The Military Vanguard for Desegregation:
Civil Rights Era War Comics and Racial Integration
Keep asking me, no matter how long
On the war in Viet Nam, I sing this song
I ain't got no quarrel with the Viet Cong…
Muhammad Ali (quoted in Kent 106)
This article examines the earliest respectful representations of African Americans in mainstream American comic books, focusing on war comics of the 1960s. The use of this genre in inaugural reflection of real diversity in American society appears indebted to the actual U.S. military; its involvement of African Americans in all aspects of overseas combat and support in World War II (WWII) prompted legislation leading to full integration in the armed forces, paving the path for integration at home. Focusing on Marvel's Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, DC's Our Army at War, and Captain America in Marvel's Tales of Suspense, we argue the existence of a dual influence in precipitating this revolutionary change from exclusively European American casts in comic books: the Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and the Vietnam War. In particular, we interrogate the content of these comics in the light of their contemporary need to recruit young men, including African Americans, to fight in Vietnam. We hypothesize that growing anti-Vietnam War involvement discourse within the African American community was a major contributory factor prompting responses from prominent comic book creators with intent to influence the public. Similarly, we analyze two outspoken and, for the time, extremely rare anti-racist comic book stories, those appearing in Sgt. Fury 6 and Our Army At War 160, both for the messages they communicate to the reader as well as the possible underlying motives for their publication in a sequential art landscape still largely devoid of non-Anglo characters. Our study raises questions regarding the role of comic books as purveyors of propaganda during the period in question, and the sources of decisions to pursue such lines of content in relation to the composition of early- to mid-1960s comic book readership. Such questions potentially complicate interpretation of the otherwise expected infiltration of African American characters into mainstream comics in a desegregating 1960s America.
The Importance of Images of African Americans in Popular Media
Savage, Jr.'s observation (75) that late 1940s and early 1950s comic books presented vastly disproportionately few African American characters, relative to the percentage African American presence as a minority in American society, is significant in and of itself. It exposes the denial of diversity within the total American society by the powerful majority, and the sweeping under the carpet of racism that maintains structural inequality in that same society that is supposedly founded on equality and liberty for all. When depicted, African American characters were almost always demeaning comical figures or negative stereotypes, serving, consciously or not, to maintain or bolster oppressive inequality. Oft quoted examples are Whitewash in Marvel's Young Allies and Ebony in The Spirit, but mention must also be made of numerous 'savages', even though African rather than American, that frequent pages of most jungle titles (Savage, Jr. 134-37). Such derisive, distortedly comical or barbaric images provide stereotype lift to majority in-group consumers, inducing a sense of self-efficacy, self-worth, self-esteem, and superiority amongst their membership by downward comparison with the 'other' (Wills 245; Walton & Cohen 256).
The CRM was very much concerned with re-definition of African Americans as in-group mainstream Americans, dismantling stereotypes held in some minds in the non-African American component of that in-group. This has been difficult to achieve because categorizing is an innate response to the perception of objects in the environment, and categorization is a prerequisite for stereotype formation (Schneider 16, 64). Categorization accompanied by perceived group difference leads to stereotypes which are culturally transmitted through group membership at multiple levels, such as the family or community. Such routes of acquisition, furthermore, are more frequent than impressions derived from actual interaction with the 'other', especially in segregated societies (Schneider 22). Media have potential to augment image dissemination or to provide impetus for cognitive reappraisal and rejection of stereotypes, the latter process having been identified as capable of and necessary for removal of already held categorizations (Rosenthal and Crisp 501; Johnston and MacRae 581).
The study of the role of comic books in promoting or reflecting the dismantling of harmful stereotypes of African Americans is, therefore, significant, both from a historical perspective, as well as the way in which it can illuminate, through the example of this one medium, the power popular culture has as an instrument of healing.
Early Non-Military Examples of Respectful Depictions of African Americans in Comics
In segregated mid-20th Century America, there were respectful portrayals of African American characters found in comics. Predominantly these were comic strips published in syndicated newspapers specifically intended for African American communities, written and drawn by African American artists. The most well-known, thanks to a recent book written especially to bring the work of the first African American female artist in comics, Jackie Ormes, to the public's attention, was Torchy Brown [Figure 1] (Goldstein vii-viii). Torchy Brown appeared in the Pittsburg Courier from 1937-38 and 1950-54. Torchy's adventures began with the Great Migration from rural South to urban North (Goldstein 3). In this later Heartbeats example from 1951 [Figure 1], the characters appear part of an all African American segregated community. They are smartly or elegantly dressed, behave in a culturally sophisticated manner, include an advanced professional, and generally promote a positive image of African Americans.
The few positive portrayals of African American characters in mainstream comic books from the period tend to present a harmonious, racially integrated society without addressing issues of prejudice. In the Dick Cole, Wonder Boy feature in September 1941's issue of Blue Bolt (Davis "Buried Treasure" 2) [Figure 2], a multiple levee break galvanizes the populace of a Mississippi plantation community into action.
Both African and European Americans are shown living harmoniously together, cooperating for the common good. There is no hint of racial tension, and despite African American characters speaking with a recognizable ethnic dialect, there appears no disrespectful intent on the author's part; it simply locates events in the rural South. The message transmitted by this page in particular is that African and European Americans can or do live harmoniously together, despite the reality of segregation at the time. The use of African American ethnic dialect acknowledges tacitly the social isolation under which such linguistic forms evolved. Additionally the African Americans are clearly part of the subordinate class in this community, with the plantation owners being of European descent and living in a grand house, despite the economic crisis they are experiencing, which is resolved when Dick Cole recovers their lost treasure. Davis's Blue Bolt Dick Cole stories included an anti-lynch mob tale, but also another in which a stereotyped African American was an antagonist, a contradiction that Grost interprets as due to a prevailing confusion regarding race ("Dick Cole the Wonder Boy").
