Desegregating Comics: Debating Blackness in Early American Comics, 1900-1960

deadline for submissions: 
November 1, 2019
full name / name of organization: 
Qiana Whitted / University of South Carolina

Contributions are invited for a collection of original essays that explore race and blackness in American comic books, comic strips, and editorial cartoons from the turn of the twentieth century through the industry’s Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s. The historical perception of black people in comic art has long been tied to caricatured images of indecipherable minstrels, witch doctors, and brutal savages, yet archives reveal a more racially complex narrative and aesthetic landscape, one that was enriched by the debates among comics artists, writers, editors, and readers about how blackness could be expressed on the page. Large mainstream and small-press creators experimented with new ways to convey black humanity in an art form deeply connected to legacies of racist objectification, particularly in the decades prior to the implementation of the Comics Code of 1954.

While pivotal volumes such as Black Images in the Comics, Pioneering Cartoonists of Color, and Encyclopedia of Black Comics have documented the wide range of diversity in comic art, this collection will target the first half of the twentieth century and provide substantive critical analysis of the ways in which race has been integral to the development of the comics industry in the United States. In additional to discussions of specific titles, genres, and creators, the editor welcomes essays from across disciplines that consider the intersections between comics and early film and animation; the use and meaning of caricature; the impact of race in debates over comics and juvenile delinquency; and the dissenting voices of African American readers within broader social, political, and economic contexts.

Other topics and texts may include, but are not limited to: 

  • Harper’s Weekly political cartoons and series such as Peter Newell’s The Johnson Family
  • Richard F. Outcault’s Poor Lil’ Mose and The New Bully
  • George Herriman’s Krazy Kat and Musical Mose
  • Sunny Boy Sam, Torchy Brown, Neil Knight of the Air, and other comic strips from African American newspapers such as the Pittsburgh Courier, Chicago Defender, and New York Age.
  • Black characters such as Lil’ Eightball, Ebony White, Steamboat, and Whitewash Jones
  • Intersections of race and gender in genre comics, including imperial “jungle” comics, superhero, romance, western, crime, war, horror, and science fiction titles
  • “Ace Harlem”, “Lion Man”, “Sugarfoot” and other stories from All Negro Comics
  • Sports comics such as Jackie Robinson: Baseball Hero, Joe Louis: Champion of Champions, and The Amazing Willie Mays
  • Biographical and educational comics such Negro Heroes and Classics Illustrated
  • Comics depictions of slavery and figures such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman
  • African American creators such as Matt Baker, A.C. Hollingsworth, Ollie Harrington, Jackie Ormes, Wilbert Holloway, Sam Milai, E. Simms Campbell, and Orrin C. Evans
  • Dr. Fredric Wertham and the comics research at Harlem’s Lafargue Clinic
  • EC “preachies” and other social justice comics such as The Challenger
  • Comics and cartoon art from vintage African American magazines such as Hep Magazine, Copper Romance, and Sepia
  • Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Story and other early civil rights comics

Interested authors should submit an abstract (400-500 words), a biography of no more than 100 words, and a two-page CV to Qiana Whitted at desegregatingcomics@gmail.com by November 1, 2019. All applicants will be notified by December 2, 2019. Completed chapters of 6,000-8,000 words will be due by September 1, 2020 with a view to publishing the volume with a reputable academic press by 2021.

Successful proposed essays will do the following:

  • Develop an argument-driven analysis that goes beyond informational description and plot summary to examine specific titles, genres, and creators.
  • Incorporate critical observations about the artwork of the comics under investigation and remain attentive to the design and aesthetics of the visual narrative.
  • Demonstrate an awareness of the subject’s social and historical context, both within comics history and in other relevant areas of popular culture.
  • Explain how the proposed chapter intervenes in or adds to existing comics studies scholarship on the subject.

Contributors will be encouraged to take part in an informal working group to discuss their research and collaborate during the writing process. The editor will also pursue funding to bring contributors together at the University of South Carolina for a symposium on the collection.