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Racism as a Stylistic Choice and other Notes


If you watch the cable news shows, you’re used to endlessly circular debates where Republican shills and Democratic shills keep spitting out the standard talking points of their side for the day, a round-the-clock treadmill of redundant partisan argumentation.

The conversation about racism in old comic strips and comic books resembles that treadmill. There are two fixed positions that get tirelessly and tiresomely articulated.

Critic A: “This cartoonist [McCay, McManus, Eisner] was a racist. Look at the way he draws black characters, for example, with rubber-tire lips and simian features. Also the black characters are completely subservient and talk in an embarrassing minstrel dialect completely removed from any human speech.”

Critic B: “Ah, you have to place this work in a historical context. It was done in the era of blackface and minstrelsy. It’s ahistorical and politically correct to apply contemporary racial standards to the comics of the past.”

Critic A is a moralist and Critic B is a historical relativist. Left together in a room, or a list-serv or a message board, they’ll rehash their basic positions with increasing vehemence and belligerence, but with no movement in increased knowledge.

Below are some notes on race and comics which attempt to bring some nuance and complexity to this frustrating debate by bringing some historical facts to the table. Some of these notes borrow sections from earlier essays I’ve written but I think it’s useful to have them all in one place.

***

Caricature Country. The cartoonist Frederick Burr Opper (1857-1937) created many popular comic strip characters, notably Happy Hooligan (a good natured but hapless Irish-American tramp). Writing in The Independent in 1901, Opper reflected on the role played by ethnic characters in the comic strip universe (which he called “Caricature Country):

Colored people and Germans form no small part of the population of Caricature Country. The negroes spent much of their time getting kicked by mules, while the Germans, all of whom have large spectacles and big pipes, fall down a good deal and may be identified by the words, ‘Vas iss,’ coming out of their mouths. There is also a good sprinkling of Chinamen, who are always having their pigtails tied to things; and a few Italians, mostly women, who have wonderful adventures while carrying enormous bundles on their heads. The Hebrew residents of Caricature Country, formerly numerous and amusing, have thinned out of late years, it is hard to say why. This is also true of the Irish dwellers, who at one time formed a large percentage of the population.

Opper was being either coy or disingenuous in claiming “it is hard to say why” Jewish and Irish stereotypes were on the way out. As Opper would have been well-aware, Jewish-American and Irish-American groups were becoming increasingly vocal in criticizing ethnic stereotypes that targeted them. And cartoonists responded by either getting rid of those stereotypes or making them more genial: the simian Irishman of the 19th century became the affable lug of the 20th century (Happy Hooligan and McManus’ Jiggs). In fact, Opper would occasionally fudge the issue by saying that Hooligan wasn’t supposed to be from any particular group, even though his facial features and name both came out of the anti-Irish tradition. (Wikipedia lays out the various etymological theories about the word hooligan but they all have roots in anti-Irish sentiment).

The idea of “caricature country” is a useful one, though. Nineteenth- and early 20th-century comics dealt in caricature, not characters, and not just in ethnic and racial matters. Wives were almost always henpecking shrews (with a rolling pin in hand to bash hubby’s brains with) while their feckless mates loved to flee their family so they could go drinking with their buddies. Professors by definition were absent minded, farmers by their very nature naïve and easily fooled by city slickers. Racial and ethnic stereotypes grew out of this larger tendency to caricature. This is not to deny the racism or malevolence of the stereotype but rather to link it to the formal practices of the cartoonists. It’s not just that cartoonists lived in a racist time but also that the affinity of comics for caricature meant that the early comic strips took the existing racism of society and gave it vicious and virulent visual life. Form and content came together in an especially unfortunate way.

***

Participating in the culture of blackface and Minstrel shows. It’s not enough to say that the early cartoonists lived in a culture where blackface and minstrelsy were common. They actively participated in that culture and contributed. In 1911, there was a curious incident where it looks as if Winsor McCay and a friend dressed in blackface and attacked a man they thought was trying to blackmail the cartoonist’s wife Maude McCay. (As with much in McCay’s private life, the facts of the case a bit muddy and open to different interpretations). The use of blackface in this incident sheds some very interesting light on McCay’s racial politics, showing how they grew as part of the broader minstrel culture he participated in through the dime museum and on vaudeville. In 1913, McCay performed in Montreal, doing his famous lightning fast chalk talk. Among those who shared the billings with McCay were W.C. Fields, Lew Hawkins (“The Chesterfield of minstrelsy”), the Six Musical Spillers (“Colored comedians and instrumentalists”) and Asaki (“Japanese water juggler”). (Westmount News, March 14, 1913). Blacks and Asians were spectacles: objects of wonderment and derision, not unlike the comic strips themselves. No wonder McCay would so often use racial stereotypes in his work. Because they were popular entertainers, other pioneering comic strip cartoonists partook of the broad culture of minstrelsy and corked up at some point in their lives, including George Luks and Jimmy Swinnerton. “The Olympic Club Minstrel is undoubtedly the cleverest aggregation of amateur talent on the coast,” the Oakland Tribune claimed on December 4, 1896. One member of this minstrel troupe was Jimmy Swinnerton, who was already one of America’s leading cartoonists. Interestingly, the radio show “Amos and Andy” had roots in comics: it was inspired by an earlier show devoted to The Gumps, Sidney Smith’s comic strip. Amos and Andy was a corked up version of Smith’s situation comedy about family life and get-rich-quick schemes among middle-class white goofballs.

***

Visual Aliens. A blogger who goes by the names Jones coined the useful term “visual alien” to describe characters who are drawn in an incongruous style (either in relation to the background or other characters). Cerebus is a classic visual alien; so are the pretty girls in McManus’ Bringing Up Father and Sterrett’s Polly and Her Pals, who have a glamorous look that sets them apart from the other characters, who tend to be more cartoony and grotesque. Racial stereotypes are often visual aliens, drawn on a different register from other characters: compare Ebony White to the Spirit or Ellen Dolan.

***

Racism as a stylistic choice. Comics are a spatial form, all about surfaces and styles. The racist nature of cartooning images is profoundly influenced and inflected by stylistic choices. Often the cartoonists who do the most stylized art tend to produce the most grotesque racial images. I’ve used George McManus as an example of this before. The very forcefulness and confidence of McManus’ line-work combined with his considerable talent for delineating monstrous facial features made his apelike Africans all the worse.

A comparable case is Cliff Sterrett. In Polly and Her Pals, Sterrett he was very careful in making the Japanese-American servant Neewah look like the other funny characters (like Maw and Paw Perkins). But Sterrett uses a different strategy when drawing the African-Americans, notably a cook named Liza and a handy-man named Cocoa. Even compared to Neewah, Liza and Cocoa are super-stylized to the point where they scarcely seem human: Liza’s head makes her look like an asparagus and Cocoa looks like a knuckle-dragging ape.

***


To what extent did the early white cartoonists have personal contact with people form other races?
More than one would think, actually. Cartooning tended to be a big city job, concentrated in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Cartoonists were also active participants in the sporting life, the froth world of urban entertainment that included not only vaudeville but also boxing and bar hopping. Of course the newspapers were segregated to some degree, which is why George Herriman had to be circumspect about his family history, but socially there were many occasions for interaction. McCay, as we’ve seen, shared the stage with blacks and Asians. Tad Dorgan adopted two Chinese-American kids and was friends with the black boxer Jack Johnson. In the 1920s, Sidney Smith was a drinking buddy of the African-American cartoonist Leslie Rogers, who drew Bungleton Green for the Chicago Defender. As a boy in Minnesota Cliff Sterrett lived next to a Chinese-American family, which might explain the relative sensitivity he applied to the depiction of Asians in his strip. Later in the early 1930s Strerrett would hire as an assistant Paul Fung, Sr., one of the few non-whites in mainstream newspaper comics. Herriman of course is a whole special case all by himself. It might be best to wait Michael Tisserand’s forthcoming Herriman biography to comment more about him, but perhaps it’s worth noting that the creator of Krazy Kat didn’t just pass for white, rather he became an ethnic chameleon. His colleagues and friends at various times referred to him as Greek, French, Irish, and Turkish, and he himself dreamed of returning to life as a Navajo: he was of all races and of no race.