Balbo the Boy Magician, written and drawn by Bert Whitman [Figure 3] appeared in issues 32-47 of Master Comics published by Fawcett in the early 1940s, as well as one entire issue of the Mighty Midget Comics, Balbo the Boy Magician 12 in 1943. Balbo's assistant, John Smith, appears as a middle-aged, well-dressed, polite African American man upon whom Balbo appears somewhat reliant.While no racist or demeaning behavior is exhibited by Balbo or other characters in the strip towards John, his subservience to Balbo, reminiscent of the antebellum period, only minimally asserts a positive image of African Americans, and avoids addressing directly societal inequalities. John Smith's subservience to a European American minor does not go far in promoting African American self-efficacy.
All-Negro Comics 1 (June, 1947) was a bold attempt by African American journalist Orrin C. Evans to provide comic book reading material for the African American community, produced by African American artists [Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7].
Several potential causes can be put forward for its failure to progress beyond the first issue. The 15c cover price was rare when most comics cost 10c. Evans did not have a powerful, established comic book company and distribution network at his disposal in order to promote his book: this was a grass roots endeavor. In a de facto segregated society even in the North, African American entrepreneurship clearly faced obstacles presented by institutional racism. Additionally, the comic's content may have been deemed unsuitable by concerned African American parents (see perhaps Sugarfoot's pursuit of Ample in Figure 7 (Cravat, "Sugarfoot")). The comic is multi-genre: jungle, detective, children's fantasy, and humor, the latter perhaps aimed at older readers. For the inflated price it might not have presented a tempting package to readers with genre-specific tastes. It nevertheless is truly the important landmark that Evans claimed it to be (Evans, "All-Negro Comics…"). The male heroes are powerful, competent characters (Terrell, "Ace Harlem"), but the book also evidences the segregated nature of American society, the residue of which we are still struggling with.
Interestingly, the Ace Harlem and Sugarfoot stories, particularly, include language and images which locate them in lower socioeconomic communities and are reminiscent (from our current point in time) of blaxploitation movies and blaxploitation comics, such as Luke Cage Hero for Hire from the early 1970s. Noteworthy is the use of ethnic dialect in a comic book produced by and for the African American community.
With romance comics at the height of their popularity in the early 1950s, Fawcett published three issues of Negro Romance, a segregated book that appears identical in format and content to the typical romance books of the day, only featuring African American characters [Figure 8].
Fawcett's Negro Romance series was cancelled after three issues, and so was probably not a commercial success. Charlton Comics resurrected the title for one issue in 1955 [Figure 9], but the same absence of incentive to continue publication appears to have persisted.
There were African American artists working in late 1940s and 1950s mainstream comics, the most accomplished being Matt Baker. Because the comic book industry almost never, as this review has shown, depicted African American characters appropriately or at all, Baker's superb work features only European American portrayals. Baker's covers, in particular those he drew for St. John, where Baker was Art Director (Benson 67), were often remarkable in their quality and composition, standing out now as windows enabling a look back in time at aspects of ordinary, segregated European American life of the period, executed with comparable finesse and vitality to the celebrated magazine cover work of the great Norman Rockwell. Yet Baker mostly remains known only to comic book collectors and scholars, having suffered the double stigma of being an African American artist in a segregated society and working in the comic book industry in a simultaneously classist society (Lopes 388).
Before contemplating the war comics that heralded permanent transformation of monochrome mainstream comic book populations to ones that respectfully reflected American diversity, a review of one of the most significant comic book stories in the history of the medium is required. The book is EC's Weird Fantasy 18 of March-April 1953, and the particular story "Judgment Day", written by Al Feldstein, drawn and inked by Joe Orlando, and colored by Marie Severin. Briefly, in a future when humans have spread out across the galaxy, on a planet previously seeded with mechanical life forms, a representative of the Galactic Republic's Earth Colonization department, Tarlton, visits to inspect the progress of the inhabitants. As he conducts his guided inspection tour, we observe an allegory of segregated American society, but at no point do we see Tarlton's face through the visor of his space helmet. Two communities of robots, differing only in color, lead separate, unequal existences in the 'free enterprise' twentieth century-level society that has developed. The orange robots are privileged oppressors of the blues, whose ghetto slums adorn the wrong side of the tracks [Figure 10].
While the completed orange robots are implanted with the entirety of knowledge available within their society, the blues are processed through a different 'educator' that does not deliver the same advantages and are subsequently denied equal access to resources [Figure 11].
The story is profoundly analytical of the mechanisms, effects, and fallacies of racial segregation to a depth that is comparable to that necessary for consideration of institutional racism as a topic in modern university courses on diversity. Tarlton's judgment on this occasion is that the robot society is not yet ready to benefit from membership in the wider galactic community, by virtue of still being unable to live together in harmony, as American society was when Feldstein wrote the story (Feldstein, Orlando, and Severin 7). As with many EC tales, there is a final and dramatic last panel twist. Spectacularly, as Tarlton departs in his space ship and removes his helmet, we see that he is of African descent [Figure 12].
The story overall presents a stark deconstruction of segregation, implying this primitive stage in societal evolution holds humanity back from greater achievements. It also presents hope that this handicap can be overcome appropriately, finishing with a stereotype disconfirming image of an African character in a position of authority, something extremely rare in popular media from the period.
Ironically this last panel of "Judgment Day" led to EC's final demise as a comic book publisher. In 1956, after the introduction of the Comics Code (a move in part precipitated by EC's testing of the limits of acceptable comic book content), an Angelo Torres science fantasy jungle story was rejected when the contents for Incredible Science Fiction 33 were submitted for approval. The book was resubmitted with a reprint of "Judgment Day" in place of the Torres story. Feldstein was handling the submission himself, but the book was again rejected. Judge Charles Murphy decreed that a black character was unacceptable, although the official objection became the beads of sweat on Tarlton's face, assessed as disrespectful to African Americans (Diehl 95; B. Wright 177). Feldstein's reported description of the incident favors the interpretation that there was a racist motive for rejecting the story, but also that Judge Murphy was in some way acting on behalf of EC's competitors at Archie and DC; they were both benefiting from toeing the Code line and would also gain from EC's removal from the industry, an analysis apparently later corroborated at least inferentially by an executive working for Archie Comics at the time (Diehl 95-96). According to Nyberg (123) alternate accounts exist that offer a religious objection to the depiction of man-made life forms on Murphy's part as the source of his disapproval. Owner William M. Gaines subsequently published the story without Code approval, then announced the closure of EC comics (B. Wright 177).
