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GEORGE L. LEE

And Interesting People

Interesting People coverLast winter, Michael Dooley, a comics enthusiast and scholar who is a contributing editor at Print magazine, asked me if I knew of any African American cartoonists who had been prevented from practicing their craft because of their race. At the time, I knew of no one. Since then, I found George Lee.

Born in 1906, Lee aspired to be a cartoonist, and by 1933, he was producing sports drawings for Bang, a magazine about boxing, and the Chicago American daily newspaper—“until,” as the back cover blurb on one of his books puts is, “those publications found out that he was black. [Then] there was no more work for him.”

But Lee didn’t accept defeat. I don’t know what, exactly, he did for the next twelve years, but in 1945, he was doing a panel cartoon he called Interesting People and syndicating it himself to the black press throughout the country. In appearance, the cartoon resembled Robert Ripley’s Believe It Or Not: Lee drew a realistic portrait of a black man or woman who had achieved greatness in some field and added a paragraph of biography and sometimes a cartoony picture of the subject doing his/her thing.

I just acquired a 1989 Ballantine Book reprint of a 1976 collection of Lee’s cartoons entitled Interesting People: Black American History Makers (224 5x8-inch pages in paperback). “The purpose of this book,” Lee says in his Preface, “is to show that with God’s help, good courage, and determination, one can achieve much. May its pages be a source of inspiration, knowledge, and pride for all.”

On the book’s back cover is this: “At a time when there was little or no information available about African American ‘history makers,’ George Lee kept their names alive.” Indeed, he may have given them life in the collective memory of many African Americans.

Imagine, in particular, the impact of his “believe it or nots” on young black readers of his cartoon in their African American newspaper: in Lee’s Interesting People, they may have been discovering for the first time that black people could be great. Below are  several of Lee’s portrait/biographies.

InterestingPeople4

 

  InterestingPeople1

“Many of the feature’s subjects were born slaves; all of the cartoons depict lives that stand as models of the courage and determination that helped George Lee commemorate them in his delightful, accessible history lessons.”

Lee discontinued Interesting People in 1948 (“because,” he says, “of the newsprint shortage brought on by World War II” that limited the size of newspapers for a time, forcing them to condense or eliminate feature content), but he revived the series in 1970 and continued doing it until he retired in 1986 at the age of eighty. I don’t know if he’s still living, but I doubt it: he’d be 108 years old.

McFarland Publishers has recently completed reprinting three of Lee’s books: Inspiring African Americans: Black History Makers in the United States, 1750-1984; Interesting Athletes: A Newspaper Artist’s Look at Blacks in Sports; and Worldwide Interesting People: 162 History Makers of African Descent.

For more Rants & Raves with its comics news and reviews, gossip and cartooning lore, visit www.RCHarvey.com

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