Thursday, February 25, 2010

African American Characters in Comics: Frontline Combat 9 - "Abe Lincoln!"

I've been working on the presentation I'll be giving at the University of Florida at the end of March, by gathering material that represents the earliest non-stereotyped, normally respectful depictions of African American characters in comics, noting that these appeared first in DC war comics. My focus is on desegregation of comics, or looking at it another way, racial integration in comics. Mykal pointed out an old EC comic that does feature an African American character, although it doesn't show a racially integrated society, only the beginning step towards it. The comic is EC's Frontline Combat 9 from Nov/Dec 1952. It's an all-Civil War special, and the first story in the book is the focus of this post. Titled simply "Abe Lincoln!", key events in the life of Honest Abe leading up to the outbreak of war are narrated by an old country guy sitting in his chair by the fire in his Charleston, South Carolina home. As the tale unfolds we see our narrator only from behind, or the lower part of his body, but never his face. Not, that is, until the last page. He speaks in what is identifiable as a Southern drawl, which has characteristics that might make you suspect he's African American, and that perhaps resonates with movie stereotypes of African Americans from the South. I don't think there was any disrespect whatsoever intended by the the writer, Harvey Kurtzman, in this instance. It reads like a genuine attempt to get at a real African American character,  but there's no confirmation of this identity for the reader until the very last panel. The last three panels show the narrator up from his chair and coming out of his front door, but only at the very end does the light reveal his face and we see that he is an elderly African American gentleman. Having witnessed the event that marked the beginning of the Civil War, he prays for Lincoln's well-being.

So the story is a reminder that there was a war fought in this country over the issue of slavery here, and also therefore to establish the freedom which is the cornerstone of the nation, for all Americans. It's also a reminder that there were (and are) both majority and minority people who look past skin color and see the actual person. Against the backdrop of segregation in 1952 McCarthyist America, this story, uncontroversial now, would have been something of a shocker back then. This is an EC comic after all. Remember, there were simply no respectfully depicted African American characters in comics except literally in a handful, four of those being Fawcett's three issues of Negro Romance and Charlton's single reprint issue, Negro Romances 4, which were segregated comics, and a couple more EC comics besides this one. So this issue of Frontline Combat is something of a milestone but kind of out in the wilderness. It doesn't depict an integrated society, but does highlight the event that began the long road to racial equality and integration in the US. Great art as always by Jack Davis, and it includes his very famous action rendering of a Native American, although in seeking to close the divide between African and European Americans with this story, the plight of the First Americans may have slipped by unnoticed here. Still, a somewhat revolutionary comic book story of the sort you expect from EC.
Note: Thanks to Joshua Thirteen for the scans.


  1. In the context of its time, as you say, this was a radically humanist statement, actually provocative in its willingness to challenge basic mainstream assumptions about who was to be permitted to be represented in mass entertainments. It's a shame to think that the passage of time might have diminished an awareness of how brave a story it was, and it's troubling to find myself, as an old teacher of politics and of media, thinking of the ways in which this text could be criticised today for some non-PC aspects. That's just the habits of teaching the deconstruction of texts, however. Consider this in comparison to, say, the representation of Ebony in The Spirit during that characters last run in the Eisner strip in 1949, and this story IS in many ways a huge leap forward.

    And in its own terms as a popular entertainment, isn't this an example of how the disciplined craftsmenship of so many of the EC creators could produce fine stories in just 8 pages?

  2. KB: I love the narrator of this story. Sort of an Uncle Remus-like figure who actually mirrors Lincoln's humble origins. And as always, EC dishes up some quality visuals. That little piece of allegory with the pig stuck in the mud is pure genius... and it makes me think of our current circumstances.

    Colsmi: EC was no slouch at pushing the envelope of racial attitudes. Check out the story "Judgment Day" from Incredible Science Fiction #33. It was the last comic EC ever printed. And EC had to threaten the Comics Code Authority with a lawsuit to get it published. Seems a Judge Murphy didn't want the main character to be black.

  3. KB: Look at that splash panel. No one could ever shade and cross-hatch like Davis - what an absolute master. And Kurtzman's writing is simply visionary. -- Mykal

  4. Mykal: Davis's attention to detail is just one of the reasons why I love his art so much. Davis entered my consciousness at a young age and stayed there, through the old Mad magazines and books that definitely had a powerful influence on my world view. It is a mad, mad world! And Kurtzman is as brilliant a writer as he is an artist. EC sure had some talent assembled on their team.

    colsmi: nice insight. Yes, looked at solely from today's perspective it would be possible to pick out some non-PC components, but for 1952 this story was remarkably ahead of its time. I'd say it's another contender for the comic book story hall of fame.

    Ghost: I liked that as well. Also the page where Lincoln as a boy has a realization when he shoots the turkey. I think many kids nowadays have a natural inclination not to take animal life in order to eat, but don't get to see or understand where the supermarket package really has its origins. For some, when it catches up with them, like it does with Abe here in this story, it can be a bit of a shocking revelation. I wonder if Lincoln ever tried to be a vegetarian.

  5. Ghost/Aaron: Thank you so much for that tip re: "Judgment Day". EC used it in ISF#33 to replace an Angelo Torres alien/jungle story that didn't pass the code. I only had access to a reprint of ISF#33, which restored the Torres story to the comic as it was originally intended. "Judgment Day" was reprinted by EC in their ISF#33 to fill for the Torres story, but was originally published in Weird Fantasy #18 (Mar/Apr 1953). I was able to get hold of a scan of an original WF#18 (I don't have the Complete EC Library unfortunately) and the story is perfect for the presentation I'm working on. It's another anti-racist story that uses a fictional future colony of artificial life forms created by humans as an analogy to segregation in the USA. You guys certainly know your comics. This is another extremely important story, from my point of view. Dude, thanks!!!

  6. Hey,KB, you're welcome! I love the real-life irony of an allegory about race relations sparking a real racial controversy. It's also another piece of what seems to be a conspiracy by the Comics Code to eliminate the once very successful EC Comics. A complete EC library? Yeah, I wouldn't mind one of those either.

  7. I liked that as well. Also the page where Lincoln as a boy has a realization when he shoots the turkey. I think many kids nowadays have a natural inclination not to take animal life in order to eat, but don't get to see or understand where the supermarket package really has its origins.STC Technologies