Resistance to appropriate depictions of African Americans in comic books in 1953 resulted, inadvertently, in issue 81 of Heroic Comics' true life account of Corporal Frank McGee's medal-winning bravery in Korea showing African American hero McGee as white-skinned (San Giacomo, "Frank McGee's True Heroics in Comics"). But it is to fictional war comics that we now turn to illustrate the emergence of a racially integrated population in American comics.
President Harry S. Truman and Integration of the U.S. Military
In 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the prohibition of employment discrimination "obligating the contractor not to discriminate against any worker because of race, creed, color, or national origin" via Executive Order 8802 (Ransom 412; Stillman II 141). Thus there was important anti-racist legislation contemporary with the early 1940s respectful depictions of African Americans in comics discussed above. However, it wasn't until 1945 that Robert P. Patterson as Secretary of War ordered the US Army's review of its racial policies, resulting in the formation of the Gillem Board and limited reforms (MacGregor 153). The 1945 date is also significant, in that the most direct attack by comics on racism and segregation in the 1940s appeared in a war story of the same year (Schiff and Daly, "Dedicated to the Millions of American Negroes…"—see below). 1946 saw Truman establish a committee to examine racial violence, whose findings were published by the Administration the following year in the report, "To Secure These Rights" (Sitkoff 600). The report called for the end of segregation in the US.
Following the Committee's report, the Secretary of War adopted a policy allowing states to determine whether their National Guard units were integrated (MacGregor 318). Also in 1947 Congress passed the National Security Act, which created the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Air Force (up to this time it was part of the Army), the CIA, and the National Security Council (MacGregor 297), and in 1948 Truman ordered the desegregation of the military via Executive Order 9981, calling for "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin," reiterating Roosevelt's order in the context of the armed forces (Ansel 27). This order also created the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services.
Three years later Truman ordered the establishment of the Committee on Government Contract Compliance via Executive Order 10308 (Santoro 179). The intent of this 1951 Order was to require companies providing supplies to the military to have an equal policy towards African Americans; however, the committee had no power to enforce sanctions. In 1953 Eisenhower followed up on 10308 by ordering the creation of the President's Committee on Government Contracts via Executive Order 10479 (Santoro 179), continuing the evolution of anti-discriminatory legislation which has continued through to the present day.
By 1954 full integration of the military was achieved when Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson abolished the last all-black unit (Carter 5; MacGregor 460). Aside from events in the civilian CRM, in 1963 Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued the Department of Defense Directive 5120.36 (Carter 6) stating that it is the military's responsibility to eliminate discrimination in local communities that could potentially reduce the effectiveness of black service members (MacGregor 549). The military did not fully act on this directive until 1967, however (MacGregor 601-9). More than two decades of development of anti-racist policies within the military provided the impetus for the elimination of segregation and discrimination within American society that Roosevelt had ordered just prior to America's entry into WWII.
With this timeline of real world events laid out, we now examine the progress of racial integration in comic books that proceeded alongside it.
Integrationist and Anti-Racist Messages in Civil Rights Era War Comics
World's Finest Comics 17
Early issues of DC Comics' title World's Finest Comics were 100 page giants with cardboard covers (Overstreet 790-1). The cardboard covers were used for issues 2 through 17, and the comic size reduced to 76 pages for issues 10 through 54, then 68 pages until issue 70, after which the comic assumed the same size and price as other comics in the line. The success of this large 1940s comic with varied content and priced at 15 cents contrasts with the inability of All-Negro Comics 1 discussed above to get past the first issue.
For the purpose of the current discussion, the importance of the World's Finest Comics series lies in the Johnny Everyman feature, scripted by Jack Schiff and illustrated by John Daly. Schiff wrote many of DC's single public service pages or announcements, featuring various well-known DC characters such as Superman, which appeared in a variety of their publications. Johnny Everyman was essentially an extended, multi-page version of these items, using a character created for the purpose, with the intent of promoting particular viewpoints on socially relevant issues (Grost, "Johnny Everyman"). Issue 17 published in Spring, 1945 contains a Johnny Everyman story written in cooperation with the East and West Association (Schiff and Daly 1) [Figure 13], an organization formed during WWII, "led by novelist and political activist Pearl S. Buck," and which sought to undermine "colonialism and racism in both Asia and the United States" (Shaffer 1).
With no actual title, but referred to as "Dedicated to the Millions of American Negroes…" in the Grand Comics Database, the story features a segregated African American "field artillery battalion" fighting the Nazis in France, with particular focus on the heroic character of Sgt. Ralph Jackson (Schiff and Daly 1-4). By having Jackson write "From Harlem to Hitler" on an artillery shell, and then engage an enemy fighter plane using an anti-aircraft gun, Schiff connects the unit in the story with the 369th Antiaircraft Artillery Gun Battalion, the WWII incarnation of the famous "Harlem Hellcats" of World War I (Hastie 56). Over 2.5 million African Americans registered for military service in WWII, but only 1.2 million actually served in some capacity, mostly within Army segregated units tasked to general labor or to support combat troops (Hansen 111; The National WWII Museum). In this story the soldiers are shown as a well-disciplined, patriotic, tightly knit force. Jackson presents as an excellent leader, realistically tough and brave, holding his ground in an anti-aircraft position after suffering a wound that puts one of his arms out of action. Altogether a very positive image of African American males is promoted by the combined text and illustrations.
Having established the country's debt to the African American fighting man in the European Theater of Operations (ETO), Schiff cuts ahead in time a little, to Jackson home on leave, meeting his friend George outside the munitions plant where the latter works (Schiff and Daly 4). Ralph wants to eat out but, in his eagerness to spend time with his buddy, doesn't give George the opportunity to remind him that the local restaurants are prejudiced against African Americans. As a result they suffer being turned away from the first one Ralph takes them to, and are about to be prevented from entering a second [Figure 14], when Johnny Everyman appears on the scene and uses his race and ethnicity to get Ralph and George into the restaurant (Schiff and Daly 5).
