Sharon Rudahl was at the forefront of underground comix as a founder of Wimmen’s Comix, the first on-going comic drawn exclusively by women, beginning in the 1970s. Since then, she has created a range of fascinating underground comix including Crystal Night, which was reprinted in full in Dan Nadel’s Art In Time collection. Rudahl has created two graphic novels, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman and A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson: Ballad of an American. Read my review here. It is a pleasure to get a chance to share this conversation with you.
Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson
I began our talk by mentioning that Sharon marched with Martin Luther King Jr. as a teenager. I said that it appears that she has always been an activist. To that Sharon said that she’s found herself speaking out as often as possible. In fact, Sharon began her career as a cartoonist with anti-Vietnam War underground newspapers. She’s been active ever since and has participated in numerous publications and exhibitions in dozens of countries over the last 50 years. Always a fighter, she proved to be just the right person to take on a graphic biography of another social justice warrior, Emma Goldman.
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman
A free-spirited comix artist tells it like it is.
While Rudahl has enjoyed the freedom of working at the craft she loves, she does point out that she would never have thought to get into graphic biographies if it hadn’t been for the opportunities that came her way. We discuss a bit the long-standing professional relationships that are made in the comics industry. Sharon Rudahl has done a lot of work with historian and scholar Paul Buhle. It was one project that led to another like Lincoln for Beginners from 2015, published by For Beginners. This is an eloquent and highly informative work that will appeal to any age.
Lincoln for Beginners
What strikes me about Rudahl’s work is how passionate it is, whether it is a biography or a more personal project. As Rudahl makes clear, left to her own devices, she’d be pursuing a graphic novel about the making of modern day China or maybe a new work of science fiction.
Adventures of Crystal Night
All the gang gather around at Wimmen’s Comix.
At first, Sharon was a little hesitant about whether or not Paul Robeson would have approved of a Jewish lady creating his graphic biography. But, on second thought, she shrugged it off and realized that Paul Robeson would most certainly have approved. We cover quite a bit in this video interview: creative process issues; underground comix; and the evolution of the protest movement. One thing that Sharon wanted to make clear is that the present day activists need to have leaders and organization. “What do you have once you leave the streets? You need leaders and organization to fall back on.”
A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. by Sharon Rudahl. edited by Paul Buhle. The New Press. 2007. 115pp. $17.95
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) is not an obvious choice for the subject of a graphic novel. Unless you’re into political science, you probably have never heard of her. But since when is it an obstacle to read a book about someone you’ve never heard of? It’s absolutely not an obstacle. More of an invitation. You see, Emma Goldman was a trailblazing anarchist who became known as “Red Emma” and, when she was deported from the United States in 1919, J. Edgar Hoover called her “one of the most dangerous women in America.” Comic artist Sharon Rudahl brings Emma Goldman to life in her graphic novel. It was a pleasure to review Rudahl’s graphic novel on Paul Robeson. You can read that here. And it seemed only natural to take one more look back to her graphic novel on Emma Goldman.
Emma Goldman lived a truly storied life. Born in Russia, Goldman joined the mass, late-19th century emigration to the United States as a teen, only to be deported back to Russia just as the Bolshevik revolution was tranforming it into the Soviet Union. One of the founders of the feminist wing of underground comix, Rudahl is a wonderful match to depict Goldman’s life and times. You can see the subject shimmer with energy as Rudahl digs in with enthusiasm and dedication. She adds little artful flourishes as needed and she dutifully finds creative ways to digest all manner of information and reconfigure it upon the page in a concise manner.
Emma and the Wobblies
Creating a graphic novel is no easy task and it sure helps if your subject is not only compelling but also unusual, in some way transcendent. Emma Goldman proves to be a highly distinctive individual with a hunger for knowledge and a need for helping the disadvantaged rise up. Rudahl follows Emma Goldman’s arc: from tentative public speaker to self-assured leader and rabble-rouser. Goldman was a true original, out in the forefront for worker’s rights, women’s rights, free love, anarchism and ultimately an overthrow of capitalism. It was her opposition to World War I that got her deported but, by that time, she’d already well established herself as “a most dangerous woman.”
Emma Goldman meets Paul Robeson in Sharon Rudahl’s Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson.
Sharon Rudahl is one of the female comic artists who contributed to the first underground comix publications of the early 1970s. She was part of the collective that started Wimmen’s Comix in 1972. Rudahl also drew stories for Anarchy Comix #2 and #3 in 1979. In 1980, she published her own comic book, Adventures of Crystal Night.
An “old story” from the old country.
A close look at Rudahl’s career shows the steady progression of a determined auteur cartoonist moving up the ranks of the indie scene: creating short works of comics that lead to longer work; finally, everything in place, pursuing graphic novel work, A Dangerous Woman and Ballad of an American: A Graphic Biography of Paul Robeson. If you take a look at Rudahl’s short works, you’ll see she likes to come back to “old stories,” those nearly forgotten stories from the old country. It is someone with that sort of sensitive touch who is perfect for depicting the life of such a colorful and complicated figure as Emma Goldman.
