Skip to Top NavigationSkip to ContentSkip to Footer

From "Under Cork" to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics

The Introduction of comic strips in the American press in the 1890's corresponds with the beginning of a renewed of racial segregation in the United States. While Southern laws were used to oppress American citizens of African descent, the mainstream white press served up accounts of Blacks in newspaper articles which supported such sanctions'. In the comics section, Blacks were the principal comic figures, having surpassed the Irish at the turn of the century as the butt of America's jokes. Taking images from black-face minstrelsy, which was America's first national popular entertainment form and a mainstay of the American stage until the 1940's, many of the images of "Blacks" in the first half-century of the comics were not of Blacks at all. Instead they were caricatures derived from the popular stage routines of white males' gross parodies of "Black life" (originally the slave life of Blacks). Just as minstrels worked "under cork," the colloquial terminology for their use of burnt cork to blacken their faces for a performance, figuratively these were comics "under cork."

Fig. 20aWhether male or female, the Black adult facial image was usually the same, at its most extreme a basic billiard "8-ball" with large eyes, and a line for a mouth with a lighter large area surrounding that line to suggest oversize lips. The headgear often distinguished the person's specific role: a cart pusher in an "Abie the Agent" strip (c. 1914) wears a cap; a maid in a 1928 "Bringing up Father" strip has a straw hat; and the "Slumberland savages" in a 1907 strip of "Little Nemo" show small hair puffs (figs. 20a, b and c).

Fig. 20bLesser extremes of the stereotype looked more like the minstrel actor, such A Joe Palooka's valet Smokey or the stable boy Asbestos in "Joe and Asbestos." A rare few Blacks would have a white face with color on it. Rarer still was the authentic Black image, such as the beautifully rendered mother of "Mammy's Lil' Lamb" (1911) whose head tie and cuff it would make her stylish in several West African cities (fig. 21).

Fig. 20c"Black" dialect was the usual speech of these characters (if they spoke at all). Through her use of this ridicule of Black language patterns, the African madonna of "Mammy's Lil' Lamb" was transformed into a derogatory stereotype. Afro-Americans were uniformly depicted as fools, or they were represented in roles that were servile--e.g., domestics or porters. (Black children were shown as giggling pickaninnies.) It was not until after World War 11 that this general pattern began to change.

Fig. 21Just as "All Coons Look Alike to Me" had been a national music favorite, that was the defining phrase for how cartoonists working for the white press (including its few rare Black artists) all too often drew the Black image from the 1890's to the 1950's. Though Black artist E. Simms Campbell did hard-hitting pro-Black editorial cartoons for the Black press, in his mainstream press strip "Hoiman" (copyright 1937 for King Features Syndicate) it was necessary for him to force his Black porter right into the minstrel mode (fig. 22). The image of the stereotypical Black servant or fool permitted middle-class white audiences to vicariously indulge in attitudes and behaviors--otherwise off limits to them in "genteel" society. At the same time the pathetic Black character offered the white working class an image to whom they could feel superior, no matter how bad their lot in life might be.

Fig. 22Predictably, Black community activists were outraged with the typical portrayal of Blacks as ebony humanoid clones. Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association fought not only against the indiscriminate lynching of Blacks, but also against the comics' defamation of Black people. Sometimes the fight took the form of court challenges. An occasional victory helped maintain hope, as in the late 1920's when a major Chicago newspaper was forced to lighten up its solid black ink representation of Black skin tone, or in the early 1930's when the "Amos 'n' Andy" strip was removed from the marketplace.

Newspapers published by the Afro-American press also entered into the fight against the negative depiction of Blacks. By the mid-1930's they were leading the struggle against any continuance of minstrelized representations. Papers like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American editorialized against the minstrel image and finally helped to end its presence in the Black community by 1940.

Fig. 23Many professionally trained Black painters drew comics to earn a living. The Black press offered alternative images to the demeaning and monotonous stereotypes presented in the white press. The comic strips in the Black press depicted a wide diversity of life experiences, often in humorous ways. Yet the realities of what it meant to be Black in America were many times just below the surface of the humor. An example is "Bungleton Green," the longest running comic strip in the Black press, which provides a unique opportunity to chart the evolution of the Black comic self-image. Drawn by five different artists, "Bun" first appeared in the Chicago DefenderNovember 20, 1920, and ran almost continuously until 1968. Leslie Rogers' "Bun" of 1920 was a vaguely minstrelized street person whose caricatured antics underlined the reality of separate and unequal treatment of Afro-Americans. In the very first strip "Bun" tried to hustle some insurance money from a traffic accident, only to find out that the law courts saw him as a nuisance rather than as a victim. By the 1940's Jay Jackson's "Bun" had become a zoot-suited, "hep cat" who reflected the optimism of the "jazz man" (fig. 23). In 1968, Chester Commodore drew "Bun" sporting a dashiki (or nehru jacket) to reflect the outward militancy of "the brother on the block."

