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Black Readers & White Comics

Some more notes on race and comics. Although the notes deal with this issue from a variety of angles, one topic that I keep returning to here is the question of black readers of the comic strips.

The Big Picture. “The cartoonist’s craft is by its nature a conservative, perhaps even a reactionary one: its very essence consists in the manipulation of shorthand visual signs and widely recognizable stereotypes.” Art Spiegelman, “A Real Eye-Opener", foreword to The Unexpurgated Carl Barks (Hamilton Comics, 1997).

Harold Gray, Racial Progressive. One of the things I’m trying to do with these notes is to move beyond the cliché that “everybody was racist back then” and try to show that there was actually a spectrum of racial attitudes among cartoonists. Evidence of this spectrum of attitudes can be seen in the aesthetic choices that they made. One good example of this is Harold Gray, who despite his reputation as a reactionary was a robust critic of ethnic bigotry and nativism.

Gray’s opposition bigotry could be seen most clearly in the issue of immigration: Gray created Little Orphan Annie in 1924, a high-water mark for nativist sentiment. It was the year Congress passed a severely restrictive immigration law, and the second wave of the Ku Klux Klan, which targeted “un-American” groups like Jews and Catholics, was at its peak. From the very early days of Annie, Gray was critical of nativist sentiments and made sure that the orphan star of his strip would befriend Americans from all different ethnicities. One of Annie’s earliest friends was an Italian American boy named Tony DeBella. Later Annie would befriend Jewish-Americans like Jake the shopkeeper (who would employ Annie in the early days of the Great Depression) and the Irish-American Maw Green (who ran a boarding house Annie and Warbucks lived in when they were down on their luck in the early 1930s).

In light of the Spiegelman quote above, which quite rightly notes that “widely recognizable stereotypes” are part of the core of cartooning, it’s worth underlining that in taking an anti-bigotry stance in his comics, Gray doesn’t eschew stereotypes but rather repurposes familiar ethnic tropes in a positive way. Jake, for example, is careful with his money and a hard-bargainer, but in the context of the Great Depression these are shown to be essential character traits that keep his business going. Maw Green, like her Irish-American sister Maggie from Bringing Up Father, is a tough-talking broad, but, again, that makes her a good friend to have if you’re a luckless orphan: Maw Green is tough enough to back you up in any fight. Gray’s customary tactic in dealing with ethnicity is to rework standard tropes and turning them into positive stereotypes.

Annie and Tony. Annie’s friendship with Tony DeBella is worth looking at in greater detail because it shows how Gray integrated his pro-immigrant message within the comic. In late 1925 and early 1926, Annie is under the care of the prissy, dishonest Mrs. Sandstone. Bored by Mrs. Sandstone’s gentility, Annie takes a walk in her old haunt, Tin Pan Court, a bustling tenement street. There she meets here old friend, Tony DeBella. Annie visits Tony in the small apartment where his family lives and delightfully eats Italian food: “Oh baby – ravioli – I haven’t had any real ravioli or spaghetti since the last time I was at your place.”

The next day Mrs. Sandstone tells Annie that she is lucky to be living “on a respectable street” rather than “that terrible Tin Can Court,” which is filled with “such a rough, illiterate foreign element. Trash. I’m so glad we don’t come into contact with them.” After she gets away from Mrs. Sandstone, Annie voices objection to what she’s heard: “Where does she get that stuff. Trash. Foreigners. They’re swell people, they are – and tin-can court’s got this drag we live on licked to a frazzle.”

Soon thereafter, Annie discovers that Tony’s family is having trouble. Sam, the father of the family and a janitor, had been framed for a crime and is now in jail. Annie’s appeals to Mrs. Sandstone for help but the older woman objects to orphan hanging out with “foreigners” and “criminals.” The DeBella’s have a lawyer, Mr. Flam, who promises to help free Sam DeBella. Unfortunately, as his name indicates, Mr. Flam is a Flimflam artist.

In desperation, Annie turns to Paddy Cairn, the local ward boss. Cairn is a type of character who would recur often in the strip: a Warbucks-substitute who helps Annie when her adopted father is away. Like Warbucks, Cairn is a barrel-chested mesomorph as well as being a tough-talking regular guy. Annie notices the similarities between Cairn and Warbucks, observing ““gee you always make me think of ‘Daddy’ Warbucks.” As it turns out, Cairn and Warbucks had been “kids together in the old eighth ward.”

One of Cairn’s cronies don’t want to help Annie and the DeBellas, saying, “Aw, why fool with dem wops? Wot can a bird like that guy ever do fer you? Lay off dem ferriners.” Annie of course objects to this ethnic slur and attacks the crony, kicking him and yelling: “Wop, is it? I’ll wop yuh one on th’ nut, I will – buttin’ in when Mr. Cairn an’ a lady are talkin’” Cairn’s calms Annie down and offers his help, saying, “I’m for you, see? But don’t cripple ‘em on the premises. And that foreigner stuff is out with me too, Annie. Breed or creed or doesn’t count with regular folks. We’ll get the straight on Tony’s dad and then do what’s right.” (By way of contrast, Bud Fisher in a Mutt and Jeff strip from 1910 described a character as speaking “pure wop talk.” George McManus was similarly cavalier about using the slur “wop” in Bringing Up Father.)

