The early 1970’s Green Arrow/Green Lantern teamups are among the most often republished comic books of all time. Written by Dennis O’Neil and drawn by Neal Adams, these “street level” tales found the heroes tackling a variety of contemporary social and economic injustices which included discrimination and drug abuse. These stories are often cited (in various documentaries, as well as in print) as being the first time that comic books addressed “real world” injustice, but that statement is wholly incorrect. As far back as 1941, costumed heroes were occasionally confronted with socioeconomic dilemmas.
In three consecutive issues of Silver Streak Comics which were published during the summer of 1941, Silver Streak and his sidekick Meteor went up against real world problems which went far beyond the usual bank robbers and saboteurs which were popular villains of the day. Issue #12 found the duo thwarting an international menace which was common for comics of the day: a Japanese invasion of China. But the subsequent two issues were highly unusual for the day, in that the stories and villains were based on actual social problems here in the U.S.: the struggle between management and non-union labor (in issue #14) and the lynching of African-American sharecroppers in the Deep South (in issue #13).
Although the economic problems of sharecroppers aren’t directly addressed in the story, the issues involved are fairly well-known today. The sharecropper system was developed after the abolition of slavery in the 1860’s, as southern growers still required a cheap source of labor for cotton to remain profitable. In theory a laborer was entitled to a share of the cotton crop he planted and harvested as payment for his year’s work (hence the name “sharecropper”). Of course the majority of laborers had no means of physically selling what he or she had harvested, so the landowner would usually offer to buy back the sharecropper’s portion.
The potential for abuse here is should be readily apparent since the (usually uneducated) sharecropper would have no real idea of what his share of the crop was worth. But the systemic abuse of sharecroppers often went far beyond their being shortchanged at harvest time. A sharecropper had no real income for most of the year until the crop was harvested, so to purchase the necessities of life he had no choice but to borrow against his share of the crop – and it was the landowner who extended the credit (either directly or in cooperation with merchants in the nearest town). It wasn’t any great feat for a landowner to “cook the books” by overcharging the sharecroppers for food and supplies, then underpaying them at harvest time, which resulted in an endless cycle of debt for the sharecropper. These abuses meant that the landowner received essentially free labor, while the sharecroppers remained permanently indebted to the landowner. For the sharecropper it was, at best, a form of indentured servitude – at worst, it was little better than the slavery the sharecropping system had supplanted.
Fortunately the end of the Depression meant an industrial boom in the cities of the upper Midwest; factories in Chicago and Detroit needed a lot of workers in a hurry. A major rail line ran from Memphis straight into Chicago, so it wasn’t unusual for a sharecropper to escape his endless cycle of debt by hopping a train for Memphis in the dead of night, after which it was on to Chicago to work in the meat packing plants or to Detroit to build automobiles. (This migration also led to the rise of urban blues music in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The acoustic music of the plantations was drowned out in the crowded, noisy Chicago taverns, so Muddy Waters traded his acoustic six-string for an electric guitar – and the rest is history. The corrupt sharecropper system and the migration to the North is wonderfully detailed in Robert Palmer’s extremely readable and informative history of the blues, Deep Blues.)
Once former plantation workers began filling jobs in the industrial North, this labor pool was identified not only by factory management but also by civil rights advocates; recruiters began to appear in Mississippi, passing out handbills (to those who could read them) and spreading the word about the new Promised Land of the upper Midwest. Some sharecroppers also took it upon themselves to help spread the good news. And that’s where the trouble began. Plantation owners (and their allies, often members of local law enforcement) made it a point to eliminate sharecroppers whom they regarded as “uppity”. Some of these incidents were quite public: a “troublemaker” might be found strung up in a tree beside a highway for all to see. Others quietly vanished without a trace.
And that’s where today’s Golden Age comic story begins.
While I was researching some 1940’s characters for the forthcoming Hideouts & Hoodlums RPG supplement, I was startled to come upon the Silver Streak story “The Adventure of the Laughing Hyena”. While the tale doesn’t delve into the background behind sharecropper lynchings (after all, you can only fit so much story into eight pages), it’s still pretty amazing that the story saw print in any form. Golden Age comics aren’t well-remembered as being sensitive in their portrayal of ethnic groups; stereotyping was the order of the day, so this story’s sympathetic treatment of sharecroppers was highly unusual.
It’s fascinating to note, however, that this story was published in the same month (and by the same publisher) as Daredevil Comics #2, a comic which featured the introduction of Dick Briefer’s character The Bronze Terror who fought for the rights of Native Americans (and who we’ve met previously in two separate posts in the Big Blog o’Fun). Coincidence? Or was it a deliberate editorial decision to have two different heroes in different books confronting economic woes afflicting minority groups? At this late date it’s impossible to know without a significant amount of (likely fruitless) research, but it’s a wonderful topic for speculation.
We now present Silver Streak in “The Adventure of the Laughing Hyena” as presented in Silver Streak Comics #13, cover dated August 1941. The page scans are courtesy of The Digital Comic Museum. As always, right-click a page and open it in a new tab for a larger, more readable view.
Have fun! — Steve
Copyright 2013, Steven A. Lopez. All rights reserved.