Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Trump supporters long for a Golden Age. “I used to sleep on my front porch with the door wide open, and now everyone has deadbolts,” one guy told Republican pollster Frank Luntz early in the primary race. “I believe the best days of the country are behind us.” So Trump gave him what he wanted, what The Atlantic‘s Ester Bloom calls “a sugar pill coated in nostalgia.” Actually, Trump didn’t give him anything. He just sold him a slogan. “We know his goal is to make America great again,” another supporter told pollsters. “It’s on his hat.” And now that time-travel hat is headed to the White House. “But,” Bloom asked over a year ago, “to what era does he intend to take the nation back? And what would that look like, practically speaking?”

Well, superhero comics have a very specific Golden Age. It runs from the 1930s to the 1950s. I write about it in my forthcoming book Superhero Comics. (I didn’t choose the title, but Trump has taught me that simplicity sells.) So what did the superhero Golden Age look like? That depends on who swallows the sugar pill. Practically speaking, it’s not so golden if you weren’t a white guy in tights. So adjust your hats, and let’s take a peek …

Image result for ebony white will eisnerSuperhero comics in the pre-Code years of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s are dominated by a lack of black representation and punctuated by instances of extreme racist caricature. “Racism was built into the foundations of entire once-popular genres, especially jungle comics … and war comics,” writes Leonard Rifas, noting the predominance of “early American comic books that show white characters in dominant positions of over nonwhite domestics, natives, or sidekicks”.

The pattern begins with the first recurring black character in superhero comics, Lothar, created by Lee Falk for his daily newspaper strip Mandrake the Magician. For the June 11, 1934 debut, artist Phil Davis drew Mandrake’s sidekick in what would be the character’s signature wardrobe: shorts, cummerbund, lion-skin sash, and fez. Although in the second installment Lothar introduces his “Master” in what was termed General American English in the 30s, before the end of the year, Lothar’s speech had devolved into ungrammatical fragments: “Three men fight lady. Is bad. Me almost get mad.” The “lady” is Barbara, Mandrake’s white love interest, who then dubs Lothar “My watchdog”.

As Mandrake continued its newspaper run, readers witnessed Jesse Owens’ Olympic and Joe Louis’ boxing victories, as well as the appointment of the first African American federal judge, William H. Hastie. But five years after his debut, Lothar’s speech has not improved; after rowing his master through a swamp and holding an umbrella over Barbara’s head, Lothar faces the ghosts of two pirates: “Me scared—but me sock!” Although identified as the prince of several African tribes, Lothar chooses to live in the United States as an ambiguously slave-like servant to a white, Orientalist magician.

The following year, Will Eisner introduced newspaper readers to another crime-fighting sidekick, The Spirit’s Ebony White. Nonwhite sidekicks were a standard outside of comics, with the Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the Green Hornet’s Kato speaking broken English on the radio, and The Spider’s “turbaned Hindu” valet Ram Singh speaking in faux middle English in the pulps: “Fortunate it is that thy servant obeyed his orders”.

Eisner introduced Ebony as an unnamed taxi driver in the first The Spirit newspaper insert on June 2, 1940. In the second, he apologizes for speeding: “Sorry, boss, dis car jes’ nachelly speeds up when ah drives past Wildwood cemetery!!” In the third, he acquires his name and becomes the Spirit’s “exclusive cabby”, though by July, the Spirit has his own car, and Ebony is his “assistant” in August. Ebony’s face dominates the entire splash page the following month: bulging cheeks, round and crossed eyes, a tiny upturned nose, two protruding teeth, and, most prominently, enormous red lips—a cartoon embodiment of blackface minstrelsy. Eisner described the caricature as “a product of the times”.

Black characters in comic books were rarer. Joe Shuster drew no African Americans in the first three years of Action Comics, and Harry G. Peter drew only four in Wonder Woman’s first two years: a train porter, two hotel workers, and an elevator operator. The first three speak in slightly abbreviated General American English: “Yes, Ma’am! Suitcase comin’ up! This suitcase is heavy! Must be fulla books!”, but the last William Marston scripts: “Bell done buzzed f’om dis floah—but dey ain’ nobody heah!”

Analyzing the seventy-eight issues of Captain America’s 1940-1954 titles, Richard A. Hall counts only two African Americans: a cowering and superstitious butler named Mose in 1942 and a member of the adolescent Sentinels of Liberty named Whitewash a year earlier. Both are rendered in a style Hall terms “Amos and Andy-esque,” referencing one of the most pervasive and demeaning representations of African Americans by white authors of the period. Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski’s rendering reproduced the enormous lips of 19th century cartoons, the same tradition Eisner followed.

