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A History of Black Comic Book Brilliance

A History of Black Comic Book Brilliance

We at Brown Geeks are excited to celebrate Black History Month and as a nod to the history of geekery, we wanted to look back to where all our fantasy and sci-fi dreams began.

Orrin Cromwell Evans Makes Comic Book History

Orrin Cromwell Evans (1902-1971) was a pioneer. A journalist and comic book publisher, he is considered “the first black writer to cover general assignments for a mainstream white newspaper in the United States.” He also published All-Negro Comics, which was the first known comics magazine written and drawn solely by African American writers and artists.

Evans broke into journalism as a teenager at the beloved African American newspaper the Philadelphia Tribune. In the early 1930s, Evans became the only African American on staff at The Philadelphia Record. He wrote about segregation in the armed services during World War II. He faced death threats and discrimination while at The Record and was once even removed from a Charles Lindbergh press conference due to his race. Evans preserved and moved on to write for The Chicago Defender, The Philadelphia Independent, and The Crisis, the journal of the NAACP.

Evans was a strong proponent of racial equality and he thought he could reach a wider audience with a comic book. After The Record closed following an extended strike action in 1947, Evans teamed up with Record editor Harry T. Saylor, Record sports editor Bill Driscoll and two others to found the Philadelphia publishing company, All-Negro Comics. It was a 48-page, standard-sized comic book with a typical glossy color cover and a newsprint interior. The comic’s press run and distribution are unknown and as one historian noted, “While there were a few heroic images of blacks created by blacks, such as the Jive Gray comic strip and All-Negro Comics, these images did not circulate outside of pre-civil rights segregated black communities.”  

Inspiring Pride in African Heritage

Writer Tom Christopher described Evans, “co-created the features in the comic along with the artists, who included his brother, George J. Evans Jr.; two other Philadelphia cartoonists, one of whom was John Terrell, the other named Cooper; and a Baltimore artist who signed his work Cravat. The cartoonists probably wrote their own scripts, and there was further editorial input by Bill Driscoll. 

In 1947, Time magazine reported that the villains in the lead feature, “Ace Harlem” might have brought up complaints of racial “distortion”. However, the protagonist of “Ace Harlem” was an African American police detective; the characters in the “Lion Man and Bubba” feature were meant to inspire Black people’s pride in their African heritage. 

Rising Above Discrimination

Evans tried to publish a second issue but was unable to purchase the newsprint required. Many people believe he was being blocked from publishing by prejudiced distributors and competing, white-owned publishers such as Parents Magazine Press and Fawcett Comics which began producing their own black-themed titles.

Evans later worked on art at the Chester Times and then the Philadelphia Bulletin from 1962 until his death in 1971. He was involved deeply in Philadelphia-area journalism associations including the Philadelphia Press Association and he was honored by the Urban League of Pennsylvania. Evans became a fixture at the National Urban League and NAACP conventions.

Jackie Ormes Paves the Way for Women

Jackie Ormes (1911-85) was the first African American woman cartoonist.

Orme’s cartoon characters included Torchy Brown, Candy, Patty-Jo, and Ginger and they were adored by readers of the black newspapers such as the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier between 1937-56. Ormes was considered a member of the black elite and her social circle included leading political figures and well-known entertainers. People said she modeled some cartoon characters after herself as beautifully dressed and appearing and speaking out in ways that defied stereotyped images of blacks in the mainstream press. Orme’s politics were decidedly that of a leftist and became apparent even to the casual reader of her cartoons and comics. This eventually led to an FBI investigation during the McCarthy era. In the late 1940s, Ormes transformed her cartoon character Patty-Jo into a doll that is now a collector’s item.

A Lasting Legacy

There is a book that showcases one hundred and thirty-one of Jackie Ormes’s cartoons and comic strips, some in color, some from original artwork, and most digitally photographed from actual newspaper with a few reproduced and restored from microfilm. Ormes tackled topics such as fashion, modern life, human foibles, racial injustice, foreign and domestic policy, educational equality, the atom bomb, environmental pollution, and other current events.

We have come a long way from the stereotypical depictions of black people and Blaxploitation and this month we remember and honor those who fought to get us to where we are. Both Evans and Ormes embody the strength of character and courage to fight for equality and inclusion that we at Brown Geeks strive to create and celebrate.

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