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Morrie Turner and the Kids

THE STORY OF THE MAN RESPONSIBLE FOR BRINGING COLOR TO THE BLACK-AND-WHITE PAGES OF THE SUNDAY COMICS.
DISCUSSED
Nipper and his Confederate Soldier’s Hat, Obama’s Presidential Victory, USO Trips To Vietnam, Bricks to the Head as Signs of Affection, Dinky Fellas, Employment Discrimination Being Unprofitable, The Yellow Kid’s Great Fight, Krazy Kat’s Gender Confusion, George Herriman’s Death Certificate, The Censored Eleven, Morrie Turner’s Elementary School Class Picture, The 477th Air Force Bomber Group, Neo-Minstrelsy, Bagel Power
by Jeff Chang
Panel from a Wee Pals strip by Morrie Turner, August 10, 1986

Morrie Turner and the Kids

Jeff Chang
13 Snaps

I. What Is Success?

The night of Barack Obama’s victory, eighty-six-year-old cartoonist Bil Keane called his old friend Morrie Turner, himself a sprightly eighty-four. Turner was working on his strip Wee Pals in the office of his tiny bungalow in South Berkeley, leaning over his drafting desk, its surface worn to the curve of the wood grain, tracing and embellishing the pencil outlines in India ink on Bristol board. A Law & Order rerun played in the background. Inking a strip to the natter of a TV program: for Turner, these were familiar rhythms, warm comfort for forty-three years. At that moment, the last thing he wanted to hear was the news.

Keane’s strip, Family Circus, had launched in 1960, one year before Obama was born. In it, Keane drew the antics of his suburban children in a single round panel, each installment like a portrait-miniature of the white boomer wonder years. Five years later—days before Malcolm X was assassinated, months before the Voting Rights Act was signed and Watts burned—Wee Pals debuted. Turner’s strip ­simply presented an urban, multiracial group of kids figuring out how to get along, but nothing like it had ever been seen on the funny pages. The launch of Wee Pals made Morrie Turner the first nationally syndicated African American cartoonist.

Keane and Turner had formed their close bond in 1967 as pacifist World War II vets on a USO trip to Vietnam. Keane would introduce a black boy named Morrie into Family Circus, just about the same time Charles Schulz added Franklin to Peanuts.1 Both were tributes to Turner. On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Cities were on fire. Blackness was suddenly in demand. Wee Pals went from six newspapers to more than a hundred. For Turner, success was bittersweet. Privately, he would say that it was guilt that got him into the papers.

Wee Pals belonged to a quieter, less violent universe. Even in the worst of times, Turner labored on, certain that it was the country that needed to come around to his kids’ world, not the other way around. Was Obama’s candidacy a sign that day was finally coming to pass? People had begun using a strange word—“post-racial.” Did it mean racism was over? Or just images of racism? Was the word just another form of denial?

Turner had told friends he was happy that Barack Obama was running, but he was terrified Obama would be killed while trying. And now on election night he was sure a black man, even this one, had no chance of becoming president. But at 8 p.m., when the polls at the senior center around the corner­ closed and the festive whoops on the block began, Turner’s phone rang. It would ring all night. Old friends wanted to share the breathlessness of the moment. Perhaps they were breathless because there still weren’t the words for all the new images.

Keane had called his old friend with congratulations. With Wee Pals, Keane told him, Turner had helped set America on a path to this historic moment. Turner tried to find the words to reply. Finally, he said that it was only the second time in his life he had ever felt like an American. Keane was about to tell Turner that he didn’t understand what he meant, but he stopped.

He heard Turner sobbing.

