Saturday, February 27, 2010

Anti-Racism in 1950s Comics: Weird Fantasy 18 - "Judgment Day"

EC's March-April 1953 issue of Weird Fantasy includes a 7-page story titled "Judgment Day", written by Al Feldstein, drawn and inked by Joe Orlando, and colored by Marie Severin. EC subsequently reprinted the story in Incredible Science Fiction 33 (Jan-Feb 1956) to fill in for an Angelo Torres alien planet jungle story that was rejected by the Code.

This (in my opinion) masterpiece of graphic storytelling takes the reader to a future other-world setting, in which humans have advanced beyond the solar system and out into the stars. This planet is one they have seeded with an artificial life form, and a representative of the human race, Tarlton, arrives to inspect the society that has evolved, to see if it is ready to join the Galactic Republic. As Tarlton is shown round, Feldstein uses the scenario as an allegory of the segregated society prevalent in the United States at that time. There are orange and blue robots, and facilities are designated accordingly. The blue robots are the ones that live on the other side of the tracks, and are denied the privileges accorded to the orange robots. Tarlton sees what he needs to see, and points out the flaws in the status quo that have developed in this civilization, citing these as the reason that this robot society is not yet qualified to move to a higher level of existence. The scene in the assembly plant is particularly poignant. That panel on page 6, where Tarlton likens the 'educator' to the family, environment, and societal institutions on Earth that condition a young person to look upon themselves and their relationship with the rest of society in a particular way, is stuff we teach undergraduates and graduates in 'Human Behavior and the Social Environment'. Who says EC didn't really mean Educational Comics!? I'll let the story say the rest for itself.

Again, though, this is EC making a bold statement against the situation that existed in society at that time due to the derailing of the intent of Emancipation Proclamation. The class prejudiced and racist structures in society that impose unequal opportunity for the poor, amongst whom minority groups, including African Americans, are over-represented, remain somewhat effective today, despite official desegregation. And while many, many more people today, especially young people, are free of the attitudes that support this inequality, they may not be the ones with the economic power to effect deep changes to the institutional racism that is still embedded in our society.

That said, I don't want to lose sight of the fact that the United States remains arguably the most advanced nation in addressing and overcoming this problem. We have what appears to be the most diverse society on Earth, and so problems like this have come to the fore first in our country. I'd say that where the US has trodden, others have yet to follow. Observe the inter-racial violence that has been erupting recently on the streets of the UK. Other countries in Europe have also been experiencing huge influxes of immigrants from their old colonies, and there are massive adjustment problems as a result. This EC story may have been revolutionary for America in 1953, but the fact that it existed here at all says a lot. I don't think there is anything even nearly equivalent to this in early 1950s British comics (although I would welcome correction on this point) - Britain was still a virtually monochrome society in 1953 and so was barely beginning to address the issue of racial integration. Demeaning images of non-whites were acceptable, perhaps not even thought about then as inappropriate. When I was a kid in England, golliwogs were standard in children's books, as toys, and even as collectible figures behind the label on your jar of marmalade. So putting it in perspective, it was that constitutional principle of freedom that allowed EC to publish this story in the first place (and why one can argue that the Comics Code was kind of unconstitutional), even though the climate of the times may not have been very much in tune with EC's stance on segregation and racism. But because reformers are allowed to speak out, change can eventually occur, and hopefully we haven't lost sight of that. I wonder if I'll live to see the time that Earth is ready for it's 'judgment day'.

Good old EC with that last panel punch!

Note: my eternal thanks to Joshua Thirteen for the scans that facilitated the composition of this post.Thanks also to Aaron, The Ghost Who Blogs, for so liberally sharing his extensive knowledge of comics and pointing me in the direction of this story to help me out with my project.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Anti-Racism in 1950s Comics: Frontline Combat 15 - "Perimeter!"

