Black Comics

Ahh, 20th-century American popular culture! If they aren't already, certainly by 2002, people will be getting advanced degrees in Popular Movies of The Last Century; The Whitening of Michael Jackson 1977-1990; How the Boogie Beat the Classics; 12 Reasons World War I Was Not as Popular as World War II; and The Cross-Cultural Importance of Attractive White Women with Large Breasts Across The 'American Century'.Now I'm an [expletive deleted] black Baby Boomer, and I grew up on comic books and TV. In the '50s and early '60s, I was taught through comic books, old movies and then-current sitcoms and documentaries on TV, that white Americans, with a few Brits, single-handedly won WWII; that black people in Africa waited for thousands of years for Tarzan to come along so somebody could talk to the damn animals; that wherever Metropolis and Gotham City were located, thar warn't Negro the First livin' there; that, well, you get the drift.This information nicely complemented my ongoing formal education. My elementary through junior high school education taught me about the Three Important Negroes: Booker T. Washington (The Great Negro Leader), George Washington Carver (The Negro American Who Invented the Peanut), and Ralph Bunche (Made the Jews and Arabs See Reason).I guess I was lucky. The relative absence of black images in the popular media of the '50s and early '60s was an improvement over almost all of the images projected through popular media in the first half of the century. "Blackhawk" -- the leader of the comic-book band of Allied (WWII) fighter-pilots named "The Blackhawks" -- may have been a pilot as skilled as a hawk, but he was very much not a black. His band of flyers represented most of the Allied nations. Significantly, the Chinese representative, half as tall as any of the European flyers, served as cook. His name was, I believe, "Chop-Chop." This was during the period when we all watched "Hop-Sing" cook every week on TV's Bonanza.The most consistent image of blacks in comics of any kind across this century was that of distorted-stereotypical alleged Africans, allegedly dancing around an alleged almost-naked white man or woman in an alleged jungle. Other representations of blacks in the last hundred years include:* The very first American comic series (1890s): "The Yellow Kid." This was a humorous newspaper series about poor kids in an urban setting. A black youngster regularly appeared, his image stereotyped, but not in a meaningfully negative fashion.* In the '40s and '50s there were comic book covers featuring white Tarzan-style women surrounded by threatening (or appreciative) jungle-people: "Lorna, The Jungle Queen," "Sheena, The Jungle Queen," "Nyoka, The Jungle Girl."* A war-time propaganda effort, "Young Allies," a comic with a cover that features, among other images, a black male American character wearing a satire of a zoot suit (but clearly meant to be a positive figure). The Axis leaders are stereotypically portrayed on this cover as well, with the Japanese leader the most hideously distorted, of course.* There were also attempts to do better in the '40s and early '50s, in some cases, presumably by African-American artists/publishers: "Negro Heroes," and other such-like, featuring Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Joe Louis, etc. In this vein also are the "All-Negro Comics" covers. The "Negro Romance" comic covers speak for themselves.From the late '60s onwards, as with American society and culture at large, comics began to change. The major American comics publishers (DC and Marvel) began trying out black characters, heroes and themes. Underground and independent comics began appearing.Race portrayal in comics is far from enlightened, even today. Take, for instance Marvel Comics' contemporary X-Men character, Storm. If you have kids, you know the X-Men, if only from TV. But here's the deal on good old "black," supposedly African, Storm: If anything, Storm must be a white girl pretending to be black. Marvel can't seem to make up its mind about her coloring, on TV or in the comics. Mostly she looks white. Sometimes she looks white with the suggestion of a tan. Sometimes the tan is pretty decently dark. Other times she looks like she just barely got "a touch of the tar brush.""These days, you've got a choice," says professor William H. Foster, from who has a large personal collection of black comics. "There's a tremendous number of black characters, in a variety of roles throughout the comic world. Including superheroes, and just people."Foster is an assistant professor of English and Speech at Naugatuck Valley Community College. He also grew up on comics, and has been seriously collecting black images in comics for about six years."Actually," he says, " I'd been buying them, picking them up, when I came across them, for years. But it was just six years ago that I started making it a priority, began the seeking out of comics. I discovered that no