Beginning in 1941, the zoot-suit-wearing, harmonica-playing, watermelon-eating Whitewash Jones regularly appeared in Young Allies, which ran twenty issues before being cancelled in 1946, and in ten issues of Kid Comics from 1943-46. Although Hall concludes that “There were literally no non-white heroic figures during this period”, Whitewash, while fulfilling the role of comic relief through racist caricature, is also the first African American hero in superhero comics.

In the Young Allies premiere, Wojtkoski and writer Otto Binder present him as an equal member of the “small band of daring kids”, one who wrestles Nazi spies, discovers a trail that leads to the Red Skull’s cave, saves team leaders Bucky and Toro by triggering a cave-in, and saves the entire team by discovering that their drinks have been poisoned. When a military officer presents “each with a distinguished service medal” for “exceptional bravery in action,” Wojtkoski draws Whitewash beside Toro and in front of two other white members, and for the chapter four splash page, contributing artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby place Whitewash at center, pinning Hitler with his team members. In one panel, the character leads the team on bicycles stolen from German soldiers.

Yet Whitewash also exposes the team as stowaways and is chided for his shocking “ignorance”. He is, however, no more comic than his teammates. Though Whitewash is afraid to enter the cemetery, Knuckles dives head-first behind a bush at the sound of an owl. Whitewash trips over his own rifle, but only because Tubby backs into him. Whitewash complains about walking, while Tubby complains about hunger and Jefferson Worthington Sandervilt about the smell of fish. Sandervilt also voices fear, “My. What a harrowing experience!” before Whitewash, “Is dey gone?” Arguably all four of the secondary Young Allies characters are sidekicks to Bucky and Toro, and so are not independently heroic themselves. But Whitewash, while a grotesque amalgam of African American caricatures both visually and verbally, is not singled out for comic relief and often contributes more significantly than his white teammates.

Despite these exceptions, nonwhite protagonists remained a rarity in pre-Code comics, superhero-oriented and otherwise, and black creators were even rarer. Jackie Ormes is considered the first African American woman cartoonist, with her 1937 comic strip Candy running in the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed African American newspaper. Beginning in the early 40s, Alvin Hollingsworth drew for Holyoke’s Cat-Man Comics, as well as “Captain Power” in Novack’s Great Comics, female Tarzan knock-off “Numa” in Fox Feature Syndicate’s Rulah, Jungle Goddess, and “Bronze Man” in Fox’s Blue Beetle. In 1947, Philadelphia publisher Orrin Cromwell Evan’s one-issue All-Negro Comics featured artist George J. Evan, Jr.’s “Lion Man,” the first African American superhero by black creators and one, the publisher explains in his introduction, intended “to give American Negroes a reflection of the natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage”.

Matt Baker achieved the highest level of success and, indirectly, notoriety in the early comics industry. Alberto Becattini and Jim Vabedoncoeur, Jr. index over six hundred credits for Baker in roughly 150 different titles. Working through the Iger Studio, which had previously included Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, Baker began his career on “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” and “Sky Girl” in Fiction House’s Jumbo Comics in late 1944, before expanding to “Skull Squad” in Wings Comics and “Wambi the Jungle Boy” in Jungle Comics. Baker rendered his African tribesman in the same relatively realistic style as his white characters, with no hint of Eisner’s and Wojtkoski’s racist cartooning.

Baker’s off-page experiences were less integrated. A fellow Iger artist recalled how Baker “would go off on his own” during lunch breaks, “acutely aware of the perceived chasm that separated him” in “an industry almost totally dominated by white males”. Baker’s greatest successes came in his sexualized renderings of women—a style that may have been influenced by Jackie Ormes’ Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger one-panel comics that ran in the African American newspaper Chicago Defender beginning in 1945. After Sheena imitations “Tiger Girl” and “Camilla,” Baker drew Fox Features’ redesigned Phantom Lady as one of his last projects before expanding to freelancing.

While Baker was amassing romance credits in the 50s, Frederic Wertham reproduced his April 1948 Phantom Lady cover in Seduction of the Innocent with the caption: “Sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with a sadist’s dream of tying up a woman”, and a blow-up of the “objectionable” cover was displayed during the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham condemned “race hatred” in his testimony (specifically a Tarzan comic in which a “Negro” blinds twenty-two white people, including “a beautiful girl”), but the absence of any mention of Baker in the hearing transcripts is likely due to committee members not knowing that a black man had drawn the images of a scantily-clad white woman. Juvenile Emmett Till would be murdered for flirting with a white woman and his killers acquitted the following year.

[So much for the Golden Age. But maybe Trump supporters have a slightly different era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: