Wednesday, August 15, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part One


Despite the fact that they compose a large part of the population of the United States, for much of the medium's history African Americans were not treated particularly fairly in comic books. During the Golden Age of the Forties they were more often portrayed as stereotypes if they appeared at all. During the Fifties they did not even appear in comic books. It has only been in the past forty years that African Americans have started appearing in comic books in the numbers equal to their actual presence in the American population.

Here it should be pointed out that this was a reflection of society's attitudes of the time. In most media of the time African Americans and other minorities were underrepresented, and when they did appear they were more often than not stereotyped. When they appeared in movies at all, African Americans were most often represented by the sorts of characters played by Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best. Amos and Andy was arguably the most successful radio show of the Thirties. When Asians appeared in the movies at all, it was either as villains of the Fu Manchu type or bucktoothed, nearsighted buffoons. With regards to comic books, the first supervillain to appear in the medium was The Claw (Silver Streak Comics, December 1939), a clear variation on the Fu Manchu stereotype. Native Americans were largely absent from the big screen, save in Westerns where they were almost always villains who spoke in broken English. The same was true of the comic books of the era. In either stereotyping African Americans and other ethnicities or not showing them at all, comic books were then simply following in the footsteps of the rest of society.

The Illustrated Minstrel Show

When compared to such media as books and even motion pictures, comic books are not a particularly old medium in the United States. It was only in 1933 that the first modern American comic book, Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Comics was published. Famous Funnies: a Carnival of Comics was a promotional item created by M. C. Gaines and Harry I. Wildenberg for Woolworth's department stores, a collection of reprinted newspaper comic strips. It met with such success that it led to the first regularly published comic book, Famous Funnies, debuting with a cover date of July 1934. The success of Famous Funnies would lead to others entering the comic book field. In fact, there were enough comic book publishers in the mid-Thirties that they nearly exhausted the supply of newspaper strips to reprint, forcing them to publish original material. If there was any indication that comic books were not a passing fad it would be in 1938 with the publication of Action Comics #1. The new comic book also introduced a new character named Superman. Although he was not the first superhero (arguably that was Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel) or even the first costumed hero (arguably that was Lee Falk's comic strip hero The Phantom), Superman became an overnight sensation. It also drove comic book sales through the roof, and marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Comic Books.

Sadly, the Golden Age of Comic Books was not a Golden Age for everyone. As pointed out earlier, when they appeared at all, African American characters of the era were most often stereotypes. They were often portrayed in the usual blackface caricature, with large eyes, broad noses, and large lips, and they spoke in the stereotypical, minstrel show dialect. Such stereotypes were not limited to African Americans. In the jungle adventure comic books of the time (such as the popular Sheena, Queen of the Jungle) African natives were often portrayed as spear carrying, superstitious savages, and in the humour comic books of the time their appearance was often no different than that of the stereotypical, blackface African American characters of the time. An example of the insensitivity of the comic book industry at the time can be seen in an early Captain Marvel story in Whiz Comics #12, January 1941, in which Billy Batson disguises himself in blackface and passes himself off as an African American!

African American characters were rarely regulars in the comic books of the Golden Age, although there were a few exceptions. And naturally those exceptions were often extreme stereotypes. Among the most historic comic books ever published is Young Allies #1, summer 1941, published by Timely Comics (Marvel Comics' name in the Golden Age). Created by Jack Kirby and Joe Simon, it marked the first of the many action-adventure kid gangs that would fill the pages of Golden Age comic books (the Newsboy Legion and the Boy Commandos are two other examples). It also marked the first time in the history of Marvel Comics that an African American character would be a regular in a series. Sadly, that character, named Whitewash, was a stereotype. Not only was his name derogatory, but he was drawn as a typical blackface caricature and spoke in the standard, minstrel show dialect. He essentially played the same role that Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best played in movies, that of the none too bright buffoon.

As offensive as Whitewash was, he appeared throughout the run of Young Allies without creating much of a commotion. The same cannot be said to be true for a character appearing in Captain Marvel's series at Fawcett Comics. In America's Greatest Comics #2, June 1942, a character named Steamboat was introduced as Billy Batson's valet. Like Whitewash in Young Allies, Steamboat was portrayed as a caricature, speaking in the typical dialect. Curiously, according to C. C. Beck, Steamboat was created to attract an African American audience! As it turned out, however, the character had the exact opposite effect. A group of African Americans visited the offices of Fawcett Comics to make their displeasure regarding the character of Steamboat clear. The character was dropped after Whiz Comics #52, March 1944, lasting only a little under two years.

