my Joe & Asbestos piece last week, citing a reference to a 1966 Ebony article. I found the whole article, by Ponchitta Pierce, was really interesting and so I'm running a copy of it here...
Bias bans Negroes from popular comics
WHAT WOULD happen if Mr. & Mrs. America turned to the comics
one Sunday morning and found a Negro detective working with
Dick Tracy, a Negro intern on the staff of Rex Morgan or some
Negroes living next door to Blondie? The shock could be fatal. On
the other hand, it could be the best thing that ever happened in comicdom.
Negroes, of course, are not alien to the strips. For years Joe Palooka
had a trusty valet named Smokey ("a shuffling, servile caricature who
spoke perfect stereotype") and Joe could hardly move around the
race track without Asbestos. Mush-mouth characters also walked in
and out of old-timers like Happy Hooligan. Barney Google and, as
late as the 50s, Moon Mullins. No matter where they appeared, how-
ever, they all shared one trait: unbelievably big lips and solid black
skin ovaled into a stupid looking face. They talked the same language,
too, which invariably sounded like, "Boss, all's fwightened 'bout Spahky —he walks lak he wuz lame."
Smokey, Asbestos and their caricatured friends might have aged
without ever changing. But in the early 40s, America went through
a World War which domestically liberated Negroes from the acceptance (if not the reality) of second-class citizenship. Fighting overseas
and working side by side with whites on assembly lines convinced
many a Negro he had more to offer than a tradition of laziness, blindly -
drawn minstrel features and faithful service.
Once funny, Negroes in the comics became reprehensible. The
NAACP told McNaught Syndicate that Smokey was an insult to the
American Negro and Joe Palooka woke up one day minus his valet.
Other Negroes wondered why they had to be a porter, maid or stable
boy to make the strips and many more charged that the Negro always
came out on bottom. The storm of protest was so great that the only
black characters remaining when it subsided were "natives" like
Lothar in Mandrake the Magician, and those found in Tarzan and
in the Phantom.
While cartoonists might have thought all the hullabaloo was silly
("Why, Negroes have always been drawn like that"), they could not
afford to ignore the indictment. With the demise of Smokey, Negroes — caricatures or otherwise — became noticeably absent from the comic
Any cartoonist who thought that getting rid of the old stereotypes
might soothe sensitive souls, soon found out, however, exclusion was
not the answer. "They really didn't understand what was bugging us,"
observes a Negro man. "Instead of rectifying the situation, they just
dropped it." Negroes were not asking to be taken out of the strips.
They simply wanted the caricatured menials replaced— or at least
balanced— by characters with whom they could identify. Domestics,
and even soldiers, might have reflected the limited job opportunities
once available to Negroes. But changing times had also made room
for professionals. Negro lawyers, secretaries, engineers, business executives could be found everywhere, the complaint went, except in the
Few cartoonists can argue.
"Comic characters are a white man's land," admits Alfred Andriola,
"father" of Kerry Drake. "Let's face it. You can't deal with race or
color in comics. A colored maid or porter brings on a flood of letters.
And if we show the Negro as a hero we get angry letters from the
South." He quickly adds that negative reactions are not limited to
any one area of the country. "All people who are anti-Negro do not
live just in the South."
With a gag-a-day strips increasing in popularity, the cartoonists'
problems are compounded. Bob Dunn of They'll Do It Every Time
and Little Iodine fame loves to exaggerate his characters, "to give
them big schnozzes, big feet, big ears." A Negro character drawn in
the same tradition might not win laughs from Negroes. "Let's say I put
a colored guy in a bar," says Dunn. "I'm not sure I could let myself
go. I'd have to be sure he's sweet and nice and not offensive." Currently president of the National Cartoonists Society, Dunn offers another example: "If I draw a lazy-looking white guy lounging around
in his underwear, it's all right. But if that same guy happens to be
a Negro, there would be letters. Why? Some people would feel I'm
saying all colored people lie around the house in their underwear."
Other cartoonists agree: caricatures are meant to make people look
and act funny. Negroes, they maintain, have not reached the point
where they can laugh at themselves. Explains Sylvan Byck, King Features Syndicate (KFS) comics editor for the past 20 years: "You have
a white lawyer and he rums out to be a crook. No one says anything.
But if he is a Negro it's no longer funny." Or as Al Capp, creator of
Li'l Abner, puts it: "The day we can draw a Negro girl or boy in
caricature or a funny situation, the civil rights movement will be over."
