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CSBG Archive

Comic Book Legends Revealed #342

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Welcome to the three hundredth and forty-second in a series of examinations of comic book legends and whether they are true or false. This week is an all Will Eisner edition of Comic Book Legends Revealed! Discover the bizarre tale of Eisner’s “feud” with Al Capp! Learn the mystery of John Law! And was Midnight created to replace the Spirit?

Click here for an archive of the previous three hundred and forty-one.

Let’s begin!

COMIC LEGEND: Will Eisner was tricked into starting a “feud” with Al Capp.


In 1947, Will Eisner’s the Spirit newspaper feature did a series parodying both Al Capp’s world-famous Lil’ Abner comic strip and Capp himself…

The story was a bit of a curiosity. It was never mentioned again after it first came out and Capp never responded.

Many years later, though, Eisner explained the bizarre situation. You see, he was asked to start a feud with Capp…by Capp himself!! Here’s Eisner describing it…

Somewhere in 1947, I got a phone call from Al, whom I’d known professionally. ‘Will,’ he said, ‘you know I’ve been doing a satire of Dick Tracy [One of Capp’s most popular bits in Lil’ Abner was his parodies of Chester Gould and Gould’s Dick Tracy comic strip as Lester Gooch and Fearless Fosdick], and I thought it would be a good idea if we did a satire of each other’s characters.’ Of course I was quite flattered, because Al was big time, the big man on the block, and I was just a little newcomer. So I said yes indeed, I’d be glad to do that, and I went ahead and did a story. I remember calling the syndicate, and they were quite excited, because in those days, the idea of a crossover – which is quite common in comic books today – was virtually unheard of, especially in the syndicated strips.

So I published the story and I waited, watching Abner in the newspapers, and the same week my story came out, Newsweek called and asked to do an interview with me. And they printed this whole story about Al, and the satire I’d done on him…but it was mostly on Li’l Abner, and Al’s problems with his syndicate. I found out later that Al had called Newsweek and told them I would be doing the satire, so they could do a story about him.

He never did satirize The Spirit in his strip. Of course, looking at it in hindsight, I had no real right to expect him to reciprocate at all. He was a big man and I was a little fellow; everyone knew Dick Tracy and comparatively few knew The Spirit, so he had nothing to gain from that. But, I’ve got to admit that my lower lip trembled for a few days.

Pretty hilarious.

Check out James Vance’s site here for more information about the feud-that-wasn’t, including a hilarious response from Harvey Kurtzman!

Thanks to Vance for the information and thanks to Travis Pelkie for suggesting I run this (I was already planning to do so, but he didn’t know that!).

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I’ve always loved The Spirit’s clown sidekick…

randypan the goatboy

November 25, 2011 at 10:39 am

The Spirit is crawling[or walking] out of a grave and he brought along a racial stereotype. I have never met a black man with eyes that big. And what in the world is that kid eating?.. If this character had been in the frank Miller spirit movie it might have made a couple of bucks…yes suh boss dis sho am good.. lordy lordy mr spirit suh..it am a spook…was this issue written by jim Crow?

He was a racist and you guys should be ashamed of yourselves, putting that cover with Ebony on on display.

If you’re going to “commemorate” him, talk about the whole legacy, not just the shiny happy parts.

@randypan- if your shocked by this you should google Looney Tunes and Coal Black.

So the cover with Ebony was a shiny, happy part?

@everybody – that’s what I meant exactly by calling him a clown. I mean he must’ve been wearing some freaky make-up and maybe prosthetics and/or contacts, because never in my life have I seen a human being (of any race) that looked like that… and not just eyes – his mouth, his cheeks, his nose… and all that next to the as-realistic-as-can-be Spirit. He’s surely either an on-duty clown or some sort of an alien. He’s even dressed like a clown.

