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Hofstra Papers in Anthropology
Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor

Hofstra Papers in Anthropology

Volume 6, Article #3, 2011

Graphic Prejudice in Comic Books:
Cause or Symptom of Racism in American Culture [1]

by Chris Oakland

Since the 1930’s comic books had grown into a new medium for American popular culture, with its tales of death defying adventures and larger than life heroes offering its readers a brief escape from the Great Depression that the world had fallen into. Then in the 1940’s comics joined America in going to war, using patriotic heroes as propaganda to fuel the war effort both in soldiers abroad and the civilians at home. At this rate comics should have continued their success into the 1950’s, but instead found that the American public had turned against them, believing that comic books were transforming their children into juvenile delinquents and criminals. Parents and scholars claimed that the pages of comic books were filled with nothing but sex, violence, and racial stereotypes that bred prejudice within children. With crime comics depicting minorities as violent criminals and jungle comics populated with helpless natives it is clear that the comic books of the 1950’s were indeed guilty of such racist images, however present day knowledge shows that almost all aspects of American culture was inherent with prejudice as well. The purpose of this paper then is to investigate into these claims of racism against comics and to discover if the stereotypes used were the result of true racial sentiment on the part of the creators or if they were the result of the subconscious, and sometimes clearly overt, prejudices in the actions and sentiments of the American government as well as the American people themselves.

Leading the assault against comic books was psychologist Dr. Fredric Wertham who, in his book Seduction of the Innocent, claimed that all of the children he had interviewed suffered from mental problems that were a direct result of prolonged exposure to comic books. [2] Wertham elaborates on his theories with claims that reading horror or crime comics caused mental trauma on the children that led not only to delinquency and violent behavior, but also to the indoctrination of prejudice. Wertham felt that this was an obvious point by focusing on the white, Christian protagonists in comics and the weak, immoral minorities that are normally their enemies. He accentuates this theory on prejudice and comic books by stating:

…when a child is shown a comic book that he has not read and is asked to pick out the bad man, he will unhesitatingly pick out types according to the stereotyped conceptions of race prejudice, and tell you the reason for his choice. “Is he an American?” “No!”[3]

This example appears to support Wertham’s argument at first glance, however upon closer analysis this quote does prove that American children harbored racist sentiments and also that comic books depicted stereotypes in their pages, however Wertham does nothing to establish that the two are connected.

In “Comics and Delinquency: Cause or scapegoat,”[4] an article written by Frederic M. Thrasher for the Journal of Educational Sociology, Wertham is brought under accusations that his findings are unjustified as a result of his largely unscientific investigations. Thrasher, professor of education at New York University and member of the Attorney General’s conference on Juvenile Delinquency, argues that Wertham’s claims are unfounded as the psychiatrist spends no time attempting to describe the methods of his investigation, a necessary component of any scientific argument so that his results can be examined without any fear of biased or tampered results. However Thrasher shows that Wertham has produced no such records of his investigation and goes on to compare his research into comic books as being identical to previous attempts to link juvenile delinquency to other mediums including radio and motion pictures, [5] examinations that were all subsequently ruled by committees to be unfounded.

His argument against Wertham is further accentuated by a brief history of other monistic examinations that he describes, in which he explains previous attempts by scientists to attribute criminal activity to one specific cause whether it is biological or social. In this way Thrasher is able to support his claims against Wertham by showing that his data and findings were forensic rather than scientific and subject to his own prejudices. Throughout his research Wertham labored under the belief from the beginning that comic books were detrimental to the health of children, thus whenever he discovered that a troubled child had read comics he immediately placed the blame on the comic books alone, choosing to ignore any other factors in the world that could have introduced children to such ideas. This impression of Dr. Wertham’s self assurance is exhibited in his book Seduction of the Innocent by the following assertion in which Wertham wrote, “The pictures of these ‘inferior’ types as criminals, gangsters, rapers, suitable victims for slaughter by either the lawless or the law, have made an indelible impression on children’s minds. There can be no doubt about the correctness of this conclusion.”[6]

In this way the psychologist came to label comic books as a scapegoat for all mental problems he found in children, including racist sentiments towards minority groups. Marc Singer further describes this monistic process in an article written on the depiction of race in comic books, in which he describes how psychologists and sociologists of the time believed that racism in comics worked to indoctrinate child with prejudice, however they ignored any outside influence on the child. He states that, “Beginning with the social problems of racism in society, they arrive at a condemnation of the internal oppressions comics construct within readers' minds.”[7]
Such prejudices have been the long standing norm in America for much of its history from the treatment of African immigrants as slave labor, the policy of genocide towards Native American tribes since our country was founded, as well as the Jim Crow laws of the South which ensured that members of minorities would remain oppressed and powerless that existed during the time of Wertham’s research. In his book Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism, Geoffrey Stone discusses the prejudiced atmosphere of World War 2 America, focusing on the unconstitutional actions taken against Japanese American citizens and immigrants on the west coast. [8]

