What's Not So Funny About the Funnies?

By | Thursday, February 18, 2021 Leave a Comment
In 1966, Ponchitta Pierce wrote a piece for EEbony about how Blacks were getting shafted out of the comics section of newspapers. To put a little context around this, Malcolm X had been assassinated the previous year, shortly before the Selma to Montgomery marches with Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis. The year after this saw publication consisted of race riots in scores of US cities, killing nearly 100 and injuring thousands. King himself would be assassinated less than a year after that. The "What's Not So Funny About the Funnies?" title of the piece seems a lot more pointed in that context, doesn't it?

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 pages.

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 comics.

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 reader.

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 they exist."

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 trouble maker."

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 offer examples.

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 immediately."

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 notice it.

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 would be.

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, damn 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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