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Racial Imagery, Racism, Individualism, and Underground Comix

By Leonard Rifas


This article grew out of my desire to be better prepared to discuss racial stereotypes in underground comix in a college course on comics history.1 It has been an opportunity to sort out some mixed feelings. The value of this piece resides less in any central conclusion, than in the wide-ranging leads it collects as footnotes for those interested in investigating the intersections of race and cartooning. I use a “cultural studies” framework here to explore some “systemic” aspects of how people create, distribute and interpret stories and images of racial difference, rather than setting out to tag particular cartoons or individual cartoonists as “racist” or “not racist.”2

Admittedly, the underground comix of the late 1960s and early 1970s provide neither an ideal starting point to introduce a discussion of race and cartooning nor the most consequential examples for discussing this tangle of issues. For instance, I have no reason to believe that comix representations have had an especially powerful influence over people’s ideas about race. The comics and cartoons that have the greatest influence, we may safely assume, are those that are distributed to mass audiences of children by mainstream media in the form of animated television shows and feature films, games, advertising illustrations, comic strips, and comic books.3 Neither have underground comix been among those racial cartoons most damaging to the people they insulted. That dishonor goes to cartoons that have successfully incited genocide or encouraged acquiescence to genocide, such as those published in Nazi Germany or Rwanda.4 Further, underground comix have not provided the most extreme examples of race-hate cartoons.5 (The comix movement did not, as far as I have been able to determine, produce even one example of a cartoon intended to promote race-hatred.6 ) Also, underground comix of the Nixon era (1968-1974) were not the most eventful cartooning development regarding the depiction of race at that period. The heyday of underground comix was also the period when racial integration finally reached mainstream, syndicated comic strips and comic books.7 Besides not being the most influential, damaging, extreme, or important race-related cartooning of that period, the outrageous racial stereotypes in underground comix were not even especially controversial.8 Still, they cry out for closer study.

Beyond my personal interest in the underground comix movement, in which I participated as a cartoonist and editor, I find comix images of race worth examining for several reasons. For one thing, the comix appeared during an important and confusing turning-point in American race relations after the main legislative victories of the Civil Rights movement.9 Comix of that period provide a different kind of evidence of what was actually going through people’s minds than the heavily-edited material that appeared in the mainstream press. Because comix typically integrated caricatured drawings and colloquial speech to tell stories, they provide rich material for studying racial representations.10 At the same time, examining the various images of racial difference that appeared in comix deepens our understanding of the comix themselves. Beyond these academic reasons, I hope that out of this study might emerge ideas that would help cartoonists and those who enjoy their work to create and support comics that respond to our current situation with greater love and daring.

an anti-racist approach to teaching comics

The subject of American racism has often been taught in stifling, counterproductive ways. As evidence, comic books created to recruit young people into racist organizations have used the plot of a young white student learning to out-argue his Jewish teacher’s dogmatic anti-racist teaching.11

Existing curricular materials frequently frame the problem of developing racial “sensitivity” as one of learning how to avoid offending people of other groups.12 An anti-racist approach to this topic, by contrast, would judge stories and images, not by how well they avoid offensive stereotypes, but by where they stand in relation to our efforts to understand ourselves and the world, and in relation to struggles to end special privileges based on race and advance the well-being of all people. 13

“racism” as a “system”

Current debates over “racism” often seem to come down to a disagreement between those who understand racism primarily as something institutionalized by our social system and those who understand it primarily as something that exists only in the thoughts and actions of individuals. The idea that we live in a racist system seems painfully self-evident to many people. To many others, that idea seems nebulous or false.

A “system” can be as familiar and mysterious as water to a fish. It functions as a set of roles, a set of rules and a set of forces that help sort people into these roles and enforce these rules.14 Looking at racism from this “institutional” perspective explains how racial inequality can result without assuming that the people who come out on top are especially talented and hardworking (or especially prejudiced and hateful,) and without assuming that people on the bottom must have fallen there because of their personal flaws or personal bad luck. A “counterculture” (such as the broader movement that included comix) challenges some of the mythology that holds social relationships in place.

From an institutional perspective, slavery was not simply a situation in which some individuals claimed to own other individuals. Instead, it comprised a complex set of arrangements that relied on the support of racist laws, law enforcement, businesses, religious teachings, and even cartoonists.15 Racism was also institutionalized after slavery ended through the creation of “Black Codes” that made crimes out of actions like vagrancy, missing work, possessing firearms, and making insulting gestures, when the person charged was black.16 Racial segregation in housing has been a more contemporary example of how racism has been institutionalized.17

A familiar alternative to this “institutional racism” perspective can be found in the writings of those who argue that only by seeing and treating each person as an individual, acting with “colorblind” impartiality, and granting no “special privileges” based on past injustices can we overcome the remaining vestiges of racism.18 The difference between these alternate views has less to do with the visions of a desirable future they promote than with their differences over what responsibilities we have for remedying past injustices that have shaped the world we have inherited, the seriousness of continuing injustices, and over the practicality of becoming successful strictly through our own efforts.19 In the 1970s, William Ryan warned against “blaming the victims” of racism.20 Several recent writers warn that racism has become an excuse for a self-defeating “victim” psychology and a rationale for paternalistic and ineffective government programs.21

The comix were part of a countercultural movement which pushed for greater freedom for individuals. Their strongly individualistic, non-revolutionary bent stood out in contrast to the other radical comics that were available in those years, such as the Maoist propaganda comics booklets imported from China, the educational comic books by Marxist Eduardo del Rio (rius), imported from Mexico, and the cartoons that Emory Douglas was doing as Black Panther Party Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party’s newspaper.22 Before addressing underground comix directly, a few words follow on how comics pertain to racial questions.

comics “reflect” and “affect”

Comics both “reflect and affect” the wider society, but not in a simple, mechanical way. They supply evidence of widely-shared assumptions and also teach particular ways of looking at things. Dr. Fredric Wertham, an anti-racist psychiatrist, made both of these arguments in the 1950s. He submitted panels from American comic books as evidence reflecting American racism in one of the court cases that led to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ordered the end of racial segregation in public schools in 1954.23 Wertham’s best-known book, Seduction of the Innocent (published in 1954), included an extensive section condemning American comic books for indelibly impressing on their young readers that there exist “natives, primitives, savages, ‘ape men,’ Negroes, Jews, Indians, Italians, Slavs, Chinese and Japanese, immigrants of every description, people with irregular features, swarthy skins, physical deformities, [or] Oriental features” who are inferior to tall, blond, regular-featured men, and are ”suitable victims for slaughter.”24

Examples can be found without difficulty in early American comic books that show white characters violently suppressing non-white rebels, criminals or bandits. Readers of those comics would have been hard-pressed to think of an example of a white character being suppressed by a character who is not white, except as a temporary inversion of the natural order of things that the story shows being put right. Racism was built into the foundations of entire once-popular genres, including westerns (which showed a “white” conquest of the American West), jungle comics (in which white “jungle lords” punched the faces of African challengers to maintain order in their realms), and war comics (which frequently showed white Americans fighting barbaric Japanese, Korean or Vietnamese enemies.)25

“Cultural Studies” provides a framework that organizes the questions we can ask about comix under three main headings.26 The first set of questions revolves around how these objects are produced. The artist’s intention is only one of many questions to be answered about the larger patterns of cooperation that allow these picture-stories to come into existence and be circulated.

The second set of questions concerns what we can learn by examining the texts themselves. Studying the particular words and images in a work allows us to connect it to a larger history, and to find patterns, including stereotypes.