one had really looked at this aspect of race in American culture."Foster has been exhibiting small samples of his collection for some time. His goal, ultimately, is to find an academic "home" for the collection. "I'm not doing this to sell these things for a profit. I'm doing it because I love comics, and I believe the history of the black images portrayed in American comics is an important and almost completely overlooked part of our history. I hope that an academic institution will one day house my collection, keep it safe, and accessible to scholars and the public." He also hopes eventually to publish a book on the entire subject.Asked about favorite items in his collection, Foster cites the November, 1970 comic in which Lois Lane "turns herself black" for a day. "Not a great issue," he says. "But it does show how the major comics were attempting to become 'relevant' -- at almost any cost." Doesn't he get objections to the display of some of the early, totally racist images?"I do. I do, although not as often as you might think. But I tell people, look, this is history. This is part of our history as African-Americans, and as Americans. If someone presents an image of blacks today, the way we were so often portrayed in the past, then we deal with that. But this -- these images are from our past. It's over. But we need to know about it. We need to look at it and remember it and tell our children, black and white: These images were once what our nation deemed suitable to present to its children. We need to understand that in terms of our history. And in terms of its effects on our history."Combined with the massive barrage of distorted, infantilized, dehumanized images of blacks across the early part of this century (as portrayed in movies, advertisements, product labels, etc.), racist images of Africans and African-Americans in comic books and comic strips certainly played a part in poisoning the likelihood of white Americans taking black Americans seriously. At the same time, these images constantly assaulted the daily lives of black men and women who, living lives of segregation, discrimination and poverty for most of the century, hardly needed these psychic affronts to remind them of either what their "place" in this society was, or what the majority of Americans thought of them.The truly insidious aspect of these images in comics was their major intended audience: children. Youngsters black and white "learned" the expected roles and images of blacks in the society, in part, from the images presented in these stories and drawings.If you're interested in seeing history made, watch for the first mega-try of a black comic figure, when the African-American superhero Spawn makes the jump to a live-action movie hero, and to an adult animated series on HBO. Soon. Thirty years after the first comic-book black superhero (the Black Panther, 1966) was introduced, both the mainline and independent comic producers are regularly featuring African-Americans as heroes, villains and even just people in the crowds on the streets. That's without even getting into the new raft of black-owned and-produced independent comics, many of which are taking on contemporary and historic issues from a black perspective. The comics are a lot more violent. Just like America. But, unlike when I was a kid, my 8-year-old son gets to see all kinds of real and imagined black folks in his comic books. Not yet fully representative, by any means, but way beyond the white, white, white and only-white 10 and 12 and 15 cent rags of my youth. Just like America. By the way, Spawn is a dead guy.SIDEBAR: EC Comics Comic books were in the hot seat in the early 1950s but not for their racial stereotypes. Horror comics, crime comics, superheroes -- all were denounced by PTAs, psychiatrists and politicians as lurid, four-color purveyors of gore, violence and perversion and were blamed for a rise in juvenile delinquency. Ironically, the company singled out as the worst offender produced the most powerful anti-racist comics stories printed before the late 1960s.Seduction of the Innocent, a 1954 book by Frederic Wertham, was the bible of the comic book censorship movement. Wertham, a liberal psychiatrist, found that deeply disturbed young people he evaluated liked comic books. What else could he conclude? Comic books caused emotional and adjustment problems!Seduction was illustrated with graphic examples of tasteless funnies. Many of the most powerful images were culled from the covers and pages of comic books published by EC Comics, a small company whose stable of titles included Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Crime and Shock SuspenStories and Weird Science. EC, which had a roster of legendary artists, delighted in the ghoulish and the macabre, usually spiked with an O. Henry twist.Like other comics companies, EC wasn't above trading in stereotypical images of superstitious black "natives" speaking in pidgin English and