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Sometimes a Watermelon is Just a Watermelon

It’s my general policy not to comment on the textual front and back matter of comic strip collections, though it often irritates me. In the first place, next to nobody reads it. In the second place, for those few who do read it, it has next to no potential to spoil the book. You’re reading the book for comics. The supplemental material might slightly enhance the experience, but if not it’s merely forgotten. It is at most an appetizer, and most of the time I leave it for last lest it spoil my appetite. However, I found Thomas Andrae’s hors d’oeuvre to Walt Kelly’s Pogo The Complete Dell Comics: Volume One (Hermes Press) went down so poorly that I feel the need for a belch.

The analysis of racist content is to our chagrin a necessary component of writing about old comics. In interrogating this particular text Andrae has adopted the maximalist standard that can condemn a work that materially advanced the abolition of slavery as racist. You want to ask these people that if Harriet Beecher Stowe was being racist when she sentimentalized Uncle Tom, what was Charles Dickens doing when he sentimentalized Little Nell and Tiny Tim? Or you would if you were writing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As applied to Walt Kelly by Thomas Andrae these standards yield conclusions that are completely wrongheaded.

At the outset, we must presume that Walt Kelly was more enlightened than Thomas Andrae, or you, or me. This is because unlike Walt Kelly’s, our enlightenment is socially assisted. Walt Kelly had to come upon his all on his own. Now, any of us might have been one of the enlightened people in those days, and all of us think we would have been one of the enlightened persons in those days, but the odds say otherwise, and in the actual event Kelly was. We simply embrace the conventional wisdom of our time. Kelly swam against the tide. To have a non-stereotypical black child as the identification character of a comic strip was practically unheard of. This was Bumbazine, who initially played a kind of Christopher Robin role among Kelly’s creatures of the swamp. For our hanging judge, however, being sui generis is not nearly enough.

While Andrae does acknowledge Kelly’s enlightened tendencies, this knowledge doesn’t lead him to anything like generosity. Bumbazine is, according to Andrae, “a regular boy in some panels but in others he had bulging lips and saucer eyes, and he spoke in rural Southern dialect like the animals, reinforcing reductionist images of blacks as uneducated and intellectually inferior.” This is simply false. While Bumbazine’s lips will at time tend to the liverish, he is invariably well-dressed and is the most well-spoken character anywhere in the strip. Andrae goes on, “in the last panel of Animal Comics #1 he drew Bumbazine and Pogo celebrating Pogo’s birthday by gleefully eating large slices of watermelon, recycling the racist imagery of Little Black Sambo and other black stereotypes.” Leaving aside that Little Black Sambo is not set in the United States but in India, does not involve anyone of African descent, and does not employ any stereotypes involving watermelon, this is still a complete misrepresentation of Kelly’s story. Rather than a tale of depraved watermelon-mongering, it is the story of how Bumbazine spends the whole day trying to bake Pogo a birthday cake and keep it out of the hands of Albert the Alligator. In the end, after the heavy confection has dragged Albert to the bottom of the swamp, thus getting him out of the way, Pogo and Bumbazine settle down to the simpler pleasures of watermelon, which doesn’t require preparation. Bear witness to this scene of racist horror:

Pogo2This is ultimately a failure to understand what the watermelon stereotype actually entails. Surely you realize that there’s nothing intrinsically degrading in liking to eat watermelon. Watermelon was one of the props in a general stereotype of the African American as filled with infantile enthusiasm, easily distracted and reduced to paroxysms of delight at the rattling of dice, the smell of fried chicken, or the sight of a watermelon. This is not what’s happening in Kelly’s story at all. But then, Andrae hardly seems to have an idea of his own on this subject at all. Rather, he has a grab bag of received notions, incompletely understood and haphazardly applied. Watermelon equals racism, that is all you know and you need to know.

Andrae is on firmer ground in denouncing the characterizations in the story from Animal Comics #5. Once again, however, he is sloppy in characterizing them as “derisive minstrelsy stereotypes.” The conventions of the minstrel show were as formalized as the Harlequinade, and the characters in the story at hand don’t fit them. Further, I believe a more sophisticated and context-conscious reading would come to a different conclusion. Feeling ostracized after having once again ruined everyone’s good time, Albert leaves the swamp and finds himself in what must be the little railroad town Bumbazine comes from. Andrae can see this town as nothing but a plague of derogatory stereotypes. In this he fails to see the forest for the trees. In popular entertainment the African American had only one role — a menial one. A maid, a janitor, a porter, a shoeshine boy — these are the positions they are fit for, while the whites do all the important work. In Kelly’s little swampside town black people fill every role — the station master, the ticket taker, the engineer of the train, which they get to ride. The only white people pictured are a couple of hillbilly layabouts getting drunk under a tree. This is all nearly as unheard of at the time as, well, a comic strip with an unstereotyped black boy as a reader identification character.

Andrae’s hanging judge predilections oversimplify a vexed and complicated question: Where is the line between a humorous depiction and a merely derogatory one? To my mind there are some basic questions to ask in determining this. Is there any malice in the depiction of the characters? Are the characters primarily held up to ridicule? Is the pleasure the work affords in large part a feeling of superiority? When you’re talking about black characters in a vintage comic strip, does the cartoonist abandon his normal style for a simplified golliwog treatment, as you would see for example in Wash Tubbs or Moon Mullins?

On the last point I would say that you can give Kelly a clean bill. Each character is depicted with care and individuality, and without any malice that I can see. In the story Albert leaves the swamp hoping to be better appreciated in civilization. After being initially startled by this huge predator in their midst, the townspeople soon realize the commercial potential of a talking alligator, and begin to fight amongst themselves over who has the right to this bounty. Albert takes the opportunity steal the train and make his escape after a slapstick chase. Could this be taken as ridicule of the townspeople, and intended to make the reader feel superior? Well, you could take it that way, and Thomas Andrae does, but to me it seems like he’s treating the black characters the same way as he does every other character. He considers them human enough to represent humanity.

Pogo

As Andrae acknowledges, though not in such a way as to give the man much credit, Kelly himself came to the conclusion that the well had become so poisoned with derogatory images that he couldn’t treat black characters without being taken the wrong way. To be beyond the possibility of misinterpretation requires not equal treatment but overcompensation, a condition under which humor can’t exist. Once Bumbazine makes his exit no character openly suggestive of African descent will be seen in Pogo again. Mazel tov.

The railway sequence was merely one example of the restless experimentation that marked the early years of the strip. Pogo had an extraordinarily long period of gestation. The first story appears at the end of 1942 and the character designs are still evolving in the first year or so of the comic strip seven years later. Indeed, comparing the covers with the rather slapdash art of the stories you have to wonder if working in comic books impeded his development. The Complete Dell Comics is thus more for the Kelly aficionado than the general reader. Aside from losing the first two pages of one story to a production error, the effect is generally pleasing. This being Hermes Press the stock is coated, but the gloss in unobtrusive, and the stories are reproduced in near-publication size, with every corresponding cover, by Kelly or not. Even the error is inadvertently revealing. It illustrates that by the third page of these stories the plot premise is undetectable, and all has descended into anarchy.

Initially, not-yet-Pogo models itself after the tales of Uncle Remus with a side order of A.A. Milne — the misspelled signage is more Milne-and-Shepard than Harris-and-Frost — and the first two years is a process of shedding the parts of those influences that don’t look like Walt Kelly. First to go was Albert as a Br’er Fox-style villain, and along with that characterization goes the attempt to emulate A.B. Frost and his naturalistic animal characterizations. It’s in the railroad town story that he truly begins to look like himself. Soon after he discards fable structure for minimal structure, and then comes to realize that human characters are superfluous his true identification character is Pogo. By the ninth installment Bumbazine is a mere walk-on and by the tenth he has walked off. From Uncle Remus he retains the dialect, and the trackless swamp remains a cousin of the Hundred Acre Wood, but his subject is the absurd dimension of the human character. The last story in Volume One is from 1947, two years before the debut of the newspaper strip, and at least some version of the main characters who Kelly would follow to the end are in place.

As showcased in Perfect Nonsense (Fantagraphics) George Carlson shows himself to be the missing link between Lyonel Feininger and Dr. Seuss. He was not the sort of cartoonist who was broadly influential, but the sort whose work was known to a relative few and remembered by all of them. He first makes his mark in John Martin’s Book, a children’s magazine for the carriage trade, some of which probably still owned carriages when it began publishing in 1913.

Carlson and his editor/collaborator John Martin were following in the footsteps of L. Frank Baum in seeking to create a uniquely American children’s literature. They were collectively in rebellion against the traditional fairy tale/folk tale that formed the core of traditional children’s literature. The European folk tale was escapist literature for people who had no escape. It thrived in an era of hereditary rank on a race memory that once upon a time, a common man could be lifted above his station in return for doing a service for the king. This form of imaginary upward mobility had no appeal for the entrepreneurs and go-getters of the Progressive era United States. (Recall that before the eminently practical dreamer Baum created Oz he edited a magazine for store window dressers.) Martin and Carlson’s brand of children’s literature eschewed moralizing and pursued education, always sweetened with pure entertainment in the form of nonsense. The strongest material in Perfect Nonsense are the comical abecedaries and verse features, written by both Martin and Carlson, which retain a remarkable freshness and bite.

aAs I browsed through the book, though, I found the most engaging aspect of Carlson’s cartooning was its antiquated feeling. I spent a long time trying to find a way to define this quality when the right word hit me: Pre-Disney. It was ultimately Walt Disney who would not only succeed in defining the uniquely American form of children’s literature, but would remake it into children’s entertainment. Disney and movie animation generally would transport the imaginative world of children away from the medieval kingdom and the ancient forest to the barnyard and the big city, and most decisively into the present. Its voice would be the voice of the country bumpkin and the city slicker, the hillbilly and the cowboy, the wiseguy and the stumblebum. Even when it would venture into the world of the traditional fairy tale it would be stripped of the grotesque and the gothic, and told in American English as spoken by immigrants. Its appeal was decidedly to the streetcar trade; Woolworth’s, not Wanamaker’s.

The house style of Disney would be the look of children’s entertainment, not only because Disney was so popular but also because a great deal of the drawing would be done by moonlighting Disneyites. Or Disney refugees like Walt Kelly. The development of his mature style is practically a journey back to the ways of Disney. The evolution of Pogo looks like nothing so much as the development of Jiminy Cricket. When Ward Kimball started to design Jiminy he found that anything that looked like an actual cricket would be rather awful, and the character ultimately saw the light of celluloid as a little man with a grasshopper head. Kelly initially modeled Pogo on the opossum, a creature that makes a rat look friendly, and eventually wound up with a bipedal puppy.

George Carlson takes us back to a visual environment where Disney doesn’t exist, and thus his work has the fascination of the unfamiliar. Nor would his work ever be contaminated by the Post-Disney idiom. It evokes olden times rather than embracing the present. Particularly in the John Martin’s Book portions it is an environment where children are well-dressed and well-behaved, in contrast to the animated cartoon which embraces misbehavior, even if order is restored in the end.