The third set of questions concerns what we can discover about how comics are received, interpreted, and used. This set includes questions about possible effects on the thoughts, feelings and behavior of their readers.

a cultural studies framework: production

Differences between underground comix and mainstream comic books– including differences in how they represented race – can be understood by contrasting how they were created. Generally, mainstream comics were created by teams of full-time professionals (a writer, a penciller, an inker, a letterer, and a colorist), working for commercial publishers in New York City who sought to maximize sales by releasing titles with continuing characters on a regular schedule for young readers.27 Underground cartoonists usually wrote, drew and lettered their own pages by themselves. Sometimes comix creators also served as their own editors, publishers, distributors or even printers, but more frequently they relied on a network of people who shared their goals to handle the publishing, distribution, retailing and printing. The underground model’s emphasis on freedom of individual expression encouraged a diversity of viewpoints, including diverse (but usually white) views about racial matters.

Another important institutional aspect that separated underground comix from the mainstream comic books in these years was that the comix were not regulated by the mainstream comic book industry’s self-censorship code, the Comics Code Authority.28 With this Code, mainstream comics had bound themselves to limit the graphic depiction of violence, nudity, suggestiveness, and to never “ridicule or attack … any religious or racial group.”29

Comix artists often tried to outdo each other in violating the hated Code’s restrictions, including in their stories, for example, recreational drug use, incest, sexual molestation of children, violence against women, left-wing politics, and blasphemy. Cartoonists used extreme racial stereotypes in their comix as further demonstrations of this freedom of expression.

Even when temporarily engaged in an overtly “political” comic book project (for the Berkeley Ecology Center, for example, Students for a Democratic Society, or to support the Chicago Seven) the comix artists did not follow any political conception of “correct” content.30 Indeed, comix artists typically mocked The New Left, including its concerns over racial stereotyping.31

In short, without the constraints of strong editors, industrial self-censorship, mainstream distributors or retailers, or organized political guidance, the alternative “system” that comix created cleared an unusually direct path from the fantasies of the individual cartoonist to the published page. The stoned imagination of the artist touched the stoned imagination of the reader.

The ethnic and racial identities of the cartoonists, editors, publishers, distributors and retailers who were responsible for creating and distributing the work, and the readers who supported them count as additional production-related factors influencing the ethnic and racial messages of the comix. To see this most clearly, compare the history of black cartoonists’ work for black newspapers with the material that appeared in the mainstream papers.32 Only a few of the cartoonists who did comix were perceived as people of color, and so acknowledging the contributions these men made brings us quickly from generalizations about a “system” and a “movement” to a couple of specific names. Two black cartoonists involved with the comix movement were Larry Fuller in the San Francisco Bay Area and Richard “Grass” Green in the Midwest.33 In both cases, these were cartoonists who began cartooning with an interest in superheroes, and found in the comix (and, in Green’s case, the prior comics fandom that comix grew out of) an opportunity to get their work in print. Once connected with this movement, they turned to creating more provocative and outrageous material.

Besides their own ethnic identities, people in comix were influenced by the ethnic makeup of their social networks. A number of comix people had a few black friends that they turned to for their opinions.34

Underground comix did not, on the whole, provide an effective forum for commentary on the news or immediate issues, as they took too long to appear on the stands, compared to other magazines and remained on retailers’ racks and shelves until sold. These production-related factors discouraged content that was too topical.35

a cultural studies framework: text

Although racial issues were not a central preoccupation of underground comix, many examples can be found of comix in which race plays an important role or in which some characters are represented as racially different.36 By far, the most frequently represented racial “other” was black people (often referred to as “spades.”) Identities only rarely encountered in comix included Arabs, Chinese, Japanese, Jews, Indians, Mexicans, Polynesians, Puerto Ricans, and Vietnamese.

Consider the two books that might be said to have launched the movement, R. Crumb’s Zap #1 and Gilbert Shelton’s Feds ‘n’ Heads. Both had stories highlighting the racial category of “whites.” The first story in Zap #1 was “Whiteman.” In this story a conservative, repressed, white man encounters minstrelized stereotypes of blacks who offer him a more primitive and fun way of living. The uptight Whiteman spurns their invitation. In the last story of Shelton’s Feds ‘n’ Heads, “The Indian Who Came To Dinner,” a conventional, liberal white couple invites a very stereotyped (loincloth-and-feather wearing, tomahawk-carrying, dog-eating) Indian to dinner to celebrate Brotherhood Week. The laconic Indian turns his hosts on to Peyote.

These path-breaking comix sparked an exceptionally original and innovative body of work, but the accomplishments of the comix were nourished by comix artists’ antiquarian love for the works of earlier generations of cartoonists. While reviving the vitality of lost traditions of American cartooning, comix artists dredged back into circulation racist minstrel stereotypes from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The meanings and struggles over these old images, however, had been largely forgotten.

The revived stereotypes resembled the flood of images that Americans had used – as magazine cartoons, in advertisements, postcards, and in many other media – to rationalize slavery, segregation, and imperialism by depicting nonwhite people as childlike, dependent, incapable, and grateful for white control.37 The 1987 documentary film Ethnic Notions explains the functions of anti-black caricatures in detail, showing how the cartoon stereotypes of loyal Toms, carefree Sambos, faithful Mammies, grinning Coons, savage Brutes, and wide-eyed Pickaninnies, arose during particular periods in response to white society’s shifting needs to justify the racist oppression of slavery and then segregation.38 Taken one at a time, the cartoons may not seem especially troublesome, but cumulatively, they had a terrible power. Exaggerating differences between groups makes it easier for privileged groups to act in oppressive ways, and it also attacks members of subordinated groups’ confidence in themselves as individuals and in each other.39 After a long struggle, African-Americans had largely succeeded in driving the images derived from the “minstrel” tradition from mainstream comics.40 Their victories were incomplete, and in the Nixon years food packages still used stereotypes that had lineages tracing back to the days of the minstrel show, like Aunt Jemima (pancakes), Uncle Ben (rice) and Rastus (Cream of Wheat.)41 The old stereotypes had a shocking half-familiarity when they were resurrected in the form of parodies, satires and homages in comix.

Cartoonists often defend the stereotypes in their work by saying that the art of cartooning is based on simplification, generalization, distortion and exaggeration. Caricatures become racist stereotypes, though, when instead of exaggerating an individual’s particular features to bring out his or her unique humanity, the cartoonist suppresses the individuality of a person’s appearance to bring the portrait into conformity with a preexisting racial stereotype.42 Not all comix artists used the inherited images to represent African-Americans.

Two comix artists, Barney Steel and Guy Colwell, illustrate some of the diversity of opinion that could be found in the comix. Both cartoonists depicted sex and solidarity between blacks and whites, yet Steel and Colwell were far from political comrades.

Barney Steel’s Armageddon #2 presented a didactic, antiracist fable about a black gold miner and a white logger who each marry worthy partners across racial lines and then form a business partnership, followed immediately by a sex orgy that all four participants freely and explicitly agree to in advance. Steel ‘s tale expressed an anarcho-capitalist-libertarian ideology, largely inspired by the author Ayn Rand.43

Steel depicted white and black communities as equally racist and his “solution” – along radical individualist lines – was for people to forget race and drop out of society, returning to an economy based on gold and bartering. He hammered this message home with some of the most wooden dialog ever seen in comics.44 Although published by Last Gasp, one of the main comix publishers, Steel’s Armageddon comics were widely regarded within underground cartoonist circles as bizarrely right wing.

Guy Colwell, by contrast, was a cartoonist who had spent time in prison for draft resistance, and who aligned himself with radical left politics. His Inner City Romance #1 told the story of three ex-cons (two black and one white), newly released from prison, and plunging back into a ghetto milieu of hard drugs and loose sex. Its sympathetic and unflinching portrayal of the black underclass caused many readers (and cartoonists) to initially assume that Colwell was black himself.45

Of all the underground cartoonists, black or white, Colwell most successfully communicated the frustration and rage within the inner cities of that era. His story “Choices” in Inner City Romance #1 presents a protagonist with a choice between a life of drugs and whores or gunning down the pimps and pushers in the cause of black power. In spite of this false dichotomy, Colwell succeeded better than Steel in drawing and writing convincing stories.

To illustrate in greater detail how different competing voices can leave their traces even in a single panel of a single comix story, consider Jay Kinney’s “New Left Comics.”46 In this story, Kinney satirized the contradictions present in Students for a Democratic Society, the main New Left group, in 1968. The strip portrayed a group that plots “the Revolution,” only to see all their plans unravel (except for the bombing, which goes off as scheduled.) The panel in which the black revolutionists withdraw from the plan first captured my attention for the diagrammatic clarity with which it illustrates how people invent “races.”47

It can be hard to shake the common sense idea that people belong to different races. There is no question that human differences are observable in eye-color, hair color, skin color, head shape, blood type, and many other biological dimensions, however, clear-cut boundaries between races do not exist as biological facts. People “construct” racial groups by emphasizing certain features and then exaggerating the differences between people who do or do not have these features, and then minimizing differences within those contrasting groups. Many years of cartoon history lie behind Kinney’s picture of three nearly-identical black men and a single, higher, larger white man. By listening more closely, though, additional voices become audible in this picture.

Kinney, a recent high-school graduate in 1968, a supporter of SDS and of local efforts to integrate housing, remembers the political background of this story as having been the tensions that SNCC and the Black Panther Party had aroused when they “served notice on the white New Left that it should attend to educating its own people.” In their propaganda, the BPP had basically taken “a page from the Red Guard and had the rank and file as a cadre, though with berets instead of Mao caps, and black leather instead of blue coats.”48 The suppression of individuality in these caricatures, then, contained echoes of the image of unity and strength that the BPP tried to project with their uniformed “armed Police Patrols,” which set out with the stated goals of reducing police harassment and raising consciousness.49 Rather than drawing a positive image, the comic caricatured “the separatism then engulfing the New Left and the gun-brandishing and threatening image cultivated by the Black Panthers.”50 In criticizing this development, the novice cartoonist made a one-time use, which he regards as dubious in retrospect, of incorporating the exaggerated lips from the old minstrel stereotype.

Kinney recalls that these lips had been “[i]nspired in part by Crumb’s devil-may-care use of racial stereotypes.” Kinney had found in Crumb’s strip “Don’t Gag on it, Goof on it” an artistic command: “mock and satirize hypocrisy, cant, self-congratulation, injustice, and so on, wherever you find it.” The artist’s satirical task became to lay bare and break the taboos of both the mainstream and the counterculture, of both sexism and feminism, of both the left and the right.51 The artistic choices in this panel, then, identified the story as an underground comic. Further complicating the politics of this thick-lipped representation, such minstrelized images were such a strong strand in American cartooning that even black and Black Nationalist papers had sometimes used similar caricatures to represent black people.52

In addition to 19th century whites who darkened their faces with burnt cork and performed as blackface minstrels, the Black Panther armed Police Patrols, and R. Crumb, another unexpected voice might be echoing through this picture. During this period the FBI was using forged cartoons (among other tricks) to weaken support for the BPP and to stir up anger between rival groups.53 In one case, FBI agents got their hands on a coloring back by the BPP artist Michael Teemer – full of pictures of militant blacks killing humanoid pigs – that BPP officials had rejected as inappropriate.54 The FBI changed the captions to make them more anti-white, and then distributed copies as a BPP publication. While I was corresponding with Jay Kinney about “New Left Comics,” he remembered he had seen and been disturbed by “The Black Panther Coloring Book” in the 1960s, and began to wonder whether or not his distrust of the BPP had been partly influenced by seeing some of the government’s cartoon disinformation.55

a cultural studies framework: reception

The use of cartoons by the government’s COINTELPRO campaign against the Black Panther Party brings us to consider the various ways that cartoons can be used. Another unusual and hateful use of blatantly racist cartoons has been to create hostile working environments: to intimidate, harass or demean fellow workers based on their perceived racial identity.56 (As far as I know, no underground comix have ever been implicated in such cases.)

The ordinary use of underground comix has been as pleasure reading. Some of them have also been suitable as stroke manuals. They gave “the counterculture” some common reference points (e.g., “Keep on Trucking.”)

The meanings of comic book stories do not reside neatly encapsulated inside their panels, but are generated by the encounters between the works and their readers. It would be practically impossible to reconstruct after several decades have intervened how the comix’ first readers interpreted them.57 During those early years of the comix movement, reader responses rarely found their way into print, even in the form of reviews or articles about comix.

Setting aside the hypothetical possibility of whether some readers might have used underground comix images to harass co-workers, an opposite question also arises. Might comix have fought racism? Some studies have examined whether humorous cartoons and comic books can be effective tools for teaching anti-prejudice messages. Researchers in the 1940s found that most of their respondents missed the point when shown anti-prejudice cartoons that mocked bigots.58 In relation to underground comix, the question comes out a bit differently. Can raising racism to conscious awareness through over-the-top racist stereotypes accomplish an anti-racist purpose?59 Perhaps the more extreme images might help us better recognize this undercurrent in popular culture as a sickness, to identify and reject such stereotypes, and so cause less harm than more normal negative images, which make their insults beneath the level of conscious awareness.60 My personal experience has been that recently viewing minstrelized caricatures makes it harder to feel comfortable around people who have been demeaned by those images.

A critic can go after the most extreme images and risk wasting time by making a cartoonist a scapegoat for a broader social problem, or focus on more everyday kinds of insults, omissions and distortions, and risk being seen as hypersensitive and “p.c..” We must ask who, if anyone, do cartoons hurt, how do the cartoons hurt them, and what can be done to relieve their suffering.61 In recent years, the most frequent arena for controversies over racist cartooning have been over material published in college newspapers.62

concluding remarks

To the extent the comix movement had an agenda, it fought for the end of censorship and the revitalization of comic books as an art form. It was wildly successful in achieving those two goals. For a number of reasons underground comix did not take up the cause of racial justice, at least not in any sustained, large-scale way.63 The movement was so small, though, I’m tempted to imagine that if another comix cartoonist/editor had shown up that was as determined, prolific and ardent about racial equality as comix artist/editor Trina Robbins was about gender equality, it could have been enough to turn the course of comix history in a different direction. It also could have been enough to put the comix in the crosshairs of COINTELPRO, so it’s hard to know. Statistics show how much has changed (and how much has not changed) in the 30 years since the comix industry’s crisis of 1974. Different statistics can be marshaled to defend different views. According to survey results, 70% of whites now believe that blacks are treated equally in their communities. More than 80% of whites live in virtually all-white neighborhoods.64 One measure of the failure of the counterculture can be found in this statistic: the numbers of Americans held behind prison walls has gone from 200,000 in the late 1960s to two million today, many of them people of color, imprisoned in disproportionate numbers for using illegal drugs like the ones that inspired some of the best comix.65

Because comix grew out of a passion for personal expression instead of money or social justice, the movement matured into a market niche of “art comics” that appears small, under-funded, creatively-unlimited, politically negligible, increasingly colorful, and artistically brilliant.



[1] This paper extends an investigation I began with my conference paper “Racial and Racist Imagery in Underground Comix,” presented at the “University of Florida Conference on Sequential Art: Undergrounds” in Gainesville, Florida, February, 2003. I thank Jay Kinney for many helpful contributions to earlier drafts (but he bears no responsibility for this final version!) I thank Rob Gluckson, Ken Matsudaira and Fredrick Cloyd for their advice.

I assume that the reader has general background knowledge about underground comix. If not, the most extensive histories of this movement are Mark James Estren’s A History of Underground Comix, 3rd edition, republished by Ronin Publishing in 1993, and Patrick Rosenkranz’s Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution, 1963-1975, published by Fantagraphics in 2003.

I will use “comix” and “underground comix” interchangeably to refer mostly to works created between 1968 and 1974. The comix movement survived a near-death experience at the end of this period. That makes 1974 a useful cutoff point, but comix survived that crisis and matured. Underground cartoonists went on to create much of their best work in later years, including much material pertinent to – but outside the scope of – this essay.

[2] Extended surveys of the various kinds of racial images in mass-distributed comics and cartoons have been rare. For the story of images of Blacks in comics, see Frederik Strömberg’s Black Images in Comics: A Visual History, published by Fantagraphics in 2003. Strömberg’s 38 item bibliography surveys the literature on comics and ethnicity more generally. William H. Foster’s article “The Image of Blacks (African Americans) In Underground Comix: New Liberal Agenda or Same Racist Stereotypes?” emphasizes that comix were “equal opportunity offenders,” unafraid to create “satirical and non-flattering images” of both Whites and Blacks. (International Journal of Comic Art, Volume 4, Number 2, Fall, 2002, pp.168-185.) I look forward to seeing Foster’s book-in-progress Finally in Living Color.

[3] That people’s basic ideas about race are formed when they are young children underlines how important these simple, attractive images can be. As Jody David Armour explains, “…social stereotypes are… rather well-learned sets of associations among groups and traits established in children’s memories before they reach the age of judgment. And once a stereotype becomes entrenched in our memory, it takes on a life of its own. Case studies have demonstrated that once one internalizes a cultural stereotype, she unconsciously interprets experiences to be consistent with the underlying stereotype, selectively assimilating facts that validate the stereotype while disregarding those that do not.” Jody David Armour, Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: the Hidden Costs of being Black in America, New York University Press, New York, 1997, pp.40-41. (“Comix” were sold to adults only.)

[4] For examples of anti-Semitic cartoons published in Nazi Germany and historic context, see Randall Bytwerk’s online “German Propaganda Archive,” see url1

W.A. Coupe’s cover article for History Today, “Cartoons of the Third Reich,” appears online at: see url2. Contemporary anti-Semites revere the publisher of these cartoons as a “martyr,” as seen at: see url3

The verdict against Rwandan media executives for inciting genocide was the first of its kind since the Nuremberg trials. Sharon LaFraniere, “Court Finds Rwanda Media Executives Guilty of Genocide,” NY Times, December 3, 2003. See url

The racist cartoons from Rwanda can be seen starting at url5. Clicking on the head of the cartoon character takes you to the next picture in the series.

[5] For an extensive collection of contemporary anti-Semitic and racist hate cartoons, posted on a racist website, see url6. These works are not related to the people or purposes of underground comix movement in any obvious way, and serve here as another contrasting body of work.

[6] Openings for contrasting interpretations enter especially through cartoonists’ use of humor, irony, parody, caricature, satire, and their attempts to demonstrate editorial freedom through excess and violation of taboos.

In the 1990s, racists republished some of underground cartoonist R. Crumb’s work: “Evidence that Crumb’s work has indeed been taken at face value was provided […] in 1994, when two of his strips from Weirdo–‘When the Niggers Take Over America’ and ‘When the Goddamn Jews Take Over America’–were published without his knowledge in the Massachusetts-based, white supremacist magazine Race & Reality, whose editors apparently failed to grasp the ironic intent behind the cartoons. David Armstrong of the San Francisco Examiner, in an article reprinted in the Chicago Tribune (October 9, 1994), reported that Crumb ‘expressed surprise’ at the appropriation of his work and quoted him as saying, ‘Some people don’t get satire. To me, it shows how stupid those people are.’ Crumb added, ‘I was sweating when I was doing [the stories]. I thought, “Some people are going to take it literally.” I always have gone close to that line.. . .I release all that stuff inside myself: taboo words, taboo ideas. It pours out of me as sick as possible. I wouldn’t put it in a comic for children. But I don’t work that mainstream audience.'” Biography of Robert Crumb from Current Biography (1995) At present, Crumb’s collected works (and other republished comix) are freely available to children on the shelves of public libraries.

[7] In this period, Black cartoonists won mainstream acceptance with strips such as Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals, Brumsic Brandon, Jr.’s Luther, and Ted Shearer’s Quincy. Black characters also joined the casts of established white-drawn strips, such as PeanutsBeetle Bailey and Doonesbury. See Steven L. Jones’ “From Under Cork to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics,” published in 1992 in Black Ink by the Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco.

John Wells’ “The Racial Justice Experience – Diversity in the DC Universe: 1961-1979,” tells how mainstream comic books published by DC introduced racial diversity to their casts of characters during that period at url7. Casey Alt tells the story of the first black Marvel superhero in “Imagining Black Superpower! Marvel Comics’ The Black Panther, 1966-1979,” online at url8.

[8] The more controversial themes in underground comix included depictions of sex, which resulted in the prosecution of Zap Comix #4 on obscenity charges, and sexism. Trina Robbins remembers that “[s]adly, most of the male underground cartoonists understood as little about the new women’s movement as the newspapers did, and reacted to what they perceived as a threat by drawing comix filled with graphic violence directed mostly at women.” Trina Robbins, From Girls to Grrrlz Chronicle Books, 1999, p.85. For a quote from the judge who found Zap guilty of obscenity, see “Director’s Statement” (Grand Central Art Center) at url 9.

[9] Jeremy D. Mayer argues that “The election of 1968 signaled the end of the civil rights era, and the beginning of Republican dominance in presidential elections, a dominance built in large part on the successful racial tactics of the Nixon campaign.” “Nixon Rides the Backlash to Victory: Racial Politics in the 1968 Presidential Campaign,” The Historian 64 no.2, pp.351-366, Winter 2002.

[10] Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s suggestion for film criticism also applies to the more-conveniently-scrutinized medium of comics: “One methodological alternative to the mimetic ‘stereotypes-and-distortions’ approach, we would argue, is to speak less of ‘images’ than of ‘voices’ and ‘discourses.’” This means more than attending to both the visual and verbal elements of comics. They propose that we analyze who we can hear “speaking” through these picture-stories. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media, Routledge, NY and London, 1994, p.214

[11] See “White Power Comes to Midvale,” (George Lincoln Rockwell Party, Incorporated, 1973,) and “New World Order Comix: The Saga of White Will!!,” written by William L. Pierce (National Alliance, 1993) Note: These were NOT created by artists associated with the underground comix movement or distributed through comix distribution channels! A wikipedia encyclopedia entry on William L. Pierce can be found at: url10

[12] For example, a textbook I have used, Writing for the Mass Media, by James Glen Stovall, has a section on “Language sensitivity” that begins “Writers must understand that language has the ability to offend and demean.” pp.76-78.

