Death Becomes You: Tracy Villains Meet Their Fitting End

Retribution was Chester Gould and Dick Tracy’s model for justice from the beginning. The strip started in 1931 literally as a revenge narrative. Standing over the murdered body of his fiancé Tess Trueheart’s father, civilian Tracy swears vengeance on the killers. He quickly joins the police force, but the themes of retribution and conviction by poetic justice remained a hallmark of the strip across four and a half decade run. From the beginning Chester Gould unapologetically crossed the lines of good taste. By the late 1930s in criminals like The Mole, B.B. Eyes, Flattop, Pruneface and the like, Gould started using outward disfigurement as expressive of inner villainy. And the level of explicit violence and even torture in Dick Tracy was unlike anything else on the comics page, or elsewhere in pop culture for that matter.

The revenge motif was baked into the strip’s moral universe. Tracy villains didn’t just need to be sought, caught and jailed. They needed to be hounded and often tortured along the way. Many of Tracy’s prey ended up behind bars, but just as often they met poetically just ends. Gould turned the grisly, fitting deaths of villains into his own special kind of art. Here are some examples from the first two decades of the strip that highlight Gould’s dark talent for retributive justice and capital punishment Dick Tracy style. At these climactic moments we see most clearly the visual, moral and often bizarre world,

Final Curtain for Whip Chute – 1939

Subtlety was not in Chester Gould’s quiver. Here he triple underlines his irony.

B-B Eyes Gets Dumped – 1942

More than anything, Gould loved to kill and humiliate Tracy villains in slo-mo. Here, B-B Eyes hides in a garbage barge in the final leg of a desperate flight from justice, only to get dumped, trapped and drowned. Gould had a special talent for using the panel. framing and zoom techniques to communicate feeling through his use of space. His signature tight shots on dead villains often conveyed the loneliness and claustrophobia of death itself.

Flattop Gets Spiked – 1944

In 1944, Gould concocted two of his most venal villains. Flattop was simply psychopathic as a hit man, and he would be followed by The Brow, who was sadistic and a spy. Hiding beneath a ship being constructed, Flattop gets hung up on protruding spikes, leading to another close-up of deserving death.

The Brow Is Killed By Patriotism – 1944

Far and away the most inventive and stomach-turning death in the first decades of Dick Tracy was the impaling of The Brow. I covered this in greater detail and with more context elsewhere. But here again is the wartime spy getting impaled on the flagpole commemorating the city’s war dead. The bending flagpole is a gruesomely brilliant touch to amplify that moment of maximal tension that will ultimately pierce the villain.

Gargles Eats Glass – 1946

Falling through a skylight, again in comic strip slo-mo, Gargles gets sliced across three panels. And Gould can’t resist giving us his final shudders. In fact Gargles hangs on until the next strip so his final words exonerate an innocent suspect just in time for Christmas. One of the hallmarks of Dick Tracy was the strip’s extremism, Gould’s penchant for balancing unmatched graphic violence and angry vindictiveness with maudlin sentimentality. This sequence leads up to a Christmas strip that celebrates the villain’s death and the joy of the season.

Mumbles’ Cry for ‘Elp’ – 1947

Making a speech impediment somehow expressive of a villain’s evil was a questionable move to begin with. But Gould doubles down on this conceit by having Mumbles frantically, futiley hail for “ELP”.

T.V. Wiggles Can’t Move – 1950

Gould loved to draw in that little bit of grisly business to convey violence. While he used a heavy, cartoonish line and unreal, expressionist style that set the strip far apart from the illustrative style of most adventure strips, Gould used other ways of communicating hard-boiled reality. He had a penchant for objects penetrating bodies. Bullets often passed through their targets in shootout sequences. And as the deaths of The Brow and Gargles showed, the impaled body has a special place in Gould’s sense of horror. The death of T.V. Wiggles comes from fallen metal sheets that form an ersatz coffin. But it is that little corner of metal piercing a flap of neck flesh that telegraphs the experience of death itself.