One the eve of war the government, in an attempt to increase nationalism and support, created a propaganda campaign against Japan in which they used stereotypical images to portray the Japanese as a means of establishing them as something inferior and, more importantly, fundamentally different from Americans. This campaign used familiar sights such as war posters, which eagerly used phrases like “Kill the Japs!”, as well as introducing new innovations like comic books. War comics became hugely successful at home and among soldiers abroad, featuring brave Americans fighting against the Axis soldiers who were drawn as racial caricatures.
William W. Savage Jr. elaborates on this trend in his book Comic Books and America 1945-1954, a historiography studying how the comic industry was affected by the changes in American as a result of World War 2.[9] Savage explains the appearance of these racist images during the war by describing how “…comic books became an integral part of the Allied propaganda machine, emphasizing the need for a maximum war effort by portraying the enemy as the inhuman offspring of a vast and pernicious evil,”[10] as well as stating “Sending comic books to military personnel testified to the utility of the medium in raising morale through patriotic fervor, even if it should be achieved through appeals to racism.”[11]

As a result of this program, which chose not to differentiate between Japanese nationals and the immigrants who have been in the country since before the war, the American government helped spread the belief that someone of Japanese origin could never become an American citizen and should always be regarded as ‘the other’. This atmosphere resulted in public outcries to deport or intern the Japanese living in America, including a vicious editorial in the Seattle Times by Henry McLemore titled: "This is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings”.

I know this is the melting pot of the world and all men are created equal and there must be no such thing as race or creed hatred, but do those things go when a country is fighting for its life? Not in my book…let us have no patience with the enemy or with anyone whose veins carry his blood…Personally, I hate the Japanese. And that goes for all of them. Henry McLemore, January 30, 1942. [12]

Though such arguments of racial prejudice seem absurd from a modern perspective they were clearly influential at the time as three weeks later President Roosevelt signed an order that sent nearly 110,000 Japanese Americans into ‘War Relocation Camps’, where they were held until the end of the war.[13]

The existence of these widespread prejudices has had a longstanding effect on the culture of America, with the depiction of members of minorities as physically or morally different evident in all forms of entertainment, including the comic book industry. The people raised in this environment naturally responded to the content of war comics, which included violence, sex, and stereotypes, qualities which other genres adopted in an attempt to emulate their success. Thus Wertham is correct in pointing out the stereotypical images within the books as a form of prejudice, yet when he labels them as the cause of prejudice in children he chooses to ignore the racism deeply imbedded in the American consciousness and blames one of its effects instead. In the end the government produced propaganda comics that were meant to bring support to the American war effort helped set the stage for comic books to become the scapegoat for America’s social problems.

Wertham’s research into comics extended only to those which he viewed as detrimental to children, particularly the popular crime and horror titles, while he ignored those he thought of as harmless, including comics for young children like Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck as well as teenage comics like Archie. However when Savage investigated these books for his research he found that there are clear indicators of prejudice present in their pages, ranging from subtle to overt in their message of inequality.
Savage asserts that the difference between the racism of teenage comics and crime comics of the time was the way in which minorities were portrayed, or more importantly not portrayed. He explains how the America portrayed in teenage comics was a world in which women were subservient to their male counterparts and minorities were completely absent from the suburban settings. An important aspect of this subtle form of racism is that the creators of these comics did not intend for them to have a racist tone or message. The writers and artists were not espousing prejudices against women or minorities that they held but were merely trying to sell what the readers wanted to see, which amounted to a representation of the white, middle class American dream. Savage clarifies this trend by writing that “…comic books were mirrors, this time for a racist, sexist society which, at the time, took racism and sexism as part of the normal state of affairs.”[14]

The comics that Wertham focused his campaign on made avid use of stereotypical images that would portray minorities as the ‘other’, someone the reader would not be empathetic for, while Archie and similar titles would be completely devoid of characters from any minority, portraying a world in which minorities either did not exist or simply did not register as important. As a result of this portrayal Wertham chose to label these titles as inoffensive because they held no overt prejudices that he could easily observe.
However Wertham’s belief that socially acceptable books were free of prejudice left him unaware, or unwilling to comment on, characters in children’s comics that were clearly born from stereotypes, as was the case in the 1948 Disney book Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday. [15] This children’s book tells the story of how Mickey is sent a small African boy in a crate of bananas who was shipped to him so that he could be educated on how to be successful in America. Mickey repeatedly tries to teach the African boy Thursday about Western culture only to have Thursday revert to his wild, native self and cause trouble for Mickey. This includes the black child trying to hunt down pets with spears and stealing shiny objects from store windows to turn them into jewelry. In the end Thursday runs off and returns to Africa where he can be happy, leaving a relieved Mickey thankful to be rid of the troublesome native and “…afraid to look at a stalk of bananas for fear that a funny little brown face will pop out and say, ‘Glug-ga-booch. Me Thursday. Me back.”[16]