***

Breaking the color line. The color line in newspaper comics seems to have started breaking up in the 1930s, the decade the Hearst syndicate (King Features) hired E. Simms Campbell to do Cuties, a daily gag panel. Campbell praised Hearst for this in a 1942 birthday poem:

You’ve stood steadfast against the tide
When people took the other side
You’ve put into practice “The American Way”
A Negro works for your papers every day…

***

Global Minstrelsy. What we can call the minstrel style originated in the United States but it quickly spread to other comics tradition. Hergé paid closed attention to McManus and it’s clear that the Africans in Tintin in the Congo owe much to McManus’ way of drawing blacks (both Africans and African-Americans). The same process of cultural transmission occurred in spreading the minstrel style to Latin America and Asia (as can be seen, for example, in some of Tezuka’s early work). The ironic upshot of all this is that the minstrel style ended up having a longer life outside the United States than in its native land. In the United States and Latin America, African-American groups had criticized the minstrel style from the start and ultimately made headway in getting the general population to see what’s wrong with this type of drawing. In Europe and Japan, this base of social opposition was more scattered and slower to form, for obvious demographic reasons. A few years ago on a trip to Bulgaria I saw a box of chocolate that on the cover a pure example of a minstrel style drawing.

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82 Responses to Racism as a Stylistic Choice and other Notes

  1. UlandK says:

    I think you presuppose a "derision" that cannot be assumed; A normal "racist" would've depicted Asians as monsters, but because Serrit lived next to Chinese family, he was sensitized by proximity. The jugglers who performed with McCay were objects of "derision" because , well, you say so; if they were in black face, that meant they were loathed ( nothing to do with their skill as jugglers or tumblers, no).

    Yes, we have gone back and forth, but funny thing; I see you as the relativist, by applying contemporary notions of how racial caricature would be used today (only as an exercise in hate), you retroactively damn these cartoonists with a malice of fore-thought that was not available to them . It's a relativistic time-warp.

    A less egregious example of this is in your attempt to establish a link between what Irish groups were doing with what cartoonists were or were not drawing. It's a huge stretch. It supposes a sensitivity that you've argued wasn't at all present.

    Also, I think ( as a drawer) these cartoon depictions could not be described as stylistically alien to the rest. They follow the same rules of the visual language that each cartoonist worked within. I think they seem alien to us because we cannot imagine a world in which these depictions are not some kind of pure evil.

    I see myself as the moralist; I want to give these cartoonists a fair shake. I want to give the people who enjoyed these cartoons a fair shake. I don't think that can be done if we're unwilling to forego our radically different ideas about what race and racism is and what it means, not only to society at large, but to individuals who cannot sit comfortably in the space we've created for what's okay.

    The idea that a cartoonist should have depicted black people in ways unrelated to minstrelsy seems, again, an application of contemporary sensibilities where they didn't exist. I think it's fair to say that these depictions reflected a racist culture, but I don't think it's fair to say that they went above-and-beyond into promulgating ideas about black people that were not stock-in-trade to readers. They are convenient examples to us precisely because they're cartoons; they syncretize a whole lot of information and turn ideas into symbolic forms, but the cartoons we read today are not the cartoons they read. This dynamic is very much redolent of John Lukacs' criticism of contemporary historians, who tend to see history only in the light of recent changes, or some imagined march toward "progress".
    It has nothing to do with a proper understanding of the character of a given period, and everything to do with using history to reflect our visions of self back to us.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Sigh. I feel like we're going to head into exactly the type of tiresome debate I was hoping to avoid, since you've replicated all the arguments I assigned to Critic B.

    But here goes. "The jugglers who performed with McCay were objects of 'derision' because , well, you say so; if they were in black face, that meant they were loathed ( nothing to do with their skill as jugglers or tumblers, no)." I didn't say just "derision" I said "derision and wonderment"; the advertisement that hawked the show described the jugglers as "colored" (and another juggler as "Japanese"). The show also had a minstrel performer. So I think it's a reasonable surmise that the jugglers were seen as a novelty or worth going to not just because of their juggling skills but also because their race (colored, Japanese) made them an exotic entertainment. Blackface and minstrelsy weren't just about derision but they had a derisive element, as various historians have rather extensively documented. I'll refer you to Robert Toll's Blackning Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America and various essays of David Roediger.

  3. Jeet Heer says:

    "A less egregious example of this is in your attempt to establish a link between what Irish groups were doing with what cartoonists were or were not drawing. It's a huge stretch. It supposes a sensitivity that you've argued wasn't at all present." Here's what we know: anti-Irish cartoons were popular in the 19th century. Irish-American groups, once they became organized and militant at the end of the 19th century, complained about these cartoons. After the complaints, the depiction of the Irish in cartoons became much more benign. (The same story happened with anti-Semitic cartoons in America). Isn't it a reasonable deduction — one requiring less detective skills than those possessed by Sherlock Holmes — to see a connection between these facts?

    • UlandK says:

      I don't think it is a reasonable deduction. You could argue just as easily that public sentiment gradually changed toward the Irish as they gained greater social status; in other words, the caricature became less useful as it became less accurate ( in the minds of the public).

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        "You could argue just as easily that public sentiment gradually changed toward the Irish as they gained greater social status." You could argue that, but it's a very bland, vague statement of the type you find in exams by students who haven't bothered to study. How did the status of Irish improve? Did it happen naturally like water evaporating? You can't write human history without a sense of human agency, without a sense of people working together to effect change. It's a matter of historical record that Irish-Americans became very politically organized in the late 19th century and protested how they were represented. Considering the fact that very prominent politicians, like Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, tailored their politics to suit Irish-American demands, it would be surprising if newspaper and magazine published didn't also respond. It's difficult to argue history with someone who wants to talk about vague, ill-defined things like "greater social status" and not look at actual actions by human agents.

      • UlandK says:

        No, I'm sorry Jeet, you cannot ascribe every historical change to some kind of cooperative, dedicated effort. It's like you're suggesting that white flight to the suburbs must have involved white city dwellers getting together to agree that they should all move to the 'burbs. There are changes that occur for many varied reasons ( The Irish rise in San Francisco was much different than their ascension in Boston, for example.). It's simply too easy to state that Irish advocacy groups brought about those changes. After all, how did those Irish advocacy groups get listened to if they were not already ascendant? How did Lodge come to recognize the Irish as a distinct political power before they attained political power?

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        I can point to something that actually existed (Irish advocacy groups) as an agent for historical change. You're not pointing to anything at all but just making a vague statement that the Irish "gained greater social status." Obviously a historical account that points to something that really existed is going to have greater explanitory force than a historical account that just says things changed without pointing out a reason. Historians actually spend a lot of time studying things like white flight and the rise of Irish-American political activism, so we can't just airily waive away attempts at historical explanation in favor of vague statements about how the past changed.

      • UlandK says:

        How about population growth? How about better wages? Better education? I'd argue that far more often than not, there isn't some kind of single reason, or a single cause that was meaningful enough, to bring about "change". There is a much more organic view of history, the kind that involves humans.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        Again: sigh, sigh. You're really taking this conversation far afield from stereotypes in newspaper comics and are also constructing a lot of straw men arguments. I never denied that economic and demographic factors are important, or that history is caused by a single factor; in both the essay above and I try to bring in a host of different historial factors to explain events. Nobody other than a half-wit would argue that history is mono-causal. All I would say is that large social factors like economics and demographics are obviously and necessarily mediated by human agency and the collective political choices people make. This seems like common sense. As the saying goes: people make history but not under the conditions of their choosing. But really, honestly, why are we even debating this? Are you really so vested in questions about late 19th Irish-American history? What's your skin in this game? It really seems like you are more interested in politics than comics, and you want to use this this debate as a pretext for talking about politics. Obviously politics is important but I'm really trying to look at this issue in as comics specific a way as possible, and I find the issues you're raising to be distracting and unhelpful (and also very boring for most readers, I'm sorry to say).

