Were Underground Comics Racist? - November 2006
You seem driven to "discover" racist motivations in popular culture. Your critique of Robert Crumb is revealing. Isn't it possible that Crumb and other cartoonists -- especially ones who created so-called underground comics -- were exercising their freedom of speech and freedom of expression without any attempt to disparage blacks? The depictions of blacks and other minorities in comics and cartoons may have been in bad taste but bad taste is not a synonym for racism.
--- Youry Rosh, New York, New York
Admittedly, the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s provide neither an ideal starting point to introduce a discussion of race and cartooning nor the most consequential examples for discussing this tangle of issues. For instance, I have no reason to believe that comix representations have had an especially powerful influence over people's ideas about race. The comics and cartoons that have the greatest influence, we may safely assume, are those that are distributed to mass audiences of children by mainstream media in the form of animated television shows and feature films, games, advertising illustrations, comic strips, and comic books. Neither have underground comix been among those racial cartoons most damaging to the people they insulted.
That dishonor goes to cartoons that have successfully incited genocide or encouraged acquiescence to genocide, such as those published in Nazi Germany or Rwanda. Further, underground comix have not provided the most extreme examples of race-hate cartoons. (The comix movement did not, as far as I have been able to determine, produce even one example of a cartoon intended to promote race-hatred.) Also, underground comix of the Nixon era (1968-1974) were not the most eventful cartooning development regarding the depiction of race at that period. The heyday of underground comix was also the period when racial integration finally reached mainstream, syndicated comic strips and comic books. Besides not being the most influential, damaging, extreme, or important race-related cartooning of that period, the outrageous racial stereotypes in underground comix were not even especially controversial. Still, they cry out for closer study.
Beyond my personal interest in the underground comix movement, in which I participated as a cartoonist and editor, I find comix images of race worth examining for several reasons. For one thing, the comix appeared during an important and confusing turning point in American race relations after the main legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement. Comix of that period provide a different kind of evidence of what was actually going through people's minds than the heavily-edited material that appeared in the mainstream press. Because comix typically integrated caricatured drawings and colloquial speech to tell stories, they provide rich material for studying racial representations. At the same time, examining the various images of racial difference that appeared in comix deepens our understanding of the comix themselves. Beyond these academic reasons, I hope that out of this study might emerge ideas that would help cartoonists and those who enjoy their work to create and support comics that respond to our current situation with greater love and daring.
The subject of American racism has often been taught in stifling, counterproductive ways. As evidence, comic books created to recruit young people into racist organizations have used the plot of a young white student learning to out-argue his Jewish teacher's dogmatic anti-racist teaching.
Existing curricular materials frequently frame the problem of developing racial "sensitivity" as one of learning how to avoid offending people of other groups. An anti-racist approach to this topic, by contrast, would judge stories and images, not by how well they avoid offensive stereotypes, but by where they stand in relation to our efforts to understand ourselves and the world, and in relation to struggles to end special privileges based on race and advance the well-being of all people.
Current debates over "racism" often seem to come down to a disagreement between those who understand racism primarily as something institutionalized by our social system and those who understand it primarily as something that exists only in the thoughts and actions of individuals. The idea that we live in a racist system seems painfully self-evident to many people. To many others, that idea seems nebulous or false.
A "system" can be as familiar and mysterious as water to a fish. It functions as a set of roles, a set of rules and a set of forces that help sort people into these roles and enforce these rules. Looking at racism from this "institutional" perspective explains how racial inequality can result without assuming that the people who come out on top are especially talented and hardworking (or especially prejudiced and hateful,) and without assuming that people on the bottom must have fallen there because of their personal flaws or personal bad luck. A "counterculture" (such as the broader movement that included comix) challenges some of the mythology that holds social relationships in place.
From an institutional perspective, slavery was not simply a situation in which some individuals claimed to own other individuals. Instead, it comprised a complex set of arrangements that relied on the support of racist laws, law enforcement, businesses, religious teachings, and even cartoonists. Racism was also institutionalized after slavery ended through the creation of "Black Codes" that made crimes out of actions like vagrancy, missing work, possessing firearms, and making insulting gestures, when the person charged was black. Racial segregation in housing has been a more contemporary example of how racism has been institutionalized.