Mr. Crime and Judge Mix Blood and Money – 1953

Mr. Crime was among Tracy’s most ruthless, pitiless villains of the 50s, and in the context of the Gould moral universe I am surprised (and a bit disappointed) that he suffers a simple shootout with Tracy. In fact Gould reserves the grisliest image for Mr. Crime’s extorted dupe, Judge Ruling. When cornered, the corrupt Judge chooses suicide. But of course Gould can’t give us a gunshot sound effect heard through a closed door. We have to get an image of Judge Ruling eating the gun, complete with cheek lines to suggest how deep he has planted the barrel. But we’re not done with this duo. As is his wont, Gould closes in for a final tableaux of both villains swimming in their own blood and money.

Flattop Jr.’s Near Miss – 1956

Flattop Jr. was indeed the son of the original Flattop, but he was framed by Gould as a neglected youth who embodied the overhyped scourge of the 1950s – the juvenile delinquent. He appears to meet his end in a theater fire he himself set to cover his escape. Despite the massive explosion Gould depicts dramatically, and the presumption of having died in the inferno, Jr. turns up later where his genuine death takes place in the middle of another villain’s cycle. And so that final contemplative panel here turns out to be ironic.

Peak Segar: Plunder Island (1934)

The Plunder Island sequence of Thimble Theatre Sundays that ran from December 1933 to July 1934 was E.C. Segar’s signature epic. It concentrated most of this master’s diverse talents and blended the many genres Thimble Theatre traversed into the strips most impressive run. Fabulism, farce, adventure, sentiment, venality, romance, screwball — all and more are here. And along the way, Segar even fleshes out and distinguishes among his key characters.

Segar, the artist who started in a movie house projection booth, who drew Chaplin in comic strip form, who started Thimble Theatre as a series of film shorts in strip form, clicked into full adventure mode from the start. He opens the tale be reuniting with old hell-raising pal Bill Barnacle. but then he quickly assembles a cast of characters for the voyage. Olive requires a chaperon, in Miss Sniddle. The ship must be led by Cap’n Hull and manned by Rough-House, Gritmore and shoemaker, Geezil, who becomes Wimpy’s sworn enemy throughout. And of course there are Segar’s most successful villains. The craggy faced, inky-cloaked Sea Hag induces shivers with the venal ill-will, bizarrely long limbs and evil presence she brings to every panel she inhabits. Likewise, her creepy henchman, the Goon monster (a.k.a. “Alice”) is another visual concoction that apparently gave some of Segar’s younger readers nightmares. His bulbous head, phallic nose, white and curvy outlines and apparently hairless body is corrupted by these massive rings of fur at wrists and ankles.

The Plunder Island epic is a delight precisely because it sets itself up as a decently constructed comic strip adventure yarn that in the end subverts its own premises. Popeye and crew are pursuing the anti-feminine Hag, who reveals herself to be a sensitive woman when romanced and scorned by the unctuous Winpy. Alice the Goon begins as an alien, mindless beast, who proves to be a loving mother figure. And the entire story arc of pursuing the Hag to Plunder Island in search of hidden treasures is flipped entirely in the story’s postscript. Popeye ends up pitying and rewarding both the Sea Hag and Alice the Goon and finds himself depressed and unhappy because of his newfound wealth. And so just as the adventure genre is about to overtake the comics page in the early 1930s(Terry and the Pirates, Dick Tracy, Buck Rogers, Mandrake the Magician, Flash Gordon, Radio Patrol, Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, et.al), Segar upends the genre itself.

For Segar the adventure genre is just another stage for a screwball fabulism that seems to reach its height here. He is the master of creating his own madcap reality that makes trades in the ridiculous and impossible. One of the Sea Hag’s henchmen tries to run Popeye through with a saber, only to leave his rope restraints in tatters. Popeye and Bill calmly reminisce over old times as they punch, strangle and repel waves of enemy sailors. Wimpy snips off the whiskers of his nemesis Geezil, pastes them on himself to pose as a complete stranger. It is the absurdism of the animated cartoon, but Segar makes it work by fully committing himself and his characters to the unlikely premise.

