Excuses: The Reception of Modern Comics / Eyal Amiran

Herge, Le lotus bleu (1936)

Hergé , Le lotus bleu (1936, detail). © Hergé Foundation.

M. Keith Booker, ed. Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas. Vol. 1, 1800-1960. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2014.

Bruce Canwell.  “Setting the Stage: ‘Rembrandt Raises His Brushes.’”  In The Complete Terry and the Pirates, Volume One: 1934-1936 by Milton Caniff, 11-22.  San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2009.

Christopher N. Couch. Introduction to Jet Scott, Vol. 1by Jerry Robinson and Sheldon Stark. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2010.

Roy Crane. Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips. Vol. 1, 1933–1935. Ed. Rick Norwood. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2010.

Philippe Goddin. The Art of Hergé, Inventor of Tintin. Vol. 1, 1907–1937. 2008. Trans. Michael Farr. San Francisco, CA: Last Gasp, 2010.

Floyd Gottfredson. Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Vol. 2, Trapped on Treasure Island. Ed. David Gerstein and Gary Groth. Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2011.

Frederik L. Schodt. “Henry Kiyama and the Four Immigrants Manga.” In The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904–1924 by Henry Kiyama, 7–18. Trans. Schodt. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.


Comics from the first half of the last century—modern newspaper comics—are increasingly reproduced in books and hardbound series. The role of these editions, by and large, is to collect work and to reintroduce it to the public, not to read it critically, but given the historical nature of the material, and the archival and historical interest of these editions, many offer explanatory or contextualizing prefaces and essays, and sometimes a wealth of paratextual material like sketches, essays, and recollections from the period. Modern comics display a range of attitudes about people and cultures, and can be offensive today: indeed they can be said to have always been offensive, though just to what extent is part of the question. Their offense is not my topic, but rather how some reprint editions and general public books published over the last ten years or so frame and respond to the racist attitudes of modern comics.

Roy Crane’s Captain Easy (1933) was early in the action-adventure genre, replete with exotic settings and a cast of racist caricatures. The vaguely South-Pacific Wogga Zazula, for example, wants to marry Easy: “Throwum wet chicken feathers and stinkweed on fire. Makem big smell,” she says, making a potion.1 Jeet Heer writes in the introduction to volume 1 of the 2010 edition about Crane’s story-telling innovation, his “intense simplicity” and “freewheeling” design; he then gets to this line of thought: “Designing the whole page as a coherent unit, Crane was working in the tradition of Winsor McCay and George Herriman even as he was telling brisk, violent stories set in a fancifully-imagined Asia that would influence younger cartoonists such as Will Eisner and Jack Kirby.”2 The introduction then moves directly to Crane’s biography. Heer deftly sandwiches an oblique reference to Crane’s racist Eurocentrism between his interest in design and his literary influence. The briskness or violence of the comics is not a problem in itself, which helps qualify their being set in “fancifully-imagined Asia.” Being fanciful is not a problem either, so the effect of telling us Crane is a racist whose idea of Asia is itself violent comes from the syntax. It’s as though the syntax of comics, reductive, fanciful, and cartoonish, produces violent racism. This idea refuses to go away.

The orientalist angle is put in perspective in Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, edited by M. Keith Booker and published in four large volumes by Greenwood Press (2014). Somewhat inconsistent in style and attitude—the work of many hands—and inelegant in Greenwood’s populist packaging, it’s a useful reference even in the internet age. Entries vary widely in scope and intent, but many treat racism and vitriol when called for. For example, an entry on Blackhawk, a 1941 war adventure comic, notes the series’ “caricatured Chinese comic relief, Chop-Chop,” the cook or helper derived from Milton Caniff’s legendary Terry and the Pirates.3 “Chop-Chop remained an outlandish racial caricature well after such images were becoming less and less tolerated in other areas of popular culture,” writes Andrew J. Kunka, the author of this entry.4

