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I was never an especially big fan of the original Captain Marvel. Nothing wrong with the character, but the limited exposure I had to him in my childhood did little to capture my interest. As an adult, though, I'd periodically run across stories of someone with very fond memories of Captain Marvel, and I kept thinking, "I don't get it." I eventually picked up a couple of the Shazam Archives to try to figure out what the big deal was.

Which is a preface/explanation as to why, until a few weeks ago, I had no clue that some of the stories featured a character by the name of Steamboat. Cap's Wikipedia page makes no mention of him at all; I only just read about him in Brian Cremins' recent Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. (I'll have a full review of the book on another site later.) Given that he first appeared in 1942, it should come as no surprise that a Black character like Steamboat was saddled with all sorts of offensive stereotypes, his Blackface-style appearance being the most immediately obvious.

What I found interesting, though, in reading Cremins' examination of the character was that he calls out both why the character was introduced and why he was later removed from the book. He quotes creator C.C.Beck from an interview from Hogan's Alley: "Steamboat was created to capture the affection of [N]egro readers... [Steamboat] was always a cartoon character, not intended to be realistic at all... he was taken seriously by some, sadly enough."

The intention, it would seem, was one of inclusion. As if to say, "Look, we're not racists; we have a Black character." Of course, the actual depiction of Steamboat was incredibly racist and, to no surprise, some people took offense to it. So much so, in fact, that a group of junior high school students went to editor Will Lieberson to complain. Lieberson noted that a lot of their characters were portrayed in all sorts of ways for the sake of humor, but these kids smartly pointed out that, as the sole Black character in the book, Steamboat wound up representing all Black people. "This is not the Negro race," they said, "but your one-and-a-half million readers will think so." They went on to explain that it wasn't just Steamboat that was a problem, but how race was portrayed in comics would have an impact on how people (especially impressionable kids) thought about race. It was fine to try to attract Black readers with a Black character, but making a mockery of the character would suggest to white readers that that treatment was acceptable.

They made a convincing argument, and Steamboat was dropped in 1945 with no explanation. Although no new Black characters were introduced; apparently, none of the creative team felt comfortable wading into those waters again.

What's noteworthy are some of the reflections from years later. In the quote above, Beck seems to have not really gotten the point. He seems to think that he was just doing something funny, and someone took it as a serious commentary. Writer Otto Binder reflected, "I was all in favor, actually, of anti-discrimination so [dropping Steamboat] didn't bother me, except that we did sigh once in a while because it was fun to depict such dialect groups. We never meant to degrade them, merely play them for humor."

We never meant to degrade them, merely play them for humor.

One of the keys to humor (in general) is to never punch down. You can make fun of those above you, or at your level, but making fun of someone in a lower station than you, someone who has less power than you, is inherently degrading. You're mocking what you have and they lack, and they don't have the power or ability to even defend themselves.

What Binder and Beck never seemed to realize was that Blacks have never been in a position of power and authority in the United States. They were considered the least of all races, and were (unfortunately) treated accordingly. Especially in the 1940s -- Brown v Board of Education was still a decade away, and the Civil Rights Act another decade-plus after that. Jim Crow laws were still very much on the books, and Black people were simply not welcome in large swaths of the country. How can you not see mocking a group who's been forced into that position as punching down?

That seems somewhat obvious in hindsight, but it's sadly dreadfully difficult for some people to see that kind of disconnect in the moment. People have an uncanny ability to hold blatantly oppositional beliefs simultaneously, and can be blind to the discordance even if it's pointed out to them. And I don't point all this out to besmirch Binder and Beck; I'm merely using them as an example of how good intentions can still be damaging and how simply talking to some people in the position/role you're writing about will help to shed a better light on how your character might be received.
There are a variety of artifacts in/around comics that, despite not being comics themselves, could be considered true artifacts of the industry. The original check to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster for Superman, for example. Wendy Pini's pre-ElfQuest Red Sonja costume might be another. Surely, Jack Kirby's drawing pencil would qualify, right?

