The same friend, however, asked me "What was up with the Ebony White character?" And I wanted to address it here.
For those not in the know, Will Eisner wrote and drew The Spirit, the comic that practically invented the language of the comic book medium. The Spirit is Denny Colt, a detective whom the world believes is dead.
Each Spirit story is about seven pages long, and is so incredibly inventive that it would be an understatement to say that Will Eisner was well ahead of his time.
Except for Ebony White. This is Ebony White.
A little black kid who served as comic relief, Ebony spoke in the most stereotypically black manner for the time. It really, really dates The Spirit, and I've seen some people say that they refuse to read it on the grounds of Will Eisner being a racist.
But was Will Eisner actually racist, folks? I don't think so. In order to fully put this situation in context, we can turn to Scott McCloud's Reinventing Comics, in which he recounts an anecdote that had the late, great Rube Goldberg once tell a young Will Eisner, "[Comic book creators] aren't artists. We're vaudevillians! And don't you ever forget that."
The late art of vaudeville, of course, involves unrelated acts being put together on one theatrical bill. One of the things it took from was the then-almost-late art of minstrel shows, in which white men wore blackface to make fun of black people -- for comedic purposes!
The concept of making fun of a race on a grand scale for the sake of comedy is still around in other forms (see Chris Rock), and while, certainly, it could be said that the people back then were bigoted toward black people, it can also, I think, be said that they didn't know any better. After all, why should they? Even black people after the Civil War started participating!
Yep, that's right, folks, black people wore blackface. 'Cause, you know, they're not... black enough. Or something.
To add to that, Eisner wasn't the only one still depicting blackface in his strips. Thanks to Comics Should Be Good, here's a panel straight out of a Batman comic from the Golden Age. This man is a restaurant waiter, and is drawn by (or at least the credits go to) Batman's (legally official) creator, Bob Kane.
And thanks to What Were They Thinking?!, here's a couple of panels by the also-legendary C.C. Beck, depicting Billy Batson (Captain Marvel) putting on blackface (with burnt cork, mind you) to get information.
The comics at the time demonized the Japanese and the Germans -- they had to. But they had no reason to depict black people this way, unless it was really just the sentiment at the time. Remember, this was eons and ages before the term "politically correct" was even coined.
So was Eisner actually racist? I'm leaning towards no, at least a no that's relative to the public opinion at the time. Ebony White actually had a personality, and he even ended up having a girlfriend and was the official composer for The Spirit's theme song, "Ev'ry Little Bug," which I still to this day wish they actually recorded so I can have an MP3 of it.
And actually, in later strips, Eisner actually introduced a black detective named Gray who was neither in blackface nor was he in there for comic relief. He spoke with perfect English and was very competent. There was also a black pilot at one point. That was more progressive than just about anything else they were doing then, so even if Eisner is responsible for the creation of, to hardcore liberals, one of the most racist characters ever, he was also one of the first to actually portray blacks as competent and intelligent. That last part, of course, isn't as publicized or as well-known, because, of course, it's controversy that actually goes around and talked about, and I think that those who boycott The Spirit because of Ebony White are really doing themselves a disservice. Things were different back then. I wonder if they would boycott Peter Pan too for its portrayal of Native Americans?
Besides, if Eisner was racist, I wonder what that makes Jack Cole, who created Midnight as a substitute Spirit, and who also had a mischievous little sidekick...