Wow, here comes the “Will Eisner was a racist and that means everything he did is automatically invalid” bloc. At least Eisner put a person of color in print and eventually did more interesting things than “shuh boss”, Ebony becomes Mayor and a lot more later on in the series. You guys have to understand that it was a different era, and if we follow your logic, we must also hate the Lone Ranger because of the stereotyped Tonto. We must also hate Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, and almost every other work depicting any other race that existed in the 1940s.

Will Eisner has some of the best and most realistic depictions of successful black folks I have ever seen, see: Life on Dropsie Ave.

I remember reading Eisner’s The Plot, and the whole story was him railing and crusading against old European antisemitic stereotypes. Meanwhile, whenever someone confronted him about his Ebony stereotype, his attitude was always, “It was the product of the times and it was in the past, so get over it.”

The whole time I read The Plot, the hypocrisy was so amazing it boggled my mind that he could write the graphic novel without ever addressing it, especially since there were many autobiographical parts.

zipzap, settle down a little and don’t put words into people’s mouths. Nobody’s saying that “Will Eisner was a racist and that means everything he did is automatically invalid” and I’m pretty sure nobody’s saying they hate Eisner, Lone Ranger, Looney Tunes or anything else, in fact you’re the first person that mentioned it. But please look at poor Ebony there and tell me again with a straight face that he’s looking “realistic”.

Wow, here comes the “Will Eisner was a racist and that means everything he did is automatically invalid” bloc. At least Eisner put a person of color in print and eventually did more interesting things than “shuh boss”, Ebony becomes Mayor and a lot more later on in the series.

While I agree with you that we shouldn’t write off the entirety of the man’s work based on one racist character, I have to strongly disagree with you that it was somehow more praiseworthy to have an incredibly stereotypical black person in a comic than no black people at all. As a black person, I find it hard to read Ebony White and think this man did my race a bigger favor by putting Ebony White in print than by not depicting black people at all.

Will Eisner was a person of his times. “The Spirit” was a product of its times. You take the bad with the good or you jettison a lot of great art, your choice. Similarly, the use of demeaning imagery of South American indigenous people in “Lost in the Andes” doesn’t diminish the artistic genius of Carl Barks; it just is a troubling element of that particular duck adventure that must be acknowledged as part of appreciating the greater whole.

For what it’s worth, in his later years Eisner was very apologetic about how Ebony had been portrayed. Read his introduction to “Fagin, the Jew” — a graphic novel addressing the otherwise very forward-thinking Charles Dickens’ use of stereotypes in “Oliver Twist” — for more on this point.

Yeah, everyone is so bloody sure that if THEY were growing up in the golden age they would be some sort of warrior for civil rights, combating racism and prejudice at every turn…right.

I am quite sure Eisner did not have an agenda in his youth to repress African-Americans. They WERE different times. It doesn’t make the image of Ebony any easier to swallow — it’s a racial caricature, and it’s awful, but I’m not so quick to condemn Eisner. That’s small thinking.

Told a dirty joke before? So I guess you’re a filthy pervert then? Forever?

Please. If you knew the man, and he was a bigot, then let’s talk about it. Otherwise, cool your jets.

I suppose the more complex debate is how to enjoy these older books without the image of Ebony destroying the entire experience. I see old commercials and signs in antique stores all the time that depict African-Americans in this cartoonish fashion and it really bothers me. I feel embarrassed being in the same room. We shouldn’t deny it ever happened by destroying these old depictions, but I don’t like seeing them, either. Tricky, tricky.

Yeah, it’s disturbing to take in, but that was how popular white culture displayed black people in the past. Judging people with a cultural lens crafted by today’s society is a bad move. Yes it was wrong, but that doesn’t mean everybody back then was evil. We should use these examples to improve ourselves today instead of dwelling on the past.

“Will Eisner was a racist and that means everything he did is automatically invalid”
This sentiment kinda makes you wonder about what is happening to Joe Paterno. Not to be off topic.