 

II. The Animals and the Kids

American comics arose, in part, from a stew of racial fascination, temptation, and debasement. In 1895, twenty years before D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid became the first broadly popular comic character. Charles Saalburg’s The Ting-Ling Kids had debuted in color a few months before the Yellow Kid’s first appearance. The Ting-Lings were “Chinese” only in the way minstrelsy was “Negro.” The funnies, as cartoon scholar Christopher P. Lehman has noted, relied on caricature and ridicule. For blacks, that meant the antic humiliation of slaves, mammies, and Sambos; for Chinese, the exploitation of alienness. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act had prohibited the immigration and naturalization of real Chinese. With legal estrangement, cartoonists could tame the strangeness left behind, reduce the “yellow peril” to a Yellow Kid. Outcault drew his boy with huge ears, buck teeth, and a big yellow nightie. The result was a refined Ting-Ling, a simplified Chinaman. Unlike the silk suits, the Yellow Kid’s taut garment—which, because the boy also wore a silent, pretty vacant smile, doubled as thought-­balloon—needed little draped or embroidered detail. The shaved head—the mark of a lice-prone ghetto child—eliminated the hat and queue. Slant eyes were replaced by round blues. The Yellow Kid was alien, urban, loony, and instantly accessible.

The Yellow Kid proved a killer app for the tabloids, helping elevate the reps and circs of both Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. As a cultural icon, the boy put the bustle and thump of the streets of New York—where Irish and black kids were beating out a new national language of play—right onto his nightie: dis is a new piece we’re pla’in. Yet if street culture was leveling, the emerging national visual culture was the opposite. In the 1896 strip “The Yellow Kid’s Great Fight,”2 a black boy—drawn by Outcault with a ­monkey face and round white lips—was knocked out by the Kid, then humiliated by a goat. By the final frame, the goat had taken the gloves from the black boy—he had no name, was simply referred to as “dat nigger”—and the smiling Yellow Kid’s nightie read, dat goat took my part cause i am a kid.

For much of the next half-century, animals took over the comics pages and the cartoons, a development traceable largely to a singular trio of a mouse, a dog, and a Kat. Krazy Kat, which ran from 1913 to 1944, was the invention of a New Orleans–born, Los Angeles–­raised biracial African American genius named George Herriman.3 Krazy was a black cat in love with Ignatz, a white mouse. Ignatz repaid that love with bricks to the head, which Krazy took as signs of tender affection. The white Offissa Bull Pupp expressed his love for Krazy by chasing down Ignatz and locking him up. Like the Yellow Kid and Herriman’s birth family, Krazy broke his English with a mellifluous pidgin. With its shifting tableaux of race, gender, psychology, political allegory, and brick-throwing, Krazy Kat remains an American anomaly.

Herriman played with black and white, in life and in art. His grandmother was born in Havana; his parents were listed as “mulatto” in public records and his own birth certificate read “colored.” But when he died, “Caucasian” was written on his death certificate. He apparently spent much of his life passing for white. Before Krazy Kat, Herriman drew a strip called Musical Mose, in which he clowned the ways the blackface Mose attempted to pass for white. But when Herriman invented Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pupp, he stumbled outside of minstrelsy’s conventions into something new, a racial melodrama that still compels.

In a June 1935 strip, Ignatz hides in a pipe from Offissa Pup. He emerges,4 darkened by dirt, and hurls a brick at Krazy; she turns and angrily punts the “sun-boint koffa kake,” “l’il Eetiopium mice” into a lake. A washed-off, rewhitened, and now very angry mouse hurls another brick at Krazy. Thrilled to have found her lost love, Krazy cries, “Ignatz… Dollin…” In the last scene, seeing the Kat dancing blissfully, Offissa Pupp congratulates himself on his law-keeping abilities. Order is restored, but only after being stretched to its limits.

The way that Krazy Kat’s bizarre love triangle toyed with ethnic notions and racial hierarchies may be better appreciated now than it was then. Indeed, the animals that followed Krazy, Ignatz, and Pupp, especially the cartoon ones, revived minstrelsy in new ways. ­Felix the Cat,5 Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, picked up the minstrels’ big eyes and lips, white gloves, and sideways grins.6 Such “blackface design,” as Lehman calls it, was efficient; inky bodies with big eyes eliminated the need for detail and provided instant comic context.