Whatever reasons are offered to explain or excuse the relative absence of Negroes in the comics, they all add up to one thing— economics.
There are more than 250 different strips and panels syndicated in
some 1,700 daily newspapers and read by more than 100 million
Americans virtually any day in the year. A top strip can bring a
cartoonist $300 to $3,000 or more a week. In an industry where competition stiffens more each year (out of some 1,000 strips submitted to
one syndicate in 12 months, only two to three make it) and dying
newspapers continue to shrink the market, most cartoonists, syndicates
and papers are not anxious to do anything that might offend even one
Said one cartoonist: "If an editor gets one letter complaining about
something, it carries more weight than 100 good ones. If one cartoon amuses 100,000 people but offends one, the editors make you change
it." For the same reasons a syndicate comics editor candidly asks:
"Why should I have to ask a guy to worry about every word he says.
There is no advantage to a cartoonist to bring Negro characters in a
strip, just the horror of controversy. If I were a cartoonist I wouldn't
want to be a crusader, especially if I felt I would lose the strip."
While Negroes — and other ethnic minorities — may he "understandably touchy" about their portrayal in menial or demeaning roles, it is
difficult to see why a Negro teacher or other professional might be
offensive. He might be a bitter pill for readers unaccustomed to regarding Negroes as anything but servants, answer cartoonists who are
not particularly eager to use their "million dollar property" to enlighten
them. An even greater drawback, however, is the bad taste which
impassioned letters against Smokey left for many cartoonists. Although
there is a difference between a valet (who admittedly could annoy
Negroes) and an attorney (who realistically could represent one of
the many Negroes practicing law in the country) cartoonists are not
ready to "open up the wounds" by using a Negro in any capacity.
Successful psychiatrist Dr. Nicholas Dallis recalls the time about
13 years ago when a pretty actress and her maid, "a young colored
woman," appeared in Rex Morgan. Although she "was very attractive,
spoke well," Dallis, who does the continuity for the strip, was bombarded with letters. "I must have had about 300 of them decrying
the fact that I had depicted the Negro as a maid." Dallis. who also
docs Judge Parker, adds: "Frankly I was stunned. I hadn't thought
about it one way or another. I had innocently used a colored maid
in the strip and the reaction was almost frightening." Dallis says he
"got scared off" and while he has considered using Negroes in the
strips he still hesitates. "I had thought of having a Negro as a desk
sergeant in Judge Parker. But I didn't write him into the story because
I was concerned about the possible reaction. Some people might
complain because he was a sergeant and not a police lieutenant."
Lately he hasn't thought about using any Negro characters. "As the
strips run now, the heroes are white and the villains are white, which
seems acceptable. As we go along comfortably in our weekly work
we're not anxious to get anyone disturbed. If a Negro were depicted
as a villain, I'm almost certain he would get a tremendous reaction
from Negro readers. And if he is the hero? Well, frankly, I'm not
too sure what kind of reaction I would get."
Even if an "integrated strip" is drawn by a Negro cartoonist there
is no guarantee of acceptance. Last year, 42-year-old Morrie Turner
brought Wee Pals to the comic world. Only nine papers throughout
the country have taken it on. The gag-a-day strip focuses on inter-
racial relations. Its cast of caricatured 5 to 12 year olds includes Oliver,
white, ("He's a little intellectual," Turner explains. "He sort of knows
it all. He's a composite of the many people I've known" I ; Connie, also
white, who is very aggressive ("If she believes something is right she
will punch anyone who disagrees"); and Randy. Negro, who is Oliver's
best friend ("He has a passion for words. They fascinate him"). There
is also Sybil Wright, a play on civil rights, who is "like all the sweet
little Negro girls you ever meet. There's no hatred in her soul at all";
Nipper, who wears a Confederate cap which "shows you how much
he knows about race relations"; and George who is very Oriental in
spite of his name ("I wanted everyone to be able to identify with him.")
Originally the strip dealt with Negro and white children in a day
to day humor situations and at least twice a week touched on race.
Now a racial gag is done "only if it's funny." Although Wee Pals only
brings in between $3,000 to $4,000 every six months. Turner says he
is surprised it has done that well. "Personally I didn't think the mass
media was ready for this. I knew eventually it would be possible but
not now." He drew it anyway because "it was something I had to do.
You might call it self-therapy."