This book appears to offer few lessons to children beyond reinforcing stereotypes regarding African Americans or African immigrants. The book shows children how the native Thursday, a racist caricature of an African child, is unable to fit in with Mickey and his friends because he is incapable of learning how to behave properly in their culture. Similarly Thursday is the only character that is ‘human’ while the other inhabitants of the city are all various anthropomorphic animals. Thus the character of Thursday is different from the ‘normal’ characters physically and socially. Another disturbing quality of this comic is the apparent message in the end which seems to tell children that the African cannot live peacefully in America and will only find happiness back in Africa. Even though this children’s book possesses clearly prejudiced ideas within its pages parents never the less believed that it was acceptable for children as Mickey Mouse was a socially acceptable form of entertainment and thus harmless towards children.

Allow us to examine another controversial comic book character of the time period, that of Ebony White, the sidekick to the famous newspaper hero “The Spirit”. Will Eisner was the creator, writer, and illustrator of the comic strip early in his career and is largely credited as an innovator of the comic industry however his racist depiction of the young African Ebony has always been a source of controversy. The character of Ebony would today be considered shocking as his face fit in with the “negro” stereotype of the time with enormous red lips and wide eyes, a close cousin to the boy Thursday, which is made all the more prominent as the rest of the characters in “The Spirit” were drawn in a realistic style. Though it would seem as though Ebony was born out of racism the truth is that Will Eisner was actually a minority rights activist who would go on to use comic books and graphic novels to explore themes of Jewish identity and ethnicity, and in the case of Ebony describes how followed the precedent set by other cultural mediums.
Though it is hard to believe that an artist could create such a character without racist intent Jeremy Dauber, in his book Comic Books, Tragic Stories: Will Eisner’s American Jewish History, he explains that Ebony White “…was hardly innovative; Jack Benny had Rochester, the movies had Stepin Fetchit, and radio had Amos and Andy. These were accepted stereotypical caricatures at the time. It was an era in our cultural history when the misuse of English based on ethnic origin was fashionable humor.”[17] Thus Ebony was supposed to represent comedic relief in the crime comic, meant to appeal to the public’s humor and unknowingly spoke to their prejudice. The personality of Ebony, however, was anything but stereotypical as he was an active character in the comic and regularly helped the Spirit to capture the criminals. This is elaborated in Dauber’s book as many civil rights groups in the future would congratulate Will Eisner for his portrayal of Ebony, who was able to break many of the stereotypes against minorities in the comic despite his appearance. Later in his career Eisner wrote that “…I never recognized that my rendering of Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature.” Ultimately the appearance of Ebony was the result of the prejudice inherent in American culture, shaping a minority character that was otherwise ahead of his time.

Out of all of the companies which Wertham would include in his research there was one constant offender who would become a source of enormous controversy; that of the EC Company run by Bill Gaines. EC, or Entertaining Comics, was the publisher that produced crime and horror titles that were popular both with readers and with Fredrick Wertham, who would use such titles as Tales From the Crypt as constant examples for his claims of violent and unsuitable content. During the time of public outcry against comic books Gaines stepped forward to be one of the largest defenders of the industry, so much so that when the United States Senate held a hearing on juvenile delinquency Gaines was called in to testify for his involvement in the lurid material. However the controversy that the company created was not only a result of its defense for their use of violence in their comics but also by the fact that EC was an outspoken defender of civil rights and would make issues of race relations and oppression a constant subject in their titles.

These morality stories, referred to as preachies by the editors, would typically tackle the racial boundaries and injustices in our country through the use of fictional stories. These include such stories as a war hero lashing out at his hometown for refusing to bury the body of a black soldier, who had given his life to save him, in the cemetery because of his race, or of an anti-semetic mob turning against its leader when he learns that he was really a Jewish orphan. EC took a firm stance against vigilante groups using racism to justify their violence and attempted to show their brutality by placing them as the villains in several issues. One example is the short story “Under Cover” which was written by Editor Bill Gaines and appeared in Shock SuspenStories #6. The story follows a hooded vigilante group who had murdered a white woman for sleeping with a colored man, a crime which occurred regularly in southern states, and their hunt for a reporter who had witnessed the act. By the end of the story the man is killed after the group impersonates police officers and the story ends with this speech written by Gaines:

Safe behind their masks of prejudice these hooded peddlers of racial, religious, and political hatred operate today! Mind you, they are shrewd and ruthless men such as those in our story! How long can we stay ‘cool’ and indifferent to this threat to our democratic way of life? It is time to unveil these usurpers of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms!

