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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.




“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


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.

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


Objecting to Anything That Might Challenge the Most Conventional Ideas

A 20-year-old college student in Yucaipa, California is protesting the inclusion of four landmark graphic novels in an English class that she took during the recently-finished Spring 2015 semester at Crafton Hills College, reported Maren Williams at Comic Book Legal
Persepolis coverDefense Fund (CBLDF) on June 13. According to the Redlands Daily Facts newspaper, Tara Shultz and her parents object to four of the ten books offered in the course — Persepolis, Fun Home, Y: The Last ManVol. 1, and The Sandman Vol. 2: The Doll’s House as “pornography” and “garbage.”

Shultz, who is working towards an Associate of Arts in English at the public community college, signed up for English 250: Fiction because it fulfills one part of her degree requirements. She was apparently aware that the specific focus of the class was graphic novels, but she told the newspaper that “I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography.”

She and her father say the course professor failed to warn students about the books’ salacious content, but they just weren’t paying attention: “The school requires instructors (p. 20) to distribute a detailed syllabus on the first day of the term–and ample time to withdraw with no effect on her grade.”

And Scultz could have taken any of fourteen other courses that would fulfill the same degree requirement as English 250.

Her father also objects to the availability of these sinful tomes in the campus bookstore when “there are under-aged kids here at this campus.” (One must wonder if he knows what is in the library and on the Internet for free!—MW)

Happily, Williams reported subsequently, that Crafton Hills College, “facing the wrath of the Internet,” declined to “eradicate” any graphic novels from its English 250 course as 20-year-old student Tara Shultz and her parents had demanded. The Shultz family disagrees with the college’s defense of academic freedom and the gather, Greg Schultz, announced that he now plans to speak to the San Bernardino Community College District Board of Directors which oversees Crafton Hills, and he has also contacted state lawmakers.

And here’s the plug I’ve been leading up to: CBLDF applauds Crafton Hills administrators for standing by their curriculum and their commitment to academic freedom. We will be watching for an equal display of backbone from the board of directors!

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


Zunar photoIran is scarcely the only country that attacks cartoonists and/or artists for expressing dissent. Malaysian political cartoonist Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, also known as “Zunar,” is facing nine simultaneous charges over his tweets on 10 February criticizing the judiciary after opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was jailed on sodomy charges. Should he be found guilty at trial, he could face up to 43 years in prison. He has been charged under the Sedition Act, a colonial-era law that clamps down on freedom of expression under the guise of protecting national security and deterring racial or religious unrest.

Zunar’s trial, scheduled for July, was postponed pending a decision that the country’s Sedition Act is valid. The Sedition Act was instituted by British colonial rulers in 1948, nine years before Malaysia became fully independent. Last year the Act was challenged in court by a law professor also charged with sedition, who argued it should be invalid since it predates independence and the Malaysian constitution. But a federal court felt differently. The trial date is set for early November.

Zunar has been repeatedly harassed by his country’s authorities. Amnesty International reports: “Zunar has already been detained twice under this law — in September 2010 for two days, and on 10 February for three days. Five of his cartoon books have been banned by the Malaysian government pm the grounds that their content is ‘detrimental to public order.’ His office in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, has been raided several times and thousands of his cartoon books have been confiscated.


“The printers, vendors and bookshops around the country that carry his publications have also been harassed. Their premises have been raided and they have been warned by the Malaysian authorities not to print or carry any of Zunar’s books, or their license will be revoked. Three of Zunar’s assistants were arrested in October 2014 and taken to the police station for selling his books. The webmaster who manages Zunar’s website and online bookshop has also been called in by police for questioning. The online gateway that handled payments for Zunar’s books online was forced to disclose to the police the list of customers who had purchased books through Zunar’s official website, www.zunar.my.

Meanwhile, Zunar has received one of this year’s International Press Freedom Awards from the Committee to Protect Journalists, which recognizes the cartoonist for raising a moral and unsilenced voice through his cartoons, reported Michael Cavna at ComicRiffs. Zunar told Cavna that when a cartoonist faces a moral crisis, “you need to stand and fight. You need to carry the people’s voice through your cartoon.”

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


Tintin in America cover


A Winnipeg Chapters bookstore was asked to pull the comic Tintin in America from its shelves, citing "the impact of racist images and perpetuating harmful narratives." At first, Chapters pulled the book, but, reported Kim Wheeler at CBC News, it is now back on the shelves after the bookstore chain determined it does not violate its policy. The cover image depicts stereotypical images of indigenous people in buckskin, and a chief brandishing an axe over his head while Tintin is tied to a post in the background. The manager said that the company doesn't feel there is anything wrong with the imagery or the content of the book.

