Cartoon: Triheads vs Squareheads


This cartoon is a collaboration between myself (script and lettering), Becky Hawkins (classroom scenes), and Naomi Rubin (Triheads vs Squareheads scenes).


If you like these cartoons, help me make more (and help me pay my swell collaborators!) by supporting my Patreon. Thanks!


I’ve known Naomi Rubin for many years. She’s a wonderful cartoonist and one of the best people I know, and I’ve always wanted to do a strip with her – but although she’s helped me as an advisor on countless strips, the right strip for her to draw never seemed to come up.

When I wrote this strip, I knew I wanted the two worlds of the strip, the storybook world and the classroom world, to be drawn in different styles. Having it actually drawn by two different cartoonists seemed fun to me, and then the idea of asking Naomi and my most-frequent collaborator Becky Hawkins to draw it appeared in my brain, shiny and bright and beautiful, and I gasped and fell to my knees and tears appeared in my eyes and my housemate Charles said “what’s wrong” and my other housemate Sydney said “oh geez, Barry’s being drama again, ignore him.”

(I’m always amazed that people support this patreon. But I’m especially amazed after writing a paragraph like the preceding.)

Anyway, Becky and Naomi were up for the collaboration; they chose to have Naomi draw the storybook while Becky drew the real world. After Naomi showed me her pencils, I loved them but thought they were looking crowded, so I made what had been a tall strip an even taller strip so the art would have more breathing room.

I’m very happy with how this strip came out. And also very happy that I’ve finally done a cartoon with Naomi.


As children (at least in America), we encounter many stories which paint racism as being two groups who are really just the same but are hung up on some trivial difference in their appearances and so hate each other. Even if one group is more powerful than the other at the story’s start, by the end we’re told that both sides are equally to blame, and all that’s required is for everyone to stop focusing on silly differences and just be nice to one another.

Examples include Dr Seuss’ story “The Sneetches” (in which the society is organized around who does or doesn’t have a green star on their navel), The “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode of Star Trek (in which aliens with faces divided in half, black and white, are at war because one group has black-left white-right, while the other group has black-right white-left), and the song “Savages” in Disney’s Pocahontas, which blames the Native Americans just as much as the armed invaders.

(Wow, has that movie aged badly).

I had noticed this, but not really put it together until I read a couple of viral tweets by the writer Christina Holland, back in August. Ms Holland wrote:

I think a big problem with kids’ allegories for racism is it’s like “the green people and the purple people hated each other just for being the other color, isn’t that silly?” and not “the purple people kidnapped the green people and treated them like livestock for 100s of years”

A lot of grownups learned about it more or less like that and that’s why they think “just ignore color” or “stop having hate in your heart” or “we need examples of opposite-color people being friends” will fix things, because it would, if it was the first kind of situation.

The thought really stuck with me, and I began mulling over how to illustrate it in a cartoon. I hope you like the result. (And if you’re on Twitter, please go follow Christina Holland!)

P.S. If you’ve never seen Lindsay Ellis’ video about Disney’s Pocohontas, it’s really worth a watch.


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This cartoon has six panels. Each panel shows a schoolteacher reading from an illustrated children’s book; in some panels, we also see images from the book.

PANEL 1

This panel shows a teacher, who is white, reading aloud from a book. Above her, we can see the illustration from the page she’s reading. The illustration shows a bunch of cartoon people, some of whom have triangle-shaped heads, some of whom have rectangular heads. They are smiling and shaking hands and putting arms on each others backs in a companionable manner. In front of them, two children – one with a rectangular head, one with a triangular head – kick a ball around in the grass.

TEACHER: “And when they saw Jumball Trihead and Bigapie Squarehead playing happily together, the grown-ups realized it was silly to hate each other just because they looked different!”

TEACHER: “And that’s how they all stopped being racist!”

TEACHER: Any questions?

PANEL 2

The “camera” zooms out a little, and we can see that there are small children seated on the floor listening to the teacher. One small girl, who is Black, has gotten up and is handing the Teacher a book. The teacher accepts it cheerfully.

IMANI: Miss Martin? My mommy wrote more about the triheads and bigheads. She said it’s a “corrected version.”

TEACHER: Oh, it’s about the same characters! How marvelous! Thank you, Imani.

PANEL 3

The teacher, with a concerned and slightly frightened expression, is reading aloud from the new book. Above her, we see an illustration from the book: A Trihead, speaking straight out to the reader with an angry expression, slams a fist into a palm. Behind him, in silhouette, several Squareheads are trudging along, bowed and weary, chained together chain-gang style.

