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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.