#565: White and White and Read All Over – The Troublesome Tribune Comics

December 7th, 2015

The Chicago Tribune’s weekday comic section has 21 cartoons. Every single one is by a white person.

All but one are by white men. The 21st comic is For Better or For Worse, by Lynn Johnston. She stopped producing new comics in 2008 and has been rerunning comics from the 1980s for the last seven years.

Although there are some supporting characters of color (the principal from Frazz, Hector from Zits, Dilbert’s nebulously raced Asok, Agent X from Brewster Rockit: Space Guy! and Franklin from Peanuts, to name a few), the two main characters of color in Tribune comics in the year 2015 are Caulfield, impish grade-school student and friend of the titular Frazz, and Carmen from Prickly City.

This is scary. Here’s why.

On Carmen

Prickly City’s Carmen is a particularly troublesome character to me. A young Hispanic girl, she acts as a mouthpiece for the conservative political beliefs of middle-aged white male creator — and Trib editorial page cartoonist — Scott Stantis.

If anyone knows Stantis and can get me an interview for the site, I would love to hear his reasoning. His motives in putting a brown face on a historically white page might be pure.

But it’s a political cartoon. Carmen’s race serves no more role in her character than Mallard Fillmore deals with the complex familial, cultural, traditional and socioeconomic issues of being a duck.

All Scott Stantis’ Carmen does is hop around a Southwestern dreamscape chiding a Democrat coyote while wearing the skin tone of a demographic the Republicans really want to crack.

The Bright One

A half-mile west down the Chicago River, the Sun-Times’ comics page does slightly better, with Jump Start and Curtis among its 24-comic collection.

Now let me be clear about what I am saying. I’m not saying that the white-helmed Zits or Liō aren’t brilliant. They are. And I’m not saying Jump Start is by nature great just by being about a black family. (Curtis, however, always makes me chuckle).

This means there are 45 spaces for comics between Chicago’s two daily newspapers, and only two people of color managed to meet the high standards set by Marmaduke and Dennis the Menace.

I don’t know the politics or legalities of syndication, or the amount of old ladies who threaten to cancel subscriptions if they can’t get their Broom-Hilda, but I find that hard to believe.

Between them, the papers used to run Candorville, The Boondocks, La Cucaracha and others examples of people of color writing comics about people of color. Race was addressed to various levels in the various strips, but the best of them have characters of color doing what all the best characters in the 119-year history of newspaper funnies do.

Be human. Be funny.

The Problem

This leads to the big problem with this issue: So the hell what? It’s just the funnies.

In a segregated city and society stressed and strained by racial tensions, how can I convince people that a few more Franklins amid the Pigpens is anything more than a palette-swap distraction?

I can go the quotation route. Argument by authority that the funny pages are important.

“Good cartoonists are subversive. They are against things,” Pogo creator Walt Kelly said of his comics that tackled McCarthy during the heights of the Red Scare, quoted in 1971’s “The Art of the Comic Strip” by Judith O’Sullivan.

“Pieces of pleasantry and mirth have a strange power in them to allay the heats and tumults of our spirits,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, quoted in 1947’s “The Comics” by Coulton Waugh.

I could argue by self-interest. Only 28 percent of black Americans and 20 percent of Hispanic Americans surveyed last year read a daily paper, compared to 33 percent of white Americans, the Pew Research Center reports.

Meanwhile, Census data show increasing ethnic diversity in the newest generations. Millennials now outnumber Boomers and for the first time in the nation’s history, children under 5 became a “majority-minority” group in 2014.

Think about that. A majority of children — 50.2 percent — are part of a minority race or ethnic group.

And this majority of children will flip to a comics page and see no characters who look like them.

Actually, that’s not true. As long as a dying industry continues to embrace a dying Boomer demographic with eternal reruns of nostalgia-laden Charlie Browns and For Better or For Worses, those kids won’t be flipping to the comics page at all.

Morrie and Jimmie

This is happening in the city where the nation’s first black syndicated cartoonist got his start.

Morrie Turner, who died last year at the age of 90, lived in Oakland, Calif., but had his first strip run in Chicago.

“When Peanuts first appeared, I said, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen,’” Turner told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2005. “I modeled Dinky Fellas after the Peanuts strip, but the characters were all black and didn’t have names. I sent it to the Chicago Defender, which I think was the only daily black newspaper in the country at the time. They liked it and started running it every day, from late 1959 through the early ‘60s.”

In 1965, Dinky Fellas became Wee Pals, giving the characters names, adding a diverse lineup and going national.

Turner advised Charles Schultz on adding the black character Franklin after the assassination of Dr. King. Turner’s close friend Bil Keane, whom he met while they toured Vietnam doing portraits of soldiers, named The Family Circus’ sole black character after Turner. Yes, Family Circus remains painfully unfunny, but the late Keane seemed a surprisingly cool guy.

But Morrie Turner’s amazing life (he was also a Tuskegee Airman and worked on an illustration project for Dick Gregory) isn’t why we need more color in the comics.

Jimmie Robinson is.

Comic book writer and artist Robinson, who is black, was quoted in The Comics Journal talking about how Turner inspired him.

“I was in a school for the arts. It was a magnet education/arts program in Oakland, California, called Mosswood Arts. So it wasn’t uncommon for the school to have various artists come in and speak to the students. However, when Morrie Turner came to visit there was something different. And for me it was that Mr. Turner was Black. In fact, in my three years at that art school he was the only black adult artist I ever met.

“At the time I saw my school as the end of the road for someone like me. But when Mr. Turner arrived — just by his presence and career alone — he showed me that the world beyond my quirky school was open to anyone — no matter the race or gender.”

The Real Reason

Beyond the demographics and fancy quotes, this is my real reason for wanting the Trib to catch up with the 20th century in the 21st and add more diversity to their lineup: I like comics. And I want them to continue, in three panels a day, to make us chuckle or even think.

I hold no illusions that society will be saved by Dilbert or the stupid naked Love Is… babies, but if there’s even a shot at having the Calvin & Hobbeses outnumber the Marmadukes in years to come, we have to open the aperture.

Don’t just pin the hopes of an industry on the white kids. Give young creators of color something, someone to be inspired by as well.

The worst that could happen is the comics page will look more like the society it lampoons.

The best that could happen is that some kid who otherwise wouldn’t have read that page picks it up because a face looks familiar. And maybe, just maybe, 10, 20, 30 years down the road, that kid will take up a pen and create something brilliant.

Read about two Chicago journalists of color working in comics

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