[13] The main beneficiaries of “racial preferences” have been white. For arguments to support this statement, see url11. At the same time, the discredited science of “racism” that was developed to rationalize these privileges has harmed the majority of white people. Allan Chase explains that “[f]ar from being aimed at ethnic, social, and racial minorities, scientific racism has from its early-nineteenth-century origins been directed at the majorities of the populations of England, France, Germany, the United States, and other industrial nations. […] In our own times, the white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant people who do the hardest work on the land, in industry, and in commerce remain, numerically, the chief targets and victims of the new scientific racism in America.” Allan Chase, The Legacy of Malthus: The Social Costs of the New Scientific Racism, University of Illinois Press, 1980, p.xvii.

[14] I owe this explanation to Justin Podur, author of ZNet Institutional Racism Instructional, (2002), url12.

[15] I refer to slavery in the past tense, but 27 million people are still bound as slaves, in such places as Mauritania, Brazil, Thailand, Pakistan, and India, according to Kevin Bales’ Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (University of California Press, 2000.)

[16] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prison Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.28. Davis cites scholars who have concluded that leasing convict labor created worse working conditions than had existed under slavery (p.32.) Also see the entry on “Black Codes in the United States” in Africana at url13.

[17] Massey and Denton call the depth of black segregation “unprecedented and utterly unique compared with that of other groups,” that “it shows little sign of change with the passage of time or improvements in socioeconomic status,” and that “[t]hrough prolonged exposure to such an environment, black chances for social and economic success are drastically reduced.” (Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, Harvard University Press, 1993, p.2.)

[18] See, for example, Edwin A. Locke, Ph.D.’s “individualism: the only cure for racism.” See url14. This essay appears as part of a larger site devoted to this theme, “Diversity & Multiculturalism: The New Racism,” url15.

The argument against granting “special privileges” because of past injustice has a long history, and seems reminiscent of General Howard’s refusal to distribute “forty acres and a mule” as reparations to newly-freed, formerly-enslaved people after the Civil War on the grounds that the freedmen should earn money to buy the land rather than receiving it as a gift. (See Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (University of California Press, 1999, pp.33-4.)

[19] The inheritance of family wealth that had been accumulated at a time when legally-enforced segregation advantaged Euro-Americans, perpetuates racial inequalities. See Dalton Conley’s Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America (University of California Press, 1999) and Thomas M. Shapiro’s The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality (Oxford University Press, 2004.)

As an analogous problem of inherited inequalities in mainstream comics, the most popular characters remain to this day those that were invented during the period of legal segregation. Craig Lemon argues that “there no black superheroes fronting big-name books…[b]ecause all the iconic heroes in existence today (with the exception of Wolverine) were created between the 1930s and the 1960s, when black characters were taboo, or poor caricatures at best….” url16.

Thomas Sowell argues against seeking reparations for the historical injustices of slavery in The Quest for Cosmic Justice (Free Press, 2002.)

[20] William Ryan’s Blaming the Victim: Revised, Updated Edition (Vintage Books, 1976), can be fully searched at Ryan’s revised 1976 foreword expands the application of “[t]he generic formula of Blaming the Victim – justifying inequality by finding defects in the victims of inequality” to the non-black and non-poor majority.

[21] John H. McWhorter argues that while “only naiveté could lead anyone to suppose that racism does not still exist, or is not still a problem to be solved,” a “Cult of Victimology” has become an important barrier to black equality. A 20 page excerpt of his book Losing the Race: Self-sabotage in Black America (published by Free Press in 2000) is online at Larry Elder argues against the idea that white racism remains “an intense and formidable obstacle” to black upward mobility in Ten Things You Can’t Say in America (Griffin Trade Paperback, 2001.) The full text of Elder’s book can be searched at

Star Parker argues against welfare programs in Uncle Sam’s Plantation: How Big Government Enslaves the Poor and What You Can Do About It (WND Books, 2003.)

David Horowitz rejects the usefulness of the idea of “institutional racism” and goes on to say that “[t]he belief in the power of ‘institutional racism’ allows black civil rights leaders to denounce America as a ‘racist’ society, when it is the only society on earth – black, white, brown, or yellow – whose defining public creed is anti-racist, a society to which black refugees from black-ruled nations regularly flee in search of refuge and freedom.” David Horowitz, Hating Whitey: and Other Progressive Causes, Spence Publishing Company, 1999, p. 82.

An editorial in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, “No More White Racism in America?,” responds to the idea that racism is no longer a major concern with four brief examples demonstrating the large-scale persistence of racist views in the United States (Issue 38, Winter 2003/2004, url17.)

[22] See “’Revolutionary Art Is a Tool for Liberation’: Emory Douglas and Protest Aesthetics at the Black Panther,” by Erika Doss, republished in Liberation, Imagination, and the Black Panther Party, edited by Kathleen Cleaver and George Katsiaficas, (Routledge, 2001, pp.175-187; online at

[23] “Even though his ideas were not new, Wertham’s testimony [in Belton v Gebhart] captured the imagination and hearts of those in the courtroom. One example Wertham offered was particularly effective. He introduced popular comic book images to illustrate racism’s pervasiveness in America’s society. The comics showed Africans or African Americans depicted in stereotypical and humiliating situations.” From the Master’s Thesis of Liza R. Rognas, as excerpted at: url18.

[24] Wertham’s book is available online at: url19. For this passage, link to Chapter 4: The Wrong Twist. The quote is from page 101 in the published edition.

In criticizing American comic books for their racist content, Wertham was continuing a complaint made by previous critics of American comics. During World War II, Margaret Frakes had warned that depictions of Japanese “literally as beasts with fangs for teeth and bright yellow skin” in American comic books were more terrifying than the depraved German cartoons of Jews. [“Comics Are No Longer Comic,” Margaret Frakes, Christian Century, November 4, 1942, p.1349.]

A powerful series of contemporary, cartoon-based paintings by Roger Shimomura illustrates the kinds of harm that have been associated with these anti-Asian cartoon stereotypes. See his work at url20.

[25] Mainstream comics publishers, most famously EC, have also published comic book stories opposing racism.

The western jungle and war genres had not died out completely during the Nixon years. In 1971, John Kerry said responsibility for the My Lai massacre, belonged not only to recently-convicted Lieutenant Calley, but “in large part with this country, which allows a young child before he reaches the age of 14 to see 12,500 deaths on television, which glorifies the John Wayne syndrome, which puts out fighting man comic books on the stands….” [Emphasis added.] Statement of John Kerry, Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testimony before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, April 22, 1971, p.193. url21

[26] See, for example, Douglas Kellner’s article “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture,” in Gender, Race, and Class in Media: A Text-Reader (2nd edition), edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez, SAGE Publications, 2003, pp.9-20.

[27] This efficient, assembly-line method of cranking out comic books, incidentally, was largely the invention of Jews who created the comic book industry in the 1930s and 1940s because anti-Semitism was keeping them out of higher-paid illustration work. See “How the Jews Created the Comic Book Industry,” Arie Kaplan, Reform Judaism, Vol. 32, No. 1, Fall 2003, url22. Cartoonist Al Jaffee explains that anti-Semitism at the ad agencies drove Jewish illustrators and writers into the comic-book field: “We couldn’t get into newspaper strips or advertising; ad agencies wouldn’t hire a Jew.”

[28] For the definitive history of this self-censorship code, see Amy Kiste Nyberg’s Seal of Approval: The History of the Comics Code. (University Press of Mississippi, 1998.)