TEACHER: It says, “The story you’ve heard about the triheads and squareheads is lies. Here’s what really happened.”

TEACHER: “The Triheads kidnapped the Squareheads and enslaved them for hundreds of years.”

TEACHER: “Oh dear.”

PANEL 4

We see the children listening with wide-eyed, somewhat stunned expressions.

Above them, we see an illustration from the book. Two Squareheads lean against a gray wall, as if preparing to be frisked. A Trihead wearing a police or prison guard uniform glares at them. They all seem to be in a barred area. In front of the bars, another Trihead sits at a desk, reading a copy of “The Bell Curve.”

TEACHER: “It took a whole war to free the enslaved squareheads. But even after the war, triheads used laws, violence, and prisons to crush squareheads.”

TEACHER: “This was racism. It was too big and structural to be fixed by Jumball and Bigapie playing together.”

PANEL 5

A close-up of the teacher, who now looks very frightened but keeps on reading aloud. Above her, we see an illustration from the book. A Trihead is lying on the grass, head leaning against a tree, crying a spout of tears from each eye. Next to the Trihead, a standing Squarehead rolls their eyes, arms folded. And next to the Squarehead, a second Trihead is talking to the Squarehead with an accusatory expression, while pointing at the crying Trihead.

TEACHER: “Whenever a Squarehead complained about all the racism, Triheads yelled “How dare you accuse me of racism! Stop imagining things!”

PANEL 6

A shot of the classroom, no illustration. The teacher is turning towards Imani and asking her a question.  The teacher looks worried. Imani, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, replies with an “I don’t know” shrug.

TEACHER: “Another hundred years later…”

TEACHER: Imani, when does this story end?

IMANI: Mommy says we don’t know yet.

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23 Responses to Cartoon: Triheads vs Squareheads

  1. 1
    Angiportus Librarysaver says:

    Good one.
    BTW, I appreciate your blogroll, but I feel I should warn everyone that the return of Dr. Jen Gunter is not as good news as I had hoped. Her new blog is a subscription-only deal that you have to pay to even read the articles. Considering that many of the demographic she is trying to help do not have a lot of money to spare, and libraries might not be able to link freely to such matter, this is far from ideal. I wish someone who can get access to it could point this out, but still, you yourself keep up the good work.

  2. 2
    Mookie says:

    I’m going to go ahead and encourage people, subscribers or otherwise, to not harass Gunter via her substack or her social media accounts for not accepting exposure bucks for her writing, which apparently loses its value (worthy of good news, no less) the moment she actually assigns it a value.

    I wish someone who can get access to it could point this out, but still, you yourself keep up the good work.

    You know Barry himself has a patreon, right?

  3. 3
    Angiportus Librarysaver says:

    There’s a lot of us out here can’t afford either one. And are too smart to harass anyone.

  4. 4
    Petar says:

    In the rest of the world, racism and slavery are not as intrinsically linked as they are in the United States. Nor does the rest of the world feel compelled to explain everything via racism, given that for millennia, it has been able to oppress the less powerful using religion, class, culture, common birth, capital, etc. just fine.

    Slavs were hunted and enslaved for hundreds of years before Whitey made it into sub-Saharan Africa. In Russia, the slave takers were, on average, darker than their victims, especially once the Mongols invaded. As an aside, the two most popular Russian slurs for my minority translate as “Slaver” and “Black Ass”.

    Well, my ancestors left Russia for Bulgaria, where slavery wasn’t a thing, at least when the country was around. But while it was subjugated, there were two periods when slavers were taken as a matter of course. The first time, it was toddlers, to be used as slave soldiers. The second time, the Ottomans lost some of their lands in Africa, the displaced nobility got relocated to the Balkans, and kept its ways. Would you like to guess the color of slavers in the Bulgarian national consciousness?

    And lets not forget that the last time Westerners took slaves en mass, by the millions, and 80% of the women gave birth after being raped, and 90% of the infants were dead within a few years… it was not skin color that came into it.

    All of this sounds weird and outlandish to you? It does not surprise me. In the US, slavery means White people kidnapping Black ones and making them pick cotton.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    I think most Americans are aware that slavery has existed, and still exists, in different forms and contexts. Or, at least, I think most Americans likely to be involved in this thread aren’t going to say “that sounds outlandish.”

