Monday, December 30, 2013

One Tiny Step for Humankind

In the mid-1950s there were no regular, respectfully-portrayed African American comic book characters in mainstream American comic books, except for one. According to former Harvey Comics editor, Sid Jacobson, "Tiny was done consciously by us... our group... were socially conscious. Audrey was the only comic then with a black character. We even got an urban award for it" (Beck, 2009), p.11). According to Dark Horse's Harvey Comics Classics Volume Five: The Harvey Girls, Tiny's first appearance was in Little Audrey #30 in June 1953. This is apparently an error, however. In the same book there is a reprint of the Little Audrey story "Carpet Bagger" from Little Audrey #28, published in Feb 1953, which features Tiny. This appears to me to be the earliest story in which Tiny appears. Tiny is not featured at all in Little Audrey #25 (the first Harvey issue) and #26. The only story I have access to from Little Audrey #27 is "Prize Pup" reprinted in the Dark Horse book, and Tiny is not in that. So at this point it seems that Tiny's debut was in Feb 1953! Tiny actually featured on four covers in the original Little Audrey series - issues #35-#38. The only other cover to feature Tiny was Little Audrey TV Funtime #3 in the early 1960s. As has been noted by others, collecting a complete set of any Harvey kids' title is more difficult that putting together a complete set of Superman or Batman - they're just so rare - and finding precise information about these important publications is also very difficult.

Tiny's presence in comics was enhanced by Harvey reprinting their Paramount Little Audrey run, as well as the earliest issues of Playful Little Audrey, in the 25c giant size Little Audrey TV Funtime series in the 1960s. I believe at least the first 17 issues of this title contain Tiny reprints, and collecting these is the cheapest way to accumulate the complete body of Tiny stories, which includes appearances in Little Audrey stories, as well stories with Tiny as the main protagonist. The TV Funtime issues seem to reprint two of the original 10c issues in each one, so it is likely that Tiny is found in issues of TV Funtime well into the 20s. Many of the Tiny stories were drawn by the late Howie Post, and possibly written by him as well - they certainly contain some whacky humor and are of exceptional quality. Little Audrey is often spoken of in terms of being a cheap substitute for Little Lulu, but honestly from my point of view the stories are far better. But why not judge for yourself? Here are the two Tiny stories found in Little Audrey TV Funtime #17:

I suppose you could call that an example of slapstick humor! That and the next one illustrate Tiny's uncanny ability to 'fall on his feet'. In "Hair Today" you saw Tiny rewarded for being a good kid and accidentally helping others in the process. Tiny is a 'glass half full' guy most of the time - positive, happy - his childish innocence helps, and as you'll see in "Get Lost', Tiny often comes to everyone's rescue.

You can't buy new Harvey Comics any more - that hasn't been possible for a long time. But they still hold appeal not just for old comic fans like myself, but also the younger generation. I ran a test, and gave my 8 year old granddaughter a pile of over 100 old Harvey Comics, mostly Little Audrey, Little Dot, Richie Rich, and an assortment of others. It didn't seem to matter to her that the kids in the stories didn't have cell phones, computers, or play video games. She sat and read through the whole lot in a matter of weeks when she was round my house, and enjoyed them all. To people of my generation Harvey Comics were a significant influence, providing relatively wholesome conditioning. Harvey Comics normalized diversity at a time when prejudice was rampant. They empowered their young female readers by presenting strong, assertive, independent female protagonists like Little Audrey. They adhered to the Comics Code and produced comics that parents could trust at a time when comic books were regarded with suspicion.

The only recent publications featuring Harvey Comics are the fabulous and inexpensive reprint books by Dark Horse that I mentioned at the beginning - there are several volumes but just the one that features Little Audrey and Tiny. I highly recommend purchasing this one and the entire series.

But back to my original reason for posting about Tiny. There were a few respectful representations of African Americans in comics during the 1940s and into the early 50s, even some regularly featured characters. But by 1953 they were gone. Tiny was the only one for a while, then in the late-50s Dell re-introduced Our Gang as The Little Rascals, mirroring the re-packaging of the Hal Roach movies for TV. But Tiny was a pioneering move on the part of Harvey Comics. Tiny had his own feature, unlike the African American members of Our Gang/The Little Rascals, or John Smith, assistant to Balbo the Boy Magician in Fawcett's Master Comics. Harvey Comics' efforts at enlightenment during what was in some ways a bleak period in this country's history need recognizing and celebrating.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Friendly Skies: Young Romance 127 - "Another Face, Another Love"

Although I have a number of these Bonnie Taylor comics in my collection, I don't have this one, the scan of which I received from another collector. The Bonnie Taylor story suggests what life is like for a woman constantly on the move in the job of an airline stewardess. Drawn by John Romita Sr. and written by Bob Kanigher, it represents the product of a high quality team working for DC at the time (mid-1960s).