One reason that artists had turned against the code was that with the increasing use of psychedelics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many people found the burden of holding up a social façade at variance with their own innermost thoughts increasingly unsupportable. Robert Crumb, for example, responded to this tension by letting his art become a conduit for whatever was deep and unspoken, regardless of whether what came up was morally “good” or whether it made him appear to be a “good person.” It was in this context that he put on paper the racist imagery that he found “bubbling up” out of him. [Crumb’s reflects on the racial images in his work in The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book, edited by Pete Poplaski (Little, Brown and Company, 1997, p.109.) There he shifts from a discussion of the sexual imagery in his work to saying “Similarly, using racist stereotypes, it’s boiling over out of my brain, and I just have to draw it! Pour it on as thick as I can and not leave any of the paranoia out. Put it all in there. Hey, in my own defense, I am not a racist! Come on! […] But all this stuff is deeply embedded in our culture and our collective subconscious, and you have to deal with it.”]

[29] The original Standards of the Comics Code Authority have been posted online at: url23. Wertham opposed the code, and complained in 1955 that “the same corruption with sexiness, violence and race prejudice” continued to characterize comics bearing the Comics Code seal, offering as an example the March, 1955 issue of Lorna, the Jungle Girl, whose cover showed “colored, howling savages about to attack a sexy white girl in a bathing suit and a handsome white man.” Advertising Age, January 3, 1955, page 8. (Cited in Steven E. Mitchell’s MA Thesis, Evil Harvest: Investigating the Comic Book, 1948-1955, Arkansas State University, 1982, p.119.)

[30] The projects alluded to here were Slow Death #1Radical America Komiks and Conspiracy Capers. The organizer of Conspiracy Capers, Skip Williamson, was one of the comix artists most attuned to politics. According to a recent article, “Williamson says he’s never had a political allegiance of any kind even in the hotbed of ’60s radicalism. ‘I never thought about changing anything,’ he says, preferring instead, ‘standing on a soap box and ranting.’” (Felicia Feaster, “Radical departure: Underground comic artist brings the counterculture to Eyedrum,” Creative Loafing, February 12, 2004. url24. According to this article, Williamson “admits that a biological cocktail of his mother’s Hispanic/Native-American heritage and some ‘Virginia redneck’ on his father’s side seemed to ensure a cantankerous recognition of the economic and social troubles of the land of his birth.”)

[31] An example of comix mocking New Left concerns over racial stereotyping in cartoons can be found in Bobby London’s “Why Bobbie Seale is not Black,” published in Merton of the Movement, (Last Gasp Eco-Funnies, 1972.) In that story, he depicts as a humorless drunk the editor of an underground newspaper who tells him that his cartoon of Black Panther Bobbie Seale is an insultingly counterrevolutionary racist stereotype. To take another example, Jaxon’s “White Man’s Burden” condemned the ethnic pride movements of Native Americans, Chicanos and Asian Americans as basically just more varieties of racism. The story was published in Slow Death #6 (Last Gasp, 1974.)

When comix artists drew for political newspapers, restrictions based on the politics of the material could kick in. Becky Wilson remembers drawing a comic strip for a peace march in the early 1970s: “The theme of that issue of the underground newspaper was ‘We Are All Viet Kong.’ I drew a comic (written by my boyfriend at the time, Mark, who was a big Willis O’Brien fan) on the theme ‘We Are All King Kong.’ As I recall, it was 4 panels. In the first one, King Kong is wearing a button that says ‘We Are All Viet Kong.’ He climbs to the top of the Capitol dome and starts shooting down the planes buzzing him with his AK-47. In the final panel his head is flipped back and a crowd of people is jumping out of his hollow body. Naturally the crowd is multiracial, both sexes, and includes in the foreground a Viet Kong warrior in black PJs & hat with a button that says: ‘We Are All King Kong.’ Ten thousand copies of the paper were printed but never distributed because of the comic, which was denounced as racist and sexist, as well as the Berrigans saying it presented too violent an image of the march (which was probably true, in retrospect.) I could never quite understand the racist & sexist thing, though. Perhaps I just didn’t draw African Americans very well, or maybe they were objecting to my portrayal of the Vietnamese person, but you sort of have to resort to some kinds of stereotypes to get the idea across in cartoon language when you have limited space to make your point. I was particularly mystified by the ‘sexist’ part, since I considered myself a hardcore feminist.” [Rebecca Wilson, personal e-mail, January 21, 2003.]

[32] Tim Jackson has assembled a “Salute to the Pioneering Cartoonists of Color” at url25. Jackson focuses on black cartoonists who worked for black newspapers. Other cartoonists working for ethnic papers in the US included Japanese-Americans Jack Matsuoka and Pete Hironaka, and a number of Jewish cartoonists.

[33] Fuller wrote and drew Ebon, a comic based on mainstream superhero models, which Gary Arlington published in an untrimmed edition without slick covers in January, 1970. The back cover was a house ad for Gary Arlington’s comic book shop (the epicenter of the comix movement), in which Ebon, the hero, holds up a copy of a fringe-science tract that Gary had published about gravity, and also plugs five comic book titles including “Bob Crumb’s Zap.” He tells the reader, “Baby, they gonna blow your mind!”

Ebon didn’t meet with much success, partly because it was mismatched with the largely white, adult audience reached by comix distribution channels.

Fuller returned five years later with the comic book series White Whore Funnies and Gay HeartthrobsWhite Whore had the distinction of being one of the few underground comix to make the leap into porn shop distribution.

Fuller was a peripheral member of the comix scene. Jay Kinney remembers that Fuller did attend some comix parties and was on friendly terms with some cartoonists, but describes him as “a fringe member, at best, of a largely white movement.” [Personal e-mail correspondence.] Comix typically were published as anthologies including work by a variety of cartoonists. The only anthology titles in which Fuller participated were ones that he edited himself.

Grass Green’s obituary appeared in The Comics Journal #247, October, 2002. An online obituary by Michael Vance was published by SFReader, August 15, 2002, at url26. A sample of Grass Green’s work can be found at url27.

[34] Ron Turner, for example, publisher of Last Gasp, tells in his introduction to Jay Kennedy’s Underground and Newave Price Guide (Boatner Norton Press, 1982) of getting stoned with his friend, black radical Terry Collins, and showing him Radical America Comics: “I confess that I was curious how he would take Watermelon Jones, the archetypal black. He loved him!!!!” (p.33.)

As for myself, my friendship networks in those years were almost completely white, partly as a result of having grown up in a racially segregated suburb of San Francisco, and then majoring in Philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, which was almost a completely white program.

By bringing up the question of cartoonists’ ethnic identities, I do not mean to deny that cartoonists can successfully create characters belonging to other groups, or that cartoonists sometimes create offensive caricatures of members of their own groups. Cartoonist Charles Johnson contends not only that cartoonists can create characters of other groups, but that their failure to do so indicates “lack of invention, daring, or innovation,” a failure of the imagination, and often a failure of empathy. He condemns Crumb’s stereotyped “Angelfood McSpade” character as not “avant-garde or provocative in any positive way.” See his foreword to Frederik Strömberg’s Black Images in Comics: A Visual History (Fantagraphics , 2003,) p.13.

[35] In an off-the-cuff 1966 piece that Crumb did shortly before he triggered the comix movement, he rejects the idea of doing “topical” material. In his story, topicality gets represented primarily by a “negro” who walks down the street holding a lit match and saying “burn baby,” before administering a cathartic beating to the two white protagonists, who accept this abuse out of guilt for their “constant racial slurs” and other unnamed misdeeds. (“Yin & Yang, The Loveless…,”March, 1966. See The Complete Crumb Comics: Mr. Sixties, Volume 4, Fantagraphics, 1990, p.20.) The issue of guilt had been subjected to a penetrating analysis by James Baldwin in his 1965 essay “White Man’s Guilt,” republished in Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to be White, edited by David R. Roediger, Schocken Books, 1998, pp. 320-325.