Reading the selections from Jingle Jangle Tales leaves me with the same mixed feelings I’ve had from earlier fragmentary reprints: Disappointed that a more complete collection doesn’t exist while suspecting that once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Carlson had neither the satirical impulse of Baum or Lewis Carroll nor the feel for character of a Walt Kelly. They have some of the growl of the Simplicissimus cartoonists but not the bite. Like Edward Lear, his nonsense is satisfied with being nonsensical. Still, I’ll be one the first in line for a complete collection when it comes out.

When I first encountered her work in the National Lampoon my reaction to M.K. Brown was a mild irritation, arising I think from a failed attempt to get it. It wasn’t until I encountered it again in Rick Meyerowitz’s National Lampoon anthology Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead that I realized what an extraordinary cartoonist she is. Thus the career retrospective Stranger Than Life (Fantagraphics) was something I’ve been anticipating like Christmas. When she submits to the constraints of less indulgent markets her work is merely funny, but when allowed to roam free her mind was clearly getting telegrams in code from the same people who used to communicate with George Herriman. Like Herriman she was fortunate to find a venue that would give her free rein. Its hard to imagine if she could have thrived if there had not been a magazine like the National Lampoon that would adopt as a credo “Making people laugh is the lowest form of humor.” Perhaps the essence of her humor is encapsulated in the following cartoon:

MKBrown

What my deficiently imaginative younger self failed to realize is that there’s nothing to “get” here. There is absolutely nothing that can be called a joke. The humor is in the absolute otherworldliness of this character, and that she or he or it would claim regular existence on this plain of being at all. It is a living emanation of forgotten advertising art come to life.

Even if it wasn’t one of those rare books where the writer of the afterword denounces the work of the writer of the foreword, Stranger Than Life would be guaranteed to be unlike anything else on your bookshelf, where it ought to be.

My earliest memory of a particular comic strip comes from when my grandparents came back from a visit to the Old Country, which is to say New York City, with a copy one of the New York Sunday papers. I don’t know which, but whatever one had Terry and the Pirates, that’s what it was. I’d never seen a comic strip that looked so grim and foreboding; I don’t think the Los Angeles papers even had ink that dark. Other than that impression the only specific thing I recall is that endlessly intriguing title — who the hell was Terry and weren’t pirates those guys with cutlasses and parrots on ships in the olden days? I didn’t know from Milton Caniff or George Wunder or any cartoonist except for maybe Charles Schulz, but it must have been Wunder’s Terry I was looking at.

bI have a general disdain for zombie strips, but I have always wondered about Wunder. I was mildly intrigued by the fragmentary examples of his work I’d seen here and there, and the way he made his characters look like depraved marionettes. I had gotten the impression that Wunder was an even more dedicated Cold Warrior than Caniff, but I honestly don’t recall where I’d gotten that impression and I’ve been mildly interested in testing it. Terry and the Pirates: The George Wunder Years Volume One (Hermes Press) was an opportunity to satisfy one of those curiosities. As this volume ends in 1948, before Mao took power in China and things began to look really dire, Terry and company are on their way to give the White Man’s Burden a test hoist in the still-French Indochina. It’s Hermes Press, so once again with the coated stock, which once again doesn’t spoil it for me, though I would say that on the color pages particularly the feeling is more like looking at a photograph of a comic strip than a comic strip. The book design could be charitably described as undistinguished (did I say it was Hermes Press?) but it is an agreeably wide-screen experience. It would be nice to see the Caniff Terry at this size.

To my mind the question is not so much is it worth preserving as, should we let it go to waste? I don’t know how many volumes beyond this I’d like to go but I didn’t feel it was time wasted. When you endeavor to take over a successful strip rather than creating your own you’re looking for a sinecure, not self expression. Still, Wunder handles it like a seasoned professional. It bears the same relationship to Caniff’s strip as Beatlemania has to the Beatles, but the fringe benefit to that it retains the theme of freebooting soldiers of fortune in exotic places. Efforts are made to bring the pre-war band back together, which must have seemed a little odd at the time since Caniff had just made the grand tour of all his old mainstays before he left. Connie doesn’t come back because even in 1946 you couldn’t get away with that shit anymore, but Big Stoop has a cameo. Pat Ryan comes back, who I always liked better than grown-up Terry Lee, but only long enough to demonstrate that with a grown-up Terry Lee fronting the strip there’s nothing for him to do. And of course the Dragon Lady is on the cover.

Wunder’s Terry made me want to remind myself why I’d stopped reading Steve Canyon before Kitchen Sink stopped sending me review copies, so I pulled down Damma Exile, the 25th volume in the Kitchen Sink Press Steve Canyon series (including magazine format issues), whose cover I’d never cracked before. The first thing I notice is, sure Wunder is okay, but in comparison Caniff is the cartoonist from Planet Krypton. The eyes of all his characters are alive where Wunder eyes suggest taxidermy. The second thing I notice is that by this time (a couple of years past the most recent Library of American Comics installment) it has ceased to be an adventure strip. In a short, informative introduction Pete Poplaski informs us that the biggest hits of the time in the dramatic category were On Stage and The Heart of Juliet Jones. Caniff, now an owner and not just an employee, felt bound to take notice. He had also become intrigued with Little Orphan Annie. The first half of the book is taken up with a real Harold Gray plot: PoteetCanyon, Steve’s orphaned cousin, is coaching the kids from the high school of the bedraggled mining town near Steve’s Air Force base to make a bid in the state basketball championship. This goes on for months. It demonstrates mostly that Harold Gray’s métier was not Caniff’s. In the second half of the book there’s something that’s almost like international intrigue as the State Department sends Steve to thwart a privately funded Chinese Bay of Pigs invasion figureheaded by an exiled Asian princess whose fondest wish is not to liberate her country but to become an ordinary American housewife, and it all begins to seem like the finals of the World’s Biggest Square contest.

It’s a curious thing that when the disaffected youth of the 1960s tried to forge an identity they looked to the movies and pulp magazines and comic books that their disaffecting parents had created or consumed before World War II. I listen to the records those kids made and wonder if a younger generation had ever before been that young. I compare what their parents created before that war and what they created after it and wonder if there ever was an older generation that became that old.

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83 Responses to Sometimes a Watermelon is Just a Watermelon

  1. “At the outset, we must presume that Walt Kelly was more enlightened than Thomas Andrae, or you, or me. This is because unlike Walt Kelly’s, our enlightenment is socially assisted. Walt Kelly had to come upon his all on his own. Now, any of us might have been one of the enlightened people in those days, and all of us think we would have been one of the enlightened persons in those days, but the odds say otherwise, and in the actual event Kelly was. We simply embrace the conventional wisdom of our time. ”

    I take your point, but do you honestly believe this is true of non-whites at the time?

    “You want to ask these people that if Harriet Beecher Stowe was being racist when she sentimentalized Uncle Tom, what was Charles Dickens doing when he sentimentalized Little Nell and Tiny Tim? Or you would if you were writing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. As applied to Walt Kelly by Thomas Andrae these standards yield conclusions that are completely wrongheaded.”

    A thing can have positive aspects or effects and still be full of suspect material. There are many works that have a positive goal in mind, but still traffic in ugly stereotypes. It’s not either/or—it’s a spectrum, a tug-of-war. So yeah, just like people, a thing can be positive and negative at the same time.

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    Hi Dave,
    “I take your point, but do you honestly believe this is true of non-whites at the time?”
    Not to self-promote, but this is a topic I take up in the introduction to the next volume of the Complete Little Orphan Annie (volume 10, out in a 2 months or so). A small preview: I look at letters from African-American readers to Harold Gray in the early 1940s and show there was actually quite a diversity of opinion on these matters — the same character some saw as respectful others saw as Uncle Tom-ish. Another way to get at this question might be to look at how non-whites cartoonists represented non-whites (say in Chicago Defender or other black papers or in something like Four Immigrants Manga) versus how non-whites were represented by whites. People are only starting to look into this but as a rule I think it’s fair to say the black press, for example, was well ahead of norm of white cartoonists.

    Completely agree on the other point. The intention of an artist is part of the story but not the full story. The “golliwogs” for example, actually had (at least if Alan Moore is to be believed) a progressive intent behind them, but they seem pretty horrible to our eyes.

  3. Isn’t the contextualization of racist imagery within a racist time, something of a red herring when judging historically whether said images are in fact racist images? And additionally, wouldn’t the use of these racial tropes by people of color of the time, point more to the institutional pressures they worked under, rather than a de facto co-signage of all of the contents therein?

    What I see here is a lot of effort to justify the greatness of works through the denial of their problematic dehumanizing aspects. As David said, these things exist more along a spectrum anyways. So for instance, Pogo can be a progressive positive work, and still contain racist imagery within it. I don’t really see the utility of trying to deny racist imagery in these comics. It makes it difficult to take the rest of your points very seriously.

    Acceptance is one of the steps to healing. And if you can’t accept that the images posted in this article are in fact racist images, then you still have a long way to go to be able to capably talk about the topic. You’ve conflated Pogo containing racist imagery within it, with a statement about the overall quality of Pogo. When it is just one of the attributes. One which, as even you suggest is part and parcel of the time in which it was produced. But producing racist images in a racist time, doesn’t somehow magically make those images less racist. Spending this space and time to act as an apologist for those images, only contributes to the further ostricization of these works from both readers and other critics. I really wonder about the purpose of this kind of rant. Both in terms of the prospective audience, and in terms of its goals.

  4. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “At the outset, we must presume that Walt Kelly was more enlightened than Thomas Andrae, or you, or me. This is because unlike Walt Kelly’s, our enlightenment is socially assisted.”

    This seems like gobbledygook to me. People don’t exist independent of their time; there’s no ideal Walt Kelly purified of social influences who you can compare to somebody today purified of social influences. Folks are in the time they’re in. Kelly is in part the racism of his day. And folks today are in part the racism of our day — which includes, arguably, the impulse to deny or explain away racism in the name of reverence or nostalgia.

  5. Jeet Heer says:

    Hi Sarah –

    “Isn’t the contextualization of racist imagery within a racist time, something of a red herring when judging historically whether said images are in fact racist images” — The mistake you are making here is assuming that because 1942 (say) was “a racist time”, then everyone was equally racist, which isn’t the case. In fact people in 1942 argued passionately about race and there was a concerted effort (led by African Americans) to challenge racist imagery. To talk about 1942 simply as a “racist time” robs people of that era of their agency and also ignores the ample record that racism was not simply taken for granted by everyone but actively challenged.