Blackface design could also displace blackness entirely. Some of the animals were endowed with “yes we can” optimism and improvisational genius, and, when sound hit the cartoons—specifically the Looney, Merrie sound of African‑American music—a whole lot of rhythm. Mickey was a jazz-age mouse. Bugs was a Brooklynized Br’er Rabbit.7 Especially when they appeared in cartoons with black characters, they appeared more human than the humans. Eventually, except for a few Sambo characters, they also erased kids of color.8 The blackface mouse  who was whitened for mainstream appeal, and the rabbit who constantly danced his way out of his constrictions came to shoulder the rise of entertainment empires. If a national popular culture was forged in nineteenth-century minstrelsy, twentieth-century neo-minstrelsy helped propel the development of the visual culture.

 

III. Confederate Flags and Rainbows

After World War II, NAACP protests against the major studios—­Warner Bro­thers, Walter Lantz, Paramount, and others—helped end the era of neo-minstrelsy. By the 1950s, Jackie Ormes was flipping Milton Caniff’s flyboy adventure scripts with Torchy in Heartbeats, a strip featuring the beautiful, independent black woman Torchy Brown, in search of racial justice, hot fashion, and sweet love. Oliver Harrington, whose comic strip character Brother Bootsie was an ordinary Harlemite dealing with the follies of racism and protest, was fleeing the House Un-American Activities Committee to join expats like James Baldwin and Chester Himes in Paris. Ormes’s and Harrington’s works could only be read in the black newspapers.

If such history was weighty, Morrie Turner’s characters shrugged it off. In the first Wee Pals strip, published on February 15, 1965, Turner introduced three of his principal characters: Randy, an afroed black boy in a smart cardigan; Oliver, a clean-cut, overweight white preppie wearing huge spectacles; and Turner’s alter ego, ­Nipper, the soul of the strip—a small, un­athletic black child possessed of gentle trickster wit. In Alabama, civil rights demonstrators were about to march into a month of deadly clashes with white supremacists and state police. But Turner drew—and would always draw—Nipper’s eyes covered by a Civil War–era Confederate soldier’s hat, the better to call attention to the boy’s perpetual smirk. In that debut strip, Nipper spent the first three panels parading in front of Randy and Oliver while waving a rebel flag. “Obviously,” Randy remarked to Oliver in the fourth panel, “American history is not a required subject of the kindergarten class.”

In later strips, Nipper would learn about the Civil War. But he would choose to keep the hat. “We pardon in the degree that we love,” he told Wellington, a mop-topped, turtleneck-sporting white kid. The blackface animals were gone. Instead Turner drew kids—often in mid-run on the way to play—­having profound discussions about race and community. Youth, as the Harlem Renaissance writer Alain Locke once put it, could speak for itself.

The ink on the Civil Rights Act had not yet dried. The Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationality Act were soon to be signed. But Wee Pals already belonged to a postsegregated future. Oliver introduced the neighborhood kids to each other. Here was Peter “the Mexican-American,” George “the Oriental,”9 Rocky the “full-blooded American Indian,” and Randy—Oliver paused to note—“Afro-American, Negro, Black, Colored, Soul Brother.”

“And what are you?” Peter asked Oliver.

“Very careful!” Oliver replied.

Among the expanding Wee Pals cast would be Paul, an athletic Chicano; Jerry, a freckled Jewish character; and Ralph, an “Archie Bunker–type character” who served as a narrative foil. Little Mikki was a toddler, wide-eyed and clad in overalls. Sally was deaf. Connie was a fireball feminist always ready to fight. She tormented Oliver, because the only hole in his Berkeley-raised political correctness was his insensitivity to gender issues. It was up to Sybil Wrights, a sensitive and sen­sible black girl, to check and correct Connie’s temperamental excesses.

