4 Colour Commentary: Images of Racism in a 1950s American Comic Book
EC Comics, perhaps best-known today as the company behind Mad Magazine, spent the 1950s producing some of the most subversive and contentious comic books in history. These comics were remarkably cognizant of the social issues of their time, containing parabolic stories that dealt with anti-Semitism and Jim Crow laws while Batman was still trading blows with the Penguin. Though not conventionally considered to be works of literature, many of these comics contain the same fundamental division between form and content that books do, and can be subjected to literary analyses. More importantly, they are visual as much as they are textual; this added dimension compensates for their – admittedly – lacklustre prose style, and enables unparalleled flexibility for literary interpretation.
“…in gratitude”, first published in 1952 in ShockSuspenstories #11, depicts a returning Korean War veteran who learns that the soldier who saved his life was not allowed to be buried in the town cemetery because of his skin colour. Loosely, the work’s plot follows the veteran as he receives a welcome by his entire town, learns of his town’s refusal to bury his friend in their cemetery, and then chastises his town for their behaviour. On the surface, it’s a thought-provoking, if at times preachy, moral parable that conveys its message rather directly. As a work of comic literature, however, it is an exposé of the racist attitudes that pervaded suburban American society in the 1950s, but were concealed under the façade of the American Dream.
As a work of comic literature, however, it is an exposé of the racist attitudes that pervaded suburban American society in the 1950s, but were concealed under the façade of the American Dream.
The work’s central conflict is predicated on racial discrimination: specifically, the belief that skin colour is linked to individual worth. Joey, the returning war hero, returns home under the assumption that Hank, the man who jumped on a live grenade to save his life, will be buried in the town cemetery in his family plot. And yet, this request is denied by Joey’s parents, who cite mounting peer pressure from their neighbours and a potential loss of business as their reasons for inaction: “I had my business to consider, son, we couldn’t do it” (5). Most troubling about their attempts to rationalize their actions, however, is that they take for granted the fact that Hank, by virtue of his skin colour, would never be able to be buried in the town cemetery.
They even go so far as to lament the unfairness of it all: “It wasn’t fair! We grew to love Hank from your letters” (4). Prior to learning that Hank was black, the parents’ understanding of his character was derived purely from Joey’s account of Hank’s actions. The work’s depiction of the Korean War front is stated to represent the way that Joey’s father initially envisioned Hank’s heroic sacrifice, and is coloured using only the colours necessary to enable our understanding of the event: a blue mass of soldiers, the yellow hue of smoke rising from gun barrels, and the red explosion of the grenade that claimed Hank’s life. Unlike written literature, where colour is not necessarily symbolic of something else, comics are coloured after their black-and-white line drawings have been completed; thus, a comic’s use of colour is almost always the result of conscious decision.
When operating in the confines of this limited frame of understanding, Joey’s father concludes, as any reasonable person would, that Hank was a hero. The limited colour palette helps depict the events of the war as they happened, without the pretense of race. Contrary to Joey’s parents’ belief that racism is an inevitability, the battlefield represents a context in which race carries no weight – everyone simply belongs to the same homogenous, blue mass of soldiers. Joey even alludes to this indiscriminateness: “Well, the grenade that tore that skin to pieces didn’t know [that body’s] color…didn’t care if it was white or black” (7).
Ironically, it is only after Hank’s death that the colour of his skin is of any consequence. That Joey’s father initially expresses admiration for Hank’s actions but then allows Hank’s skin colour to invalidate his actions only speaks to the hypocrisy inherent in his – and more broadly, in the town’s – worldview.
The work’s most striking feature is, perhaps, the disconnect between the townspeople’s all-American depiction and the racist attitudes that they harbour. In the ’50s, if comic books dealt with racism, it was on a superficial level, largely designed to evoke feelings of national pride more than anything else – think superheroes battling hordes of Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan.
An element common to the majority of these depictions was their adherence to the traditional good-evil binary, which left little room for ambiguity. That is, the conflicts they depicted were always between heroes already pre-established to be good and lawful, and groups and individuals widely understood to be evil and racist. There was never any doubt that the Nazis were evil and therefore deserving of a super-powered beatdown, nor would anyone object to a Klansman receiving a batarang to the hood. But in limiting itself to these depictions of racism, the comics industry inadvertently created the message that racism was somehow distant – that it was a phenomenon relegated to overseas conflicts or rural gatherings in the woods, and to specific, easily identifiable groups of people. Moreover, these comics rarely, if ever, elaborated on the consequences of harbouring racist attitudes – in many cases, and specifically in the case of wartime comic depictions of the Nazis, the nature of such conflicts were presented more so as clashes between Americans and enemies of America than between racist and non-racist attitudes. When juxtaposed with its peers, “…in gratitude” offers a soberingly realistic depiction of racism in American society, in which the racists are more akin to characters from the American sitcom Leave it to Beaver than cloaked Klansmen.
While it’s easy to hate members of the Klan and relish in their destruction, the work creates a sense of uncanniness by portraying the same behaviour in a town that seems to have fully embraced the American Dream. From its splash page, the work is rife with images of Americana – from a welcome parade, complete with a marching band and the American flag draped everywhere in sight, to domestic traditions like enjoying a well-cooked steak after a long trip away and then smoking a pipe on your favourite armchair afterwards. Joey, the soldier hero, at first enjoys partaking in these traditions, but after learning about the town’s refusal to bury Hank in their cemetery, sees them as distractions that attempt to mask the heinousness of the townspeople’s actions and lashes out:
“You say you’re proud of me. Well, I’m not proud of you. I’m ashamed! I’m ashamed of you…and for you!” (7).
The American Dream, as it is presented in the work, is exclusionary, hollow, and self-perpetuating. Joey, while perhaps once able partake in his society’s traditions, has witnessed its treatment of Hank, and can in no good conscience continue to subscribe to the emptiness of its celebrations. In some sense, Joey can be understood as having seen what is concealed beneath the white picket fences of American suburbia and the carefree revelry of his neighbours. He is now forced to try and reconcile the town he grew up in and loves with the racist attitudes of those most familiar to him, and his inability to do so manifests in his condemnation of their behaviour at the work’s end. His final cri de coeur takes place in front of the entire town, and cuts through the insincerity of their displays, through the sounds of trumpet playing, and most significantly, through the banners and falling confetti that attempt to relegate Hank’s memory to nonexistence.
Feldstein, Al. Shock Suspenstories. No. 11, EC Comics, 1952.
Comic Book by Sam Howitz via Flickr. Credit: CC BY 2.0.
USA Flag America by Prawny via Pixabay. Credit: Pixabay License.