I've had to revise my whole presentation on desegregation in comic books, based on my discovery of this 8-page Wally Wood story (written, drawn, and inked) from EC's Frontline Combat 15 (Jan 1954). I'd seen the cover before, and upon seeing it again re-noticed the African American soldier there depicted. So I gave it a read. "Perimeter" is set in the Korean War and features a 'mixed unit' of Americans plus their South Korean allies outnumbered by a combination of Chinese and North Korean troops. What makes this story stand WAY out is it's overt anti-racist stance and it's use of a character with racist attitudes in order to get the point across. Lots of 40s and 50s comics use disparaging terms and stereotypes to belittle the nation's enemies, but characters in those stories uttering racially abusive labels are made to look like that's an acceptable norm. Not so with this masterpiece. In this story the main target of racist abuse is an African American soldier, Matthews, who stands up for his South Korean allies when one of the other soldiers, a Yankee it seems, named Miller, refers to Koreans as 'gooks'. The sergeant in charge of the unit is a Southerner, from Texas apparently, and in this way Wood carefully avoids the stereotype that it's only Southerners that are racists, while clearly acknowledging that non-racist individuals also existed in that population. The sergeant remains silent on the issue of racism, presumably because of the racist contingent in his unit and the need to retain the respect and loyalty of all his men in combat. His silence is, however, interpreted by Miller as simply a cover for prejudice on the part of the sergeant, although he has no evidence to support his assumption, only that the sergeant is from the South, a belief which is revealing in and of itself.
Wood places the seed of his powerful punchline near the beginning of the story - Matthews carries and reads his Bible as a source of strength. After surviving a massive onslaught from the enemy, it's Miller who starts cracking up, convinced they're all going to die, and Matthews who offers him support, an offer which is met with scorn. The sergeant steps in and breaks up a potential conflict, and Miller reminds us that back home segregation is in full force. So here's an example of how the military was ahead of everyone else in terms of integration. Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, President Harry S. Truman, had signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948, after three years of build-up towards desegregation of the military. There was significant establishment of integration during the Korean War, but Vietnam is known for being the first fully integrated war. The military were years ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, and the G. I. Bill, which helped some returning African American soldiers carve out lives they would otherwise have been denied, was also an important factor in moving towards ending segregation at home.

Back to the story and the enemy mounts a new assault, and this time the Americans and their allies are forced to retreat, with the exception of the sergeant, armed with a Browning Automatic. Hearing a wounded American soldier nearby, in the rain and in the dark, he risks his life to pull him back to his foxhole, despite the soldier's insistence that he save himself and leave him to die. The soldier passes something, that we don't see, to the sergeant, asking him to give it to his family. The sergeant holds off one enemy attack after another, exhausting the B.A.R.'s ammo, and then his carbine's, until he's fending off North Koreans in hand to hand combat. Eventually day breaks and the worst is over. While waiting for reinforcements, the sergeant sits reading Matthews' Bible. Among those Americans who move back up to the sergeant's position is Miller, who scathingly derides the sergeant for risking his life for an African American (Miller obviously uses racist terminology, which Wood significantly turns into a deleted expletive). Matthews is hurt bad, but still alive thanks to his sergeant, who hands the Bible to Miller, commenting that he (Miller) is the one most in need of it. In classic EC fashion the last panel delivers the punch, or in this case the heftiest kick in the bal@& of racism imaginable - the Bible, by which many racists allegedly lived, is open, and we can just read the verse: Malachi 2.10 - "Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?"

Being the industry leader, at least from an artistic point of view, in the early 50s, EC had a major impact on the style of writers and artists of many other companies. Had the witch hunts and the Comics Code not destroyed the gains EC had achieved with the medium, including their willingness to go out on a limb and broach subjects like this, maybe integration in comic books would have moved faster than it did. As it was, it looks like there's almost an 8 year gap between Frontline Combat 15 and DC's Our Army At War 113 featuring Jackie Johnson. Also of note is that DC don't actually bring the race issue out into the open until OAAW 160 a few years later, when Jackie fights the Nazi boxer, and then it's only an indirect reference to racism in the USA. You have to make the leap between racist Nazis of WWII and contemporary racists in 1960s America. So to say again that EC were ahead of their time is a real understatement. The storytelling and the art in "Perimeter" are just astounding. Wood does those night-time panels exquisitely, and Marie Severin did a totally amazing job of capturing the right atmosphere with the colors. So this one also has my vote for inclusion in the as yet non-existent comic book story hall of fame.

Note: my gratitude goes out to Joshua Thirteen for these scans.

African American Characters in Comics: Frontline Combat 9 - "Abe Lincoln!"