When the neighborhood baseball team needed to come up with a nickname, the boys began arguing, coming up with names that might befit a sequel to the urban gang horror flick The Warriors. George suggested “The Yellow Dragons,” while Rocky suggested “The Redskins,” Jerry “The Mitzvah Boys,” Randy “The Black Bombers,” Paul “The Brown Destroyers.” It fell to Nipper to suggest the obvious choice: “The Rainbows.” Jesse Jackson might have been taking notes.

 

IV. “The Value of Humor”

Morrie Turner was born on December 11, 1923, the youngest of four boys. His parents had met in New Orleans. His mother Nora had attended Southern University and wor­ked as a teacher and a nurse. His father James shined shoes ­until he got work as a Pullman porter working the line to Chicago. By the time Turner was born, they had settled in West Oakland, California, not far from the transcontinental railroad terminus.

In the early 1970s, television producers from ABC—led by a young exec named Mike Eisner—began adapting Wee Pals into a cartoon renamed Kid Power. They asked Turner where he had come up with the idea. “I told them I lived it,” Turner told me.West Oakland, believe it or not, because it was the Depression, it was totally integrated. They looked at me like, ‘No way. You lived in the ghetto.’ We were all poor, yeah, ghettoized, but there were all the races there.”

He pulls a photo of his 1929 kindergarten class at Cole Elementary down from his mantel. The ­sepia tones have faded, yet the picture has more color than the American pop imagination would be able to handle for decades to come. Among the thirty-­seven children are seven blacks, six Mexican Americans, two Chinese Americans, a Japanese American, and a Native American girl with a heart-shaped face, the object of Turner’s unrequited crush. Some hold teddy bears or rag dolls. Three of them hold American flags. Turner points out the friends who took him to their Portuguese festivals, Jewish synagogue events, and Chinese New Year parties. “You didn’t know what the heck was ­going on, but you knew there was a lot of food there,” Turner laughed.

While his father was working the rails, Turner played sports with the boys, ran to the park, or headed to Yosemite Gym to box. When his schoolwork wasn’t going so well, Turner dreaded the days his father returned from Chicago. In the middle­ of the last beating Turner received, the boy dove under the bed and scampered on all fours from one end to the other until his father was laughing so hard he gave up. “I learned the value of humor that day,” Turner said.

War broke out. The Japanese American family across the street suddenly disappeared. Turner graduated from Berkeley High in 1942 and was drafted. On his way to Kentucky to join the 477th Army Air Force Bomber Group, an all-black unit that served as a feeder for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, he encountered segregated facilities. At the base, it was the same. Turner arrived just weeks after black officers mutinied against their white colonel’s order to segregate the officers’ clubs. Hundreds had been arrested, and two of the group’s squadrons were inactivated.

Assigned night duty after a full day of hard labor, Turner snuck a copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy to his post to read, and then fell asleep. He was shaken awake by a white MP and dragged into military custody. He spent nearly a month in the brig at Fort Knox for neglect of duty. But after the racial tensions of the previous year, the army assigned the famed black colonel Benjamin Davis to oversee the 477th. Black officers now took leadership positions, and Turner’s case was dismissed. Even under ­Davis’s leadership, it became clear to the members of the “overtrained” 477th that they wouldn’t get a chance to prove their mettle overseas. Like hundreds of thousands of other African American soldiers, Turner never saw combat. Instead, he was assigned to draw cartoons for the Stars and Stripes newspaper.

When Turner returned home, he married his high-school sweetheart, Letha, took a job at the Oakland police department, and doodled on the night shift. He began selling his work to Boy Scout and baking magazines, then to Collier’s, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Saturday Evening Post. He quit his job, and seemed to be following the career of one of his heroes, E. Simms Campbell, the African American illustrator who had made his reputation producing aspirational images of the white elite for Esquire. Only Negro Digest, which made Turner a regular contributor, purchased work featuring nonwhite characters.

