Saturday, August 18, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Four


In some respects, in the Nineties the comic book industry had made a good deal of progress with regards to African American characters since The Black Panther's first appearance in 1966. In that time there had been African American characters who had headlined their own series (Luke Cage and Black Lightning) and African American characters who were important members of superteams (Storm and Cyborg). And while there would only be a few African American characters by the end of the Sixties, by the end of the Eighties there were quite a few more. That having been said, in some respects the comic book industry had made little progress with regards to African American characters since 1966. Although black characters had headlined their own series, their number was actually fairly small (Luke Cage, The Black Panther, and Black Lightning among them). And as of the early Nineties, no African American character had seen the success of characters such as The X-Men, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman.

Fortunately, the Nineties would see this change. The early Nineties would see the creation of several important African American characters. The decade would also see the debut of several comic books headlined by African American heroes. Finally, it was in the Nineties that the first comic book company dedicated to giving minorities more exposure in comic books was founded.

It would be in X-Men #282, November 1991 that the first major African American male character to play a role in the X-Men titles would appear. Bishop was a mutant from the future who travelled back in time to join the X-Men. The character proved popular, appearing as the headliner in four different limited series and continuing to appear in X-Men titles to this day.

As popular as Bishop was, it would be an independent company rather than Marvel or DC who would create what could be the most popular African American character of all time. In 1992 Image Comics was founded by seven artists (many of whom had worked on Marvel's X-Men titles) who wanted to retain the rights to the characters they created. A good proportion of Image's original output were outright X-Men ripoffs (Youngblood may have been the exception--it was a Teen Titans ripoff), but within their first few months they would publish a book featuring an African American hero who worked solo. That hero was Spawn, who debuted in Spawn #1, May 1992. Spawn was CIA agent Al Simmons, who was murdered and sent to Hell where he was transformed into one of the hellspawn, an officer in the army of Hell. As might be expected, Spawn rebelled and took to fighting the forces of evil, much to Hell's chagrin.

Spawn proved enormously successful when first published. It was Image's biggest selling title and it is only one of two of their original titles (the other being Savage Dragon) still published today (Spawn is currently on its 170th issue). It would be adapted into an HBO animated series which ran from 1997 to 1999. Spawn would also become the first African American superhero featured in a motion picture released in 1997 (beating Steel to the theatres by two weeks). Spawn has been the basis for several video games. Over the years several series and mini-series were spun off from it. Currently another Spawn movie is in pre-production. Arguably, Spawn is the most successful African American comic book character of all time, and one of the few suprheroes that the average person might actually recognise (if only from the movie and TV series).

Image had other African American characters besides Spawn. Chapel debuted as part of Youngblood, Rob Liefield's variation on the Teen Titans, in Youngblood #1, April 1992. A government assassin, Chapel always seemed to me a bit reminiscent of both Bishop and Cable from the X-Men comics. Despite this, the character proved popular, with more than one mini-series and appearances in Spawn. Shadowhawk also first appeared in the pages of Youngblood, although he worked solo. Shadowhawk was Paul Johnstone, who donned an exo-suit to become the hero Shadowhawk. Infected with HIV, the original Shadowhawk eventually died, and since others have bore the name. Shadowhawk did not see the success of Chapel, let alone Spawn.

Another popular African American character also emerged from an independent company. Shadowman may well have been one of Valiant Comics' most popular characters, and possibly one of the most popular characters of the Nineties. He debuted in his own title, Shadowman #1, May 1992. Shadowman was Jack Boniface, a jazz musician who developed unusual powers after being bitten by a strange creature. Shadowman proved to be one of the most popular comic books of its era. When the series ended in 2002 it was not because of low sales, but due to other matters. In 1996 Valiant Comics was bought by Acclaim Entertainment, who published the old Valiant titles under the Acclaim Comics imprint. Unfortunately, while the comic books continued to sell well, Acclaim Entertainment took heavy losses on their video games, eventually forcing their company to go under.

Valiant would publish another title featuring a notable African American character. Quantum and Woody was billed as "the World's Worst Superteam." Quantum was the one who was African American, a disciplined, former Army officer with an array of special weapons. Woody was his blonde partner who was also a bumbling fool. After donning a pair of mysterious metal bands, the two discover they must stay together. If they don't touch the bands together once every day, they'll disappear...literally. Largely played for comedy, Quantum and Woody was popular, but like Shadowman the series ended when Acclaim Entertainment went bankrupt.

Independents were not the only companies in the Nineties to create popular African American superheroes. In 1993 DC Comics published a multi-issue story arc called "The Death and Return of Superman." Among the heroes to emerge from this story arc was Steel. Steel was John Henry Irons, a weapons engineer who built a powered suit of armour in effort to stop Doomsday, the entity who had killed the Man of Steel. Eventually taking the identity "Steel," Irons would be popular enough to earn his own title. Steel ran from 1994 to 1998. He was also popular enough to appear in the second movie to feature an African American hero, Steel, which debuted in 1997. Following his book's cancellation, Steel would become a member of the Justic League. He eventually retired, and his niece Natasha would take over the mantle of Steel. Although no longer a superhero, he continues to play an important role in the Superman titles as Superman's technology advisor.

Even with several African American characters starring in their own titles (Spawn, Shadowman, Steel, and so on), in the early Nineties there was still disparity in the numbers of African American characters when compared to European American ones. In 1992 comic book artist Denys Cowan, writer Dwayne McDuffie, Derek T. Dingle (then managing editor of Black Enterprise Magazine), and artist Michael Davis founded Milestone Media with the goal of correcting the inequity of minority characters in the comic book industry. Milestone struck a deal with DC Comics would publish its titles and act as both its product licensing and media licensing agent.

Milestone Media entered publishing with Hardware #1, April 1993. The series centred on Curt Metcalf, an inventor who fought crime as Hardware in a gadget laden suit. Hardware broke new ground in presenting an African American hero who was also a fairly complex character. Being both an African American and a scientific genius would have been original enough, but Curt Metcalf also had a interesting reason for donning the Hardware suit. It was not so much to fight crime, as to get revenge on his mentor Edwin Alva, who had cheated him out of his share of the profits for the things he has invented and was also heavily involved in crime. Quite simply, Metcalf sought to avenge himself on Alva by destroying his criminal business.

Although Hardware was Milestone's first character and always an important character in Milestone's comic book universe, it would be Static who would be their most popular character. Static first appeared the same month as Hardware, in Static #1, April 1993. Static was teenager Virgil Hawkins who, after being exposed to an experimental chemical, develops the ability to manipulate electricity and electromagnetic phenomenon. Static then became a superhero, although in true Spider-Man fashion this did nothing to solve the typical problems a teenager sees any given day. The combination of teen angst and superheroics, along with a good rogues gallery, made Static a fairly popular title in the Nineties. Eventually it would serve as the basis for the Saturday morning animated series, Static Shock, which ran for four years on the WB. Static would be one of the few Milestone comic book characters who would see publication after Milestone closed shop. He appeared in the limited series Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool published by DC Comics in 2001.

Another important Milestone character was Icon. Strictly speaking Icon was not African American, but an alien. According to Icon's origin, in the 19th century a spaceship crashed in a cotton field in the American south. The alien, Arnus, used technology aboard his ship to change his shape to something similar to the first human he encountered, a slave named Miriam. As a result Arnus took the shape of an African American man. The slaves who became Arnus's friends persuaded him to hide his powers for fear that using them would bring down retribution from European Americans on all of them. Living much longer than human beings, Arnus hid his powers for decades and in the present day assumed the identity of lawyer August Freeman IV. It was an encounter with teenager Raquel Ervin that persuaded him to become Icon to fight crime. Raquel in turn became his sidekick, Rocket. Icon was described as a "black superman" because he superficially resembled Superman, although there were important differences. Besides possessing various powers which Superman does not, much of the appeal in Icon lay in the fact that his often conservative views put him at odds with other Milestone characters, not the least of which was his own sidekick Rocket.