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        At the risk of turning this even more into a boring history lesson than it already is, let’s look at the factors UlandK cited again: “How about population growth? How about better wages? Better education?” Can these factors in and of themselves explain the decrease in anti-Irish sentiment in the late 19th and early 20th century? No. Why not? Because there are plenty of cases where a minority group has experienced population growth, better wages and better education while also facing increased bigotry. The Jews in central Europe in the early 20th century are an obvious example, as are the Chinese minority in various Asian countries or the Tamils in Sri Lanka. The fact is, without political mobilization you can never fight racism. You can’t end slavery without abolitionism, you can’t end Jim Crow segregation without a Civil Rights movement, you can’t diminish anti-Semitism without an active campaign of education. Population growth, better wages and better education can’t change the status of group just by themselves. This is an obvious and boring point that UlkandK is resisting, for reasons that have to do with extraneous politics rather than anything pertinent to this issue.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        Also, I should add that we should assume that the late 19th century was a period of “population growth…better wages…better education” without evidence. The Irish-American population was going up, but these were also years of a protracted economic depression and wage stagnation. So I’d want to check with an actual historian to find out whether there “better wages” and “better education.” That’s what history is about: trying to grapple with actual evidence, rather than creating politically convenient fables.

  4. Jeet Heer says:

    "Also, I think ( as a drawer) these cartoon depictions could not be described as stylistically alien to the rest. They follow the same rules of the visual language that each cartoonist worked within. I think they seem alien to us because we cannot imagine a world in which these depictions are not some kind of pure evil." First of all, you're radically simplifying my argument by bringing in the idea of "pure evil" (which I don't use). As for the concept of visual aliens: take a look at how Ebony White is drawn in the pages that accompany my article. Compare Ebony with the other characters: not just the Spirit but also the African-American characters like Lieutenant Grey and Rosie Lee. Isn't it obvious that Ebony is drawn in a different stylistic register than those other characters. For one thing, Ebony's lips and eyes are about ten times larger than those other characters. If you can't see this simple stylistic fact, then you really can't analyze cartoons.

    • UlandK says:

      I think Ebony was exaggerated just as much as other characters were, just in a direction that we now find distasteful. The Spirit himself was an exaggerated kind of square-jawed hero type. Ebony represented a specific comic type, other characters played to other types . Cuteness, heroism or vamp-iness is just not as offensive to you.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        It's true that Eisner, like other cartoonists, worked with inherited conventions.That's a point I tried to make myself by quoting Opper about "Caricature Country." I didn't deny the comics function of Ebony, I emphasized it, writing that "Ebony was bursting with color, in more ways than one. No wonder Eisner had a hard time giving up Ebony, who provided a bouncy comic relief that the Spirit stories needed to offer a tonal break from the fisticuffs and nourish atmospherics." But the "specific comic type" that Ebony represented had a very specific historical genealogy, in blackface and minstrelsy. I don't see the point of denying this genealogy.

      • UlandK says:

        I don't see blackface or minstrelsy as pure evil. People did not go see those shows to throw eggs or mock; they actually did enjoy the music, dance and acrobatic performances. That enjoyment was certainly made possible by the performers conforming to really base , racist caricatures. These caricatures allowed white audiences to enjoy those performances without feeling threatened. Racist, yes, by our standards. Evil, no.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    It's funny you brought up John Lukacs. I've written about him a couple of times (see here: http://www.jeetheer.com/politics/lukacs.htm). In fact he once sent me a nice letter complimenting me for my understanding of his work and we had coffee the last time he was in Toronto. So I'll take the liberty of explaining what I learned from various books by Lukacs (notably his book Historical Consciousness): historical understanding transcends both antiquarianism (looking at the past for its own sake) and presentism (applying the standards of the present to the past). Rather, historical understanding involves an imaginative engagement with the past that tries to deepen our understanding of the choices people in the past faced. The problem with the type of apologetics that you're offering is that they assume that people in the past all thought in one way and had no alternative.

    • UlandK says:

      This is getting tiresome because I think you're doing exactly what you accuse me of. The kind of racial/social ideas that we now take for granted were simply not in the popular consciousness; they were fringe groups, they were radical ( like the founder of the Littel Red School). It's a matter of likelihood, not a matter of what we'd prefer.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        "Fringe" and "radical" aren't the same as irrelevant or unimportant. The abolitionists were fringe and radical before the civil war, so much so that even Lincoln denied he was an abolitionist when running for president in 1860. Still, they had a big impact. In a lesser way, the students at the Little Red School had an impact, since Dell comics stopped doing minstrel-style humor after those letters. Also, the NAACP, which influenced the policies of the Hearst syndicate (as I documented in the essay) was arguably fringe but not radical. They were fairly conservative or middle-of-the-road in their politics (as many actual black radicals complained). Again, its important to understand that there was a spectrum of ideas in the past, as there is a spectrum of ideas now.

      • UlandK says:

        I think Fringe movements can be influential, sure, but they certainly don't represent the modes of thought that your average reader or cartoonist would have likely accessed, or given much consideration to if they had. Activists, after all, present themselves as speaking on behalf of a larger interest, but that interest isn't always there. I have no doubt that the teacher at the Little Red School who instructed students to write letters to Dell was offended by those depictions, but it's a matter of being offended on behalf of others ( black people) while operating under the assumption that those who don't share her views are getting their hatred on, so to speak. It's a kind of classic pedagogery for the mass-man.
        Furthermore, that Dell would stop publishing a comic because these small groups succeeded in getting Dell to imagine a threat to their bottom line does not represent a sea-change of opinion on their part, or reflect upon the comic-reading public much at all.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        The Dell case was one of several examples of the changes in racial attitudes in the 1940s, as a result of civil rights pressure. I also cited how the editors at King Features were listening to the NAACP and also the changes Eisner made in regards to Ebony White (partially from pressure by civil rights group and also from Jules Feiffer). If I wanted to get into more detail, I could have talked about the efforts of cartoonists like Walt Kelly and Harold Gray to present a more realistic and positive depiction of black characters. As I said, the 1940s was a period of social change on this issue which we can see from a number of angles — both from the perspective of cartoonists themselves and also from civil rights groups. The Dell incident is one plot point of a larger narrative. This is all obvious from what I wrote. You really seem to be willfully obtuse about these very simply arguments. I also should add that those civil rights groups were very brave in fighting racism in a difficult time in history, so it's a bit annoying to see them dismissed as "fringe" and "pedagogery for the mass-man."

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        "it's a matter of being offended on behalf of others ( black people)": As I pointed out above, the Little Red School was an inter-racial school, so the students and teachers at the school were both black and white. They weren't offended "on behalf of others"; they were were offended on behalf of themselves and on behalf of the idea of a shared human diginity.

    • UlandK says:

      Also, I used Lukacs as an example because you mentioned you'd written about him in our last go-round.

  6. Jeet Heer says:

    But the fact is, people in the past, as now, had agency and made choices. In fact we can see evidence of the choices they made in some of the very facts I discussed in this essay (Sterrett's deptions of Asians verus his depictions of African-Americans; Eisner's attempts to fiddle with Ebony as a character and also develop more positive African-American characters like Lieutenant Grey). It's odd that you think you're trying to "give these cartoonists a fair shake." In fact, you're presenting them as being much more monolithic in their cultural practices than they were (as I tried to document).