From Henry Chamberlain’s graphic novel, George’s Run
William F. Nolan was one of the grand old men from the golden age of science fiction and horror spanning pulp fiction, television and the movies. Starting out as an illustrator in Kansas City, Nolan ultimately made his way to Hollywood and became part of a group of writers within the orbit of Ray Bradbury, and subsequently Charles Beaumont, all trying to break into television. As part of the inner circle of writers, casually known as, “The Group,” little by little, Nolan gained some ground. The Group, at its core, consisted of Charles Beaumont, John Tomerlin, Bill Nolan, and George Clayton Johnson. It is the chemistry between Bill and George that boosted each other’s morale and formed a lasting bond. Eager to strike out on their own, George and Bill decided to write a novel together that, in part, paid tribute to all the great science fiction stories they loved. That was to become the 1967 classic, Logan’s Run. It led to the 1976 cult classic major motion picture. But could these two hope to catch lightning in a bottle ever again the way they did with Logan’s Run? Ah, now that’s been an intriguing possibility over the years, all the way to this very day. The long running joke for decades has been that a Logan’s Run sequel is in development and just on the verge of moving forward. One project led to another and then another.
Another adaptation of Logan’s Run is currently in the works at Warner Bros., and as recently as last month, Nolan was outspoken about how he wished for the new project to skew closer to the original book.
“I am not a fan of the idea that Logan should be female,” Nolan told THR. “Mainly because Logan’s story is his story. If there is another story, then that could be in a TV episode or something, but it would not be Logan’s story. That would be a different character. Just changing to a woman to be fashionable doesn’t work, and George told me he felt the same. George was always tougher on the movie than I was. Over the years I came over more to his side about it, which is why I’d like to see it remade with the current technology. I also think it would be a really good streaming series, like Westworld.”
But there’s a problem with this story. As George Clayton Johnson made clear to me in an interview I conducted with him in 2012, he had his own sequel in mind and it is entitled, Jessica’s Run. George was emphatic that the original novel was missing a third act and it was the continuation of Jessica’s story that would provide that much needed resolution. George made clear that he had written the script for it and it was ready when needed. In my interview, George makes clear that both men had equal rights to the Logan’s Run franchise; so either one, personally or through an estate, could still have a say in what happens next with Logan’s Run. Now both men are in the hereafter and have all the time in the world to keep waiting on what seems like the perpetual news of a forthcoming Logan’s Run.
There are times when an illustration is most apt. Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics, by John Malahy and Turner Classic Movies, published by Running Press, inspired me to highlight some of my own favorites from this fun and informative book! Among a number of factoid-filled books, this one really stands out for some very specific reasons. This is not just a listing of popular titles. You will actually learn a lot here–about fan favorites and less familiar classics. I’m very impressed with the genuine attention to detail as the author invites the reader to try out some lost gems, like 1928’s Lonesome about a couple of star-crossed lovers who have a dream date at Coney Island and then, by the hard luck of fate, get lost from each and frantically try to reconnect.
Summer Movies: 30 Sun-Drenched Classics
To sweeten the deal, Malahy provides another title (double feature suggestion) for each of the 30 featured titles. Lots of fun, you’ll learn a lot, and you’ll have so many more possible options for your movie-watching pleasure.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The New York Post headline says it all, Sex Abuse Rituals at NJ Boarding School Exposed — in Cartoons by Survivor. The newspaper does an admirable job of describing the nuances of graphic novels and Glenn Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor. And The New York Post has no qualms about laying it out as it is: “Don’t let that whimsical cover art throw you: Head’s unflinching book recounts his two years at the now-defunct Mendham, NJ, boarding school run by headmaster “Sir” Terence Michael Lynch — a serial sexual abuser who manipulated young boys into “cuddling sessions” after fondling and beating their nude bodies.” The New York Post also provides an outstanding public service by underscoring the fact that survivors of Chartwell Manor still have time to file a suit against the Chartwell administration of aiding and abetting Lynch, and others, in the abuse of children. Time is running out for Chartwell Manor victims to join those who’ve already filed claims against surviving Chartwell administrators accused of letting Lynch — and other accused faculty — cultivate a culture of abuse. The deadline to file is November 30, 2021. Contact Jeff Anderson & Advocates law firm today.
I’ve been writing about comics and creating comics for many years now–and loving it. In the very near future, I hope to have some news about a book of my own. For now, I want to keep my nose to the grindstone and this is one very special reason to do so. This is an interview with master cartoonist Glenn Head. For those of you familiar with comix, especially those chock full of underground comix DNA as I just talked about in my last post, then this will be a welcome treat. Maybe you’ve gotten a chance to check out Head’s new book, Chartwell Manor, about the abuse that Head experienced at the boarding school, but just as important, the aftermath. Well, this interview helps to put things into further context from the standpoint of Glenn’s previous graphic novel, Chicago, as well as his career as a whole.
CHARTWELL MANOR sample page: Parental Denial
The above sample was our starting off point for discussion. I wanted to dig deeper into the things that are left unsaid in comics, the ways that comics can evoke an eerie quality, depict a certain vibe or emotion. Two characters are in conversations but are they speaking to each other or directly past each other? Is it possible they are living two completely separate realities? Maybe they said something to each other that we somehow missed? What we know for sure is there is some major disconnection going on and we’re intrigued to see what happens next.