As it turns out, Joe Field of Flying Colors has a story with a bit of a mystery about exactly that...
I don't know that this was Jack's last pencil -- Dan Fraga says he got one directly from Jack wife, Roz -- and even if it were, it certainly wouldn't have any mythical qualities about it, regardless of what Jack drew with it. But it is an appropriate way to honor the man who spent so many decades firing the imaginations of so many people with a simple tool exactly like this.
One of the challenges about tabling at a convention is that you almost can't do it by yourself. Sure, you can sit there and sell books and make change and sign autographs and do sketches yourself, but at some point you're going to have to leave the table. Even if you bring tons of food in a cooler that you have with, you're going to have to take a bio break at some point! And if you don't have a partner there to watch over your table while you're away, you wind up having to ask one of your table neighbors. (Side tip if you didn't already know this: make friends with your table neighbors!) So, in general, you want to keep your table absences to a minimum particularly if you're tabling solo.

But sometimes things come up and you need something away from your table.

I saw this weekend Alex Heberling post about a clever (I think) solution. Basically, she put note on her table offering a free copy of one of her books to anyone willing to go stand in line for her and pick up some french fries. She was still paying for the fries, so the book was just so she didn't have to leave her table. She had about six or seven people stop by, curious about the offer, before someone took her up on it. It was less than an hour between when she put her sign up, and when she had fries and a soda sitting in front of her.

Now, when I asked her about it, Heberling said it felt a bit like "holding a cardboard sign on the exit ramp of a highway." I suspect that was mostly because she had a hastily crafted hand-written sign, and it wasn't something she planned on doing. But I think that, if you approached it the right way, it could work as a marketing tool.

What if, instead of leaving a hand-written note quietly on your table, you had something actually printed up? Something that was in the same style as the rest of your table materials? You wouldn't leave it out all the time, of course, but pull it out maybe around 11:00, and make an announcement of it. "Free book if you bring me food!"

One of the other things Heberling noted was that several of the people who stopped by had their attention grabbed by the "free book" notion. Who doesn't like free stuff, right? There's a catch, of course (getting food for you) but you've hurdled two important challenges: you've gotten their attention, and you've given them an built-in discussion starter. A lot of people are introverts, and some people are too shy/nervous to come up and ask you about your book. Or maybe they just don't want to engage too much if they're unsure. But this starts the conversation, and gives you the opportunity to not only get some food without having to wait in those sometimes horrendous lines but also sets you up to give a quick sales pitch about your book to someone who might not have even stopped by your table!

Heberling seemed a bit uncomfortable with the idea, but I also know her to be somewhat shy about that kind of thing too. She suggested it would be easier for "someone with a higher charisma stat". But with the right attitude and approach, I think this could be easily turned into a marketing schtick. It gets word about your book(s) out to those who aren't already familiar with you in an environment that's already primed for people ready to buy. And because it's rare to see someone do this (at least for now) you'll likely generate a little buzz as well.

I think the key, from a marketing perspective, is being able to sell the idea. You'd need some level of carnival barker-ism to make this effective. But, then again, don't you need some level of carnival barker-ism to table in the first place?

One final note: since she was kind enough to let me borrow her photo and answer some of my questions about her experience, I said I'd plug her current Kickstarter campaign for The Hues volume III. I've already read books one and two, and have contributed to her campaign here as well. It's a good story, and worth checking out if you're not familiar with it already.
Here are this week's links to what I've had published recently...

Kleefeld on Comics: On Business: Transition

FreakSugar: Fanthropology: Geek Relationships

The Comics Alternative - Smart Discussions on Comic Books and Graphic Novels: Webcomics: Reviews of The Great McGonagall, Sufficiently Remarkable, and The Boston Metaphysical Society

Kleefeld on Comics: On History: Marvel's Original Event Comics

Kleefeld on Comics: Weekly Comics Links

FreakSugar: Webcomics Wednesday: Canon?