Because its best known characters were African Americans, Milestone Media was often thought of as an African American comic book company. This was certainly not the case. As mentioned earlier, Milestone was founded in the name of ethnic diversity, and as a result it featured characters who were not African American. Among these was Xombi, a Korean American given special abilities by nanobots, Kobalt, a Cuban vigilante, and assorted members of the Shadow Cabinet and Heroes.

Cover dated July 1994, Worlds Collide was a one issue crossover between DC Comics and Milestone Media. In Worlds Collide a postman became a living portal between the Milestone universe and DC universe. Eventually he becomes the supervillain called Rift, endangering both worlds. As a result Milestone heroes Hardware, Icon, Rocket, and Static must team up with Superman, Superboy, and Steel to stop him. The one shot Worlds Collide was meant to give Milestone's titles more visibility. Unfortunately, in the long run it would not save the Milestone Comics line. Sales for many of Milestone's titles were fairly low, and between 1995 and 1996 Milestone cancelled many of these. In 1997 Milestone Media shut down its comic book line completely. The company continues to exist as a licensing company for the various Milestone characters.

The reasons for the failure of Milestone Comics are complex, and much of it is rooted in the comic book market of the time. In late Eighties there developed what has come to be called the "speculator bubble" in the comic book market. The speculator bubble developed as a result of individuals buying mass quantities of comic books (often several copies of the same issue) at once in hopes of selling them later at a higher price (speculators). Such speculators drove comic book sales through the roof in the early Nineties. In response the various comic book companies increased the print runs of existing titles and debuted many new ones. They also used various gimmicks in an attempt to increase sales, from novelty covers to crossovers. In the end all of this caused many comic books to simply not increase in price the way speculators had expected them to. At the same time many long time fans were very unhappy with the various gimmicks being used to drive comic book sales up, often at the cost of a good story. In the end the speculators stopped collecting comic books, as did many fans, resulting in a collapse in comic book sales. Whereas a company could have expected to sell 200,000 copies of a comic book in 1992, by 1994 they might be luck to sell 20,000. Milestone Media was founded just as the speculator bubble was about to burst and comic book collecting dropped to a new low. Under such conditions, any comic book company would be hard put to survive.

The speculator bubble also led to the demise of Milestone Comics in another way. With comic book sales higher than they had been for years, many new comic book companies were founded, among them aforementioned Valiant and Image. Established comic book companies, such as Marvel, would come out with new imprints (such as Marvel's MC2 line and Malibu Comics' Ultraverse line). By the time Milestone was founded, the market was already glutted with new comic book lines. In the end, it was difficult for many of them to compete and only a few such lines have survived from that era.

The final reason for Milestone Comics' collapse may have been simple racism. Many retailers and even fans assumed that Milestone Comics were written for African Americans and were not written for those who were not African American. As a result Milestone's titles did not receive the exposure that a title owned by DC or Marvel would. While Milestone received some coverage in various new outlets, they were virtually ignored by such comic book magazines as Wizard. This was particularly sad not simply because Milestone featured characters who were not African American (Xombi and Kobalt), but because they published well written stories that could be enjoyed by anyone. A perfect example is Static, who would seem to appeal to anyone who had been a teenager at one time or another. The tragedy of Milestone Comics' demise wasn't simply that it was a company that gave greater exposure to minority heroes, but because it was a company that published titles of a qualtiy better than much of what was on the market at the time. Quite simply, Milestone Media published some of the best comic books of the Nineties.

From the Late Nineties to Today

When Milestone Media closed down its comic book line, it could have been perceived as a serious blow to the presence of African American characters in comic books. In the end, however, new African American heroes to appear from the late Nineties to today. Similarly, new comic book companies dedicated to the creation of African American characters would emerge in the wake of Milestone.

Among the most important African American characters to debut in the Nineties was a character called Jack-in-the-Box, who debuted in the pages of Kurt Busiek's critically acclaimed and award winning Astro City. Jack-in-the-Box first appeared in Astro City #3, October 1995. Jack-in-the-Box is notable as one of the most original characters created in comic books for some time. Essentially Busiek took the themes of toys, pranks, and jokes making generally associated with such supervillains as Toyman (a frequent opponent of Superman), The Jester (who fought Marvel Comics' Daredevil), and, the most famous of them all, The Joker, and applied it to a superhero. Busiek has also stated that the character of The Harlequin from the Harlan Ellison short story "'Repent, Harlequien!' Said the Ticktockman," as an inspiration for Jack-in-the-Box.

The original Jack-in-the-Box was Jack Johnson, one of the first African Americans to have success in the toy industry. When Johnson found out that the company he for whom he worked was using his inventions in criminal activities, Johnson became Jack-in-the-Box and created various non-lethal weapons with a jack-in-the-box theme. Eventually, Johnson was killed in a battle with the supervillain called the Underlord. Shortly thereafter, his son Zachary became the new Jack-in-the-Box to avenge his father's death (and the first one to appear in the pages of Astro City). Besides being a skilled combatant, acrobat, and athlete, Jack-in-the-Box has a number of weapons in his arsenal, among them confetti which can entangle his foes, rubber clown noses that can act as a taser (delivering powerful electric shocks), and gloves which can telescope to punch opponents a good distance away (or as Jack-in-the-Box calls them, "handsprings"). Jack-in-the-Box appears more often than many of the characters in Astro City (of which there are several) and plays an important role in the history of the series.

Although none are as important as Jack-in-the-Box, other African American characters are also featured in Astro City. MPH is a member of the Honor Guard (Astro City's equivalent of the Justice Socity), who moves with super speed, while Glowworm is a supervillain with the ability to manipulate energy.

Another starkly original African American character to appear in the Nineties was Xero, who debuted in Xero #1, May 1997. Xero is one of the most original characters to come around. Xero was Coltrane Walker, a professional basketball player turned technologically enhanced secret agent for a government spy agency. Unfortunately, Walker's superiors at the agency require that he go into action disguised as a blond, blue eyed, European American superhero. The series not only focused on the conflict between his two occupations, that of an African American basketball player and an European American superspy, but questions if being an African American pro basketball player isn't as much of a role he plays as being an European American secret agent. Sadly, sales for Xero were not strong and it was cancelled after only running about a year.

As in the Eighties, recent years have seen the phenomenon of African American characters stepping into roles previously occupied by European American characters. the original Mister Terrific first appeared in Sensation Comics #1, January 1942. In Spectre vol 3 #54, June 1997, prodigy Michael Holt assumed the mantle of Mister Terrific. He would become a member of the reformed Justice Society of America and even serve as its chairman for a time. The original Crimson Avenger was DC Comic's second superhero, after Superman. He first appeared in Detective Comics #20, October 1938. In Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #9, April 2000, an African American woman (whose actual identity is a matter of mystery) took over the mantle of The Crimson Avenger. She has appeared in JSA and Action Comics.

While Mister Terrific and The Crimson Avenger were Golden Age characters, more recent characters could also be revamped with a different ethnicity than that of the original one. The original Firestorm first appeared in the late Seventies and was teenager Ronnie Raymond. Raymond would eventually die in battle with the Shadow Thief (one of the Silver Age Hawkman's rogues gallery). In dying, Firestorm's energy entered African American teenager Jason Rusch. As a result, Rusch had Firestorm's powers. He then assumed the name of Firestorm. He first appeared in Firestorm vol. 3 #1, July 2004. His title was just cancelled this year.

Other African American heroes have appeared as members of superteams. In fact, one appeared as the founder and leader of one. Josiah Power first appeared in JLA #61, February 2002. A successful lawyer, after an alien invasion he found he had the power to take a rock life form and manipulate energy. Josiah Power later founded the Power Company, a superteam with a structure not unlike a law firm. The Power Company was featured in its own title from April 2002 to September 2003.

An African American was also the heroine of Occult Crimes Taskforce, first published with a cover date of July 2006. Occult Crimes Taskforce follows police officer Sophia Ortiz as she finds a bizarre murder and meets up with New York's Occult Crimes Taskforce. The mini-series was co-written by movie star Rosario Dawson and David Atchison and illustrated by Tony Shasteen (Miss Dawson's uncle is comic book artist Gustavo Vazquez).