    • UlandK says:

      It's our contemporary notions of race and racism that are monolithic, and they're grinding up these varied works beneath their weight.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        "It's our contemporary notions of race and racism that are monolithic": is that really true? Does Pat Buchanan have the same ideas about race as President Obama? Does Charles Murray have the same ideas about race as Cornell West? Do I have the same ideas about race as you? Isn't there a spectrum of ideas out there, now as in the past. It's a different spectrum but it's still a spectrum. Let's try to avoid over-generalizations.

      • UlandK says:

        I think it's pretty clear that the ethic of multiculturalism is currently the dominant mode of thought regarding race. In the academy it certainly is, and in most mainstream media as well. It's all but legal policy in your country.
        I don't think Pat Buchannans' views on race are carrying the day. Just look at how my comments are being rated compared to yours (those little thumb icons). I think that they indicate discomfort with ideas that don't square with multiculturalist rhetoric, including the view that these comic depictions are not pure evil.
        I'm not arguing that they're good, mind you, just not evil.

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        As I said before, I don't think these comics are "pure evil". I'm not even sure there is a such a thing as "pure evil." The idea of "pure evil" implies a metaphysics that I don't agree with. As far as I'm concerned there's nothing pure in this world; good and evil are always mixed to some degree. I'm not Steve Ditko believing in a black and white universe, and there's nothing in my essay to indicate that.

        If people are giving you a thumbs down it could just be that they aren't convinced by your arguments, not that they are discomforted by them or guided by any need to pay allegence to "multicultural rhetoric" (which in any case is a red herring since my essay has nothing to do with multiculturalist policy and deal with a time period — the early 20th century — when multiculturalism as we know it didn't exist, although there was the slightly congruant idea of cultural pluralism).

      • Caroline_Small says:

        Apropos of nothing — Jeet, did you have to re-register such that you've become Jeet Heer 2? My old-new tcj.com "Caro" login wouldn't work on the new-new tcj.com so I had to re-register with this one…did I miss some instructions?

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        I was having trouble with the Jeet Heer log-in. There are still a few kinks in this system which we haven't worked out.

      • Caroline_Small says:

        Good enough; I'll keep trying the old login ever so often. Thanks!

      • Dan Nadel says:

        Old login/passwords for commenting and posting (as opposed to paid subscribers) will not work anymore, as we're on a new server and under a new security umbrella. If you are a paying subscribed and have any questions please write to TCJ at the address at editorial (at) tcj (dot) com, rather than posting on discussion threads. Thanks.

  7. Yosh says:

    I don’t have much familiarity with these matters, so I’m not going to weigh into the above debate—but I can say that for a complete neophyte like myself, this is an absorbing (and convincing) article. It’s a pleasure to see these issues being addressed without the usual reductive and sensationalist chest-beating.

  8. JeetHeer2 says:

    If we didn't talk about racism, would there be no racism? Would it just disappear? Is racism an imaginary construct? It's true that the word racism, which dates I believe to the 1930s, is a recent concept. But before the word racism existed, there was the word bigotry, which has long roots in English and was a topic of fierce debate in earlier centuries. I've seen articles from the 19th and early 20th century criticizing cartoons for being bigoted. So this is an old debate, not a modern invention of what you call "multicultural rhetoric."

    • salgood says:

      on the last two points your both right IMO. Of course not talking about it would make it no less real. Racism is not an invention of the debate. But UlandK does have a point in saying the weight and favor of the discussion is nearly unparalleled historically. Regardless of the positions taken the debate is huge. And never before has a humanistic anti racist perspective carried as much moral influence as today. That's a good thing i think, but it can also bias our perception of the way things were done in the past and how they were related to in context.

      I would not say it justifies minimizing negatives? But i would say it's valid to include the perspective and not fall prey to a kind of revisionism of contextual character? I mean, history always trends to simplification. Heroes and villains often are made into archetypes lacking traits that go against type. The flaws of a "great man" tend to be overlooked, declared shocking when pointed out. And there are few people as truly evil as history will paint a villain. Nuance is good in the service of tearing down archetypes. We can over judge either way from the comfort of our latter-day education, be fooled into thinking our vision is 20 20.

  9. Caroline_Small2 says:

    Jeet, you allude to this in your paragraph on minstrel shows but it's not explicit so I'll make it so: the most racist period in minstrelsy was in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War. By the late 19th century, the minstrel show had become essentially a celebrity vehicle, close to Vaudeville. But then there was a resurgence in really strident racist caricature in the early days of audio recording (and. I'd presume, radio) because dialect recordings were really popular. I've read this argument several places but one of the most appealing is Allen Debus's version in the liner notes to this excellent CD: https://www.archeophone.com/product_info.php?prod

    The argument isn't that racist caricature went away and came back; just that there was a spike in the early 20th century directly tied to the new audio technology popularizing dialect routines. I don't know whether comics representations (like the one from 1911 above) have already been included in that narrative, but I think it's interesting because, if it's accurate, then to many people in that time period the strongest signifier of racial caricature would have been the dialect/words rather than the blackface itself, which (in this analysis) had lost some of its racist bite due to, well, celebrity culture. (The 20th century would see many repeats of that, eh?)

    I gather this spike is one reason why the reclaiming of dialect from racist caricature was so important to the very early Harlem Renaissance writers. In the time period you're talking about, before the 1920s, the "New Negro" writers (Toomer, Weldon Johnson, McKay, Dandridge) all wrote in dialect and defended the use of dialect as a way of documenting an authentic folklore. But by 1922, in the Preface to the Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson disavowed it in a way that really emphasizes the difference made by setting, which is far more image-rich:

    The Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain artistic niche. When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure. The picture of him is in a log cabin amid fields of cotton or along the levees. Negro dialect is naturally and by long association the exact instrument for voicing this phase of Negro life; and by that very exactness it is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos. So even when he confines himself to purely racial themes, the Aframerican poet realizes that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically.

    Dialect is surely used for "humor and pathos" in the cartoon contexts, but it would be interesting to see it spelled out — How do cartoonists inflect those situations differently from both the stereotypical representations in stage, radio, and recorded minstrelsy and the representations of resistance from the Harlem Renaissance writers? How often did cartoons represent those progressive settings described by Johnson? I'm guessing someone's studied how New Negro dialect differed from minstrel dialect, both in subject matter and actual language, so it would be valuable to know how Negro dialect and setting in comics fits into that broader context. Your essay also made me wonder about the impact of audio on other caricatures, particularly those of Asians; African-American minstrelsy is all I know anything about…

  10. Caroline_Small says:

    Jeet, you allude to this in your paragraph on minstrel shows but it's not explicit so I'll make it so. There's an argument about minstrelsy that goes like this: the most racist period in minstrelsy was in the mid-19th century, before the Civil War. By the late 19th century, the minstrel show had become essentially a celebrity vehicle, close to Vaudeville. But then there was a resurgence in really strident racist caricature in the early days of audio recording (and. I'd presume, radio) because dialect recordings were really popular. I've read this argument several places but one of the most appealing is Allen Debus's version in the liner notes to this excellent CD: https://www.archeophone.com/product_info.php?prod

    The argument isn't that racist caricature went away and came back; just that there was a spike in the early 20th century directly tied to the new audio technology popularizing dialect routines. I don't know whether comics representations (like the one from 1911 above) have already been included in that narrative, but I think it's interesting because, if it's accurate, then to many people in that time period the strongest signifier of racial caricature would have been the dialect/words rather than the blackface itself, which (in this analysis) had lost some of its racist bite due to, well, celebrity culture. (The 20th century would see many repeats of that, no?)

