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A few months back, I reviewed Joel Christian Gill's biography of Bessie Stringfield. I was certainly encouraged enough to track down the first volume of the series, featuring a biography of Bass Reeves, "the most successful lawman in the Old West!"

The story begins in the 1840s, with Reeves as a child. As America was still several years away from the Emancipation Proclamation, Reeves was owned by a white man who taught him how to fire a rifle so that he could enter the boy in shooting competitions and clean up on bets. After all, who would bet on a Black boy?

Reeves grew up like this, but eventually fled during the Civil War and lived with a tribe of Native Americans for a while before joining a platoon of Black Union soldiers. Reeves' sense of justice and fairness earned him a position alongside some Oklahoma deputies and eventually led to him becoming a full US Marshal. He was incredibly effective in the role, ultimately bringing in over 3,000 outlaws over his career, thanks in part to his aim and in part to his overall approach, which often involved sneaking up on his targets in some form of disguise. He did marry and have a son, but he spent much of his time on the roads and didn't see them often, instead travelling with a Native American companion.

I couldn't have pegged Reeves' name for anything a week ago. But after maybe a dozen pages or so, I realized the story sounded just familiar enough that I thought I'd heard it before. And another dozen pages, it dawned on me that I was reading a biography of the real life inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Gill doesn't make that connection obvious until the very end of the book, reflecting perhaps that the connection isn't entirely confirmed. While Gill simply recounts Reeves' life, as opposed to actively trying to make a case for the lawman being an inspiration for the character, the details he provides definitely give the reader something of an a-ha moment when the Lone Ranger idea is finally mentioned on the last page of the story.

Whether or not Reeves did serve as the model for the Lone Ranger is moot, though, as his life is pretty compelling on the face of it. Having grown up a slave, and literally fighting his way out of that life is no small feat by itself. But then to assume a position of authority in a relatively lawless area, as a man who is frequently hated because of the color of his skin... well, that's super impressive. Couple that with being successful? The man would be a big damn hero even if the Lone Ranger was never created!

Gill's storytelling is solid for the most part. I did feel one scene in which Reeves accidentally kills a cook was a little oddly staged; I'm not sure if that was deliberate to emphasize how the subsequent trial could go either way, but I don't know that keeping that part deliberately ambiguous was necessary. After all, a Black man killing a white man in the 1880s would all but guarantee a guilty verdict regardless of the circumstances. Showing readers the actual events clearly wouldn't have changed that.

It's a relatively minor story point to nitpick over, especially since Gill makes it clear what happens with the dialogue, but it did catch me off-guard a bit.

Nevertheless, the book is solid overall, and I'm looking forward to whenever Gill is able to get the next one complete. It looks like that might be about Robert Smalls or Mary Bowser, both of whom sound like great subjects! We definitely need more books like these out there and available, and I suggest you pick this and his Bessie Stringfield biography up.
  • Greg Presto looks at the growing comic market in Africa, particularly in Nairobi.
  • Ron Edwards makes the argument that the history of US comics is the history of DC comics. "There’s no history of Marvel, Dell, Fawcett, Archie, and Gold Key, or their related media without DC in place for the bigger context."
  • Sarah Larson has a nice piece on Dr. Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress. Hayden makes special call-out to their collection of comics.


Superman/Batman: Generations #1
A couple years back, I found a collection of 5,000-6,000 comics on the curb. Mostly Marvel and DC books from around the early 2000s up through about 2010. I've been plenty busy, and haven't read most of them, but I did take some time to read through John Byrne's three Generations series from several years ago that was in that collection.

The basic idea, as Byrne originally posited, was: what if the DC universe aged in real time? So Batman still debuted in 1939, but instead of remaining perpetually in his 20s, he grew older and had to essentially retire around 1960, with the now-adult Dick Grayson assuming the Batman name, and Bruce Wayne's son stepping in to become Robin. Likewise, all the other characters would grow old as well -- Commission Gordon dies in the 1950s, Lois Lane in the late 1970s, and so on.

The overall stories are broken down into discrete time periods. Each "chapter" takes place in a different year, with at least a decade having passed since the previous chapter. (In Generations 3, this extends to a full century between each chapter.) Add in some flashbacks and a bit of time travel, and there's a lot of potential to confuse the hell out of readers. But Byrne proves that he's a consummate storyteller, and the there's absolutely no problem following along anywhere in these three titles. In fact, at one point I accidentally skipped over a page that critically pointed out Superman's trip to the future got screwed up and he accidentally landed in the past, and I still didn't have much trouble figuring out what happened.

Taken at face value, the stories are fun and entertaining. Obviously, there are lots of nods to previous stories from the past century and knowing those makes for some nice points of reference, but even without a strong knowledge of DC lore, everything runs smoothly and, as I said, is fairly entertaining. The first series, in particular, as it has a more light-hearted tone overall. The second series is a little darker, and the third series is about as dark as I've ever seen Byrne get. (Which, granted, is still not as dark as some creators are, but it's noticeable shift from the first and second series.)

