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.