“Joe Paterno was a ——– and that means everything he did is automatically invalid”

I agree with Danny: It doesn’t mean Eisner’s a racist, but Ebony is cringeworthy. The fact he was the norm for the time (actually slightly better than the norm) doesn’t mean we’re obligated to ignore him and look only at the good stuff in Eisner.

Wasn’t the old man in Dick Grayson’s building in the previous run’s name John Law? If so, nice nod by Dixon!

Is that really the first thing that comes to you guys’ mind when someone mentions Will Eisner?

The old man in Dick Grayson’s building was a different John Law…that JL was the WWII superhero the Tarantula, who was a member of the All-Star Squadron.

Mort Weisinger’s John Law/Tarantula first appeared in 1941. Eisner created an entirely different character called John Law in 1939 and this John Law maybe around 1948.

There’s probably no connection between Tarantula and the Eisner John Laws–that is, my guess that neither was influenced by the other. “John Law” was a very common generic term for the police at time.

yeah, and Hitler liked Wagner so Wagner should be banned because its antisemite.

And Hitler enjoyed german shepards, so all of them should be killed.

And Hitler ate eggplants, so eggplants should never be planted again.

@ dannywetts
“Yeah, everyone is so bloody sure that if THEY were growing up in the golden age they would be some sort of warrior for civil rights, combating racism and prejudice at every turn…right.”

You took the words right out of my mouth. It’s easy to be self righteous in hindsight.

@ king carson

Hitler was also a vegetarian, and was quite nice to his secreterial staff as well. As a result, all vegetarian’s will be judged as suspicious, and Secretary’s Day has been cancelled.

yeah, and Hitler liked Wagner so Wagner should be banned because its antisemite.

Wagner isn’t an antisemite because Hitler liked him. He was an antisemite because he really hated Jewish people.


The Comics Buyer’s Guide #1223 April 25th, 1997 has an excellent and quite thorough four-column feature entitled, THE SAINT GOES MARCHING ON, which tells the history of the Saint in comics. Dr. Burl Barer only caught one minor error, but it has post John Spranger info that was new to him, plus a rare illustration of the Saint as drawn by Edd Ashe, Jr. for Silver Streak comics — the Saint using a wristwatch radio several years before Dick Tracy in a story written by (say the credits) Leslie Charteris himself.

Googam son of Goom

November 25, 2011 at 6:55 pm

America was a racist society, so Will Eisner or not, there were going to be characters who reflected this. A country that had legalized slavery of people of African origin wasn’t going to change overnight and we are still tilling that field. Onward and upward.

See, and the first thing I noticed was Midnight’s pants. I mean, are those floods or did he just put them on wrong? And that giant left arm. Jack Cole is great but that one makes me do a double-take.

I think criticizing and condemning the racist elements of the Spirit is fair game, but we shouldn’t try to hide what happened by either censoring the Spirit or boycotting it. It’s very important to point out that someone could only depict African Americans the way Ebony White is depicted if they considered them to be less than human. For these same reasons I think that efforts to censor Huck Finn are misguided. It’s important that we confront these aspects of American culture.

To those who defend the Spirit as a product of its era, I’d like to point out that there were much more positive depictions of African Americans in the 50s. The PBS show History Detectives recently did a segment on a romance comic called All-Negro Comics that lasted a few issues and depicted African American life in a respectful way designed to appeal to the African American segment of the comic reading audience.

Also, we should examine the depiction of minorities today. Although we’ve made progress, and we no longer use crude physical caricatures I think future people will find some of our stuff to be embarassing as well. Consider that almost all Arabs depicted in American pop culture are raving murderous caricatures of human beings (to my knowledge only the show Community has a somewhat normal Arab guy). I find these stereotypes to be as worthy of confrontation and discussion as the past depictions of African Americans.

Some of you guys sound like those a-holes who want to censor Mark Twain.

Was about to say something about — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Judenthum_in_der_Musik — but T. beat me to it. This is a long way away from the content of the blog post, admittedly.