Not only have new African American characters continued to emerge at the major comic book companies (DC and Marvel), but companies dedicated to publishing comic books featuring African American characters have also emerged. In fact, one was founded the year that Milestone Media folded its comic book line. Gettosake Entertainment was founded in 1997. They are perhaps best known for their online, animated character Venus Kincaid, about a government agent who finds herself turned younger, even though she still has the knowledge and skills of an adult. A feature film based on the cartoon is set for release sometime this year. Another Gettosake character is Fierce, an FBI psychic profiler who finds himself on the run. Fierce appeared in a four issue limited series of the same name published by Dark Horse Comics in 2004. Other published Gettosake titles are Chocolate Thunder and Shadow Rock.

Another company dedicated to producing African American comic book characters is Griot Enterprises. They published the series The Horsemen, an apocalyptic tale in which four ordinary people find themselves possessed by African gods. Griot also published WitchDoctor. The series focused on Dr. Jovan Carrington, who used voodoo to combat evil.

A more recent company whose goal is the creation of African American characters is the Guardian Line, founded by Milestone co-founder Michael Davis in cooperation with Urban Ministries Inc. The goal of Guardian Line is to publish comic books featuring African American characters with strong Christian themes. Currently they are publishing four titles: Code, Joe and Max, Genesis Five, and Seekers. Code follows a mysterious, Shadow type figure who possesses advanced technology and an in depth knowledge of the Christian Bible. Joe and Max follows the adventures of an eleven year old boy, Joe, who befriends his own guardian angel, Max. Genesis Five centres upon five angels who take the appearance of teenagers. Seekers follows a group of young time travellers.

It is notable that both Gettosake and Griot have met with some success, although neither is in the position to challenge the three major comic book companies (DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse) as of yet. And it remains to be seen how much success Guardian Line will meet with. I rather suspect that much of the hurdle small companies publishing African American characters face is the same that any small comic book company faces: lacking the distribution of the majors, and yet having to compete with the majors and their well established characters. When faced with companies that have been around for around seventy years (DC and Marvel) that own the best names in the business, it is probably difficult for any company to survive


In the seventy four years that the comic book industry has existed, there has been a good deal of progress made with regards to African American characters. In the early days nearly every African American character was drawn in the blackface caricature and spoke in minstrel show dialect. By the late Forties, African American characters had emerged who were more realistic. Although African American characters disappeared in the Fifties, the Sixties saw black superheroes emerge. By the Eighties it was not unusual for African American heroes to headline their own titles. And the Nineties saw the rise of a company whose goal was to give more exposure to minority characters, including African American ones. Given the typical African American character in the early Forties was Whitewash from Young Allies, it can be said that a good deal of progress had been made.

That having been said, it would seem that such progress has not been enough. When one examines the percentage of European American characters versus African American characters, that percentage still does not realistically reflect the population of the United States of America. What's more, even though it has been forty one years since the first appearance of The Black Panther, only two African American comic book characters have any sort of name recognition--Blade and Spawn. Now it is very unlikely that any character, whether African American or European American, will ever achieve the sort of name recognition possessed by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. The plain fact is that comic books simply don't possess the pop culture clout they did in the Thirties and Sixties. The only reason Blade is famous is because of his three feature films, not his comic book appearances. That having been said, the sad fact is that most African American comic book characters don't even have the name recognition of Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, or Captain Marvel. It is difficult to say why this is the case, but it could be due to the underrepresentation of African American characters in the titles published by the major comic book companies. After all, it is less likely for an African American character to become a breakout success if there are only a few of them around.

This is particularly sad as it seems that an African American could achieve the same success as The X-Men or The Incredible Hulk. If Milestone Media proved one thing, it was that an African American character could be popular enough to warrant a Saturday morning, What is more, Static's cartoon lasted four years, an overly long time for any Saturday morning product. And it seems highly unlikely that every viewer who watched Static Shock was African American. This shows that an African American character can appeal to broad enough an audience to have a good deal of success. Quite simply, it seems possible to me that an African American character could achieve the sort of popularity necessary to become a multimedia franchise in the same way that The X-Men have. It can only be hoped that the major comic book companies wake up to this possibilities or that one of the characters from the smaller companies becomes an breakout success. While a good deal of progress has been made in the past seventy years, there needs to be more progress made.

Friday, August 17, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Three


In the early Seventies both Marvel Comics and DC Comics had a tendency to follow the latest fads in society. For instance, when kung fu gained enormous popularity in the United States early in the decade, both companies launched comic books devoted to Asian martial arts. It then makes perfect sense that with the popularity of blaxploitation movies in the Seventies, that they would have an impact on comic books. In the early Seventies both Marvel and DC would publish characters influenced by the blaxploitation cycle of movies.

The blaxploitation cycle began with two films released in 1971. The first to be released was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, essentially an art film centred on an African American man fleeing from the police after rescuing a Black Panther from racist cops. The second to be released was Shaft, which focused on an African American detective of the same name. The blaxploitation films that followed were always extremely violent and often contained a good deal of sexual content. While many blaxploitation featured people fighting crime as the heroes (detective John Shaft and the avenging nurse in Coffy are examples), others featured drug dealers, pimps, hit men, and gangsters as their protagonists (examples being Superfly and The Mack). In both cases the ghetto experience was often central to the plot. The blaxploitation cycle was controversial in that many felt that the movies exploited modern day stereotypes about African Americans. The NAACP, Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference even formed a group to combat the genre, the Coalition Against Blaxploitation.

Ultimately, the blaxploitation cycle would end around 1974, with only a few more such films released in 1975. It seems most likely that the controversy over the films had less to do with the genre's decline than the genre simply having burned itself out. In the end, there were not only blaxploitation action films, but blaxploitation Westerns, blaxploitation kung fu movies, blaxploitation gangster movies, and even blaxploitation horror movies.

Marvel Comics was the first of the two major comic book companies of the time to embrace blaxploitation. Hero for Hire was cover dated June 1972 and featured the first African American superhero to headline his own title. Luke Cage was an ex convict who underwent experimental treatments which gave him superhuman strength and impenetrable skin. Rather than go the usual route of simply fighting crime as a vigilante, Luke Cage became a "hero for hire," helping those who could pay his fee.

Like the heroes of the blaxploitation movies of the time, Luke Cage tended to be defiant of authority. He often fought racist, European American villains. And Cage spoke in a comic book approximation of street slang. The one thing that set Cage apart from the heroes of blaxploitation movies was an utter lack of sexual content, which was forbidden to comic books of the time under the Comic's Code. Luke Cage would prove to be one of the most popular African American characters created by Marvel. His magazine, undergoing a few title changes, would last 125 issues.

The most famous Marvel, African American character today is probably Blade, whose fame was spread by three successful movies and a TV series. Like Luke Cage, Blade grew out of the blaxploitation cycle. Indeed, in his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula #10, July 1973, Blade could have easily passed for John Shaft. A vampire hunter whose mother had been bitten by a vampire before he was born. This made Blade immune to vampire bites and slowed his aging process. Blade could be downright rude at times. And like Luke Cage, he spoke in the comic book equivalent of street slang. Despite his success today, Blade appeared infrequently in Marvel Comics from the Seventies to the Eighties, often as a supporting player.

Unlike Marvel Comics, DC was slower to embrace the blaxploitation cycle. When they did create a character who grew out of the genre, he not only capitalised on the blaxploitation cycle, but on the concurrent kung fu fad as well. The Bronze Tiger first appeared in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter #1, April-May 1975. The Bronze Tiger was Ben Turner, who had take up Asian martial arts in an effort to control his rage after his parents' murder. Unlike other characters to emerge from the Blaxploitation cycle, the Bronze Tiger was more villain than hero, and could aptly be described as Richard Dragon's archnemesis.

Among blaxploitation movies of the era were those that featured African American woman fighting crime, such as Cleopatra Jones and Coffy. Marvel Comics would develop a similar character in the form of Misty Knight. First appearing in Marvel Premiere #20, January 1975, Knight was seriously injured as a New York police offer attempting to thwart a bombing. Her right arm was replaced by a bionic one. Retiring from the police force, she formed her own detective agency. Knight never achieved her own magazine, although she has been an important character in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, Power Man and Iron Fist (the final version of Luke Cage's title), and The Uncanny X-Men.