    I gather this spike is one reason why the reclaiming of dialect from racist caricature was so important to the very early Harlem Renaissance writers. In the time period you're talking about, before the 1920s, the "New Negro" writers (Toomer, Weldon Johnson, McKay, Dandridge) all wrote in dialect and defended the use of dialect as a way of documenting an authentic folklore. But by 1922, in the Preface to the Book of American Negro Poetry, Johnson disavowed it in a way that really emphasizes the difference made by setting, which is far more image-rich:

    The Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain artistic niche. When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure. The picture of him is in a log cabin amid fields of cotton or along the levees. Negro dialect is naturally and by long association the exact instrument for voicing this phase of Negro life; and by that very exactness it is an instrument with but two full stops, humor and pathos. So even when he confines himself to purely racial themes, the Aframerican poet realizes that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically. Take, for example, the phases rising out of life in Harlem, that most wonderful Negro city in the world. I do not deny that a Negro in a log cabin is more picturesque than a Negro in a Harlem flat, but the Negro in the Harlem flat is here, and he is but part of a group growing everywhere in the country, a group whose ideals are becoming increasingly more vital than those of the traditionally artistic group, even if its members are less picturesque.

    Dialect is surely used for "humor and pathos" in the cartoon contexts, but it would be interesting to see it spelled out — How do cartoonists inflect those situations differently from both the stereotypical representations in stage, radio, and recorded minstrelsy and the representations of resistance from the Harlem Renaissance writers? How often and in what way did cartoons represent those progressive settings described by Johnson — especially given your point about how urban cartooning was — and is the effect actually progressive? I'm guessing someone's studied how New Negro dialect differed from minstrel dialect, both in subject matter and actual language, so it would be valuable to know how Negro dialect and setting in comics fits into that broader context. Your essay also made me wonder about the impact of audio on other caricatures, particularly those of Asians; African-American minstrelsy is all I know anything about…

    • noahberlatsky says:

      I think tying it to technology is maybe wrong. The U.S. as a whole was much less racist following the civil war than it became in the 1890s. Lynching spiked too; that wasn't because of audio technology.

      The issue was that racial idealism following the Civil War was defeated because of massive resistance in the South. The north wasn't willing to stand against it, and so abandoned the hope of egalitarianism. In doing so, it decided that the fault was blacks' (they weren't worthy.) The north thus became more racist than it had arguably ever been, and Jim Crow became the law of the land in the south.

      Comics inception as a popular medium occurred during this spike in racism. (So did film's — Birth of a Nation.) So I think comics long-standing struggles with racist representation have at least as much to do with history as with formal issues.

      Increased racism was tied to sordid political realities more than audio technology, I think.

      • Caroline_Small says:

        Noah — I don't think the implication of the argument is supposed to be that technological changes caused the increase in racism overall, just that they impacted the specifics of that increase in the minstrel context. Racist audio routines were in many ways distillations of the worst parts of the minstrel shows, and they were portable. Not a primary cause, but something that definitely had an effect on shaping the character of pop cultural racism.

        There were also lots of silent coon films in the years before Birth of a Nation that trafficked in the visual stereotypes that Johnson describes in the passage above, but as best I can tell they were not as widespread or as popular as the audio recordings. They also were NOT portable. Minstrel celebrities were already established celebrities, so audio recordings had a ready audience, whereas film was just building an audience. So audio technology is important for being probably the most widespread and pervasive vehicle for transmitting a certain type of racist representation, at a time when racism period was becoming more virulent.

        But cartoons are another vehicle, another readily accessible vehicle with an established audience, so I'm curious how they fit into this narrative: did they just add to the intensifying effect of readily available audio, or did they mitigate it? Did racism in cartoon imagery also experience an intensity spike, or was it more consistent with the previous decades? &c.&c.

      • patford says:

        "…effect of readily available audio,…"
        For a close examination in a wider context see "Amusing Ourselves to Death, Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business" by Neil Postman.

  11. UlandK–

    We can apply our modern standards to old cartoonists in the sense of this topic. No matter what society would have had white people believe “at the time,” blacks and Africans have always been objectively human.

    It’s fine to study the old cartoons–I do as well. But don’t need to make excuses for them.

    And minstrel shows were evil. People do evil things. Even people you like. They were part of a culture of dehumanization and subjugation. I don’t share your forgiving heart.

    • UlandK says:

      I'm not making excuses, I'm putting them in a human context as opposed to an ideological one. We simply cannot apply that level of malice retroactively, as though the cartoonists should have adapted to a set of ideas that were not available to them at the time. It was the norm in cartooning throughout the early years of newspaper comics to depict not only black people in terms that appealed to popular stereotypes; most characters conformed to an easily recognizable type; the drunk Irish, the floozy, the henpecked husband, etc. Those images are not readable to us today as they were at the time. They don't jar us like the minstrel images do.
      It takes a huge leap to imagine that every reader thought that those minstrel images were a depiction of the reality of black people.Minstrelsy was a comedy genre in and of itself and conformed to those genre rules much more than it ever tried to conform to a reality-based depiction of black life.
      Mark Twain was incredibly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century; do you think his many readers thought minstrelsy was evil? Do you think they could not relate to his sympathetic portraits of slaves and former slaves?
      To use these depictions as a kind of symbol of evil is a really cheap way to get righteousness juice flowing; that is what really irks me about how we use these images today. We re-exploit those images and we exploit huge swaths of Americans who came before us in order to remind us of how righteous we are. You're clearly viewing my statements through that lens. It's a cheap way to feel good about yourself.
      Fight the power.

      • IanHarker says:

        Darryl, aren't you essentially making a "personal responsibility" argument? It's kinda ironic that the liberal, who accepts that a person's culture/economic paradigm influences how they are likely to act in the present takes an absolutist view when it comes to the past; where as the conservative who's views on "personal responsibility" among the living are idealistic is more understanding when it comes to the actions of those in the past.

      • UlandK says:

        There was nothing to take responsibility for.

      • IanHarker says:

        So you are saying that racism wasn't objectively wrong 100 years ago? I'm saying that it was wrong, but I understand if not everyone was in the loop yet. So I would pretty much characterize this kind of stuff as regrettable, but not exactly balls-out evil.

      • UlandK says:

        It ultimately depends on how we define racism and how we read these comics in light of that definition. I think the working definition of racism is to do with imagining that there are intrinsic differences between races and that some are inferior to others.
        I don't know to what degree racial differences are "intrinsic", or genetic, but I think those differences are pretty apparent otherwise. I think it's okay to make light of those differences. It's a huge part of contemporary humor, for example, so it's something people at the very least believe to be real.

        I don't imagine some kind of intrinsic superiority, but I do know that I, like most, people, tend to gather around those who share similar values, or speak the same language, so to speak. All that is tied up in class, religion, region and race. It's a kind of filtering mechanism. That doesn't mean I'd exclude anyone based on those factors, of course. I just recognize it as a reality. I don't think that's going to change, and I think that's okay. I don't think I'm doing anybody any favors by trying to force a relationship where it wouldn't naturally occur.
        I recognize that due to slavery, whites had a clear upper-hand, and in light of slavery, these depictions do represent a clear wrong ( in effect less than in essence).The question is to what extent reading these comics filtered through a multiculturalist lens, represents a) what people really thought then and b) what that should mean to us today. Multiculturalism is a kind of institutionalized, statist response to racism. I'm opposed to multiculturalism and the kind of institutionalized racism it was meant to counter-act.

      • IanHarker says:

        It's true that "racism" as a concept is hard to pin down and it's muddied the conversation about race because it's such a dynamic concept. On the other hand "white supremacy" is a little more tangible as an attitude, so if I was going to adjust my original question I would ask "was white supremacy objectively wrong 100 years ago?" Obviously it was as wrong then as it is now, but the attitude enjoyed a lot of moral support from the society at large to the point that "Average Joe" might regard it as a totally reasonable attitude. The fact is, and this is of course still true today, most people don't put the work in to think things through that society takes for granted.

  12. mrgrab says:

    It has bugged me that Eisner, in modern tellings of how he came up with The Spirit, would talk about his desire to produce a comic strip that wasn't about a costumed hero. He regarded that as immature. It's hard to take that at face value given the choice he made in designing and portraying Ebony.