Ralph is understandably frustrated and disheartened that in the country for which he has risked his life, he does not have the freedom enjoyed by those fellow countrymen with lighter colored skin (Schiff and Daly 6) [Figure 15].
Schiff then has the task of using Johnny Everyman to deliver a practical response to continued segregation and prejudice in the United States, one which, it turns out, involves recognition of those European Americans who are not racist and who have also acted to help end racism. It also suggests, however, the exercise of patience and tolerance on the part of the African American community in the face of prejudice, with faith that ultimately multicultural unity will prevail (Schiff and Daly 6-8). While a tough pill to swallow, there were undoubtedly sound reasons for not agitating social unrest, but this approach also bears testimony both to the entrenched nature of racism and prejudice in America at the time, as well as the protracted effort required to alter the mindset of large numbers of people from the dominant group whose existing cognitions feared equality of the races. The comic is thoroughly remarkable for being so outspoken on race while simultaneously enjoying the mainstream popularity afforded by some of its other content featuring two of DC's principal assets, Superman and Batman.
The G.I. Bill of 1944 did provide an avenue for more African Americans to access higher education, but the reality was that black service members returned to segregated communities and poor paying menial jobs (if they even could find employment) (Herbold 104-5). While the G.I. Bill was available to them, it assumed they could afford time away from a paying job to pursue an education. Most were not in a position to use the G.I. Bill. For those that were, institutional racism was still formidable. The VA could deny claims (Herbold 105-7). Loans were not widely available. Many colleges were hesitant to accept black students, even those who served their country honorably, with segregationist practices still widespread (Herbold 107). If black service members passed these obstacles, there was still the gauntlet of intense racism to run. Outcomes differed little for African Americans returning from Vietnam (Boulton 57).
Two-Fisted Tales 30
During the Korean War, African American service members began to assume more combat roles. For instance, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment was deployed in 1950 to help stop the advancement of North Korean troops. The regiment was abolished in 1951 (Ansel 32-3).
EC Comics' much-lauded pair of ground-breaking war comic titles, Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, are acknowledged as anti-war comics, or at least, by virtue of the accuracy with which the suffering and destruction of war are depicted, potentially able to convey an anti-war message (Benton 186; Witek 44; Matton 154). The November-December 1952 issue of Two-Fisted Tales features an 8-page story which shows two U.S. Army platoons fighting near each other in Korea, both segregated, one all European American and one all African American, a situation still prevalent at that time (Kurtzman, Estrada, and Severin, "Bunker!").
Both platoons suffer losses and encounter difficulty attaining their goal—capture of the hilltop—but when the victory comes, race-based conflict erupts over who gets credit, which Kurtzman quickly extinguishes with the last five panels of page 8. The commanding officer breaks up the fight, then posts a sign, initially hidden from the reader, which has a transformative effect on members of the two platoons. As they walk off together to resume war against the real enemy, the last panel reveals the message on the sign, which makes the point that both platoons are part of the same U.S. Army [Figure 16].
EC's war comics were well-researched, and many of the artists who worked on them were themselves veterans. The outcome presented in this story is also far from unrealistic. The policy of using contact to eliminate conflict within the military faced obstacles and yet was successful, achieving levels of relatively harmonious integration that far outstripped progress made within the civilian sector (Canaday 2).
Frontline Combat 9
In this Civil War special issue also with a publication date of November-December 1952, the same as Two-Fisted Tales 30, Kurtzman expands his campaign against racism with the 8-page story "Abe Lincoln!" (Kurtzman, Davis, and Severin 1-8). The story is told via the reminiscences of an old country guy sat in a fireside chair in his Charleston, South Carolina home [Figure 17]. He narrates key events in Lincoln's life leading up to the outbreak of the Civil War, but as he does so the reader sees him only from behind or below, while his face is never revealed [Figure 18]. The narrator speaks in an identifiable Southern dialect, with African American sociolinguistic variables, but in typical EC fashion there is no visual confirmation that he is an elderly African American gentleman until the last panel [Figure 19].
That last panel fully reveals the African American identity of the narrator as a normal, elderly gentleman concerned with Lincoln's well-being, with the implication that the future hopes for freedom of his community rest on Lincoln prevailing in the war that has just started. Kurtzman uses the elderly African American narrator here as a reminder that there was a war fought on American soil to establish racial equality. In combination with the "Bunker!" story, Kurtzman highlights the distance American society had come in the intervening 90 years, while acknowledging there was still further to travel in achieving racial equality.
Frontline Combat 15
During the Korean War, military leadership began to reevaluate segregation policies, given the 1948 Executive Order calling for equality and the Committee's recommendation that the integration of black and white units was more efficient. This resulted in the de-activation of all-black units, with African American service members being integrated into previously all-white units (Ansel 27-43).
"Perimeter!" is an 8-page story set in Korea published in EC's Frontline Combat 15 of January 1954. Written and drawn by Wallace Wood, with coloring by Marie Severin, the story again underlines the creative superiority of EC comics during the 1950s. The characters are part of an integrated U.S. Army unit fighting alongside Republic of Korea (ROK) troops (South Koreans) (Wood and Severin 1-8). Wood highlights the relational difficulties encountered by the military's move to integrate, but at the same time exposes a variation in attitudes, putting a counter-intuitive twist on the stereotypical expectation that Southern whites will most likely be racist while Northerners more liberal in their thinking.
Wood's sensational cover [Figure 20] features the three characters around whom the plot revolves. Matthews, the African American soldier, is portrayed as a capable, regular G.I. both on the cover and throughout the tale. The central figure, the Sergeant, 'Tex', is a Southerner, and to the right is Miller, the Yankee soldier whose racist attitudes extend to the tendency to categorize everyone who possesses some characteristic that distinguishes them from himself. Hence he repeatedly refers to the Sergeant and Southerners in general as rebels, stereotyping them with the expectation that Tex must be a racist if he hails from the South, as well as using the disrespectful term 'gooks' in blanket referral to Koreans.