DC Comics' next entry in the blaxploitation cycle was Tyroc. Tyroc was the first African American member of the Legion of Superheroes, debuting in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #216, April 1976. And while Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes was set 2000 years in the future, Tyroc came off as a typical blaxploitation hero (without all the sex, of course). He wore an Afro and his costume even boasted huge, gold chains. Even his personality was somewhat stereotypical, that of the angry, young black man. Tyroc did not appear very often with the Legion of Super-Heroes and eventually disappeared altogether.

While Tyroc was not a very successful character, the same cannot be said for Black Lightning. While he never had his own title for very long, he has appeared regularly in DC Comics since his first appearance in Black Lightning #1, April 1977. Black Lightning was not purely a blaxploitation character. His civilian identity was that of Jefferson Pierce, an Olympic decathlete and high school teacher who was appalled by the crime in his old neighbourhood. Pierce soon learned that the crime in his neigbourhood was created by the organised crime syndicate the 100. To combat the 100, he became Black Lightning. As Black Lightning he wore an Afro wig and spoke in the comic book version of street slang. While his own title only lasted eleven issues, Black Lightning would make several guest appearances and would become a member of The Outsiders. He would have another short lived series in 1995.

The blaxploitation cycle would also have a small impact on a character created earlier. From his first appearance The Falcon had been portrayed as an intelligent, articulate, social worker with a concern for his fellow man. In Captain America #186, June 1975, The Falcon's back story was modified so that he had originally been a gangster (nicknamed "Snaps") whose mind was manipulated by the Red Skull in an effort to destroy Captain America. As "Snaps" Wilson he was a character who could have been straight from a blaxploitation film. He even wore a "pimp suit," such as those seen in the blaxploitation film The Mack or the ones worn by Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch. Although this supposed gangster past did not have much impact on The Falcon in the years to come, it did make many of his fans very unhappy.

In movies the blaxploitaton cycle only lasted from about 1971 to 1974. In comic books, it lasted from 1972 to about 1977. Like any fad, it eventually faded, although its impact could still be felt in characters such as Luke Cage and Black Lightning.

One of the Team

Even during the blaxploitation craze there would be African American characters who did not stem from the blaxploitation craze. Bill Foster became Black Goliath in Power Man #24, April 1975. Another character emerged not from the blaxploitation craze, but from the kung fu craze. Although he was from the ghetto, Abe Lincoln of the Sons of the Tiger had very little common with characters such as Luke Cage. He and the other Sons of the Tiger first appeared in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, April 1975. The short lived character Brother Voodoo also owed little to blaxploitation, drawing more on classic horror movies.He debuted in his own series with Strange Tales #169, September 1973. Sadly, it would not last long, only for four issues of Strange Tales and two issues of Marvel's black and white magazine Tales of the Zombie.

Another character to debut during the blaxploitation craze who owed very little to blaxploitation was Storm of the X-Men. Storm was Ororo Munroe, a Kenyan mutant with the power to control weather. Debuting in Giant-Size X-Men #1. May 1975, Storm has remained an important character in the X-Men titles and the Marvel Universe in general. She was an important character, as she was the first black superheroine at either Marvel or DC.

Storm would not be the only black superheroine for long. Besides Storm there was the aforementioned Misty Knight, and then there would be Bumblebee. Bumblebee debuted in Teen Titans #45, December 1976. She was scientist Karen Beecher, who developed a suit which gave her various abilities. Although never a major character, she has continued to appear in various DC Comics ever since, whether with the Teen Titans or as part of the Doom Patrol.

It would seem that in the late Seventies, DC and Marvel were determined to make up for the lack of black superheroines. Among those created at the time was Vixen. Like Storm, Vixen was an African rather than an African American. She would have been the first black superheroine with her own title had it not been for events in 1978. That year DC Comics was forced to cancel many existing titles and shelve unpublished titles. Vixen's magazine was among those that was shelved. She would not make her first appearance until Action Comics #521, July 1981. She never did achieve her own title, instead becoming part of the Justice League of America, the Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey.

With the success of the revived X-Men (whose title had been cancelled in the early Seventies), the comic book industry moved increasingly towards titles featuring super teams. As a result many African American characters would make their debuts as members of these teams. The success of the new X-Men led DC Comics to do a similar such revival with their Teen Titans. Originally more or less a teenage version of the Justice League, the new Teen Titans was in many respects modelled on the X-Men. Among the charter members of this revived Teen Titans was Cyborg. Cyborg was the son of scientists who, when he was injured in one of their experiments, was rebuilt using bionic technology. He first appeared in DC Comics #25, October 1980.

Another superteam owed very little to the X-Men. The All-Star Squadron was created by legendary writer and Golden Age historian Roy Thomas. Its series essentially postulated that following the outbreak of World War II, President Roosevelt formed a loose group of several superheroes to help guard the home front during the war. This group was the All Star Squadron. In All-Star Squadron #23, July 1983, the group gained its latest member. Amazing-Man (named as an homage to Golden Age artist Bill Everett and his character of the same name). Amazing Man was Will Everett, an former Olympic athlete who gained the ability to mimic any substance he touched (if he touched steel, his body would gain the properties of steel) through a lab accident. Although appearing alongside Golden Age characters, Amazing Man was a modern creation. During the Golden Age, with the exception of Lion Man in All-Negro Comics, there were no African American superheroes. Although the Amazing-Man of the All-Star Squadron has not appeared often since that title's cancellation, his grandson, Will Everett III, would appear as a member of the Justice League in the Nineties, beginning with Justice League #86, March 1994.

A superteam whose adventures were set in the present day nonetheless had links to the Golden Age. Infinity Inc. was largely composed of the children of the Justice Society of America, the first superteam ever created in comic books. Among its members was Northwind. Strictly speaking, Northwind was not an African American. He was instead a native of the hidden city of Feithera. Hawkman and Hawkgirl (archaeologists in their civilian identities) journeyed to the hidden city with anthropologist Fred Cantrell. Cantrell fell in love with a woman there and married her. Northwind then grew up in the hidden city. Like all Feitherans, he had wings, superhuman strength, and above normal eyesight. Taken under Hawkman and Hawkgirl's wing (no pun intended), he became a superhero and joined Infinity Inc.

Unlike Cyborg, Amazing Man, and Northwind the first appearance of Monica Rambeau was as a solo character rather than the member of a team. She first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, 1982. A member of the New Orleans Harbour Patrol, she found herself bombarded by an extra-dimensional weapon during a case and as a result developed the ability to convert her body into any sort of energy, as well as manipulate energy. She initially adopted the identity of Captain Marvel (named after the earlier Marvel Comics character of the same name). While she appeared in her own title for two issues (which were published years apart), she is perhaps best known as a member of The Avengers. Monica Rambeau has changed her superhero identity twice, from Captain Marvel to Photon and then from Photon to Pulsar.

While Monica Rambeau started out as a solo act and became a member of The Avengers, Cloak was part of a duo for his whole career. Cloak was Tyrone Johnson, who with Tandy Bowen are given an experimental drug by minions of supervillain Silvermane. In Johnson's case, his body became a portal to the "Darkforce Dimension." As a result, among other things, he can absorb the life force of individuals. Bowen gained the ability to generate light. As the Darkforce Dimension drove Cloak to crave the life force of living beings, this was a good thing. Dagger's light could satiate his cravings for a time. Becoming superheroes, Johnson took the identity of Cloak, while Bowen took the identity of Dagger. They had their own titles from time to time, the first such one running 19 issues. Since then they have appeared on and off in Marvel comic books.

While many African American superheroes emerged in the Eighties as members of superteams, others emerged by taking over the identities of European American heroes. As mentioned earlier, when Hal Jordan retired, John Stewart took the mantle of Green Lantern. A similar situation was seen in the pages of Iron Man. James "Rhodey" Rhodes had been the personal pilot for billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man), making his first appearance in Iron Man #118, January 1979. Eventually Stark succumbed to his alcoholism and he lost Stark Industries to the villainous Obadiah Stane. Stark gave up being Iron Man, at which point Rhodey adopted the identity (in Iron Man #170, May 1983. Rhodes remained Iron Man until finally suffering a psychotic break, during which Tony Stark was forced to don the armour again. He would later adopt the identity of War Machine, with another armoured suit.