[36] I have assembled a database with 227 examples of comix stories in my collection that include representations of racial diversity, most of them in the period covered in this article. These are from 174 different books, by almost 100 cartoonists. The artists who appear four or more times in these listings are Guy Colwell (7 items), R. Crumb (39 items, and deserving an article of his own), Dave Geiser (4 items, a large proportion of Geiser’s work dealt with race), Justin Green (7), Bill Griffith (6), Jaxon (8), Jay Lynch (7), Trina Robbins (6), Sharon Rudahl (5), Frank Stack (6), and S. Clay Wilson (4.)

[37] Regarding cartoonists’ service to imperialism, John J. Johnson’s Latin America in Caricature (University of Texas Press, 1980) detailed how US political cartoonists have represented Latin Americans.

[38] Ethnic Notions was directed by Marlon Riggs. url28

[39] Jan Nederveen Pieterse explains how this works, and argues that cartoonists created racist, sexist and classist stereotypes to ease the anxieties that people with power and privilege experience: “Existing differences and inequalities are magnified for fear they will diminish. Stereotypes are reconstructed and reasserted precisely when existing hierarchies are being challenged and inequalities are or may be lessening. Accordingly, stereotyping tends to be not merely a matter of domination, but above all, of humiliation. Different and subordinate groups are not merely described, they are debased, degraded. Perceptions are manipulated in order to enhance and to magnify social distance.” Jan Nederveen Pieterse, “White Negroes,”excerpts from White on Black: Images of Blacks in Western Popular Culture (Yale University Press, 1992), republished in Gender, Race and Class in Media: A Text-Reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez (SAGE Publications, 1995, p.26.)

[40] Steven L. Jones tells the story of the fight against these harmful images in the 1920s and 1930s:

“Predictably, Black community activists were outraged with the typical portrayal of Blacks as ebony humanoid clones. Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and Marcus Garvey and his Universal Negro Improvement Association, fought not only against the indiscriminate lynching of Blacks, but also against the comics’ defamation of Black people. Sometimes the fight took the form of court challenges. An occasional victory helped maintain hope, as in the late 1920s when a major Chicago newspaper was forced to lighten up its solid black ink representation of Black skin tone, or in the early 1930’s when the Amos ‘n’ Andy strip was removed from the marketplace.

“Newspapers published by the Afro-American press also entered into the fight against the negative depiction of Blacks. By the mid-1930s they were leading the struggle against any continuance of minstrelized representations. Papers like the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Baltimore Afro-American editorialized against the minstrel image and finally helped to end its presence in the Black community by 1940.” Steven L. Jones “From Under Cork to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics,” published in 1992 in Black Ink by the Cartoon Art Museum, San Francisco, 6th page (un-numbered); This was republished from the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies’ 1986 anthology Ethnic Images in the Comics.

[41] Aunt Jemima, for example, was originally based on a performance by a white man in blackface and drag, who sang a song about “Aunt Jemima.” See M.M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (University Press of Virginia, 1998, pp. 68-71.)

[42] For an example of how this worked in underground comix, compare a photograph of San Francisco State College President S.I. Hayakawa to Jay Lynch’s portrait based on him, Professor “Hiacowcow.” Lynch’s toothy picture bears more resemblance to the anti-Japanese cartoon stereotypes of the 1940s. (“Nard n Pat,” Bijou Funnies #2, 1969.) Another noteworthy aspect of Lynch’s portrayal can be found in Hiacowcow’s fractured, heavily and implausibly Asian-accented English. In real life, the Canadian-born S.I. Hayakawa went on to serve in the U.S. Senate, where he campaigned to make English the official language of the United States. url29. (For pertinent arguments about racism in relation to nonstandard English, you can study the debates over “Ebonics.”)

[43] Perhaps Steel got the idea of putting a clearer explanation of his ideas about race in his comic because of responses to his first issue of Armageddon, in which he had drawn what may have been the only representation of Martin Luther King to have appeared in any underground comic. (As a detail of a confusing larger composition, Steel had shown King sodomizing Alabama Governor George Wallace who, in turn, is fucking a pig labeled “Statism.” King’s dialogue balloon reads “I got a dream… about a pig too, boss… you oalfy [sic] mother fucker.” [Ellipsis in the original.])

[44] The unbelievability of the dialogue may have followed from the impracticality of the theory it promotes. Similar problems plagued Steve Ditko’s attempts to put Ayn Rand’s philosophy into comic book form. With his libertarian comic Mister A (Comic Art Publishers, 1973), Ditko became one of the few mainstream cartoonists to turn to underground comix distribution channels. For an elaborate fan site devoted to Ditko’s work, see url30.

[45] Sympathetic representations of black people were rare enough to make readers wonder about the racial identity of the artist. Trina Robbins recalls that “I often included black characters, especially positive and strong women, and in 1971 had an ongoing adventure strip in the Good Times underground newspaper about my heroine, Fox. Fox was also included in Girl Fight #2. And don’t forget my LuluBelle stories in High Times. […] I later found out that some people thought I was Black because of my positive portrayal of black characters. […] My memory may be failing me, but aside from Guy [Colwell], I really can’t recall any other early underground cartoonists who included positive black (or any other ethnicity) characters.” [Personal e-mail, September 9, 2003.]

[46] Kinney regards my snatching this atypical panel from his first published comic from obscurity to illustrate this article on racism and cartooning with chagrin and responded with gently-expressed irritation. I expect the other cartoonists whose work I discuss here might also express similar chagrin and/or irritation if I had told them of the use I am making of their work. The tremendous regard I have for Kinney’s work is a matter of public record (for example in my “Underground comix” article in the Encyclopedia of the American Left, First Edition, Oxford University Press, 1990.)

[47] For a clearly presented argument against both “race realists” who say races are biological categories and against those who say science has proven that races are merely socially-constructed figments of racist imaginations, see Kenan Malik’s lecture “Why Do We Still Believe in Race?” at url31. Malik argues “science can neither confirm nor disconfirm race as a biological reality, because race is not a scientific category.”

[48] Jay Kinney, personal e-mail, October 9, 2003.

[49] For an example of a Black Panther Party photograph which demonstrates this, see url32.

[50] Jay Kinney, personal e-mail.

[51] Jay Kinney, personal e-mails.

[52] Tim Jackson explains that minstrelized stereotypes appeared even in black newspapers. url33. A formerly posted (or hard to find right now) website of Nation of Islam cartoons of the 1960s included an example that seems to draw on this tradition. Jackson suggests that such images could represent the dependence of black papers of the 1920s on unsupportive white syndicates for their graphic material.

[53] See Racial Matters : The FBI’s Secret File on Black America, 1960-1972 by Kenneth O’Reilly (Free Press, 1991), and search the contents, which are online at, using the keywords “cartoon” or “coloring book.” According to O’Reilly, “Physical violence, as opposed to violent rhetoric, was never more than a peripheral part of the black struggle for equality. Political violence, in contrast, was a central part of the FBI response to that struggle – something located within the mainstream of government policy toward blacks.” p.316.

David Horowitz calls O’Reilly’s book typical of the tendentious texts that by being “disingenuous and disdainful of the facts, would establish the Panther myth for a new generation” in his autobiography Radical Son: a Generational Odyssey (Free Press, 1998), one of several of his books which can be searched online at, (p.298.)