CHARTWELL MANOR: Sex
The three big glorious milestones of youth: Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll. Whatever your situation, you will have confronted this one way or another. For the sample I label as “Sex,” we initially see Glen, our main character in Chartwell Manor, lost amid the lurid peep show haunts of some seedy part of NYC. But there’s more to it than first meets the eye. Head has peppered his tableaux with various symbolic icons, like a copy of Charles Bukowski‘s 1975 novel, Factotum, a masterfully vivid evocation of slow-paced, low-life urbanity and alcoholism. This symbolized for Head a moment of truth. Was he going to continue to revel in a Bukowski-like decadent lifestyle–or was he going to seek out something better?
CHARTWELL MANOR: Drugs
For the “Drugs” sample, again, there’s more than might first meet the eye. Yes, it’s definitely psychedelic. But, beyond the drug reference, it symbolizes a pursuit of a free-spirited happiness, something that had been violated and left uneven from Glen’s experience at Chartwell Manor.
CHARTWELL MANOR: Rock ‘n’ Roll
For the “Rock n Roll” sample, this is a recurring motif in the book, The Rolling Stones 1969 album, Through the Past Darkly. It was an album that Glenn got just before he became a student at the notorious boarding school. It was the first time Glenn had heard the album’s hit song, “Jumping Jack Flash.” All too aware of the school’s reputation for unbridled corporal punishment, the lyrics to the song were certainly not lost on young Glenn: “I was ruled with a strap right across my back.”
Snake Eyes (1990, 1992, 2001) was a comix anthology (editors: Glenn Head and Kaz) with some of the best comix talent going on at the time. It’s a great place to get a sense of what independent comics are about. It seems like we have subcultures within subcultures in the world of indie comics. Some cartoonists prefer a more soft approach while others need a harder one, and everything in between. So, with that in mind, we’ll explore the pages of Issue 3 of Snake Eyes. We will also take a look at a separate project, that ties in with what I’m talking about, Glenn Head’s Avenue D, from 1986.
Glenn Head’s Snowman in Snake Eyes
In an interview focusing on Snake Eyes, Glenn Head made the distinction between short-form comics and long-form graphic novels. For him, at the time (2001), he seemed to be saying that he found comics to be packed with energy and immediacy, while graphic novels had fallen into more of a form for a slower-paced drama to unfold. I think that is a subject for discussion than can always be added to byway of various comparisons and further refinement of articulating what it means to do comics as opposed to graphic novels. Basically, we know. But it’s always fun to discuss. And, sometimes, I wonder if we’re all on the same page! Seriously, the notion of comics is extremely broad if you include any and all possible forms, literally throwing in the kitchen sink for good measure.
The World of Kaz in Snake Eyes
For me, as I’ve said many times, the truest/purest version of the art of making comics will inevitably come from an auteur cartoonist, alone at their drawing table focused upon their art, which ultimately results in a graphic novel. I think you go through a period of making all sorts of short-form comics leading up to full-on full-length graphic novel work. Some cartoonists will not complete this full cycle–and that’s just the way it goes. Maybe their collected short works would arguably add up to graphic novels. Anyway, comics is an art form. There are a bunch of other comics (typical corporate comics and cartoons, per se) that are, in general, not art, never intended to be art. So, it’s wrong to lump it all together, tie a bow around it, and giddily declare, “Comics are comics!” Because that’s not true and makes no sense, really. It’s just not that simple.
Mark Beyer in Snake Eyes
Now, Snake Eyes is a perfect example, showcasing various talents, and gets down to business. Glenn Head has led the charge with other collections, notably the more recent Hotwire, but we’ll stick with Snake Eyes for the purposes of this article. And I’ll tie it together, as I see fit, with Avenue D as we move along. What I want to say right away is that, with Snake Eyes, I see a correlation with the now defunct (at least for now) Best American Comics series, published by Houghton Mifflin, and formerly edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. I applaud Bill’s spirited work although I do think, at times, he was trying too hard to reinvent the wheel. I think it’s fine to make the case that Raymond Pettibon’s work is so close to comics as to be comics, which I tend to agree with; and it’s also fine to advocate for everyone being welcome to create comics, no matter what skill level, if any at all, which I DO NOT agree with, especially in a showcase of the best work! Overall, I believe Bill did a wonderful job. Now, moving forward, I’ve been wondering if Glenn Head might be just the guy to helm the annual voyage of comics discovery for a while. He’s in a unique position, having gone through the entire process himself many times over, of spotting those individuals engaged in what could rightfully be considered some of the best work being created today. And, if not, hey, I’ll take the gig! I can absolutely do it–but Glenn would be an ideal choice.
David Sandlin’s very relevant, Wasper in White Now, from Snake Eyes
Moving right along, I think, if you closely study a really great anthology of comix, and there are a number of them, going back to RAW and to WEIRDO, what you will appreciate is that there are certain patterns, even certain ground rules, that indie cartoonists will follow, without ever being told to follow them, since your typical indie cartoonist has problems with authority–but not always. And that’s because a savvy cartoonist knows how to shapeshift if called upon to do a professional illustration gig. Not so much the other way around. A professional illustrator who attempts to slum it by cobbling together a mini-comic to show at a comics art festival will be spotted from a mile away. And why is that? It’s because you can’t fake a certain sensibility that involves putting everything you’ve got into it. So, if your heart is set on making comix, then bring your A game and do it right. It all boils down to an ongoing observation of life and one’s self; drawing a lot of stuff that is purely about yourself that will be synthesized over and over again as you create your own universe.