Another hero who was not a member of a superteam was the obscure DC Comics character Onyx. First appearing in Detective Comics #546, January 1985, Onyx was a martial artist who served in the villainous League of Assassins before reforming and becoming a superhero. She has never been a major character, appearing infrequently.

Of much more importance is the character called Sabre. Not only was the graphic novel in which the character first appeared (also titled Sabre) the first thing ever published by Eclipse Comics, it was the first graphic novel ever published specifically for comic book specialty store (which were a relatively recent development). First published in August 1978, Sabre centred on a black swashbuckler in a futuristic world. Sabre would later star in his own comic book series, which ran fourteen issues.

Another important character was Blackjack, also published as an independent. Created by Alex Simmons, Blackjack. followed the adventures of an African American soldier of fortune in the Thirties. Blackjack was a very original character. Not only was he not portrayed as a stereotype, but as an adventurer in the Thirties he was not precisely a superhero. The Blackjack stories drew more upon the old pulp novels and movie serials than they did costumed crimefighters.

During the Eighties and even into the Nineties, most African American superheroes emerged as members of superteams. This was not unusual, as it seems that most European American superheroes also emerged as a part of superteams during this era. Eventually, however, superteams would go out of fashion, leaving the door open for African American solo characters again. Indeed, the years to come would not only see the emergence of possibly the most successful African American hero of all time (Spawn), but also of companies dediated to providing comic books for an African American audience.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Two

The Invisible People
African Americans virtually disappeared from comic books after 1954 and would not appear again until the Sixties. Not only would no African American characters appear regularly in comic books for the remainder of the Fifties, they were not even represented in crowd scenes. While this might seem strange to many today, it was an outgrowth of one of the tumultuous periods in comic book history.

Comic books had their share of detractors from the very beginning. As early as May 1940, children's author and literary editor of The Chicago Daily News, Sterling North, attacked comic books as appealing due to their violent content. By 1947, however, the content of comic books had become become something of a cause celebre in the United States. The mid-Forties saw the debut of several crime comic books. The late Forties saw the rise of several horror comic books. Many of the crime titles and many of the horror titles featured content that we would even find objectionable today. And while the crime comic books and the horror comic books comprised a distinct minority of the comic books published, they attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Starting in 1947 articles which attacked the medium began appearing in national magazines with more and more frequency. City governments (Hartford, Connecticut being an example) took measures to curb objectionable comic books. Comic books were even burned. According to Time, December 28, 1948, in Binghamton, New York, 2000 objectionable comic books were tossed onto a bonfire.

It was in 1947 that those who objected to comic books would find a champion for their cause. Dr. Frederic Wertham had been the senior psychiatrist of New York City's Department of Hospitals, and had already published two books. In his second book, Dark Legend (published in 1941) he had already expressed his theory that the media (movies, radio shows, comic books, and so on) could lead to juvenile delinquency. Dr. Wertham was then predisposed to see the crime and horror comics published in the late Forties as deleterious to the mental health of children.

Starting in 1948 Dr. Wertham wrote several articles on how comic books were detrimental to children in publications ranging from the Ladies Home Journal to Reader's Digest. It was in 1954 that his book Seduction of the Innocent, outlining what he saw as the harmful effects of comic books, was published. Seduction of the Innocent was Dr. Wertham's tour de force. Looked at today, there can be little argument that Seduction of the Innocent is not a particularly scholarly work. Dr. Wertham had a tendency to interpret things out of context, make a priori assumptions, and even jump to conclusions. Despite this, the book had an enormous impact. Wertham would even appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to testify on his theory on how comic books played a role in juvenile delinquency.

Even though there was no real threat of government censorship (something which Dr. Wertham himself opposed), comic book publishers banded together to form the Comics Code Authority, a self regulatory body that would oversee the content of comic books, in October 1954. Today the Comics Code seems overly strict. Not only did it ban the walking dead, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves, it even banned the words "horror" and "terror" on the covers of comic books and regulated how large the word "crime" could be in comparison to other words in comic book titles. The end result of the Comics Code was to reduce comic books to the level of children's literature for several years.

Among the things that Dr. Wertham had attacked in Seduction of the Innocent was the use of racial stereotypes in comic books. Indeed, Dr. Wertham had once wrote a paper on the harmful effects of segregation (which was published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy) that was later used as evidence in the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Oddly enough, the original Comics Code only addressed race briefly. In Part C it simply states, "Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible." Regardless, the comic book industry responded to Wertham's criticism of racist stereotypes in comic books quite simply--they simply banished African Americans from their magazines.

This was despite the fact that the comic book industry had made considerable progress with regards to African Americans. After all, in thirteen years they had gone from Whitewash and Ebony White to Waku, Prince of the Bantu. Regardless, for the rest of the Fifties, the world of comic books was almost entirely European American save for the Native Americans who appeared in Western comic books and the Africans appearing in the jungle adventure books. Even though African Americans composed a substantial part of the American population, they were totally invisible in American comic books.

Marvels and New Gods

It was in 1961 that the comic book industry changed forever. That year at Marvel Comics editor and writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four was different from any comic book before it. Not only did its characters eschew secret identities, but they even had personal problems and personality conflicts. Essentially, The Fantastic Four was set in a world that was more realistic than that portrayed in most comic books up until that time.

Marvel Comics was the leader when it came to returning African American characters to comic books. Initially, African Americans simply appeared in crowd scenes and bit parts in Marvel's titles, but it was not long before there was a major character who was African American in a Marvel comic book. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963) saw the debut of Gabriel "Gabe" Jones. Set during World War II, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos departed from history in that the United States Armed Forces were not yet integrated. Regardless, Gabe is an important character in the history of comic books. He was the first African American supporting character in a Marvel comic book who was not a stereotype. Gabe Jones would later appear in the series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which debuted in Strange Tales #135, August 1965) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

While Marvel Comics led the way in bringing African American characters back to comic books, they were not the first company to feature an African American headlining his own series. That honour would go to Dell Comics, who published Lobo #1, December 1965. Created by D. J. Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico, Lobo centred on an unnamed, African American gunfighter in the Old West who is called "Lobo" by the villains in the first issue. Sadly, only one other issue of Lobo would be published, cover dated September 1966. In an interview Tony Tallarico explained that distributors were sending bundles of Lobo back to Dell without even having opened them. Out of 200,000 copies printed, only 10,000 to 15,000 were sold. It seemed that American society was not ready for an African American hero as the lead feature of a comic book.

That having been said, it would not be long before a black superhero would appear in an American comic book of the Sixties. Fantastic Four #52, July 1966, introduced a character called The Black Panther. The Black Panther was T'Challa, king of the technologically advanced nation of Wakanda in Africa. At the time The Black Panther was a revolutionary character. Not only was he a head of state, but his nation was more technologically advanced than the United States. Although The Black Panther made a huge impact on his first appearance and was a fairly character, he would not get his own series until Jungle Action #6, September 1973. Here it must be pointed out that The Black Panther predates the Black Panther Party by nearly half a year. That The Black Panther first appeared in 1966, the same year that the Black Panther Party was founded, is most likely coincidence.

Not only was The Black Panther the first black superhero of the Sixties, his name would also start a trend in African American heroes that would last into Seventies. That is, their names would often refer to their race in the use of the word "black." Beyond The Black Panther, there would be Vykin the Black of The Forever People, The Black Racer of The New Gods, Black Goliath, and Black Lightning.

As significant as the first appearance of The Black Panther was the appearance of African American supporting characters in comic books. One was Dr. Bill Foster, who made his first appearance in The Avengers #32, September 1966. Foster was hired as the lab assistant to Dr. Henry Pym (who went by such names as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, and Yellowjacket). Eventually Foster would become the superhero Black Goliath (and like Dr. Pym would go through several name changes). A more important African American supporting character is Joseph "Robbie" Robertson, editor at the Daily Bugle. Robertson first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #51, August 1967. He has been a part of the Spider-Man cast ever since, even appearing in the recent movies. The character is significant in that Robertson was neither a superhero nor comic relief, but a realistic character who was in an important position.

