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

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