    Because racism was under challenge at that time (and really was always challenged by some — there was never a time in history where 100% of people accepted the racist consensus), it becomes possible and valuable to look at the works of artists from that period and see where they fell on the spectrum. There’s a world of difference between how Ebony White was portrayed in 1942 (almost purely as a figure of mockery) and how Bumbazine was portray (or even more interestingly Bucky in the Kelly’s “Our Gang” comic books, who starts off as a typical minstrel figure but by 1945 or so looks and acts like the white children in the strip). If we see the 1940s as a period not of a solid racist consensus but rather where racism was being challenged, Kelly’s handling of race (which had both racist and progressive dimensions) becomes a rather a interesting story — one that makes the art more interesting, at least historically. (By the way, unlike some, I’m not committed to any view of Kelly’s “greatness” — for me, he’s primarily historically interesting, not aesthetically so).

    “Wouldn’t the use of these racial tropes by people of color of the time, point more to the institutional pressures they worked under, rather than a de facto co-signage of all of the contents therein?” This really depends on where those people of color were working. If there were working for the mainstream newspapers or comic book industry, then, yes, they’d face institutional pressures to do racist work. Although even there, there is the interesting case of George Herriman, who passed for white, and did some racist work but also smuggled some pretty daring anti-racist messages into Krazy Kat. But if those cartoonists were working for the black press, I’m not sure what those institutional pressures would be, since black newspapers mainly had black owners and black readers. Which might explain why those newspapers featured representations of blacks that weren’t, you know, racist (or at least much less racist) than what was found in the white press. Which again goes to the point that we can’t just assume that because from our point of view 1942 was a racist time, everybody was racist in the same degree and produced the same type of racist art. There was a lot of diversity in 1942, as there is now, and the work of criticism is to help register that diversity.

  6. R. Fiore says:

    Complaining about the characterizations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is like complaining that the fireman who pulled you out of a burning building was wearing yellow suspenders. It’s borderline insane. People were being bought and sold like cattle, and dying in servitude. Harriet Beecher Stowe understood that one of the keys to ending slavery was to persuade the great mass of white people to identify with and feel the humanity of the slaves. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work of didactic fiction. It was also a work of popular fiction, and that was the key to succeeding in its didactic mission. The sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the sentimentality of 19th century popular fiction, and secular saints like Uncle Tom are ubiquitous in it. The proof of Stowe as a champion of the enslaved people was that it worked on all levels. It was a huge bestseller, not just nationally but internationally. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who wrote about how surprised he was while a prisoner of war to see a 19th century theater in Germany named after Uncle Tom. That’s because it was a staple of popular theater into the 20th century. It is not at all edifying that Harriet Beecher Stowe did more at the time to further abolitionism on a mass scale than Frederick Douglass. Nevertheless, it’s the truth. I’m sure if she had been aware that she had failed to anticipate the racial attitudes of the 21st century in every detail she would have been ashamed of herself.

    I find Sarah Horrocks’ position to be shallow, narrow-minded and dogmatic. Walt Kelly is entitled to a presumption of good faith because of the good faith he demonstrated before, during and after this period. I include these images because I don’t think they’re racist, and a fair analysis would confirm this. The first image I contend is not racist in any way. It was also the first and last scene in Bumbazine’s tenure that he was seen with a watermelon. The second I contend is honest humorous cartooning, in which he treats black characters they same as he treats every other character. I would support this by comparing it with the actual conventions of racist caricature. Chief among these is the stereotype that blacks were by nature cowardly. In the sequence excerpted, the townsfolk are at first startled by this huge, deadly predator in their midst, as one well might, but within a single panel understand that he’s tame. Soon a child is bold enough to stick her head in his mouth to be sure he isn’t a man in a costume. As I point out, Kelly himself realized that in the context of the derogatory imagery that surrounded it even honest humorous illustration would contribute to the poisonous atmosphere, so he gave it up on his own, without the aid of our superior wisdom. Note that the imagery under discussion comprises three pages and one panel out of 260, with hundreds more to come.

    It is a curious thing how the polarity of racial caricature has reversed. Now as then it imparted to the reader a pleasant feeling of superiority. When it was first published it imparted a feeling of superiority to the people pictured. Now it imparts a feeling of superiority over the people who read it. And boy, are we smug about it.

  7. Ethan says:

    I think it’s more like complaining that the fireman pulled you out of a burning building while calling you a ni**er.

  8. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “Complaining about the characterizations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is like complaining that the fireman who pulled you out of a burning building was wearing yellow suspenders. It’s borderline insane.”

    James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” is a classic essay about the problems with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe James Baldwin is insane. Or, possibly, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d suggest you read the essay — or, you know, read anything at all — before making dogmatic assertions about what topics are reasonable to discuss in this area.

    Abraham Lincoln said lots of racist things. He also did a lot, obviously, to free black people. Are we not supposed to acknowledge the racism because it’s unfair or insane to do so? Or is it possible that Lincoln’s racism, like Stowe’s, has an ongoing effect on people, just as their anti-racism did? If someone does something good, it’s insane to question any of their other actions ever? Or what?

  9. thales says:

    Makes me wonder who commissioned (if it was commissioned at all) this piece and why.

  10. It seems like, in elevating our “low” art form to “high” status, we treat all these early cartoonists like a bunch of Michelangelo’s, carefully chipping away at their various Davids and Pietas. All this sleuthing to prove these guys whose work is so foundational aren’t a bunch of racists. I disagree with Jeet–1942 WAS a racist time. Racism was widely accepted and the cultural norm. Jim Crow was the law of the land, etc. Maybe these guys should get some kind of pass for that, but to my mind someone whose work was a shining bastion of equality and progressive thought would stick out like a sore thumb in all the mud of these early racist depictions and metaphors and watermelons and minstrels and so forth.

    The early years of comics were very disposable, despite the brilliance of some of the individual works and creators. It was an artform intended for children, printed poorly, on shitty paper, and sold in drugstores. These guys were not at the forefront of intellectual thought at the time, and the lengths people go to minimize racism–especially the use of racist images in an artform based around images–is weird and tired. R. Fiore is right–all those backmatters ARE boring; they amount to little more than that old forced apology, “I’m sorry if you were offended.”

  11. Ian MacEwan says:

    :/

  12. I have something very sad to tell you all.

    2014 is also a racist time.

  13. Jeet Heer says:

    @Noah. Baldwin’s essay on Uncle Tom’s Cabin is great but it’s by no means the last word on the subject. It’s worth supplementing with Jane Smiley’s recent piece on UTC. One thing I’ll say about Baldwin is that his piece was very much a product of the tendency of New York intellectuals post-1945 to reject the social novel (in part because they associated the social novel with the Popular Front, which they also opposed). Baldwin’s essay is of a piece with Lionel Trilling’s rejection of Dreiser, Dos Passos, etc. and also Baldwin’s hostility towards Richard Wright. From the point of view of 2014, that sort of Cold War liberal disdain for social protest itself seems dated and limited.
    @Dustin (and also touching on something Sarah wrote earlier): of course 1942 was a racist time, but to describe it just as a racist time without acknowledging that racism was also being contested at that time does a disservice to those who lived then. There were plenty of people (mostly blacks, although also a few whites) who objected to Ebony White, et. al. So a discussion of the racism of 1942 should try to figure out where an artist stands on the spectrum. The other problem with saying 1942 was a racist time is that it assume that 2014 isn’t a racist time. But I would say we still live in a racist society, although the markers of racism have changed. And any discussion of racism in 2014 should work with an awareness of the spectrum of racist attitudes that exist.
    Finally, I wouldn’t say the cartoonists of 1942 simply reflected unthinkingly the racism of the period. That’s too kind a way to put it. Comics were, in fact, quite a bit more racist than the culture at large in 1942, for a variety of reasons (their historical connection to vaudeville and minstrel shows, the social make up of the comics industry and segregation in the newspaper field, and also the fact that as an art form based on caricature, comics lent themselves to cruel mockery). If you look at the broader culture of 1942, you’d see that something like Ebony White was more racist than the norm of in fields like radio (Amos and Andy are much more humanized than Ebony White) or fiction (where blacks had a wider outlet than in comics) or music. So looking at the comics field as a whole, I’d say they didn’t just reflect the racism of the time but also significantly exacerbated it. But given the widespread racism of comics, the few attempts to portray non-whites in a more a human way are all the more interesting. Which is why it makes sense to talk about a spectrum.

  14. Tim Hodler says:

    R. Fiore has written for the Journal for over thirty years, and has a column in which he can write about any comic he wishes. While Dan or I may sometimes offer suggestions, we don’t assign him his subject matter or position. If Fiore had taken the opposite tack and declared this Walt Kelly book racist, we would also have published his review. (I haven’t read the comic in question, and have no firm opinion on the matter.) One of the reasons we publish Fiore is because he is a writer whose arguments are worth grappling with whatever stance he takes.

  15. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Jeet, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s the last word on the subject. It’s been a while since I’ve read it; not even sure I’d agree with all of it — though I would say that Baldwin’s distrust of the social protest novel really can’t be collapsed into a distrust of social engagement or protest in writing (if it were, he’d be condemning basically his entire literary output.)

    Anyway, my point was simply that labeling criticism of Stowe’s racial politics as “insane” is completely untenable. Which I suspect you agree with.

    And I was just nodding my head through the rest of your comment. Great points, all.

  16. Brian Cremins says:

    To return for a moment to Jeet’s earlier point about the ways in which scholars are beginning to study these complex issues of representation, Kelly’s work has generated a rich and often nuanced critical dialogue in the last decade or so—as it should, given the vitality and formal complexity of his mature work. Of course, a search for discussions of race and representation in Pogo will take us back to articles by Maggie Thompson and Betsy Curtis in the fan press of the 1980s, and to Norman F. Hale’s All Natural Pogo (1991), which remains a fascinating book.

    But with Kelly’s work slowly coming back into print—I hope we’ll soon see a collection of his Peter Wheat comics—we now have We Go Pogo (UP of Mississippi, 2012), in which Kerry Soper examines the role played by African American folk traditions as well by American minstrelsy in Kelly’s comic book and comic strip work. In the late 90s and early 2000s, Eric Jarvis wrote a series of excellent scholarly articles on Kelly’s later Pogo strips and issues of race and Cold War politics. And of course Kelly biographer Steve Thompson’s writing has appeared in Fantagraphics’ Our Gang and Pogo collections. In my essay on Bumbazine from Brannon Costello and Qiana Whitted’s Comics and the U.S. South (UP of Mississppi, 2012), I use Toni Morrison’s ideas from Playing in the Dark on the “economy of stereotype” to discuss the watermelon panel and the train station sequence included here.

    I have argued elsewhere that concepts from African American literary theory, notably Morrison’s discussion of the “Africanist presence” in American literature and ideas from Ralph Ellison’s “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” offer comics scholars a set of strategies for engaging with and responding to these images—not as a means of condemning Kelly and his work, but in order to understand the forces that shaped these narratives and continue to shape the discourse on race in American popular culture.

  17. Avi says:

    The idea that the racism of the past evaporated, that it was ordinary then but not now is kinda dubious.