Before the action starts, Matthews challenges Miller over his use of derisive terminology when referring to Koreans, in defense of their South Korean allies, and the Sergeant has to break it up as the dispute threatens to escalate to physical conflict. As he walks away having restored order, the Sergeant mutters a cuss word followed by, "Nothin' but trouble in mixed outfits…" which Miller interprets as the Sergeant holding a preference for working with a squad of fellow 'rebs'. Miller presses his point, but without being drawn into a debate on racism, Tex refocuses on their duties:
Miller: (in reference to African Americans) Look—you're a Southerner! You hate 'em too! What y' so sore at me about? I only said…"
Tex: Let's go boy! Let's get up on the line!
Wood's story line has the unit enduring an enemy bombardment in the rain followed by a charge, which they barely repulse and at huge cost, with the ROK troops completely wiped out, the Chinese evidently not taking prisoners. As dark approaches, Miller cracks up, fearing death, and Matthews is the one who attempts to comfort and encourage him [Figure 21].
Wood's portrayal of Matthews, the African American infantryman, paints him as an ordinary, responsible, principled male caught up in a war that's difficult to comprehend. Matthews is shown as deriving strength from periodically reading his family Bible, something else that has invited Miller's scorn, and willing to stand up for what's right. This includes challenging insults to others, while tolerating personal attacks against himself, and placing the lives of his fellow soldiers before his own. Overall this image is stereotype disconfirming, and alongside expressions of racism by Miller in the story, helps to strengthen Wood's anti-racist, anti-segregationist message. As the Sergeant again has to step in, when Miller reacts to Matthews' offer of help, Miller jibes that Matthews may well derive sustaining explanations from the Bible for their presence in Korea, but it won't help ensure he is accepted as an equal back home in the USA. Here Wood uses the unlikable Miller to remind the reader of the real injustices of segregation and racism in the USA.
As "Perimeter!" continues, another enemy bombardment signals the next onslaught, which this time causes the Allied line to break, with most of the remaining U.S. troops falling back. In the dark Tex hears a wounded soldier calling out. Leaving his shelter, Tex finds the injured man, who insists that the Sergeant leave him to die and take care of his own safety. He passes something to the Sergeant, asking him to make sure it gets to his family. Tex assesses that it is possible to attempt a rescue, however, and drags the man back to cover just as he's spotted and under fire. The Sergeant holds his ground as the rain continues and as night deepens, in a good defensible position, but only able to see the enemy when they stumble right upon him. Repelling one attack after another, he exhausts the ammunition of his Browning Automatic, and then his carbine, and is finally reduced to hand-to-hand combat. He prevails long enough to see the dawn of a better day approaching. The clear new day signals opportunity for US bombers and artillery to secure the area, and it is not long before the ground troops return, and with them, Miller. The amazement at Tex's heroic stand quickly turns to derision as Miller sees that the Sergeant risked his life to save Matthews. Miller uses a deeply insulting term for African Americans as he scathingly expresses his disgust, and Wood, through the letterer, deletes this expletive with the use of keyboard symbols. The exhausted Sergeant maintains his composition, doesn't engage Miller in argument, but instead hands him Matthews' Bible, commenting that he (Miller) is the one most in need of it. Again in that EC final panel, Wood delivers the knockout punch [Figure 22]. The reader sees that the Bible Tex has handed to Miller is open at Malachi 2.10: "Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us?"
Eventually the military eliminated a quota system of how many African Americans were actually accepted into military service. This opened the door not only to a larger percentage of the total force being African American, but to more African Americans being allowed to remain in uniform. Near the end of the Korean War an increasing number of African American men were given command of units and allowed to serve in elite units (Ansel 27-43).
Following Frontline Combat 15 there was a 7 year hiatus in which segregation and racism were not addressed directly by mainstream comic books. This slump in progress can be attributed to the introduction of the Comics Code and the fall of EC.
Our Army At War 113
Written by Robert Kanigher with art by Joe Kubert, the Sgt. Rock stories in DC's popular war title Our Army At War featured the unit Easy Company, with Rock in command, and a regular roster of characters, to which others were added as the series progressed. Issue 113 (December 1961) introduced Jackie Johnson, a handsome, well-built African American soldier. Johnson did not appear in another Rock story until issue 160, five years later, yet he is presented as if he is a constant presence in the unit. He is shown as brave, self-disciplined, mentally strong, alert, intelligent, and fully invested in Easy Company's mission. Relationships between Johnson and the others are good—Easy Company is a harmoniously integrated team for which race is not an issue. Fictitiously located in WWII, this situation did not represent 1940s reality but did speak of the aspired for goal in both the military and American society.
DC were experimenting with the introduction of African American characters in the backgrounds of their comics in 1961. Showcase 34 (September-October 1961) (Fox, Kane, and Anderson "Birth of The Atom") has Ray Palmer and Jean Loring supervising a children's nature club field trip. One child has dark skin [Figure 23].
In the November-December 1961 issue of Green Lantern (#9), a public service page about school bus safety shows an integrated group of children sitting happily in their seats (Schiff 1) [Figure 24], and then in Atom 8 (August-September 1963), in the story "The Purloined Miniatures" (Fox, Kane, and Greene 4), one panel shows an African American security guard [Figure 25].
"Eyes For a Blind Gunner" in Our Army At War 113 goes all the way in including a major African American character in the story [Figure 26], but makes absolutely no mention of the issues of racism or segregation (Kanigher and Kubert "Eyes For a Blind Gunner" 1-13).
It simply presents a diverse group of men completely comfortable with their morphological and even cultural differences to the extent that they function as a single community. Within the unit, Johnson develops a partnership with Wild Man [Figures 27 and 28], who Rock then entrusts with Easy Company's protection [Figure 29].
