May 26, 2010

Addressing Ebony White -- Was Will Eisner Racist?

A friend of mine asked me if I could maybe write about Will Eisner, since he's just starting to read his stuff. The answer is, yes, I could write about Will Eisner. I don't write about Will Eisner, because it's such a gigantically daunting task and I fear I would go on longer than I already usually do. I'll have something next week, as part of a series on the most influential comics artists of all time. Unless I change my mind.

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...

17 comments:

Peachy said...

I couldn't resist but zoom into the semantics of the Eisner-racism question. Was Eisner a racist? Most certainly not; he was merely a product of his time and positioned within a particular historical context.

Was he politically incorrect? Very much so by present-day standards. But as you see, context is still central to the question. Where we are in a cultural timeline commands our judgments and prejudices. Eisner was not exempt from this.

Folks really shouldn't be so sensitive. I remember when these biscuits branded as Filipinos -- "brown outside, white inside -- appeared in the European market, and the way Filipinos everywhere threw a colossal fuss over this perceived slur. I didn't mind; I hear the biscuits are delicious.

Aviva said...

yum! Those are indians too ;-)

Duy said...

The thing is, I get that he was politically incorrect by present-day standards, but I don't know how anyone can say he was actually politically incorrect given the time period, considering that the term wasn't even invented yet.

Duy said...

I also want to add that pretty much everyone working in comics then was in New York, so they really had no excuse to not know what a black person looked like.

Zanzibar said...

Hmmm. "I don't know how anyone can say he was actually politically incorrect given the time period, considering that the term wasn't even invented yet." Well OF COURSE you can say such things -- we apply Freudian psychology to lots of texts that existed before Freud. We explain infections with the knowledge of bacteria which folks in the 5th century hadn't discovered. The entire theoretical field of post-colonialism wouldn't exist with that logic, right? We can contextualize Eisner in his own time-period, but a racist is a racist, even in retrospect!

Duy said...

"We can contextualize Eisner in his own time-period," Agreed.

"but a racist is a racist, even in retrospect!" I don't agree with this one. I think there's a whole subjectivity to the matter, and I don't think that the man who actually introduced competent black characters could really be called a racist for using what was then a staple for comic relief. There's even a white Ebony-like character later on in the series -- Willum Waif, I think.

I would hesitate calling the people who portrayed the Japanese as gremlin-like monsters back then racist -- it was something they had to do. And if black people themselves were wearing blackface, why would Eisner think he was doing anything wrong by portraying one?

If an American hesitated to come to the Philippines because he heard Filipinos was that we shot each other for singing "My Way" badly, I wouldn't call him a racist. Ignorant, sure, but certainly not racist.

The Professor said...

Okay, I'll bite. I think Eisner's Spirit comes off rather well compared to what else was out there in the comic book world. Which is to say, sure there is racism there. Racism is insidious, especially when it is as pervasive as it was in the US in the 1940s and 50s, and modern readers need to be aware of it. On the other hand, Ebony was an actual character, not a caricature. He carried stories at times and was not simply there for race-based attempts at humor. Which is to say, I think the statement "one of the first to actually portray blacks as competent and intelligent" is spot on.

I think bringing up the comparison with Jack Cole's cover at the end of this piece is perfect. And of course you've got the examples from Batman and Captain Marvel as well. If you want another Golden Age comparison, try Whitewash Jones, the black member of Timely's Young Allies. "Whitewash Jones--Who can make a harmonica talk and watermelons disappear!" (A real quotation, I am afraid.)

I think one could argue that Eisner's depiction of Ebony stands up reasonably well and for quite some time in terms of comics. Perhaps we should bring up Luke Cage, Hero for Hire? Sweet Christmas!

Duy said...

The Professor: I agree completely, except when I referred to being "one of the first to actually portray blacks as competent and intelligent," I was more referring to the black detective that appeared later on in the series. Would you by any chance remember his name?

Interestingly, there's actually a mid-era Spirit story in which Ebony decides that he wants to change his accent, specifically because he's told he talks like a minstrel, so he wants to take speech classes. So even then, Eisner was showing a willingness to change with the times.

this said...

We can't call him a racist because his portrayal of blacks was consistent with the generally held views of the times. Interesting notion you all have. So here it comes, the inevitable, yet for our purposes highly appropriate Hitler comment. Yes, the nazi's and hitler were a product of their time in their potrayal of the jews. We can simply whitewash everything they did now seeing as people tend to think actions viewed from a modern context can't be held to modern standards. No way that nazi's could ever know what they were doing was insensitive, they were never taught better. I do hope you all the gist of what I'm saying.

Duy said...

I'm sorry, but unless Will Eisner actually KILLED millions of black people, the Nazi comparison isn't even accurate.

Anonymous said...