    Mainstream white America is still basically comfortable with derogatory stereotyping in 2014 – Lily Allen tweeting blackface to Azealia Banks. How I Met You Mother using yellowface. White sports fans dressing up in redface. On the one hand this stuff is shocking because it’s a gross breach of the norm – it’s not supposed to be acceptable today. On the other hand this is banal, ordinary, everyday stuff. Blackface is an embarrassing anachronistic relic. And it’s contemporary, modern, present day.

  18. R. Fiore says:

    Well played, comrade Hodler. The Grand Dragon will be pleased.

  19. R. Fiore says:

    The argument I was making was actually the opposite of contextualizing. I wasn’t arguing that it was “acceptable by the standards of its time” (of course glossing over that all the people consulted about those standards were white), I was arguing that the work in question is not racist as it sits on the page right here and now. I believe it’s Andrae who’s contextualized when he falsely paints it with the brush of other comics of its time.

    Noah Berlatsky: (Sniffs) “Just wait until my big brother James Baldwin gets here, he’ll show you, ya big bully, think you’re so smart . . .” So I went and read it, and I must say I completely agree that as literature Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a complete piece of crap; I never thought of it as anything else. But that just happens to be completely irrelevant to what I was saying. When Baldwin analyzes Stowe’s book as a protest novel he glosses over how the protest turned out. My point was not that the book didn’t have “problems” but that those “problems” were rendered trivial by the magnitude of what it achieved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a machine that worked. Its crap popular fiction nature is one of the mechanisms that made it work. Baldwin identifies another key component, “theological terror, the terror of damnation,” which Stowe could convey because she felt it herself. Baldwin’s bit about “that terror that activates a lynch mob” seemed a bit off. I was under the impression that lynch mobs inflicted terror. Of course, Baldwin is not so crass as to equate the book’s sentimentality with Dickens. He equates it with Little Women. Other works denounced include Native Son, which pretty much ended his friendship with Richard Wright.

    Since we’re throwing around reading assignments, an interesting book about Uncle Tom’s Cabin is The Inadvertent Epic, a transcription of a series of radio lectures by Leslie Fiedler, out of print but available used. Fiedler points out that Stowe inspired a whole sub-genre in Southern literature of answers to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. These included The Leopard’s Spots, which ultimately became the basis of Birth of a Nation, and ultimately Gone With the Wind. He also discusses Baldwin’s essay, and mentions that Baldwin said elsewhere that he’d loved the book as a child, and read it aloud to each of his younger brothers in succession.

    In racial matters the United States is like a reformed drunk. It is undeniable (though some still will) that it doesn’t get plastered nearly the way it used to, but there’s bottles hidden all over the joint. His fulsome denunciations of the evils of the demon rum are a means of dissociating himself with himself. I believe the notion that condemnation is expiation is an illusion.

  20. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Again, been a bit since I read Everybody’s Protest Novel. But the point isn’t just that it’s bad literature. The point is that its merciless exhortations end up denying the humanity of the people on whose behalf it is supposedly exhorting. That denial having some effects on the exhorted. As just one (non-Baldwin) example, the image of the good darkie, which owed a fair bit to Uncle Tom, was hugely popular in the Jim Crow south for decades, as both an excuse and a threat.

    Baldwin actually talks about reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Devil Finds Work. His relationship with it was a little more complicated than love. He read it obsessively, so much so that it scared his parents. He says that it was a problem he needed to solve. He read Tale of Two Cities the same way, I think (and had mixed feelings about it as well.)

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin isn’t a machine, incidently. It’s a book. As such it has multiple meanings and indeed multiple intentions. And it’s worth remembering that, you know, the end of slavery didn’t actually free black people in the US. If you credit Uncle Tom’s Cabin with the end of slavery, it seems like you might also look to it to see why that end came without actually making black people equal, or why it took another 100 years for black people in much of the country to have even basic civil rights — and why, given that history, it still seems to you that black people should be so darn grateful to Stowe (and to America?) that criticism of her (and it?) are considered insane?

    “I believe the notion that condemnation is expiation is an illusion.”

    You have set that straw man on fire. Good for you. But nobody here is claiming that pointing out the racist imagery in Kelly is “expiation.” We (or at least I) am suggesting that explaining away the racist imagery in the interest of hoarding your own nostalgia, or because you can’t bare to believe you might like something with less than ideal racial politics, is puerile and preposterous.

  21. Oh, and rereading the Baldwin essay; he directly compares the quaintness and adorableness of Stowe’s black child character to that of “a darky bootblack doing a buck and wing to the clatter of condescending coins.” So he’s pointing out racist representations in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Is Baldwin insane and ungrateful in your estimation?

  22. So I have a response to R. Fiore at the address below.

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2014/04/fear-of-wertham-and-possibly-of-a-black-planet/

    I hope it’s okay to leave the link in comments here. If not the moderators can just delete, and I apologize.

  23. Jerry Orbach says:

    Wasn’t that the plot of the movie Crash?

  24. Mike Hunter says:

    ——————–
    Jeet Heer says:

    …of course 1942 was a racist time, but to describe it just as a racist time without acknowledging that racism was also being contested at that time does a disservice to those who lived then.
    ———————–

    Yes; and it’s a grotesque oversimplification.

    Speaking of which…

    ———————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    “At the outset, we must presume that Walt Kelly was more enlightened than Thomas Andrae, or you, or me. This is because unlike Walt Kelly’s, our enlightenment is socially assisted.”

    This seems like gobbledygook to me. People don’t exist independent of their time; there’s no ideal Walt Kelly purified of social influences who you can compare to somebody today purified of social influences. Folks are in the time they’re in. Kelly is in part the racism of his day…
    ————————-

    Ah, the classic “accuse somebody of making some outrageous/absurd statement which they in fact did not make, then attack them for making an outrageous/absurd statement” tactic!

    (This was a tactic so prevalent at Hooded Utilitarian, and so favored by Mr. B., that I’ve just kept the line above handy, to copy-and-paste on a regular basis,)

    Did Jeet say that Walt Kelly lived in a timeless void of ideal perfection, a state of perfect, all-out enlightenment?

    So, if one says that the six people who had knowledge of Anne Frank and her family hiding out — and who didn’t report them, thus risking being sent off to the concentration camps — were “more enlightened” than those law-abiding, “only following orders” citizens who’d have turned the Franks in, that is idiotic “gobbledygook”?

    And does that mean (in the same “collective guilt” mindset which maintains “the Jews killed Jesus”) that those white Civil Rights activists who marched along the Freedom Riders, were beaten, jailed, even killed along with them — because “the 1960s were a racist time” — are NOT to be considered “more enlightened” than the average schmo of that time, or a “Bull” Connor?

  25. Christopher M says:

    It’s worth popping in briefly to note that crediting the end of slavery to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – whatever Abraham Lincoln may have said in a particularly hyperbolic moment – is a bit ridiculous considering all the factors militating towards the American Civil War, including the election of Lincoln himself, Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, a radical and militant abolitionist movement that had been building for decades, etc. So even within the context of someone saying, “who cares if the book is racist, that book ended slavery!” … it’s worth pointing out that, um, no, that book did not in any way end slavery.

  26. R. Fiore says:

    Of course, that’s not what I said, what I said was that the book materially advanced the abolition of slavery. No work of fiction or persuasion did more to build support for the abolitionist cause, nationally and internationally. These are historical facts. I can readily see why the modern day activist would not want to see actually achieving something as a criterion for judging an activist.

  27. Jeet Heer says:

    @Noah Berlatsky. I’ll post on your HU comments on th HU site, but just wanted the pursue the Uncle Tom’s Cabin thing a bit more. Baldwin’s anti-UTC piece “Everybody’s Protest Novel” appeared in 1949 in Partisan Review and has to be read in the context of both Baldwin’s fraught relationship with Richard Wright (a strong case of “the anxiety of influence” since Wright was the preeminent black writer of the time) and the Cold War Liberalism of the New York intellectuals (which made them hostile to social protest novels by Stowe, Zola, Dreiser, Wright, etc.). Because of that context, I’d be wary of treating Baldwin’s essay, full of insight though it is, as the only respectable judgement on UTC.

    You wrote “I would say that Baldwin’s distrust of the social protest novel really can’t be collapsed into a distrust of social engagement or protest in writing (if it were, he’d be condemning basically his entire literary output.)” Well, I don’t think Baldwin was interested in writing socially engaged fiction in 1949 — that was the period when he was writing more in the tradition of Henry-Jamesian psychological novel. Baldwin’s period of social engagement (like the social engagement of the other New York intellectuals) came later, in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

    I think Baldwin’s dismissal of UTC should be supplemented by the more nuanced re-assessments of Henry Louis Gates, Jane Smiley and others. This Jane Smiley piece is worth reading: http://www.en.utexas.edu/Classes/Bremen/e316k/316kprivate/scans/smiley.html

    I’ll return to Kelly another time! Just wanted to get that off my chest about UTC.

  28. EPN is itself engaged with social issues though; he doesn’t dislike UTC because it’s poorly written (or not because it’s poorly written alone) but because it identifies goodness with whiteness (the protagonists are light enough to pass), and I think he identifies that binary thinking with the novels’ binary morality and its merciless imprecations. So it’s not just that the book is bad writing; he’s saying that its crappy writing and crappy politics are intertwined.

    I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about UTC, not least because I haven’t read it. I just don’t feel that it (or anything) is, or should be, beyond criticism.

  29. Mike Hunter says:

    ————————-
    Christopher M says:

    It’s worth popping in briefly to note that crediting the end of slavery to Uncle Tom’s Cabin… is a bit ridiculous…
    ————————–

    ————————–
    R. Fiore says:

    Of course, that’s not what I said, what I said was that the book materially advanced the abolition of slavery…
    —————————

    Oh, it’s just the classic “accuse somebody of making some outrageous/absurd statement which they in fact did not make, then attack them for making an outrageous/absurd statement” tactic!

    —————————–
    I can readily see why the modern day activist would not want to see actually achieving something as a criterion for judging an activist.
    —————————–

    Hah! That’s a brilliantly incisive — and hilarious — jab!

  30. Mike Hunter says:

    —————————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about ["Uncle Tom’s Cabin"], not least because I haven’t read it. I just don’t feel that it (or anything) is, or should be, beyond criticism.
    ——————————

    Ah, the classic “accuse somebody of making some outrageous/absurd statement which they in fact did not make, then attack them for making an outrageous/absurd statement” tactic!

    Did Jeet say “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” should be seen as some elevated, sacred text, which it would be blasphemous to criticize?

    No, he was considering the value of greater complexity in assessing its qualities, rather than only reading simplistic condemnations: “I think Baldwin’s dismissal of UTC should be supplemented by the more nuanced re-assessments of Henry Louis Gates, Jane Smiley and others.”

  31. Marc Singer says:

    “I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about UTC, not least because I haven’t read it.”

    That’s a shame. If you had, you would know that some of your secondhand criticisms simply aren’t true as stated here. (The black protagonists aren’t all light enough to pass, not least the guy the book is named after.) Others are grossly oversimplified.