African-Americans in Annie. For obvious historical reasons, Gray was much more gingerly about discussion anti-black bigotry but in a few strips he did make clear what his stance was. In 1927 Annie was, as so often, living as a tramp on the road, hungry and destitute. As a train car passes by, the African-American cook (drawn in a minstrel fashion) hands her a package of food. Annie and Gray make sure that the appropriate lesson is drawn: “A whole meal, Sandy! Whaddyuh think o’ that? An’ we never even asked him for anything. That just goes tot show you, Sandy, just ‘cause a bird isn’t our color is no sign he isn’t right – see?”

A Sunday page from 1942 takes up the race issue again in an even more interesting way. The war is going on, and the always active Annie has taken charge by organizing a group called the “Junior Commandos” which is trying to help the war effort by collecting goods for recycling. To appreciate the strip, it’s important to bear in mind that it was created at a point in time when the American army was still segregated (although the civil rights campaign for integration that would eventually succeed in 1948 was already starting).

As the Colonel of the Junior Commandos, Annie is approached by a black boy named George. Unlike earlier black characters in the strip, George is not drawn in a minstrel fashion but in the same style as the white characters. He speaks deferentially in a southern accent but his dialogue is also far less minstrel than the norm. They have the following conversation:

George: I knows I don’t belong heah – I can’t be a junior commando – but I sho would like to help.

Annie: Who says you can’t be a commando? As colonel o’ this unit, I’m th’ boss George --- You’ve got as much right in this outfit as I have. You’re an America! We’re all loyal Americas --- it’s our fight --- yours George. Angelo’s --- Fritz’s --- Marie’s --- mine! Hey, Major Loretta – gimme an arm band for George here – he’s one of us.”

George’s first act as a Junior Commando is to lead the troops to a great find, an old railway engine waiting to be salvaged. Annie immediately promotes George to the rank of sergeant. Given Gray’s penchant for political allegory it’s hard not to read the whole episode as a commentary urging the integration of the army.

The episode was certainly controversial in its time. Gray received many letters from African-American readers praising his portrayal of George and showing that blacks were an essential part of the war effort. The cartoonist also got an irate letter from a white editor in Mobile Tennessee upset that the strip showed a white girl consorting with a black boy.

I’ll talk more about this episode in an upcoming volume of the Little Orphan Annie series, but for now it might be worth asking why Gray, a man famous for being a right-wing Republican was also a critic of ethnic bigotry. In the early 20th century, most anti-racist activists belonged to the far left, being either anarchists, socialists, communists. But among mainstream political figures, the debate on racism was scrambled in very odd ways. Well into the 20th century, the Republicans remained the party of Lincoln, a legacy that meant much to Gray (his middle name was Lincoln, as was his father’s middle name). A Lincolnian commitment to equality of opportunity explains Gray’s progressive racial politics.

13 Responses to Black Readers & White Comics

  1. tomhart says:

    Jeet- Thanks so much for these great articles, and I'm really looking forward to more your writing, on Annie, especially.

    I've always thought Gray to the biggest-hearted of the all the cartoonists of that generation, and he's my favorite. I still don't exactly get the claim that he's a "reactionary", "conservative" and all that, but perhaps I haven't read enough Annie and I certainly don't know much of Gray the man.

    So thanks and looking forward to your further work on Annie.

  2. patford says:

    But, Jeet never suggested it was odd Gray was "both 'right-wing Republican' and a 'critic of ethnic bigotry.' "
    He explained why it wasn't odd.

  3. sabincalvert says:

    I think these issues are extremely important for many reasons and is often the elephant in the room in the world of comics; undealt with yet still fully functioning. I hope it continues up to R. Crumb, who uses these characters AS minstrel characters, both deflecting yet fully inhabiting the stereotype and even newer artists like Johnny Ryan who fully exploits racist tropes and David Heatley, who greatly distrurbs me. I look forward to reading more installments!

  4. Mike_Hunter59 says:

    Fascinating and perceptive! And, speaking of "repurpos[ing] familiar ethnic tropes in a positive way"…

    Following a Hooded Utilitarian article blasting Will Eisner's Ebony White, I wrote:
    …Twain wasn’t calling Jim “nigger Jim” with unthinking usage of the popular term of the time; he was deliberately contrasting the ugly word with a nuanced portrayal of a richly human character.

    …[Doesn't] Eisner’s usage of the period’s visual jargon for depicting blacks, when contrasted with the often resourceful and heroic qualities which Ebony showed on many an occasion (“He was even a skilled pilot and flew the Autoplane on various missions for the Spirit,” reports ), have a similar effect? In other words, one character may look clownish, another be referred to as “nigger,” yet both are – subversively – depicted as fully-rounded human beings.

