TEMPUS TODD AND H. WESTON TAYLOR
Offered Again (and Slightly Updated and Corrected) :
Prowling the web in search of African American comics a few years ago, I ran across Tempus Todd, a comic strip that ran in 1923 and may have been the first strip with an adult male African American protagonist. Until Todd’s advent, most African American characters in cartoons and comic strips had been children, or, if adults, they filled secondary roles as servants or other kinds of menials or fools, importing their imagery and comical conduct from black-face minstrelsy, which is to say, not from actual African Americans but from whites with burnt cork on their faces, “caricatures derived from the popular stage routines of white males’ gross parodies of ‘black life,’ originally the slave life of blacks,” according to Steven Loring Jones in “From ‘Under Cork’ to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics” at ferris.edu.
The strip was written by Octavus Roy Cohen, a Jew from Charleston, South Carolina, who started as an engineer, graduating from Clemson Agricultural College in 1911, but soon turned to journalism, working on several newspapers around the South before deciding to study the law. He was admitted to the bar in 1913 and hung his shingle in Charleston, but when he sold his first short story in 1915, he quit the law and concentrated on writing fiction.
I first ran across Cohen in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post, where he achieved some popularity (as well as a measure of notoriety in literary annals) with stories featuring egregious comic stereotypes of African Americans, who spoke an exaggerated “black dialect” that Cohen deployed for comic effect. They were, in effect, still “under cork.”
Cohen’s stories, usually starring a “sepia gentleman” named Florian Slappey, known as the “Beau Bummell of Bumminham,” were handsomely if stereotypically illustrated in gray wash, sometimes by J. J. Gould, a mainstay at the Post since early in the century, and, on other occasions, by H. Weston Taylor, another regular at the Post.
And Taylor also drew Tempus Todd in the funnies. Dunno Taylor’s race, for sure; but at Allan Holtz’s website, Stripper’s Guide (strippersguide.blogspot.com), Taylor is described as having blue eyes. And his race isn’t mentioned. Had he been African American, I’m sure that fact would have been noted.
In a 1997 Newspaper Research Journal article analyzing black images in comic strips, Sylvia E. White and Tania Fuentez say that Tempus Todd’s all-black cast is depicted “as individuals” and that Taylor “avoided the traditional minstrel face (protruding white lips, bulging round eyes in a totally black face).” I haven’t seen any more of the clickingly christened Tempus Todd than the drawing that appears at lambiek.net under Taylor’s name (reproduced here), but with no more evidence than this before me, I’m not sure I’d agree that Taylor avoided “protruding white lips” and “bulging round eyes” although Todd, if this is he, doesn’t have the totally black visage and grossly liver-lipped portrayals typical of the day.
Todd is a cab driver, say White and Fuentez, and the comedy in the strip arises in his encounters with his passengers, all of whom spoke in the minstrel dialect that Cohen had perfected for characters of color. It was a short-lived strip, according to Holtz’s American Newspaper Comics: it started April 16, 1923 and ran only until June 30 of that year.
Taylor pursued cartooning in the infant comic book industry, working 1940-42 in the Jacquet Shop, where he produced features for Centaur comics (“Dr. Synthe,” “King of Darkness,” and the briskly named “Dash Dartwell”), Novelty (“Lucky Byrd”), and Quality (“Scarlet Seal,” “Ace of Space,” and “Counterspy”) before dropping from sight.