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of those books that everyone has an opinion on but few people have read. It’s unfortunate, because the novel is more complicated than many of its critics or defenders care to acknowledge. Critics today continue to take Stowe to task for her ideas about race, but the debate has progressed since the mid-20th century. (I would add Jane Tompkins to Jeet’s list of more nuanced takes, btw.)

  32. Mike Hunter says:

    I’d actually read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” but t’was over 50 years ago, and memories have faded.

    As it turns out, I was at the library looking for another book today and spotted Stowe’s tome. I picked it up, it opened to a page, and these are its lines my eyes fell upon:

    ————————
    “My master! and who made him my master? That’s what I think of—what right has he to me? I’m a man as much as he is. I’m a better man than he is. I know more about business than he does; I am a better manager than he is; I can read better than he can; I can write a better hand—and I’ve learned it all myself, and no thanks to him…”
    ————————

    Not only is the slave in question — George — making arguments that plenty of whites would still find hard to accept, but rather than being a servile “Uncle Tom” (the term a grotesque caricature of the actual courageous and principled character*), George goes on to say to his wife, Eliza:

    ————————
    “I have been careful, and I have been patient, but it’s growing worse and worse; flesh and blood can’t bear it any longer; every chance he can get to insult and torment me, he takes. I thought I could do my work well, and keep on quiet, and have some time to read and learn out of work hours; but the more he sees I can do, the more he loads on. He says that though I don’t say anything, he sees I’ve got the devil in me, and he means to bring it out; and one of these days it will come out in a way that he won’t like, or I’m mistaken!”

    “It was only yesterday,” said George, “as I was busy loading stones into a cart, that young Mas’r Tom [not the "Uncle"] stood there, slashing his whip so near the horse that the creature was frightened. I asked him to stop, as pleasant as I could—he just kept right on. I begged him again, and then he turned on me, and began striking me. I held his hand, and then he screamed and kicked and ran to his father, and told him that I was fighting him. He came in a rage, and said he’d teach me who was my master; and he tied me to a tree, and cut switches for young master, and told him that he might whip me till he was tired—and he did do it! If I don’t make him remember it, sometime!” And the brow of the young man grew dark, and his eyes burned with an expression that made his young wife tremble…
    ————————

    *From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uncle_Tom%27s_Cabin :

    ————————
    [Brutal slave owner Simon] Legree begins to hate Tom when Tom refuses Legree’s order to whip his fellow slave. Legree beats Tom viciously and resolves to crush his new slave’s faith in God. Despite Legree’s cruelty, however, Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting the other slaves as best he can….

    Throughout the book, far from allowing himself to be exploited, Tom stands up for his beliefs and is grudgingly admired even by his enemies.
    ————————–

  33. R. Fiore says:

    The repurposing of Uncle Tom in folklore as a servile figure is similar to the way Lolita, who in Nabokov’s novel is a girl who gets raped on a daily basis by her adult guardian, becomes synonymous with an underaged sexual predator.

  34. R. Fiore says:

    So I guess nobody gives a shit about George Wunder then?

    On the “1942 was a racist time” business, it would be more to the point to say the United States is a racist country. The particular strain of racism directed at Africans evolved from the need to rationalize slavery. After Emancipation, while the freed people were no longer had to spend their lives in forced labor camps or see their families broken up on a whim, they had been set loose with no money, no education and no property, in a region which was determined to (a) keep them from leaving if at all possible and (b) maintain them in a condition as close to slavery as possible under the circumstances. There was only a narrow window when the Northern states would have the will to offer them any protection, and Andrew Johnson was holding it closed.

    In 1910 you finally start to see a major black migration out of the South. I don’t think it was 100% coincidental that this happened during a time when increasing restrictions on immigration were being imposed. They were certainly not going to be any less resented than the last wave of cheap labor that came in to replace the previous wave of cheap labor. While still second class citizens, they now were in a place where they could vote, and where increasing wealth would buy increasing influence. It’s like the biologist’s question, what is the use of half an eye? — even a beggar’s mite of American liberty would let you do things. There was a nascent civil rights movement from the earliest days, which for instance induced D.W. Griffith to make changes in Birth of a Nation prior to its release. Still, if you look at what survived to the final cut you know that white supremacy was the unwritten law of the land. When he made his own Civil War movie The General, Buster Keaton was quoted as saying how hard it was to make heroes out of the Northerners. I would call the tenor of the era among the majority was Pre-Civil Rights. Sure, there were stinging editorials in the Chicago Defender, but their impact was limited. The tenor of the times is overwhelmingly clear from what you see on the screens and in the papers. Believe it or not, the attitude towards racial caricature among those who promulgated it and those who consumed it was that it was harmless fun, and those who formed the butt of the joke were expected to be able to take it. I like to say that it took Hitler to give racism a bad name in this country. I sometimes wonder if the Hitler Shock is going to last forever.

    Jeet Heer I think has a different point of view on these things because he’s a Canadian, them with that Last-Stop-On-the-Underground-Railroad/Mounties-Protecting-the-Indians bullshit that I’m sure they do just to show us up. If you’re an American you know you have your national fingerprints all over the knife. I think that racism was so pervasive that there’s no point in singling out individuals; it was a team foul. Rather, I think what you ought to do is appreciate the individuals who went against the tide, in whose number I would include Walt Kelly. As I said (lest we forget), you could take the railway town story as derogatory, but when I look at those panels above I see the startled look of the ticket taker turning to humorous inquisitiveness, or the quizzical look on the face of the little girl, and I see a superior cartoonist coming into his own. I think you have to see your subjects as people like yourself to get those effects.

  35. J.D. says:

    “I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about UTC, not least because I haven’t read it.”

    “I’m not a fan of Kelly’s especially, and haven’t read many of his comics, but it’s clear that there’s a discussion worth having about his relationship to race and racism.”

    Honest question: What is the point of engaging in a debate about these works if you’re completely unfamiliar with their actual content?

  36. Dan Nadel says:

    Don’t worry, Bob, it was the George Wunder part of this piece that got me most excited. On a purely image-level I prefer Wunder to Caniff. I mean, Caniff was a better cartoonist, but I can look at a Wunder drawing for way longer. Those strips of marvels of grotesque, oozing drawing. Really gnarly and weird. In the 70s he did a series of “frontier america” paintings for a book, and those are deeply odd as well. Wunder was interviewed rarely in his life, and may not have had much to say anyway, but man, what a strange 2nd tier artist.

  37. Noah Berlatsky says:

    I’m not debating the works. I’m talking about this essay.

  38. D.S. says:

    Very weak.

  39. R. Fiore says:

    I realize that if you don’t explain things so people can understand it the first time, then it’s on you. I have also come to realize that if you listen to the Devil and allow yourself to become antagonistic you will reap the Devil’s reward. Let me try to put this a different way. I believe Andrae’s characterization of Bumbazine is false, unjust, and a failure to practice the fairness a critic must show to his subject. As to the railway town episode, I believe that Kelly’s ideal was equality, and what was doing was treating his African American characters the same way he treated all his characters. I believe he acted according to his ideal, and that his story was no more defamatory to African Americans than L’il Abner was to the Scotch Irish. The Department of Anticipation anticipates that some of the Hooded Utilitarian ilk will say that this is equating black people with animals, but as Albert says in the story, he is a regular hoomin. Nevertheless, you can say that the gravitational pull of the great mass of black racial caricature inevitably draws this, and the single panel in which Bumbazine eats a watermelon o dear God no, into its orbit. The thing is, Kelly felt the same way. The experiment was never repeated, no more watermelon passed Bumbazine’s lips, and he himself would leave the strip not long after. Kelly stops at four pages, where Will Eisner, Frank King, and Milton Caniff went on for ten years and more. Andrae tries to minimize this by reference to a general trend of abandonment of defamatory racial caricatures, but that trend starts three years later.

  40. R. Fiore says:

    Well, I think that’s one of those schisms that will occur, such as when art comics types tend to prefer later Kirby to the Marvel era. You may recall that there was an argument about including Caniff in the Masters of American Comics exhibition some years back, where Art Spiegelman was opposed but Brian Walker won the day. Part of the issue there may have been that they didn’t have many examples of Caniff in his prime to display.

  41. Dan Nadel says:

    Right, I remember that argument. Caniff, of course, deserved to be in, and in the end they had great examples which I remember vividly. He’s head and shoulders above Wunder as a cartoonist. Wunder is one of those artists, like, say, Pete Morisi, that we takes pieces of and leave the rest. Bob, I will say this publicly: I am still dying to read you on Alex Raymond, who remains fascinating to me on a social and artistic level. On another note entirely, a friend and I were talking yesterday about the fate of artists like Raymond and Foster, and hell, Caniff, too, in 30 years, when your generation is no longer around to discuss them (sorry!). What’s gonna become of the illustration-related canon (and illustrators like J.C. Coll, et al) when the baby boomers are gone? Will it all just be a world of Frank Kings and Crocket Johnsons? I wonder.

  42. george says:

    I’m glad Wunder’s Terry is being reprinted. Hope there’s more than one volume, but I’m not holding my breath for it to go to the end in 1973. For decades, commentators have blasted Wunder as an inferior imitator of Caniff, but we’ve never had the chance to actually SEE his work … unless we went to a public library and read it on microfilm of old newspapers. And most people don’t have time for that.

    It’s true that Steve Canyon increasingly became a soap opera (when it wasn’t a sitcom) starting in the late ’50s. I assume Caniff was going with the trend away from adventure comics. However, I always thought Poteet was cute, especially when she got a bit older in the ’60s. I sometimes wondered if she was an inspiration for Gwen Stacy and/or Karen Page, as drawn by Caniff disciple John Romita Sr.

  43. R. Fiore says:

    Well, I’m one of those people that would have blasted him, and it just had to wait until we stopped being mad at him for not being Caniff (which entails taking into account that it was Caniff’s choice to abandon his strip) and get over the Cold War. Hermes seems committed to the cartoonists they reprint; I would assume the extended lead time of the book had to do with finding decent copies of all the strips. You see the telltale signs of touched up microfilm in several places.

    It’s a better than even bet that any adventure cartoonist up until the end of the 1970s was influenced by Caniff, Alex Raymond, or both.

  44. patrick ford says:

    Did Caniff abandon the strip? Or did he rename Terry so that he could get a better deal?
    When Crane went from WASH TUBBS to BUZ SAWYER it was a new strip. I’ve always felt Steve Canyon was a thinly disguised Terry.
    Wunder was a solid cartoonist. I always found it fascinating that he employed Jesse Marsh for the single purpose of drawing people’s mouths.

  45. Dan Nadel says:

    @patrick ford: Wunder employed Marsh? That’s one I’ve never heard. Wunder was in New York/New Jersey and Marsh was in LA. Are you sure it was Marsh?

