by Jeet Heer
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
When I first read Greg Sadowski’s Supermen!: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, I was a bit disappointed. My preference is for anthologies that have a strong editorial vision like Art Out of Time or The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Supermen! seemed like it was governed less by an editorial imperative than a chronological one. Some of the comics in the book are very strong (especially the stories by Jack Cole, Fletcher Hanks, and Basil Wolverton) but many of them also seemed primitive in a bad way (crude, simple-minded) rather than a good way (Hanks’ vitalism).
But I’ve warmed to the book as I’ve lived with it more. In part that’s because leaving aesthetics aside, there is a historical value to old comics. Supermen! does an excellent job of a capturing a moment: let’s call it the mystery man moment, after the creation of The Shadow and The Phantom but before Captain America. It was an isolationist pause in America, as war and rumours of war were spreading throughout the world but many in America still hoped to stay out of the fighting. This might explain the incredible racism and xenophobia found in these comics.
A good example of this xenophobia is the story “Dan Hastings” where the villain is a mish-mash of “foreign” types. His name is Hans Raskow, which is both Germanic and Slavic. He has dark skin, slant eyes, simian features, and buck teeth. By my count, that’s at least four ethnic groups right there. At least you can’t accuse the creators (Ken Fitch and Fred Guardineer) of picking on one group.
Jack Cole’s Claw is also a remarkable and disgusting racist monstrosity, the “yellow peril” villain taken to the point of ultimate absurdity.
The racism of these comics can be explained (although not forgiven) in historical terms, but I think there is an aesthetic dimension as well. Racism in old cartoonists often had a stylistic dimension. Virtually every cartoonist of the era was racist to some degree but their racism came through in different styles. Eisner’s racism, for example, tended to be avuncular and paternalistic: Ebony White, Blubber, and the rest were meant to be cute (like little monkeys, one is tempted to say). Jack Cole’s racism, by contrast, tended to be hyperbolic (as did his whole approach to cartooning). If Eisner’s Ebony White looked a little like a monkey, Cole’s Midnight (a knock-off of Eisner’s Spirit) had a sidekick who actually was a monkey. The same principal can be seen in The Claw. “If I’m going to draw a yellow demon,” Cole seemed to think, “why not go all the way and make him as satanic as possible?”
It’s interesting to see future masters like Eisner and Kirby when they were just starting out and before they mastered their styles. It makes us realize the context out of which they emerged. We’re used to a Kirby who could dominate over any comic he drew, but in Supermen! he’s decidedly inferior to older artists like Cole, Wolverton, and Hanks. In the light of Supermen! Kirby’s dominance in the field of pulp cartooning seems like an achievement that he had to work towards rather than a forgone conclusion.
Time travel is impossible but a good anthology can sometimes be ordered in such a way that we can get a better sense of how works of art looked to their earliest audience. That’s something Supermen! achieves, so it’s a book I’m holding on to.