Duy, How come we are so quick to defend or overlook racism in our heroes? The product of our time stuff doesn't completely wash with Eisner--he wasn't out there in 1880's Georgia, he was in 1940's and 50's New York. THe evils of racism were already discussed prevalently in the media of that era. There were antilynching marches and the Civil Rights movement was already in nascent form. So there was the idea that such a depiction was racist or inhumane, Eisner just didn't participate in that idea. He went for the cheap joke of the inferior grotesque.

I don't think Eisner was evil Klansman, I hope he was educatable and maybe developed more sensitivity as he aged and societal ideas progressed. But I don't think we should completely overlook Ebony WHite as a product of his times.

Great blog as always,
Ramage

Duy said...

Hey Ramage,

You know, it's been over a year since I wrote this post, and I'm not sure exactly how I feel about it anymore. I think I still stand by most of what I said — Eisner showed a great turnaround in his depiction of blacks, wouldn't you agree? By the end of his run on THE SPIRIT, there was a black detective - no blackface - who was completely competent.

And Ebony was a great character! If he had been white, he would have STILL been a great character. Not to mention that he's not the ONLY sidekick the Spirit has with his proportions. The Spirit, by the end, had two other sidekicks - Ebony was just the only black one.

As for the use of blackface, well, that's the context of the times. I don't really see any reason to think that they wouldn't think it was okay when even black people were putting on blackface. Now we see it as racist - and I'm sure back then, as you pointed out, some were too. But I think for a medium in its infant stages, Eisner (and others. Again, Eisner isn't the only one) was just bringing Vaudeville into it.

But think of it this way: everyone was doing it back then. Why is Eisner the one taking all the hits?

Because he's the only one who bothered making the "racist image" an actual character.

That's where I stand on it (for now). I keep trying to imagine how I'd feel if these were Filipinos, but I can't help but feel that I'd feel the same way.

Anonymous said...

To say that Will Eisner's Ebony White was merely a product of the times may hold some water and the fact that he later produced Sundiata the story of an West African King as some sort of recompense may also hold some sway.
However Eisner was an intelligent man and so I find it hard to make any excuses for Ebony White the bug eyed, pink lipped Minstrel like character, it was just a cheap shot, the lowest common denominator and if I may say, lazy story telling.
I find it interesting that Eisner in later life niether tried to justify or condemn the use of Ebony White, but he saw fit to redress the stereotypical portrait of Jews in literature with his work "Fagin the Jew" go figure!

Anonymous said...

In Eisner's own words-
I
often wonder what readers saw when they looked at characters like
Ebony White back in the Golden Age of comics. In Fagin the
Jew (Doubleday, 2003), Will
Eisner writes about unintentionally “feeding a racial prejudice
with this stereotype image….I never recognized that my rendering of
Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt
when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature.” In a
Time Magazine interview, he adds that Ebony’s rendering was comic
relief at a time when “humor consisted…of bad English and
physical difference in identity.” The cognates now might be animal
or robot sidekicks, I suppose. Poor robots, we use them for
everything we don’t want to do—comic relief, demonstrations of how
scary adamantium claws are.

From
this side of the millennium, though, I can only see a character
drawn like Ebony as an alien or some sort of urban fantasy imp. The conventional rendering also reminds me of a horrible, never
should’ve been, racialized chibi.
Chibi or, more
accurately, “super-deformed,” refers to the physical distortion
of manga or anime characters often based on their emotional maturity.
Sometimes, ordinarily non-chibi characters go super-deformed, representing a moment of excitement,
fear, joy or exasperation. Some less emotionally mature characters
are always
super-deformed. Big heads, big eyes, big mouths—big emotions
for comedic effect. Sometimes super-deformed characters exist side
by side with more “naturalistic” characters. And the
stereotypical, Golden Age black characters have big emotions for
comic effect while existing side by side with naturalistic, white
characters, just like Ebony White and the Spirit do.

Anonymous said...

To say Ebony White was just a product of those times is indefensible, Its like saying anti-Semitism was just a product of those times

Duy Tano said...

Some interesting discussion here, but I'm wondering how many of you actually read the article and saw the part where Eisner clearly introduced a competent black detective later on in the latter half of The Spirit.

The anti-Semitism sentiment is therefore flawed, as anti-Semitism is a general thing, while Ebony is a very specific instance, completely and totally counteracted by said black detective.

Never mind the fact that Ebony White is one of the first black characters in comics who were actually CHARACTERS and not just racial stereotypes (seriously, read the stories that spotlight Ebony and tell me he's a stereotype. Not panels you see online, not clips -- actual stories).

So much of the Ebony White discussion seems focused on what he looks like, without actually considering much of the larger picture.

roostertree said...

Eisner created Ebony White, then later on created a 'black detective' no one can name (but let's give benefit of the doubt).

It seems that the 'racist'/'not racist' debate is too simplistic.

Rather, Eisner--while living in New York's cultural melting pot--seemingly made thoughtless, insensitive, (perhaps only inceidentally) racist comics. Then, as he matured & realized what he was doing, made comics with more thoughtful depictions of humanity.

Sound about right?

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