I hinted at the end of my previous post that this blog would soon be carrying a disclaimer. I have since added just such a virtual document, and you’ll find the link at the top of this page. The obvious question is, “Why do you need a disclaimer?”
I blame it on Blackhawk.
Aviators were insanely popular characters in Golden Age comics; there were literally dozens of aviator titles produced throughout the period. By far the most popular (at least when judged by the sales figures) was Blackhawk, whose adventures were published by Quality Comics Group, the same folks who published such legendary characters as The Spirit, Uncle Sam, The Clock, Miss America, and about a gazillion others whose names you’d instantly recognize if I felt like doing all of that typing.
Blackhawk made his debut in mid-1941 in the pages of Military Comics #1; in fact, he was featured on the cover:
Blackhawk and his squadron of mercenary aviators were instant hits with readers; they appeared in one hundred and two consecutive issues of Military/Modern Comics through 1950. In 1946 Blackhawk began to appear in a second book named for the character, and was usually in more than one story; Blackhawk remained so popular that his adventures were published nearly continuously well into the 1960’s. In fact, my very first comic book was Blackhawk #200, which my dad bought for me from a spinner rack in a Babylon, N.Y. mom and pop grocery store in 1964 – neither of us had any idea at the time what he was getting me into…
There is no way for me to overstate the significance of Blackhawk in comics history; he was easily one of the most popular characters of the WWII era, outselling every other aviator comic — and most of the superhero books as well. It would not be possible for me to write about 1940’s comics for any length of time without reviewing some Blackhawk stories, not just because of the character’s importance to the history of the genre, but also for the purely personal reason that I think Blackhawk is just about the coolest comic book character ever and was one of my personal heroes when I was a small child.
But there’s just one little (potential) snag…a supporting character named Chop-Chop.
I’m well acquainted with the concept of racism as it pertains to 1940’s comics. The other day I was reading a story which contained one of the best, most respectful portrayals (both artistically and in characterization) of the common people of WWII China that I’ve seen in any Golden Age comic. Then I turned a few pages of the same book and in another feature I saw one of the most horrifically racist stereotyped portrayals of “jungle natives” that I’ve seen in any comic of the period – and I’m pretty jaded, so that’s saying something. Later issues of that same title contained the same great portrayal of Chinese characters, but also featured such stereotypes as a WWII Native American airman who flies shirtless, in buckskin pants, with a feather in his hair, and who says “Ugh!” a lot. Another series features a beautiful blonde Caucasian jungle princess whose sidekick is a stereotypical “black mammy”, complete with kerchief and carpet slippers.
It blew my mind.
So I started thinking good and hard about Golden Age comics and how they depicted various races and nationalities. Axis characters are frequently (and understandably, in view of the war) depicted harshly. Japanese characters are often drawn as demons, Germans are always the butt of bad jokes, and Italians tend to be short, fat clones of Mussolini.
With Chinese and Native American characters, it’s hit or miss. For every great characterization, such as Daredevil Comics’ “The Bronze Terror” (who I really need to write about one of these days, because he’s such a cool character), you’d get five feather-wearing, semi-articulate “noble savages”.
The problem for a Golden Age comics blogger (i.e. ME) is knowing where to draw the line. You never ever know what might set somebody off nowadays. Heck, most of the Blackhawks speak in some kind of dialect – maybe I’ll post up a panel where André says “Sacre bleu!” and somebody’ll get all hacked off about it. Maybe not.
Ah, but Chop-Chop – he’s a problem.
Chop-Chop is a bad caricature of a Chinese guy. He’s short, bucktoothed, squinty, perfectly round, dressed in loud colors, and ill-tempered: he curses — a lot. He’s sort of a “proto-Hop Sing”, if you’re old enough to remember Bonanza from TV.
But Chop-Chop is in the book for much more than cheap comic relief. His first appearance, although played for laughs, is actually the result of a very heroic act on his part (click on the pages for a larger view):
Despite the fact that he has no idea how to fly, Chop-Chop hijacks a fighter plane and crash lands it on Blackhawk Island, warning the team of an impending Nazi attack (and dang near killing himself in the process).
Four or five issues later, Chop-Chop is a key part of the story and actually saves Blackhawk’s bacon before the tale ends.
So when I read a 1940’s Blackhawk story which features Chop-Chop, I look a bit deeper, beyond the stereotype, and see the heroism of the character. He really is a member of the team and is a full participant in many adventures (and, years later, he’s drawn in a far more realistic manner and, eventually, gets an actual name instead of that awful nickname).
Ultimately, what do you do if you blog about “period” comics?
Read my disclaimer if you haven’t already. In a nutshell, I’m going to do my best to keep the worst of the stereotypes out of this blog (and, after all, who the hell really wants to read about the adventures of a character named “Jun-gal” anyway?). It’s always a case-by-case judgment on my part, and you might not always agree with my choices.
But here’s the blunt fact – I can’t examine WWII era comics as the historical documents they are without a little bit of “political incorrectness” (by our present-day standards) sneaking its way in from time to time. Hugely popular, successful, and influential comics such as Blackhawk and Airboy sometimes dealt in stereotypes, but they also can’t be completely ignored in the virtual pages of this blog.
So here’s my proposal – you and I can meet halfway. I’ll keep the worst of it out of here (no African stereotypes or monosyllabic feather-wearing Native American caricatures), and in return I’d appreciate a lack of grief coming my way because I chose to review a good rip-roaring story which contains some interesting insight into the period, but which also artistically depicts a Japanese villain, German oberst, or minor Chinese character in a light which is unfavorable to our modern eyes.
I’m probably making a bigger deal out of this than anyone else might do, but I just want to be clear on this point. And that’s why there’s now a disclaimer on this blog.
Have fun! — Steve
[Golden Age comic scans courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum]
Copyright 2012, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.