It is no secret that as of late, Hollywood has benefited from turning comic book pages into live action adaptations, evident in the recent box office hit Thor: Ragnarok, and the widespread anticipation for the upcoming release of Justice League. Although widely popular today, comic books and the fan base that followed had a much humbler beginning, especially in Canada. In 2016, comic books in the “U.S. and Canada reached
$1.085 billion” in sales, with the market growing nearly “five percent” from 2015 (Comichron 2016). “By the late 1920s, newspaper comic strips — the “funnies” — were an established popular art form in North America, and quite distinct from political and gag cartooning” (Library & Archives Canada, 2017). While more newspapers began publishing comic strips, it was not until 1941, with Bell Comics, that comic books in Canada began to gain traction. Largely targeted towards children, these comic books aimed at entertaining their young audience with stories of mystery and heroics. While the tone of comic books was often light hearted and educational to an extent, in the case of The Funny Comics wit
h Dizzy Don no. 16, there are several instances where racial stereotypes were on full display, with the most noticeable being the inclusion of an “African man ape”. Regardless of intention, every minute detail in a comic is carefully chosen, holding valuable meaning and making it crucial to the story’s plot. In issue sixteen of The Funny Comics with Dizzy Don (Figure 1), African race and culture is subjected to a stereotypical portrayal, a deliberate choice aimed at questioning the social attitudes of the time regarding race, be it African-Canadians or Japanese-Canadians, acting as a stylistic choice to highlight differences between cultures.
Overview of the Comic Book:
Issue sixteen of The Funny Comics with Dizzy Don (Figure 1) is very much a self-contained wild-west story, incorporating western scenery with stock characters to deliver an authentic old-western story. Stepping away from his traditional outfit of a suit and bowtie, Dizzy Don, in the third act of the comic book, is seen sporting cowboy attire, further distinguishing his surroundings from that of the opening city scene. While characters and names such as “Two-Gun Dan” are very much grounded in the western portion of the story, there seems to be three distinct instances where certain things seem almost out of place; the “African blow darts” (Figure 2), the deadly “two fang viper snake” and the “African man ape” (Easson 1941). When dealing with a setting most commonly associated with cowboys, anything related to Africa seems arbitrary and out of place. More shockingly, Mr. Monk, the “African man ape” who serves as the villain of the story, is depicted in what appears to be a racially fuelled illustration of what Africans look like; depicting Mr. Monk as an animal rather than a human being as you can see in Figure 3. At one point near the end of the story, Mr. Monk must justify his appearance in relation to his criminal organization, stating that he “has a brain bigger thanmost men” (Easson 1941). It is comments such as these in relation to how evil African artifacts, animals and individuals are portrayed, that it becomesevident that there is a clear distinction being made between Dizzy Don, a white male who appears to be upper-class, and the villain, Mr. Monk, a dramatic interpretation of what an African male looks like.
Depicting Ones Traits, Flaws and Culture in Literature:
Comic books not only offer a quick escape into a world of wonder, but sometimes, they serve to engage with the reader to help denounce unequal roles of power amongst different individuals. In a journal article written by Sean Carleton, Carleton introduces a term he refers to as conscientization, defining it as “a pedagogical process defined by critical engagement with understandings of the world that leads people to actively reject established rationalizations of unequal power relations and oppression” (Carleton 2014). He argues that in comic books, “conscientization is first of all theeffort to enlighten [people] about the obstacles preventing them from a clear perception of reality…. Conscientization effects the ejection of cultural myths that confuse people’s awareness” (Carleton 2014).
According to Carleton, while some comic books may be racially motivated, most of the time, inaccurate depictions of racial groupings or cultures is meant to be understood as a signifier towards racial intolerances. What this means for The Funny Comics with Dizzy Don
no. 16 is that Mr. Monk (Figure 3), while clearly of a different race, should not be perceived as the writers racially fuelled opinions but rather, writers understanding of racial indifferences. By depicting Mr. Monk as such, the writers effectively question why we immediately associate the “man ape” with black individuals, especially from Africa, calling into question our own personal prejudices as a way of correcting them. The writers therefore, rather than filling the pages of their work with hate, are explaining to the readers that what they are reading is completely fictitious, and that individuals portrayed in comic books are not at all how individuals of a certain grouping are in real life.
