Edited by curator, editor and author Dan Nadel, It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago 1940-1980 is an anthology of the works of a long overlooked group of talented Black cartoonists. The book has been published as the catalog companion to Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curated by Nadel, and is out now from New York Review Comics and the MCAC.
Nadel’s introductory essay provides a capsule history of the Black press in Chicago, among them The Chicago Defender, and its key role in support of generations of independent Black cartoonists. Among other artists, the book collects the stylish fashion and anti-racist comics of the legendary Jackie Ormes, the sardonic cartoons of 1990 National Book Award winner Charles Johnson—a passionate cartoonist long before he was an acclaimed novelist—and the work of the late Wee Pals creator Morrie Turner. The book also includes an essay by cartoonist Ronald Wimberly, author of the acclaimed graphic novel Prince of Cats.
Publishers Weekly: Why were there so many talented Black cartoonists in Chicago?
Dan Nadel: The Black press had a huge presence in the city. There was the Chicago Defender, which was the preeminent Black newspaper in the country for many years, and it nurtured a really strong cartooning talent there. And then, the Johnson Publishing Company [publisher of Jet, Ebony, The Black World] was in Chicago as well. They nurtured really great publishing talent in their magazines, and also their publishing division. So you have these two great Black publishing titans there, and that goes a long way to offering a forum and encouragement for Black cartoonists, and for the Black audience.
Aside From the obvious racism they faced, what other challenges did Black cartoonists have to deal with?
Despite the success of newspapers like the Chicago Defender, the biggest problem was that income from syndication relied on a huge sprawling network of newspapers. Dick Tracy and Peanuts could appear in hundreds of newspapers, but there weren't enough Black newspapers to sustain that kind of economic base. Black newspapers weren't big enough to pay cartoonists to develop their work in a way that they could spend years honing their craft. Cartooning requires a lot of solitary labor, and a lot of time to develop characters. And in many cases in the early days, that just wasn't available to Black people.
Tom Floyd was one of the most preeminent cartoonists of his era, with his searing serial, Integration is a Bitch. But he allegedly had a problem with Marvel Comics.
This is not provable, of course, because all the parties are dead. But Tom Floyd said in the early 1970s that he came up with a character called Black Man, draped in the colors in the pan-African flag. It was a superhero comic created and owned by a Black cartoonist that was meant to uplift Black people. He brought the character to Marvel and then in 1972, less than a year later, the Black superhero Luke Cage pops up at Marvel with a very similar costume, and Floyd felt like he’d been ripped off. I think he had a terrible time trying to get this concept off the ground, because on the one hand, he felt he got scooped. And on the other hand, he felt like being Black was an impediment to finding a distributor. But I think the happier side of the story is that Integration is a Bitch is a total masterpiece! And I think nearly every cartoonist I talked to had a copy of that book.
One artist who surely had a copy was Seitu Hayden, who, like Floyd, grew up in Indiana. Hayden created the 1970s, Black Power-themed serial Waliku, worked for George Clinton’s P-Funk illustrator Pedro Bell, and ironically, drew for the Marvel/Epic comic, Tales from the Heart.
Floyd mentored Hayden, and recognized other younger cartoonists and wanted to give them a hand.
What was special about Jay Jackson’s Bungleton Green, a time travel comic strip about a future world in which green people rule and oppress white people?
I think what Jackson did in the Chicago Defender is remarkable. He took, essentially, a sort of John Carter of Mars trope, in which a white Confederate soldier is transported to Mars to deal with green people, and flipped it. Jackson talks about race, very explicitly in the setting of science fiction. Frankly, I think you're not going to find something that scathing about race relations in comics, period.
What can you tell us about Chicago artists Yaoundé Oluo and Turtel Onli who took Black science fiction and fantasy into what we today call Afrofuturism with their works, “Uncle Sammy Jones: Life in America,” and the Moebius-influenced NOG Protector of the Pyramids?
Yaoundé came from both a community art and science background. She is much closer in spirit to AFRICOBRA in Chicago, a Black contemporary art group. She’s taking Afro-surrealism and making comics out of it. And Turtel Onli took in what he absorbed in Chicago, in terms of the art and culture. In both cases, they both brought with them a wealth of cultural interests to the medium. And the cultures that they were exploring, are only very recently being accepted, and I think that’s crucial.
In one of the book’s essays, cartoonist/Illustrator Ron L. Wimberly writes that there is, “value in cartoonists seeing where they come from or even just seeing who preceded them. There’s value for the audience to see where artists fit into the continuum of the medium’s history.”
There’s a generation of such cartoonists as Bianca Xunise and Jessica Campbell, who are both very vocal about Ormes’ influence. But most of the other cartoonists are fairly unknown. My goal is to expand the history, and have different kinds of perspectives. So if my book becomes sort of a rallying cry for younger cartoonists, then I’m thrilled.