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Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I started thinking about the matter of visual caricature while reading a messageboard topic which initially concerned sexual stereotypes but which veered off into the topic of racial caricature. At this point Ebony White, Afro-American sidekick to Will Eisner's classic crimefighter The Spirit, was described by two posters (one of them Gail Simone) as "racist." Another poster wondered why Eisner, who had apparently received some sort of complaints about Ebony's appearance sometime during THE SPIRIT's run (1940-1952), had not simply modified the character to eliminate Ebony's more egregious minstrel-show features-- saucer-eyes, blubbery lips, and a Southern-fried, English-mangling dialect.

To my knowledge Ebony's creator never accepted the "racist" accusation, and he always defended Ebony's appearance as appropriate to the art of visual caricature. For instance, the following quotes from a 2003 interview may not be Eisner's last published word on the matter, but they do seem reasonably representative. He begins by discussing his then-current project, FAGIN THE JEW, his re-interpretation of the Charles Dickens character, in terms of using caricature as communicatory device:

"Stereotype has been made a bad word. But it's not a bad [thing] unless it's used badly-- for evil purposes. But [sometimes] it's the only way you can communicate, visually."

Eisner elaborates that though he felt that Dickens did an "evil thing" by constantly referring to Fagin as "the Jew" in OLIVER TWIST, his research showed that Dickens himself was not anti-Semitic and that the author attempted to ameliorate the invidious characterization once he realized it was offensive-- not unlike certain of Eisner's experiences in the wake of creating the Spirit's minstrel-show minion. But of course, as Fagin was created by Dickens' putting words on paper (with any illustrations being ancillary to those words), Dickens would not have defended caricature on the basis of a need for visual shorthand.

The TIME interviewer goes on to ask Eisner about Ebony. Eisner maintains that a crucial difference exists between what he Eisner did and what Dickens did, in that Dickens promulgated a "negative stereotype" which "capitalized" on the "presumed characteristics of the Jew." Clearly, Eisner does not deem Ebony a "negative stereotype" of the same "evil" stripe as Fagin, though one cannot help but suspect that Eisner's sensitivities depended on whose ox was being gored. Eisner does allow that since some people actually were offended, his only "excuse" was being a man of his times, which meant that he used caricature to make fun of "bad English and physical difference in identity."

But this "it-was-the-times" defense is far less interesting than the defense of using caricature as a tool of quick communication, which may go toward answering the second fan quoted above, as to why Eisner did not try to remodel Ebony in order to answer the complaints.

To get one obvious objection out of the way, there probably were not very many complaints back in the 1940s, when minstrel-show tropes still made frequent appearances in mainstream films. Today we've grown used to creators quickly remodeling this or that character based on objections from pressure groups, but in cases where the objections are just a matter of readers' personal tastes, most creators would not instantly jump to refashion their characters to suit a minority opinion. That's one factor that might explain Eisner's disinclination to restructure Ebony.

In addition, artists-- or even artists who employ other artists in a "shop" situation-- value any tool that makes the work both accessible and recognizeable to potential buyers. Caricature is one such tool, but of course it's primarily valuable to artists who have a propensity for that artistic tool. Eisner was one such, and so he clearly valued his ability to do good caricature of a wide variety of ethnic and social "stereotypes." An artist with a more "realistic" take, such as Phil Davis on the early MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN, did not resort to physical caricature in drawing Mandrake's African sidekick Lothar, but he did resort to other visual devices to signal to readers that Lothar was African, such as garments (a fez, a leopard-skin tunic).

Eisner's work certainly testifies to his even-handedness in rendering nearly every ethnic stereotype favored by his contemporaries: dumb Swedes, sentimental Russians, cutthroat Arabs, stiff-upper-lip Brits, and fulsomely-romantic Frenchies are all on display in the Eisner corpus. It's clear that Eisner did not single out Afro-Americans for special treatment, and that he did, as he notes in the TIME interview, render some black characters in an un-stereotypical fashion, even though Ebony remained the most conspicuous black character in THE SPIRIT.

It goes without saying that Ebony is much more offensive today than he was in "his" time, though one imagines that if THE SPIRIT's contemporaneous black readers weren't especially offended by Ebony, it would be because other negative stereotypes, particularly those of the movies, were far more pervasive.

But-- is Ebony White "racist" as such?

I would answer "Yes" only with qualifications. Clearly Eisner did not realize, or chose not to realize, that the minstrel-show visual devices he perpetuated "capitalized" on the "presumed characteristics" of black people, where big eyes and big lips conveyed such characteristics as stupidity and childishness, just as Fagin embodied supposed Jewish traits of criminality and miserliness. Eisner probably only saw that he had given Ebony a lot more wit and personality than one saw in many black characters in the pop culture of the time, and that would be true as far as it went.

Yet, having admitted that Eisner used a racist visual trope, I am still uncomfortable with unreservedly calling Ebony a racist creation. Eisner's case is certainly weakened by his inability to consider how the "negative stereotype" of blacks was used as an indirect rhetorical tool by which real people were consigned to second-class citizenship. And yet, his point about caricature cannot be so easily dismissed.

Caricature is not meant to be fair. Even if I admit that the particular manifestation of the minstrel-show image of blacks is "evil," I'm conscious that no group ever likes the way it's portrayed by another group, unless the portrait is unreservedly noble and heroic. When caricature makes fun of individual or ethnic differences, it can only do so by provoking unconscious associations about How Things Should Be. Mentally it's a short step from "this one person's ears are bigger than ears should be" to "this ethnic group's eyes are smaller and sneakier-looking than eyes should be."

One may reply that one ought not to caricature individuals, real or fictional, on the basis of their race, and in current times there has been a great effort to damp down this tendency. And though I'm sure to be misunderstood by dunce-capped elitists ("Gene Phillips Advocates Racism!"), I do approve of society making such efforts, insofar as the activity makes all peoples more conscious of their incipient prejudices, at least up to a point.

However, I am pessimistic as to whether human beings can completely eliminate this tendency to stereotype, and I'm not entirely certain that we should.

Bill Russell once said, "Show me a man without prejudice and I'll show you a man without taste." Everyone has prejudices: it's just the nature of being an individual. Bigotry comes in when that individual thinks his prejudices should become applicable across the board, rather than being the particular expression of one's own consciousness. And, like it or not, one's taste includes how one feels about cultures not one's own-- whether they seem funny or weird or taboo-breaking, perhaps even AFTER one has made some effort to learn what makes that culture tick.

Perhaps no less appropriately, Dave Barry, before taking his trip to Japan, worried that he wouldn't be able to relate to the people. He then set up his readers with a homily about how he realized that the Japanese were just like everyone else-- and finished with the punchline, "They're all CRAZY!"

By which, of course, he meant that all of us are crazy, no matter how sane we may construe our own cultures to be. And the art of caricature is certainly, in its less poltically-motivated manifestations, one way of showing that comedic absurdity.

I'd like to believe that even if as a person Will Eisner wasn't sensitive to *all* of the ways in which some caricatures have been used in the service of bigotry, as an artist he had, not unlike both Dickens and Shakespeare, a wide-ranging, almost *disinterested* sense of What Made People So Damn Funny. And that's the main factor, far more than the defense that "everybody was doing it," that most mitigates the case for racism in the Analysis of Ebony White, Caricature.

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