  46. Mike Hunter says:

    ——————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    I don’t really have any strong feelings one way or the other about UTC ["Uncle Tom's Cabin"], not least because I haven’t read it.
    ——————–

    ——————–
    J.D. says:

    What is the point of engaging in a debate about these works if you’re completely unfamiliar with their actual content?
    ———————

    Ironically, elsewhere here we read:

    ———————
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” is a classic essay about the problems with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe James Baldwin is insane. Or, possibly, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’d suggest you read the essay — or, you know, read anything at all — before making dogmatic assertions about what topics are reasonable to discuss in this area.
    ———————

    Pot, meet kettle…

    To answer J.D.’s point: to those who have an ideological ax to grind, the “actual content” is irrelevant; it’s the demonized image that it’s equated as being, and attacked.

    In the same fashion, on the other side of the same coin, we see Obama being attacked as some ultra-far-leftist, an atheist Muslim who’d put this country under Sharia law, with the help of his feminist allies. Never mind the actual hardly-radical reality…

    ———————
    R. Fiore says:

    Noah Berlatsky: (Sniffs) “Just wait until my big brother James Baldwin gets here, he’ll show you, ya big bully, think you’re so smart . . .” So I went and read it, and I must say I completely agree that as literature Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a complete piece of crap; I never thought of it as anything else. But that just happens to be completely irrelevant to what I was saying. When Baldwin analyzes Stowe’s book as a protest novel he glosses over how the protest turned out. My point was not that the book didn’t have “problems” but that those “problems” were rendered trivial by the magnitude of what it achieved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a machine that worked. Its crap popular fiction nature is one of the mechanisms that made it work.
    ———————

    Absolutely! Like getting kids (or adults, for that matter) to take a medicine by making it candy-flavored. Similarly (and on a far higher literary level), if Dickens would’ve taken a coldly documentary approach to describing the plight of the impoverished in Victorian England, would that not have failed to stir the emotions of the better-off masses in sympathy, and motivate reform?

    I recall reading Hubert H. Humphrey, used to working for decades in the “real world” of politics, complaining how to leftists, if an impoverished community lacks access to drinking water, that water must be supplied by pristinely perfect pipes of the very highest quality; nothing else will do. A haphazardly put-together, leaky system of plumbing that attains the same goal will be stridently rejected by them.

    Truly, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

    ———————
    R. Fiore says:

    …Nevertheless, you can say that the gravitational pull of the great mass of black racial caricature inevitably draws this, and the single panel in which Bumbazine eats a watermelon o dear God no, into its orbit. The thing is, Kelly felt the same way. The experiment was never repeated, no more watermelon passed Bumbazine’s lips, and he himself would leave the strip not long after.
    ———————-

    I’m reminded of how Charles Schulz tried introducing a black kid, Franklin, into “Peanuts”:

    ———————–
    Franklin’s introduction in the era of race relations and segregation proved to be controversial. When Franklin was first introduced, many people thought he was added for political means, but Schulz insisted, he was introduced as a normal character. Many newspapers threatened to cut the strip…

    …One strip from November 6 1974 was accused by some Peanuts fans of showing insensitivity toward African-Americans. The comic strip shows Peppermint Patty practicing her skating while Franklin is busy practicing hockey. Peppermint Patty tells him that he is in the way and she is practicing for a skating competition. Franklin tells her that he is practicing to become a “great hockey player”, to which she insensitively responds, “How many black players in the NHL, Franklin?”. The strip caused a minor controversy and, although Schulz has told multiple fans that the joke was not meant to be racist whatsoever, many beg to differ…
    ————————–
    http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/Franklin

    As time goes by, the bar keeps being raised (or is it lowered?) for what is considered “offensive.”

  47. R. Fiore says:

    A funny thing happened to me last night: I was watching an old MGM musical and a minstrel show broke out. It was Babes in Arms, a Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland, and overall a rather awful attempt to do the sort of backstager Warner Bros. did so well. And it brought home to me a point I was trying to make, on why Kelly’s strip was not minstrelsy. That is, that the minstrel caricature is extreme. A minstrel is in effect an African clown, in clown makeup. It is a pure black face with huge purely white lips. It devolves from a not always inchoate idea that the African is not merely an inferior human but a different and lower form of life entirely. I couldn’t find the full sequence on YouTube, but enter “minstrel show” and you’ll see multiple examples of what I’m talking about. You can argue that Kelly’s drawings are demeaning but they’re not minstrelsy, or minstrel-derived.

  48. patrick ford says:

    Dan, I was kidding around. As a kid I liked Marsh and Wunder when I saw either the Dell Tarzan or Wunder’s Terry…except it bugged me the way they drew mouths as what I saw as a slash. It was a stylistic tick that as a kid got in my head and I had a hard time getting past it. That myopia vanished a long time ago.

    http://d1g4sq00ps2bp3.cloudfront.net/images/9576.jpg

    http://www.erbzine.com/mag10/usjmarsh.jpg

    I did just read in COMIC BOOK CREATOR that Russ Heath assisted Wunder from 1947-1961. I’d never heard that before.

  49. Dan Nadel says:

    Oh, you got me and blew my mind. I’ll piece it back together now. Heath with Wunder is interesting, though. Maybe that’s where some of the surface sheen comes from.

  50. Paul Slade says:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOKqzJJvEOw

    Mr Fiore: It occurred to me you might like to see this clip from the satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was, broadcast in Britain in the early 1960s. It uses a minstrel show parody to attack the white-on-black racist violence then going on in Mississippi. The sketch is remarkably vicious stuff even today, and all the more so when you remember it was first broadcast (on national network television) in 1963.

    The dancers behind Millicent Martin here, incidentally, are based on a genuine British TV troupe called The Black & White Minstrels, whose irony-free light entertainment show was a popular hit in Britain all the way through to 1978.

  51. Brian Cremins says:

    Interesting comparison. I’ll be curious to take a look at Babes in Arms.

    Have you ever seen the strange minstrel sequence in Oscar Micheaux’s early sound film Ten Minutes to Live? That’s another performance that raises a lot of interesting questions, as it’s a film by an early African American director, yet it’s difficult to tell if he’s critiquing the minstrel sequence, celebrating the two Black comedians who perform it, or both. The surviving copy we have of the film, like many of Micheaux’s other films, is fragmented, but the minstrel scene early in the movie is intact:

    https://archive.org/details/TenMinutestoLive

    Mel Watkins talks a little about the sequence in his book African American Humor, but other Micheaux scholars have found the performance really puzzling.

    I also posted over at HU, but I was wondering if you remember the issue number for your essay “Blackface and Gayface”? Did it appear in TCJ? It sounds really interesting and I’d be curious to read it.

    And, on a related note, I hope the interest in Kelly’s Animal Comics convinces Hermes or Fantagraphics to publish collections of Kelly’s Nibble and Nubble or the early Peter Wheat issues.

  52. R. Fiore says:

    Well, it’s the damnedest thing. It’s like MGM is trying to invent youth culture but are not clear on the concept. It’s supposed to be young people showing their old vaudevillian parents all their new, fresh young ideas, and their first inspiration is to recreate an old-fashioned minstrel show, a form which actually predates button shoes. The show itself is practically in “Heaven on a Mule” territory. As you have probably realized by now I am less sensitive about this sort of thing than most people, and I can only imagine what others would think.

  53. Brian Cremins says:

    That sounds bizarre. I was taking a break from grading student papers and read a little more online about the Rodgers and Hart musical version from 1937. This was the section of Greg MacKellan’s Playbill notes that really caught my interest:

    “Being Rodgers and Hart they also added the realistic touch of social commentary [to the Broadway version of Babes in Arms] in the parts of Peter, a communist, and the DeQuincy brothers, African-American youths who endure the vitriolic racism of another character.”

    Are those African American characters in the film, too?

    Here’s the rest of that Playbill essay, with lots of interesting info about the play’s odd production history…including the “sanitized” 1950s rewrite! (I’m guessing it gets rid of the maybe sympathetic Communist character…?)

    http://www.42ndstmoon.org/babes-in-arms-1999

    I was just watching the 1948 Jimmy Cagney version of Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life for my Captain Marvel research and some of these same issues came up–not a minstrel show, but a Black character who sits right on the border between stereotype (he’s the saloon’s piano player) and something new, and different, and more progressive. It’s fascinating to watch Hollywood trying to adapt, in that film, to all the changes in American culture in the post-war period. (And Cagney, of course, is phenomenal in that film, too.)

  54. R. Fiore says:

    “Are those African American characters in the film, too?”

    Are you nuts? Of course not. Nothing black in Hollywood pictures but porters, waiters, maids and janitors in those days, most of the time. The one place where some hint of non-comic relieve integration seems to have been acceptable is orphanages. What I recall reading in various interviews is that if someone proposed something that smacked of progressive racial politics he would be told that Southern editors/exhibitors/whatever would never stand for it, and though this is probably true you wonder if it wasn’t just a convenient cover for the preferences of the employer.

    Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals in the ’30s and ’40s would typically retain nothing more but the title and two or three songs. But then, before Oklahoma a Broadway musical was mostly a set of unrelated songs built around the antics of a particular comedian. There are exceptions (Show Boat, Pal Joey – Rodgers and Hart were more story-oriented than most), but not enough to repeal the rule. “Just Imagine,” a nearly unbearable film available only in nearly unwatchable prints, is an example of an old style Broadway musical transferred intact.

    “Blackface and Gayface” was posted on the old TCJ website, the contents of which aren’t in the archives for this one, but I believe there’s some kind of mirror site or whatever they call it with the material from the previous website.

  55. R. Fiore says:

    Lifting a finger . . .

    classic.tcj.com/blog/gayface-and-blackface/‎

  56. R. Fiore says:

    As in lifting a finger to help, not lifting the middle finger.

  57. R. Fiore says:

    As far as access goes I think my generation was if anything rather less privileged in terms of access the old stuff than the one that came before and the one after. The one that came before was around when all this old material could be had cheaply in used book stores and junk shops, and the current generation has access to more stuff than either generation could have dreamed of getting their hands on, in digital versions and in collections. It’s the opening of what I’ve called the Hidden Museum, all those thousands of pages of fabulous illustration that was never meant to last beyond its first printing and had been squirreled away in private collections. What that’s waiting for is an electronic reader good enough and with a large enough display for graphic material. When I was in my 20s practically all you could get as far as reprints of classic comics were the Woody Gelman Nostalgia Press collections. Unless artists have become far less inquisitive than they were all of this stuff is going to be a font of inspiration once it works its way into the system.

    What you miss is direct contact with the people who created the work, which was never really my thing (though I got a personal letter from Milton Caniff once). Up until a few years ago you could talk to people like Will Eisner and Julie Schwartz who went back to the very dawn of comic books; during my lifetime you could talk to a huge range of the people involved in the creation of comic books, comic strips and movie animation. There was more of that tradition above ground than under it.

  58. R. Fiore says:

    Blacking up is always a good shock effect these days, but don’t try it at home. They’re dealing here with a subject that’s really no laughing matter and that practically puts it out of reach of satire; you have to take it on with a straight face. I believe I’ve written before that black humor (in the sense of sick humor) is a kind of denial.