Part of this is Segar’s peculiar way of using panels. In these absurdist sequences his panels each seem to occupy their own space and time and often disconnected from what is around or b before them. When Popeye and Bill converse calmly while beating on all comers, the dialog occurs at the center of the frame while the casual beatings are at the edges of the frame, erasing the reality outside of the frame. When Wimpy snips Geezil’s whiskers and takes them as his own, Geezil seems oblivious to the action and takes the disguised Wimpy in the next panel as someone new. This is part of the unique tone of Segar’s strips. The panel walls often mark the edge of the characters’ world, showing little awareness of the action outside of the panel or even in their own previous panel.

In fact, Segar is also artful in his use of panel timing — that is the implied time and unseen action that occurs between panels. Consider the Sunday strip below, which demonstrates in tight succession how Segar uses panel timing to pull off a great animated joke followed by a different use of panel timing to stage a verbal joke. The Goon’s pursuit of Winpy in the third row, especially panels two and three, sets up and pays off with a sweet bit of bit of animated business that lets us imagine the funny part, Wimpy zipping out to the horizon in fear of the Goon’s downward thrust. And the final panel of the row illustrates the gag with Wimpy in full terrorized flight. The next row brings Wimpy into the hand of woefully stereotyped cannibals and a verbal gag that uses panel gaps to provide the setup (panel two), extra beat (in a half-sized panel three) and punch line in an expansive panel four. Fans of Thimble Theater will recognize the added wit of turning one of Wimpy’s signature quips on himself. In an ongoing gag, the perennially self-absorbed (and hungry) Wimpy invites characters to a duck dinner. “You bring the duck,” he typically tells them.

Segar liked to work with contrast, comparing action and abrupt scene shifts to make points about character. In many ways Wimpy is the main character of the Plunder Island story, even if he certainly is not the hero. In fact we see him at the height of his opportunism and self-interest. Geezil’s revulsion towards him (he could “kill him to death”) is a major thread in the epic. He romances the repulsive Hag in order to access her cache of hamburger. And he unfairly divvies up the plunder in the end. In many cases, Segar contrasts him to Popeye’s simple morality.

In the 1930s, and after Popeye’s arrival to Thimble Theater, Wimply seemed to stand in for the roles occupied by Olive and the Oyl family through much of the 1920s. In those earlier strips, Olive, friend Ham Gravy and especially brother Castor Oyl were often at each others’ throats and onto some scheme for wealth. Popeye came into this tribe as a folksy moralist whose fists took proper aim at the pompous and the venal. In the 30’s, however, the Oyls receded and Wimpy seemed to carry Segar’s ambivalent view of human nature.

But Segar was also a sentimentalist. His cast of flawed connivers and selfish backbiters usually find the limits of their own moral trimming. In the Plunder Island adventure the Sea Hag demands Wimpy show his loyalty to the villainess by beheading his best friend Popeye. His inability to murder Popeye leads to another absurdist deception. Popeye’s head pokes through a hole in a barrelhead to fool the Hag into thinking Wimpy has done the deed. The ruse is inevitably broken of course when Popeye can’t keep himself from laughing at the sight of Wimpy romancing the Hag.

Which brings us to yet another sentimental turn in the Plunder Island sequence – Segar redeeming both Alice the Goon and the Hag herself. Popeye is poised to do in the Goon once and for all when Alice’s Goon child calls out for his “Mama.” Popeye melts at the scene and leaves mother and child Goon in loving embrace. Likewise, the Hag is setup as an anti-feminine villainess, as repulsive inside as outside. And yet she proves easily romanced by Wimpy’s fake advances, becomes a scorned lover when betrayed, and seems genuinely wounded when Popeye chuckles at the site of this romance. Segar is compelled to have his duplicitous cast find their consciences somehow and even give emotional depth and sympathy to his villains.