The idea for Wee Pals came about six years ago when Turner
heard Charles Schulz talk about Peanuts at a meeting of the Northern
California Cartoonists Society. Then a clerk in the Oakland police
department. Turner thought the format with all Negro kids would
be a good Negro strip. He didn't pursue the idea until one day when
he met comedian Dick Gregory. "I was interested in his humor approach and decided to incorporate race with humor."
Turner feels his strip has been rejected by the nearly 100 papers he
approached because of its limited appeal. Papers have vetoed Wee
Pals for various reasons. "One may already be running a Negro columnist. I guess they figure by accepting one they have made their contribution. Or if a publication has Tuesday supplement, this is all they
feel they need do. Some just say, "Well we don't have any problems
now, why rock the boat.' "
The cartoonist thought sure the larger cities would pick up Wee
Pals. "What they tell you and what the reasons really are for not
subscribing are two different things. They say they don't have the
space. The real reason is that they don't want to take the chance of
offending some of their readers by having a feature with integrated
children playing together."
Turner admits he launched his strip with a defeatist attitude. "1 was
pretty negative I guess. I sent it to the United Features and told them
because of its limited appeal they probably wouldn't be interested.
They wrote back and said 1 was absolutely right." Papers which have
gambled on Wee Pals, syndicated by Lew Little in San Francisco, include the Oakland Tribune, Philadelphia Bulletin, Detroit News, San
Diego Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
The concern that a Negro or any racial overtones in a comic strip
will irk someone somehow "sooner or later" has resulted in "cautions"
that often border on the ludicrous.
Alfred Andriola cites the time he introduced an "attractive, sophisticated woman" in one of his stories. "She wore chic clothes, large hats,
black glasses and created an aura of dark mystery." He wanted to
call her "Jett Black," to denote "a jet set character on the seamy side
of life." Publishers Newspaper Syndicate, which has Kerry Drake in
approximately 200 papers, saw another interpretation. "They said the
name might offend Negroes." Andriola protested it was obvious she
was not a Negro. "They knew that. But it did not matter. We could
not take the chance." So Jett Black became Sable Black which "like
most compromises, offended no one and meant nothing either."
At King Features, Negroes in comics are considered such "touchy
subjects" that a virtual "hands-off-policy" is maintained. "We have
never instructed an artist to use a Negro or ethnic minority, nor not
to," states Comics Editor Sylvan Byck. "We're concerned about reactions from all minority groups. Strips which are humorous, satirical or
drawn in caricature concentrate on the weakness of people. Members
of minority groups are extremely sensitive— and rightly so— to anything
holding them up to ridicule. The only people not sensitive are white
protestant Americans who are a secure majority." As a result, "we
would permit white delinquents in a strip but not Negro ones, although
Even a name that sounds "too ethnic" is explosive, notes Bill Kavanagh, KFS assistant comics editor and Bringing Up Father writer.
"That's why we use descriptive names like Hi Brackett' for a wealthy
person, 'Titus Canby' for a tight person and 'Ray Zincane' for a
Editor Byck also believes a comic character cannot survive unless
readers relate to it. "If you had a Negro in the role of Brenda Starr
I don't think you could syndicate it. It's possible a person could relate
to the strip if he were a Negro. But I don't know if a white person
could do the same."
For those ready to discount the seriousness or complexity of the
racial dilemma faced in comics, cartoonists and editors are quick to
When racing expert Ken Kling began drawing Joe and Asbestos
back in 1925, there were no complaints even though Asbestos, modeled
after famous Negro Jockey Isaac Murphy, sported a black face, rubber
lips and certain dialect ("Dis platter should win de final trot.") For
years Asbestos never changed although the strip was faithfully fol-
lowed by millions looking for horse tips. Then, about three years ago,
Kling heard from CORE. "They thought the lips were too exaggerated.
They asked me if I would kindly change the features and make Asbestos more human. Overnight Asbestos became a new man. He had
already learned a new vocabulary. Now he was lighter, smaller and
maybe even handsome. "I made him look like a regular person, less
grotesque." Kling, who grew up in Harlem, the son of an Alsatian
butcher, insists his original caricature was not intended to be malicious.
"When we draw cartoons, we make all kinds of silly caricatures. We
don't mean any harm. Cartoonists don't want to make people look
bad. We do it for fun— to make people laugh." What was his reaction
to CORE? "I wasn't mad. When the strip started, minstrels were
popular. I was glad to cooperate in any way I could. I changed him
Asbestos might have looked bad but he was treated well. Kling
remembers the day Cab Calloway came up to him at the track and
said: "I like the way you treat that Asbestos. He sleeps in the same
places Joe does. He's not mistreated." Kling adds: "I never had Asbestos kicked or thrown out. Even when he gave the boss some
losers, Joe didn't curse him out. He was treated like anybody else."