    Some old TCJ message board threads about racism in comics, where it's mentioned that blacks formed a sizable part of the audience of "blackface" minstrel shows; that some black newspapers (while overall opposed to stereotypical depictions) still featured comics with "coon"-type black characters:

  5. mrgrab says:

    Yes, he asks and answers his own question, but my point is that the premise of the question was faulty in the first place. If indeed "most anti-racist activists belonged to the far left," that doesn't mean that anyone on the right was automatically a racist. The paragraph suggests that it is common to assume right-wing Republicans were/are also racist. "It might be worth asking…" he says. I say it isn't.

  6. sabincalvert says:

    Thanks for this quote! Yes, Crumb is not one to shy away from the ugly side of his pathos, yet there is never the resolution or interior response which might keep the work from being appropriated by racist groups. Art is often taken at face value, especially in comics, and I feel as though a wink is almost needed to balance the work out. Which will never happen with someone like Crumb, it would ruin the art. I feel as though Johnny Ryan and David Heatley are using the same justification yet their work doesn't quite operate in this way. It assumes a "post-racial-ness" which ends up being a total disregard for humanity, a misanthropy cast off onto non-white people. I wouldn't be at all surprised if it ends up being used in exactly the same fashion as Crumb's.

  7. patford says:

    Crumb's work as I read it is so obviously satirical I can't imagine anyone not seeing his intent, yet it's true his work is misperceived all the time. It's possible I read Crumb as he intends because I've read all his work, read all (or very close) the interviews he's given, and have read many text pieces by him including the remarkable collection of letters "Your Vigor For Life Appalls Me" which displays a young mind of astonishing intelligence and maturity.
    On the other hand the first time I read Crumb must have been while I was in high school and read "Carload O' Comics" and it never crossed my mind his intent was to excite or arouse. No doubt he depicted himself, and people in general as prurient, but the work never came across as lascivious.
    What I took away from it was an honest but caricatured commentary on the incredible overriding power of hormones, with himself as exhibit one.

  8. Pingback: Carnival of souls: MoCCA, Paying For It, L’Association, Game of Thrones of course, more « Attentiondeficitdisorderly by Sean T. Collins

  9. kneeblock says:

    Eisner himself has admitted that Ebony was not utilizing any specific visual jargon, but that he was being insensitive and thoughtless. He goes on at length about his regrets in creating Ebony to be the obvious caricature he was in the introduction to Fagin the Jew. Ebony's competence as a contrast to his buffoonish appearance is a nice story, but it doesn't wash.

    As for blacks forming a sizable audience of minstrel shows and why '"coon-canning" is very much a part of African-American entertainment, all that can be said is that it remains a matter of great controversy in the black community even today and there are numerous debates about its propriety. The recent dust-up between Spike Lee and Tyler Perry is indicative of this long unresolved conflict. When the first African-American novel "HOME TO HARLEM" was published by Claude McKay, he faced almost the same criticisms Perry has faced, from no less than W.E.B. DuBois, but he responded simply that he was writing what he knew.

    In short, there is a fine line between ethnic groups being entertained by stereotypes and mass-marketing those same stereotypes as a means of exploitation. Or, to put it another way, if someone ignorant thinks racially denigrating entertainment is okay, neither the fact that they're generally a nice person or the color of their skin justify it.

  10. patrick ford says:

    The mention of Warren Bernard on the main-page the other day reminded me of what a great article, on John McCutcheon, Warren contributed to TCJ #301. And then I forgot to thank him, but was reminded again today when I found McCutcheon’s autobiography “Drawn From Memory” (Bobbs-Merrill. 1950)at a Library book sale. Haven’t got into it yet, bit it was apparently pieced together after McCutcheon’s death by his wife Evelyn who had been McCutcheon’s secretary for 32 years, and took down most of the book as dictation , and after his death filling in the gaps he left in the book. She explains in a charming forward, “All that is good in this chronicle is John’s; anything which could be better is mine.”

  11. j says:

    You give some OK examples here, but my great grandmother was good friends with Harold Gray, and I heard tell from family members that he was quite racist. I dunno if that was based on personal info they knew about him, or just because of how he drew black characters or whatever. I’ll ask next time I get the chance.

  12. Ramon De Los Flores says:

    But the question might be: Is the strip racist and/or is the creator? That’s where it gets interesting. I remember reading – and being astounded – that filmmaker Mizoguchi was reportedly something of a misogynist in his personal behavior; but his films are amongst the most sympathetic portraits of women I’ve ever seen.

  13. Mike Hunter says:

    A truly fine creator can transcend their own personal prejudices and failings as a human being; create art that’s morally better and more enlightened than they themselves are.

    Some thoughts on the subject:

    Is an actor or a writer or musician or painter any better or worse based on their personality? In my experience, real artists are often difficult, unreliable and not always pleasant people. Their art is the best of them distilled and perfected. That’s why we fall in love with a singer when s/he’s onstage, or the voice and wisdom of a writer on the page. Writers, in fact, often say that their writing is wiser than they are. To expect these people to live up to their work is foolish. The song, or the book, or the painting is an artifact, outside themselves, that they have put everything they are, they know, and they aspire to be into, then given it to us as a gift. But it is not necessarily who they are the rest of the time, nor do I need it to be.
    More at


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