Moved by Dick Gregory and Martin Luther King, Jr., Turner wanted more. He attended a local cartoonists’ meeting where Charles Schulz gave a presentation. That night Turner created Nipper and a black version of Oliver, the beginnings of an urban version of Peanuts. Two black newspapers, the ­Berkeley Post and the Chicago Defender, picked up his new strip, Dinky Fellas. Within weeks, though, Turner realized an all-black strip wasn’t going to work. He needed characters of other cultures to complete the jokes he was concocting. The revised Dinky Fellas became Wee Pals, and the tiny Lew Little Syndicate picked it up.

Between George Herriman’s death in 1944 and Morrie Turner’s national debut in 1965, the industry and the country had changed. The comics business had become huge, the form had been standardized, and the content had turned conservative. Comics pages were decades behind the social mainstream, a mirror less to the tastes of children than to those of middle-aged men. The country was striking down segregation, but in the culture there were still few hopeful visions of a desegregated future, few ways to expiate very deep fears of change.

 

V. How It Feels to Be American

But in 1967, when the National Cartoonists Society invited Turner to join a four-week USO Thanksgiving tour to Vietnam, he was growing cynical. Police incidents had sparked ­riots in the inner cities of Detroit and Newark. Anti-war demonstrations were mounting. Nearly a thousand Americans and many more Vietnamese died each month overseas. Turner was also against the war, but over the protests of friends and ­family members he agreed to go. He wasn’t sure why.

Turner landed in Saigon with five other cartoonists, all of whom were veterans. Three were pro-war, and two others, Bil Keane and Bill Sanders, were also antiwar—a perfect pollster’s sample. No longer a twenty-two-year-old private in a segregated company, Turner would finally see war up close.

The artists visited an airfield where operating tables had been set up. The units had been battling to take a hill nearby. They were on their third or fourth try. Helicopters buzzed in with wounded men, arms and legs and heads riddled with shrapnel or blown to bits, clothes ripped and stained with blood, screams piercing through the din of the choppers.

The cartoonists moved on to the hospital, where they met with the soldiers, told jokes, and drew pictures of them—soldiers’ wheelchairs transformed into baby carriages with helicopter blades carrying them away. They would spend the next four weeks traveling through South Vietnam, dressed in army gear and combat boots like the troops, entertaining them. “They were like little kids and you felt good about yourself,” Turner told me. “But honestly, what they had us doing was kind of stupid.”

Turner was struggling to reconcile everything he was feeling. The South Vietnamese, he couldn’t help but notice, were treating him with more deference than his white colleagues. “They didn’t even know me,” he said. “It had to have been my skin.” And what the hell was this war about anyway? Whatever side the young men on that hill were fighting for, whatever the color of their skin was, whether they called the other “whitey” or “nigger” or “gook” or “brother,” they were all dying.

One afternoon, weary of the blood and confusion, Turner sat down in a quiet room to have a smoke. Nothing made sense and he needed to clear his head. A white MP appeared. “You don’t want to sit there,” the MP told him. Turner bit down on his cigarette and glared at the MP. More white authority to deal with. “Why?” he sneered.

“Those are caskets,” the MP said.

Turner sprung up and scanned the room: dozens of cordwood boxes, some stacked three high. They were filled with the bodies of those who had fought and died, going home at last. In his anger, pride, and shame, he realized this was the first time he had ever felt fully American.

Turner wouldn’t feel that way again for a long time. In four short months, his hero Martin Luther King Jr. would be dead. In seven, Wee Pals’ audience would increase tenfold. Racism, Albert Camus had once told Chester Himes, was absurd.

 

VI. The Kids Get Colorized

One of the ways cartoonists show their respect for each other is to trade original strips. Hanging on Turner’s living room wall is a 1966 strip from John Liney, who illustrated Carl Anderson’s bald-headed boy, Henry, after Anderson’s death. Henry is walking home when he passes a furniture store sign that says, add some color to your living room. He encounters his father snoring in an easy chair. By the final panel, he has dressed his father in an American Indian headdress. There is also a single-panel Graffiti by Leary strip done by Bill Leary in the early ’70s. On a white wall, someone has paint-brushed: morrie turner sees everything in black and white.