Avenue D cover
Now, I’ll shift gears to a point or two I can make using Head’s Avenue D. What struck me, after having examined this and that by Head, is that Head steadily carved out certain areas of interest and certain recurring characters and motifs. That’s really what it’s all about: practicing, drawing and distilling until you reach a certain level of fluidity! You get to the point where you can draw hookers with big wigs in your sleep–or whatever else you like! And, I’m sorry, but like it or not, the world of indie comix, or at least the one chock full of underground DNA, is one that takes things to their limits. It can be a slippery slope. If you’re simply out to offend, you most likely will fail. But if you’re persistent as hell, then maybe you’ll succeed on shock value alone–but, then again, your work could just as likely he kicked to the side in favor of more diligent artists.
The Muhammad Ali Story in Avenue D
So, yeah, the main example I want to share with you from Avenue D is the Muhammad Ali story. Now, this is one version, perhaps the earliest version. But not the only one. I think it’s important to note that a serious cartoonist will return to certain subject matter, even the same story, and revisit it, redo it, and create something from it, for as often as it makes sense to pursue it. The same, yet different, more refined, Muhammad Ali story is depicted in Head’s graphic novel, Chicago. The gist of it is that a young and brash Glenn Head is in way over his head when he tries to mess with The Greatest of All Time! The actual content of the Muhammad Ali story is like a bunch of clay that can be molded into something else for as often as the artist pleases.
Bob the Snowman in Avenue D
Classy Gator in Avenue D
I will pretty much wrap it up here for now. As you can see, Head has other starting points he can play with and explore: a strange snow man or an alligator pimp are always handy on a restless sleepless night. The strange snowman is a wretched soul, barely hanging by a thread in an urban nightmare, and you are NOT meant to relate with him, at least not literally. The same goes for the alligator pimp. But these fellas are like long lost friends for some cartoonists when an urge to create strikes.
A Charles Johnson self-portrait. If you know who R. Crumb is, then you really need to know who Charles Johnson is!
IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT, cover designed by Kerry James Marshall
Chicago is one of the great cities for comics with a rich history dating back to the dawn of the comic strip supported by world-class newspapers. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago honors this tradition with Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now(June 19-October 3, 2021), curated by Dan Nadel. In the process, Nadel also edited a book that focuses on Black cartoonists entitled, It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940 – 1980, published by New York Review Comics. The title of the book comes from a gag panel cartoon by the cartoonist, and National Book Award-winning novelist, Charles Johnson. And the actual cartoon dates back to a collection of Charles Johnson cartoons, Black Humor, published in 1970, when Johnson was only 22 years-old. The two books document where Black cartoonists have been and point to a persistent struggle to rise upward. Discussion of the facts can only help to chart a course for the future—and it’s essential to look at all sides.
Black Humor cover, 1970.
The key narrative in It’s Life As I See It, is Black cartoonists reacting to being excluded from mainstream media, the white magazines and newspapers of the time. Dan Nadel asserts: “…neither Black cartoonists nor The Chicago Defender had a reach comparable to Chester Gould and the Chicago Tribune. Moreover, the Tribune and other primarily white outlets were notoriously uninterested in either Black cartoonists or Black subject matter.” And Johnson asserts: “…in The New Yorker, which at the time had a notorious history of not using the work of black cartoonists. In 1996, The New Yorker published a special “Black in America” double issue, which featured the work of thirteen “gag artists,” only one of whom was black; eight black people who submitted work were rejected, and the magazine’s cartoon editor, Lee Lorenz, admitted that The New Yorker‘s stable of cartoonists at the time was still entirely white.” However, when I spoke with former New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, he had a generous history lesson to provide that can’t be overlooked.
From the pages of Black Humor by Charles Johnson
First of all, it is very difficult to get a cartoon published in The New Yorker to begin with. Bob Mankoff explains: “Historically it’s been very hard for anyone, regardless of race, gender or anything else to get published in The New Yorker. I submitted 2,000 cartoons to the magazine before I sold one. Even after I became a regular in the magazine, I sometimes went for many weeks at a time having all my cartoons rejected. To break into The New Yorker was an arduous process and basically anonymous. You just mailed in your batch of cartoons in a self-addressed stamped envelope and then got back a rejection slip or if you were lucky, eventually a sale. The Cartoon Editor, at that time, Lee Lorenz would not have known if you were black or white or really anything else about you. In looking over a thousand cartoons a week what was important to Lee, who I knew quite well, was the cartoon itself.”
1934 New Yorker cartoon by E. Simms Campbell. Archival sample.
Mankoff goes on to provide some historical perspective: “The reason there were traditionally few black cartoonists published in The New Yorker and relatively few women cartoonists compared to white male cartoonists, is primarily due to the fact that historically there were many more white male cartoonists in the field and submitting to The New Yorker than either black cartoonists or women cartoonists. That said, there were a number of women cartoonists, many more than black cartoonists of which, I believe there were only two, E. Simms Campbell and Robert Minter. E. Simms Campbell had quite a few cartoons published in The New Yorker in the ’30s before he moved to Esquire later in that decade to do Playboy-styled cartoons before there was Playboy.”