    I understand you’re frustrated by the rhetorical primacy given to American chattel slavery– or rather, I feel like you’re frustrated by America-centrism in general– but I don’t think your response is particularly insightful in response to this particular cartoon/thread.

    American chattel slavery was recent, brutal, and exerts massive effects on contemporary America.

  6. 6
    Petar says:

    I am not upset by American centrism. I am upset by the narrative “racism is bad because Black people were enslaved by White people.”

    The narrative glosses over the fact that vulnerable people were enslaved by rich and powerful landowners to generate more wealth and power. It pushes under the carpet any mention that racial justifications were mostly manufactured after the fact, with the complicity of religion and government in order to deflect from the arguments of those morally (or economically) opposed to slavery. It most definitely says nothing about who benefits when members of the underclasses view each other as the source of the their problems, instead of looking for those who actually profit from their misery.

    I can take or leave “Racism without power is just prejudice”. But when people tie themselves into pretzels to make sure that “power” is obfuscated, and everything is reduced to “people with light skin hate people with black skin”, I get “frustrated”.

    On this very website, people were gushing over a book in which a whole ethnicity was portrayed as subhuman scum, mostly incapable of basic human emotions. There was a character thanking the Powers That Be for her indentured servitude (debt slavery). The bad cough of a character was made into a major tragedy, used to gloss over the death of multiple children, and the enslavement of their older sibling, who happened to be the main breadwinner of the family. The extraction of huge amounts of wealth from a town, so that the protagonist’s grandparent could be presented with a pile of silver was viewed in a positive light. A rich woman, whose father received thousands of years worth of wages as dowry, threatening her debtor with the ruler’s oppression apparatus? A-OK.

    On this very website, someone was presenting passages by the ideological father of Japanese WWII Imperialism as anti-racism. Why? Because they were dumping on Whitey. Passages from the same book were used as justification to press hundreds of thousands of women into sex slavery . Did it matter to whoever posted the article? Did it matter to those could have taken it down since? Well, practically none of those women were Black. They were mostly Asian, with only a few thousand White ones, so it could not have been racism, especially since it was not Whitey doing it.

    Even in this cartoon, it is the “triangle” heads who enslave people. Not the rich ones, not the land owning ones. Just the “triangle” heads. And they do not purchase the slaves from warmongering conquerors, who enslave the poor and the defenseless. No, they “kidnap” the “square” heads.

    But hey, this is the narrative that flies. God forbid the variously colored-coded (black, blue, or rainbow) masses realize that while they’re fighting themselves over reproductive rights, racial prejudice, transgender athletes, religious exemptions, etc. politicians are competing with each other to sell the common good to the highest bidder.

    I like the art, and I get the point, and I even think it is a powerful cartoon. I just wish that its kind wasn’t so thoroughly outnumbering the “See that Black man, he wants to steal your cookie!” ones.

  7. 7
    Ampersand says:

    “people with light skin hate people with black skin”,

    That’s not at all what this comic strip is saying, in my opinion.

    On this very website, people were gushing over a book

    What book was that? If you had a link to the page “on this very website” you’re thinking of, that would be even better, but at least say what book it is.

    On this very website, someone was presenting passages by the ideological father of Japanese WWII Imperialism as anti-racism.

    What is the person’s name? And, again, do you have a link to the page you’re referring to?

  8. 8
    Petar says:

    American chattel slavery was recent, brutal, and exerts massive effects on contemporary America.

    recent

    WWII saw millions of “war workers”/”comfort women” taken captive, shipped to the conqueror’s homelands/front units, and worked/raped to death.

    brutal

    The fate of African chattel slaves in the American South was inhumanly brutal, certainly worse than that of “guest workers” in Saudi Arabia, probably worse than that of Haratin in Mauritania, etc. But I do not think you really mean to say that it was qualitatively more brutal than the fate suffered by the Christian children trained into slave soldiers, the Chinese women forced into prostitution, or the Polish and Russian men worked to death.

    exerts massive effects on contemporary America

    Yes, it does. What is less clear is whether it is so wrong to point out that the difference between whatever ‘races’ are is trivial, and that oppression, exploitation and scapegoating is a problem even when it is aimed at the Irish, the Italians, the Chinese, the Russians, the Muslim, the Mexicans, the trans, etc. Or that “racial theories” are usually fabricated to justify the abuse of power in pursuit of extra profits, as opposed to crystalizing from background noise levels of bigotry.

