Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘It’s Life As I See It’

“I’m ready and hyped, plus I’m amped; most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”

Dan Nadel, a “white enthusiast” (as he puts it), decided to compile a group of black cartoonists working in Chicago during the years 1940-1980, and he put together this book in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which is running through October (so if you live near Chicago, I encourage you to check it out). It’s Life As I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 is published by New York Review Comics, and it features essays by Charles Johnson and Ronald Wimberly as well as an introduction by Nadel and mini-biographies of all the cartoonists contained herein. Let’s take a look!

It’s hard to review this, because it’s basically a survey of many people’s work, so it’s just basically samples. That being said, it’s a very cool sampler, because these are artists who never got a chance to shine in major newspapers and publications simply because they were black, but that doesn’t mean they’re not very talented. It’s also an interesting look into a culture that was dismissed for so long and, now that white people are finally paying attention to it, it turns out that, yes, black people have been saying a lot of the things they say today for decades, and it’s not just a “trendy” thing, as racist conservatives would have you believe. So this is a pretty cool collection.

The creators in the book are Tom Floyd (1929-2011), Richard “Grass” Green (1939-2002), Seitu Hayden (1953-), Jay Jackson (1908-1954), Charles Johnson (1948-), Yaoundé Olu (1945-), Turtel Onli (1952-), Jackie Ormes (1911-1985), and Morrie Turner (1923-2014). Prior to this, I had only heard of Ormes (and I’m not sure where I did), so obviously, for a white-bread dude like me, this is a valuable collection. Most of the excerpts in this book are from black newspapers of the time, where these cartoonists plied their trade in the comic strips, and so we get a lot of single-panel jokes and continuing sagas broken up into very short segments. It’s fascinating reading these, because so much of what’s in them feels contemporary, which is a depressing comment on the state of racial progress in this country. Recently, as social media platforms have proliferated and historically marginalized people are reaching a wider audience, you’ll hear racists on Fox News and other places claim that black people, specifically (but not limited to them), should get over it and that they’re a bunch of whiners and back in the day “good Negroes” simply shut up and tried to live the American Dream. Well, we know that’s all bullshit, but this book gives us nice proof that what black people are talking about today has been an issue for a long time, and White America just didn’t have to listen to it. For instance, in Morrie Turner’s “Peanuts”-esque strip, “Dinky Fellas” (from the mid-1960s), one black character loves the Confederacy and Jefferson Davis, and another one thinks he’s ridiculous. Tom Floyd, in 1969, gives us an entire saga about a company hiring a black man and showing him off to prove how progressive they are. The most unrealistic strip in the book is Jay Jackson’s “Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos” from 1944. Two men, one black and one white, travel from the 1940s one hundred years in the future, where they find a new country ruled by green men, who persecute white people instead of black people. The white man is incensed by this treatment, but his black friend simply tells him that’s the way it is in their time, he just didn’t know it. The most unrealistic thing about the strip is that the United States of 2044 has no racial inequality. I don’t think we’re going to make that deadline.

I figured I’d just show you samples of all the artists, as this is more of a sampler than anything. So here you go!

Tom Floyd, ‘Integration Is a Bitch!’, 1969
Richard ‘Grass’ Green, ‘Smoke Power,’ 1990
Seitu Hayden, ‘Waliku,’ 1974
Jay Jackson, ‘Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos,’ 1944
Charles Johnson, ‘Black Humor,’ 1970/2020
Yaoundé Olu, ‘Jerri Kirl,’ 1983
Turtel Onli, ‘NOG, Protector of the Pyramids,’ 1981
Jackie Ormes, ‘Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger,’ 1947-1951
Morrie Turner, ‘Dinky Fellas,’ 1965

I encourage you to check this book out. Learning more about our country and all the people in it, plus learning more about the art form we all love, is pretty nifty. So give it a look!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

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