One of the biggest blind spots in the history of American comic strips is the community newspapers that spoke to and out of the ethnic minority experience for decades. About Comics is engaged in one of the most important reprint projects in reprinting some of these overlooked comic strips. Throughout the 20th Century, Black, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish and other native and emigre minority communities generated newspaper networks that applied their own lenses to local, national and international affairs. They produced unique takes on modern American culture rarely seen from the dominant comics syndicates. Few of the comics artists and serial strips have been reprinted in any depth…until now. Their inclusion in the American comics canon is long overdue.
As we saw late last year when we here at Panels and Prose reprinted a full color Sunday issue of the Pittsburgh Courier’s comics section, many of these comics sought to mimic their larger, better known strips. Breezy by Melvin Tapley, writing and drawing as “Tap Melvin” is a good example of the impish teen genre but with occasional social edge. It is a gag strip featuring one Breezy Biggins who regularly frustrates his middle class suburban parents, chases girls and cracks wise with adults. It was less innovative than refreshing as a counterpoint to the relentless stereotypical roles and dialect that drenched all Black characters depicted in the mainstream comics sections well into the 1940s. While hobbled by the quality of microfilm source material, this reprint does a good job of representing the light spirit of the strip as well as show Tapley’s assured, polished line work.
More noteworthy I think is the revival of Ollie Harrington’s Bootie’s War Years: A Dark Laughter Collection and Bootsie’s Big ’50s: A Dark Laughter Collection. Harrington’s long running Dark Laughter single panel series was widely circulated in the Black press and carried a sharp critique of racial inequity as well as an ongoing satire of Harlem cultural life. Trained at the Yale School of Fine Arts, Harrington was praised by Langston Hughes as our best Black cartoonist and targeted by McCarthy-era anti-communists. He self-exiled to Germany in the 1950s and eventually was caught behind the Berlin Wall. The Bootsie character was a chubby womanizer, a shirker and fast talker who most often was on the receiving end of scolds and skepticism by the surrounding community.
Dayenu Dayeno by Rabbi Henry Rabin and Leonard Pritikin (working as “Henry Leonard”) reprints this long running single panel comics that appeared in many Jewish newspapers in the 1950s and 60s. Most of these strips riff off of the small hypocrisies of modern religious commitment, the quandary of maintaining group identity and assimilating with WASP culture, overbearing mothers, etc. The religious references and Yiddishisms come so hot and heavy that the books include a glossary of terms, presumably for both Gentile and less observant Jewish readers alike. They are inside jokes that at once satirize their own community and bind it.
In fact all four of these reprints remind us of the subtle ways in which social caricature can bring both cohesion and self-criticism to discrete communities. And they expand our understanding of the range and importance of cultural work that everyday newspaper strips performed for their readers. Because of the unique challenges Black and Jewish readers faced in 20th Century America, any contemporary reader can feel the greater cultural weight these strips carried for their audiences than most of the more familiar mainstream comics. For that reason alone, About Comics has done the field an important service in bringing this forgotten work accessible.