    ————————–

    I have heard too often “this is not racism, it’s just bigotry”, and I have seen too often people working to shift the focus from socio-economic class, lack of gun control, education, culture, etc. to race.

    As far as I am concerned, my interests (and sympathies) lie closer to those of an inner city black woman in her twenties than to those of a 60 year old, white, male politician, no matter what flag he happens to drape himself in.

  9. 9
    Petar says:

    What book was that? What is the person’s name?

    Spinning Silver and Kakuzo Okakura.

    As for the links… Here and here.

    [Amp adds: The link for Spinning Silver is missing from Petar’s comment, but I’m guessing this is the link. Petar, let us know if I’m mistaken about that. –Amp]

  10. 10
    Görkem says:

    Never mind more far-flung forms of slavery, Brazilian and Cuban slavery were just as brutal, just as relevant to contemporary Brazil and Cuba, and even more recent.

    But I think the key is that American slave exerts massive effects on contemporary -America-. The key word is America, not massive or contemporary. Brazilian or Cuban slavery, let alone more geographically distant or less recent forms of slavery, do not resonate so strongly in modern American culture.

    Basically, the idea that slavery of African-Americans is an unparalleled historical crime is a product of Americocentrism. Unthinking, possibly even benign Americocentrism, but still.

    If it helps Petar, just mentally apend the words “in the USA” after every discussion of slavery by Americans outside of academic contexts. It’ll make your life easier. It’s what I do.

  11. 11
    c u n d gulag says:

    Wow!
    Best one yet!!!
    (And that’s saying something!!!!!).

  12. 12
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I am a bit confused by this cartoon. Specifically, the way that slavery is presented as the sequel to “and we all just got along”. Is this supposed to reflect a particular historical moment? I don’t think so, but if it doesn’t, then it feels like a weird reversal of cause and effect.

    Specifically, one of the reasons overcoming prejudice is not equal to overcoming systemic racism is because of historical inequities that persist, even in areas where no one wants them to. In American society, slavery isn’t something that might happen if naive liberals are appeased by surface-level equality. It’s something that has already happened. It’s the prequel, not the sequel. And I don’t understand why the cartoon presents it the other way around.

  13. 13
    Ampersand says:

    Eytan, I think my script was unclear. The original book is the actual published work. The “sequel” is one that the kid’s mom just made up, to criticize the published book. Or such was my intent.

  14. 14
    Eytan Zweig says:

    I wasn’t clear about that part – but I don’t think that really changes the core issue I have, which is that it looks like the criticism of the first book is “naive resolutions to prejudice lead to slavery and systemic racism”, rather than “naive resolutions to prejudice ignore the historical and contemporary realities of racism”.

  15. 15
    Ampersand says:

    Okay. I’m sorry it doesn’t work for you. I’ll think about if there’s a good fix.

  16. 16
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Oh, I think it’s still a pretty effective cartoon, as long as I don’t think too much about the framing story.

    Despite my complaining about the connotations of framing it as a “sequel”, I think the best way to fix this issue (if you think you need to) would be to make a change to panel 3, because that’s where you most make it explicit that in the squarehead/trianglehead world, systematic racism was introduced as a response to the lessening of tension in the first book.

    Thinking about this further, one of the reasons I’m sensitive to this is that I’ve had several debates in social media over the past few months with self-identified “traditional liberals” who are arguing that progressive politics incite bigotry. Not so much in the domain of race, but, for example, I’ve explicitly been told that people who believe that trans women are women are responsible for anti-trans legislation. So my worry is the same logic can be applied here – that the lesson learned from the first three panels is “if the squareheads just knew their place and didn’t try to play together with the traingleheads, then nothing bad would have happened”.

  17. 17
    Lauren says:

    Although I got it the first time, now that I have read Eytans comment, I find the “sequel” part problematic as well, since it implies that this happened after, when actually it is a less rose-colored-glasses look at what actually happened. Maybe just have her say “Mommy said read this one too, it’s important?” My first thought was “it’s an alternative universe”, but that doesn’t work either and “it’s the real story” might ruin the the tension of the cartoon.
    Maybe just “Mommy said this is the one we should read”? The teacher could just answer something along the lines of “let’s see what you have there” or “that sounds interesting”.

  18. 18
    Mandolin says:

    Eytan – I had the same reaction. I am not immediately sure how I’d fix it without a rewrite (which is why I didn’t say anything).