    The interesting question to me is the moral dimension in reading and critiquing comics like these nowadays, and their contemporary cousins in theatrical animation. Racist caricatures like these were a reflection of their times. Were they also responsible for perpetuating stereotypes in those decades? To what extent does their republication in archival books and DVDs offer any kind of legitimacy or defense of the original work? I would think the answer is "little to none" in this enlightened age, but with university professors supporting the bowdlerization of Huck Finn in a new edition this year, maybe not.

    Just wait until Race To Death Valley comes out.

    • steven samuels says:

      It has bugged me that Eisner, in modern tellings of how he came up with The Spirit, would talk about his desire to produce a comic strip that wasn’t about a costumed hero. He regarded that as immature. It’s hard to take that at face value given the choice he made in designing and portraying Ebony.

      Why is it so hard to believe that “The Spirit” character was simply a compromise Eisner made to be able to get into the papers? Isn’t it on the record that this was the case?

      One can still be mature and racist at the same time. The two are not mutually exclusive. You can find equally racist tropes in both high and low art and everything in between.

  13. demoncat4 says:

    nice article. always wondered what Eisner really felt about Ebony white . to the point of finaly decinding to have him vanish. for hard to beleive back in those years comics were racist when it came to depicting african american's though one should relize these comics were from an era where segreation was mostly the norm. differant era back then. one of stupidity and racism when it came to depicting african americans in print.

  14. R_Fiore says:

    Then again, if Critic C were to horn into the conversation, what he would say was that to recognize the difference between people who live in a social context that is predominantly racist and those who live in a social context where racism is actively discouraged on a number of levels is not to be a relativist but to have eyes to see. While it is certainly possible that if you or I had come of age in the United States in the first half of the United States we might have been part of that small but real portion of the population that had enlightened attitudes towards race, but the odds are against it. It's a sin the nation acknowledged when it repented it.

    Though the odds are definitely better if you're Canadian. The root of racial attitudes toward African Americans in the United States was not the minstrel show but the need to rationalize slavery in a country where by the time of the Civil War human livestock was the most valuable form of property after real property itself. You start with a people that Americans didn't really like very much and then you have to explain why they deserve nothing better than to be slaves. What the minstrel show has to tell you is the contradiction between the ingrained tendency to see African Americans as alien, inferior and absurd and the irresistible attraction the African American way of being held even for those who were determined to deny it.

    It seems to me off kilter to talk about racial caricature as a style that is chosen. Its central characteristic I would say is the extent to which it wasn't chosen, to how bound it was to received conventions which would be followed even when they were at variance with the cartoonist's natural style. What you see in the examples from McCay and Opper was the style of cartoonists who came up at the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, and who partake of 19th century conventions that were even more vicious than those of the 20th. In Eisner you almost see the transition in microcosm, in the way his style went from one that tended toward the grotesque in all things and became increasingly less so as time went on.

    To me the important question never was how much cartoonists ought to be castigated for their racist attitudes. The important question was the one that comes after the question, "To bowdlerize or not to bowdlerize?" That question, if you come down against bowdlerization as I do, is "How can you justify perpetuating this material which you yourself will admit is wicked?" My answer has always been twofold. One, to bowdlerize is to destroy evidence, and to create an image of the past that's less racist than it actually was. Second, racial caricature is an invaluable window into racial attitudes, because it reveals what people felt when they saw no reason to hide it. If the goal of eschewing bowdlerization is achieved then you can castigate all you like.

  15. JeetHeer2 says:

    I don't disagree, really, with anything R. Fiore is saying here. Of course, the broader culture was racist in a way that no one person could control. My emphasis on style was merely a way to bring out the way that the artistic practicises of cartoonists (which is the area where they DID control) served to intensify an already grotesque cultural inheritence. The best way to think about this is to remember Marx's old adage: "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." (Men of course meaning humans in general). To adapt for our circumstances "Cartoonists make their own drawings, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past." We have to emphasize both sides of the equation, both the choices cartoonists made and the inherited circumstances they worked under.

  16. JeetHeer2 says:

    On the Bowlderization question, I completely agree with Fiore. It's wrong to re-write history and these comics are valuable both as works of art in themselves and as historical testimony about earlier attitudes.

    "Though the odds are definitely better if you're Canadian." Well, Canadians had minstrel shows and racist cartoons as well (that Winsor McCay show with minstrely performed in Montreal). The minstrel show originated in the US (for reasons you explain well) but it spread throughout the world, as did the tradition of minstrel-cartooning (which I alluded to in my references to Herge and Tezuka). In fact, minstrel-type drawing is now far more likely to be found outside the US than in it (aside from the occasional Tea Party sign or cartoon).

  17. I agree with Fiore. Last two paragraphs, especially.

    Never should we EVER alter racist works of the past (Huck Finn isn’t even racist). It would perpetuate the lie that “it wasn’t THAT BAD.”

    Lag time on this, so leave it at that.

    • UlandK says:

      But it wasn't as bad as someone drawing those images today; that requires a malice of forethought that was not possible then.

  18. Lunar Archivist says:

    I was recently presented with a link to this article and have a few questions that I'd like to ask in light of a rather heated argument that I had a while back with someone on this matter:

    1. I got massive flak for stating that I didn't see anything wrong with the current incarnation of Ebony White, specifically the female one that premiered in DC Comics last year. While Eisner's original undoubtedly had racist overtones, intentional or not, this one is essentially a personification of the "sassy black girl" trope, which I find acceptable. My opponent was essentially making a case for "inherited racism", i.e. that since the original Ebony White was a negative stereotype, that "taint" carries over to every incarnation of the character, no matter how benevolent the revision. While I agree that reviving the character may not have been the most brilliant idea, I find his reasoning dubious to say the least. Any thoughts on this?

    2. I attended a German school while growing up and was introduced to several European comic books over the years, among them "The Little Green Men" by French artist Patrick Mallet and "Mort & Phil" by Spanish artist Francisco Ibáñez. Both of these artists have been active for several decades, but, from what I can recall, they and several other European cartoonists frequently use the "blackface" stereotype for representing Africans and did so well into the 80s and 90s, if not up until the present day. How would you interpret this continued usage of this type of caricature in the modern day and age?

    Opinions and ideas are welcome. I'd sincerely like to have a mature discussion about this with individuals who don't insult me, drop the n-bomb as often as they can, or speak in mock-minstrel dialect in an attempt to discredit, ridicule, bully me into submission, or simply get a rile out of me because I don't happen to agree with their chest-thumping righteous outrage.

  19. JeetHeer2 says:

    1. I'm not familiar with the current version of the Spirit that DC comics does so can't comment. Advice from others would be helpful.
    2. Again, I'm not familiar with all those comics but as I noted in the paragaph titled "Global Minstrelsy," this type of minstrel image has had a longer life in European and Japanese comics than in the United States because the Civil Rights group that would protest these images (which groups are largely but not wholly made up of people of African descent) are less active in Europe and Japan, at least till recently. Also, some artists use these images either as satire (Crumb) or to evoke an earlier style (as Swarte does in imitation of Herge and McCay).

    • Lunar Archivist says:

      I can't claim to be very familiar with Eisner's original or with the current DC version (I haven't read too much of it), but, on paper at least, the idea doesn't seem too bad. Of course, given how involved Brian Azzarello is in all this and the controversy that occasionally follows him, it's anyone's guess how this will go. Given the stark contrast between the two versions of the character – not the least of which are that the original was neither sassy nor female – I personally see the "First Wave" version as Ebony White in name only and bearing no more connections to the original than Halle Berry's Catwoman does to her DC Universe namesake.

      While I agree about your assessment on the "Global Minstrelsy", what I'd be curious to know is whether Africans living in Europe as well as the comic book artists themselves – both of whom fall completely outside of the North American racism debate – would necessarily view the caricatures as offensive or if they're so far removed from the historical background that the inherent racism of this imagery has been "forgotten" for lack of a better word.