Brian Glick’s foreword to Ward Churchill, Jim Vander Wall and John Trudell’s The Cointelpro Papers: Documents from the FBI’s Secret Wars Against Dissent in the United States (South End Press, 2002) criticizes O’Reilly’s book from the other direction, as a “prime example” of a white historian regurgitating COINTELPRO’s hostile caricatures of the Black Panther Party (p.xvi.) The Cointelpro Papers can also be searched online at It tells this story of the Black Panther Coloring Book: “the FBI utilized the services of an infiltrator to have the Sacramento chapter of the BPP print a racist and violence-oriented coloring book for children. When the item was brought to the attention of Bobby Seale and other members of the Panther leadership, it was immediately ordered destroyed rather than distributed. Nonetheless, the Bureau mailed copies to companies […] which had been contributing to the Party’s Breakfast for Children program, in order to cause the withdrawal of such support.” (p.159.) This book also republishes examples of COINTELPRO cartoons that the FBI used against the Puerto Rican Independence Movement.

[54] The art for the Black Panther Coloring Book can be seen at: url34.

[55] Kinney wrote to me: “If you recall the “pig” cartoons from the BPP Platform and Program flyer… they were by Teemer (or that’s what the signature looks like to me) and depicted confrontations between blacks and the pigs. These were in illustration of the 10 Point Program. The whole flyer is mimeod with the address and contact info of the New Haven Chapter of the BPP on the front.

”So the question then is, is the flyer I have also a forgery? Did the BPP never actually use those cartoons? Did some BPP chapters *like* the cartoons and use them, not knowing they were malicious FBI provocations? Or did the BPP just claim that they were a FBI hoax because they proved embarrassing? I guess if we checked back to issues of the BP newspaper at the time, we could see if they also ran in there.

”Here’s the thing: I recall seeing the drawings (or at least some of them) back at the time, 68 or 69. (Possibly in the BPP paper, to which I subscribed.) They were one of the things that made me not trust the BPP. They may even have counter-influenced my own New Left

Comics, if I saw them prior to doing my strip. That would be interesting: FBI forged BPP cartoons influence me to hit back at the BPP with tit for tat stereotypes.” Jay Kinney, personal e-mail, October 15, 2003.

[56] In the case of Oliver C. Willis vs. the Postmaster General, filed in Arkansas in 2001, the court decided that a single incident involving a racist cartoon did not create an illegal, hostile work environment. url35. In 1998, Detroit Edison was found guilty of harassment for a number of incidents including a racist cartoon posted on the locker of a black worker. url36. In Smith v Leggett Wire Company, settled in 2000 in Kentucky, a dissenting opinion counted a lewd and racist cartoon as one element of a hostile work environment. url37.

[57] In my experience, reading really good underground comix created a sensation like hearing a block of wood cracking apart between my ears.

[58] “Even after seeing all three [“Mr. Biggott”] cartoons, only 36 per cent of our sample […] recognized both the elements of prejudice and ridicule correctly.” [“The Analysis of Deviant Cases in Communications Research,” Patricia L. Kendall and Katherine M. Wolf, Communications Research, 1948-1949, p.160.] A third of the respondents “failed to see their satirical elements” and believed “that the cartoons were designed to create racial disturbances and to intensify existing prejudices!” [Ibid., p.161.] The webpage from the Columbia University archives which describes the documents left by these studies also mentions Watson Goodwin’s 1945 investigation of the effects of an American Jewish Congress comic book “There Are No Master Races,” which found that this comic book did not have much effect on “willingness to accept persons of other races….” url38

[59] This question does not rely on whether the cartoonist intended a liberal, anti-racist purpose.

[60] To make this sound a little less impossible, consider an analogous case. Jody David Armour argues (in the context of testimonies in court cases) that “…the more subtle [group] references may be particularly pernicious because subtle references inconspicuously may activate the relevant stereotypes. This deprives jurors of the opportunity to monitor consciously their responses for convergence with their personal beliefs.” (p.148) Armour’s argument here is that Americans’ conscious racism has been dropping for 40 years, but our unconscious habits, steadily reinforced by media distortions, remain prejudiced. Therefore, rather than urging “color-blindness” we must become color-conscious so that we can act from our principles with awareness, rather than from our unconscious feelings. Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism: the Hidden Costs of being Black in America (New York University Press, 1997, pp.40-41.) (Armour was not arguing that something as unreliable as satire would accomplish this purpose!)

[61] By using the plural “cartoons” I intend to suggest that the issue has less to do with individual, problematic cartoons, than with a larger cultural climate. I think Alan David Freeman’s analysis of “racial discrimination” can be extended to apply here. Freeman describes “the victim’s perspective,” which describes “conditions of actual social existence as a member of a perpetual underclass. This perspective includes both the objective conditions of life (lack of jobs, lack of money, lack of housing) and the consciousness associated with those objective conditions (lack of choice and lack of human individuality in being forever perceived as a member of a group rather than as an individual.)” By contrast, “the perpetrator perspective” interprets the problem as an “action, or series of actions, inflicted on the victim by the perpetrator.” From a victim perspective, “the problem will not be solved until the conditions associated with it have been eliminated.” Alan David Freeman, “Legitimizing Racial Discrimination Through Antidiscrimination Law: A Critical Review of Supreme Court Doctrine,” published in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed The Movement, edited by Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller and Kendall Thomas, editors, (The New Press, 1995, pp.29-30.)

[62] “Censoring the College Press” by John K. Wilson (2002) describes a dozen cases of cartoons in college newspapers provoking protests over racial insensitivity. (url39) The Free Expression Network (url40) and “Tongue Tied” (url41) collect some more recent examples.

Plentiful evidence of the damage done by racist speech is provided by the essays in The Price We Pay: The Case Against Racist Speech, Hate Propaganda, and Pornography, edited by Laura Lederer and Richard Delgado (Hill and Wang, 1995.) The essays make little direct mention of cartooning, though Richard Delgado and David Yun’s article “Pressure Valves and Bloodied Chickens: An Assessment of Four Paternalistic Arguments for Resisting Hate-Speech Regulation” begins with a list of examples of “hate speech incidents” which includes a “series of anti-Semitic cartoons” which ran in the Syracuse University newspaper (p.290.)
For a vigorous defense of free speech, see bell hooks’ “Censorship from Left and Right,” in Outlaw Culture (Routledge, 1995.)

[63] The comix were part of the “sixties,” and as Peter Gabel clarifies “The 60s was fundamentally not a movement for reform or revolution according to the inherited meaning of those words, as if what the world needed was a reordering of the external relationships of reality to make economic and political ‘systems’ more equal, or to overthrow the power of the ruling class and replace it with some kind of externally pictured mass democracy, or anything of that kind. The movement was rather a movement of desire, of aspiration, an opening up of closed space that allowed millions of people to come to see and feel something invisible – namely, the artificiality and even unreality of the inherited world and the possibility of a better, more humane, and more real one.” Peter Gabel, “Law and Hierarchy,” republished in Tikkun, Vol. 18, NO. 2, March/April 2004, p.44.

[64] Tim Wise, “Why Whites Think Blacks Have No Problems,” July 17, 2001. url42. Wise has a website which collects his anti-racist essays at url43.

[65] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prison Obsolete? Seven Stories Press, 2003, p.11. See the many links to articles on “Race & the Drug War” collected by AlterNet at url44. Common Sense for Drug Policy has a documented list of eighteen “Drug War Facts” on “Race, Prison and the Drug Laws” at url45.

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