While Whitewash and Steamboat are relatively obscure characters, the same cannot be said for The Spirit's sidekick, Ebony White. He is perhaps the most famous African American character from the Golden Age of Comics. He is also a more complicated character than either Whitewash or Steamboat. While people are unanimous in stating that these characters are purely stereotypes, there is a great deal of debate regarding Ebony White.

The Spirit debuted in June 1940, the creation of legendary comic book artist and writer Will Eisner. The strip originated as part of a plan by Quality Comics publisher Everett M. Arnold to expand into newspapers. It is for that reason that The Spirit was published as part of a sixteen page tabloid supplement to the weekend editions of newspapers (it would also be reprinted in the pages of various Quality Comics). The Spirit was detective Denny Colt, who becomes the superhero after he has been assumed to have been killed. Ebony White first appeared in the strip not long after its debut, becoming The Spirit's sidekick. Ebony's exact age was unclear. He sometimes appeared as a young boy and other times as a grownup cab driver, but one thing about his early appearances was consistent. In many respects he was in nearly perfect line with other African American caricatures of the day. His name was a racial play on words. And he was first drawn as a typical African American caricature, with big eyes and thick lips. He even spoke in the dialect typical of African American stereotypes of the time. In fact, there are those who will insist that Ebony White is one of the most racist characters in the history of comics. Later in his career Will Eisner would even express mixed feelings about his portrayal of Ebony in the early Spirit stories.

That having been said, Ebony White would appear to stand apart from such characters as Whitewash and Steamboat. It is true that he was played for comic relief and portrayed as a bit of a bumbler in the strip's earliest stories, but after a time he would be portrayed as brave, intelligent, and resourceful. It was not unusual for Ebony to even come to The Spirit's rescue. These things set him apart from the usual Willie Best type characters that filled comic books of the day. It is perhaps notable that while Ebony White remains a figure of controversy to this day, Will Eisner apparently only received a few complaints about him. In 1966 in a story in the New York Herald Tribune, Eisner's former office manager Marilyn Mercer noted that Ebony White never drew complaints from African American groups.

Ultimately, Ebony White may best be considered a transition character in comic books. While he looked like a caricature and spoke in dialect, he also had positive traits that were not to be found in other, much more offensive stereotypes of the day. Eisner would later take Ebony White even farther away from more offensive stereotypes, toning down his features and cleaning up his grammar. He also introduced a new African American character, Detective Grey, who was a competent and practical private eye.

While Eisner's early portrayal of Ebony White causes consternation in many today, there were arguably much more offensive characters appearing in comic books of the same period. In fact, perhaps the most offensive portrayal of an African American during the Golden Age of Comics was the sidekick of an obscure character called Johnny Rebel (Yankee Comics #2, November 1941). Johnny Rebel was a teenage, costumed character who fought crime in the Antebellum South. He was assisted by his servant (that is, slave) Rufus. Not only is Rufus a caricature who speaks in dialect, but the name stems from the days of minstrelsy for the stereotype of the lazy, cowardly, shifty eyed African American of minstrel shows. Other offensive stereotypes appearing in Golden Age comic books were L'il Eightball (from Walter Lantz's animated cartoons of the same name), Mammy Two-Shoes (in the Tom and Jerry comic books of the era, where she is called "Dinah"). and Snowball (the sidekick of a Harvey comics character, The Blazing Scarab). And as mentioned earlier, both the jungle adventure and humour comic books of the day were filled with superstitious natives.

Fortunately, as the Forties progressed, things began to change as far as the portrayal of African Americans in comic books. Where once stereotypes predominated, some comic books moved towards a more realistic portrayal of African Americans.

The Transition Period

As he continued writing The Spirit, it seems obvious that Will Eisner had second thoughts about his earlier portrayal of Ebony White. He would tone down the character's exaggerated appearance and clean up his grammar. Eisner also introduced the character of Detective Grey to the strip. Eisner was not alone in reevaluating the role of African Americans in comic books. Other were also doing so at the same time.