    Piggybacking on Lauren – “Mommy said we should read this one, too.” Maybe without the important.

  19. 19
    Mandolin says:

    Giving this a shot, changes in bold:

    PANEL 1

    TEACHER: “And when they saw Jumball Trihead and Bigapie Squarehead playing happily together, the grown-ups realized it was silly to hate each other just because they looked different!”

    TEACHER: And that, children, is how we can end racism! Any questions?

    PANEL 2

    IMANI: Miss Martin? Mommy said we should try this one, too.

    TEACHER: Oh, it’s about the same characters! How marvelous! Thank you, Imani.

    PANEL 3

    TEACHER: “But then the head Trihead said, that wasn’t racism, that was just prejudice. We’ll show you racism.” — (NOTE: I don’t understand why this line is here. Is it to change subject from the last book? It seems confusing, like a modern argument that’s out of place in a comic that’s about the roots of racism which weren’t concerned about prejudice/racism dichotomies. I’m trying to connect the characters a bit differently in this dialogue that follows.) But then the head Trihead said, “Bigapie Squarehead must be whipped! Jumball Trihead, you are a traitor to your race. “

    TEACHER: Proudly, the head Trihead told the story of how they had kidnapped the Squareheads and treated them like property for hundreds of years.” – (I’m not sure “treated them like property” is the right phrase to use here, it seems to sort of duck the violence of “enslaved” which feels a bit odd in a comic about how racism is bowlderized.)

    TEACHER: “Oh dear.”

    PANEL 4

    TEACHER: “Only a war could stop the Triheads from using Squareheads as property. But even after the war, Triheads used laws, violence, prison and other things to crush the Squareheads while claiming it was the natural order.”

    PANEL 5

    TEACHER: “Whenever a Squarehead complained about all the racism, Triheads yelled, “How dare you accuse me of racism! Stop imagining things!”

    PANEL 6

    A shot of the classroom, no illustration. The teacher is turning towards Imani and asking her a question. The teacher looks worried. Imani, now sitting cross-legged on the floor, replies with an “I don’t know” shrug.

    TEACHER: “Another hundred years later (NOTE: possible: long after Jumball and Bigapie were dead — just because I think it makes more sense to call back to it actually being a book)…”

    TEACHER: Imani, when does this story end?

    IMANI: Mommy says we don’t know yet.

    IDK. If anything’s useful, take it.

    I know you’re using picture book language for “treated as property” but it settles oddly with a specific like “Jim Crow.” I replaced the latter with “laws,” but moving both to specifics could work too.

  20. 20
    Ampersand says:

    Thanks for the feedback, everyone!

    If you look at the post, you’ll see that I’ve modified the cartoon. I hope this fixes some of the problems. (The original version is here, for comparison’s sake.)

  21. 21
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Hey Amp, I hate to be constantly negative here, but it feels to me like you still are hitting a false note here.

    In the initial cartoon, you seemed to be saying “people overcoming individual prejudice creates systemic racism”.

    In this version, you are saying “people overcoming individual prejudice is a lie because of systemic racism”.

    I still think what you should be saying is “people overcoming individual prejudice helps individuals but does not solve systemic racism”.

    I like Mandolin’s suggestions, but they’re a bit inconsistent, because in panel 3 it looks like there’s still formal segregation but the later panels seem to be talking more about the past.

    There’s another structural problem with the cartoon (all versions), which is that the white teacher in the end is not doing what the penultimate panel suggests she would be doing, which is blaming the black kid/her mom of imagining the whole thing.

    My suggestion (panels 1, 4 and 5 as in current version):

    Panel 2: IMANI: Miss Martin? My mommy wrote another book – it’s about the same characters!

    TEACHER: Oh, how marvelous! Thank you, Imani.

    Panel 3: Jumball’s trihead’s granddad felt especially silly, because he remembered how things were different when he was young. See, at the time, the squareheads were still considered to be the slaves of the triheads, as they had been for many years”.

    Panel 6: Teacher: “and even after Jumball Trihead and Bigapie Squarehead became friends…” Imani, do you know why your Mommy thought any of this was necessary? I don’t get it”

    IMANI: No, but she told me to count how many pages you get through before you stopped and asked that!

  22. 22
    Ampersand says:

    Hey Eytan!

    Thanks for the suggestions, sincerely. But I feel I’ve reached the “time to move on” point for this cartoon, so I’m going to leave it as it is, at least for a few months.

  23. 23
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Fair enough :)

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