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


Don’t Do Anything That Might Offend Someone

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) was on the case recently in Texas, advocating for the First Amendment right to offensive speech by joining an amicus brief filed by the Cato Institute and amici P.J. O’Rourke, Nat Hentoff, and Nadine Strossen. The brief, reported Caitlin McCabe at CBLDF, turns on the question of offensiveness.

Confederate FlagThe Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed a “specialty license plate” that includes the organization’s logo, which depicts the Confederate flag. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles denied the proposal because the Confederate flag might be offensive to some citizens. CBLDF and the other amici contend that the denial could set a harmful precedent for the First Amendment if such potentially offensive speech is suppressed.

Said McCabe: “CBLDF joins coalition efforts like these to protect the freedom to read comics. Censorship manifests in many ways, and the unique visual nature of comics makes them more prone to censorship than other types of books. Taking an active stand against all instances of censorship curbs precedent that could adversely affect the rights upon which comics readers depend.”

At issue in Texas is more than specialty license plates, as McCabe says: “If a governmental agency has the right to determine what is too offensive for the public in this instance, where does it stop? And at what point does the government have the ability to not only regulate and take action against speech, but also citizens’ ideas and beliefs?”

Of course, McCabe points out, “a major part of granting U.S. citizens the right to free speech is that they have the ability to talk about and support a range of ideas and beliefs, including those which might be offensive to other people.”

The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles has the right to reject a proposed specialty license plate. Maryland recently recalled its Confederate flag plaes, but six other states— Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Georgia  — still sell Sons of Confederate Veterans plates.

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


Don’t Do Anything That Might Offend Someone

The murders in Paris last January brought into public view worldwide the kinds of cartoons produced by the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo — cartoons potentially offensive to a range of religious and political sensibilities. Some so-called “news” outlets in the United States (conspicuously, PBS’ “Newshour”) decline to present any drawings of the Prophet Muhammad because such pictures might be offensive to some viewers. On the other side of the argument are those who endorse freedom of expression as an absolute, something to protect and treasure regardless of whoever might be imagined as offended, whenever and wherever.

Palomar coverAs if to underscore the strategic importance of that stance, cases of censorship last winter advance the thin edge of the wedge that will, if such good-intentioned “let’s not offend anyone” censorship is successful, drive us further away from the freedom to speak out minds.

Herewith, the first of a couple of the pending suppression of offense cases:

Graphic novelist Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar was labeled “child porn” by the mother of a high school student in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Sadly, said Maren Williams, a  Contributing Editor at Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), unbiased details are difficult to come by so far, what with the local news station that broke the story labeling the book “sexual, graphic, and not suitable for children.”

“Needless to say, Williams continues, “Palomar is not actually a collection of child porn — Publishers Weekly called it ‘a superb introduction to the work of an extraordinary, eccentric and very literary cartoonist’ and it often draws comparisons to the magic realism of novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.”

Fortunately, the school district has a review policy for challenged books, and a committee was formed to decide whether the book will remain in the school library. The committee voted 5-3 in March to keep the book in a high school library.

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


Swedish conceptual artist Lars Vilks, who has been dealing with death threats from Muslims in Europe ever since drawing a dog with Muhammed’s head in 2007, received the Sappho Award from the Free Press Society of Denmark. The prize is for courage in the advocacy of free speech and is named after the Greek poet who serves as the Society’s icon.

Said Vilks upon receiving the award: “I am an artist and my artwork is probably difficult to understand. Many have tried to understand what that dog is about. But I don’t even understand it myself. Some believe that it is a form of blasphemy, but I say that it is what art is all about. I show my things to the world and then the world must interpret it.”

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


According to Reuters, when Swedish artist Lars Vilks drew the Prophet Mohammad as a dog in 2007, the picture’s aim was to challenge political correctness in the art world. After the sketch sparked an uproar in the Islamic world, Vilks admitted that he had been naive to think its effect would be limited.

Vilks, 68, published his Muhammad dog a year after the 2006 Danish cartoon controversy, and has been a repeated target since then, appearing on death lists of Islamist extremists. He receives round-the-clock police security, has been attacked in his home and at a university lecture, and was the target of a murder plot by a Pennsylvania woman known as “Jihad Jane.”