      One particularly jarring instance that comes to mind was the character of Miao Yashimoto, a private detective from Carlos Meglia and Carlos Trillo's South American comic book series "Cybersix", who also appeared in the 1999 animated adaptation of the series. The fact that he was portrayed as highly intelligent, competent, skilled, and completely lacking any accent or speech impediment clashed horribly with the fact that he physically resembled the worst World War II era Japanese stereotype with slitted eyes, huge glasses, and tremendous buck teeth. Here's a link to the relevant character sheet:

      http://www.telecom-anime.com/cybersix/english/cha

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        There's lots of evidence that blacks in Europe don't like the mistrel images either: look at the furor over "Tintin in the Congo."
        Thanks for the example of Miao Yashimoto. Its very interesting and shows the persistence of these types of images. Again, I suspect the lack of a socially organized opposition shows why it is so popular but also perhaps the attraction of visual shorthand to cartoonists.

      • Lunar Archivist says:

        I knew about the uproar concerning "Tintin in the Congo", but never knew where exactly the furor originated given how widely translated and distributed the series is. The two titles that I mentioned earlier don't seem to have gotten past European borders, as I'm familiar with both only from the German translations.

        And you're welcome about the example. Just for the record, "Cybersix" premiered in 1993, so that means that his particular example is less than 20 years old…

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        There's many online news articles about "Tintin in the Congo" and it's clear that at least some of the complaints come from blacks living in Europe.
        Just to repeat what I've said before, I'm against censorship of such images and want "Tintin in the Congo" to stay in print for both historical and aesthetic reasons. Although I'd add the proviso that I'd keep the book away from my kids and would encourage other parents to do the same. There are plenty of Herge comics kids can enjoy without minstrel images.

  20. Peter_Sattler says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful overview, Jeet. Unlike the "relativists" — a label I usually hate — you present cartoonists as actively participating in the shaping of history and discourse, if only (!) at the level of aesthetic and business decisions.

    What your examples also highlight is how mindless and routine most of the defenses of caricature were, even as they were being created. Oskar Lebeck's 1947 apologia is really not all that different from Opper's description from a half century earlier. Similarly, King Features may say in the 1940s that Negro overreaction to harmless racial gags was something new and unexpected, but any exploration of the history shows this is not the case. Bud Fisher, for example, has a strip from the early teens which talks explicitly about editors' concerns regarding the reactions of black readers. (Fisher's strip goes on to show that the black readers, themselves, didn't mind. What a relief!)

    It is easy for all involved — artists and critics — to look back on the past and say, "Who knew?" Your evidence indicates that the correct answer is often, "They did." Or rather, we did.

    • UlandK says:

      The question is to what degree were cartoonists actively concerned with shaping culture, particularly attitudes toward race. Responding to social conditions or changing norms is far different than an attempt to "shape".
      I think they're general level of agency is overstated by Jeet.
      It's also quite simple to suggest that they "knew", but even if that were true, it's difficult for me to imagine that they could formulate the kind of response to the issue that we now take for granted. I think it's quite possible that cartoonist a might've had relatively enlightened attitudes toward race ( attitudes that we would consider racist today, probably. Do you think anti-racist activists of the early twentieth century would've been ok with miscegenation?) but still used what we now regard as racist caricature.

      • JulianFine says:

        "I think they're general level of agency is overstated by Jeet"

        Considering that the only agency Jeet seems to be concerned about is strictly concerned with the drawing board, I think you are trying to rob them of it to save face.

        " Do you think anti-racist activists of the early twentieth century would've been ok with miscegenation?"

        How early are we talking about?

      • JeetHeer2 says:

        Julian: exactly: if artists don't have agency over their stylistic choices, where do they have agency at all?

      • UlandK says:

        The question is to do with the likelihood of a cartoonist a) seeing a problem with these vernacular modes of drawing and b) using his abilities as a cartoonist to act as an agent for change.
        Stylistic choices, as any artist will tell you, are not inventions.They weren't created in a vacuum and the artist can therefore not claim some kind of pure authorship.
        Again, when you guys try to to decode his "agency", you're looking at it in terms that assume a cognizance, or an authority, on the cartoonists' part, over issues and ideas that are important to us now, but were probably not important enough to a cartoonist working at that time to consciously enact any authority.
        If we were to reduce a cartoonists "agency" to the drawing board, we have to assume the terms he probably labored under; trying to entertain the readers in a way his editors approved of. We have to assume that he was probably much like others within his social milieu in terms of attitudes toward race.

        As far as "saving face" goes, if I were concerned with that, I'd have agreed with whatever garnered the most social approval to begin with.

      • UlandK says:

        I don't understand your comment at all. How can we strictly concern our ideas of their agency to the drawing board, and what am I supposed to consider in that light?
        The onus is on you to establish an active interest in "shaping" as a normal part of the practice of cartooning. It's simply not evident.

        Miscegenation was socially unacceptable throughout this country in my life time.

  21. JulianFine says:

    Thank you Jeet, this is invaluable stuff. The shift in tone for Irish and Jewish cartoon caricatures really does seem to happen like throwing a switch on New Years. Some quick questions and notes: the shift in tone is accompanied by the first two big Jewish and Irish cartoonists that I know of,Goldberg and McManus. I don't have a reference for this anecdote but I have been told that Jewish American engravers were something of a commodity to the comics industry because they were already used to more complex plates and multiple typesets, I wonder if that might have had some influence on the change in their representation. This would seem to coincide with the larger scope of Jewish and Irish immigrants undergoing Americanization though I don't know exactly where it lines up.

    • JeetHeer2 says:

      Thanks for the kind words Julian. Yeah, the switch with the representation of Jews and Irish happened very quickly in the newspapers, although much more slowly in magazines (which continued to run anti-Jewish and anti-Irish cartoons well into the 1930s). I'm thinking that the difference probably had to do with audiences (the big papers and the big syndicates were located in large cities with large immigrant communities) but also due to the fact that newspapers, depending heavily as they do on advertising, were more susceptible to boycott threats than magazines (which depended more on subscribes and newstand sales). I'd really like someone to do more research on this.
      I didn't know about the Jewish-American engravers — again, something for more research.

  22. Jack Offinson says:

    The world of Political correctness has kept "racism" alive and well, let's keep it rolling. Maybe N.P.R. will pick this up.

  23. JulianFine says:

    I had meant to post this part along with my thoughts on Jews in comics, but I refreshed the page and it didn't refresh with it when I went to post:

    "In 1911, there was a curious incident where it looks as if Winsor McCay and a friend dressed in blackface and attacked a man they thought was trying to blackmail the cartoonist’s wife Maude McCay."

    I had not heard that story before, that's crazy. McCay is a conundrum. When it comes to the Imp, I've heard apologist arguments that he's clearly a companion of Nemo, but I think taking McCay's experiences with vaudeville into account is important to consider here. McCay's idea to represent the unconcious mind of an upper class child is dripping with circus imagery and I think that those notions of "derision and wonderment" carry over. However, when race and blackface come up in his political cartoons, it can sometimes be a more confusing issue. This cartoon in particular has vexed me since I saw it: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_PB-O1yT5EYg/Sz1a-A1h8tI
    This one too, strikes me as seemingly paradoxical. It's at once concerned with ethnic and class based heirarchy while seemingly subverting it in the gag: http://www.fdavis.com/blog/mccay/30.02.09.jpg
    But then again there is this one you've talked about before: http://sanseverything.files.wordpress.com/2010/02
    What is to be made of these cartoons? Is the blackface on the men (miners?) in the first cartoon an attempt to create a savage enemy like what's clearly going on in the anti-Japanese one or are there more subtle politics at play? Was McCay, like Hearst, comfortable to appeal to racist sentiments when it suited his needs but harboring more egalitarian ideals at other times? I'd be curious to know how much social interaction he had with other races outside of the vaudeville circuit. I think it speaks to that defensiveness that comes across in a lot of cartoonist accounts of their work that these men could share the company of other races and still make these cartoons or "cork up" and accost somebody (and this definitely seems to carry over into animation when you think about a personality like Clampett). That strange paradox of sympathies seems to me, to be on display in at least some of McCay's cartoons.