In contrast, Bruce Canwell’s introduction to the reprint of Terry and the Pirates (IDW Publishing, 2007) explains the evolution of Caniff’s racist caricatures of Connie, the sidekick, and the Dragon Lady, the femme fatale, from “embarrassing stereotype” to three-dimensional and sophisticated figures, respectively (21). “Our two American heroes neither tolerate nor patronize Connie, they accept him, recognizing a kindred spirit who gives loyalty and deserves loyalty in return” (21). “Modern-day stalwarts of political correctness” might be offended by “Connie’s outlandish appearance or the Dragon Lady’s early fractured English,” but “standards evolve” (22). This effort to redeem and excuse Caniff, complete with the Trumpworthy rebuttal of so-called political correctness (the desire to treat all people with respect), does not work at all: Caniff does like Connie, but continues his racist caricature of Asians, who rarely get real eyes in his lexicon, unlike western figures. The racism in the strip extends to the main characters’ vision of others and of the world: “Come on, you rice burner! –I can lick you in spite of you bein’ twice my size!” says Terry (Dec. 6, 1934), and Connie says “Connie go take look like deteckatif! –maybe find Ethiopian in wood shed!” (Feb. 18, 1935, p.150). This isn’t the respect Canwell singles out in the introduction.

A similar apology, incidentally, is made in the translator’s introduction to Henry Kiyama’s The Four Immigrants Manga (1924) which, though in many ways exemplary, manages the following:

Some readers may find the depictions of other races in The Four Immigrants offensive. Certainly, in modern parlance, the drawings of Chinese and African Americans are by no means “politically correct.” In fact, the images of Chinese men with slanted eyes and pigtails and the big-lipped African Americans who appear once or twice in the story are rendered in styles pioneered by white cartoonists in the early part of the 20th century. Kiyama was merely imitating the cartoon styles that he would have found in any American newspaper at the time.5

To these two apologies—that Kiyama didn’t do it often, and that he was following others—Schodt adds that “there is a subtle racial democracy implemented in the story, however, for there is something to offend nearly everyone.”6 Like Disney’s cannibals, who end up allied with Mickey Mouse (see below), Kiyama’s caricatures work against the racism they seem to reflect. Or so we are told. It seems to be particularly hard to find simply that someone, particularly an interesting artist like Kiyama fighting racism and discrimination, is also a troubling racist. It seems US culture does not want to judge racist particulars when they are found in cartoons, and maybe in any cultural work, the same way racism is judged when it is an object of the art: as categorically wrong and upsetting.

Canwell’s ambivalent appreciation is typical of contemporary framing of modern racism: they often acknowledge the bad, contextualize it as an apology, and argue for the other merits of the work. That some comics in the period do not engage in reductive or racist caricature (two different points that are often conflated), for example Garrett Price’s White Boy and Tove Jansson’s Moomins, appears to count no more today than it did in the modern period; likewise critiques of racism in the USA that reach well into the 19th century do not change the contemporary perception, in the world of comics, that “standards” of acceptable practice were different then: different, you may ask, for whom? For racists, which is to say most people, racism was ordinary, yes. Even in Comics through Time we find instances where, in the enthusiasm for what is often great work, like McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, the writer falls back on eccentricity or exaggeration to excuse racism: McCay’s Impy, an African child who wears a grass skirt and says things like “GICK ICK OCK OOCK GEK EK!”,7 “was drawn in an exaggerated style,” but “despite his caricatured appearance, Impy became an important character . . . adding slapstick comedy to the strip.”8 Was Little Nemo just ordinary in its racism? and isn’t the point that ordinary culture is and was racist, and that once this becomes obvious, it needs to be discussed?

In “The Trial of Elmer Steck,” an anti-Semitic episode of the scientist-detective Jet Scott from July-September 1954, an international businessman, Simon Korpus,9 gets his hands on classified “commercial information” about South American trade by blackmailing a government employee. Korpus, a heavy-set man with drooping eyelids, wavy hair, and a curving nose, is eventually nabbed by the chiseled Scott for “book making.” In the preface that accompanies this series, Couch explains the strip’s interest in E.S.P. and precognition, which allow the dupe in the strip to break the government code. Couch avoids the shady innuendo of the strip completely, much as he disregards American oil imperialism in another strip, “The Sheik of Wadani,” and anti-Irish propaganda in “The Curious Case of Mother Makrae,” where an Irish terrorist uses a monkey to blow up buildings in New York. Just the usual 1950s bias? Maybe so, but Couch’s introduction is from 2009.