Five years ago Leonard Starr presented Philmore to his On Stage
readers as a vocal coach and acts promoter. Everything was normal
about Philmorc, except his color — he was Negro.
"My character was very clearly Negro, although there was absolutely no reference to the fact, except visually. I wanted him to be
respected as a professional member of the community." About four
of the more than 100 papers carrying On Stage cancelled. "It would
be hard to prove," Starr notes, "but I figure it was because I used a
Negro." He says he received no "anti-letters" although nearly a third
of his readers wrote in asking questions about the strip. He also got
"some very touching" letters from Negro readers. One doctor in up-
state New York wrote, praising the fact that "for the first time a Negro
is shown in a respected profession."
Philmore (based on the real Phil Moore, the noted coach and musician) made comic history as the first— and last— Negro to have a
sustained title role. At the time it happened, Starr thought it was a
natural thing. "I had known Phil for a long time and I often go to
him for help when I'm researching material for On Stage. We talked
the idea over and agreed the race factor might be a problem." De-
spite this. Starr explains, "It was a point of integrity. As it stands, the
best-known Negroes outside of the integration leaders are in show
business. I felt if I could not show a Negro in New York doing what
he normally does I had no reason doing a strip on show business. I
mean why do it at all." Would he do it again? "I don't know. I was
feeling a little 'gutsier' then. If I had a story that needed a Negro character, I wouldn't hesitate to use one. But I wouldn't force it either."
Negroes are so conditioned to not seeing themselves in the comics
in any Favorable light that when they do get in they are apt not to
Al Capp, one of the most successful cartoonists around, admits: "It
makes me so got damn mad when someone comes up and complains
that Negroes are not in the strips." In one of his Li'l Abner strips, Capp
put Sammy Davis Jr. on a board of directors. Although a Negro was
in a "situation of eminent authority," not one of Capp's nearly 80 million
readers said a word — except Davis himself who wrote the cartoonist
saying he had noticed it. He has also used Godfrey Cambridge and
Ralph Bunche in the strip.
With the appearance of a Negro in anything but a menial capacity
almost unheard of, readers often overlook the fact, too, that Negro
soldiers have been in the strips for so long that their presence is now
passe. In fact if it hadn't been for a Negro soldier, American hero
Steve Canyon might not be alive today.
Years ago when Milton Caniff was doing Terry and the Pirates, he
received a letter from a friend who had attended a lecture in Chicago
where publishing magnate Marshall Field III spoke on race relations.
Field felt it should be handled without fanfare and as an example,
referred to one of Caniff s strips in which Negro GI's had appeared. "I
didn't intend to 'ram home' the race issue," Caniff explains. "I had
heard that some of the soldiers working on the Burma Road were
Negro. And I put them in the strip simply as a matter of fact."
When Caniff wrote Field to thank him for his kind words and Field
acknowledged the letter, the cartoonist thought the matter was ended.
Then one day a representative of Field's contacted Caniff. "He said
Field Enterprises was interested in creating a new strip and would
I come and see Mr. Field. I went and we got right down to business."
Asked his conditions for doing the strip Caniff could think of only
two things: Full ownership and complete editorial control. They
agreed to terms and two years later, in 1947, Steve Canyon was born.
If all the Negro characters-minus the stereotypes-that ever made
the comics were added up they still would not be enough to counter
the charge that Negroes have been sorely neglected in the strips. A
change in policy, while forthcoming, has not been strong enough to
make a difference. And as far as many readers, cartoonists and editors
are concerned, no major breakthrough is in sight.
"It's hard to teach an old dog new tricks," observes The Newspaper
Comics Council President Charles Kline. "Strips have been done one
way for so long that many cartoonists are not searching for anything
new. A lot of them are not keeping up with the times."
Walt Kelly, the man behind Pogo, is convinced some cartoonists
caricatured Negroes because they didn't know what they look like.
"Many of them have never looked at a Negro. They're as incurious
about him as a new uniform on a police officer." Consequently it was
easier to picture him as a minstrel. Even now, he feels, most cartoonists
"can't draw well enough to depict the Negro in any decent way."