Kleefeld on Comics: On -isms: Future Representation

Kleefeld on Comics: On Strips: Gladys Parker Fashions

It seems as if some of the most well-known women in the early days of newspaper cartooning were the ones who A) drew very attractive women, and B) had a great eye for fashion. I suppose one could easily argue that combination of being able to draw what men and women ostensibly both wanted to see (pretty girls for men, fantastic fashions for women) is what made them well-known, but I suspect that's a somewhat superficial and dismissive argument in at least most cases.

In any event, one of these well-known cartoonists was Gladys Parker. She began cartooning professionally in 1928 and took over the already-popular Flapper Fanny Says strip in 1930. Parker started her most well-known strip, Mopsy, in 1939 and continued working on it until she retired from cartooning altogether in 1965.

But her initial interest was indeed fashion design. She ran a dressmaking shop out of her home while she was still in high school and moved to Manhattan at age 18 specifically to study fashion illustration. By the early 1930s, she had her own fashion line and I recently came across some silent newsreel footage of her creations being given the catwalk treatment. The clips are from 1933 and 1935 respectively...

You know, I was going to write a piece today that held up some old comics from the first half of the 20th century, showing blatantly racist caricatures of different types of people. They're sadly easy to find. I was going to show each of the major types of people being caricatured and say, "Look, here's how comic artists used to depict Black people" and "Look, here's how writers used to script Chinese accents" and "Look, here's how gay men were portrayed in comics" and so on. And each one would be so absurdly offensive that you'd have difficulty even understanding that someone would be willing to commit something like that to paper.

After I'd gone through a bunch of those, then I was going to point out that they all look/sound absurd now because we, collectively, have gotten a better understanding of those cultures. We understand where the stereotypes came from, why we white people created them, and how (deliberately) insulting they were. You'd be glad that most people don't think of those groups like that any more anyway, and you might have a little better understanding of the climate grandpa was raised in and why he still thinks it's okay to use offensive slang terms in casual conversation.

And then I was going to say make the comparison to today's comics, showing "Look, here's how comic artists depict Black people now" and "Look, here's how writers script Chinese accents now" and "Look, here's how gay men are portrayed in comics now" and so on. But this time -- since the examples would be more contemporary -- with some color commentary about how they're relying on different stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless. And how do you suppose those stereotypes will look in fifty years' time? Probably just as absurd as the 1940s' caricatures look to us today.

I was going to write all that up to make the point that you don't want to be remembered for some really bad representations of different minorities. Especially since, by many estimates, the United States will see Caucasians become a minority around the middle of the century with what are currently minorities rising to around 56% of the population.

I was going to write all that.

But then I wondered, "For who?"

I mean, if I hear/see something racist/misogynistic/ablest/homophobic/transphobic, I will usually call the person on it. I've called out co-workers, friends, and even relatives (both mine and my wife's). It's as often as not unintentional, and I try to point out how/why something they said is wrong. Sometimes they listen, sometimes not. But that's a response to action, usually done within a very short time of the incident. Basically, it's immediate behavioral modeling based on whatever the current situation is.

But that whole bit I outline above? That's a little different. It's more long-term and requires at the very least an acknowledgment that social demographics are changing and will continue to change. And the reason that's significant here is that the people who need to hear that message are already refusing to acknowledge those changes and, strangely concurrently, are actively fighting against them. That's partly what's fueling the rise of all these hate groups -- people who think things are better with less diversity and more homogeneity. As they see it, they are going to be viewed as martyrs for trying to revert the country to a status quo from before anyone besides cishetero white men had rights. And they're so committed to that belief that they will never see themselves as being on the wrong side of history; rather, they think they are right and if they're not acknowledged thusly, then it's history who is wrong.

And frankly, I do not have the energy for that discussion this week.

Suffice it to say that all those socially ugly comics from the 1940s that make you cringe when you realize it was a favorite artist or writer who caricatured some group so badly? Fifty years from now, readers are going to cringe at the socially ugly comics you're making today. So step up to the plate now, and make your work more progressive in terms of representation. Not only is it the right thing to do for today, but it's the right thing to do in the future.