All of Segar’s talents for absurd situations, wild physical violence, and a cast of truly self-absorbed characters offset by a folk moralist helped make Thimble Theatre a remarkably self-contained world. It had its own weird cadence and tone. The violence was often spontaneous and eccentric. And this well-animated action was in stark contrast to the extensive terse dialogue between antagonistic characters that Segar posed like static, limp marionettes in narrow tightly staged panel sequences. Segar’s characters often looked like they were conversing in a closet, cut off from any environment. And yet, the Popeye character was very much a creature of the Depression. In comic strips and in the Fleischer Brothers’ wildly popular cartoon iteration, Americans responded to Popeye’s ready fists and no-nonsense response to the pretensions and empty authority around him. Clearly he channeled widespread frustration Americans deservedly felt towards the institutions, social classes and supposed progress that had failed them. Popeye quick anger, righteous fists, wry asides and responses to more “civilized” landlubbers echoed the class and social tensions of the Depression. He embodied a populist response to the age that also took shape in John Steinbeck’s fiction, the scholarly interest in American roots music, humor and culture. And on some level, Segar himself understood this connection between his slapstick hero and the culture. He resolves one of his greatest storylines with Popeye depressed despite his wealth and revived only by relieving the poverty around him.

Notable Books: The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists in the Jazz Age

Trina Robbins is an under appreciated national treasure, alas, for some of the same reasons the cartoonists she presents here have been overlooked by too many comics histories. For the most part, cartooning was a man’s game in the 20th Century, and so has been the writing of its history. Except for Trina. Robbins was among the only female artists in an underground comics movement famous for its misogynist art. Her Pretty in Ink history of women in the field remains the major work, because she has waged a lonely battle for including this talented minority of comic artists.

But Pretty in Ink had to cover so much ground, we didn’t get to dwell deeply into any artist or group. With The Flapper Queens: Women Cartoonists in the Jazz Age, however, she gets the chance to reprint satisfying helpings of Nell Brinkley (fully 50 pages!), Eleanor Schorer, Edith Stevens, Ethel Hays, Fay King and Virginia Huget. Since this is more a history in reprints than a history with reprints, Robbins shows more than tells. But she shows so much about how these women helped define the post-WWI era, or at least mass media’s aspirational version of it. Their focus on social interactions and fashion come through as expressions of feminine power and personality.

With a third of the book devoted to Brinkley, we get to see the most famous of female cartoonists evolve beyond the Gibson style into an Art Nouveaux and then Deco fine line work and precision. Robbins bookends the book with Brinkley’s changing views of American women, the artist’s criticisms of the very flighty flapper she celebrated in the 20s, and the active, engaged professional women she depicted in the 1930s.

But along the way, Robbins gives us revealing samples across the careers of many women who continue to be overlooked by conventional comics histories. Edith Stevens’ Us Girls series blended fashion, biting wit and social observation in a series that was pithier and more insightful than many of the observational strips we continue to reprint elsewhere.

Robbins also focuses in on Ethel Hays, who channeled both Brinkley and John Held to chronicle the 20s and 30s in striking full page, richly colored Sundays that overwhelm the eye with color, a great sense of body angles and attitude. Like many of women in this book, she found creative ways to weave fashion styles, romantic advice, social commentary and a bit of cheesecake.

Hays’s “We Moderns” piece at the top of this entry is a great example of the creative richness and thoughtfulness we miss when, like their editors at the time, we consign women cartoonists of the day to the “fashion” artists bucket. Indeed, Hays, Brinkley and Huget not only paid attention to clothing, hair and even body styles, but they wove these concerns in with larger social, personal and aesthetic ideas. In “We Moderns” Hays actually brings these threads together in a startling visual think piece. She links the “angles” of modern fashion with architecture, clothing, dance, personal politics and even her own Deco-infused art style. Nell Brinkley was adept at using her characters’ clothing as instruments of drama, personality, reaction. They exploded from the page as effectively as her signature facial expressions – signals of inner-feeling. These artists didn’t just depict the visual styles and fashions of the inter-war years. They showed a rare understanding of why they mattered.

Fay King was perhaps the most socially engaged of the group, and her strips highlighted trends like women becoming more involved newspaper readers. Meanwhile Virginia Huget bridged the 20s and 30s with aspirational tableaux that romanticized college life and affluence. I also appreciated the inclusion of the wonderful Annabelle strips by Dorothy Urfer. This is a visually rich and wry look at sexual politics. It left me wanting mor.