I've been working on the presentation I'll be giving at the University of Florida at the end of March, by gathering material that represents the earliest non-stereotyped, normally respectful depictions of African American characters in comics, noting that these appeared first in DC war comics. My focus is on desegregation of comics, or looking at it another way, racial integration in comics. Mykal pointed out an old EC comic that does feature an African American character, although it doesn't show a racially integrated society, only the beginning step towards it. The comic is EC's Frontline Combat 9 from Nov/Dec 1952. It's an all-Civil War special, and the first story in the book is the focus of this post. Titled simply "Abe Lincoln!", key events in the life of Honest Abe leading up to the outbreak of war are narrated by an old country guy sitting in his chair by the fire in his Charleston, South Carolina home. As the tale unfolds we see our narrator only from behind, or the lower part of his body, but never his face. Not, that is, until the last page. He speaks in what is identifiable as a Southern drawl, which has characteristics that might make you suspect he's African American, and that perhaps resonates with movie stereotypes of African Americans from the South. I don't think there was any disrespect whatsoever intended by the the writer, Harvey Kurtzman, in this instance. It reads like a genuine attempt to get at a real African American character,  but there's no confirmation of this identity for the reader until the very last panel. The last three panels show the narrator up from his chair and coming out of his front door, but only at the very end does the light reveal his face and we see that he is an elderly African American gentleman. Having witnessed the event that marked the beginning of the Civil War, he prays for Lincoln's well-being.

So the story is a reminder that there was a war fought in this country over the issue of slavery here, and also therefore to establish the freedom which is the cornerstone of the nation, for all Americans. It's also a reminder that there were (and are) both majority and minority people who look past skin color and see the actual person. Against the backdrop of segregation in 1952 McCarthyist America, this story, uncontroversial now, would have been something of a shocker back then. This is an EC comic after all. Remember, there were simply no respectfully depicted African American characters in comics except literally in a handful, four of those being Fawcett's three issues of Negro Romance and Charlton's single reprint issue, Negro Romances 4, which were segregated comics, and a couple more EC comics besides this one. So this issue of Frontline Combat is something of a milestone but kind of out in the wilderness. It doesn't depict an integrated society, but does highlight the event that began the long road to racial equality and integration in the US. Great art as always by Jack Davis, and it includes his very famous action rendering of a Native American, although in seeking to close the divide between African and European Americans with this story, the plight of the First Americans may have slipped by unnoticed here. Still, a somewhat revolutionary comic book story of the sort you expect from EC.
Note: Thanks to Joshua Thirteen for the scans.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Women Running From Houses on Comic Book Covers: Sinister House of Secret Love 3 - "Bride of the Falcon"

A short while back I was the recipient of a minor revelation - that the pictures on the covers of gothic romance novels almost invariably feature women running from houses. This gem of information has lurked in my consciousness since that day that I read Spectergirl's blog about gothic romances, aptly named Women Running From Houses. Now although there are not too many actual gothic romance comic books, it is nevertheless a recognized sub-genre, so I took a look to see if this same phenomenon held true for our beloved medium. Lo and behold, both of DC's gothic love titles (Dark Mansion of Forbidden Love and Sinister House of Secret Love) sport women running from houses on some but not all of their covers, although I failed to find similar conformity amongst the issues of Charlton's Haunted Love. I've chosen one example from each series to post, starting with this Alex Toth penciled treat, nicely inked by Frank Giacoia, from the March 1972 issue of Sinister House of Secret Love. Written by Golden Age artist Frank Robbins, it's 32 pages long, so I'm going to use small thumbnails.

This is a tale of a young woman looking for the love of her life. It's about Venice, a gondolier, the mysterious Isola Tranquillo, love letters and negligees, a castle, an insane facially disfigured dark-haired count with flashes of white above his ears, very long stone staircases, passionate embraces, house servants, a silent paralyzed woman apparently the count's mother, birds of prey, towers, the young woman's pet dog, medicine, completely inappropriate clothing for walking through dense woodland... but no, don't let me give it all away. Read this "Gothic mystery love story" for yourself. So as a "thank you" to Spectergirl for alerting me to this fascinating phenomenon, here's the story - enjoy!

 Note: scans courtesy of Flatterman.