A familiar alternative to this "institutional racism" perspective can be found in the writings of those who argue that only by seeing and treating each person as an individual, acting with "colorblind" impartiality, and granting no "special privileges" based on past injustices can we overcome the remaining vestiges of racism. The difference between these alternate views has less to do with the visions of a desirable future they promote than with their differences over what responsibilities we have for remedying past injustices that have shaped the world we have inherited, the seriousness of continuing injustices, and over the practicality of becoming successful strictly through our own efforts. In the 1970s, William Ryan warned against "blaming the victims" of racism. Several recent writers warn that racism has become an excuse for a self-defeating "victim" psychology and a rationale for paternalistic and ineffective government programs.
The comix were part of a counter cultural movement which pushed for greater freedom for individuals. Their strongly individualistic, non-revolutionary bent stood out in contrast to the other radical comics that were available in those years, such as the Maoist propaganda comics booklets imported from China, the educational comic books by Marxist Eduardo del Rio (rius), imported from Mexico, and the cartoons that Emory Douglas was doing as Black Panther Party Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party's newspaper. Before addressing underground comix directly, a few words follow on how comics pertain to racial questions.
Comics Reflect and Affect
Comics both "reflect and affect" the wider society, but not in a simple, mechanical way. They supply evidence of widely-shared assumptions and also teach particular ways of looking at things. Dr. Fredric Wertham, an anti-racist psychiatrist, made both of these arguments in the 1950s. He submitted panels from American comic books as evidence reflecting American racism in one of the court cases that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ordered the end of racial segregation in public schools in 1954. Wertham's best-known book, Seduction of the Innocent (published in 1954), included an extensive section condemning American comic books for indelibly impressing on their young readers that there exist "natives, primitives, savages, 'ape men,' Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, [or] Oriental features" who are inferior to tall, blond, regular-featured men, and are "suitable victims for slaughter."
Examples can be found without difficulty in early American comic books that show white characters violently suppressing non-white rebels, criminals or bandits. Readers of those comics would have been hard-pressed to think of an example of a white character being suppressed by a character who is not white, except as a temporary inversion of the natural order of things that the story shows being put right. Racism was built into the foundations of entire once-popular genres, including westerns (which showed a "white" conquest of the American West), jungle comics (in which white "jungle lords" punched the faces of African challengers to maintain order in their realms), and war comics (which frequently showed white Americans fighting barbaric Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese enemies.)
"Cultural Studies" provides a framework that organizes the questions we can ask about comix under three main headings. The first set of questions revolves around how these objects are produced. The artist's intention is only one of many questions to be answered about the larger patterns of cooperation that allow these picture-stories to come into existence and be circulated.
The second set of questions concerns what we can learn by examining the texts themselves. Studying the particular words and images in a work allows us to connect it to a larger history, and to find patterns, including stereotypes.
The third set of questions concerns what we can discover about how comics are received, interpreted, and used. This set includes questions about possible effects on the thoughts, feelings and behavior of their readers.
A Cultural Studies Framework: Production
Differences between underground comix and mainstream comic books -- including differences in how they represented race -- can be understood by contrasting how they were created. Generally, mainstream comics were created by teams of full-time professionals (a writer, a penciller, an inker, a letterer, and a colorist), working for commercial publishers in New York City who sought to maximize sales by releasing titles with continuing characters on a regular schedule for young readers. Underground cartoonists usually wrote, drew and lettered their own pages by themselves. Sometimes comix creators also served as their own editors, publishers, distributors or even printers, but more frequently they relied on a network of people who shared their goals to handle the publishing, distribution, retailing and printing. The underground model's emphasis on freedom of individual expression encouraged a diversity of viewpoints, including diverse (but usually white) views about racial matters.
Another important institutional aspect that separated underground comix from the mainstream comic books in these years was that the comix were not regulated by the mainstream comic book industry's self-censorship code, the Comics Code Authority. With this Code, mainstream comics had bound themselves to limit the graphic depiction of violence, nudity, suggestiveness, and to never "ridicule or attack ... any religious or racial group."
Comix artists often tried to outdo each other in violating the hated Code's restrictions, including in their stories, for example, recreational drug use, incest, sexual molestation of children, violence against women, left-wing politics, and blasphemy. Cartoonists used extreme racial stereotypes in their comix as further demonstrations of this freedom of expression.
Even when temporarily engaged in an overtly "political" comic book project (for the Berkeley Ecology Center, for example, Students for a Democratic Society, or to support the Chicago Seven) the comix artists did not follow any political conception of "correct" content. Indeed, comix artists typically mocked The New Left, including its concerns over racial stereotyping.
