On Strips: Joe & Asbestos

By | Friday, August 05, 2016 4 comments
There are, of course, any number of instances in the anals of comic history where something was written or drawn that would be considered offensive today. Joe & Asbestos is one such strip, and it absolutely astounds me that it ran up until 1971! (You'll see why in a moment.)

Ken Kling created a strip called Joe Quince in the early 1920s. (I've seen start dates of 1923, '24 and '25.) The title character was on the hunt for a get-rich-quick scheme, and he frequently found out that there were no shortcuts. Despite that, however, he returned to gambling on horse races repeatedly, eventually befriending a stable hand known only as Asbestos. Kling evidently knew little about horse racing, though, and pulled horse names from actual races. And although Quince usually lost in the strip, the horses he bet on frequently won in the real world. Readers in the Baltimore area (the strip was never very widely distributed) started using it as a guide, believing Kling had some kind of inside information.

The Asbestos character initially became somewhat popular, and Kling changed the name of the strip to Joe & Asbestos. However, some papers continued calling it Joe Quince through 1926.
Of course, the obvious problem in the strip is that Asbestos is drawn in blackface and is given stereotypically bad traits. Fortunately, Kling decided that the strip had run its course and he quit working on it in 1926, switching over to an unrelated strip called Windy Riley.(Although he does continue using blackface caricatures there as well.) Unfortunately, there was still plenty of reader interest and even demand for Joe & Asbestos so Kling returned to that title in 1932.

Kling seemed to broaden the strip's focus somewhat, although always kept horse racing as general theme. And sadly, he also kept the bad caricature that was Asbestos largely unchanged as well. Right up until his death in 1970. (That's based on the reading I've found. I haven't actually been able to find an instance of the strip after around 1945.) That this was largely left alone for so long seems to be primarily due to a very low syndication towards the end. In fact, it was only running in one paper for its last several years: The New York Daily News for most of those last years and then a brief run in The New York Mirror at the very end. Not to mention the niche focus of the strip meant a lot of people never bothered with it, even if it was in their paper.

It seems like a strange throwback. A strip so rooted in its time/place of origin that it never could outgrow that, but still managed to continue on despite that. If you look at other strips that started around the same time -- Gasoline Alley, Blondie, etc -- they made changes to reflect the society around them. Perhaps not as quickly as some readers would like (leading to complaints of retreading the same, tired jokes over and over again) but they changed nonetheless. That Joe & Asbestos didn't... honestly, I'm not sure what to make of that.
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Unknown said...

A November 1966 Ebony article says that,
after protests from CORE, in 1963
Asbestos became a new man overnight.(pg 54)

What's Not So Funny About The Funnies


Thanks very much, DD!

Anonymous said...

Do you know why he was called "Asbestos". Does it have any connection with the mineral that was used so widely at that time? AA

HankPym said...

...I have often read that, at its height, J&A was fairly widely distributed ~ BUT, it was not only exclusive to cities, or even their general areas, but to REGIONS, to maintain its exclusiveity for the area in offering horse tips ~ When para-mutual horse-racing was near to, in the stated thaat allowed it, the only legal gambling action in the USA!
I recall that Coulton Waugh's THE COMICS wrote about J&A when it was contemporary, and Don Markstein's Toonopedia covered it during this Internet age. I've seen exapmples of the original art for sale on the Internet ~ where there tended to be a blank space in part of the strip where I assume the racing tip went in the printed version!