Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Unearthed: All-Negro Comics #1

As I noted yesterday, it's Black History Month here in Canada and our neighbours to the south, the USA. Having previously looked in on a rather shameful episode of comics' past depictions of African-Americans, whatsay we turn our attention to a rather more laudable effort: 1947's All-Negro Comics #1.

Most of what I know about All-Negro Comics comes via the book's Wikipedia page. There was only one issue published and it was the only series published by the eponymous publisher. The entire creative team were African-American, each of those creators an unknown.

The cover was priced at 15 cents, which was more than the 10 cent standard; this probably didn't help the book's sales at all. The Wikipedia article also speculates that other publishers tried to force All-Negro Comics off the stands in order to clear a path for their own publications (Fawcett published Jackie Robinson in 1949 and Negro Romance & Joe Louis in 1950, while, more significantly, Parents' Magazine Press printed two issues of Negro Heroes in 1947). The comic book business was waking up to the fact that there were a number of African-Americans reading comics but precious few comics marketed to them and fewer African-American talents producing comics (Phantom Lady's Matt Baker being a noteworthy exception).

Like most comics of the time, All-Negro Comics #1 is an anthology book with a number of different features varying in genre type. After an introduction on the inside front cover by journalist/publisher Orrin C. Evans, the first feature begins: Ace Harlem! Ace is a police detective who investigates a murder committed by two zoot-suited killers. The art by John Terrell is crude and in one panel the speech balloons are presented in the wrong order (above). Still, in comparing this to yesterday's Steamboat story, we see African-American depicted with speech patterns bereft of the slang & mispronunciations typical of the time and faces drawn to look natural; it's also interesting that the colourist chose skin tones which are very light brown instead of the dark brown tones found in most US comics of the time. Ace appears again at the end of the issue to promote the (non-existent) 2nd issue.

The Dew Dillies by Cooper seems to be in the vein of Rose O'Neill's Kewpie characters. Bubbles and Bibber are a pair of adorable children, Bubbles being a water-dweller and Bibber possessing wings. At one point Bibber fights off Goolygator, a little boy who seems half-alligator. It's about as saccharine as comics get, making it an odd choice to follow a story about murder.

"Friendly" is a relative term

Lion Man by George J. Evans Jr. is an interesting one. Visually, Lion Man appears like just another jungle hero strip, the sort of thing you'd find in Fiction House's Jungle Comics of the day. But Lion Man is introduced as an African-American scientist who's serving in the Gold Coast on behalf of the United Nations; his hut is full of mechanical equipment such as a massive radio set. In a way, he's like a forebear to the Black Panther. Of course, he also has a kid sidekick named Bubba, who's a Zulu. Zulus being on the southeast coast of Africa, you might wonder why he's in northwestern Africa; the answer is: African-American comics creators are about as lousy as Caucasians when it comes to African geography (speaking as a Caucasian who didn't get African geography at all until I actually went there). Anyway, Lion Man's job is to protect the uranium deposits in the area and in the course of this adventure has to deal with a pair of ne'er-do-wells.

Two humour pages follow. Hep Chicks on Parade by Len is a one-page collection of gag cartoons, typical of the era (notable only for being gags about African-American women). Li'l Eggie by John Terrell is a one-page comedy strip about a hen-pecked husband named Egbert who is, appropriately, drawn to be egg-shaped. It's a typical sparring couple strip.

Finally there's Sugarfoot by Cravat, which follows the kind of minstrel show tropes found in most representations of African-Americans in popular culture of the time. Sugarfoot and his pal Snakeoil are a pair of hobos who spend a night at a farmer's house wherein Sugarfoot romances the farmer's daughter, who is exactly what you'd expect from the trope (it does have a decent running gag in the daughter repeatedly announcing, "I'm Ample"). In his introduction, Orrin C. Evans claimed he hoped to "recapture the almost lost humor of the loveable wandering Negro minstrel of the past." I suppose as a white guy I'm not qualified to call this one unfortunate, given that the creators were black people who had some purpose in perpetuating these old tropes which were normally kicked around by white creators. Anyway, I do give this one credit for the lead characters being apparently aware that they're in a comic book (see above).

All-Negro Comics #1 is ultimately as much a product of its times as yesterday's "World's Mightiest Mistake." The difference is mainly who's responsible for producing the pages. There is definitely more dignity afforded to the cast of characters, even in the Sugarfoot feature.

As noted before, publishers like Fawcett & Parents' Magazine Press began producing comics aimed at an African-American audience in the late 40s, but it turned out to be short-lived experiment as they didn't last through the 50s. African-American characters would finally get their turn as protagonists again in the 1960s and this time weren't going anywhere.

All images via The Digital Comics Museum

Monday, February 12, 2018

Unearthed: The World's Mightiest Mistake

I first became aware of Fawcett's Captain Marvel through issues of All-Star Squadron which I read in the 1980s. Immediately, there was something about him which captivated me in a manner other DC super heroes didn't. I've retained a fascination with the character over the years and I'm certainly privileged to be living in a time where all of the hero's Fawcett adventures are available for free reading at sites such as The Digital Comic Museum.