In short, without the constraints of strong editors, industrial self-censorship, mainstream distributors or retailers, or organized political guidance, the alternative "system" that comix created cleared an unusually direct path from the fantasies of the individual cartoonist to the published page. The stoned imagination of the artist touched the stoned imagination of the reader.
The ethnic and racial identities of the cartoonists, editors, publishers, distributors and retailers who were responsible for creating and distributing the work, and the readers who supported them count as additional production-related factors influencing the ethnic and racial messages of the comix. To see this most clearly, compare the history of black cartoonists' work for black newspapers with the material that appeared in the mainstream papers. Only a few of the cartoonists who did comix were perceived as people of color, and so acknowledging the contributions these men made brings us quickly from generalizations about a "system" and a "movement" to a couple of specific names. Two black cartoonists involved with the comix movement were Larry Fuller in the San Francisco Bay Area and Richard "Grass" Green in the Midwest. In both cases, these were cartoonists who began cartooning with an interest in super heroes, and found in the comix (and, in Green's case, the prior comics fandom that comix grew out of) an opportunity to get their work in print. Once connected with this movement, they turned to creating more provocative and outrageous material.
Besides their own ethnic identities, people in comix were influenced by the ethnic makeup of their social networks. A number of comix people had a few black friends that they turned to for their opinions.
Underground comix did not, on the whole, provide an effective forum for commentary on the news or immediate issues, as they took too long to appear on the stands, compared to other magazines and remained on retailers' racks and shelves until sold. These production-related factors discouraged content that was too topical.
A Cultural Studies Framework: Text
Although racial issues were not a central preoccupation of underground comix, many examples can be found of comix in which race plays an important role or in which some characters are represented as racially different. By far, the most frequently represented racial "other" was black people (often referred to as "spades.") Identities only rarely encountered in comix included Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Indians, Mexicans, Polynesians, Puerto Ricans and Vietnamese.
Consider the two books that might be said to have launched the movement, R. Crumb's Zap #1 and Gilbert Shelton's Feds 'n' Heads. Both had stories highlighting the racial category of "whites." The first story in Zap #1 was "Whiteman." In this story a conservative, repressed, white man encounters minstrelized stereotypes of blacks who offer him a more primitive and fun way of living. The uptight Whiteman spurns their invitation. In the last story of Shelton's Feds 'n' Heads, "The Indian Who Came To Dinner," a conventional, liberal white couple invites a very stereotyped (loincloth-and-feather wearing, tomahawk-carrying, dog-eating) Indian to dinner to celebrate Brotherhood Week. The laconic Indian turns his hosts on to peyote.
These path-breaking comix sparked an exceptionally original and innovative body of work, but the accomplishments of the comix were nourished by comix artists' antiquarian love for the works of earlier generations of cartoonists. While reviving the vitality of lost traditions of American cartooning, comix artists dredged back into circulation racist minstrel stereotypes from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The meanings and struggles over these old images, however, had been largely forgotten.
The revived stereotypes resembled the flood of images that Americans had used -- as magazine cartoons, in advertisements, postcards, and in many other media -- to rationalize slavery, segregation, and imperialism by depicting nonwhite people as childlike, dependent, incapable, and grateful for white control. The 1987 documentary film Ethnic Notions explains the functions of anti-black caricatures in detail, showing how the cartoon stereotypes of loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies, arose during particular periods in response to white society's shifting needs to justify the racist oppression of slavery and then segregation. Taken one at a time, the cartoons may not seem especially troublesome, but cumulatively, they had a terrible power. Exaggerating differences between groups makes it easier for privileged groups to act in oppressive ways, and it also attacks members of subordinated groups' confidence in themselves as individuals and in each other. After a long struggle, African-Americans had largely succeeded in driving the images derived from the "minstrel" tradition from mainstream comics. Their victories were incomplete, and in the Nixon years food packages still used stereotypes that had lineages tracing back to the days of the minstrel show, like Aunt Jemima (pancakes), Uncle Ben (rice) and Rastus (Cream of Wheat.) The old stereotypes had a shocking half-familiarity when they were resurrected in the form of parodies, satires and homages in comix.
Cartoonists often defend the stereotypes in their work by saying that the art of cartooning is based on simplification, generalization, distortion and exaggeration. Caricatures become racist stereotypes, though, when instead of exaggerating an individual's particular features to bring out his or her unique humanity, the cartoonist suppresses the individuality of a person's appearance to bring the portrait into conformity with a preexisting racial stereotype. Not all comix artists used the inherited images to represent African-Americans.
