Bungleton Green was the longest running comic strip in the history of American Black newspapers, and an extended reprint of its greatest, wildest period during WWII is long overdue. But New York Review Comics has come through with this well-designed volume embracing artist Jay Jackson’s 1943-1944 sequence Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos. The strip began in 1920 with Leslie Rogers’ rendering of his eponymous character as a comic shirker, gambler and goof in the model of Moon Mullins or Barney Google. When the Chicago Defender’s prolific cartoonist Jay Jackson took the reins in the early 1930s, he made Bungleton into more of an adventurer, riding a genre that dominated the 1930s with Dick Tracy, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon and Little Orphan Annie. Meanwhile, Jackson was also freelancing artwork for the science-fiction pulps and honing his skills as a “good girl” artists, skills that would soon inform a major turn in his weekly strip work.
With America’s entry into WWII in the 1940s, Jackson and Bungleton Green found a vehicle that brought together the strip’s adventure motif as well as the artist’s appreciation for the sci-fi genre’s ability to project insights on contemporary social problems onto “safer” futuristic scenarios. Like many Black cultural figures in the 1940s, Jackson embraced the fight against Fascism as a war against racism, an opportunity to advocate racial equity at home as our best defense against a common enemy abroad. Bungleton comes to lead a multi-racial squad of boys, the “Mystic Commandos,” which was aimed at recruiting the patriotism of young male readers in the same way Harold Gray’s Annie and Simon and Kirby did with their versions of wartime kid commandos.
The Mystic Commandos start as typical Nazi hunters, rooting out spies and thwarting sabotage plots. Throughout, Jackson underscores his main argument that racism itself is the real enemy here, the animating force behind Naziism. But in 1943, when German spies use a “slave gas” to turn the Commandos into subservient Nazis and kidnap them back to the homeland, things get wonderfully wacky. A resistant German scientist invents a time travel machine that sends the boys back to America in 1778 to expose the hypocrisies of democratic ideology co-existing with slavery. But then they rocket through time to Memphis 2043, where a utopian, multi-racial Earth is disrupted by a new continent of green-skinned racists. The greens take special pleasure in subjugating and excluding the white (“Chalkie”) member of the Commandos.
These sci-fi/social fantasy sequences are absolutely indispensable additions to the canon.of American comic strip history. But more than that, reading Bungleton Green deepens our understanding of American racial history. Even though the scripting can be as heavy handed in its speechifying and didactic as any Harold Gray episode, the insights the strip renders are much subtler. Jackson illustrates how supposed “justice” can pick and choose who to charge, with what severity and with differential consequences. Red-lining of government and financial investment, job listings and paths for social mobility, all are seen as the ways in which even communities that see themselves as just and fair-minded keep various groups down. The strip’s understanding and depiction of racial injustice was prescient. Arguably, only in recent years can we say that white mainstream culture awoke to the concept of institutional racism, the ways in which less explicit and self-conscious forms of racism lurk in systems of privilege and discrimination in the justice, banking, zoning, employment, educational systems. While these important insights may be relatively new to the general national discourse, it is humbling to see how familiar and nuanced these ideas were to readers of America’s Black press over 80 years ago.
We have been trying to address the gaping hole in American comic strip historiography around Black artists and the alternative newspaper syndicates that distributed them. We have reprinted of a rarely seen full color Sunday section from the Pittsburgh Courier. We reviewed the recent reprints from About Comics that resurfaced Black and Jewish newspaper comics. We looked at Ken Quattro’s invaluable Invisible Men, which both reprinted good samples of over a dozen Black pioneer cartoonists but surrounded it with much-needed biographical detail. And there is the divine Jackie Ormes, the artist, social critic and fashionista behind Torchy as well as Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger. She and her work finally are getting the attention they deserve over half a century after she blazed multiple trails. There is so much talent, new perspectives on both comics history and American culture generally to be found in this ignored legacy. And we have just barely cracked open the trove.