George Hecht, publisher of Parents Magazines, led the way in the fair treatment of African Americans in comic books. Believing that comic books could be so much more than colourful adventures about superheroes, he founded True Comics. True Comics was an educational title which featured true stories of real life heroism. Its first issue featured a story on Winston Churchill. A broadminded man, Hecht featured real life stories that focused on women, Native Americans, Asians, and African Americans. True Comics was successful enough that George Hecht followed it up with further true to life titles: Real Heroes, Calling All Girls (which focused on heroic women--it was the first comic book targeted at girls), and several others.

Hecht would eventually issue a title devoted entirely to African Americans. Negro Heroes was published in spring 1947. While it consisted largely of material reprinted from his other titles, it was still the first comic book to consist entirely of positive potrayals of African Americans. Sadly, Hecht would publish only one other issue of Negro Heroes, dated summer 1948.

Hecht was not the only publisher attempting realistic portrayals of African Americans. The Interfaith Committee of the magazine Protestant Digest also published their own comic book, The Challenger, devoted to wiping out racial prejudice. The first issue appeared in 1944 and regularly featured stories about people dealing with prejudice. The one regular feature in the magazine was The Challenger Club. It focused on an African American couple, Tom and Sally, and a European American family, Don and Margie, who formed the Challenger Club, devoted to fighting racism. Ahead of its time, The Challenger only lasted briefly.

It would be in 1947, the same year that saw the first issue of Hecht's Negro Heroes, that a comic book not only dedicated to African Americans would appear, but one that was written and illustrated by them as well. The New York Times called Orrin C. Evans the "dean of black reporters." Starting his newspaper career at the African American newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune, Evans would become the first African American reporter to write for a mainstream newspaper (The Philadelphia Record). When The Philadelphia Record closed down, Evans turned his eyes towards comic books. Namely, he noted that there were no African American heroes in comic books. Along with friends from The Philadelphia Record, Evans formed and a partnership. He then sought out African American cartoonists (including his brother, George J. Evans Jr.) to publish All Negro Comics. The first issue was cover dated June 1947.

The lead feature in All Negro Comics was Ace Harlem, about a police detective of that name. The character of Ace Harlem is a stark contrast to characters such as Steamboat and Whitewash. Walking into a murder scene in the opening of the story, he immediately takes charge. All-Negro Comics also featured the first African American superhero. Lion Man. created by George J. Evans, was a college educated African American scientist sent to Africa to stop the use of an atomic bomb there. Once there he dons a costume, becoming Lion Man to fight the bad guys. All Negro Comics also featured Dew Dillies, about a fairy like race living near ponds and lakes, and a humour feature called Sugarfoot.

Sadly, the first issue of All Negro Comics was also its last. While there was material ready for a second issue, Evans soon found himself unable to buy newsprint anywhere. It seems likely that there was not a shortage of paper taking place at the time, but that instead of it was a simple case of racism. Regardless, All Negro Comics did attract some attention at the time. It was mentioned in the July 17, 1947 issue of Time Magazine. A copy was also sent to Eleanor Rossevelt and she mentioned in her syndicated newspaper column, "My Day." Although she admitted that she was not very fond of comic books, she gave it a good review.

Other comic books featuring realistic portrayals of African Americans would follow in the wake of Negro Heroes and All Negro Comics. Fawcett, the publisher of Captain Marvel, published Negro Romance, the first issue cover dated June 1950. They published three more issues before the book folded. In 1955 Charlton reprinted the second issue as Negro Romance #4. Fawcett also published a comic book featuring baseball star Jackie Robinson starting in 1949. Comic books dedicated to boxing legend Joe Louis were also published.

By 1954 enough ground had been broken that an African could appear as an independent, strong character in an American comic book. Cover dated July 1954, among the featues in Jungle Tales (published by Atlas Comics, the name Marvel bore in the Fifties) was a feature called Waku, Prince of the Bantu Waku was an African chief in an undetermined past. No European characters appeared regularly in the strip, which lasted for seven issues in Jungle Tales. Waku was about as far from the minstrel show and superstitious native stereotypes as one could get. In fact, about the worst that could be said of him is that he could be considered the "noble savage" stereotype common in portrayals of both Africans and Native Americans in various media.

Sadly, 1954 would mark the last year that African Americans would appear in comic books for some time. Until the Sixties, African Americans would be absent even from crowd scenes in American comic books. And the reason for this was an outgrowth of the stereotypes that had plagued comic books in the Golden Age.

1 comment:

d. chedwick bryant said...

good post on a subject i hadnt even thought about--
very interesting.