And the reproduction/resotration work in Flapper Queens is superb, bringing forward the rich color and detail that made these images so absorbing in their time. Comics historians love to gush over the ways in which McCay, Feininger, King and the usual suspects among the kings of comics made innovative use of the full Sunday page, especially in the first decade of comic strip history. But the oversized, beautifully colored reproductions in this book show how artists like Brinkley, Hays and Huget especially burst from the Sundays of the 20s and 30s with dazzling uses of layout, splash images and narrative progression that rival and exceed many of their male peers.

Which brings me to the historical importance of Robbins’s Flapper Queens. Reviving these artists truly expands our understanding of comics history and especially the ways in which these very talented artists and social observers related to the surrounding culture between the World Wars. To overlook them is to miss some of the most striking art the comics were producing during this era. More to the point, these artists had a wry, sly and nuanced take on the politics of domestic relations. This book shouldn’t just “fill a gap” in comics history. It should make us broaden and reconsider the cultural work the comics were doing in American minds in the last century.

This is hands down my pick as the one indispensable addition to comic strip history in the last year.

Little Orphan Annie: Character Is The Real Hero

On August 5, 1924, Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie premiered. It was among the earliest serial adventure strips, with the real quest across decades being Annie’s search for a real family. But Gray was an odd bird with extreme sentiments, clear even here in the opening strip. Annie’s resentful relationship with institutions and their corrupt managers is set from Day 1. Many of the enduring Gray tropes are here from the beginning: resentful anger, lengthy interior monologues, great names (Mis Asthma!), a truly alienated heroine. Little Orphan Annie is among that handful of great American comic strips (Dick Tracy, Popeye, Krazy Kat) that immersed American newspaper readers in a deeply idiosyncratic imagination that was unlike just about any other artistic experience and vision available elsewhere.

Harold Gray’s Little Orphan Annie is an eccentric expression of the bittersweet aesthetic. its locus is a pathetic, orphaned figure who is exploited and abused by a world that seems dominated by evildoers and bad luck, barely salvaged by good-hearted salts of the earth who make their local reality humane. Villainy is around every corner for Annie, whether that corner is on a rural road or in mid-town cities. It is a Manichean vision of the world where good hearts are in perennial war with exploiters. Gray’s cosmology is remarkably dark, with a main character in search of an ersatz family the universe denies her.  Most institutions are not to be trusted, and most human hearts are as likely to be black and cold as warm and open. 

Whatever the specific adventure Annie is on in a given cycle, the real theme in Little Orphan Annie is moral character. The parallel action in Annie is that of moral judgement. Annie and the ancillary cast are always spending more panel time talking to themselves and sizing one another up than engaging in action or even dialog. Gray makes greater use of the internal monologue than just about any comic strip artist. Much of the soliloquies are the characters debating internally about the good or dangerous nature of another character and at the same time delivering homilies that explain an action or person.

Judging new characters’ moral fitness, good or bad intentions and even their inner natures is a central part of the Annie world from the very beginning of the strip. In the 1925 sequence above we get the entire arc of moral judgment theme in a two-day miniature. Annie comes upon a new character, argues to herself whether this is a positive or negative force in her life, and her gut conclusion is borne out by later action. In this case she runs into the judge who is about to determine her fate and then receives his welcome ruling the next day.

Gray gives these soliloquies around character the shape of argument, where the characters anticipate and counter other perspectives. His characters are endowed with a kind of lawyerly fair-mindedness that are always showing their work – the path to a reasonable conclusion.

Gray is often miscast by subsequent comics fans as “conservative” by way of his famous opposition to FDR and The New Deal in the 30s. But he was really a populist of the old midwestern sort that had the farmers’ Grange and eventual Populist Party as its foundation. He was suspicious of aggrandized, institutional power wherever he found it and romanticized salt of the earth farmers, manual laborers and maverick, independent souls who almost always had communitarian instincts. The argumentative style of internal monologue in the Annie strip dovetails well with the ideal of the midwestern political populist – a well-informed, fair-minded, citizen who exercises reason not just passion. 

