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Comic Strips

Comic Strips


From its very beginnings in 1895, the American comic strip has reflected the nation's rich ethnic mixture, with such features as The Katzenjammer Kids (1897), Alphonse and Gaston (1902), Bringing Up Father (1911), and Abie the Agent (19141940) focused on characters of German, French, Irish, and Jewish backgrounds, respectively. The African American, however, generally served as a background character in early comic strips and was consistently portrayed in the mainstream press in the stereotyped minstrel-show style that had become commonplace in the films, cartoons, advertising, and other media of the period. This was true even of the early work of the brilliant creator of Krazy Kat, George Herriman (18801944), who, it is now widely believed, was of African ancestry.

After the turn of the twentieth century, it became evident that the comic strip had become a permanent part of the newspaper, and many black newspapers encouraged the development of comic strips by black staff artists. These were often only for local consumption, but they were more sensitive to the nuances of black character and life. The best known and longest lived of them was Bungleton Green (19201963), which appeared in the Chicago Defender. The strip was first created by Leslie L. Rogers, and it continued under the hands of Henry Brown from 1929 to 1934, Jay Jackson from 1934 to 1954, and Chester Commodore until its end. Bung, the central character, was an inept opportunist and con man, much in the pattern of such mainstream characters as Mutt and Jeff and Barney Google, and the humor derived from his unsuccessful efforts to make a quick buck by hustling someone. Since his economic woes were not far from the situations of most of the strip's readers, Bung struck a responsive chord in his faithful following, who approved of his spunk, if not his methods. During the 1940s the strip became more of an adventure tale, though it eventually returned to the gag format. From time to time, it dealt in satiric and indirect ways with racial themes.

Other African-American strips to emerge in the wake of Bungleton Green in the 1930s were Sunnyboy Sam by Wilbert Holloway, Bucky by Sammy Milai, and Susabelle by Elton Fax, the last two beginning a tradition of features about black children drawn with honesty and humor. Oliver W. "Ollie" Harrington (19121995), who has been called one of America's greatest cartoonists, earned prominence and popularity in the black community in the mid- 1930s through his candid cartoons about the character Bootsie for the Amsterdam News, and in the mid-1940s for the World War II adventure strip about a black aviator, Jive Gray. This strip was distributed nationally by the Continental Features Syndicate, which was established by the black entrepreneur Lajoyeaux H. Stanton and was one of the first to handle black features.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Mel Tapley's Breezy was about teenagers, Chester Commodore's The Sparks satirized middle-class black family life, and Tom Feelings' (19222003) Tommy Traveler in the World of Negro History took its young hero back to witness some of the proud achievements of the black past. The panel Cuties by Elmer Simms Campbell (19061971) began mainstream syndication in 1943, but here, as in his work for Esquire and, later, Playboy, Campbell specialized in drawing beautiful white women in romantic situations. Most readers never knew he was black. The most important feature to appear at the time was Torchy Brown by Jackie Ormes, a distinctively drawn strip about an independent, aggressive, and attractive woman who becomes involved in fighting racism and sexism, among other social problems, in exciting adventure narratives. Torchy was a powerful role model for young black women.

The first African-American strip to achieve mainstream national distribution by a major syndicate was Wee Pals by Morrie Turner (b. 1923), in 1964. The Californiaborn Turner had first drawn an all-black strip about children called Dinky Fellas (and modeled after Peanuts ) for two black papers, the Berkeley Post and the Chicago Defender, in 1963. With the encouragement of Charles Schulz and Dick Gregory, the strip was integrated with children of different races and dispositions (Anglo-American, Asian, Native American, Chicano, and Jewish; intellectual, feminist, militant, etc.). The charm of Turner's style and his gently satiric treatment of racial and political themes made the strip a great success during the years of the civil rights movement, and he turned his characters to educational advantage by using them in children's books, television shows, and campaigns in support of social improvement and racial harmony.

Turner's success in breaking the racial barrier in mainstream syndication was emulated by two more features about children. Luther (named after the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) was begun by Brumsic Brandon Jr. (b. 1927) in 1968, with the intent of finding humor in the lives of working-class blacks in the urban ghetto, without gloss or glamour. In addition to Luther, it featured such young characters as Hardcore, Oreo, and the white teacher Miss Backlash. In 1970 the Jamaica-born Ted Shearer (19211996) began another racially mixed strip called Quincy, which was more sentimental and gentle-natured than Luther. Shearer's style was distinctive and the humor engaging, but Quincy was like too many other children's strips of the time and seldom reflected the social and economic problems of blacks. Both Luther and Quincy ended in 1986. Three integrated adventure strips appeared during this period, but none lasted very long: Dateline Danger began in 1968, The Badge Guys in 1971, and Friday Foster in 1972, the last featuring a glamorous black heroine.

