On -isms: All-Negro Comics

By | Thursday, July 02, 2015 Leave a Comment
Back in 1947, Orrin Evans published a single issue of All-Negro Comics. It was the first comic book whose creators were all African-American. With a cover price of 15¢ (a full nickel more expensive than everything else available at that time) and contents that featured Black characters, it's little wonder why it didn't sell well enough to warrant a second issue, despite promises of one in the comic itself.

All-Negro Comics
Like nearly all comics of that time, this issue had a variety of features in it. There was action/adventure, long-form comedy, single panel gags, a prose piece... The locales shown ranged from the inner city to the "African Gold Coast" to a rural American farm to an idyllic Greek-style garden. The issue had a little bit of everything.

Only the two adventures stories clearly identify the creators, John Terrell and George J. Evans, Jr. The rest of the pieces are either anonymous or signed with a single, ambiguous name. Of all the creators in the book, Terrell is clearly the one with the most talent. While the illustrations in all the stories are good, his Ace Harlem story is easily the most cohesive and has the strongest plot. It's obvious why it was chosen as the lead feature.

The book seems to be aimed squarely at African-Americans. While that might seem obvious based on the stories, there seems to be no attempt to even consider that anyone else might be interested. Evans expressly notes in the introduction that the Lion Man character, for example, is a deliberate attempt to "give American Negroes a reflection of their natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage." And I think that's why it's worth taking a look at.

The book is notable, of course, for the first to be completely created by African-Americans. But in also depicting almost exclusively Black people for an audience of exclusively Black people, it provides something of an insight into what they were wrestling with. That the only two white characters to appear are shown as violent villains trying to impose their will on African land suggests that even though Blacks felt collectively isolated in America (there are no white people shown anywhere else) there were still white men out there trying to impose their rule over Blacks in even the farthest reaches of the globe. That we see primary characters ranging from hard-boiled detectives to African tribesmen to wandering minstrels suggests that African-Americans were still wrestling with who they were now, and how they should fit in to contemporary culture. How far back to their roots should they be looking, or should they instead embrace the cities they now found themselves in? The Civil Rights Movement was still almost a decade off, and there was still seemingly a question of how Blacks should fit in and what role(s) they should play in society.

The original printing is pretty rare, but since it's fallen into public domain, Kari Therrian has an excellent reproduction available. The book itself somewhat awkwardly printed on 8½ x 11 paper, allowing a fair amount of extra space on all sides of the art (hence the black border on the cover) but the scans of the original comic are excellent and the printing is pretty good quality. You're not likely to find an original All-Negro Comics but Therrian's reprint is well-worth checking out.
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