Captain Marvel's 1940s adventures definitely stand apart from much of what was published in that supposed 'Golden Age' of comics. The truth is that once you get past Kirby, Eisner, Cole and Everett, you have a mighty big load of second-rate talent with awkward storytelling skills. Fawcett, however, tended to employ quality artists such as C. C. Beck and fine writers like Otto Binder. In its time, Captain Marvel's comics were more popular than Superman's, which is one reason why DC attempted to sue Fawcett out of business; when Fawcett finally did give up on Captain Marvel, the book's creators eventually found themselves developing Superman's Silver Age.

But I'm here today to reflect upon the unfortunate side of Fawcett's Captain Marvel. I've previously noted the racism in one of their Captain Marvel Jr. tales and now I feel compelled to talk about Steamboat. It's hard to overlook Steamboat when discussing Captain Marvel's Golden Age - after all, he appears during the epic 'Monster Society of Evil' storyline which is considered to be the greatest Captain Marvel story of them all.

There is no getting around how embarrassing Steamboat is. At the same time, he was typical for his era. The massive lips which took up most of his face, the speech littered with 'jive talk' and mispronounced word with a vaguely southern accent - this is how so many African-Americans appeared in comic books of the 1940s. It may not have been malicious in origin, but it was incredibly ignorant. Further, there were creators in the 40s who were able to develop persons of colour with some dignity. There is no good excuse for Steamboat.

Let's look in particular at the story "The World's Mightiest Mistake" from Captain Marvel Adventures #16 (1942) by artist C. C. Beck (no writer credited). We open on Steamboat working as valet to Billy Batson, Captain Marvel's alter ego. Billy is a child with no apparent legal guardian in the Fawcett stories, but he's still an echelon above Steamboat. The opening narration refers to Steamboat as a "colored boy," the first of many repeats of that phrase. I suppose it is possible Steamboat was underage like Billy, in which case 'boy' would be valid... but that 'boy' never appears without 'colored' preceding it gives away the casual racism in that term.

Billy gives Steamboat a night off so Steamboat calls up his girlfriend Elocutia Jones for a date. This done, Billy secretly changes into Captain Marvel, then reappears to exit Billy's apartment via a window. Steamboat is unaware Billy is Captain Marvel which makes it bizarre for Billy to change identities just outside of Steamboat's field of vision. Shouldn't Steamboat be wondering where Billy has gone?

Anyway, Captain Marvel sets out to stop the Coloni mob from robbing a bank. Steamboat meets up with Elocutia who - in contrast to every African-American male in this story - has the kind of good features you'd expect on a Caucasian character. Hello, double standards! Steamboat and Elocutia journey to see a hypnotist's stage show. The hypnotist uses Steamboat as a subject and offers to hypnotize Steamboat so that he can become anybody he likes. Steamboat most desires to be like Captain Marvel, so the hypnotic spell is cast.

Attempting to speak Captain Marvel's magic word 'Shazam,' (but saying 'Shazowie' instead), Steamboat steps in one of the foootlights (or 'feet lights' as the hypnotist terms them) and causes a short circuit which plunges the theater into darkness (leaving the crowd's eyes, teeth and giant lips visible). When the lights come on, Steamboat has somehow torn apart his clothing into a weak facsimile of Captain Marvel's costume. Credit where it's due, Steamboat's mock costume fits the elements of Captain Marvel's clothes well - his red flannel underwear matching CM's red tights, yellow shoes in place of yellow boots, a torn white shirt hanging like CM's white cape and a yellow tie hanging in place of CM's lightning bolt.

Steamboat exits the theater to confront 'bank robbehs.' Speaking of which, Captain Marvel arrives at the bank but doesn't see the Coloni mob, so he departs. Two panels later the crooks turn up at the bank, taking advantage of our hero's short attention span. But then! Steamboat comes running up to the bank. The crooks don't even try to shoot him, assuming he's the bulletproof hero. Calling himself the Harlem Marvel - er, or "Hahlem Mahvel," Steamboat punches the robbers. They climb to the roof of the bank to escape; Steamboat, still thinking he's Captain Marvel, can't understand why he's unable to fly to the roof but pursues them via the ladder.

The crooks cross to another building using a conveniently-placed board, then kick the board away to stymie Steamboat. Steamboat tries to fly and nearly splatters himself on the ground, only for our impatient hero Captain Marvel to return and catch him. Captain Marvel catches the gang, then tells the police Steamboat deserves all the credit, earning his friend a cash reward.

Thoughts: What are the positives surrounding Steamboat? Well, (in this story at least) he isn't shown to love craps, watermelon, fried chicken and malt liquor, nor is he lazy or afraid of ghosts. What I mean to say is, if you tried to fill out your Racist Bingo Card to this story you wouldn't make bingo.

The bad? Pretty near everything else the paper and ink were made to do in this tale. Note that the story is titled "The World's Mightiest Mistake." To be sure, Steamboat is not Captain Marvel - that is a mistake. But the very idea of an African-American man aspiring to be a hero is played for lowbrow laughs. A Mistake. It's patronizing, in the worst way. At the time of this story's original publication the USA had entered World War II and African-American men were sacrificing their lives for their country; comic books were immensely popular with servicemen but while there were plenty of opportunities for white soldiers to envision themselves as the heroes, black GIs were not nearly as fortunate. How appropriate that this year's Black History Month will feature the debut of the Black Panther, comicdom's first true black super hero.

The Fawcett tales would eventually introduce the talking tiger Mr. Tawky Tawny as Captain Marvel's friend and he basically provided the sort of comic relief Steamboat had meant to supply, but without bringing in minstrel show visuals.

All images via The Digital Comic Museum