After Turner, Brandon, and Shearer had demonstrated a national interest in comic strips about blacks, the syndicates soon began to search out African-American talents and nurture their work. Between 1980 and 1982, Ray Billingsley (b. 1957), a young cartoonist from North Carolina, created a popular feature about a black inner-city family called Lookin' Fine. Billingsley found more widespread success in 1988 with the appearance of Curtis. This strip also features a typical black family, but Billingsley succeeds in balancing the ethnic humor with generalized situations of family conflict. Occasionally, the strip ventures into controversial areas such as drugs, drinking, smoking, and discrimination (which sometimes generates letters to the newspaper editors from readers upset over the idea of treating such topics in the pages of the "funny papers").

While a young, hardworking black couple are at the center of Jump Start by Philadelphia-born Robb Armstrong (Joe is a policeman and Marcy a nurse), this strip, begun in 1988, takes in, through numerous subsidiary characters, an entire urban community. The stresses of their action-oriented careers and the strains of married life are major sources of comedy. In 1989 Stephen Bentley of Los Angeles began Herb & Jamaal, featuring two mature and experienced men, former high-school buddies, who have opened an ice cream parlor. The ethnicity of the strip resides less in its humor than in its authentic feel for black, streetwise, inner-city relationships. In 1991 Barbara Brandon, the daughter of Brumsic Brandon Jr., nationally syndicated a feature she had first developed in 1989 called Where I'm Coming From. Using an open panel style and talking heads rather than full figures (in order to reverse the traditional emphasis on the female body), Brandon had created a small community of women characters who observe social attitudes, politics, and gender behavior through the prism of their experience as black women in America. The humor is acerbic and often provocative to male readers, but it is nevertheless realistically and sensitively attuned to contemporary social issues. In 2005, Brandon announced that she was retiring the feature.

The provocative nature of Brandon's panel was taken a radical step further in 1999 by Aaron McGruder's brilliant comic strip Boondocks. Originating in a 1996 feature for the University of Maryland student newspaper, it addresses the problems of two black children from Chicago who find themselves living with their grandfather in the mainly white suburbs of Woodcrest. The character Huey Freeman adopts the role of the intellectual revolutionary, while Riley aspires to be a "gangsta." However, their diminutive size and lack of any power continually undermine their efforts. While racism more often than not is the topic of the humor, McGruder targets discrimination in all its forms and attitudes both within the black community and the larger white society. The Reverend Jesse Jackson and Black Entertainment Television (BET) are as likely to be ridiculed as U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and President George W. Bush for their hypocrisy and political stupidity. Boondocks is the first black strip to compete with Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury, which McGruder greatly admires, in its ability to generate controversy, letters of complaint to the editors, and subscription cancellations. McGruder has taken his angry messagethat the right is corrupt, the left is naïve, and no one cares enough to make a differenceto animation, film, television, and the lecture platform as well.

A less provocative comic strip begun in 2003 is Darrin Bell's Candorville, in which a group of racially diverse, inner-city friends discuss such matters as bigotry, biracialism, poverty, and personal responsibility. Even so, the satire has a sharp and honest edge. It was launched in both English and Spanish versions.

Another sign of an African-American presence in the comics is the number of black characters that have been added to popular features since the 1960s. A selective list of these include Franklin in Peanuts by Charles Schulz, Lieutenant Jack Flap in Beetle Bailey by Mort Walker, Morrie (after Morrie Turner) in Family Circus by Bill Keane, Clyde and Ginny in Doonesbury by Garry Trudeau, and Oliver Wendell Jones and Ronald-Ann in Bloom County by Berkeley Breathed. While they may appear to be token presences, these are characters who have moved beyond stereotypes and become integrated in the larger community of the world of comic art.

See also Chicago Defender ; Comic Books; Feelings, Thomas; Gregory, Dick

Bibliography

Hardy, Charles, and Gail F. Stern, eds. Ethnic Images in the Comics. Philadelphia: Balch Institute, 1986.

Harvey, Robert C. "Encountering Aaron McGruder." Comics Journal 255 (September 2003): 104115.

Horn, Maurice, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Comics, 2d ed. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 1999.

Inge, M. Thomas, ed. Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W. Harrington. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993.

Stevens, John D. " 'Bungleton Green': Black Comic Strip Ran 43 Years." Journalism Quarterly 51, no. 1 (spring 1974): 122124.

Stromberg, Fredrick. Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History. Seattle, Wash.: Fantagraphics Books, 2003.

m. thomas inge (1996)
Updated by author 2005

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