Cartoonists for the Black press often drew editorial cartoons as well as comic strips. Sometimes this seriousness spilled over into a strip, as when the Baltimore Afro-American's Fred Watson lambasted Maryland's Jim Crow laws (1926) and, by showing light-skinned Black women drawn similarly to the white women in the strip, reinforced the contention that Blacks, being the same as whites, deserved equal consideration under the law. But humor was the basis of most Black press strips, whether in Wilbert Holloway's "Sunnyboy Sam" (1936) commenting self-deprecatingly on his big nose, or the "innocent truth" of Sammy Milai's curly-haired little boy "Bucky" (1939) who put a little Black girl's white doll under a sun lamp to make the play mother and her doll baby the same color. While Bucky was cute, Elton Fax's Susabelle (1942) was more average, in both her looks and actions. With no dialogue, the stories reflected the mischievous nature of childhood within the context of a world at war.

If the Black child seen on the street was the visual source for Fax's Susabelle, then Michelangelo and Tintoretto were the artistic models for the way Ollie Harrington, generally considered Black America's greatest living cartoonist, handled his figures. In the mid-1930's Harrington rose to national prominence in the Black community with his introduction of the stereotype-smashing "Bootsy" cartoon in the Amsterdam News. "Bootsy" was followed in the early to mid 1940's by the adventure strip "Jive Gray" for the Continental Features Syndicate. This syndicate, organized and run by the Black entrepreneur Lajoyeaux H. Stanton, was one of the few national distributors of Black comics. It successfully sold stops and cartoons to Black newspapers all across the country, and featured the work of Elton Fax, Mel Tapley, Ted Shearer and several others, as well as Harrington. "Jive Gray" was based on a real-life World War II ace aviator from the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group. In it Harrington showed his love of the Black persona by filling his strip with creatively colorful Black slang ("jive talk") and attractive, elongated figures.

Fig. 24The Black cartoonist who took stereotype-squashing and social concern to its greatest height in the strips before the mid-1960's was Jackie Ormes, through her "Torchy Brown" character published in the Pittsburgh Courier and its syndicated group of newspapers in 1937 and again from 1950 to 1955 (fig. 24). Torchy was an attractive, sexy, intelligent, and self-motivated young Black woman who, within the course of her romantic adventures (the binding theme of the strip), managed to fight racism, sexism, warmongering, and environmental pollution. Drawn in a strong, clean, hard-edge style "Torchy Brown" was a sharp visual contrast to the more delicately drawn strips usually associated with female artists like Nell Brinkley and Dale Messick. As with many protagonists in the strips done by Black artists, Torchy was essentially a self-portrait. Ormes once said "I've never liked dreamy little women who can't hold their own." Torchy's adventures took her from the American South to South America, and her mix of compassion and assertiveness made her a role model for young Black people across the country.
Fig. 25While the Black characters in the strips of the white press in the 1950's were basically a continuation of the past--the less than noble "savage" of "The Phantom" or the always faithful servant or sidekick--the comics of the Black press reflected the social conservatism and baby boom of the decade by focusing on Black family life and child rearing. Chester Commodore's "The Sparks" family, published in the Chicago Defender, gently caricatured the Black middle class and showed them subject to the same domestic foibles as their white counterparts. The Harlem-based New York Age printed Tom Feelings' elaborately drawn "Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History" in 1958-59, as the protests, boycotts and student sit-ins of that period helped to rekindle a renewed feeling of Black pride (fig. 25). Feelings' daring presentation of "natural" hairstyles was an early reflection of the increased sense of self-worth connected with Black community activism.

As integration became a driving force in the 1960's and newspaper headlines began to be dominated by the Civil Rights struggle, those activities were looked at in humorously ironic ways by cartoonists of the Black press, while still demonstrating an underlying support for social change. An example is Cleven Goudeau's irreverent and sassy comic strip, "Soul Folks," which appeared in the Berkeley [California] Postin 1966. Whereas "Soul Folks" was a free-wheeling portrayal of a constantly changing array of adult characters, Morrie Turner drew a strip showing the camaraderie among a continuing cast of children. Influenced by the work of Ollie Harrington, Turner's "Dinky Fellas" started as an all-Black strip in the Chicago Defender, and included a character "Nipper," based on Turner's own childhood. Turner added young white characters to better make his points about racial justice. Facial variation between the races was minimized. Differences were more clearly demonstrated in clothing and language. When "Dinky Fellas," now retitled "Wee Pals," was syndicated in 1965, it became the first comic strip syndicated in the mainstream press with continuing Black central characters of equal social status to their white counterparts.