'Career girl' or 'working girl' stories are fairly common in romance comics, and tended to highlight the 'career-love dilemma', most amply demonstrated by nursing romance comics, numerous examples of which can be found on this blog. In comics, nurses were exposed to an endless barrage of handsome and/or wealthy patients, as well as doctors and interns. For airline stewardesses it was passengers and pilots that provided the potential love interest, or handsome strangers in the many ports of call.

By the 1960s, Charlton Comics were the principle purveyors of career girl romance stories, with numerous nursing romance books as well as Career Girl Romances itself. Marvel adapted their previously more cartoon-like and humorous Millie the Model and Patsy Walker titles, making them more like romance titles, and DC took the bold step of orienting some of their romance books to career girls, creating ongoing features about specific characters. In Young Love it was Mary Robin, RN, also produced by Kanigher and Romita, Sr., and in Young Romance it was Bonnie Taylor in her very PanAm-ish blue uniform.

Interesting studies can be found on the traditional airline stewardess of yore. Come Fly With Us! A Global History of the Airline Hostess, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, and Working the Skies: The Fast-Paced, Disorienting World of the Flight Attendant are some good examples, as well as the well-researched but unfortunately canceled TV Series Pan-Am. Of note on the cover of Young Romance #127 above, the first issue to feature Bonnie Taylor, is the caption that reads, "Meet Bonnie Taylor, the lovely airline stewardess, who flies in and out of romantic adventures," suggesting that Bonnie's relationships are unlikely to be long-lasting.

Just as with the Mary Robin, RN stories, these Bonnie Taylor romances are written as a kind of diary. In Young Love the Mary Robin stories actually take the form of a diary written by Mary, but with Bonnie Taylor it is more like she is the narrator of her own tale detailing the euphoria and heartache of her fleeting encounters. So here's the story that introduced Bonnie Taylor to the eager 1960s readership of Young Romance:

It's interesting that Bonnie is definitely on the look out for romantic opportunities. Also interesting is the implication that Bonnie's job will drag her away from any romance she does find. In the case of the Captain, she lost out to a girl who is located in one place. The good old career-love dilemma for the working girl.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Diversity in Comics - ANC#1: Ace Harlem - The Complete Story

Nearly 3 years ago, Out Of This World featured the extremely rare and equally important All-Negro Comics #1. At that time just a handful of pages were available on the web - low resolution scans and no complete stories. Just recently, however, something almost unbelievable happened. Although collectors pay literally thousands of dollars for this highly sought after gem, a magnanimous soul allowed 300 dpi scans of the entire book to be produced for the Digital Comics Museum, making this important work of sequential art available to the world for enjoyment and study (thanks to Yocitrus): All-Negro Comics #1. The digital version of the full book can be downloaded from the DCM website, but what I've done for this post is to crop, and 'clean' by removing the discoloration due to aging of the paper, John Terrell's Ace Harlem story in its entirety, so we can take a look at it here and discuss. First, the story:

This 15 page detective story sends home the "As ye sow, so shall ye reap!" message of inescapable karma pretty strongly. There are lots of period cultural details - the clothes, the activities of the characters, the language, the streets and buildings, cars, interior and street furniture, hardware such as the cash register, some sub-cultural references. The picture we get of this part of  a 1940s inner city area (Harlem?) is that it is populated exclusively by African Americans - good guys, bad guys, innocent bystanders, victims - everybody, evidencing the way this piece of art reflects the highly segregated nature of society at the time, and lives up to the book's title.

Because so much of the content of this story is period specific, full understanding of what it communicates would necessitate a detailed understanding of the cultural items mentioned above. Take the jukebox and the song that it was playing, for example. "Open the Door, Richard" was a novelty rhythm and blues song first recorded by Jack McVea in 1946. The way jukeboxes were loaded with disks, as well as the mechanism for paying for and selecting a song to play would need to be appreciated. What about zoot suits? The lucky charm found by Ace Harlem would have been attached to the lengthy zoot chain that was a required accessory to the zoot suit - this was a watch chain attached to the belt, dangling at least to below the knee, and then back up into the pocket at the side of the pants. The cultural significance of the zoot suit is a PhD in its own right. The further this and other Golden Age comics recede in time in terms of their origin, the more background knowledge is required with which to interpret them. While the basic plot is relatively easy to discern, the implications of all the details, such as those mentioned above, on the mental picture conjured by reading the story, can be better appreciated when one has some familiarity with the culture of the intended audience.

Period popular culture, particularly that of the 20th Century, an era of extremely rapid innovation and change, provides an incredibly valuable resource for analysis of this fascinating time. But African Americans are poorly represented in some areas of popular culture of that period, with items created by African Americans particularly scarce. In the case of comic books, ANC#1 is unique - the only comic out of the thousands of different books that were produced in the first decade of modern comic books' existence, that was written, drawn, and published by African Americans. Few seem to have survived, making the contribution of these scans to the Digital Comics Museum vastly important in terms of allowing access to this significant rarity.