Really, I find it hilarious. No comments on John Law (and the fact that Frank Miller based the creation of Elektra on the Sand Saref story), or the situation that led to the “feud” with Al Capp, just a lot of bitching and moaning over ONE illustration, which too many here are willing to use as “proof” that Will Eisner was a racist.

It proves nothing. Eisner isn’t around any more to defend himself against such absurdity. Let’s see…Based on the various peoples’ output from the 40s-60s, we’d have to say that Tex Avery is a racist, Chuck Jones is a racist, Friz Freling is a racist, Jack Kirby is a racist, Joe Simon is a racist, Stan Lee is a racist, etc. etc.

See where I am going with this? If we are going to scream “racism” where simple ignorance goes much farther to explain the stories, then we may as well label everyone who has ever used the term “gay” as an epithet as homophobic, “gyp” as a euphemism for “ripped off” as anti-Romany and so on.

And the interesting part in Eisner’s case is how many later stories involving Ebony showed that Eisner was learning from the mistake of using a grotesquely-caricatured black kid at the beginning of his series, like a story where Ebony drove a car through a hail of gunfire to get a person to safety, or the story arc where Ebony is sent to a predominantly black school while Eisner tried out a replacement sidekick for The Spirit.

Because, you see, even if one WAS a racist, they can change. Do some research on former Gov. George Wallace sometime. I am not saying that Eisner was racist because I do not believe he was, just ignorant. But like most of the others I named, they learned from their mistakes.

And the really funny part is, with all of this weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth, in 50 years people will be looking back at us, and wondering why WE were so ignorant on race issues.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, ain’t it?

I’m not a racist on any level, but feel that the formal innovations Eisner pioneered during that era far outweigh any knee jerk reaction I have towards the character of Ebony White. He elevated this medium we love into an art form and believed that it was in fact an art form when most dismissed it as disposable entertainment. Was he perfect? No. Who is? His work is too important to dismiss it over a bad choice that he definitely wasn’t alone in making.

Googam son of Goom

November 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Oh please Relic it was an entirely racist society back then. It’s not just will Eisner. This is as you say one picture, but it was no anomaly. it wouldn’t have caused an eye a blink when it was produced. It’s not about one man. it’s about history.And to John J who said anything about censorship. It’s great this is on display so we can discuss it.

I love all these comments attacking the PC brigade for attacking Eisner as a racist and getting on their high horse, when there’s only like one comment that actually says they would boycott Spirit for the racism. Even the other posts that acknowledge that Ebony was racist admit it was in the spirit of the times and that Eisner’s good outweighs his bad. So I don’t get these comments acting like there’s some huge PC element in this comments section they’re railing against.

There’s like 10% Eisner-as-racist detractors and 90% Eisner-is-not-a-racist defenders, yet the latter are acting like they’re fighting a major battle.

Anyway, my point isn’t that Eisner is some huge racist or whatever. My problem with Eisner is that he’s guilty of some behavior that his defenders in this very thread would find annoying: he bitched about racial stereotypes that were the product of their OWN environment, that were the norm in THEIR times. The very excuses he made for his own work, he didn’t allow for other time periods and cultures once they made fun of HIS culture.

I read his Fagin the Jew interviews where he’s confronted with this issue, and he offers these weird half-apologies and nonapologies then goes into trying to find ways to justify Ebony or differentiate what he did with Ebony from what was done to Jews earlier, to show that what he did was just harmless and shouldn’t be attacked while what European artists did with Jews was more problematic.

For example when asked about parallels between the Jew stereotypes like Fagin that bother him and Ebony White, who he created, he says:

“if you go back and examine how I handled Ebony, I was aware that I was dealing with something that was volatile and had I a responsibility. The only excuse I have for [that portrayal] is that at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity.”

Well can’t the same be said about people whose idea of humor consisted of penny pinching greedy foreigners, funny accents, and physical difference in identity like hook noses, big bushy beards and unique outfits?