    The UK has been much more indulgent of racial humor than the States in the civil rights era. In the U.S. white comedians/humorists at least would never get away with something like Alan Coren’s “Diaries of Idi Amin,” turned into a comedy album by John Bird. This is from the 70s. Note the “Weather Report” gag at the very end:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PfOSJZWaDSA

  59. Brian Cremins says:

    Thanks for the link to the “Blackface and Gayface” essay, which is a great piece. I’m moderating a panel in June on issues related to the history of LGTBQI comics and comic artists, so I’m going to add your piece and Jeet’s essay to a suggested reading list I’m writing up for the audience.

    So thanks again for the kind gesture (by which I mean the link, not the finger…!)

    Maybe at this point I’m taking too much of a detour from Kelly and Bumbazine, but any thoughts on Steamboat? I’m writing on the character for my CM book, but your and Dan’s thoughts on artists like Raymond, Caniff, and Wunder has me also thinking of C.C. Beck, another figure whose work isn’t very well known by younger readers and cartoonists.

    I’ve done a lot of archival work on him and on Otto Binder, but if I had a time machine I’d go back and tell my 12-year old self in the 1980s to write Beck a letter to get more of his thoughts on style and pacing in his work with Costanza and his other Fawcett assistants.

  60. Matthew Davis says:

    Brian: It may or may not be relevant to your purposes, but I attempted a run down (with relevant scans) of appearances of gay characters and material in the (straight) underground comics of the late 60s/early 70s – most are rather cliched carictures, some are incredibly explicit sexually, and a few are surprisingly thoughtful and sympathatic or at least contemporary, but all ultimately prove the necessity for gay comics by gay artists and writers:

    http://ukjarry.blogspot.co.uk/2010/01/gay-men-in-underground-comix.html

  61. J.D. says:

    Earlier, you wrote:

    “But the point isn’t just that it’s bad literature. The point is that its merciless exhortations end up denying the humanity of the people on whose behalf it is supposedly exhorting. That denial having some effects on the exhorted.”

    Elsewhere, you wrote:

    “There’s no substantive engagement with, or really even mention of, the fact that Kelly’s cartoon blacks are based in blackface iconography, nor any effort to grapple with what that means.”

    These are critical judgments about the work of Stowe and Kelly. It might be helpful if you actually spelled out any of the vague accusations you’re so fond of making, instead of just appealing to the authority of another writer and relying on loaded questions and straw-man arguments.

  62. R. Fiore says:

    Steamboat is about the most purely derogatory comics character I’m aware of. He’s a complete imbecile, exists only to be mocked and is treated with contempt by the other characters. It’s kind of weird, because otherwise Captain Marvel seems particularly wholesome. For contrast, with Ebony White the water is considerably muddied because he’s a kid, so when he acts childishly you can’t say for certain that it’s a racial slur. He’s stereotypical and undeniably apt to inspire a feeling in his readers, but he can also be brave and resourceful, and is at times treated as a true partner. Eisner clearly loved the character, and a certain energy goes out of the strip when he’s gone. Because The Spirit appeared in newspapers Eisner was undoubtedly subject to more pressure than comic book cartoonists, and his treatment of the character over the years seems like a kind of bargaining. You know, “If I do this can keep him?” — introduce non-stereotypical black characters, treat him more heroically, and so forth. (It should be noted that in the Spirit knock-off Midnight his place is taken by a monkey, but I don’t think you can blame Eisner for that.) Connie in Terry and the Pirates is purely a figure of condescension, but he is quite often the agent of his friends’ deliverance, and he’s clearly part of the team. Steamboat, on the other hand, is treated like a child by a child. I’d like to see Captain Marvel reprinted in unbowdlerized form, but you can see why they’re shy about it. I don’t think I’d like to be the guy who explained Steamboat myself.

    Chester Gould by all available evidence held all racial minorities in contempt. Eisner, well, I don’t think Eisner was ever the most reflective guy in the world. Caniff was smart enough not to be racist, but he went ahead and was anyway. Barney Google is now the best comic strip that hasn’t gotten significant reprinting, and racial caricature seems to be the barrier. I won’t spell it out, but I won’t mince words — Billy DeBeck’s black characters were n-words. That’s what they were. There are some real Staggerlees among them. No allowances are made for their circumstances. What I’d say in his defense is that African Americans were part of Barney Google’s world; they weren’t just servants on the periphery.

  63. Mike Hunter says:

    From http://luchins.com/what-were-they-thinking/typos-best-the-glory-that-is-steamboat/ :

    ———————
    Here’s some reminiscing by C.C. Beck, one of the early Captain Marvel artists, on Steamboat:

    “Steamboat was created to capture the affection of negro (sic) readers. Unfortunately he offended them instead and was unceremoniously killed off after a delegation of blacks visited the editor’s office protesting because he was a servant, because he had huge lips and kinky hair and because he spoke in a dialect. He was always a cartoon character, not intended to be realistic at all, but he was taken seriously by some, sadly enough.”

    On the one hand, I’m glad the *intention* was to be inclusive of black readers as well as white. On the other, WTF? How could such a horrible caricature not be taken as a serious offense?
    ———————–

  64. Brian Cremins says:

    Thanks, Matthew! This is really helpful. I’ll add your posts to the suggested readings on the handout I want to provide for the audience. I can send you a copy of the reading list once it’s finished. I’m still working on the structure of the panel/Q&A, too. I’ve been reading through your entries, which are great–I’d forgotten all about that Alan Moore American Flagg story!

  65. R. Fiore says:

    Stowe isn’t denying Uncle Tom’s humanity, she’s asserting his saintliness. In being meek and loving those who transgress against him regardless of what suffering he’s put through he is engaged in a perfect imitation of Christ. The reader is led to believe that Tom is more fit for the Kingdom of Heaven than the reader, and this is the only thing that matters to Stowe. Now, as literature it’s not even a believable portrait of a saint, but it’s not racist; on Stowe’s terms Tom does the work of a human being.

    My “substantive engagement” with “blackface iconography” in Kelly’s cartooning was that it wasn’t based on blackface iconography at all, but was entirely in Kelly’s own style. You can’t draw a cartoon of a person of a given ethnic background without employing ethnic features. Berlatsky’s “fact” is an “opinion” that is “bullshit.” But the thing is, though he is constantly leaving himself wide open for a put down it means nothing to him because he’s utterly oblivious to any opinion but his own. The man is perfectly capable of refuting himself, and he doesn’t need any help from me. Therefore, my general policy is to ignore him, and when I stick to it I never regret it.

  66. “You can’t draw a cartoon of a person of a given ethnic background without employing ethnic features.”

    It’s not really clear what this means. People of a given ethnicity don’t all have similar features by any stretch of the imagination. It’s certainly possible to draw non-stereotypical images of black people. Domingos Isabelinho provides some examples in this post on Alan Dunne:

    http://www.hoodedutilitarian.com/2011/06/monthly-stumblings-10-alan-dunn-3/

    The idea that Kelly’s images are divorced from blackface iconography seems willfully blind to me. Not least because you’ve got multiple experts on blackface iconography (Jake Austen, Jeet Heer, Brian Cremins,, Thomas Andrae, to name just four) who are telling you that you’re wrong about this. I guess if I’m the one you want to insult, that’s fine, but it seems like it might be more helpful to engage substantively with the criticism presented, rather than just getting more and more upset and unpleasant.

    For what it’s worth, I think you’re a smart guy with a very enjoyable prose style. I don’t have any personal animus towards you.

  67. Mike Hunter says:

    To recycle a comment and my response, from HU back in 6/27/11:

    =========================
    ——————-
    Domingos Isabelinho says:
    As we can see above, it’s not that difficult [to avoid stereotypical renderings like Ebony White]. Alan Dunn just needed to caricature black people in the same way as he caricatured everybody else.
    ——————-

    Sure; as I’d mentioned elsewhere, one way is is to caricature blacks as individuals, with idiosyncratic features, rather than the minimal characteristics of stereotype. These “Cosby kids” are all black, but highly individualistic: http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_T7BhcH-_Lqw/THMYc8brw0I/AAAAAAAADsw/Xw1nW9WvmuM/s1600/fat-albert.jpg .

    Still, though, it’s pretty evident that Dunn’s work is aimed at a far more sophisticated audience than Eisner’s; his art is as “New Yorker”-ese as can be.
    =========================

    Walt Kelly’s 1940s “Pogo” panels above certainly employ the unfortunately period-typical “big lips” trope of cartooning blacks; but, even in those few examples, are these not individuals, rather than with the mere “minimal characteristics of stereotype”? (Surely, “Steamboat” takes the cake as the nadir of the latter.)

    ——————–
    Noah Berlatsky says:

    [R. Fiore] “You can’t draw a cartoon of a person of a given ethnic background without employing ethnic features.”

    It’s not really clear what this means. People of a given ethnicity don’t all have similar features by any stretch of the imagination.
    ———————

    Ah, the classic “accuse somebody of making some outrageous/absurd statement which they in fact did not make, then attack them for making an outrageous/absurd statement” tactic!

    Did R. Fiore say people of a given ethnicity all “have similar features”? Nope, he referred to “ethnic features”; clearly referring to those qualities shared by individuals with otherwise varied features in an ethnic group.

    Though tonalities vary, the cartoon “Cosby kids” share full lips. The shapes of their noses is individualized, yet broad at their bases rather than slender, aquiline. Two wear hats, but I’d bet their hair is not likely to be naturally straight, or light-colored…

    In all fairness, though, I do have to agree with Noah that Kelly’s renderings were, in that exaggerated lip area, “based on blackface iconography.”

  68. R. Fiore says:

    Blackface iconography is pure white lips on a pure black face. Didn’t someone in the course of this discussion concede that the lips of Kelly’s black characters tend towards the liverish? Oh, yes, it was me. I think you have to look at the totality of the drawing.

  69. Brian Cremins says:

    Thanks for the comments on Steamboat, and thanks also to Mike for the link to Beck’s remarks. I’m also not surprised that the Monster Society of Evil serial, for example, hasn’t been collected and reprinted recently. The stereotypes in those stories are troubling and repellant, especially given the otherwise wholesome nature of the CM adventures that you mention, Robert. And, despite the serial’s historic importance, it lacks the sense of design and artistry, I think, of the work Beck and Costanza did in the late 40s and early 50s, when Otto Binder was producing the best of his CM scripts.

    When a collection of the classic CM stories finally appears, I hope we see the complete Mr. Tawny stories, which I think are the most lasting and durable of Beck and Binder’s work–not least because they address issues of race (as writers like John Pierce and Martin Williams have pointed out) and interrogate the post-war era in a more complex and forward-thinking way.

  70. R. Fiore says:

    I’m the one who brought Staggerlee up, but regarding the Uncle Tom question, an interesting area of study is how, after Uncle Tom became synonymous with the part-of-the-problem non-militant/collaborator, Staggerlee in repurposed from a villain into an anti-hero. My impression is that this happened during the Black Power era, but the subject for study would be when Staggerlee-as-hero first emerges.