Annie is also a psychologist who sees through the hard-boiledness of even the gruffest actors. 

Little Orphan Annie is as much a comic strip about the indomitability of moral character in the modern world as it is about anything else. Gray’s heroes are as steadfast as is the strip itself against amoral expediency, scheming to get ahead, pomposity and elitism. The strip often skirts with tedium and maudlin sentimentalism in its stream of everyday villains and homily responses. But at heart the strip is at war with an age that is replacing the last century’s moral ideal of character with a modern notion of malleable, adaptive, performative “personality.” 

In his famous essay on “‘Personality’ and Twentieth Century Culture,” Warren Susman argued that the modal type of self central to the 19th Century coalesced around the concept of “character.” The words usually associated with “character” included, work, duty, citizenship, democracy, manners, integrity, manhood. Sometime in the first decades of the 20th Century increased calls for a “new man” to cope with relentless modern change surrounded the term “personality.” Standing out from the crowd, the modern “masses,” was a preeminent value of the emerging culture of “personality.” Around it we find different terms like fascinating, individuality, self-development, magnetic, creative, dominant, forceful. Concepts like self-realization begin replacing self-sacrifice. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture of personality was that of a performer,” writes Susman (Culture as History, p. 280).” Subsequently, Jackson Lears further developed this idea of a new modal self for modern American, arguing that a new psychological vision of self emerged as shaped by the needs of consumerism. “As economists conceived an upward spiral of production and consumption powering endless economic growth, psychologists imagined a fluid, vital self pursuing a path of endless personal growth.” (Literary History of America, p. 453)

Along with Segar’s Popeye, Gould’s Tracy and King’s Walt, Gray’s Annie is a defense of immutable 19th Century character against the fluid, self-serving, socially disconnected personality. In his introduction to the first volume of Annie reprints by the Library of American Comics, Annie’s smartest chronicler Jeet Here positions Gray amidst a new Midwestern stable of cartoonists who drove the 20s and 30s. Annie, Gasoline Alley, The Gumps, Thimble Theatre, Dick Tracy brought the comic strip into a plainspoken heartland perspective on changing American life. They used melodrama, sentimentality, persistent moralism as their emotional palette. I would argue that on an even deeper level they were arguing with a fundamental change in American ideals around self and social order. 

Great Moments: Dick Tracy – Death (Impaling) of the Brow

The hallmark of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy is its surreal villains. Flattop, Pruneface, Mole, Mumbles, et. al. But Gould wasn’t satisfied expressing inner evil with outward disfigurement. He also loved to torture and kill them in equally grotesque ways during the prolonged hunt and chase sequences that was central to every Dick Tracy storyline. Gould wanted more than justice against evil. He wanted revenge and sometime literal pounds of flesh.

But when it came to do wreaking poetic justice upon his disfigured villains, few suffered as creatively as The Brow. In the heat of wartime, Gould let out all the stops with this Axis spy through the summer of 1944. In the course of his doomed getaway sequence Brow had his head trapped in his own vise of spikes torture device, breathes through a water hose at the bottom of a pool to evade Tracy, gets shot during a chase through farm crops and crashes into Gravel Gertie’s gravel pit, suffers Gertie’s affections and folk cure poltice of soot and spider webs, escapes a house fire, get pummeled to a pulp by Tracy and falls back onto an electrified fence.

But the final indignity comes after all of this punishment at Police HQ. When Brow tries to make his escape, Tracy beans him with a glass inkwell, sending the villain backwards through the window and onto a flagpole marking a memorial for fallen soldiers. In one of the most gruesome panel sequences to come into America’s wartime homes, The Brow is impaled down the length of the flagpole.

Gould often served poetic justice to his villains, but few ever matched the sheer explicitness of this wartime spy speared by an icon of patriotic sacrifice. Not satisfied with this grisly end, Gould spends the next several days with horrified reactions and the tricky matter of getting Brow off of the pole.