raising the undead in voodoo rituals. But unlike other companies, EC also published many stories deeply critical of American racism (as well as stories attacking anti-Semitism, McCarthyism and police brutality).Several stories in EC's Shock SuspenStories condemned vigilantism. In "Under Cover," from Shock SuspenStories 6, a Klan-like group murders a reporter out to expose their "Grand Master." The story concludes with comic book exclamation point emphasis: "Safe behind their masks of prejudice, these hooded peddlers of racial, religious, and political hatred operate today!... It is time to unveil these usurpers of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms!"One of the most powerful race-themed stories, "In Gratitude," appeared late in 1953 in Shock SuspenStories 11. Illustrated by late comics great Wally Wood and written by Al Feldstein -- later editor of Mad -- it concerns the small town homecoming of a young Korean war vet, Joey Norris.When he returns home, he finds that his buddy in Korea -- who had died smothering a grenade that cost Joey a hand -- wasn't buried in Joey's family's plot because he was black. Standing before the crowd at a town hall welcoming rally in his honor, Joey says, "I gave my right hand defending freedom and equality and I was proud of it... I was proud, that is, until today..."Paced cinematically over several panels, Joey indicts his neighbors in the auditorium. "I had a buddy in Korea... We fought for democracy together. He gave his life for that cause... and he saved mine in doing it... But when his body was sent back here, it wasn't good enough to be buried in Fairlawn Cemetery. It wasn't good enough because the skin wasn't the right color... Well, the grenade that tore that skin to pieces didn't know its color... didn't care if it was white or black... What did he die for? What did I give my arm for? You say you're proud of me. Well, I'm not proud of you. I'm ashamed! I'm ashamed of you... and for you!" The story concludes with the crowd sheepishly and silently filing out of the hall, "leaving the soldier-hero alone in the empty town hall. Leaving him crying."In a letter published two issues later, one reader, A/3c Fincher at the Keesler Air Force Base, complained that, "This story stinks the way they wrote it and I'd like the person who wrote it to sleep, eat and live with niggers." But other letters praised the story, one correspondent writing that, "I do feel that your stories on racial and religious prejudice are sometimes exaggerated, but if exaggerations are useful in pointing out evils that exist, then I say they are justified... It is a picture to make Malenkov bolt his door and hide under his bed, for he is smart enough to know that when we destroy unfounded prejudice in our culture, we are destroying the only real chance the foreign aggressor ever had to enslave the American people."Most of the EC stories focused on conflicts between good (non-prejudiced) whites and bad (racist) whites with blacks being oppressed figures in the background. One exception was "Judgment Day," a science-fiction story that ran in Weird Fantasy 18 in 1953. In it, an Earth astronaut named Tarlton lands on Cybrinia, a planet inhabited by orange and blue robots. Hidden by his space suit, Tarlton is there to see if Cybrinia is socially and technologically advanced enough to gain access to Earth's galactic republic.Cybrinia, however, is a segregated society -- the orange robots have all the advantages; the blue robots are relegated to second-class status. Tarlton insists that his nervous orange robot guide take him to "Blue Town." There, in the factory where the blue robots are assembled, Tarlton points out to the orange robot that only the outer covering is different. A blue robot interrupts: "It limits us to menial jobs... sends us to the rear of mobile buses... places us in different recharging stations... forces us to live in a special section of the city..."Tarlton tells the orange robot that Cybrinia is not ready to join the galactic republic, not until the robots learn to live together as people on Earth have. It isn't until the last panel that the astronaut Tarlton, heading home in his spaceship, removes his helmet and the reader sees his dignified, black face, "the beads of perspiration on his dark skin twinkl(ing) like distant stars..." The anti-comics witch hunt, in which EC publisher Bill Gaines was subpoenaed to testify before a Senate committee, drove the company out of the comics business. Only Mad remained. The censorious Comics Code enacted to mollify distributors effectively put the kibosh on controversial subject matter. Race wouldn't be dealt with again in a substantive way until the upheavals of the late 1960s spurred younger writers and artists to reach for "relevance." Reissues of EC titles are available from Gemstone Publishing, P.O. Box 469, West Plains, MO 65775, or by calling 1-800--EC Crypt.

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