Turner actually found moving beyond black and white vexing, especially on Sundays. The palettes for the Sunday color pages were constraining; only a pinkish tan was called “flesh.” Presenting the skin tones of a multicultural cast, especially a range of black characters, became a weekly problem. Nipper might be rendered in a muddy brown, Randy in orange, Mikki in purple. When Turner complained, the syndicate asked him, “Did you get your check?” Turner registered his protest through Oliver in a four-panel daily. “Boy!” the child mused, “The manufacturers of flesh-colored band-aids would go broke in this neighborhood!”

The 1970s had begun. It would be almost a decade before protests broke out in the Bronx over the movie Fort Apache, The Bronx and at a downtown Manhattan gallery against an exhibition of charcoal works called the Nigger Drawings—the Lexington and Concord of the multiculturalist art movement.10 But Turner was anticipating America’s future obsessions with diversity and positive representation. By now, Sly Stone, the Bay Area flower child who had ooo-sha-sha’d about everyday people, was singing “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey.” But Turner’s vision of multiculturalism remained patient, innocent, and unhardened. (And sometimes teacherly: to fill the extra space afforded by the Sunday strip, he and Letha began “Soul Corner,” a box devoted to documenting great African American lives.) He knew that casting kids allowed him some freedom. “If a black kid was saying it, it was funny,” Turner said. “But if a black man was saying it, it would be fighting time.”

Turner drew five boys walking down the street, side by side, having this conversation:

ROCKY: “Red Power!”

PAUL: “Brown Power!”

RANDY: “Black Power!”

GEORGE: “Yellow Power!”

JERRY: “Bagel Power!”

RANDY: “Bagel Power?”

Most of Wee Pals punchlines hinged on cultural misunderstandings and mistranslations. But conflict could be defused by common sense and collective action. After one meeting of the neighborhood club, the boys counted their dues and decided to buy ice cream with the surplus. As they slurped up their reward, Diz, a black boy sporting a black beret, kente cloth shirt, and Wayfarer glasses, said to the others, “There’s gold at the end of Rainbow Power!” The idea seemed to migrate from the funnies into the movement when the Black Panthers, Young Lords, and Young Patriots announced a coalition of the same name in the summer of 1969.

By 1972, Turner had four top-selling paperback collections and had attracted the interest of cartoon powerhouse Rankin-Bass and ABC. Suddenly there were producers, writers, casting agents, voice actors, Japanese animators, and lots of execs. There were recording sessions and toy deals and trips to New York City for meetings in which Turner had been given a seat at the table—and the right to be ignored, which the studio heads exercised often.

The Kid Power cartoon, named after one of the book collections, first aired in September 1972 on ABC, opposite Bill Cosby’s CBS show Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. A record album was released. Lunch boxes and ceramic toys followed. A stage musical toured the country. The cartoon lasted seventeen episodes before being cancelled in an executive shake-up at ABC.

Turner’s crossover success made him a minor celebrity. He served on the White House Conference on Children. At the invitation of the team’s management, he often traveled with John Madden and ­Daryle Lamonica’s Oakland ­Raiders. It was nearing the end of the era in which newspaper cartoonists were rock stars.

Soon, he told me, “I was no longer­ alone representing the race.” During the ’80s, black cartoonists made breakthroughs, including Ray Billingsley (Curtis), Robb Armstrong (Jump Start), and Barbara Brandon-Croft (Where I’m Coming From). All three had substantial success by Wee Pals standards; both Curtis and Jump Start were featured in over two hundred papers, double the number Wee Pals had at its peak. Morrie’s kids still dressed the same way they had always dressed, played the way they had always played, spoke about the things they had always spoken about. Turner finally felt free to be just a cartoonist.