Esquire mascot, Esky, created by E. Simms Campbell
It was E. Simms Campbell, a Black man, who created Esky, the dandy with a top hat mascot for Esquire back in 1934. Esky is a whimsical character, albeit a rich white man too. In 1939, Campbell became the first African American to have his work syndicated nationwide. King Features published his comic strip, Cuties, a humorous series featuring pin-up girls, in more than 140 newspapers around the country. The Society of Illustrators includes in its Campbell profile: “E. Simms Campbell worked at the time racial segregation was the norm in the United States. Because his work was primarily about the life of wealth and pleasure enjoyed by white people, and it appeared in mainstream publications, most of his admirers were unaware that Campbell was African American. Economic reality was the most likely motivation for the absence of African Americans in his art, until after the Civil Rights Movement, most American publications were not willing to feature non-stereotypical minority characters regularly.”
1971 New Yorker cartoon by Robert Minter. Archival sample.
What’s really interesting in the case of the other known Black cartoonist at The New Yorker, Robert Minter, is that he was active right at the time that Charles Johnson’s Black Humor was published in 1970. You can do an internet search and see that Robert Minter was a regular contributor from 1968 to 1979. His gags are elegant, succinct, and definitely funny.
Moving right along to more recent times, Mankoff goes on: “When I became Cartoon Editor in 1997, I originally operated under the same criteria that Lee Lorenz employed. My focus was on the cartoon and on the cartoonist only to the extent that they could continue, week after week, year after year, to produce good original work based on the evolving tradition of The New Yorker cartoon in which the jokes are benign, and when not outright gags, a kind of comedy of manners gently tweaking the foibles and pretensions of the demographic of people who read the magazine, not punching up or punching down but elbowing to the side.
When David Remnick became editor-in-chief he realized that we needed to add diversity to our criteria. As a first step, the most obvious thing was not to make the default cartoon character white. If you look through any issue of the magazine nowadays you see people of color in all the situations and positions (doctors, lawyers, etc.,) that previously were occupied by white men. And there has been an effort to seek out more women cartoonists and people of color which has led to about half the published cartoons now being done by women. More diversity has been added by cartoonists with an Asian-American background such as Amy Hwang, Jeremy Nguyen, and Hartley Lin but for the most part, their cartoons do not playoff whatever has been unique about that background. In terms of black cartoonists, the outreach has been less promising. I did reach out to both Rob Armstrong and Darrin Bell and both had a few cartoons published but frankly, as they were both already successful, the rejection to acceptance ratio combined with not all that much money for a cartoon wasn’t worth the effort.
Since I left The New Yorker in 2017, many new cartoonists have appeared and I believe the effort for more diversity has been more concerted and urgent and is having more success with some black cartoonists such as E.S. Glenn, who I know, appearing in the magazine.”
Excerpt from Black Humor
So, theoretically, a cartoonist of the caliber of Charles Johnson could have continued submitting work to The New Yorker and have ultimately been accepted. However, it would not have been from the pages in Black Humor from 1970. As a young college student, Johnson was enthralled by a talk given by the Black activist poet Amiri Baraka where he urged Black people to give back to their community. Again, quoting from the same introduction, Johnson states: “I remember walking back to my dormitory in the rain from Baraka’s reading, dazed by what he’d said. I sat down before my drawing board, my inkwell, my pens. I started to sketch. I worked furiously for a solid week, cutting my classes. The more I drew and took notes for gag lines, the faster the ideas came. After seven intense days of creative outpouring, I had a book, Black Humor.” In less than a year, that book was published by Johnson Publishing Company, Chicago publisher of Ebony and Jet. The fact is that this kind of pointed humor, whether Black or not, is not part of The New Yorker sensibility. It would not have fit into what The New Yorker published then or publishes today.
From Black Humor, 1970, by Charles Johnson.
And so, if you’re a young Black cartoonist, circa 1970, fueled by hearty rebellion, what sort of cartoons are you going to create? The answer to that in Black Humor is a collection of biting satire pushing everything as far to the limits as possible. However, what may surprise some, is that the jokes that Johnson lets fly don’t take sides, often poking fun at Black protestors and poseurs alike as when a Black couple contemplate a date for the next riot. And perhaps only a Black cartoonist could strike the right chord when it came to lampooning white supremacy, often depicted in full Ku Klux Klan hood and robe. One joke has a mixed-race couple confronting a visit from mother, donning a hood and looking quite perturbed. Are these jokes unfair in their crassness? During an interview I conducted with Johnson, he pointed out that all’s fair when it comes to satire. And, while some of the cartoons may come off as utterly surreal, it is that very incongruity that makes them most effective. One example is when a Black man adamantly complains that, without discrimination, there won’t be anything left to complain about. Overall, these are cartoons by an accomplished young cartoonist eager to make some unflinching observations. And it’s no overstatement to say that Johnson, at an early age, was already an accomplished cartoonist having won more awards and produced more work than some professionals.
Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
Looking back at the early work of Charles Johnson is rewarding on many levels, especially when you consider where his creative pursuits would take him. Johnson would develop into a highly insightful writer of Black America, racism and slavery. To look back at some of Johnson’s cartoons is to view prescient fragments of the novels that were to come. Perhaps the most striking cartoon of that era is a Johnson cartoon from a 1976 collection of cartoons for Player (a Black version of Playboy), a joke that depicts the sexual fantasy of a Klansman as he gazes upon an attractive young Black woman. In the thought balloon, the Klansman’s deepest desire is for the woman to be stripped and lynched. This is a cartoon so dark, and outrageous, as to court its own deletion from history. But it is this very image, in its sophisticated morbidity, that needs to be seen. It is so distinctive that it could easily be a featured piece all to itself at any museum. Show it enough times, and it would grow to the strength of an iconic image. Keep it hidden, and it remains obscure. In contrast to Johnson, controversial work by R. Crumb has gained iconic status from repeated exposure over the years. Arguments continue to be made that R. Crumb’s blatantly racist comics, at the height of the underground comix movement of the sixties, are actually telling us something about the American psyche. However, Crumb has never adequately, if at all, explained his intent. In comparison to Crumb, Johnson’s work is clear, and, while sometimes blunt, retains its integrity without question.
If you know R. Crumb comics, then consider a Charles Johnson cartoon taking it to the edge.
The following cartoon is part of this paperback collection and no need to have it lost to history.
Cartoonist Tim Kreider wrote an essay in The Comics Journal in 2010 discussing Johnson’s early work. In that essay, he opens with a description of the Klansman cartoon in Player. Kreider cites the work of anthropologist Eli Sagan, his 1974 book, Cannibalism: Human Aggression and Cultural Form which “discusses at length the deep human ambivalence between affection and aggression evident in many cultures: the eating of deceased family members or honored warriors, the psychic power imputed to human trophies like bones and heads; the reverence displayed toward the victims of ritual sacrifice. (And lynching is, among other things, a form of ritual sacrifice.) Johnson’s thesis is borne out by three centuries’ history of the rape of slaves by their owners.” Of course, what stands out most today about the work in Black Humor is how direct it is, not pulling any punches. Kreider observes that the more blunt and honest humor was a product of its times, circa 1970, a time when Don Rickles could get away with jokes about “The blacks, the Jews, the Puerto Ricans—mostly the blacks.” But this kind of humor isn’t all from some bygone era. All you need to do is look at Dave Chappelle, circa 2003, and even today! It is a figure like Chappelle who demonstrates how issues about race don’t fit neatly into little boxes. Yes, Dave Chappelle is alive and well, continuing to make outrageous comedy, and yet he can seem to be hiding in plain sight when certain segments of the public won’t acknowledge him.
Krazy Kat comic strip, 1941.
Another prominent Black figure hiding in plain sight was the pioneering comic strip artist George Herriman (1880-1944). It wasn’t until 1971 that a birth certificate revealed that Herriman was Black. During his career, he chose to “pass for white,” a choice many Blacks made not only to hopefully advance in life but maybe even to save their lives. Herriman’s comic strip, Krazy Kat, (1913-1944) is known for its many coded passages. I asked Johnson if he thought some Blacks had figured out that Herriman was Black by reading between the lines of the comic strip. He thought that was possible. I then asked him if he’d ever read of Krazy Kat lamenting over being Black and wondering about being white. To that, Johnson wasn’t ready to accept those comics existed. I had to check back but these comics are documented in Michael Tisserand’s 2016 biography, Krazy: George Herriman, A Life in Black and White. In fact, I can cite for you here an example, circa 1925, “as when Krazy Kat showers in a bottle of bleach, saying, ‘This smex of a change among the kimplexion of things.’ That strip ends with Krazy turning completely white except for a black tail.” I checked in with Michael Tisserand and he responded with some samples and a reply: “There are many strips that deal with color and Krazy turning white. This “study in black and white” strip from 1931 is a pretty famous one and I’m sure I mentioned it in the book. There are also some beauty parlor gags in which Krazy turns white, one from 1941.”
Excerpt from Your Black Friend, 2016, by Ben Passmore.
In another comic strip from around 1925, Krazy describes this particular anxiety as one about an “inferiority complexion.” It’s a struggle that still haunts some Black cartoonists to this very day. If you take a look at Ben Passmore’s 2016 comic, Your Black Friend, there is a passage that depicts the cartoonist as a young boy smoothing out his curly hair and sucking in his lips to make them look thin like Leonardo Dicaprio. “The TV taught your black friend what beautiful was and it didn’t look anything like him.” On that same page, in another panel, Passmore glorifies hurting an innocent person. “One day your black friend heard about some cops killing a young black boy. That night your black friend threw a brick at a cop’s face.” This comic, which presents itself as a Black guidebook for white people, went on to be named on NPR’s Top 100 Comics list along with various comics industry accolades like, ironically enough, winning an Ignatz Award, which is basically a brick. Passmore takes a very obvious militant stance. Some people will find his work can be toxic while others will celebrate it without question.
You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. From Integration Is a Bitch! by Tom Floyd.
And so that brings us back to 2021 and to the book, It’s Life As I See It, part of a bigger show focusing on Chicago cartoonists. One question worth asking is, How useful is it to set apart one segment of the cartoonist community? In this case, some questions would never get a chance to be asked otherwise and some aspects of history would remain in the shadows. Issues of self-worth are very complex and hard to resolve so, for that reason alone, a book focusing on Black cartoonists is valuable. But it’s all that history needing to be presented within context that pretty much steals the show. If not for this book, so many readers would probably never have become acquainted with such significant trailblazing cartoonists as Tom Floyd and his 1969 cartoon collection, Integration Is a Bitch! This is Floyd’s hilarious account of entering, and exiting, the white-collar workforce. A typical cartoon features two white executives looking over The Civil Rights Act of 1964. One declares to the other, “Hire some Negroes…Quick!” To have such a document of the times available was downright revolutionary. Such a book, along with Black Humor, was great motivation when it was clear there would be no easy wins and many battles ahead. Black cartoonists would need to rely upon themselves, create their own media for their own community, and keep fighting.
From Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, 1965.
Black cartoonists found homes for their work in Black media, like The Chicago Defender. As Dan Nadel noted in his introduction to It’s Life As I See It: “The great tradition of Chicago comics as it’s most often taught—that of Frank King, Chester Gould, and Harold Gray—is brilliant, but it was never the full story. More than any other city in the country, Chicago had a vibrant yet utterly separate Black publishing industry that encompassed multiple comic strip genres in the Defender newspaper and a raft of panel cartoons about Black life in the locally published magazines, including Jet and Negro Digest.” It was this yin yang of responding to exclusion and aspiring to inclusion that reverberated throughout the Black creative process. There was room for wonderfully satirical comic strips like Jay Jackson’s Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, a science fiction parody where the white race is subservient, published in the 1940s in The Chicago Defender. And there was also room for Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas, a comic strip that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz encouraged Turner to create. Dinky Fellas was launched in the Defender in 1964 as a Black version of Peanuts. It would later be renamed Wee Pals and be syndicated in five newspapers. But it was after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, with newspapers urgently seeking new Black voices, that Wee Pals was picked up by scores of papers and continued up to its creator’s death in 2014. A comic strip that came to life as a segregated version of the mainstream had managed to break through and to flourish.
Black anger, or is it simply human anger at injustice?
Charles Johnson was a young man, pounding the pavement in Manhattan in hopes of a big break from the great establishment media of the day—and never got it. All the answers as to why not are now painful to acknowledge. However you look at it, it was a long process. As a final aside, Johnson noted to me in an email that it wasn’t until The New York Times ran a review of It’s Life As I See It that a Charles Johnson cartoon was finally published in the pages of the great establishment media. A little late to say the least; but published nonetheless.
Quote from MIDDLE PASSAGE by Charles Johnson
Oh, one last thing, are you wondering what the cartoon alter ego for Charles Johnson is typing in the opening cartoon? Well, it’s not just mock type. Nope. In fact, it’s a quote from his National Book Award winning novel, Middle Passage. Just a nice FYI. There’s part of the quote right above.
The Minamata Story: An EcoTragedy. Written by Sean Michael Wilson and drawn by Akiko Shimojima. Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2121. 205pp, $14.95.
The Many Not the Few. Written by Sean Michsel Wilson and drawn by Robert Brown. Oxford and Lancashire: Workable Press, 2019. 200pp, $18.95.
Sean Michael Wilson: Left Comics Sui Generis
A marvelously talented Scottish script writer, Sean Michael Wilson, is notable in the fast-emerging world of the nonfiction graphic novel, with a handful of awards and some twenty graphic novels to his credit. Like the most talented of left-wing film screenwriters from Hollywood to London to Tokyo and far beyond—suffering blacklisting and severe persecution in the Cold War era and not getting many good jobs right up to the present day—Wilson knows how to prepare his work for the next step in production. The writer works behind the scenes, so to speak, and becomes in a sense invisible, all the more so because the artist “adapts” any script, by necessity, to the demands of art and audience.
The Minamata Story. Art by Akiko Shimojima.
The first remarkable thing, from a comic art point of view, is that Wilson is clearly as much at home with Manga styles as with mainstream visual narratives. The Minimata story is fairly minimalist when it comes to dialogue, at least until the grim lessons must be drawn. The Foreword by environmental journalist Brian Small reminds us that the telling began long ago, in one of the early sagas of environmental contamination. A Japanese factory in the postwar years released large doses of mercury into a river near a fishing village, with ever more devastating effects. Documentary photographer Eugene Smith “iconized” the suffering of one family, and famed essayist/art critic John Berger devoted his talents to describing the photos.
Here, as we read the story, a Japanese boy grows up to college age, and looking for a topic, learns that the story has been a sort of local secret. Although strange symptoms appeared in the poplation, the fishermen could not or would not acknowledge the full effects of the discharge. The factory had brought a new vitality to the impoverished area. Our protagonist, with the help of his grandmother, learns that as death spread from the ocean to the people, panic ensued. Decades later, it remained difficult for survivors to prove their illnesses had come form the most obvious source, and the companies used the legal system to pay little or no compensation. Toward the end, the story turns didactic, inevitably. Those who protested or supported the protests during the late 1950s and remain in the field, despite aging, are heroic for the campaigners to follow.
The Many Not The Few. Art by Robert Brown.
The Many Not The Few is the finest graphic novel history of a nation’s working class ever published, or at least I have not seen any better. It was the first book ever introduced at a session of the British Parliament, and carries the stamp of the wider work of the national union federation, a partner, so to speak, with Labour’s day schools, theater and song workshops in various parts of the UK. It begins with a quotation from my very favorite character (along with the mythical Robin Hood) in English history: John Ball, the street preacher with the message that becomes the Radical Reformation idea across Europe, centuries later. “Things cannot go well in England, nor ever will, until all goods are held in common, and until there will be neither serfs nor gentlemen, and we shall be equal.” I could only complain, mildly, that I do not find here the famous bit of contemporary folk wisdom that became a favorite iconography of the socialist movement, thanks to an illustration by Williams Morris’s friend Walter Crane: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” That is; there were no capitalists or royals in Paradise. Never mind. The thought is felt throughout these pages.