Brian Johnson, in his journal titled Son of a Smaller (Super) Hero, explores the work of Mordecai Richler, a prominent comic book writer whose protagonists often fall short of heroism. In it, Johnson details how Richler’s characters always appear to be less then heroic, with villains closely playing on stereotypes of the time. Johnson explores how in actuality, portraying villains in stereotypical ways is only done to make the reader aware of the villain and how different he/she is from the protagonist. According to Johnson, “the protagonist must face off against this villain, and only then can he/she be the hero” (Johnson 2010). The only reason why comic book writers choose to portray villains in such a stereotypical way is so that the readers will be able to make a clear distinction between the hero and the villain. Not only are the African poison darts and poisonous viper snake all tasks which Dizzy Don must face off to become the hero, but, and more importantly, Dizzy Don must overcome a villain as strong as Mr. Monk, the man ape, to become the hero at the end of the comic book.
Understanding Racism in Canada During WWII:
One interesting commentary on black representation in literature comes from David C. Este, in his journal article titled Black Canadian Historical Writing. In it, Este’s goal is to critique several different contributions to the “discipline of Black Canadian History beginning in 1970” (Este 2008). Roughly up until the early 1970’s, “black Canadian history from a historical perspective, was largely untapped”, and so began the quest for historians to find out all they could (Este 2008). Este chooses to asses a few known historical works, trying to note what life as an African-Canadian was like, and how the community responded. However, Este primarily references author Robin Wink’s Blacks in Canada: A History, and the knowledge he had to offer. In it, Wink understands that “African-Canadians have always faced discrimination, and it will not change until they are fully immersed in Canadian culture” (Este 2008).
To highlight the racial indifferences between African-Canadians and Canadians, Wink focuses on his understanding of black churches, and the major road block it created for African-Canadian immersion into Canadian society. To Wink, “creating this distinction between Black and White churches did more harm than good”, as he felt that there needed to be integration for a tolerance to form (Este 2008). Relating this back to literature, Este feels that improper depictions of the African culture are not signs of racial prejudices, but rather, should be symbolic of cultural differences, and at the time, lack of immersion.
While it is important to understand that racial depictions in comic books were not intended to be forms of racism for the most part, in Canada, during WWII, the Japanese-Canadian community, especially in British Columbia, faced hateful discrimination daily. If one is to understand why comic books were poised at educating readers, especially children on social issues, specifically racism, it is crucial to understand events happening in Canada during the 1940’s that would cause this need. Jordan Stanger-Ross, in his journal article Suspect Properties: The Vancouver Origins of the Forced Sale of Japanese-Canadian-Owned Property, WWII, discusses the uprooting of hundreds of Japanese-Canadians from British Columbia during WWII, as a way of exploring racism in Canada through a Japanese-Canadian lens. One important detail mentioned is that the government of British Columbia justified the uprooting of hundreds of Japanese-Canadian homes by claiming that “there were many houses which were in a state of decay”, when this was the case for only a few homes, and even then, the residents were not to blame as it was the landlord’s responsibility to provide proper living conditions (Stanger-Ross 2016). In no way was British Columbia’s government justifiable in uprooting so many families, especially, when only a few housing units were in such bad shape that it called for relocation. Stanger-Ross also takes issue with the 1942 decision to “uproot the 22,000 Japanese-Canadians”, but primarily focusses on 1943, when British Columbia’s government decided to “sell all the property which belonged to the individuals uprooted without consent or right” (Stanger-Ross 2016).
More unsettling is the fact that Stanger-Ross identifies the cause of this uprooting, tracing it to “a few individuals with racist attitudes and ideologies towards the Japanese culture began creating stories about how Japanese neighbourhoods were uninhabitable by whites, as their culture was drastically different” (Stanger-Ross 2016). If one is to understand that comic books can be seen as a form of social education and justice, it is important to outline the need for change, evident in the treatment of Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia during WWII. It is fitting to suggest that comic book writers used their work, by portraying other cultures as wildly different, that they intended to make the distinction between real life and fiction, clearly represented in the depiction of Mr. Monk, where every African stereotype is played upon and used to teach a lesson.