I did have two problems with the series, though. The first, and relatively minor, issue is that these are all inked by Byrne himself. Despite being a solid storyteller, inking isn't his strong suit and there were more than a few places where I found the art somewhat lacking specifically because of his inking. I've seen him ink decently before, but typically, as we see here, it's surprisingly rough and unnuanced. Line weights don't vary as much as they could/should. There's a lack of elegance to the finished product because of that. It doesn't hinder the story itself, but it's not doing any favors either.

The bigger problem I had was a conceptual one. Byrne is very clear, with prose piece in each #1 issue, that we're supposed to be watching Superman, Batman, etc. age in real time. How would things be different if they couldn't carry on superheroing forever? Which is an interesting idea, but that's not what Byrne actually presents. He defines Superman as functionally immortal as one of his super-powers. OK, fine, that's kind of/sort of established for the character. But so is Wonder Woman. And Martian Manhunter. And the New Gods. And the Ultra-Humanite (who's one of the main villains). And then Byrne makes Batman literally immortal. As well as Batman's son. And Green Lantern. And Lex Luthor. And Lana Lang. Not to mention all of Superman's kids and grandkids. So despite the first two titles spanning a century each, and the third covering ten centuries, the cast remains pretty static. We do see a few characters grow old and die, but most of the primary ones do not.

And that's fine for the story, but that's not exactly what it's presented as. Instead of showing Superman and Batman growing old and aging in real time, we get basically what's already going on in the comics -- where the characters are fighting for truth and justice in perpetuity. I fully expect to be able to buy a Superman or Batman comic decades from now, and see the current superhero formula more or less the same, and what Byrne is positing through his story is that is exactly what will happen. It's almost as if the concept of these characters aging is so incomprehensible that Byrne literally cannot think of how that might actually happen. Superheroes, he seems to say, are eternal EVEN IF you try to present them as mortal.

Which, I suppose, is an interesting angle in and of itself. But by making much of his entire cast immortal, he's diluting that message. Had he left only a couple characters immortal, and other heroes rotating in and out of the story (like he and Roger Stern did in the more-or-less contemporary Marvels: The Lost Generation) that notion that the superhero concept is unending, even if the costumes change, would have been stronger, I think.

Like I said, the stories are entertaining and made for some nice, light entertainment this past weekend. I'm just a bit disappointed that it was basically just another Elseworlds story that says even if everything is different, it's all pretty much exactly the same.
We are one month into Trump's presidency, and I keep finding myself trying to suss how that will impact the comic book industry. As we're only a month in, we don't really have any data yet and most of the broader think pieces I can find were written no earlier than a few days into his term. I presume economists have been watching to see what actually starts happening.

My personal economic situation, as of right now, is actually pretty good. Around the middle of last year, I got a nice promotion at my day job (with an accompanying salary increase) and I just last week had my annual review in which my boss had nothing but praise for me, and I got a decent raise and bonus(!) because of it. My wife also has been anecdotally doing well, although her formal review won't be for another few weeks. Both of our companies seem to be doing well, so there looks to be no danger of us losing our jobs on the horizon. Coupled with the only debt that either of us have being the mortgage on our house, and the fact that I'm a cishetero white male, I don't know that I, myself, have too much to worry about in the short term.

That said, I am worried. Less so for me, but for many of my friends and family who aren't in as stable situations. For those who do have something to be genuinely fearful of. Whether that's a loss of their healthcare because the Affordable Care Act is repealed, or a loss of their freedom because they're Muslim, or a loss of their life because they're Black, or any of the other horrible effects Trump's (and the GOP's) policies are already starting to have on anyone who isn't a rich, white male.

Now because I'm in a fairly stable position, I'm trying to use whatever means I have to help those creators trying to make a living doing comics. Often by supporting them when/where I can via Kickstarter or Patreon or whatever, or just buying their books, or just promoting their work on social media (although my reach is decidedly limited there, so I don't know how much impact I honestly have). But that's me. I'm doing what I can because I can, but I've already talked with people who've had to cut back because of their own position. Their income is less stable, and they're not able to help as much.

Further, people are putting their resources towards countering Trump. Instead of a vacation, they're travelling to a protest or march. Instead of spending time reading, they're writing and calling their Congressional representatives. Their money is going to placards and stamps instead of comics.

And that's only a month in.