Both Wild Man (hands) and Johnson (eyes) are injured when their machine gun post takes a hit. They fight on by cooperating, Wild Man providing the sight for Johnson's blind machine gunning which, despite exhausting the supply of ammunition, succeeds in holding off the enemy [Figures 30 and 31].
Kanigher's message seems to read that both white and black have their strengths and shortcomings, but by cooperating together they can overcome even the most seemingly insurmountable obstacles. As with all of the popular comics discussed, each issue had a distribution in six figures. When this readership is multiplied by sharing and resale, at the macro level the cognitive effect of popular graphic storytelling of this nature might be significant. It seems at least that this was the intent of the publishers and the creative team.
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos 6
The entire series of Sgt. Fury, as conceived by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, takes Kanigher's idea of a fictional WWII integrated unit and turns it into an ongoing presence. The Howling Commandos version of diversity originally had a seven man unit consisting of Jewish American Izzy Cohen, Italian American Dino Manelli, a corporal of apparently Irish descent ('Dum-Dum' Dugan), African American bugler Gabriel Jones, Southerner Robert 'Rebel' Ralston, and then Junior Juniper and Fury himself as representatives of the Anglo majority (Lee, Kirby, and Ayers 2-3). So unusual was it, however, to have an African American character in comics at the time, that Marvel's colorist, uninformed as to the innovation, assumed Jones was Caucasian and gave him white skin on the cover of Sgt. Fury 1 (May 1963).
Marvel's Sgt. Fury 6 (March 1964) is, however, an issue singled out for the promotion of a powerful anti-racist, integrationist message, going way beyond the simple passive inclusion of an African American character. One of the Howlers (Junior) has been killed, and so the unit is sent a replacement ready for their mission to capture Rommell in North Africa, where the reader can assume contact with the British Desert Rats under Montgomery is inevitable. The expertise with which this story is written, though, is evident from the way the reader is led to believe that the mission to get Rommell is the main plot, and anti-racism is a sub-plot—the latter not evident at all from the cover [Figure 32].
Fury notices something strange about Junior's replacement, George Stonewell. First of all he interprets this as their new man perhaps attempting to impress him with his ruggedness, now that he's with the Howling Commandos, but when they enter the barracks all is revealed (Lee, Kirby, and Roussos 8) [Figure 33]. The anger and aggression in the facial expressions, body language, and verbalizations of Fury and the other Howlers leaves no room for doubt as to the anti-racist stance of the Sergeant, the series, and the publisher.
As in Wood's "Perimeter!", Lee and Kirby consciously undermine the Southern racist stereotype by having Stonewell erroneously assume Rebel Ralston is prejudiced like himself. Fury quells the discord that would always be a threat to the safety of the men in combat, but Stonewall, as a white supremacist, assumes superiority and authority over those he deems inferior and incapable by virtue of their race or ethnicity. Consequently, disaster is barely averted when Gabriel Jones and Stonewell have a joint task to perform [Figures 34 and 35].
Stonewell speaks German, so Fury has him subtly interrogate a captured German officer. This provides Lee with the opportunity to equate racism at home in the US with Nazi anti-semitism [Figure 36]. In the dialogue, the Nazi, having recognized Stonewell's racist mentality, attempts to use this to his advantage and win Stonewell over to the Reich, promising to spare him after they are rescued. The German has, however, presumed too much.
When Stonewell and Izzy Cohen work together on an operation, Stonewell's sense of racial superiority again threatens their lives as their position is revealed to the enemy [Figure 37]. Stonewell and Cohen fight well together under pressure, and the former executes a maneuver that buys them time but also gets him wounded. Cohen rescues him [Figure 38], and the Howling Commandos put distance between themselves and the Germans [Figure 39].
An obliging German field doctor is co-opted to treat Stonewell, who needs a transfusion of AB blood, which happens to be rare but also Gabriel Jones's type. When Stonewell wakes and finds an African American has saved his life with his blood, he's disgusted, but Jones just doesn't care. This device in the story exposes the Nazi blood theories as well as the notorious American "one drop of blood" rule as ridiculous [Figure 40].
The story ends with Stonewell getting transferred. His departure reveals, through dialogue, thought balloons, narrative, and the expressions and body language of the characters, that Stonewell's lifelong conditioning, while entrenched, might be showing visible signs of change [Figure 41]. Lee and Kirby use the last panel to summarize the message of the story, which deliberately had little to do directly with "The Fangs of the (Desert) Fox" Rommell.
Tales of Suspense 61
The Captain America story "The Strength of the Sumo" in the January 1965 issue of Tales of Suspense is anomalous in that it bears no plotline connection to those preceding or following it in the series. It is pro-Vietnam involvement propaganda, published just prior to commencement of Operation Rolling Thunder. It also includes a portion of retroactive continuity (retcon) to establish Captain America's purpose for allowing himself to be captured in Vietnam (Lee, Kirby, and Stone 5) [Figures 42 and 43]. This reason is highly significant. Captain America is attempting the rescue of a downed African American chopper pilot, whose brother saved the Star Spangled Avenger in the ETO in WWII (Lee, Kirby, and Stone 5). Bearing in mind the overwhelming absence of African American characters in comics, this choice of plot appears very deliberate, with a particular underlying purpose. Captain America allows his own capture in order to locate Jim Baker [Figure 42]. Note the use of 'Baker' as the African American pilot's surname, a posthumous tip of the hat to Matt Baker, who worked for Lee at Atlas during the 1950s and up to his untimely death.
The dialogue between Captain America and Jim Baker persuades the reader, through allegory, that America owes a debt to the African American community for its involvement in WWII and that this debt will be repaid with the freedom that is the right of that community [Figure 43]. Baker's unselfish response that it is the entire free world that now needs Captain America links African American freedom at home with the wider fight against communist totalitarianism. This message counters Malcolm X's assertion that the African American struggle against racism in the U.S. was part of the same global struggle that included freedom fighters in South Vietnam (X 15). The dialogue is orchestrated such that Captain America's next statement indirectly identifies the U.S. military's repeat need for African American enrollment.
