Analysis of Black Images in Comic Strips, 1915-1995

Article excerpt

Since the introduction of the Yellow Kid on Sunday, May 5, 1895,(1) America has seen itself reflected in the panels of newspaper comic strips. In the early days, comic strips often portrayed different races, ethnic groups and genders in a negatively stereotyped manner.(2) These comic strip images solidified a striking occurrence within the nation's psyche - the dichotomy between blacks and the rest of society.

Tempus Todd, one of the first newspaper comic strips to star an adult black(3) man, began in 1923. Cartoonist Octavus Roy Cohen wrote the all-black strip which featured Todd as a cab driver. Humor centered around Todd's encounters with his passengers. Cohen depicted the all- black cast of characters as individuals and avoided the traditional minstrel face (protruding white lips, bulging round eyes in a totally black face). His characters spoke in a stereotypical dialect ("Hol' on tight, folkses!").(4)

In an early integrated strip, Ken Kling added a wisecracking black stable boy to his Joe Quince strip and changed its name to Joe and Asbestos. The strip was about a gambler who bet on the horses. Asbestos was drawn in minstrel face. In 1928 a short-lived newspaper strip based on the Amos and Andy radio show appeared in the Chicago Daily News. The characters were drawn in minstrel face and the storylines were linked to the episode of the radio program to be broadcast that evening. These early strips typify the portrayal of African Americans in mainstream comic strips at that time.(5)

At their onset, black ethnic newspapers published comic strips featuring minority characters portrayed in a positive tone.(6) An example: Oliver Wendell Harrington's famous Bootsie character, first seen in Harrington's 1935 Dark Laughter comic strip, in the New York Amsterdam News.(7)

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, strips using race relations as a major theme for humor began to appear. Wee Pals, by Morrie Turner, and Quincy, by Ted Shearer, both featured an integrated group of children. Dateline Danger, by John Saunders and Alden McWilliams, was the first adventure strip to portray black and white characters on an equal basis (contrasting the more common white hero - black sidekick format). Friday Foster, by Jim Lawrence and Jorge Longaron, starred a young black woman who was the assistant to a white magazine photographer. This strip combined the adventure format with soap opera elements.(8)

In the 1980s, strips began to appear featuring black families. Jumpstart, by Robb Armstrong, stars a young married couple. Curtis, by Ray Billingsley, features the adventures of a school child.(9) The Griots, by Roland Laird, explores the generation gap between the publishers of an African American weekly newspaper and their less enlightened children.(10) Stephen Bentley's Herb and Jamal are business partners in a lunch counter. Where I'm Coming From, by Barbara Brandon, consists of a series of monologues and dialogues by a cast of black women. Today such strips as Curtis, Wee Pals and The Griots flourish in black ethnic newspapers and occasionally find their way into the mainstream press.(11) Integrated comic strips are more rare.(12)

Numerous books and studies have been done examining the image of blacks in film and television, but there is a paucity of research looking at their portrayal in the comics.

Newspaper comic strips show white readers images of themselves at work (Dilbert), at home (For Better or Worse), in the different stages of their lives (from Peanuts to Crankshaft). Black reader may have to look harder to see themselves reflected on the comics page.

Aimee Dorr, in an essay reviewing the possible socialization effects of television, suggested that the exclusion of a minority group from most programming communicates the message that that minority group is not a legitimate part of our society. Portrayals in limited roles and circumstances indicate a lack of relevance of the minority group to the larger society. …