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Black Readers & White Comics

The ambiguity of Rachel. Rachel, the maid in Gasoline Alley, is a much more complicated character than she might first seem. On the one hand, King was clearly drawing from the longstanding “Mammy” stereotype in creating her, but she also emerges as a very strong independent character in her own right. As a white American born in 1883, King shared in the widespread racism of the era: he used the n-word on at least one occasion in his correspondence and in a comic strip. He often portrayed blacks with a bemused condescension. But he also had better instincts, rooted I think in his genuine humanism and naturalism, which led him to pay close attention to the African-Americans he came in contact with. In an autobiographical essay, King traced Rachel’s character to a lady he had known when he was an art student in Chicago. “The fact that while going to art school I got a job running an elevator furnished me Rachel for the strip,” King wrote. “Ten cents for a can of beer on Saturday night insured me a generous chicken dinner on Sunday and gave me entry to the kitchen where Rachel presided, big, black and jovial.” I think this comment by King captures the odd mixture in his attitude which combines genuine affection with a slightly patronizing air (“big, black, and jovial”).

Interestingly enough, Rachel was King’s first long-lasting character, pre-dating Walt and Skeezix. King first introduced her as a secondary character in Bobby Make-Believe, a Little Nemo-inspired fantasy strip he started in 1915. King brought Rachel back when he had Walt adopt Skeezix in 1921. Being a bachelor at the time, Walt needed help in raising a baby. From the start, Rachel was a strong-willed character, worthy of respect despite the “Mammy” mannerisms. She was a servant but not subservient and many of the early strips are about how she’s more knowledgeable about raising a baby than Walt. She’s also given an independent life apart from the white characters, visiting her own family in Alabama when on vacation and dating men. In a storyline from the early 1930s, the Wallets hire a white maid to help Rachel. The white maid starts bossing Rachel around, causing Rachel to quit. When they realize their mistake, the Wallets get rid of the white maid and rehire Rachel. Later she leaves the Wallets and gets a job a defence worker and sets up her own household.

Irving Howe once observed that the character Jim in Huckleberry Finn started off as minstrel stereotype but Twain’s artistic instincts were such that he made Jim into genuinely rounded character. I think a similar dynamic is at work in Gasoline Alley.

It may surprise many contemporary readers, but King’s portrayal of Rachel received positive coverage in the African-American press. Rachel was praised as a positive role model in both the Chicago Defender and the New York Amsterdam News (two of the leading black newspapers in America). Writing in the Amsterdam News on May 20, 1944 Constance Curtis was particularly pleased by the way Rachel was portrayed during the war years. “Gasoline Alley which was one of the first, if not the first, comic in which the children really grew, has again made a change for the better. The character Rachel, who in the past has been a maid in the home of the Wallets, is a made no longer. Last year she took a job in a defense plant. This year, with one of the characters home on furlough from the war, she is visited. A look at her home is enough to show you that something unusual in comic strips has taken place. Instead of the usual shanty in which Negroes are always supposed to live, she is housed in an attractive apartment house, with living room furniture that is quite as nice as that of her old employers….When such men as King, who draws Gasoline Alley beginning to lend their hand to fair play for Negroes, we have gained an important ally.”

Black readers and white comics. Finding out what black readers thought about early 20th century comics is hard but not impossible. There are important letters in the archives of cartoonists like Gray and Milton Caniff. Also useful are the African-American newspapers and magazines. Finally there is some interesting indirect evidence as well. In 1928 in Baltimore, there was a “Polly and Her Pals Club,” where African-American dancers wore chic, flapper dresses in the manner of Sterrett’s heroine.

A dance club named after a comic strip was not unheard of at the time. In the 1910s, a “Krazy Kat club” opened in Washington, DC. A bohemian hangout and speakeasy, the Krazy Kat club was busted more than once by the police; its clientele included college kids, flappers, and gay men and women. In the 1930s in Chicago, there was a Krazy Kat club organized by teenaged African-Americans. The existence of the two Krazy Kat clubs and the Polly and her Pals club indicates the appeal the strips had to audiences far outside mainstream white society. In part, these two strips might have been particularly appealing to African-American readers because the cartoonists each had affinities with popular music, including blues and jazz, both of which emerged out of black culture. Black readers might have felt that these strips were closer to their own culture than other comic strip fare.

Bud Fisher’s two cents. Peter Sattler has called attention to an interesting 1919 Mutt and Jeff cartoon dealing with these issues. The cartoon shows Fisher fielding conflicting complaints from readers about his strip (i.e. saying he should or shouldn’t do strips about Wilson and the Bolsheviks). In one panel a black janitor tells him, “Haw, haw! Boss, that picture you had this morning about the colored gen’leman was de funniest you ever had.” Then an editor says that “you can’t ridicule the colored race like that. We’ll lose all our colored circulations!” At a loss for how to respond to these varied complaints, Fisher in the last panel is shown killing himself by pumping gas into his mouth.

Cady’s Jews. Responding to an earlier e-mail, the erudite comics scholar Warren Bernard wrote that “long after Life gave up on black stereotypes, they still lambasted the Jews. There was a long strand of anti-Semitism in the old Life, which lasted into the early days of WWI. Many of them were done by Harrison Cady, whose fluffy creation Peter Rabbit masked a vicious view of Jews, a view shared by Forain and Caran D'Ache, amongst others.” As I’ve mentioned before, the most vicious anti-Jewish and anti-Irish cartoons disappeared from most newspapers in the early 20th century, so it is interesting to speculate why they persisted in magazines like Life. One obvious explanation is that newspapers, dependent as they are on advertising, were easier to boycott than magazines, which at that time drew most of their income from subscribers. Again, this shows that there was a range of options involved as well complex motives among cartoonists and editors.

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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