For those who might object to a Negro in the comics on an equal
footing with whites he offers intermarriage as the eventual remedy.
"All animals pick on things not like them. If something's different, they
attack it." He continues, "Southern readers are no more prejudiced
than those in the North. They're all got damn schizophrenic phonies."
The major problem, it seems, is that if a Negro must be in the strips
he has to serve a purpose. "They can't accept him there simply as a
human being. People are going to live in their dream world long
enough to be destroyed by it if they are not careful. I hope they come
to grips with reality in time for some good to come out of it."
When the facts are sifted, who can be blamed for not having Negroes in the strips? The cartoonists who draw them? The syndicates
who sell them? The newspapers who buy them?
Cartoonists contend they are not autonomous. And the restrictions
imposed by "good taste" are not confined to race. They have to be
equally careful about violence, religion, politics, crime. "Everybody's
business is sacred to him and his wife," one cartoonist argues and
another laughs. "Ever notice that married couples, except maybe for
the Bumsteads, never sleep in double beds?"
Most "sensitive subjects" can generally be presented in such a way
that they will not offend. But no formula has been worked out for
getting Negroes, along with other minorities, painlessly into the strips.
"Whatever system they used to get Negroes into television they need
to bring it to the cartoonists' attention," says Bob Dunn who admits
he's not ready to use Negroes in They'll Do It Every Time and Little
Iodine. "I don't think people are ready to accept them. If I draw
them like the other characters, I don't know what the reaction
If a cartoonist uses a Negro character he must still pass through the
syndicate. Irwin Hasen, who draws Dondi, outlines the procedure.
"Let's start from the beginning. First a cartoonist has an idea for
a Negro character in a strip, maybe something like TV's I Spy. He
works on it for three months or so, draws and throws out, draws
again." Meanwhile, Hasen notes, his friends are telling him he's out
of his mind and that the strip will never sell. "But he believes in it."
After months of work, sweat and blood he takes it to a syndicate.
The heads at the syndicate look the strip over. If they think it's good
they present it to the chairman of the board. If the strip is approved,
a syndicate could spend $25,000 or more in a year "pushing it like
crazy." Salesmen take it on the road for two to three months and try
to saturate the country with it.
There is a difference, however, between getting something like I Spy
on NBC television and into the strips. A network is stronger than a
local station. The network bought the interracial show and a local
manager, while he might not like such a program, would generally grin
and bear it. In buying strips, individual publishers make the decision.
"He has the right of veto on the whole damn thing," explains Milton
Caniff. "If he throws it out, the people never get to judge. An editor
will think in terms of his readers. Editors and publishers are powerful,
The middle men in the comics industry, the syndicates, are quick
to explain that they do not buy strips. "We sell them. We act as
agents for the artist (generally on a 50-50 basis). We have to take
on what we can sell." Even so, some of the editors are actively seeking
strips featuring Negroes.
Hall Syndicate Vice President and Editor W. Robert Walton says
he has been trying to find one for some time and that he knows a lot
of editors who would welcome it. He wants it to be funny and he
doesn't want it to editorialize for or against the Negro. "So many of
the strips submitted haven't been funny to begin with. Others, I
know, would be objectionable to Negroes."
Harry Gilburt, vice president and sales manager at United Features,
notes his syndicate would also "be very happy" to have a strip with
Negro characters in it. "If it were good we would try to sell it. We
haven't had any strips with Negro characters in the lead or in professional roles simply because they haven't come in."
Newspapers, too, which at one time might have rejected the idea
of a strip with Negroes in it are now willing to try one.
New Orleans Item-States and Times-Picayune Executive Editor
George Healy says he judges any strip "on its own legs" and adds,
"whether or not a Negro is in it wouldn't mean one thing or another.
It would have no bearing on the strip."
John Colbum, former managing editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch and now editor and publisher of the Wichita Eagle and Beacon,
believes, however, that "the South in some areas would be better inclined to accept such a strip quicker than some areas in the North."
Such faith has yet to be proven. "Some glorious nirvana moment
someone will find some way to do it," Alfred Andriola predicts. "The
time is not far off. We're learning like we have never before that there
is another world. We don't live in just a white man's world."
Milton Caniff admits that 10 years ago he would have said it would
take a long time to get Negroes accepted into the strips. "But the world
is such a changing kaleidoscope. Any day someone might pop up with
the perfect thing."
Until then, would-be Negro comic stars will have to stand in the
wings, waiting for the proper cue.
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