While Marvel Comics had a black superhero (The Black Panther) and African American supporting characters, they did not yet have an African American superhero (The Black Panther being African). That would change with Captain America #117, September 1969. That issue introduced The Falcon. The Falcon was Sam Wilson, a social worker with a gift for communicating with birds. Meeting Captain America while both were stranded on an island, he became Captain America's partner. He appeared in the pages of Captain America until issue #222, June 1978. Thereafter The Falcon's appearances have unfortunately been sporadic. The Falcon is significant as both Marvel Comics' first African American superhero and one of the first African American superheroes to lack the word "black" in his name.

While the mid to late Sixties saw Marvel Comics adding black superheroes and supporting characters, it would not be until 1970 that DC Comics would debut an African American character. It was in the pages of Teen Titans #26, March-April 1970 that Mal Duncan first appeared. In that issue Duncan met the Titans, impressed with his abilities and resourcefulness. Duncan would eventually become a costumed hero called The Guardian. Still later he would become The Herald and Vox.

DC's next two black heroes would come to them courtesy of Jack Kirby, in the pages of two of his New Gods comic books. The first was Vykin the Black, in Forever People, February-March 1971. Vykin was one of the Forever People, individuals from Earth taken to the New Gods' planet of New Genesis and genetically altered. In Vykin's case, he gained the power to control magnetism (similar to Magneto). He was also gifted in both mechanics and electronics. Jack Kirby's various New Gods titles did not last long, although they have since seen various revivals. In such revivals, "the Black" would be dropped from Vykin's name.

The second black character created by Jack Kirby for DC Comics was The Black Racer, who debuted in The New Gods #1, July 1971. The Black Racer was an avatar of death. As a god, The Black Racer has many abilities, not the least of which is to deliver death with a mere touch. Like Vykin the Black, The Black Racer would appear in various revivals of The New Gods, as well as a few other sporadic appearances in DC Comics.

While Mal Duncan, Vykin, and The Black Racer are relatively obscure characters in DC Comics, their next African American hero would not be. In Green Lantern #87, vol. 2, December 1971, the character of John Stewart was introduced. As a member of the interstellar police force, the Green Lantern Corps, the Silver Age Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) had a backup in the form of Guy Gardner (who first appeared in Green Lantern #59, vol. 2, March 1968). In Green Lantern. #87, however, Gardner was wounded, forcing the Guardians of the Universe (the overseers of the Green Lantern Corps) to find another backup. That backup was architect John Stewart. For many years after his first appearance Stewart would appear infrequently, filling in for Jordan on occasion, even as part of the Justice League of America. Eventually, John Stewart would assume the mantle of Green Lantern when Hal Jordan retired in Green Lantern #182, vol 2, November, 1984. Becoming more visible with his stint as Earth's Green Lantern, he became a much more visible character after being featured on the Cartoon Network's Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

At the beginning of the Sixties African American characters were largely absent from comic books. By 1971 there were several African American characters, both superheroes and supporting players. This trend would continue throughout the Seventies, but not before it would feel the impact of a trend from another medium. Quite simply, comic books would feel the influence of the Blaxpolitation movies of the Seventies.

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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

When TV Shows Outstay Their Welcome

It is a truism that in the history of American television that there have been very few good shows. It is also a truism that many good shows, perhaps most of them, have gone down hill later in their run. Often this is not so much a case of going bad all at once--there often isn't a "jump the shark" episode--but more a case of a gradual deterioration in the show's quality. And sadly once a show has deteriorated in quality, it often stays on the air for quite some before ending its run.

There are no shortage of examples of shows that have outstayed their welcome. One for me is The X-Files. For its first several seasons, The X-Files was one of the best shows on TV. That having been said, in its sixth season the show began to show signs of wear and tear. The show was still capable of producing some great episodes. That season saw the two part episode "Dreamland," one of my favourites in which Mulder switched places with Area 51 agent Morris Fletcher, "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," with Lily Tomlin and Edward Asner as a pair of humourously malicious ghosts, and "Terms of Endearment," with Bruce Campbell playing a demonic (literally) father. While the season produced some good episodes, it also produced some very bad ones, such as "Drive (a man suffering from a deadly disease takes Mulder on a drive)" and "One Son (yet another mythology episode)." The seventh season saw the show decline even more in quality. True, there were some very good episodes ("X-Cops," "First Person Shooter," and "Hollywood A. D."), but the merely mediocre and even bad episodes began to outweigh the good ones. The decline of The X-Files continued with the eighth and ninth seasons. Indeed, the absence of Fox Mulder from the majority of episodes definitely had an impact on the series.

As I see it, it would have been better if The X-Files had ended with its sixth season. It was that season that the show started its dramatic decline in quality. Indeed, I have to wonder why they chose to continue the series when David Duchovny decided to leave. The show simply was not the same without Fox Mulder in nearly every episode. It would seem that The X-Files was one of those shows whose success depended largely on its main character.

Another show I feel has outstayed its welcome is The Simpsons. Quite frankly, for its first many seasons I would say that The Simpsons was one of the greatest TV shows of all time. It was simply brilliant. And it is amazing that it remained as good as it was for such a long time. I suspect that the decline of The Simpsons began before the twelfth season, but for me it was during that season that I first seriously thought The Simpsons was not as good as it once was. I can even remember the episode in which I first thought that The Simpsons was no longer a great show. It was the episode "New Kids on the Blecch," in which Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph become a boy band. I found it unrealistic that Bart would ever consent to being part of a boy band, and I found the episode's conclusion rather hackneyed and unoriginal. Quite frankly, I think The Simpsons had fallen far short of what they once were.

Now I do think The Simpsons has improved since then, although it is still not nearly as good as it once was. In fact, the show is not nearly as good as The Simpsons Movie. As much as I love The Simpsons, I have to wonder if the show should not have been put out to pasture several years ago.

At least both The X-Files and The Simpsons had long runs of great episodes. While I know that there are many who will disagree with me, I don't think that can be said of The Cosby Show. I was a big Bill Cosby fan when the show debuted in 1984. And I thought that the show was simply brilliant for its two seasons. Sadly and rather unexpectedly, the show went from being uproariously hilarious to being a rather standard, family sitcom. Indeed, it surprised me as to just how unfunny the show had become in later seasons. Amazingly, it would run another six seasons, four of which it remained the number one show on television. If they could not have maintained the first two seasons' quality, I would have just as soon the show would have gone off the air long before it did.

I suspect the reason that shows, such as The X-Files and The Simpsons, sometimes gradually decline in quality during their run is rather simple. As time goes by it becomes harder and harder to come up with original episodes that fit within the concept of the series. At the same time on many shows, many of a show's writers and directors will move onto other things. I suppose that one can simply say that shows grow old. As to why some shows suddenly go from being good to bad, the way The Cosby Show did, that is more difficult to say. I don't know the entire, intimate history of The Cosby Show, but perhaps they changed staff suddenly between the second and third seasons...

As to why shows remain on the air long after they've declined in quality, why they outstay their welcome, that reason is simple: ratings. The X-Files maintained good ratings nearly until the end of its run. The Simpsons still gets good ratings. I know that I watched both shows long after I thought they had gone downhill. I rather suspect this is true of many viewers. Particularly with cult shows, viewers aren't eager to give up their favourite shows even after it is clear they've seen better days. Beyond viewer loyalty, there is also the fact that many viewers are not particularly discerning in their viewing habits. I am sure many of us can think of examples of shows that never were good, yet they enjoyed healthy runs. In the case of good shows, I think most producers should follow the lead of David Chase. He ended The Sopranos while the show was still good.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Jungfrukallan (The Virgin Spring)

Disclaimer: Generally I do not include spoilers when I write about movies, but I feel that with the The Virgin Spring I could make an exception. The movie has been in circulation for forty seven years now, and even film buffs who have not seen the film are more than likely familiar with its plot. That having been said, if you have not seen The Virgin Spring and do not wish to have it spoiled for you, don't read this article.