That’s my problem with Eisner. It’s not that I’m judging people in that time period for being racist or acting like in hindsight living in the same era I’d have been super enlightened. It’s that most of his contemporaries who were trafficking in racist stereotypes at the time didn’t turn around and get on soapboxes about racist stereotypes of past eras themselves, all while never truly acknowledging that they did the exact same thing themselves.

For example, in that same interview Eisner says the following:

I think [negative stereoptying] has always been a problem. The author, whether they’re doing comics or film or regular literature, has a responsibility. For example, “Oliver Twist,” began as an adult series in newspapers. It is now a children’s book. The subject matter at the time was addressed much more to adults than it was to children. So over the years literary and film work has helped develop stereotypes for our society. I think that becomes a responsibility. Literature has a [particular] responsibility because literature is the main source of our cultural continuation.

So he complains that Fagin the Jew in Oliver Twist was problematic because even though it was in a different time era and culture and in a book aimed at adults, over the years the book became reinvented as a children’s book, and thus the stereotypes began poisoning minds at an earlier age. Thus the stereotype in an adult book, by eventually becoming a children’s book, did a lot to develop stereotypes for our society. And that literature has a particular responsibility to fight stereotypes because otherwise it ends up perpetuating social injustice and hatred.

Mind you, these are his own words. He’s the one who thinks that negative stereotyping is problematic. He’s the one who thinks literature has a responsibility to not perpetuate the negative stereotypes due to the negative ramifications they will have on future generations. He’s the one who says that letting kids read negative stereotypes is far more damaging than adults reading them.

Yet these statements are exactly what make his downplaying of the Ebony White thing later on in the exact same interview so exasperating. After all, unlike Charles Dickens he AIMED HIS STEREOTYPES STRAIGHT AT KIDS RIGHT FROM THE BEGINNING. The Spirit wasn’t an adult book that later became known as a children’s book. It was aimed at kids right from the start.

To his credit, he doesn’t let himself totally off the hook, but at the same time he seems to give himself more of a pass than he gives antisemitic stereotypes of the past. And to him, it doesn’t matter if the actual author was antisemitic or not, as he acknowledges that Dickens wasn’t antisemitic but reiterates that that’s not the point. What matters to him is the negative effect of stereotypes, regardless of whether or not the creator was actually racist. Yet when asked about Spirit, again, he seems to imply that it shouldn’t be that big a deal because he himself isn’t racist.

I’m just glad FDR wasn’t in the post.

Googam son of Goom

November 25, 2011 at 10:33 pm

FDR? Sure he was read it again from the start. ;)

Thanks you , “T.”! As bad as Ebony was (and despite the claim of “everybody was doing it”, you would actually be hard pressed to find another black character at the time in comics who was more caricatured or more subservient), I’m far more bothered by Eisner’s 90s-era angry denunciations of other people’s racist caricatures while refusing to acknowledge his own, long after he should have become apologetic. To me this was most striking in “Into the Heart of the Storm”, where he rails against the racist attitudes he detected in early days of comics, at exactly the same time he was creating Ebony, without ever recognizing the profound irony of this. It is clear to me that Eisner’s blind spots lasted right up until his death.

I think one reason Ebony still inflames passion is precisely because Eisner’s a big talent, still being reprinted and revisited, where equally horrendous caricatures by Talentless McHackpants vanish into obscurity.

Sure, Ebony’s appearance and diction are appalling by today’s standards, but no more so than other comic sidekicks like Woozy Winks and Etta Candy. But while those characters were often portrayed as nuisances, Ebony was the Spirit’s trusted confidante. He was a skilled forensic chemist and autogyro pilot. Later in the strip, as racial attitudes changed, he was phased out, but he didn’t just disappear, he went off to college! I think that says more about Eisner’s supposed racism than anything else.

So, in Cole’s “Midnight”, the Ebony sidekick role is filled by a talking monkey. I can’t decide if that’s horrible or brilliant.