Two comix artists, Barney Steel and Guy Colwell, illustrate some of the diversity of opinion that could be found in the comix. Both cartoonists depicted sex and solidarity between blacks and whites, yet Steel and Colwell were far from political comrades.
Barney Steel's Armageddon #2 presented a didactic, anti-racist fable about a black gold miner and a white logger who each marry worthy partners across racial lines and then form a business partnership, followed immediately by a sex orgy that all four participants freely and explicitly agree to in advance. Steel's tale expressed an anarcho-capitalist-libertarian ideology, largely inspired by the author Ayn Rand.
Steel depicted white and black communities as equally racist and his "solution" -- along radical individualist lines -- was for people to forget race and drop out of society, returning to an economy based on gold and bartering. He hammered this message home with some of the most wooden dialog ever seen in comics. Although published by Last Gasp, one of the main comix publishers, Steel's Armageddon comics were widely regarded within underground cartoonist circles as bizarrely right wing.
Guy Colwell, by contrast, was a cartoonist who had spent time in prison for draft resistance, and who aligned himself with radical left politics. His Inner City Romance #1 told the story of three ex-cons (two black and one white), newly released from prison, and plunging back into a ghetto milieu of hard drugs and loose sex. Its sympathetic and unflinching portrayal of the black underclass caused many readers (and cartoonists) to initially assume that Colwell was black himself.
Of all the underground cartoonists, black or white, Colwell most successfully communicated the frustration and rage within the inner cities of that era. His story "Choices" in Inner City Romance #1 presents a protagonist with a choice between a life of drugs and whores or gunning down the pimps and pushers in the cause of black power. In spite of this false dichotomy, Colwell succeeded better than Steel in drawing and writing convincing stories.
To illustrate in greater detail how different competing voices can leave their traces even in a single panel of a single comix story, consider Jay Kinney's "New Left Comics." In this story, Kinney satirized the contradictions present in Students for a Democratic Society, the main New Left group, in 1968. The strip portrayed a group that plots "the Revolution," only to see all their plans unravel (except for the bombing, which goes off as scheduled.) The panel in which the black revolutionists withdraw from the plan first captured my attention for the diagrammatic clarity with which it illustrates how people invent "races."
It can be hard to shake the common sense idea that people belong to different races. There is no question that human differences are observable in eye-color, hair color, skin color, head shape, blood type, and many other biological dimensions, however, clear-cut boundaries between races do not exist as biological facts. People "construct" racial groups by emphasizing certain features and then exaggerating the differences between people who do or do not have these features, and then minimizing differences within those contrasting groups. Many years of cartoon history lie behind Kinney's picture of three nearly-identical black men and a single, higher, larger white man. By listening more closely, though, additional voices become audible in this picture.
Kinney, a recent high-school graduate in 1968, a supporter of SDS and of local efforts to integrate housing, remembers the political background of this story as having been the tensions that SNCC and the Black Panther Party had aroused when they "served notice on the white New Left that it should attend to educating its own people." In their propaganda, the BPP had basically taken "a page from the Red Guard and had the rank and file as a cadre, though with berets instead of Mao caps, and black leather instead of blue coats." The suppression of individuality in these caricatures, then, contained echoes of the image of unity and strength that the BPP tried to project with its uniformed "armed Police Patrols," which set out with the stated goals of reducing police harassment and raising consciousness. Rather than drawing a positive image, the comic caricatured "the separatism then engulfing the New Left and the gun-brandishing and threatening image cultivated by the Black Panthers." In criticizing this development, the novice cartoonist made a one-time use, which he regards as dubious in retrospect, of incorporating the exaggerated lips from the old minstrel stereotype.
Kinney recalls that these lips had been "[i]nspired in part by Crumb's devil-may-care use of racial stereotypes." Kinney had found in Crumb's strip "Don't Gag on it, Goof on it" an artistic command: "mock and satirize hypocrisy, cant, self-congratulation, injustice, and so on, wherever you find it." The artist's satirical task became to lay bare and break the taboos of both the mainstream and the counterculture, of both sexism and feminism, of both the left and the right. The artistic choices in this panel, then, identified the story as an underground comic. Further complicating the politics of this thick-lipped representation, such minstrelized images were such a strong strand in American cartooning that even black and Black Nationalist papers had sometimes used similar caricatures to represent black people.