Of all Ingmar Bergman's films, Jungfrukällan (The Virgin Spring in English) probably had the most mixed reaction. Filmmakers of the French New Wave and former Bergman supporters elsewhere dismissed the film. Even Bergman himself would later refer to the film as an "aberration" in his career. In Sweden the movie's violence (tame by today's standards, although it still packs a punch) caused many to walk out on the film upon its first showing. Some even suggested that Bergman was spared the censor's scissors simply because of his reputation. In the United States the rape scene (again, tame in the light of more recent films) was censored. At the same time, however, The Virgin Spring received overall positive reviews in the United States. And it received both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1961.

One of the most frequent criticisms of the film is that it is a straight forward morality play. Indeed, many have noted that it is the one film Bergman made in which the Christian God is not silent. To me this would make Jungfrukällan an unusual film for Ingmar Bergman, particularly given it immediately precedes his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), in which faith and even the existence of the Christian God is often questioned. It is my thought that The Virgin Spring questions faith in much the same way that his Trilogy of Faith does, and that it is not quite so straightforward as many would have it to be.

For those unfamiliar with the film, it is based on the 13th century ballad "Herr Töres döttrar i vange." The plot of the ballad is very close to that of Jungfrukällan. A young girl was on her way to church when she is raped and murdered by highwaymen. A spring then miraculously appeared where her body lay. Bergman expanded on the plot of "Herr Töres döttrar i vange" a good deal. Although the ballad is overtly Christian in tone, Bergman and screenwriter Ulla Isaksson (a popular Swedish novelist at the time) set the movie at a time when Sweden was in transition from its native heathen religion to Christianity. Wealthy landowner Töre (Max Von Sydow), his wife (Birgitta Valberg), his daughter Karin (Birgitta Pettersson), and many of his servants follow Christianity, while his foster daughter and servant Ingeri (Gunnel Lindblom) still prays to the Norse god Óðinn.

Setting the movie in the transition period between heathenism and Christianity gives Bergman a chance to portray the different relationships between people and their religious beliefs. Töre's wife Märeta is a strict Christian who takes comfort in the religion's ceremony, to the point of burning her wrists with a candle in penance. While Töre prays with his wife, he seems reluctant to do so and not particularly amiable to his wife's idea of burning her wrists. Despite their apparent devotion to Christianity, both Töre and Märeta dote on their spoiled daughter Karin and even permit her to ride to church to deliver candles without an escort. Like her parents, Karin follows Christianity, although it is quite apparent that she is much more interested in the secular world than any spiritual one. She oversleeps on the day she is to deliver candles to the church because she had too much fun at the dance before. She is vain about her appearance, admonishing her mother to get out of her light when admiring her reflection and insisting in being dressed in her Sunday best for her trip to the church. Karin is quite obviously spoiled, as she is able to wrap her parents around her little finger and get nearly anything she wants. Similarly, she seems perfectly aware of her power over men and willing to use her sexuality to get her way, although she seems overly innocent of the effect this has upon the men. Overall, Karin is proud, vain, and overly boastful, hardly the ideal Christian.

Karin stands in stark contrast to her foster sister Ingeri. Although Ingeri appears in the movie as dirty, slovenly, and carrying a child out of wedlock. she is arguably the more religious of the two. She seems quite devoted to Óðinn, which, along with the fact that she is pregnant without a husband, is probalby the reason she is a bit of an outcast in the household. Indeed, this probably explains why she is dirty and slovenly--one has to wonder that she wasn't denied personal amenities because of her status (the heathen Swedes were meticulously clean when it came to their bodies--an Old English source complains about the Vikings getting all the women because they actually take baths and comb their hair...). Karin and her parents are also contrasted with the servant Frida and the beggar who has travelled to various holy sites across the world. Frida seems much more genuine in her belief in Christianity, thanking God for preventing from stepping on a flock of chicks at one point. As to the beggar, he sincerely explains to the goatherds' younger brother the heavenly reward awaiting one in Christianity and talks with awe of the religious sites he has seen to Frida.

When it comes to religion, the goatherds occupy a completely different stratum from anyone else in the movie. They are neither Christian nor heathen, but apparently have no religious beliefs. When they rob Karin's body after raping and murdering her, they stomp on the holy candles that she was to deliver to the church. They also make a mockery of hospitality (a virtue valued by the pre-Christian Swedes) when they offer to sell Karin's blood soiled clothes to Märeta. The only one of them with any decency is the youngest. While the boy passively watches (as does Ingeri) as his brothers rape and murder Karin, he also has enough respect for her to attempt covering up her body. If Töre, Märeta, and Karin are people of little faith, and Ingeri, Frida, and the beggar are people of fairly solid faith, then the goatherds are people of no faith at all.

Not only does The Virgin Spring, a movie assumed by some to be a straightforward, Christian morality play, offer a fairly complex look at the relationship of various individuals to their religion of choice, but it actually lends some credence to the old, pre-Christian, Swedish religion. This is not only seen in the figure of Ingeri, but in Töre himself. Following his daughter's murder and the discovery that the goatherds are the culprits, Töre does not forgive them and figure out a peaceful means to teach them the error of their ways. Instead he does the same thing that his heathen, Viking ancestors would do. He orders Ingeri (the heathen in the family) to prepare his bath and then cuts down a birch tree for its branches. Afterward, in the bath, Töre switches himself with the birch branches. As both Bergman and screenwriter Isaksson probably well knew, switching with birch branches was a means of purification performed in Sweden during spring time rituals, and probably other important times as well. Töre is then purifying himself before the task at hand--namely avenging Karin by slaying the goatherds who murdered her. This too would appear to be a heathen act rather than a Christian one. Among the ancient Swedes when a family member was murdered, his or her family were obligated to avenge them. Töre's brutal slaying of the goatherds could easily fit into any number of Icelandic sagas or Norse myths. Quite simply, in the Dark Ages, prior to the evolution of complex court systems, revenge was one of the few means of punishing evildoers. While Töre does beg the Christian God's forgiveness for what he has done, he does it nonetheless.

Töre's ritual of vengeance is not the only way in which the movie seemingly lends credence to the old Swedish religion. In the beginning of the film Ingeri believes in Óðinn and prays to him. Later Ingeri is given the task of accompanying Karin to the church. At a stream bordering the forest, Ingeri decides to visit the Bridge Keeper there rather than enter the woods with Karin (which she fears a good deal) and continue to the church. As it turns out, the Bridge Keeper is also heathen--apparently a seer of some sort. He shows Ingeri his various talismans and tells her what they can do. After he touches her and offers her strength, Ingeri flees the Bridge Keeper's cabin. Many have interpreted the Bridge Keeper as having made advances to her, but I am not so certain about that. It seems to me that like Ingeri, the Bridge Keeper is a bit of an outcast. Not only does he live in what we would today call the "boondocks," but he is heathen in an increasingly Christian world. I don't think it is too far fetched to assume that he is very, very lonely. I am then not so certain that the Bridge Keeper's motives were so much sexual in nature. Instead, it seems to me that he was, perhaps overzealously, offering her help as a fellow heathen in hopes that they could be friends.

Of course, it seems possible that the Bridge Keeper is something more than a lonely old heathen. Outside his house there sits a raven, a bird associated with Óðinn. In fact, according to Norse myth Óðinn owns two ravens, Hugin and Munin, who report the news of the world to him each day. Once Ingeri is inside the cabin, the Bridge Keeper brags of the knowledge he possesses, knowledge that would seem to go beyond a mere, mortal seer. He even asks Ingeri if she can hear three dead men riding, perhaps foreseeing the ultimate fate of the goatherds who are about to kill Karin in a short time. Finally, among many other things, Óðinn is the god of death, whose Valkyries not only carry those slain in battle to Valhalla, but who sometimes goes forth to take his chosen heroes there himself. In some respects he is a figure similar to Charon in Greek mythology, the ferryman who carried the dead across the River Styx to Hades. In the Volsunga Saga he appears as a ferryman who carries the dead body of the hero Sinfjotli away in his boat. The Bridge Keeper would seem to perform a similar function, seeing individuals off to the other side. It seems possible, then, that the Bridge Keeper is none other than Óðinn himself. It is notable that immediately before Töre and his household find Karin's body, a raven is seen in a tree.