The overt thrust of the propaganda concentrates on verbal sparring between Captain America and his various captors [Figure 44], simultaneously establishing the reality of Vietnam as part of the overall communist threat. Verbal posturing between Captain America and the Viet Cong inevitably falls in favor of the United States, with the communists appearing aggressive, foolhardy, and out of touch with the reality of America's might [Figure 44]. This message contrasts with Malcolm X's January 1965 assessment that America's defeat in such a complex and unconventional theater of war was inevitable (X 184).
In combination with the visuals, the dialog links the Viet Cong with the Russians [Figure 45]. A classic Kirby Cold War image uses a stereotypically full-bearded individual to link the Viet Cong to Soviet communism, without Russia being mentioned once.
Lee and Kirby juxtapose the Viet Cong with the Soviets as analogous to the Japanese in relation to the Nazis in WWII, by giving the Viet Cong general the identity of a Sumo wrestler, an out-of-context use of this exclusively Japanese cultural icon [Figure 46]. Image and text combine in their continued barrage on the reader's mind. While the depiction of the Sumo reminds us of the second-tier enemy in WWII, the dialogue visualizes the enormity of the Sino-Russian communist threat and its vice-like grip, putting it in a perspective reliant upon the veracity of the communist soldier's observation that America's strength has been underestimated.
And just in case the reader hasn't yet developed sufficient negativity towards the new enemy, Lee and Kirby throw in the suggestion that the North Vietnamese are idol worshipping heathens, and thus contemptible from a traditional Abrahamic point of view. They are also apparently disrespectful to the extent of being willing to use the 'idol' as a weapon, with the Sumo general having no qualms about lifting the deity and using it against Captain America [Figure 47].
The final two panels give a last reminder that in Vietnam the U.S. faces part of the larger communist threat, as Cap and Jim escape in the general's Russian Mig fighter [Figure 48]. The verbal exchange in the last panel again suggests that it is the values upon which the Republic was built (symbolically personified as Captain America) that have rescued African Americans from the oppressions of slavery, segregation, racial prejudice… and possible ruination under the influence of communism.
This 1965 story brings Vietnam into the desegregation equation. The use of war comics to promote racial harmony in the early 1960s could be seen as a reflection of the military's lead in establishing integration, and the use of this to promote civilian racial harmony to balance messages encouraging inter-racial conflict that emerged as a bi-product of the CRM. However, the building U.S. involvement in Vietnam did not escape comment from the vociferous Nation of Islam, nor from a solo Malcolm X following his split from that group (X 184). By 1965 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also expressing concern over the War, opposition which in April of 1967 he openly linked with the CRM (King and Washington 232). In January 1964 Muhammad Ali had failed the qualifying exam for the military (Hauser 142). His link with the Nation of Islam made public by changing his name to Cassius X and then Ali after beating Sonny Liston in February 1964 (Quintana 179), implied his anti-Vietnam war position, which he subsequently verbalized with his celebrated "Ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong" statement in 1966 when discussing with reporters his reaction to being re-drafted under the amended rules (Hauser 145). The positions taken by these influential leaders within the African American community regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam fell into two broad categories. On the one hand, Dr. King saw misguided use of funds that would be best spent alleviating the conditions of the poor in America, especially in compensating the African American community for generations of lost potential (King and Washington 233; Wiest 64); on the other, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam had long identified Vietnam as an oppressive white war, that African Americans, who were denied freedom in their own country, had no part in (Wiest 64). This had also been Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad's stance in WWII (Mazrui 497), and in the 1960s Muhammad Ali's global fame broadcast this message internationally. Clearly such powerful, racially connected opposition to American involvement in Vietnam would evoke responses from various sources. The question emerges, what was the motivation for DC and Marvel to break with their normal storylines and devote isolated single issues to delivering what were, for their time, extremely strong statements against racism and in favor of racial integration?
Our Army At War 160
With a cover date of November 1965, this Robert Kanigher and Joe Kubert masterpiece was published in the interval between Muhammad Ali's failure to pass the military entrance test and his subsequent disagreements with the authorities and refusal to come forward at his induction. The story again features African American member of Easy Co., Jackie Johnson, although on this occasion details of his background are given which were entirely absent when the character was used in Our Army At War 113. The trio of Rock, Wild Man, and Johnson is shown captured by a Nazi unit led by none other than the heavyweight boxer who took the world title away from Jackie at Madison Square Garden before America entered WWII. A flashback pictures a younger Rock as a boxer watching Johnson in the ring to learn from his technique. When the Nazi wins the bout to become the champ, he uses the occasion as evidence of the superiority of the Master Race and its inevitable dominion over the rest of humanity (Kanigher and Kubert "What is the Color of Your Blood?" 6) [Figure 49].
In the story's present, with the advantage of being his captor, the obsessed Nazi social Darwinist forces Johnson into a contest and proceeds to hammer him mercilessly with punch after punch, demanding that he admit his blood is black [Figure 50].
Johnson doesn't fight back because he knows if he beats the Nazi, his two Easy Co. companions will be shot to keep them silent. Witnessing the debacle, and having attempted with Wild Man unsuccessfully to break free and stop it, a beaten Rock manages to communicate with Johnson, encouraging him to fight back [Figure 51].
Against an unleashed Johnson venting pent up anger born of oppression, the Nazi crumples in Kanigher and Kubert's panel of unequalled stature in anti-racist comic book history [Figure 52].
As Johnson predicted, the sight of their champion being defeated by an African American prompts the Nazis to open fire. Fortunately Easy Co. arrive. When the dust settles, the Nazi champ is found to be seriously wounded, and the transfusion of AB blood from Johnson saves his life [Figure 53]. Again this resolution ridicules Nazi blood theories and America's one drop of blood rule, and emphasizes the shared biology of both black and white. Note that although this ending repeats that of Lee and Kirby's Sgt. Fury 6, the blood transfusion is a device used earlier by Kanigher and Kubert in other Easy Co. stories.