    With respect to Eisner and Fieffer: the discord between Jewish traditions of vaudeville and socialist political thought might be another useful lens to analyse the fights over Ebony. Maybe? I'm not read up enough in this area to talk confidently.

    Finally considering Li'l Eightball you write "Visually Li’l Eight Ball was in the Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse tradition although he’s meant to be human. All Li’l Eight Ball needs is some mouse ears and he’d be a perfect fit in a Disney comic". Of course, this is no accident. Mickey Mouse and his ilk grew pretty much directly out of the tradition of blackface, and in a sense they kind of exemplify the tradition of minstrely because they afford white animators, performers, and audiences the opportunity to indulge in the "hedonism" of other races without having to be a part of them. The Betty Boop cartoon with the Royal Samoans where Bimbo tricks the savages into making him their king by painting his lips with mud exemplifies what I'm trying to get at here. The other sad paradox of getting rid of this imagery and suppressing it is that it has allowed properties like Mickey Mouse to divorce themselves from their own history even as they have entrenched themselves as iconic symbols of the American consciousness.

    P.S: Thanks for putting me in touch with Michal Tisserand a while back when I was researching Herriman. I'm eagerly awaiting his biography.

    • JeetHeer2 says:

      Julian: thanks for this note and those images. Yes, I think it makes sense to align McCay with Hearst in having a kind of free floating populism which sometimes took xenophobic forms (usually more anti-Asian than anti-black, actually) but could also be deployed in an egalitarian way against the rich. To put it another way, the American populist is always the man in the middle, who sees the threat coming either from above (i.e. plutocrats destroying the middle class) or below ("the Yellow peril" or army of tramps destroying the middle class).

      When you're dealing with journalistic types like Hearst and McCay, ideology usually isn't a matter of a consistent and well worked out worldview but rather a set of reflexes that react to the day's events. Sometimes these reflexes push one way, at other times another.

      That image of the lineup of animals and men saying "you're inferior to me" is also interesting because it shows McCay combining two different types of visual allegory: the visual allegory of Social Darwinism which sees evolution as a progression of lower creatures to man at the top with the Christian allegory of "memento mori". Instead of asking where McCay's allegence lies, it might be better to see the cartoon as evidence of how his syncretic imagination is able to combine these two world views, just as "Little Nemo" combined, say, circus imagery with animal fantasy and European court life.

      And yes, it's interesting that McCay often applied minstrel imagery (dark skin, big lips) not just to blacks but also to the poor and to other races and ethnic groups like the Asians.

  24. IanHarker says:

    My definition of White Supremacy, and I think this is pretty historically accurate, is the attitude that non-Whites are subhuman and thus subject to the dominion granted by God to Man of all things such.

  25. inochi_3919 says:

    What interested in your article is the social context it reveals. No artists can exist outside of a society of fellow citizens unless of course he creates an imaginary world in which to live in order to avoid the real like a child. But even if while producing a work privately he feels free of social demands, of social concerns, he must give up the work eventually in order to communicate if not simply to make money from it as a product that pleases an audience rather than challenges it. He has two social choices then, please or challenge. Your article gives an example of this situation: the social context.

  26. inochi_3919 says:

    Is it his racist depiction, stylization that matters or Ebony’s behavior? Ebony could be heroic and brave and serious if his motivations, mannerisms, actions, and behavior weren’t those of a low comedy clown in the comic's plots irrespective of his features. He could’ve been an educated black Cyrano de Bergerac, a dwarf man of Bronze who fought in the First World War if he was made to be closer to the real than opposed to it. He would in a sense have to be taken seriously and even his actual ugliness and race could become the subject matter which would challenge the racist readers conceptions or wishes. It might not be funny any more to laugh at him then. You offend the racist reader by making Ebony complain about being made a fool of by whites thus confronting the reader with Ebony’s Jim Crow world, a reality, opposed to the imaginary movie comedy version of the world the original comic creates. In this case bowdlerization is towards the real. But Eisner couldn’t because of his social context! Style here is falsehood rather than truth.

  27. inochi_3919 says:

    This question of style confuses matters of style over subject matter. In Ebony the question should always be what in fact did this figure represent to white readers at that time. Why did whites find them so appealing rather than reject them. Obviously for blacks the character was a demeaning statement of their supposed ugliness or funny looks and lack of masculinity. You’re good for laughs and nothing more. Why was it so important for whites at the time to see blacks in this way rather than not see them at all? Why have them at all in comics and films if not to say something about them that mattered socially if not to the creator then to his audience, readership, fans? We might ask how important was this character as a stock figure, a foil to the serious leading man type as a variant of the fool perhaps, and the fool often represents the sentimental, the common sense, the idiotic or even wisdom, did the earliest and revised Ebony share any of the traits of the Shakespearean fool or a Sancho Panza?

  28. inochi_3919 says:

    Now the history of the fool in this context would be interesting, too. Yet in Ebony is the fool dehumanized to a decree unlike the traditional white fools? So you have the urban fool as the side kick of the hero as detective rather than a knight in a ballad. Is he more grotesque than normal? Is Jughead ugly or closer to a real type of boy, a caricature of a goofy teenager we can recognize as essentially still human and not a sign of racist pathology? Is Ebony in fact visually ugly? Is Jughead ugly? Is there any beauty at all in the Ebony figure visually as an image that warrants style being important at all? And is the ugly little dwarf an archetype in fiction and amusement historically? Eisner, it seems unknowingly in Comics & Sequential Art, shows how it’s the gestures and words that matter in defining the seriousness of the character rather than any physical stylization features, in his example of the rooftop Hamlet. What is noble here is not to be found in dress or in a hoodlum type figure visually but in manners and gestures and speech. Is Napoleon in rags still Napoleon?

  29. inochi_3919 says:

    Eisner even admits to his social dilemma in not having the courage at the time to stand against the crowd and not have Ebony say phrases like “Yassu Boss”. We see how stories grow from the social soil of Eisner’s time. You could say no story lacks a moral, social, or political perspective even if it could simply be a matter of ignorance on the part of both the creator and the audience as to the actual social meanings and purposes of a given work. You could say the difference between now and then is that more of us are self-conscious about these things and don’t take them for granted.

  30. inochi_3919 says:

    Or the ignorant cartoonist just found the look amusing or pleasing in someway, Tesuka, Herge, no ill will was meant or intended, the blatant falseness of the depictions could also justify them, these are not real pictures of actual human being, c’mon? Nevertheless Japanese American kids were hurt by the rat and fang faced caricatures of their race during the second war. And could you really be friends with blacks and Japanese people and still treat them in this demeaning way, thus a missing social context is the social context. If Eisner’s best friend was a black could he have created Ebony at all. Obviously Herge and Tesuka did not socialize with blacks. Style and substance go hand in hand?

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  33. Ariel says:

    As a black girl, I have this unique point of view.

    In the whole relativist vs. modernist debate, I think the best way to look at the situation is to look at their overall work. If someone is capable of drawing Asians as humanly possible but not the same for blacks, then it is clear they knew better and as a result, deserve to be looked at in scorn even if they were of another time.

    But if someone drew all their minority characters in the form of some kind of caricature, then I am more willing to look at it from the perspective of them being of their time.

    I think the modernist approach is the best way to go to an extent. I don’t believe things should be edited because that is trying to cover up reality (which isn’t what the movies show you) But I think it should be used as learning tools in school to show the worst of humanity. One can read about racism in history books, but to see some of those comic strips really drives the point home about racism. I felt disgusted looking at it because as a black person you realize that someone (then and now) actually had the audacity to see you as subhuman.

    I think its important that the world knows the racial views of people of the past. Its important simply because it keeps us from idolizing someone who in reality probably wasn’t a great person.

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