Gould had a singular vision of good, evil, justice, retributive violence and the social order. All of it is on display in this lengthy Brow storyline that also includes Vitamin Flintheart, the Summer Sisters and the introduction of the recurring Gravel Gertie. Because of the overt grotesqueness of his villains, Gould’s worldview is often mistaken as stark and Manichean. But his morality tales are filled also with these characters who unwittingly aid and abet villains, often in pursuit of their own selfish but not criminal pursuits. Gould’s America required law and order diligence in part because he seemed to recognize the fragility of social order.

At the tail end of Gould’s run with tracy in the late 70’s, his stark vision of law and order grew cranky as it contended with the counter-culture and increasing criticism of police brutality. Antagonized by the zeitgeist, Tracy seemed increasingly anachronistic and a frequent object of satire. From its outset Gould conceived Tracy as a bit of a reactionary figure. And Gould’s truly strange imagination was apparent from the beginning.

Across the four decades, Gould’s visual style evolved considerably even as it remained singular and distinct from everything else on the comics page. It started as a scratchy, awkward thin-line depiction with body parts out of proportion, wooden motion, and an odd uneven use of perspective. Somehow, Gould stylized many of these weaknesses into strengths. While other adventure strips followed Alex Raymond’s etched realism of Flash Gordon or Milton Caniff’s blobby chiaroscuro effects, Gould went surreal. His massive fields of black, grotesque villains, bizarre character stances and eccentric uses of both flat and deep perspectives were set by the late 1930s and throughly expressive of his world view. His visual signatures became even more abstracted over the decades as his line work became thicker and his framing tighter to accommodate the shrinking formats for newspaper comics. But somehow the sensibility remained the same to the last panel in 1977, which reiterated the first Dick Tracy strip of 1931.

Notable Books: The Black Pioneers

Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of the Comic Book

This well produced overview of over a dozen pioneering Black comics artists surfaces a hidden history that is eye-opening on so many levels. Many of these artists were well-known within their own communities and Black newspapers in many of the major cities across the US but “invisible” to the larger world of comics readers. Mainstream comics history often highlights Matt Baker who developed sexy heroines like Phantom Lady and Flamingo and is well represented here. But author Ken Quattro does an excellent job taking a biographical approach that digs into Adolph Barreaux (Sally the Sleuth), Elmer Stoner ( Phantasmo), John Paul Jackson (Tisha Minga and Bungleton Green), the collaborations of Elton Flay Fax and George Dewey Lipscomb, Alvin Hollingsworth’s horror comics, and a dozen more that differentiates the styles, personalities and career paths of an incredibly diverse group of artists.

Invisible Men tends to focus on these artists’ eventual contributions to the mainstream comic book field, and so each biographical section usually ends with a full story, full color reprint. Ironically, this work often represents the least expressive and talented examples of what many of these artists had to offer. Their careers generally were more interesting outside of a comic book industry that paid poorly and demanded little. In fact, as Quattro himself recognizes, unlike most early comic book artists, almost all of the Black artists he explores were formally trained fine artists who took on this work just for the money.

In each of these biographies I found their supporting and prior careers much more interesting, as does the author. Quattro cautions that he is not a formal historian, but he ably sketches in a blind spot for comic strip history – the Black newspaper, as well as the vagaries of freelancing for early comic book and pulp magazine companies and how it allowed many of these “invisible men” sustained careers. In taking a biographical approach to this cast, Quattro defies generalization about these artists’ perspectives and backgrounds. We enter a range of highly individual contexts, especially Black middle-class enclaves in cities like Oberlin, Charleston, Baltimore and more. We get glimpses of how Black newspapers, communities, artist groups lent support and connections for many of these men as they cobbled together artistic careers that moved across Black newspaper comics and editorial, community pamphlets, posters and fine art exhibits in addition to the burgeoning comic book industry.

Valuable as Invisible Men may be, it begs for more…more history of Black artist communities, of the Black newspapers that nurtured so much talent, of artists that fall outside of Quattro’s comic book lens. We need at long last a modern report in of strips like Bungleton Green, the syndicates that distributed Black comics artists, an entire history of editorial cartoons that took a decidedly different take on current events.