The character of Johnson in this story has become an amalgam of two former heavyweight boxing champions from earlier in the Twentieth Century: Jack Johnson, whose bouts were as much about racial tension as they were about boxing (Morgan 531) and whose victory over Jim Jeffries resulted in a violent racist backlash (Marqusee 3), and Joe Louis, who did fight a German, Max Schmeling, the latter's victory in 1935 being hailed by the Nazis as proof of the Master Race's superiority (Marqusee 6). Louis's return match with Schmeling was seen very much in terms of American Democracy vs. Nazi Fascism, and his victory served to disconfirm Aryan supremacy propaganda (Marqusee 6). The focus on blood difference by the Nazi boxer in this Kanigher story reflects the Nazi preoccupation with maintaining the purity of Aryan blood (Kirkpatrick 655), with the outcome of the fight also violating a simplistic cornerstone of racism in the U.S., the 'one drop of blood' rule (Kanigher and Kubert "What is the Color of Your Blood?" 15-16; L. Wright 48). By portraying Johnson as a staunchly patriotic integrationist, Kanigher and Kubert, like Lee and Kirby with their anti-racist scripts, carefully tread a tightrope between the racist white supremacist extreme of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black supremacist separatism of the Nation of Islam, while linking their racially neutral anti-racist ideology to establishment American principles by identifying this as the official standpoint of the American military.
Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos 56
The final comic considered in detail here is the July 1968 issue of Marvel's Sgt. Fury. By this time Dell had published Lobo 1 (Dec. 1965), the first comic to feature a solo African American character, and Gold Key Wallace Wood's Total War 1 (1965), that featured a prominent African American protagonist, Sgt. Joe Striker. Marvel had introduced the Black Panther in Fantastic Four 52 (July 1966) and Robbie Robertson in Amazing Spider-man 51 (Aug. 1967). An integrationist viewpoint had been established in mainstream comics in a way that openly countered white racism, but the contribution of Sgt. Fury 56 is that it sought to balance anti-white racism.
In "Gabriel, Blow Your Horn!", Jones, separated from the rest of the Howling Commandos, attempts to re-link with them. In the process he finds himself playing trumpet backing a female black singer, entertaining Nazi officers. Ironically Gabriel's race blinds the Nazis to the possibility that he might be a threat. The singer, on the other hand, actually considers the Nazis a better option than the racist whites back home in the USA, because at least the former appreciate her talent (Friedrich, Ayers, and Severin 12) [Figure 54].
The singer's attitude changes when, to her disbelief, Fury and his men later risk their lives to save her, after Jones has attempted the rescue of the Howlers [Figure 55]. She subsequently leaves for America forced to re-think her race-based categorizations—especially since the final rescue of everyone is precipitated by the entrance of Rebel Ralston (Friedrich, Ayers, and Severin 20). This story signals a move by mainstream comics beyond the more obvious, and deeper into the complex issues surrounding racism, in this case reverse racism. Subsequently institutional racism, inter-racial romance, and even blaxploitation are explored using other genres, but the war books were those that played a dominant and pioneering role in bringing a distinctly integrationist philosophy to bear on race, after carefully coaxing the issue into the open in the first place.
Mainstream comic book creative teams took an integrationist stance on race relations, both before and after the introduction of the Comics Code. The content of the messages delivered by the war comics described suggests a target of older-than-assumed readers for comic books and the presence of a significant African American readership in the 1960s (Kirby and Groth 41). The timing of the publication of the stories discussed above suggests a broad rebuttal of anti-white, separatist, and anti-Vietnam involvement rhetoric being spread within the African American community, particularly by the Nation of Islam and its more prominent exponents, as well as countering the segregationist and racist contingent within the Euro-American mainstream. In comics, as in real life, where the military provided the spearhead in promoting positive race relations in a multicultural society, the war genre led the way in addressing this highly sensitive issue through the medium of graphic storytelling. The power with which support for racial harmony and desegregation is communicated through the books discussed argues for full endorsement of this multicultural ideology by its creators. Comic book companies have also at times made agreements with various entities to promote particular messages. An example we have discussed was the Johnny Everyman story which served as an extended public service message delivering the viewpoint desired by the East and West Association. Besides personal investment in the outlook conveyed, therefore, there may also be the presence of an external request to promote a particular viewpoint through the popular medium of comics. Just as Captain America was originally conceived as a propaganda tool by Simon and Kirby (Hayton and Albright 15-16), the early 1960s anti-racist, pro-integrationist war comics appear to have been created for a specific purpose that is related to anti-integrationist messages being disseminated by both the Anglo- and African American communities. The Jewish immigrant and often war veteran background possessed by many of the top figures in the comic book industry suggests empathy for the African American community based on personal experience, knowledge of prejudice, and commitment to the American principle of equality for all. Mainstream war comics of the period both reflect issues prevalent in mainstream society, while also seeking to implant an alternate world view to racism in the reader's mind, at once taking both a passive and active approach to cognitive modification in reader mentality.
Material for this study on African American depictions in Civil Rights Era comics has been derived from one author's personal collection, the collections of other comic book collectors via internet correspondence, and The Digital Comic Museum (2010). Systematic examination was made of most of DC's Our Army At War 1-165, and complete runs of Frontline Combat (EC), Two-Fisted Tales (EC), Total War (Dell), Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (Marvel), and Tales of Suspense issues featuring Captain America (Marvel). Examples but not complete runs of 1950s war comic titles published by Marvel Comics (as Atlas) and Harvey Comics were also examined. Issues of 1940s and '50s comics, in addition to those listed above, and known to contain images of African Americans, were identified from the online publications of Michael E. Grost ("Index to Political and Social Commentary in Comic Books"), who made extensive studies of the comics held at the Michigan State University Library. Public domain comics listed by Grost as 'sympathetically' depicting African Americans were downloaded from The Digital Comic Museum if available. Identification of authors and artists of stories referenced in this article was aided by use of the Grand Comics Database (Grand Comics Database), from which some images were also collected.
The authors wish to thank Mykal Banta, Aaron Bias, Michael Wurl, and Colin Smith for their input and feedback during the writing of this article.
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