The February 2015 seminar in Copenhagen, which Vilks organized at the cultural center, was meant to mark the 25th anniversary of an Iranian fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie. During the fireworks, Vilks was whisked away to the safety of a cold storage room, and he has no doubt that he was the target.

“What other motive could there be [for the attack]?” he told Karl Ritter of the Associated Press.

Before 2007, Reuters said, “Vilks was a little known painter, sculptor and art theorist. That year, he drew three cartoons of Mohammad for an exhibition on dogs in art, to test whether the politically correct organizers would dare show them. They did not, citing security reasons.”

"In art, it is said there are no longer any boundaries to cross," Vilks wrote at the time. "The little drawings made it possible to show that boundaries undoubtedly exist."

Editoonist Daryl Cagle demured over Vilks’ profession, pointing out that Vilks is not a cartoonist: “Vilks is a ‘conceptual artist,”’ Cagle said, “who had been known for building towers made of sticks before he took up the Prophet Muhammad-dog theme. Vilks studied art history and didn’t train as an artist, as is clear to anyone who sees his terrible drawings. His most famous Muhammad dog drawing looks like he drew it in five seconds, on a napkin, with his eyes closed, and both hands behind his back. Unlike cartoonists who seek to have their work published, Vilks shopped around for galleries that were willing to hang his scribble on their wall – when one gallery agreed, the drawing made the news, and the art show was cancelled, but the news was enough to give Vilks new fame as the Prophet Muhammad dog ‘cartoonist.’”

At the time — a year after the brouhaha over the Danish cartoons — Vilks thought all of that was “water under the bridge.”

He continued as Reuters reported:

"What I expected was that my contribution would be a local event," he wrote. "But I was naive about this ... Wrong, the issue was very much on the agenda and remains so."

But while the controversy over his drawings has gained him fame in his native Sweden, he says his career has suffered due to the security concerns among galleries and art institutions about exhibiting even work unrelated to Islam.

"Just meeting me or learning I am going appear somewhere creates waves of fear," he told Reuters. "They think the whole world will come storming over there and blow it all sky high."

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


A Little Ancient History Rehearsed

For The Record — just to keep track of cartooning events that have a continuing implication worldwide —  last winter, in Copenhagen, on February 14, a lone gunman opened fire in a cultural center, killing one person and wounding others, then went on to kill a Jewish security guard at a synagogue. It is widely supposed that the gunman, a 22-year-old Muslim born in Denmark of Pakistani parents, was inspired by the slaughter on January 7 in Paris of a dozen Charlie Hebdo staff members, whose offense was drawing and publishing cartoons of Muhammad in the satirical magazine.

The Danish gunman apparently had the same agenda: his attack on the cultural center was prompted, it seems, by a seminar being held there on freedom of speech and expression, instigated by Lars Vilks, a cartoonist (he says) who made himself famous in the aftermath of the 2006 Danish Dozen by drawing Muhammad as a dog; and, like the second wave of Paris terror, the Copenhagen shooter then assaulted a Jewish target.

Like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, Vilks had insulted the Prophet and therefore deserved to die.

Danish police tracked the gunman and during a shootout at a train station shot and killed him. Later, it turned out he had a criminal record, mostly for possession of firearms, and had probably, like the Charlie Hebdo killers, been radicalized while serving time in a prison.

“Once again, we are reminded there’s a very brutal war going on right under our noses,” Robert T. Russell, executive director of Cartoonists Rights Network International, told Michael Cavna at the Washington Post’s ComicRiffs. “Many of the same questions will be raised that we all discussed after the Charlie Hebdo killings.

“Once again, we’ll most likely come to the same conclusions: freedom of speech and the freedom to express one’s self without fear of retribution continues to be the best pathway to a more tolerant world,” continued Russell, whose Virginia-based organization is running a crowd-funding campaign to defend “the creative and human rights of cartoonists under threat throughout the world.”

“My heart,” Russell said, “goes out to the person killed in this attack in Copenhagen, and the family that will now try to cope with actions of people who only understand hate.”

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


While we were still glowing with missing embers, a bunch of Denver comics fans discovered an antique rendering of Archie, Betty, Veronica and Jughead in which the characters look only vaguely like the famed Riverside personnel. The artwork (which appears below the photo of the Dennis statue in our previous post) is by Sam Berman, a noted caricaturist in the 1940s and 1950s, who prepared 56 caricatures of radio actors and notable personalities for the 1947 NBC Parade of Stars. The Archie portraits were promoting “The Adventures of Archie Andrews,” and the pictures look like the actors in the program, not the characters in the comic book.          

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