  71. Paul Slade says:

    R. Fiore said: “The subject for study would be when Staggerlee-as-hero first emerges”.

    Cecil Brown’s book Stagolee Shot Billy quotes a 1903 transcript of the song’s lyrics which suggest Stackerlee (as they spell the name) was already affectionately viewed as a formidable bad man who even the white cops were afraid of.

    Take this verse, for example:

    “The news spread quickly round the town,
    And all the gang came to see,
    What cop would have the nerve to pinch bad Stackerlee,
    That quick-shootin’ two-gun-totin’ Stackerlee.”

    Brown also quotes a set of 1927 lyrics which he says are “similar” to the 1903 ones. These have a verse reading:

    “The horses and the carriages,
    Stretched out for about a mile,
    Everybody whore and pimp had gone in hock,
    To put old Stackerlee away in style,
    Cause he was crap-shootin’, coke-sniffin’, hop-smokin’
    Bad pimp Stackerlee.”

    The 1903 lyris also contain genrous tributes to Stackerlee’s sexual prowess:

    “Stack’s old girl Nellie said ‘I’ve had men,
    From Maine to Tennessee,
    But I never had a man to grind me and make me like it,
    Like old Stackerlee, that hip-shakin’, back-breakin’,
    Sweet-fuckin’ papa,
    Stackerlee.”

    Throughout both these versions of the song, everyone (including the narrator) refers to Stackerlee in terms of affectionate familiarity, such as “old Stack”, “old bad Stack” or (at his trial) “poor old Stack”.

    Take all those factors together, and the lyrics do seem to suggest Stackerlee had already been granted anti-hero status by 1903, just eight years after he killed the real Billy Lyons. I’ve no idea how that 1903 date compares to the first use of “Uncle Tom” in its modern derogatory sense, but no doubt someone here will be able to tell us.

  72. R. Fiore says:

    That’s egg on my face. It’s just every version I ever heard from an old time record seemed to play the “cruel Staggerlee” angle. Is this the case of a polite version and an underground version existing side by side, with the underground version coming to the fore in a period of greater frankness? Those lyrics you quote aren’t the type you’d hear on a record, unless it was a party record. I just went onto YouTube to see if I’d missed something, and it seemed to confirm my original impression. Julius Lester’s version in Black Folktales is where I first got the more heroic version, and I imagine this gave me the impression that this was a later interpretation. Anyway, since the study has already been done I will just have to read that book.

  73. Mike Hunter says:

    Along the vein of those verses championing the toughness and sexual prowess of Stackerlee, there “was a long oral tradition in Black American around the sinking of the Titanic.”

    Read [NSFW] “Shine on the Titanic”: http://www.marilynnance.com/titanic/shine.html .

    Far more details about the toast/rhyme at http://malcolmlowryatthe19thhole.blogspot.com/2011/07/shine-and-titanic.html (from which the first quote was taken), which notes that “Because Shine exists solely in the oral tradition, verses would vary from teller to teller.”

    A far more genteel version may be seen at http://www.louisianafolklife.org/LT/Articles_Essays/creole_art_toast_tradition.html .

    —————————
    R. Fiore says:

    Blackface iconography is pure white lips on a pure black face. Didn’t someone in the course of this discussion concede that the lips of Kelly’s black characters tend towards the liverish? Oh, yes, it was me. I think you have to look at the totality of the drawing.
    —————————-

    Indeed you did mention (and I noticed) the “liverish” characterization.

    All the online definitions of “liver lips” I find are re-quotes of “Plumped protruding or otherwise disproportionately shaped lips possessing the characteristic of a liver in both color and texture.” (But, isn’t liver — both raw and cooked — dark red, rather than pink?)

    However, regarding “Blackface iconography is pure white lips on a pure black face,” check out the very first image to be seen at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackface. Not quite so black-and-white!

    Why, once you get away from black-and-white photos and films, with the single exception of a 2010 Mexican chocolate ice cream package, all the blackface imagery shown there in its original color has lips in varying shades of pink and red, skin as often dark brown as coal black.

    However, I heartily agree that “you have to look at the totality of the drawing”; and Kelly’s black characters, if not urbane sophisticates, are clearly of at least average intelligence, sympathetically depicted. Hardly simple-minded, “lazy and shiftless” at best, criminal at worst, stereotypes. Rather than panicking in “Feets, do yo’ stuff” fashion at the sight of Albert (at least in the panels shown), they exhibit a lively curiosity.

  74. Mike Hunter says:

    “A Bad Man By Any Name — Stagger Lee’s Fascinating Journey Into Myth” (and a graphic novel): http://exclaim.ca/Features/Comics/bad_man_by_any_name-stagger_lees_fascinating_journey_into

    More about the “Stagger Lee” GN: http://goodcomics.comicbookresources.com/2007/03/27/stagger-lee-news-and-a-review/

  75. Paul Slade says:

    It’s certainly true that those 1903 lyrics fed more into the underground “toast” version of Stagger Lee than into any of the records. The toasts were generally cheerfully obscene, quite happy to glorify Stagger Lee’s violence, and also used the old folk tales about him to add the additional story of his descent into Hell where he kicked the Devil’s ass and took over.

    Sometimes he takes this opportunity to give Billy a gratuitous extra kicking in the afterlife too – another element which the toasts tend to view with chuckling indulgence. Dr John’s 1972 version, for example, has:

    “Now the devil,
    Heard a rumbling,
    A mighty rumbling under the ground,
    He said ‘That must be Mr Stack,
    Turning Billy upside-down’.”

    The idea of Stagger Lee being someone even the police are scared of – an essential part of his status as a hero to black listeners – is there on race label discs as long ago as 1927, when Little Harvey Hull sang:

    “Stack said to Billy
    ‘How can it be,
    You arrest a man that’s as bad as me,
    But you won’t arrest Stack O’Lee?’
    And it’s oh, Stack O’ Lee!”

    It’s worth remembering too that even Lloyd Price’s 1959 version of Stagger Lee – the song’s biggest chart success to date – cheers on our hero with the background singers’ repeated refrain of “Go Stagger Lee! Go Stagger Lee!”.

    Price’s hit was perhaps the first version of Stagger lee’s tale which invited white folk to join in the fun. White artists like The Clash and Nick Cave have pushed his approach even further into outright hero-worship, painting Stagger Lee as an admirable rebel who can’t be pushed around by anyone. Cave’s version, incidentally, was based on a Stagger Lee toast collected in 1911, which helps to explain why it’s so bloodthirsty and so sexually explicit.

    One notable exception to this approach is Mississippi John Hurt’s 1928 recording, which acknowledges that it’s the poor black community surrounding Stagger Lee who are most likely to be his victims. Accordingly, Hurt refuses to romanticise him to even the tiniest degree.

    The prevailing mood in his rendition is one of bone-weary sadness at the needless pain men like Stagger Lee cause to those around them, and he goes so far as to say that the crowd watching Stagger Lee hang (presumably black as well as white) were “glad to see him die”. It’s a grown man’s reaction to Stagger Lee’s crimes rather than a silly kid’s.

    On the question of Stagger Lee’s use in the civil rights era, Bobby Seale of The Black Panthers had this to say about Stagger Lee in in a 1970 jailhouse interview:

    “I named my son Malik Nkrumah Staggerlee Seale. Beautiful name, right? He’s named after his brother on the block, like all his brothers and sisters off the block: Staggerlee. Staggerlee is Malcolm X before he became politically conscious. Livin’ in the hoodlum world. You’ll find out. Huey (Newton) had a lot of Staggerlee qualities. I guess I lived a little bit of Staggerlee’s life too, here and there. [...] And at one time, brother Eldridge (Cleaver) was on the block. He was Staggerlee. And so I named that brother, my little boy, Staggerlee, because – that’s what his name is”.

    Two years before Tupac Shakur’s death the British music paper NME was already discussing his confrontations with the police in terms of Stagger Lee’s legend. “Shakur is a black hero in the tradition of blues archetype Stagger Lee, who created a system for himself based on his own perceptions,” the paper said.

    I’ve written more about Stagger Lee, his song and the real killing that inspired it, here: “http://www.planetslade.com/stagger-lee.html. You’ll find a brief quote from your own Misapprehension of the Coon Image essay somewhere near the Clash pic.

  76. R. Fiore says:

    Isn’t the notion of the criminal as rebel a rather sentimental one? It’s a one-man rebellion, and complete as soon as the criminal enriches himself. Don’t criminals on higher levels operate through some complicity with authorities, either by payoffs or services performed?

  77. R. Fiore says:

    Pure white or pure red, it seems a distinction without a difference. The conscious or unconscious subtext of the blackface image, particularly when the drawing style clashes with the general style of the comic strip, is the idea of the African as a separate, lesser species.

  78. Mike Hunter says:

    Aside from one surface similarity to the visual tropes of blackface, there are indeed in Kelly’s blacks not the slightest hint “of the African as a separate, lesser species.”

    These are clearly affectionately rendered, fully rounded human beings, not subhuman simpletons or savages.

    Looking up more Walt Kelly renditions of African-Americans (though now I hear many American blacks are rejecting the term), ran across this “Our Gang” page of his featuring Buckwheat:

    http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-ObMq50T2eho/T7Z7vGpYNKI/AAAAAAAAGrI/RJhwDrIK6IU/s1600/OurGang014-012.jpg .

    This site — http://stanleystories.blogspot.com/2012_05_01_archive.html — from which that page was taken, comments on…

    ——————–
    …the awkward transition of racial stereotypes before, during and immediately after World War II. African-American stereotypes intensified right after the war’s end, just as they did in the years after World War I.
    ——————–

    …And also shows pages from “the most contentious figure in John Stanley’s career–Li’l Eight Ball”:

    http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-uESVsWgdO1w/T7JuQA7Y2AI/AAAAAAAAGoc/-f5Y_5irkFY/s1600/8b107a.jpg

  79. Ma. Francisco says:

    Wow, a real live “white people saved the blacks” comment.

  80. D.G. says:

    No offense, but this page and its comments largely reads like a bunch of white guys drowning everyone else out so they can congratulate themselves on how they’ve made things so complex they no longer feel guilt, no sirree, not a drop of guilt felt by them at all.

  81. Mike Hunter says:

    Ooh, those evil “white guys”! Not allowing anyone else to speak out, not looking at things simplistically; how outrageous!

    Worst of all, not flagellating themselves over mores and attitudes that were around before most (all?) of them were born. The arrogance!

    Because, just as it’s said that “the Jews killed Jesus” — excusing anti-Semitism to this very day — with that same collective-guilt attitude, all modern-day whites are considered by some to be complicit in slavery, all white male heterosexuals are supposedly rolling in wealth and power due to their privileged membership in “the Patriarchy.”

    “No offense”…that’s cute!

  82. Tim Hodler says:

    All right. I think it’s way past time to close comments on this story.