One of my continuing hobbies is toying around with public domain comics. I've talked about this before. I've been an irregular contributor to the Digital Comic Museum -- I like the idea that there's an online archive of old comics. Every once in a while, I buy an old book off of e-Bay, scan it, and upload the scanned book to DCM. Because the books have fallen out of copyright, this is totally legit.
I've also mentioned before just how racist a lot of these old comics are. The Japanese, especially, are depicted horribly but, unsurprisingly, African Americans are also badly portrayed. I've been reflecting on two things for a few days: first, I just scanned an issue of a book with a really offensive character in it, and that's got me asking soul-searching questions: "why am I helping to archive racism?" I'm sure that archivists confront similar questions all the time. Second, I was watching some commentaries on the DVDs of Justice League Unlimited, and I'm seeing Dwayne McDuffie (who died earlier this year) and getting a bit misty-eyed.
If Dwayne McDuffie had a 1940's parallel, it would be Orrin C. Evans. Evans decided, one day, that there could stand to be a comic with black heroes. Thus he created All-Negro Comics. He says in the introduction:
Dear Readers: This is the first issue of All-Negro Comics, jam-packed with fast action, African adventure, good clean humor and fantasy.
Every brush stroke and pen line in the drawings on these pages are by Negro artists. Each drawing is an original; this is, none has been published ANYWHERE before. This publication is another milestone in the splendid history of Negro journalism.
All-Negro Comics will not only give Negro artists an opportunity gainfully to use their talents, but it will glorify Negro historical achievements.
It's clear the Evans had some pretty big dreams about what the comic could become. Sadly, those dreams didn't really come to fruition. Tom Christopher writes:
All Negro Comics # 1 carries a cover date of June 1947. No information about the press run or distribution remains, but it is believed that the comic was distributed outside of the Philadelphia area.
A second issue was planned and the art completed, but when Orrin was ready to publish he found that his source for newsprint would no longer sell to him, nor would any of the other vendors he contacted. Though Orrin was unyielding in his support of integration and civil rights he was moderate in his methods of achieving these goals. He believed in the general fairness of the system he had been born into. He was not a man given to conspiratorial thinking, but his family remembers that his belief was that there was pressure being placed on the newsprint wholesalers by bigger publishers and distributors who didn't welcome any intrusions on their established territories.
Christopher's biography of Evans is interesting reading. This blurb is suggests some of his accomplishment:
His first job was on the Sportsman’s Magazine at age 17, and his first real newspaper experience was with the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest black paper in the country. From there, in the early nineteen-thirties, he decided to break the color barrier and landed a writing position on the Philadelphia Record, becoming the first black writer to cover general assignments for a mainstream white newspaper in the United States. In 1944 at the Record he wrote a series of articles about segregation in the armed services, which were read into the congressional record, and helped end the practice. He won an honorable mention in that year’s Hayword Hale Broun award, but also drew some unwelcome attention. To criticize the government during wartime, even to point out the obvious hypocrisy of segregating troops putting their lives on the line to defend a country where democracy supposedly makes all men equal was considered treasonous by some and he and his family received death threats. His daughter Hope remembers their house being protected in a 24 hour a day vigil by a congregation of Orrin’s friends, both black and white, until the threats subsided.
Another blog entry suggests that there are a few other examples of comics aimed at African American audiences:
My brief research revealed that there have been relatively few mainstream comic books published by and intended primarily for black audiences. These include Negro Romance (1950) Negro Heroes (1947 - 1948), the venereal disease educational Little Willie (1949), Fast Willie Jackson (1976 – 1977), and a line of comics published by DC Comics in the 1990s (including Blood Syndicate, Hardware, Icon, Kobalt, Shadow Cabinet and others).
Clearly, not a large canon.
Digital Comic Museum only has a few pages available of the only issue of All-Negro Comics. e-Bay currently has a copy on sale for the low, low price of USD $6,750.00. The e-Bay blurb suggests that there might be fewer than 10 copies still in existence.