 

VII. The Price of Crossing Over

These days the word multiculturalism evokes the kind of revulsion once reserved for hippies. Before people began using the word postracial, both conservatives and liberals complained that multiculturalism produced little but divisive “identity politics” and inferior “identity art.” But even if you weren’t sympathetic to Dinesh D’Souza or Todd Gitlin, Arlene Croce or Arthur Danto, it was hard not to be disappointed with what multiculturalism had become. The movement emerged from the radical urban artistic, literary, and musical avant-gardes of the mid-1970s. But a quarter century later, the army was filing amicus briefs in Supreme Court cases to support affirmative action, Alan Greenspan was calling employment discrimination not only “patently immoral” but “unprofitable,” and neocon ­Nathan Glazer was declaring, “We are all multiculturalists now.” Even the multiculturalists denounced multiculturalism. Hip-hop’s aesthetic militancy was, in some respects, a reaction to the big crossover.

In 1999, Aaron McGruder, a prodigy from Maryland’s black suburbs, launched The Boondocks. He came in like a hard rhymer, as if he wanted to impress and piss people off at the same time. The Boondocks had one of the most successful syndicated comic strip launches ever, opening in 160 newspapers. Soon readers began complaining the strip was “racist,” “angry,” “gangsta-­oriented garbage.” The Chicago Tribune and dozens of other newspapers dropped the strip. But McGruder had perfectly captured the confusion of the post­multicultural moment. By the end of the year, The Boondocks had matched the readerships of Curtis and Jump Start. At its peak it appeared in three hundred newspapers.

In a time of turmoil, Turner’s kids had been earnest and lighthearted. Their radical message was that everyone wanted equality, they could work it out, and they needn’t be uncivil in the process. McGruder’s kids were products of the hypocrisies of a post-civil-rights America, armed and armored with irony and attitude. Toward the failed promises of the civil rights generation, the shuck-n-jive of hip-hop capitalists, the fake racial innocence of the nation, they declared their right to be hostile.

Even as the popular culture had been desegregated, the country was resegregating—in its schools, its cities and suburbs. Of course Mc­Gruder’s kids lived in a suburb that had passed the racial tipping point; they were hemmed in by clueless white exurban America on one side and aimless mixed-up urban America on the other. Turner’s kids had aspired to a dream. McGruder’s kids mocked the dream, but their bravado also seemed to mask a profound sense that something had been lost. What was the price of crossing over? More money, more problems, more confusion about those problems?

On a rainy evening in 2007, I was scheduled to interview McGruder before a standing-room-only crowd at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. Turner and I went backstage so that he and McGruder could meet for the first time. They greeted each other with a warm hug.

They had a lot in common. Both dressed like cartoonists; they seemed to have put on whatever wasn’t in the hamper that morning. McGruder, whose father is an air traffic controller, told Turner that he might have been a pilot had he decided in high school not to do comic strips. Although he had famously “censored” his own strips with “The Adventures of Flagee and Ribbon” after 9/11, McGruder spoke of wanting to work on George Lucas’s long-­rumored Tuskegee Airmen project, Red Tails. Turner took hold of McGruder’s arm, telling him, “I was in the 477th.” McGruder’s jaw dropped.

Turner asked whether Mc­Gruder was bringing back the comic strip. In late 2005, The Boondocks had become the cornerstone of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming. McGruder had already been subcontracting the strip’s artistic duties. Then the syndicate began doing reruns in March of 2006. By September, his syndicate said that McGruder had ended the strip after six years. “Newspapers are dying. No one reads them anymore,” McGruder told Turner. “I had to think about my career.”

In 2003, when he turned eighty, Turner received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Cartoonists Society. It is not clear that there will still be a National Cartoonists Society when McGruder turns eighty. It’s even less clear that the country might ever reach a point where it can discuss race in the way the Wee Pals do—in a gentle, hopeful manner.

One day this past summer, over his favorite meal—a waffle at Lois the Pie Queen’s restaurant in North Oakland—Turner discussed whether President Obama’s election had changed the way Americans saw race. He was thankful he was able to see a black man elected to the presidency in his lifetime. But he was doubtful things had changed all that much.

