The absence of beautiful blacks. Racism was reflected in not only how characters were presented but also how they weren’t presented. McManus, Sterrett and others would put in visual aliens in the form of beautiful white women (and occasionally handsome white men) and adventure cartoonists like Crane and Caniff presented exotically eroticized Asian women but images of physically attractive black men and women were exceedingly rare.
One exception, interestingly enough, is Will Eisner. In the Spirit story of October 13, 1946, Ebony is attracted to a black girl named Rosie Lee, who is drawn in a naturalistic and comely fashion—but this only makes the visual discrepancy between her and Ebony all the more jarring. I believe Eisner when he said he had good intentions with Ebony, but Eisner’s own stylistic choices undercut what he was doing with the character. A similar dichotomy occurred in the March 16, 1947 Spirit section, where Eisner created a black detective named Lieutenant Grey, described by a police officer as “one of our keenest and most able detectives.” Grey is a positive black figure and drawn in the same stylistic key as the Spirit and the other white characters. But he has only a minor role in the story, showing up only in seven panels, and again serves to highlight by comparison that Ebony is a visual alien and a purely comic character. Perhaps the problem was that Grey was too true to his name. He was a gray, colorless character, whereas 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.
Eisner’s Mixed Feelings. The cover of the Sept 15, 1940 Spirit page presents one of the most horrendous images of Ebony, showing him with bulging eyes and wacky blood-red lips, oddly augmented with two jutting teeth. This image makes a bit more sense after you read the story, in which Ebony’s eyes are accidentally effected by a drug. Still, the image and Ebony’s role in the story itself (where he’s a stooge and ultimately cured only by being whacked in the head by the Spirit) is hard to defend. In a small essay in the early 1970s, Eisner offered a gloss on the story. Here’s what he wrote:
This was my first real attempt at out and out comedy.
It was also a chance to develop Ebony as a real human.
Remember, I was still living in a world of Amos and Andy. But I was struggling with an idea that kept running around my conscience like a piece of quicksilver that cannot quite be picked up by hand.
No one really – in big time comics – devoted much time to a black man as a human alone.
Oh, yes, Ham Fisher did give Joe Palooka’s black trainer plenty of space. But no character effort.
In retrospect I’m embarrassed by what I frankly regard as a “cop out.”
That “Yassu Boss” bit makes me cringe to look at again.
I realize now that what started as a courageous effort simply disintegrated in face of what would have been a literary protest.
I was still pretty glad for the chance at the “big time” and I was not strong enough to challenge the establishment.
But …. I thought of it! (Cringe)
The Strange Career of Ebony White. The ambivalence Eisner expressed above can be seen in the strange ups-and-downs of Ebony White, who wasn’t presented in a fixed way but changed over time. The early Ebony is pretty terrible, a pure comic goat with many clichéd features not just in appearance but actions (i.e. a fear of ghosts, subservience). Stylistically Ebony was much influenced by Connie, the Chinese sidekick in Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates (a strip Eisner loved and emulated). Things got even worse in the war years when Eisner didn’t work on The Spirit and the feature was taken over by Manly Wade Wellman. Sometimes described as a professional Southerner, Wellman had a penchant for roughneck racial humor. After the war, Eisner tried to respond to criticism in various ways: Ebony became more active, black characters in the strip criticized him for his minstrel talk, he disappeared for a while (to be replaced by a not-much-better Eskimo boy named Blubber who, bizarrely, was drawn in the minstrel style), and he came back.
There seems to have been a tug-of-war between Eisner and his assistant Jules Feiffer about Ebony. Partially this was because Feiffer was much more politically progressive than Eisner but perhaps there was another factor at work. Feiffer was to Eisner what Ebony was to the Spirit: the young assistant. So perhaps Feiffer resented the subservience that permeated the Ebony/Spirit relationship as well as the problematic racial politics of the character. As Feiffer recalled in The Great Comic Book Heroes, “I couldn’t stand boy companions.” For Feiffer, boy companions were rivals rather than figures to emulate. Eventually Ebony disappeared (around 1949 if I remember aright). Subsequent revivals of The Spirit have had a struggle with Ebony. Sometimes, as in the Harvey Comics reprints of 1966, stories with Ebony were left out. In general, Eisner didn’t draw Ebony on the covers of various reprints, although there was an attempt to defend the character in the special issue of The Spirit (#7) published by Warren Comics in 1975. Eisner’s basic ambivalence towards Ebony never really went away.