Robert Brown, a veteran commercial illustrator with his own comics series (Killjoy, from 2011 onward) is more than equal to the task of moving from century to century, milieux to mileux. His adaptation has an old working class socialist sense to it and includes a character important to the narrative who is a multi-racial granddaughter of Indian descent, who looks maybe 12 or 13. The fellow has been researching for years, on his own, and she is ready to hear what he has to say. She asks good, intelligent questions. Thus Wat Tyler of the 1381 Rebellion bearing the leader’s name and the message of John Ball, leads a seemingly successful rebellion against the Crown. Tyler was murdered through conspiracy and massive suppression swiftly followed. History moves on. By page 30, we see famed historian E.P. Thompson and Karl Marx himself (no stranger to the British libraries) explaining the next step in oppression and fight back. “Enclosure,” the theft of the heretofore common lands to support and royalty and the expansive States brings misery beyond measure and deep resentments. Now we are in the sixteenth century with armed uprisings more intermittent but no less intense, leading to the famed Levellers and the Diggers of the English Civil War actually overthrowing the monarchy without themselves gaining power.
By the time we get to Pilgrim’s Progress, the granddaughter is the one who can do some of the teaching. More centuries pass and we arrive at something they both can chew on: William Blake, whose illustrations for the literary classic might be described as a proto-anarchist graphic novel. The old man is in his own with the rise of the Chartists, following the Tolpuddle arrests of peaceful marchers, a rare victory when 80,000 signatures proved too much for the authorities. Asking only the simplest of democratic reforms, Chartists gathered three million signatures in vain. and then marched, in vast numbers. The ruling classes were put on the defensive through peaceful action, a major step.
Contradictions are not avoided in these pages. Craft workers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries too often shunned cooperation with the unskilled, through the rise and fall of unions and the often fractured organizations of the Left. Wilson plays to his own strong Scottish collective memory for a moment with the glories of the Clydeside shipbuilders of Glasgow and their 60,000 militants of 1919. Their struggle and the consolidation of the miners’ unions during the First World War set the background for the General Strike of 1926. No doubt, these events, however effectively suppressed in their own time, made possible the victory of Labour in 1946 and the creation of a modern welfare state, later diminished but never destroyed.
The coal miners’ defeat by the Thatcher government, the crushing conservatiism consolidated by the neoliberalism of Tony Blair’s Labour government, brings our story close to the present. Chapters earlier, granddaughter Arushi asks about the failures of the Left and “Granda” answers squarely: these are part of the old and long process toward liberation. Unions seem now, to many young people distant from them, no longer the building block of a better society. But as she says, “We should run our own lives, workplaces, communities. Have some real democracy.” It’s a good parting note before the pair head off for some fish and chips.
Francois Vigneault is an accomplished illustrator and cartoonist. For his latest project, he teams up with a stellar creative team, including Rick and Morty co-creator, Justin Roiland, to create ORCS IN SPACE, a delightful outer space adventure for all ages, published by Oni Press. What follows is a fun and informative chat with a lot of food for thought for those trying to break into the middle grade market–or just looking for a good read for the kids in your life.
ORCS IN SPACE kicks off with a special double issue as of July 7, 2021 and then continues as a monthly series. The first collected volume comes out in October and I’ll remind you guys around that time–just in time for the holidays!
I hope you enjoy this video interview and, if you can, be sure to do all those good things: LIKE, SUBCRIBE, and COMMENT at the YouTube Channel! Thank you.
John Cei Douglas is a freelance illustrator based in London who got on my radar with his new book, All the Places in Between, which I recently reviewed. We exchanged some email and arranged to do a conversation. To prepare for it, I read a good bit of the comics that Douglas has done since completing his MA in Illustration from Camberwell College of Arts in 2013–including his Masters thesis, Show Me the Map to Your Heart.
All the Places in Between
One striking thing about the comics and illustration of John Cei Douglas is how fluid and effortless he makes it all look. There’s a certain calm and thoughtful quality to his work that is very appealing. There’s also plenty of action and frenetic energy to be found. It’s all part of a distinctive quirky universe.
The distinctive and quirky universe of John Cei Douglas
Another striking fact to keep in mind is that, even once you reach a point of success in a career in illustration, you can never take anything for granted. That is a point that Douglas can’t stress enough. He is in it for the long term and, from what I see, he’s found a niche from where he can continue to grow and prosper.
English Summer. illustration by John Cei Douglas.
I hope you enjoy this conversation where Douglas provides insights into his creative process. For the creation of his new book, All the Places in Between, Douglas relished in giving himself space to explore where the story was going. There was no set blueprint he was working from and I think readers will appreciate those unexpected twists and turns. As I stated in my review, this is a story as much about evoking a certain feeling as it is anything else–definitely a journey worth taking.
Visit John Cei Douglas at his site here. All the Places in Between is published by Liminal 11.