I suspect -- and this is indeed just speculation -- that we'll see more of that. Businesses will contract and/or switch full-time employees to contractor status, which will make the more stable people less stable. That, in turn, will mean they'll be able to provide less support to the creative types who are already less stable, and they'll be forced into survival mode, doing whatever they can just to get a basic income, and spending less time on their art. I talked about this shortly after the election, but I'm starting to see that happening. It's completely anecdotal, possibly driven by confirmation bias, but it's something that I think bears keeping a close eye on. For everyone's sake.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Comics Will Break Your Heart
http://ift.tt/2kofcoR

FreakSugar: Fanthropology: Fan vs. Identity
http://ift.tt/2kjAsAT

The Comics Alternative - Smart Discussions on Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Webcomics: Reviews of The Specialists, Hominids, and The Last Saturday
http://ift.tt/2lHiHrC

Jack Kirby Collector: Incidental Iconography
http://ift.tt/xLP9rc

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Carl Barks' Duck Review
http://ift.tt/2lLCQ0k

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links
http://ift.tt/2l86wFe

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: “I Made A Webcomic?”
http://ift.tt/2kxA6BV

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: BHM Comic Suggestion
http://ift.tt/2lW9ewE

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: Earliest Presidential Appearance
http://ift.tt/2lqWIbs


Here's an odd question: who was the first American President to appear in a regularly syndicated comic strip? Not a political comic, but an ongoing, regular comic strip and it just happened to feature the American President. Doonesbury has probably featured Presidents (and other political figures) most regularly, although "appearances" can be arguable since Garry Trudeau frequently resorted to just showing dialogue emanating from the exterior of the White House or used icons as a sort of visual metaphor for the President. Regardless, though, Doonesbury didn't start until 1970; surely, someone had the President appear in a comic strip before then, right?

Now, there were some short-lived comics about Presidential candidates. But these tended to run only a few weeks or months, and were specifically biographic pieces intended to inform/persuade potential voters.

My first thought is perhaps Little Orphan Annie. Creator Harold Gray was fairly open about his politics, and some of his stories sprang directly out of what he saw happening in Washington. In fact, he even killed off Daddy Warbucks at one point because he simply could not fathom a character like Warbucks existing in a country run by Franklin D. Roosevelt! But did any of the Presidents actually appear in the strip? As far as I can tell, no. I'm certainly no Annie expert, but it seems as if Gray only ever even referred to the President obliquely.

My next thought is maybe Li'l Abner. Again, creator Al Capp was pretty outspoken about his politics, and I'm aware of at least a few instances here where he drew real people into his strip as characters. I did pretty quickly find a 1940 strip in which Mammy Yokum receives a letter from the "assistant secretary to the President's secretary". A few years later, the President ostensibly shows up during the Lena the Hyena storyline, but it the figure Capp draws looks nothing like then-President Harry S. Truman. Curiously, Capp draws the judges -- Salvador Dali, Frank Sinatra, and Boris Karloff -- relatively accurately. (Although Karloff is shown in his Frankenstein makeup.)
(Image obviously borrowed from the Billy Ireland Library & Museum.)
Roy Crane seems like another good candidate. Buz Sawyer was overtly political by virtue of its debut during World War II, so it would stand to reason to depict the President there. But, again, I'm not finding anything.

I was beginning to think maybe Trudeau was the first, but then I happened across this Ernie Bushmiller Nancy where she accidentally phones up John F. Kennedy.
I can't seem to pinpoint the specific date this ran, but the copyright here is 1962, almost a decade before Doonesbury started. But that still strikes me as pretty late. Surely, some cartoonist drew in the President before Bushmiller, right?

Anyone have any insights on this? Know of anything earlier than 1962?
One of the semi-common refrains among those in support of Black History Month is that it's only one month. When weighed against the centuries of oppression, which continues in various forms to this day, one month is hardly long enough. (And it's the shortest month at that!) So here's a quick suggestion that might help you in your ongoing appreciation of Black people's place in American history...

One day every week (pick a day of your choosing), make a point of finding a comic by a Black person that you like. Whether it's a newspaper comic, a webcomic, a monthly pamphlet book, whatever... just find one comic created by a Black person that you like for whatever reason(s). It doesn't have to be about the Black experience, or have a political edge to it, or anything. Just find a comic you happen to like that happens to be created by a Black person. (If you need help finding something, you can start with something obvious like what's listed in Wikipedia or get more options from the Cartoonists of Color database.)

Then, and here's the important part, read it. Like, all of it. Track down the first installment (or the first installment by that Black creator if it was started by someone else) and commit to reading through everything. Maybe it was a monthly comic book that only lasted six issues, but maybe it's an ongoing newspaper comic that's been running for 30 years. But commit to reading all of it, whatever is available.

And, if it's still going on, keep reading it. Support that creator by buying their books, or whatever they have available. If they're still alive and still working on the comic, send them a note of appreciation. It doesn't have to be elaborate, "Hey, man, I like your comic," is fine.

But the idea is to use Black History Month as a springboard for a longer, extended appreciation of Black creators and their work. It's a way to see a larger scope of their work and, hopefully, turn you into an evangelist for their work.