Black people? Notably the only category which has (misguided associations in popular culture) with gang violence is the latter – and so the illustration seems to suggest that black kids (regardless of their social stature or any other characteristic) can expect to sustain a gunshot wound, as though it is predetermined by skin colour. The illustration paints gun violence (and most gun violence is gang violence) as literally a black problem (again, since no one else is represented here).

Now, I’m no expert on policing, or gangs, or gun violence – but one thing I do know is that a person’s skin colour doesn’t determine whether or not they’re in a gang or engaged in gun violence. Gun and gang violence effects people of all colours and all racial backgrounds (and living in Toronto, where there’s been a bit of gang-related gun violence in the news lately, there are many gangs in the city which are not black) – but one common denominator seems to be a complex combination of factors, including poverty and social circumstance. What is the real issue here? I’m pretty sure it’s concentrated in a variety of social factors, and there are different ways to signify those rather than skin colour. In illustration, representation needs to be specific, otherwise it seems as though you are making a grandiose statement about All Black People – which is why this illustration can be easily read as/construed as racist and/or racially insensitive.

If the illustrator wanted to represent the poverty of the area(s) in which shootings occurred, then he should have taken the care to represent lack of financial privilege as a signifier in this piece, or made some sort of visual representation of the poverty of the neighbourhood(s) in which the violence occurred. But he didn’t, so as viewers all we can really take away from this is that all black kids can expect to be shot, because all gun violence is black. (Newsflash: it isn’t.) The differentiating factor about this shooting should, in a more thoughtful illustration, not have been represented as being about skin colour. Furthermore, many comments on the cartoon (on Facebook) have pointed out the incredible racial diversity of the area in which the shooting occurred. It’s not a predominantly black neighbourhood – so why was a black child depicted? We need to be careful to not reinforce systemic racism with our illustrations, and to carefully consider our responsibility as image makers to both our audience and to our ethical code(s) as thoughtful human beings.

It’s also important to consider the implications of representation. Sure, some individuals involved in the recent Scarborough shooting happened to be black. But is that really significant? If as an illustrator you decide that it is, it’s important to be wary of racial profiling and reinforcing negative stereotypes about different types of people.

I also want to make it clear that this is not an attempt to demonize Mr. de Adder. That is not my motivation for writing this commentary. But, as illustrators, as visual people, and as consumers of visual media, I do believe it is important to have these conversations, learn from one another, and work to improve our visual literacy, particularly when representation of minority groups (who often suffer marginalization, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding) is concerned.

21. July 2012 von Sabrina
Categories: Musings | 5 comments

Comments (5)

  1. well put hombre.

  2. This is an admirable move toward close reading the illustration and away from knee-jerking, but your result (that it suggests “all gun violence is black”) collapses the skin tone of the depicted victim with the skin tone of the shooter. That’s a huge leap to make. To paraphrase you, the shooter “literally isn’t there. There is no signifier of [the shooter].” At worst, the illustration suggests an overlap of gun victims and young black children. The fact that the 22-month-old injured on Monday has dark skin but is male does prompt the question of why de Adder changed the sex but kept the same skin tone for his illustration. (Certainly it was to avoid actually depicting Devontae Thomas, which would’ve been in very poor taste. But that doesn’t explain when the sex and not the skin tone.) Despite that, any reading of the image is already complicated by the absent shooter.

    A smaller conflation, but still a vital one, is that of “they” and the image’s viewer. You write, “The lead-in: ‘Things to expect before they are two:’ also begs some questions. Who are ‘they’ and what exactly can they ‘expect’?” Of course “they” is ‘children’ of some kind, but the addressees of this statement, which so strong echoes the universalizing diction of parenting manuals, are clearly parents. Sure, there’s a problem with universalized parental advice, but that’s a problem de Adder clearly wasn’t trying to resolve. In fact, he seems to be piggybacking on the tone of such advice in an attempt to universalize the message.

    What was de Adder’s alternative? Draw a white boy to make sure everyone saw the child’s race and sex as blanks? The practice of close reading points all the attention to textual/imagistic aesthetics and so is notoriously poor at interfacing with social concerns and commentaries. Ultimately, reading the child in this illustration as racially specific rather than as a universal or placeholder child is not close reading: you’re bringing in the external contexts of the event it comments on and of the history of illustration, which you absolutely should but which you should also do explicitly.

  3. I am not of the illustration world, but I still found this relevant and important. The beginning is beautiful–what a concept! and your critique is very well thought out. Thanks for the thought-provoking read :)

  4. Thanks for the kind words, everyone! Much appreciated.

    And Andy, thanks so much for engaging with me on this. I love discussion, and I’d never begin to suggest that I’m finished learning – so thanks for giving me some stuff to think about. Here’s my response to what you’ve written, and thanks again for taking the time to comment!

    First of all – I didn’t intend this post as an epic close reading on this illustration. The primary issue I wanted to raise was the importance of being thoughtful in visual depictions of race. Something else I wanted to draw attention to was that the most important quality of a successful illustration is that it effectively and concisely communicates what it was attempting to communicate. This work in question does not do that.

    The word “they” suggests that gun violence is concentrated in black spaces, since blackness is all that’s depicted here. I would argue that the shooter *is* signified in this work, because a gunshot wound is referenced; the appearance of a wound indicates someone on the other side of that gun. If the work was making a comment on interracial gun violence (or non-racialized gun violence), as you suggest, there would have to be some sort of signifier of that interracial quality. There isn’t. The only indicator of any racial group in this illustration is the blackness of the child depicted, which leads the viewer to conclude that this violence effects black people. The use of the word ‘they’ also signifies some sort of unified whole, and so indicates a larger black community. (And who are in black communities? Black people, of course, indicating a black shooter.)

    In my opinion it would be a misreading to suggest that any other skin colour or ethnic group is referenced, because there is literally no indicator, visual or textual. You are making the argument that just because something literally isn’t there doesn’t mean it figuratively isn’t there, and I think that is sketchy territory to walk on when we’re talking about illustration and cartooning. The success of illustrative works rides on what can be read from the work itself.

    Something that I feel is lacking in your commentary is that you don’t address the importance of the difference between universality and specificity when it comes to illustration, particularly this one. One of de Adder’s failures in this piece, I believe, was that the line between the universal and the specific doesn’t exist. He was attempting to reference one very specific incident, but since he used the word “they,” it instantly became a universal comment. The meaning of the work would change if the wording was more specific, ie, “what children in high risk neighbourhood(s) can expect before they are two” or something similar – that completely changes the meaning of the work, and it makes the piece a bit less about conflating gun violence with all black kids, because the wording would have transformed it into something specific to eliminate any confusion or lack of clarity. (And as such, I completely agree with you that a depiction of Devontae would have been in incredibly poor taste. However, that we are even talking about Devontae shows another real problem in de Adder’s piece – that it appears to be a specific reference hidden in something which is instead accidentally universal, which leads the viewer [or, at least, me, a trained illustrator and visual communicator] to draw ultimately different conclusions than it seems de Adder intended.)

    And I think one issue with this is that the message isn’t universal. Even if it is saying that all kids ever in Toronto can expect to be shot at a young age – I think that is also in incredibly poor taste because it trivializes the very real challenges of some very high risk communities. Not all Toronto families are equally at risk, and we need to check our privileges and recognize that.

    de Adder’s alternative was to go with an approach that clearly communicated his concept. I would have nixed this approach and gone with something entirely different. I recently emailed him to find out what he was trying to communicate. He wrote, “Two year old kids shouldn’t have bullet wounds.” I think we can all agree that that is a very universal idea that he has tried to communicate in a very specific way – in my opinion, that was a mistake and muddied his idea. When we try to use the specific to communicate the universal – particularly when race is concerned – we need to be very, very careful. To express a universal issue, it might be pertinent not to root one’s concept in a specific incident. Or, if commenting on one incident, make that crystal clear, so viewers don’t interpret the image as universal.

    Something else I’d like to state for the record – in writing my commentary, I wasn’t trying to embarrass anyone or demonize anyone, or to suggest that I’m smarter/more enlightened than anyone else. I wrote it because I love my industry and I love the world I live in, and I truly believe that we should constantly strive to do better and to be more thoughtful – as illustrators, as visual people, and as consumers of visual communication. Being better, in my opinion, begins with discussion.

  5. Pingback: Toronto Star apologizes for cartoon that ‘fed into racial stereotypes’ | Astrid Bidanec

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