Monday, June 8, 2015

The Great White Intransigence

Much of the work I'm currently doing at the Grand Comics Database is cleaning up existing records which use an out-of-date term called "filler." You can understand how a "strange facts of history" page might be a filler compared to surrounding super hero and cowboy tales, but the term is so broad as to be unhelpful.

I've used the Digital Comic Museum to help identify what many of these "fillers" really are and it means I occasionally come across some interesting pages, but usually the pages are instantly forgettable. Here's a somewhat memorable page, from 1946's Sparkling Stars #10:

It's credited to "Ink Higgins" (Morris Weiss) and was one of three Fight Facts pages which appeared in that issue. This page stayed with me while others I checked over were forgotten; while many of these "filler" types contain several facts which may or may not be related, this particular page chose a single topic: legendary boxer Joe Louis. And, as you may have noted, it's not precisely laudatory.

At the time, Louis was the reigning heavyweight champion, although his service in World War II had interrupted his career trajectory and he never really regained it. Louis worked hard to promote himself not only as a good fighter but a good man - to present himself as morally unimpeachable to help counter the sex-and-booze antics of former heavyweight Jack Johnson. Why did Louis have to take so much care about his life outside the ring because of Johnson? Because he and Johnson were both African-American.

And that's the point where this page makes me uncomfortable. After all the effort Louis placed into being a good man, people still wanted him to fail. And thus, this page does not celebrate Louis' victories, but instead questions them (essentially, "Hey you guys, Louis isn't that great!"). It points to three fights which Louis either almost lost or could have lost. That he did, in fact, win those fights seems beside the point to Weiss. Louis is barely even seen on the page, obscured by the referee in the central image and being struck in the face in the lower left (not sure what to make the ridiculously huge frame Weiss gave him either; he looks like a circus strongman, not a fighter).

Oh, and those other two Fight Facts pages Weiss drew in Sparkling Stars #10? One was of John L. Sullivan and the other of Max Baer. They were laudatory towards their subjects.

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