Tuesday 1 November 2011

It's just comics- part 7

The Negro Romance mystery received its due coverage in the comics blogosphere a few months back, but I'll do a summary here so it can be a part of my informal survey of ROMANCE comics.

Gerald Early, noted scholar in the field of African American studies (I recognise him from his contributions to Ken Burns great documentary series on the history of Jazz) approaches PBS TV program, The History Detectives, with a curious comic book. It is coverless, but titled on the first page indicia, Negro Romance #2, August 1950, published by Fawcett comics. Growing up in the 1950s, he never saw a comic book about black people and wanted to know more about this comic that he has bought in an online auction. How did it come about? Who were the writer and artist? Were they white or black? On the program, historian Gwen Wright proceeds to track down the story of this comic book, finishing by putting names to its writer and artist. You can see the fifteen minute segment online (scan to the bottom for the complete story 'Possessed' from the comic), and if you don't want to spoil a good detective yarn, then watch that before reading on. It's 'good tv' as they say.

There are thousands of comics for which we don't know who wrote or drew them, particularly ROMANCE comics. Nobody has ever cared enough to look into it. You can see for yourself at the Grand Comic Book Database (even a Simon-Kirby title that I was talking about in part 4 has mostly 'skeleton data only'). It just needed somebody to ask about this particular one. Me, I'd have lobbed the question in among those guys who are interminably writing the history of Fawcett comics in the back pages of Alter Ego magazine (FCA- Fawcett Collectors of America they call themselves). Nowadays you can get to the heart of things overnight on the internet.

But the program must make it look like an investigation. That's their schtick. So first our investigator gets Professor Bill Foster to meet with them at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (MOCCA) in Manhattan. Bill's area of study is the depiction of the African American in Comics and popular culture. Here he is when I met with him at one of my favourite bars a few years back, during his visit to Australia. He happily spent the day looking in second hand Brisbane bookshops for things with very embarrassing and racially dodgy titles. I love the way that, in the world of comics, we all know each other.

In the video, Bill creates a picture of the black as depicted in comics in the 1940s and 50s and then, since they need another lead to continue with, he suggests they talk to a romance comics expert. So next they fly Jacque Nodell, romance aficionado, to the Geppi museum in Baltimore. Jacque shows us examples of the genre circa 1950, with some observations about Fawcett's particularities. She talks about the experience on her blog, where she says that they wanted the Geppi location because it has a copy of the 1955 Charlton reprint of Negro Romance. However, they decide to omit their footage they of that, perhaps because it will make Early's copy appear less of a precious artifact, a Maltese Falcon.

The final connection takes them to Shaun Clancy, one of those Fawcett Collectors of America. Clancy has interviewed the editor of this and many other Fawcett titles, Roy Ald, still living at age 90, (said interview still to be published, presumably in Alter Ego?). Ald apparently wrote the comic himself, and has credited, as the artist, one Alvin Holligsworth, a young African American aged 22 in 1950. Gerald Early is visibly moved when Gwen tells him of this. He couldn't have had a better result.

Here are a couple of pages. It's good solid craftsmanship:

Negro Romance #2- August 1950

The series only lasted three issues (cover gallery and note that #2 no longer has 'skeleton data only'). Why it did not go further is beyond my ability to speculate. So far as I can see there is nothing out of the ordinary about the stories, except of course that the characters are uncompromized depictions of black people, which is way out of the ordinary for 1950. And the art as such is not of a sort that it would be collected for itself. Except. That the artist went on to do other things of interest.

Harry Mendryk counts four stories that he drew for Simon and Kirby, though none of these were romances. MensPulpMags.com looks at some illustrations he drew for that field.

negroartist.com has a big selection of stuff, though it's all very low res. he appears to have drawn some newpaper strips though I have no information apart from the observation that by this time he had developed a considerably more sophisticated style:

He became a fine painter

And he appears to have been very outspoken:
Of one subject he painted, an African Jesus Christ, he told Ebony magazine in 1971, "I have always felt that Christ was a Black man," and said the subject represented a "philosophical symbol of any of the modern prophets who have been trying to show us the right way. To me, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are such prophets." (wikipedia)
From 1980 until retiring in 1998 Hollingsworth taught art as a professor at Hostos Community College of the City University of New York. He died in 2000.

thanks to michael in comments yesterday for linking me to the video.
more romances still in my drafts folder



Blogger Andrew Hawthorn said...

Wow, we all do know each other. I met Bill when we were both presenting papers on comics at Southern Connecticut University a few years ago. You'll have to forgive me, as I think I presented on From Hell. :s

He has an incredible collection of racially dodgy comics material, some dating back almost 200 years now, if I recall.

1 November 2011 at 20:12:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

one has to know the past to improve the present.

1 November 2011 at 20:16:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Michael said...

Thanks for this series. Chauvinism has kept me from giving romance comics much of a glance before. Now I'm intrigued. I'm glad the links proved fruitful!

2 November 2011 at 00:17:00 GMT-5  
Blogger MarkSullivan said...

I've been enjoying the Romance survey as well. But I have to challenge your praise of Burns' Jazz documentary. There was some great period footage in it, but it basically says the history of jazz is Louis Armstrong's career, and barely mentions anything after Bebop. It's an extremely unbalanced treatment. The CD set released later is much more balanced.

2 November 2011 at 00:36:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...


as a collector of jazz music since about 1970, I found the documentary completely satisfactory. the accompanying book was first rate too. While people still play jazz music it's difficult to make a story of it after Miles Davis and so-called 'fusion'. I think the film did well enough to hint at the disparate paths the music took after that, but to attend to it in more detail would be like following the ends of a fraying rope.


2 November 2011 at 17:42:00 GMT-5  

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