Parties and Individuals Involved in Combatting Racism in Canada:
To further connect comic books to social movements, Stephanie Bangarth, in her journal article, explores Premiere Hepburn’s decision to “accept Japanese-Canadian workers” on his farm during 1942 (Bangarth 2005). Recounting the tension between Japanese-Canadians and Canadians during WWII, Bangarth commends Premiere Hepburn’s decision to not only allow for “Nisei” workers to work on his farm harvesting onions, but also on his push towards the social justice of Japanese Canadians (Bangarth 2005). The clear lack of acceptance amongst Canadians towards their fellow Japanese-Canadian citizens is emphasized through Hepburn’s letter to British Columbia’s government, where he wrote, “Canada must provide a living for those Japanese which have to be moved from the Western defense zone. Either we place them in relocation camps and feed and clothe them with no benefit to the State or to themselves, or we find some way that they can help us to win the war” (Bangarth 2005). Bangarth chooses to note Premiere Hepburn’s desire for social justice to highlight the lack of social justice for Japanese-Canadians, but also in determining that more needed to be done to help, and that there were individuals and institutions whose goal was just that. While not much has been recorded in terms of comic book writers intentions, it is fitting to suggest that stories such as The Ghost of Two-Gun Dan, rather than assume they were hatefully constructed, are far more likely to be a tool to promote social change and educate children on racial tolerance, by instilling that stereotypes belong in comic books and other literature, but have no basis in real life.
In issue sixteen of The Funny Comics with Dizzy Don, African race and culture is subjected to a stereotypical portrayal, a deliberate choice aimed at questioning the social attitudes of the time regarding race, be it African-Canadians or Japanese-Canadians, acting as a stylistic choice to highlight differences between cultures. While there were certainly individuals in Canada during WWII that believed in racial differences, not all Canadians were like that, and majority of comic book writers tried their best to differentiate between what is depicted in a comic book, and what is true in real life. It is the oddly placed cultural items combined with the racially depicted Mr. Monk that allow one to understand while at times certainly racist, the overall goal was to promote social cohesion and racial acceptance across all cultures living in Canada.
“Archived – Emergence of the Comic Book, 1929 – 1940.” June 24, 2002. Library and Archives Canada. https://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/comics/027002-8200-e.html
Bangarth, Stephanie. “The Long, Wet Summer of 1942: The Ontario Farm Service Force, Small-Town Ontario and the Nisei.” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol. 37, no. 1, 2005, pp. 40-62, Canadian Business & Current Affairs Database; International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS); Political Science Database; Politics Collection; Sociology Collection, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/215635958?accountid=13631.
Carleton, Sean. “Drawn to Change: Comics and Critical Consciousness.” Labour, no. 73, 2014, pp. 151-177,9, Business Premium Collection; Canadian Business & Current Affairs Database; International Bibliography of the Social Sciences (IBSS), http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/1546469398?accountid=13631.
“Comics and graphic novel sales up 5% in 2016.” Comichron: Industry-Wide Comics and Graphic Novel Sales for 2016, www.comichron.com/yearlycomicssales/industrywide/2016-industrywide.html.
Easson, Manny. The Funny Comics with Dizzy Don. Issue 16. 1941. Bell Feature Comics.
Este, David C. “Black Canadian Historical Writing 1970-2006: An Assessment.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 38, no. 3, Jan. 2008, pp. 388–406. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0021934707306573.
Johnson, Brian. “Son of a Smaller (Super) Hero: Ethnicity, Comic Books, and Secret Identity in Richler’s Novels of Apprenticeship.” Canadian Literature, no. 207, 2010, pp. 26-40,200, Canadian Business & Current Affairs Database; Research Library, http://ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/docview/879053731?accountid=13631.
Stanger-Ross, Jordan. “Suspect Properties: The Vancouver Origins of the Forced Sale of Japanese-Canadian-Owned Property, WWII.” Journal of Planning History, vol. 15, no. 4, Nov. 2016, pp. 271–89. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/1538513215627837.