I’ve spent the first few weeks of my African American Comics class dispelling myths. With a sharp and tremendously engaged group of diverse university students, we’ve tackled questions not just about the form, but also about the range of black representation in America’s earliest comics from Outcault’s The New Bully and Herriman’s Musical Mose to Dell’s New Funnies, Fawcett’s Negro Romance, and EC’sShock SuspenStories.
This week I asked the class what surprised them most about our readings so far and a few voiced their initial skepticism that a course on black comics could have enough material to last a full semester. (One student is particularly pleased that she can argue now about comics with friends whose experiences begin and end with Batman.)
So far the Negro Romance story, “Possessed” and the first issue of Rural Home’s Jun-Gal have inspired the liveliest exchange. But what has stuck with me is the conversation surrounding our analysis of a Li’l Eight Ball story from a December 1945 issue of New Funnies. The story is very much in keeping with the slapstick humor of other Walter Lantz characters. A clumsy little boy tries to please his mother in a simple plot that revolves around physical comedy and a serendipitous happy ending. Still, the boy in this story has a large shiny pitch black head, oversized pink lips, and wears white gloves. His plump “mammy” wears an apron and handkerchief around her head as she scolds her son’s well-intentioned antics.