The 1940s As A Turning Point. Looking back, it’s clear that the 1940s were a pivotal time in race relations, in America and in the comics. The war was the beginning of the end of Jim Crow America. With the wartime labor shortage, millions of African-Americans found jobs in both industry and the army. Civil rights groups were able to make the cogent argument that it didn’t make sense to fight Nazi racism in Europe while upholding segregation in America. The new African-American social mobility led to a backlash among some whites, resulting in race riots in cities like Detroit where white mobs tried to prevent blacks from moving into hitherto segregated neighborhoods. Calls for racial equality were increasingly vocal and reached the comics page, where there was a longstanding tradition to depict black characters in highly exaggerated forms, with rubber-tire lips and clownishly large eyes.
On November 23, 1943, and on the following day, Crane depicted minor black characters in his accustomed and hitherto acceptable way in his strip Buz Sawyer. This led to a mild word of advice from the King Features Syndicate. “In the background of a couple of daily releases you have a colored character,” editor Ward Greene noted in an October 7, 1943 letter. “One is a Pullman porter and the other is a waiter. We feel you may be inviting trouble if you use colored characters in the comic at this time. Experience has shown us that we have to be awfully careful about any comics in which Negroes appear. The Association for the Advancement of Colored People protests every time they see anything which they consider ridicules the Negro no matter how faintly. For example, [George] Swanson did a little drawing showing a Negro baseball team breaking up to chase a chicken across the diamond. As a result, papers in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago were threatened with a boycott by local Negro organizations. Of course, they are hypersensitive, but the sensitivity has, as you know, become more acute than ever with race troubles growing out of the war. The two Negroes you drew are no more caricatured than some of the whites in your comic, but they are caricatured just enough to give some colored brother the chance to accuse Roy Crane of lampooning his race. I know you don’t want that. Please don’t think we are being censorious, Roy. I am simply giving you the picture as we know it to be.” Greene’s words are of course very ambiguous; he sounds slightly put upon and puzzled by the fact that blacks are offended by racial jokes. Still, his letter is a sign that editors were increasingly attentive to black voices of complaint.
A parallel example can be found in the comic book world. In the mid-1940s, New Funnies, a comic book published by Dell, featured a little black boy named Li’l Eight Ball, who (as you might guess from his moniker) had a head resembling a billiard ball (the character had his origins in some Lantz Studio cartoons). 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. Mike Barrier provides an analysis of Li’l Eight Ball here.
In 1947 students at the Little Red School House on Bleeker Street, New York – a progressive, inter-racial school – wrote letters complaining about the character. Here’s the response they received from Oskar Lebeck, of Dell:
Dear Boys and Girls,
Aren’t you a little unfair to imply that our editors discriminated against the colored people in our Li’l Eight Ball Stories? I can assure all of you it was not our intention to make fun of the Negroes as you put it in your letter. If you were right, wouldn’t we also discriminate against all the white children when he caricatures boys and girls. Much as in our Little Lulu strips or Henry or many others? Should we leave out the Irish cop, the funny Italian organ-grinder or the fat German delicatessen an, etc. etc.?
However, in order that there should be no doubt in anybody’s mind, I have decided to discontinue the Li’l Eight Ball stories effective with the September issue. We certainly do not want, in these troubled times, to anything which might cause friction and dampen the efforts to build a happy and peaceful world.
Like Greene, Lebeck adopts a defensive pose, acting wounded and injured. How could anyone take offence at Li’l Eight Ball or Italian organ-grinders? Still, he listened to the complaints and Li’l Eight Ball was no more.
A sad paradox. Paradoxically, the civil rights agitation of the 1940s didn’t just lead to the disappearance of offensive stereotypes, but to a larger ethnic cleansing of the comics. With publishers and cartoonists afraid to offend black readers, characters like Li’l Eight Ball and Ebony White disappeared. But they weren’t replaced, except in a few cases, by non-racist black characters (who might have offended racist white readers). Instead the comics sections of the 1950s became very lily-white, with far fewer non-white characters than before. There are exceptions: Walt Kelly’s character Bucky in the Our Gang stories and a black boy briefly introduced in 1942 in Little Orphan Annie. It wasn’t till the civil rights agitation of the 1960s that there was a more forceful attempt to have non-racist black characters.
This is a complicated topic and I’ll be returning to it in future columns.