Morrie Turner had tried unsuccessfully to get Black comics printed by the white press in the 1950's. Even when "Wee Pals" was first nationally syndicated it was carried in only five major newspapers. It took the assassination in 1968 of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the resulting wave of white guilt to increase the number of Black characters in the mainstream press. "Wee Pals" acquired the majority of its syndication sources within three months after the King killing, and other Black kid strips were born--Brumsic Brandon, Jr.'s "Luther" (named in tribute to Dr. King) in 1968, and Ted Shearer's "Quincy" in 1970. While Turner's integrated cast of kids were middle-class, Brandon's "Luther" was deliberately set in the working-class Black ghetto and dealt less with race relations than with the universal human aspects of a child's struggle for survival. Brandon had been submitting strips (of whites or animals) for mainstream syndication since the late 1930's. With Luther he was determined to "tell it like it is." Brandon put a "message" in the gag format and created is cast of kid characters with names like "Hardcore" (from "hard-core unemployed"), "Oreo" (slang for the person who is "Black" on the outside but "white" on the inside), and their never-seen white teacher' "Miss Backlash." The most biting of the strips born in the 1960's, "Luther," ended in June, 1986.

The Black activism of the 1960's also led to new individualized portrayals of Black characters in the mainstream press. Among these were action-adventure strips like "Dateline: Danger" (1968), "The Badge Guys" (1971), and "Friday Foster" (1972). The Black characters since introduced in humorous strips like Franklin in "Peanuts" (1968), Lt. Flap in "Beetle Bailey" (1970), Clyde and Ginny in "Doonesbury" (1970-75), and Oliver Wendell Jones in "Bloom County" (1985) are Black caricatures drawn consistent with the manner in which the white figures are caricatured. Instead of huge lips and jet black faces to indicate Blackness, it is usually hair style, a goatee (for Black males), or dots or lines for shading. The focus of white cartoonists when portraying Black characters, has shifted from appearance to characterization.

Fig. 26A variety of comics continued to appear in the Black press from the mid-1960's to the mid-1980's. In the late 1960's, Eugene Majied drew highly idealized, spiffy-clean images for the history lesson the adult male Muslim lovingly gave his son in "Muhammad's Message" for Muhammad Speaks. Richard Grass Green did the Black family adventure strip "Lost Family" in 1969 for Frost Illustrated (Fort Wayne, Indiana) before turning his artistic attention to comic books. Seitu Hayden's "Waliku" (Swahili for "the great-great-grandchildren"), which appeared from 1972 to 1975 in the Chicago Defender, showed both children and adolescents in their day-to-day dealings in the ghetto (fig. 26). A protègè of Grass Green, Hayden drew the facial features of "Waliku's" characters to be specifically Black so no lines or dots were needed for shading as in other strips. The futuristic "NOG: Protector of the Pyramides" by Turtel Onli in the Chicago Defender (1979) was firmly rooted in African symbols. "NOG" was later expanded into a comic book.
Fig. 27In the 1980's, publisher and editorial cartoonist Yaounde Olu, in her Papers and The Progressive Secretary, served up a diversity of comic characters which were both stylized and non-traditional. Her "Slinky Ledbetter and Comp'ny" (1980) showed two very differently shaped Black spacemen who were visually captivating (fig. 27). Olu's insightful portrayal comes from both knowing her community intimately and sympathizing deeply with it. Her 1983 strip, "Jerri Kirl" (fig. 28), was a generic working person who used everyday wisdom in the 1980's as "Torchy Brown" did in the 1950's.


Fig. 28The Black characters drawn by Black artists working for the mainstream press have continued to evolve. Burton Clarke's realistically drawn, classically handsome, gay Black man "Cy Ross" (1980) in the New York Nativeraised important questions about alienation in contemporary urban life. Young and talented Ray Billingsley did a humorous strip syndicated in 1980-82 entitled "Lookin' Fine," centering on a Black teenager named Ray and his relationships with parents, siblings, and friends. ("Lookin' Fine"' is reminiscent of Mel Tapley's cleverly done teenage strip "Breezy" from the Black press in the 1940's.) Billingsley is currently doing a new, integrated strip which includes a character . "like Whoopie Goldberg." Buck Brown, best known for the hilarious "Granny" cartoons he drew for Playboyfor several decades, has been asked by the Chicago Tribune to create a Black street-oriented strip to debut in January, 1987, which Brown plans to center around a blues musician.

Despite occasional opportunities, residues of the old stereotypes still persist in the mainstream newspaper comics, especially of Black males. The interest in and demand for Black characters has severely waned during the Reagan years. Today, many big-city papers have few if any Black images in their strips. As long as there are those who perpetuate the ethnocentric notion that only White characters are "non-racial" or "universal" then the presentation of Black images in the mainstream press will continue to be limited. As Brumsic Brandon, Jr. said, "We should not be so insensitive that we fail to see the truth, nor should we be so sensitive that we fail to see what humor lies therein ... If the positive Black image is to, Continue to emerge and prosper ... editors must: be made to know that the comic strip readers dig what's happening." Write on.

Steven Loring Jones is a PhD candidate in American Civilization at the University of Pennsylvania, He is a specialist in Afro-American art, architecture, decorative arts and popular culture.