Break­ing bar­ri­ers

US ex­hibit high­lights early black comic artists.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ART - By KEVIN BE­GOS

COMIC books are full of su­per­heroes and a daz­zling va­ri­ety of char­ac­ters, but in the early days of the in­dus­try, one thing was con­spic­u­ously rare: black char­ac­ters. Now, an ex­hibit in Pitts­burgh, United States, chron­i­cles some early artists and a pub­lisher who started to break the comic colour bar­rier in the 1930s and 1940s.

The ex­hibit, called Be­yond The Funny Pages, co­in­cides with Black His­tory Month and is be­ing shown through the end of Fe­bru­ary at the City/County build­ing. It chron­i­cles the con­tri­bu­tions of Matt Baker, the first black to work in the in­dus­try; Zelda “Jackie” ormes, the first black fe­male comic artist; and Or­rin Evans, the first black comic pub­lisher.

The Toonseum, which cel­e­brates comic art, is help­ing cu­rate the ex­hibit.

Toonseum Di­rec­tor Joe Wos notes: “Even to­day, the funny pages lack di­ver­sity.” But decades ago, the sit­u­a­tion was even tougher.

Baker was so tal­ented that he was hired in the early 1940s by New York’s pres­ti­gious Eis­ner & Iger Stu­dio, an other­wise all­white or­gan­i­sa­tion. He later drew for Marvel Comics, Gun­smoke Westerns, and Play­boy mag­a­zine.

Am­ber and Dean Bierkan vis­ited the ex­hibit last Fri­day and noted that the strug­gles of black artists are still rel­e­vant to­day. They were struck by Baker’s achieve­ments.

“And he had to draw white men and women,” said Dean Bierkan. “That was the mar­ket.”

When Or­rin Evans came up with the idea of a comic book filled with all-black char­ac­ters, he faced a back­lash. In 1947, Evans pub­lished a sin­gle is­sue of All-Ne­gro Comics and noted in the in­tro­duc­tion that he hoped his project would give black artists an op­por­tu­nity to use their tal­ents. Af­ter that, the big com­pa­nies that con­trolled the comics in­dus­try “pretty much locked him out. He couldn’t get paper. Noth­ing,” said Wos. A planned sec­ond is­sue never hap­pened.

Wos said it ap­pears the big comic pub­lish­ers were threat­ened by the sub­ject mat­ter and the fact that Evans was an in­de­pen­dent pub­lisher.

The comics ven­ture failed, but Evans had a suc­cess­ful ca­reer as a pi­o­neer­ing jour­nal­ist for the Philadel­phia Evening Bul­letin.

ormes, the first black fe­male comic artist, is cred­ited with con­vinc­ing ed­i­tors at the Pitts­burgh Courier in 1937 to let her draw comic strip Dixie To Har­lem. It chron­i­cled Torchy Brown’s move from the Deep South to New York City, mir­ror­ing a real-life shift many were ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. ormes later cre­ated a black comic char­ac­ter named Gin­ger who dis­cussed civil rights, poverty and other con­tro­ver­sial topics in the late 1940s and early 1950s. That led to ques­tion­ing by the FBI and al­le­ga­tions that ormes was a Com­mu­nist, the ex­hibit notes.

Chay Tyler, who helped cu­rate the ex­hibit, said he hadn’t pre­vi­ously known much about the his­tory of blacks in the comic in­dus­try.

“A lot of it was a sur­prise to me. Be­cause when I was grow­ing up, I’d never seen a black comic book, pe­riod,” said Tyler, a pro­gramme co­or­di­na­tor for the city Depart­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation.

It took decades for black comic char­ac­ters to en­ter the main­stream, said Wos. For ex­am­ple, in the mid-1960s, Mor­ris Turner cre­ated Wee Pals, the first na­tion­ally syn­di­cated US comic strip fea­tur­ing black char­ac­ters – but only about 10 news­pa­pers car­ried it.

Three months af­ter the Rev Martin Luther King Jr was as­sas­si­nated in 1968, 100 news­pa­pers were car­ry­ing the strip.

“It took that for white Amer­ica to recog­nise, we need to lis­ten to these voices,” said Wos.

One of the pages of a comic book by Zelda ‘Jackie’ Ormes, the first african amer­i­can woman comic artist, is on dis­play at the City/County build­ing in Pitts­burgh. The uS ex­hibit chron­i­cles some early african amer­i­can artists and a pub­lisher who started to break the comic colour bar­rier in the 1930s and 1940s. — aP

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