It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940–1980. edited by Dan Nadel, essays by Charles Johnson and Ronald Wimberly New York Review Comics. 2021. 200pp. $24.95
Here’s a scene that looks like it could be a satire on woke sensibility: a white man is besides himself trying to convince a black woman that he’s not inherently racist. In fact, this is not recent at all but part of a comic strip from the 1940s. This is just one of the gems that you will find in a fascinating collection of comics by Black cartoonists. It’s Life As I See It is published in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, running from June 19 – October 3, 2021, and curated by Dan Nadel.
This scene is from the comic strip, Bungleton Green and The Mystic Commandos, from 1944, by Jay Jackson. As is the case with all the comics in this collection, Jackson’s comic is part subversive satire and part giving back to the Black community. And, like all the work found here, this is a comic strip that ran in a Black publication. All this work was mostly intended for a Black audience since it was shut out of any white publications at the time. So, at the very least, this is an example of necessity being the mother of invention. You go where you’re wanted. Getting back to this satirical Sci-Fi comic strip, the idea here is that Jackson took what he knew about science fiction and turned it on its head, particularly the John Carter from Mars pulp fiction saga going back to 1912, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. In that story, a confederate soldier must confront red and green people from Mars. In Jackson’s twist, white people are at the bottom of the totem pole and must navigate life subjegated by the green Martians. It doesn’t seem right, does it? Like it’s out of some Sci-Fi nightmare!
Well, there’s more of that fine satire to be found here. I was especially struck by the gag cartoons by Charles Johnson. Again, we happen upon a piece that could just as easily be tweaking the woke generation but is, in fact, from another era. Would today’s youth be able to handle such a joke? In the gag, you have a Black couple sitting on a stoop, apparently making plans for the evening. One character asks, “Do you have a date for tomorrow’s riot?” It is droll humor indeed. It’s a joke, a jest, a way to relieve pressure.
Finally, one last example of the wicked humor that you find here. This one is by Tom Floyd. And I believe we have got us here a trifecta since, yet again, this cartoon is just as relevant today as it was in 1969. This gag cartoon depicts a Black man navigating his way through the white-collar workforce and the clumsy reaction from white co-workers. Yes, we’ve made progress–but we still have many more hills to climb. It is important to note that Floyd’s gag cartoons were collected into the book, Integration Is a Bitch!, published in 1969. And that title goes hand in hand with the collection of gag cartoons by Charles Johnson, Black Humor, published in 1970. Both these books were beloved by fans and provided inspiration for so many, including a whole new generation of Black cartoonists.
And there’s much more. The book features the work of Tom Floyd, Grass Green, Seitu Hayden, Jay Jackson, Charles Johnson, Yaoundé Olu, Turtel Onli, Jackie Ormes, and Morrie Turner. It is a wonderful comprehensive collection. Dig deep and you’ll be absorbed by such work as Morrie Turner’s radical mixed-race strip Dinky Fellas or the Afrofuturist comics of Yaoundé Olu and Turtel Onli. I was very moved by the creative journey of Charles Johnson who, always drawing comics, went on to become a successful novelist, winning the National Book Award, and a professor at the University of Washington. If you are new to Johnson, I highly recommend reading Oxherding Tale. Growing up with dreams of becoming a professional cartoonist, Johnson convinced his father to let him take a two-year cartooning correspondence course taught by novelist and longtime Best Cartoons of the Year editor Lawrence Lariar. While fully aware it would be an uphill climb, Johnson had to overcome plenty of reasons to be discouraged such as The New Yorker being a virtually all-white publication with no intention, at the time, of bringing in Black cartoonists. You either cry–or you find a way to laugh. Johnson was compelled to keep on creating work. He chose to laugh. He succeeded many time over those who would do him harm. I’m fascinated by the fact that, in 1970, then only 22 years-old, Johnson hosted Charlie’s Pad, a how-to-draw show on PBS. It was based on the cartooning course he took from Lawrence Lariar, and inspired by Lariar’s own TV spots in the ’50s and ’60s where he would create a cartoon at the end of a news program. The seeds were sown. Johnson would indeed have the last laugh.
IT’S LIFE AS I SEE IT is published by New York Review Comics, in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, on the occasion of Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, June 19–October 3, 2021. Curated by Dan Nadel.
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