Georges Remi (or Hergé’s) early racism is widely discussed, particularly in Tintin in the Congo (1930; reissued much later), as is his artistic collaboration with the Germans during the war. Hergé had a resurgence of sorts with Spielberg’s film of 2011, accompanied by such publications as Philippe Goddin’s three-volume The Art of Hergé (2010), haltingly translated by Michael Farr. Reproducing some of Hergé’s awful and racist caricatures of black Congolese, Goddin, like Canwell, says this: “Though he may have amused himself, Hergé did not mock Africans: the tribes he portrayed parodied in their way European armies of old.”10 Goddin writes that Hergé researched African practices and reproduced them faithfully, and indeed he used photographs and artifacts as models in all Tintins. But the authenticity of ceremonial dress or sartorial customs is not what’s crucially in question: Goddin ignores the Sambo stereotypes of the strip (people with lips as wide as their legs, for starters), as well as the racist narcissism and projection that characterize the strip (by the end, Tintin and Snowy are worshipped as white gods by the villagers, a page Goddin reproduces). Instead Goddin says Tintin “continued his discovery of Africa, its realities and its wildlife.”11 He even thinks Tintin’s geography lecture at a missionary school—about “your Fatherland: Belgium”—is “a model of its kind and at the same time a testimony to the times.”12 This shocking book is a low point in the reception of modern racist comics today.

Among the reprints, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse, by Floyd Gottfredson, stands out for the comprehensive accompanying matter, including essays and introductions, reminiscences by artists, and diverse historical materials. One of my favorites is “Mickey Mouse Sails for Treasure Island,” a black cannibal island adventure of 1932. David Gerstein’s preface to it compares the newspaper cartoon with the earlier Mickey Mouse animation: “Trader Mickey’s cannibal characters are the only major element not borrowed from Stevenson. As in the cartoon itself, these Black natives initially seem to embody shopworn 1930s stereotypes. Their depiction as humanized monkeys with black fur or skin—in the same manner that Mickey is a black-furred humanized mouse—marks a lapse in taste typical of the era, as does the natives’ misplaced Southern hick dialect.”13 While Gottfredson employed cannibals often, he “rarely indulged a stereotype straight. The ‘Treasure Island’ natives worship a Tarzan-style ‘white god’; but as yet another black-furred character, the ‘god’ is really no lighter than his worshippers.”14 The cannibals, this note points out, eventually join Mickey to fight the pirates instead. This description is unusual in looking closely at elements of the representation of race in the work, the fur and accent, and in seeing them not only as comic exaggerations but as racist, and yet it too puts a needlessly brave face on Gottfredson’s, and Disney’s, racism. Like Hergé’s Goddin, the Mickey editors see racism as an indulgence, a vice like Barry Manilow that you might be excused for playing in the car. Nor do they trace this racism in Disney as they do, for example, the genealogy of Mickey’s antagonists in the episode, Pete and Shyster, in an essay later in the volume.

Surely there is a difference between the cultural context of McCay’s 1907 Impy and Disney’s 1930s cannibal pals, even in a white America ignorant of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and of contemporary cultural critique generally. Modern comics might reflect such a difference, but you wouldn’t know it, or how such difference might manifest, from today’s reprint editions. Racism in comic culture requires commentary today, and cannot simply be re-presented silently (though some reprints, for example of McCay’s early works, simply say nothing at all about the work), but what kind of attention general editions should devote to the topic is a question worth considering. These editions see that there is something to talk about, only to excuse it. But critique is consistent with appreciation, while appreciation without critique can be self-deception. Comics deserve critique, especially when they represent popular culture to a wide audience.


  1. Crane, Captain Easy, 88. Originally published 3/10/35.
  2. Jeet Heer, Introduction to Captain Easy, Soldier of Fortune: The Complete Sunday Newspaper Strips, vol. 1, 1933–1935, ed. Rick Norwood (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2010), viii.
  3. Andrew J. Kunka, “Blackhawk,” in  Comics through Time: A History of Icons, Idols, and Ideas, vol. 1, 1800–1960, ed. M. Keith Booker (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2014), 39.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Frederik L. Schodt, “Henry Kiyama,” 15–16.
  6. Ibid., 16.
  7. Winsor McCay, Little Nemo, 1905-1914, 109.
  8. Ibid., 233.
  9. Jerry Robinson and Sheldon Stark, Jet Scott, vol. 1 (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2010), 213
  10. Goddin, The Art of Hergé, 75.
  11. Ibid., 79.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Floyd Gottfredson, Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. Vol. 2, Trapped on Treasure Island, eds. David Gerstein and Gary Groth (Seattle, WA: Fantagraphics Books, 2011), 54.
  14. Ibid.