In addition to 19th century whites who darkened their faces with burnt cork and performed as blackface minstrels, the Black Panther armed Police Patrols, and R. Crumb, another unexpected voice might be echoing through this picture. During this period the FBI was using forged cartoons (among other tricks) to weaken support for the BPP and to stir up anger between rival groups. In one case, FBI agents got their hands on a coloring book by the BPP artist Michael Teemer -- full of pictures of militant blacks killing humanoid pigs -- that BPP officials had rejected as inappropriate. The FBI changed the captions to make them more anti-white, and then distributed copies as a BPP publication. While I was corresponding with Jay Kinney about "New Left Comics," he remembered he had seen and been disturbed by "The Black Panther Coloring Book" in the 1960s, and began to wonder whether or not his distrust of the BPP had been partly influenced by seeing some of the government's cartoon disinformation.
A Cultural Studies Framework: Reception
The use of cartoons by the government's COINTELPRO campaign against the Black Panther Party brings us to consider the various ways that cartoons can be used. Another unusual and hateful use of blatantly racist cartoons has been to create hostile working environments: to intimidate, harass or demean fellow workers based on their perceived racial identity. (As far as I know, no underground comix have ever been implicated in such cases.)
The ordinary use of underground comix has been as pleasure reading. Some of them have also been suitable as stroke manuals. They gave "the counterculture" some common reference points (e.g., "Keep on Trucking.")
The meanings of comic book stories do not reside neatly encapsulated inside their panels, but are generated by the encounters between the works and their readers. It would be practically impossible to reconstruct after several decades have intervened how the comix' first readers interpreted them. During those early years of the comix movement, reader responses rarely found their way into print, even in the form of reviews or articles about comix.
Setting aside the hypothetical possibility of whether some readers might have used underground comix images to harass co-workers, an opposite question also arises. Might comix have fought racism? Some studies have examined whether humorous cartoons and comic books can be effective tools for teaching anti-prejudice messages. Researchers in the 1940s found that most of their respondents missed the point when shown anti-prejudice cartoons that mocked bigots. In relation to underground comix, the question comes out a bit differently. Can raising racism to conscious awareness through over-the-top racist stereotypes accomplish an anti-racist purpose? Perhaps the more extreme images might help us better recognize this undercurrent in popular culture as a sickness, to identify and reject such stereotypes, and so cause less harm than more normal negative images, which make their insults beneath the level of conscious awareness. My personal experience has been that recently viewing minstrelized caricatures makes it harder to feel comfortable around people who have been demeaned by those images.
A critic can go after the most extreme images and risk wasting time by making a cartoonist a scapegoat for a broader social problem, or focus on more everyday kinds of insults, omissions and distortions, and risk being seen as hypersensitive and "p.c." We must ask who, if anyone, do cartoons hurt, how do the cartoons hurt them, and what can be done to relieve their suffering. In recent years, the most frequent arena for controversies over racist cartooning have been over material published in college newspapers.
To the extent the comix movement had an agenda, it fought for the end of censorship and the revitalization of comic books as an art form. It was wildly successful in achieving those two goals. For a number of reasons underground comix did not take up the cause of racial justice, at least not in any sustained, large-scale way. The movement was so small, though, I'm tempted to imagine that if another comix cartoonist/editor had shown up that was as determined, prolific and ardent about racial equality as comix artist/editor Trina Robbins was about gender equality, it could have been enough to turn the course of comix history in a different direction. It also could have been enough to put the comix in the cross hairs of COINTELPRO, so it's hard to know. Statistics show how much has changed (and how much has not changed) in the 30 years since the comix industry's crisis of 1974. Different statistics can be marshaled to defend different views. According to survey results, 70 percent of whites now believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities. More than 80 percent of whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods.
One measure of the failure of the counterculture can be found in this statistic: the numbers of Americans held behind prison walls has gone from 200,000 in the late 1960s to two million today, many of them people of color, imprisoned in disproportionate numbers for using illegal drugs like the ones that inspired some of the best comix.
Because comix grew out of a passion for personal expression instead of money or social justice, the movement matured into a market niche of "art comics" that appears small, under-funded, creatively-unlimited, politically negligible, increasingly colorful, and artistically brilliant.
© 2004 Leonard Rifas (all rights reserved). This essay is the intellectual property of the author and cannot be printed or distributed without the author's express written permission other than excerpts for purposes consistent with Fair Use.