In “The Soul of Black Folks”, WEB DuBois discussed the African-American double consciousness wherein Black people have a love/hate relationship with the United States. Being an AfroFanboy isn’t much different. During my long-term love affair with the sequential arts I’ve had to, all to often, put aside my anger/frustration/sadness at how Blacks and other ethnic minorities were either depicted or ignored.
My love of comics began early. I remember pouring over the Sunday comics section in The New York Daily News at my paternal grandparent’s home and being a big fan of Dick Tracy and The Phantom. Around the same time, my babysitter’s son would sit me on his lap and teach me to read using Marvel Comics. From what I can recall I was captivated by not just the stories but Steve Ditko’s artwork. This probably explains why I’m such a big Doctor Strange fan to this day!
When I was 5 years old, my father took me to the local soda shoppe for root beer floats and let me choose a comic book. I remember that there were so many choices! I finally settled on Batman #181 (June 1966) which featured the 1st appearance of Poison Ivy.
In 1968, we moved from Long Island, NY to Rochester and I really didn’t come into contact with comic books again I was 12 years old and a friend’s older brother gave me his collection. It contained Marvels, DC’s and Charltons from the late 1950’s to about 1972. I devoured those books! Around that time, I started going to my local pharmacy to buy comics and picked up bagged collections of Avengers #’s 89-97 which contained the entire run of the Kree-Skrull Wars saga. Now I was hooked! Now, I started reading books about the history of comics and learning about the early comic books, comic strips and the creators. I would scour libraries, book stores and garage sales for more information.
I went to my first comic book convention when I was 14 years old. It was one of Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Conventions at the old Hotel Commodore. It was great being around all of these people who loved comics as much as I did. I got an issue of and signed up for a subscription to The Nostalgia Journal, met artists and got their autographs and had one of the best times of my life!
At this point, I’m buying comics weekly at my local pharmacy and getting older comic books through mail order and at garage sales. My treasures were Wonder Woman #1 (which I got for $100.00!), Mad #2 and Avengers #4.
All the while though, I would come across these images, often found in collections of early 20th century comics strips, that portrayed Black people as something more than just a stereotype. We were depicted as something inhuman…more animal than man. I realized that I had to know the history of the art form in order to follow my dream of becoming a comic book artist but these racist images were very disturbing for a young teenager to absorb.
During my research I would often read about Will Eisner’s The Spirit and how groundbreaking it was. I never saw more than one page of “The Spirit” in one of my books on the history of comics so I was really excited to see an ad in either Eerie or Creepy that said that Warren Publications was going to begin reprinting the stories! I couldn’t wait to finally see what I had read so much about and have an opportunity to learn from the artwork.
When the magazine was released I rushed to get it! Not waiting until I got home I sat outside of the pharmacist’s to read it…and my jaw dropped. In all the reading that I had done about The Spirit no one had ever mentioned his sidekick, Ebony White, with his thick pink lips and large white eyes…a disgusting racial stereotype.
Over the years it has never ceased to amaze me how white America can gloss over racist imagery. Whether it’s a discussion of Birth of a Nation that focuses on DW Griffith’s cinematic language and Gone With The Wind and it’s “wonderful” story to the love affair with westerns all too often depicting the massacres of Native Americans to the discussions of comics and ignoring the racist imagery. Unfortunately, it was not something that I could ignore or gloss over.
George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, once said that white cartoonists could only draw Black people as three white circles within a large black circle. Will Eisner, speaking of how he drew Ebony White, stated, “how else was I to draw a Black man at that time?”. Ahhh…the old tired excuse of just being of his time. But, I wonder…if Eisner had introduced a Jewish character into the series would he have drawn him using the common anti-Semitic imagery that was common for the time period? The Spirit began in 1939 and anti-Semitism wasn’t just coming out of Germany…it was alive and well here in the USA, too. I’m sure that Eisner was well aware of how racists depicted Jews but this awareness didn’t prevent him from depicting another ethnic group in the most derogatory way possible.
The historical context argument never worked for me. When people excuse slave owners I point out that there was also John Brown and other abolitionists. People have a choice and sometimes it’s easier to go along with the status quo instead of doing what is right. Especially when not doing the right thing can line one’s pockets with cash. I picked up the first couple of issues of The Spirit and then stopped. I had learned what I could from Eisner and didn’t want to pay to be insulted anymore.