“It used to be that lower-class whites wanted to keep blacks down because [whites] had certain jobs that were theirs. But that’s gone ’cause there’s no profit in it,” he said. “But prejudice still remains. Why?” For almost half a century, day after day, Turner had drawn his children asking variations of the same question. What other question was so absurd, so rich in comic potential? And really, what other question was there to ask? 

1. Franklin’s father was serving in the war. But Schulz never really developed the Franklin character, perhaps stung by black criticism that ­Franklin (at least in the black-and-white dailies) did not look much different from Pigpen. In 1977, he admitted to an interviewer, “I think it would be wrong for me to attempt to do racial humor, because what do I know about what it is like to be black?”
2.  Outcault’s later strip Pore Li’l Mose, starring a black country boy come to the big city, made plain the debt early comics owed to minstrelsy.
3.  Herriman’s biraciality—his birth to Creole New Orleans parents was confirmed twenty-five years after his death—has recently caused a reassessment of his entire corpus of work. It became a cause célèbre when Ishmael Reed dedicated his classic 1972 novel Mumbo Jumbo to “George Herriman, Afro-American, who created Krazy Kat.” The last word on the topic could be Jeet Heer’s essay “The Kolors of Krazy Kat” in Herriman’s Krazy & Ignatz: The Complete Full-Page Comic Strips, 1935–1936.
4.  She? Part of the fun of Krazy Kat is that he/she and Ignatz play with gender confusion, another example of Herriman’s artfulness.
5.  Niall Ferguson launched a recent blog­worthy dustup with James Fallows and Paul Krugman when he compared Obama to Felix the Cat, saying, “Felix was not only black. He was very very lucky.” When Fallows and Krugman called him on it, Ferguson got none other than Henry Louis Gates Jr.  to clear him of racial wrongdoing. Gates wrote, “Felix’s blackness, like Mickey’s and Minnie’s, was like a suit of clothes, not a skin color… You are safe on this one.” But cartoon historians might point Gates and Ferguson to such cartoons  of the ’20s and ’30s as “Felix The Cat In Uncle Tom’s Crabbin’” or “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer”—just two examples of the ways blackface design and blackface minstrelsy easily fed each other.
6.  Henry T. Sampson’s survey, That’s Enough, Folks: Black Images In Animated Cartoons, 1900–1960, summarizes hundreds of examples, including the most famous of them, Warner Brothers’ so-called Censored Eleven. Many of the most offensive cartoons of this era have been suppressed since the late 1960s. Their presence remains controversial, as evidenced in a 2008 YouTube controversy in which many of the Censored Eleven cartoons were removed from the site. A large underground market has developed among animation enthusiasts for bootlegged copies of these cartoons and hundreds more like them. Some call their inaccessibility censorship, and blame a regime of multiculturalist corporate political correctness. Others collect them like some do ­racist toys, as reminders of how times have changed. The NAACP’s position is “that the cartoons are despicable. We encourage the films’ owners to maintain them as they are—that is, locked away in their vaults.”
7.  Lehman argues in The Colored Cartoon that jazz was key to both characters. Mickey’s famous first sound appearance in Steamboat Willie (1928) was set to a tune based on the minstrel song “Zip Coon.” He also argues that Tex Avery infused Bugs with a black aesthetic of folktale trickster moxie and urban bebop cool.
8.  Characters of color did still appear in the adventure comics, mostly as bumbling sidekicks, primitive enemies, or both. In this sense, they often followed the European comics, such as Herge’s Tintin series, informed by an imperialist imagination.
9.  The rise of the Asian American movement was still three years into the future.
10.  In 1979, Donald Newman’s Nigger Drawings opened at New York’s legendary Artists Space. The show’s title, the white Newman’s appearance in charcoal-smeared blackface, and his subsequent comments that he had been “niggerized” by being forced to show at a non­commercial gallery, all polarized the downtown avant-garde. Months later, Bronx activists protested the Paul Newman vehicle Fort Apache: The Bronx over its depictions of blacks and Puerto Ricans—the start of a decade of protests against Hollywood representations.
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