Further credence that the movie gives to the old Swedish religion may also be seen in Ingeri's confession to Töre in the wake of Karin's murder. She tells Töre that she prayed to Óðinn for Karin's comeuppance and that he made the rape and murder happen and begs Töre to kill her. In asking that Töre take her life, Ingeri is being perfectly heathen--Karin must be avenged and since Ingeri thinks she caused Karin's death, she must die. While it seems very unlikely that Óðinn or any god would cause the rape and murder of an individual, the fact that Ingeri believes this demonstrates how much she believes in Óðinn.

Even the climax, assumed by many to be blatantly Christian in tone, could lend credence to the heathenism of the early Swedes. In the climax, upon finding Karin's body, Töre states that he does not understand the Christian God, but begs his forgiveness nonetheless. He even vows to build a church of mortar and stone of the sort the beggar had described on the spot. Karin's body is then moved, upon which the spring appears. As a hymn plays in the background, many viewers may be inclined to see this as a Christian miracle. And it seems quite possible that this is what Bergman and Isaksson intended, but it is not the only possible interpretation. It is notable that Ingeri, the heathen girl, is the first to notice the spring. Not only is it the first time she actually looks happy in the movie, but she eagerly washes herself in the spring. Some might view this as showing that Ingeri has accepted Christianity and is eager to be baptised. This seems unlikely to me, however, especially given the significance of springs in the early Germanic religion. According to Adam of Bremen in his Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum there was a spring outside the heathen temple at Uppsala in which the early Swedes made sacrifices. Several penitentials from Dark Ages Europe forbid worshiping at springs, and sacred springs among various Germanic peoples are mentioned frequently in Dark Age sources. In fact, it seems possible that "Herr Töres döttrar i vange," the ballad upon which Jungfrukällan is based, drew upon the heathen sacredness of springs for much of its power among its medieval audience. The spring which emerges after Karin's death, then, may not be a response to Töre's vow, but simply Óðinn showing his power and perhaps reassuring Ingeri that he did not cause Karin's death, and that he will aid her. Even if it is interpreted as a Christian miracle (which seems likely), it seems clear to me that Ingeri does not view it as such. Indeed, while the others look reverently on the spring as a miracle, Ingeri is cleansing herself in the spring, something any ancient heathen would have done.

Here I want to stress that in lending credence to Sweden's old religion I do not feel either Bergman or Isaksson are slighting Christianity. Nor do I feel that Bergman or Isaksson are in any way condemning or critiquing Christianity in this film. It must be pointed out that the two happiest people in the movie are ardently Christian: Frida and the beggar. Frida thanks God for something as simple as not stepping on little chicks. The beggar eagerly and joyfully tells the goatheards' little brother about the Christian heaven. Early in the film, Frida and the beggar discuss the beautiful churches, made of mortar and stone, he has seen around the world. When the goatherds' younger brother grows sick at the supper table (no doubt remembering the violence his brothers had wrought), it is Frida and the beggar who comfort him. And while both Töre and Märeta are in danger of losing their faith after Karin's death, neither Frida nor the beggar express any real doubts in their God.

The legitimacy of Christianity as a belief system is also shown in the figure of Töre. At the beginning of the movie, he is reluctant to pray and appears to simply be going through the motions of being Christian. Immediately following Karin's murder and the discovery of the culprits, he behaves in a heathen manner--Töre cleanses himself and slays the goatherds. In the end, however, he bets God's forgiveness and vows to erect a church on the spot where Karin has died. Töre has gone on a journey from being a Sunday Christian to an avenging heathen to someone who actively believes in Christianity. Between the portrayal of Frida and the Beggar, and Töre's transformation, Jungfrukällan is much like Bergman's film Winter Light, in which an individual undergoes a transformation from someone in doubt of his faith to someone whose faith is on a much firmer foundation.

It must also be pointed out that in the end, regardless of how Ingeri interprets the spring, the other characters clearly view it as a miracle from God. They behave reverently as any good Christian would in the presence of what they consider a genuine miracle. There is little doubt that Töre views the spring as an answer to his prayer and his vow to build a church there.

Ultimately, Jungfrukällan is not a simple, straightforward morality play, but a movie not unlike Bergman's Trilogy of Faith in which the nature of faith and of God (or in the case of The Virgin Spring, gods) is examined. It is not a film with an overtly Christian message, nor is it a film which is anti-Christian. Instead, I believe it was Bergman's intent with the film to show that people need faith, even if that faith is accompanied by doubts and insecurities. In the end, the miracle is not that the spring erupts where Karin died, but that faith blooms where previously there was none.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The Late, Great Merv Griffin

Legendary talk show host and entertainment entrepreneur Merv Griffin died today at the age of 82 from prostate cancer. Griffin was the host of his own talk show for around twenty years, as well as created the game shows Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune.

Merv Griffin was born Mervyn Edward Griffin on July 6, 1925 in San Mateo, California. As a boy he was trained as a classical pianist and at age 7 published his own neighbourhood newspaper (it sold for two cents a piece). By age 19 he was singing on the nationally syndicated radio show San Francisco Sketchbook. He was eventually hired by band leader Freddy Martin to tour with his orchestra. Griffin was with the orchestra for four years. His first number one record was his version of "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" in 1949. Griffin would eventually see success as a solo artist and even founded his own record label, Panda Records. On the recommendation of Doris Day and her husband, Marty Melcher, Griffin was signed to a motion picture deal with Warner Brothers. Despite his success as a singer, Griffin only received a few bit parts in such films as So This is Love and By the Light of Silvery Moon. Tired of bit parts, he eventually asked to be released from his contract.

As it turned out Griffin's greatest success would come on the small screen rather than the big screen. He had first appeared on television in 1952 on The Freddy Martin Show. In 1954 he was the host of a summer replacement series, Summer Holiday, on CBS. Griffin would soon find himself in demand as both a substitute host and a host on various TV shows. He was a substitute host on the Price is Right in the Fifties. He was also the host of the brief lived game show Keep Talking. He produced as well as hosted the short lived series Saturday Prom in 1960. By the early Sixties Griffin was a substitute host for Jack Paar on The Tonight Show. In fact, he was in the running to replace Paar, although the job eventually went to Johnny Carson. Because of his popularity as a substitute host on The Tonight Show, NBC awarded him his own talk show in the daytime. In some way, shape, or form The Merv Griffin Show would last until 1986. Merv Griffin was known for being more sophisticated than most talk show hosts and for never shying away from controversy. His show featured guests ranging from Zsa Zsa Gabor to John Lennon to Robert Kennedy to Bertrand Russell to Martin Luther King Jr. At times his guests could cause a bit of an uproar. In 1965 philosopher Bertrand Russell condemned the Vietnam War, resulting in the press having a field day with Griffin. When activist Abbie Hoffman wore a shirt resembling the American flag, CBS pixilated his image so that anyone watching wouldn't even know who it was.

While Griffin was one of the longest running and most important talk show hosts of time, he was also a major force in the world of game shows. In 1964 Griffin created and produced the original verison of Jeopardy, believed by some to be the second most successful game show of all time. Griffin followed this success in 1975 by creating and producing what would become the most successful game show of all time, Wheel of Fortune. Among the other game shows he created were the short lived Word for Word in 1963 and the television version of Monopoly.

There can be no doubt that Merv Griffin left his mark on television. As a talk show host he was folksy and friendly, but still willing to feature controversial guests on his series that other shows would avoid. Besides Bertrand Russell and Abbie Hoffman, writer Norman Mailer, visionary Buckminster Fuller, surrealist Salvador Dali, pop artist Andy Warhol, comedian Dick Gregory, and comedian George Carlin. In fact, CBS was sometimes nervous about Griffin's choice of guests. If Merv Griffin was only a talk show host, he would have left his mark on television history, but he also created the two most successful game shows of all time. Only The Price is Right approaches either Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune in success (although personally I preferred the original version of Jeopardy with Art Fleming and Don Pardo). Griffin has definitely left a lasting impact on American television. I doubt he will ever be forgotten.