When the government investigation into comic books began Bill Gaines attempted to stand up for the medium, only to find that the politicians were unwilling to see anything in comics beyond the violence and sex which they felt was overtly conveyed, refusing to acknowledge the government sponsored comics used as propaganda in the second world war which had largely lead to the current state of the medium. Interestingly in their investigation the government prosecutors followed up on all of Wertham’s complaints except for his argument that comic books caused prejudice in children, most likely because of the government’s prior and current involvement in such racial injustices as the Jim Crow laws. In the end the major comic book publishers chose to placate the United State Congress by implementing the Comics Code Authority, a selection process that would have federal judges reviewing each issue published for vulgar or inappropriate material. This review led a majority of the titles on the market to fold under censorship and resulted in the degradation of nearly the entire medium. However the Comics Code did little against the prejudiced American mindset as they did not take into effect the impact of the personal biases in the judges. Under this new wave of censorship the EC Company faced major restrictions and was on the verge of collapse. Gaines decided to make a final effort to ‘play ball’ with the Comics Code and put out what would become its final issue, a reprint of a previously run science fiction comic called “Judgment Day” which had been one of the editors favorite preachies. The issue revolved around an alien observer landing on a planet of robots to judge how civilized their society was. The robots were split into two ‘races’, with every machine looking similar except some were red and some were blue, with the blue robots forced to live in inferior buildings and work underneath the red machines. The observer decided that because of their prejudice they would not be allowed to join the group of civilized worlds and left in his spaceship. Once inside, however, the alien removes his helmet and reveals the face of an African man. This story’s morals are clear to the reader by showing how racism in our own society stops us from becoming truly civilized people, an idea that had lead to the initial success of the issue on its first run.

Unfortunately this would not be the case as the federal judge reviewing the issue for the Comics Code called Gaines and said that they would not be allowed to print the issue because it portrayed a color man, which he had deemed unacceptable. The irony of this situation, of a racist federal employee censoring a story that preaches racial equality, was surly in Gaines head as he responded “Fuck you,” hung up the phone and disbanded EC, realizing that they could not change the prejudice in America when the government itself still supported such ideas.

It is clear to see that prejudice was deeply imbedded into the American psyche during this time period, resulting in the increase of racist stereotypes in the depictions of minorities within the various cultural mediums. However because of Frederic Wertham’s campaign against comic books the American government was able to blame the medium for the prejudice within their children, allowing the public to deny their own responsibility for the spread of racism. The public condemnation of comics in the 1950’s lead to the near collapse of the industry and marked the medium with a stigma that would remain for decades. In the end this crippling of an art form removed none of the racism from society but merely provided America with a scapegoat to distance the government and the people from the prejudice they helped to propagate and keep in power.


Dauber, Jeremy (2006) “Comic Books, Tragic Stories: Will Eisner’s American Jewish History.” Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies.

McLemore, Henry (1942) “This is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings.” Seattle Times. January 30.

Savage, William W. Jr. (1990) Comic Books and America 1945-1954. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Singer, Marc (2002) “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race.” African American Review.

Stone, Geoffrey (2004) Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. New York: W.W. Norton.

Thrasher, Frederic M. (1949) “The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat.” Journal of Educational Sociology.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday. Racine: Whitman Publishing Company, 1948 (No author found)

Wertham, Frederic (1954) Seduction of the Innocent. Dallas: Taylor Publishing Company.
1 Paper written for Dr. Mwaria's ANTH 1327 class, Spring 2011.
2 Fredric Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent. (Dallas, Texas: Taylor Publishing Company, 1954)
3 Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 102
4 Frederic M. Thrasher, The Comics and Delinquency: Cause or Scapegoat (Journal of Educational Sociology, 1949)
5 Thrasher, The Comics and Delinquency, 198-199
6 Wertham, Seduction of the Innocent, 101
7 Marc Singer, “Black Skins” and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race. (African American Review, 2002)
8 Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism. (New York: W.W. Norton 2004)
9 William W. Savage Jr., Comic Books and America 1945-1954. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990)
10 Savage, Comic Books and America, 10
11 Savage, Comic Books and America, 14
12 Henry McLemore, This is War! Stop Worrying About Hurting Jap Feelings. (Seattle Times, January 30, 1942)
13 Geoffrey Stone, Perilous Times
14 Savage, Comic Books and America, 114
15 Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday. (Racine: Whitman Publishing Company, 1948)
16 Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday. 96
17 Jeremy Dauber. “Comic Books, Tragic Stories: Will Eisner’s American Jewish History.” (Journal of the Association for Jewish Studies, 2006)

Hofstra Papers in Anthropology

Summer Dig in Lloyd Manor