Um, who exactly is Woozy Winks a stereotype of? And his diction certainly wasn’t anything comparable to Ebony’s.


November 26, 2011 at 11:59 am

Matt Bird: “…and despite the claim of “everybody was doing it”, you would actually be hard pressed to find another black character at the time in comics who was more caricatured or more subservient…”

Caricatured depictions of black people were common in comics and animation in the first half of the 20th century: there was the Imp from “Little Nemo in Slumberland”, Whitewash Jones from “Young Allies”, Steamboat from “Captain Marvel”, Mammy Two Shoes from “Tom and Jerry”, Aunt Petunia from “Little Audrey”, Bosko, Inki, and Lil’ Eightball.

Ebony was portrayed in a stereotypical, exaggerated style. However, some of the white supporting characters in “The Spirit” were also drawn with cartoonish features for humorous effect and there were African-American characters in the comic who weren’t caricatures. Eisner seemed to realize that Ebony could be perceived negatively during the comic’s run. In the 1946 story “As Ever Orange”, a pretty black girl that Ebony likes snubs him because of the way he looks and talks. An African-American soldier rebukes the girl and defends Ebony’s character, but Ebony decides to go to school to improve his English. Ebony was replaced for a while as the Spirit’s sidekick by Blubber, a young Aleut who spoke perfect English, and later stories featured Sammy and Willum Waif instead of Ebony.

I never understood the big deal about Eisner or the Spirit. It seems like the only people who liked Eisner were comic professionals. And, then they tried to brainwash the readers into thinking he was like a comic God or something. I guess Eisner was like Orson Welles. Yeah Welles was a cinematic genuis, but could you really sit down and enjoy “Citzen Kane?” I couldn’t and that goes with The Spirit as well. Not many people remember or care about the Spirit. No one cared back in 1989 when the made-for-tv movie was made and nobody cared when the Frank Miller Spirit movie came out.

Sorry Alpha, I love Citizen Kane. A lot of people do. Not that there’s anything wrong with hating it–there’s no movie that works for everyone–but that doesn’t mean fans are part of some sinister elitist conspiracy.
Same with Eisner. I don’t revere him, but I like a lot of his work. A lot of people love his work. If you don’t, well YMMV obviously.
As for the made for TV movie, that’s like arguing Captain America must be unpopular because nobody cared about his seventies TV movies or turned them into a series–they sucked.

@ alpha centurion

The big deal isn’t the Spirit character, it’s the storytelling techniques that Eisner was using at the time that resulted in stories immeasurably more sophisticated than those in most other comic books. Eisner is one of a small group of creators (including Kirby) that are responsible for the comic being what it is today – without him and his contribution, comics (and I’m referring to “good” comics) would still be in their infancy – crap comics peddled out on an assembly line for 8 year old children who will pretty much read anything. Of course comic professionals love him – they all know that without him (and others) there would be no comics industry.

It’s the same with Orson Welles – it’s the storytelling techniques in Citizen Kane that are heralded by all educated film-makers as essential to the film industry. Welles was using techniques, like Eisner that were immeasurably more sophisticated than those in most other films. Without him and that film we would likely not have a Scorsese, Mann, Speilberg, Coppola or the films they created. Citizen Kane is the Rosetta Stone of the film industry. Enjoyment level means nothing. Taxi Driver and Schindler’s List are not enjoyable films, but they are two of the best films ever made. Without Citizen Kane existing would they be around? Unlikely.

I suggest reading up on Eisner and Welles if you’re interested. It would certainly give you a better understanding of why they are so instrumental in their fields.

There’s an interesting article on “Death to the Universe” regarding Eisner and his use of Ebony White. I suggest reading the whole article if you’re interested. Here’s a tidbit…

“And make no mistake, this kind of thoughtless racism needs to be laid at comics’ doorstep at least as much as it does at Eisner’s. Comics is a language, a system of abstract visual signs with an agreed-upon meaning, and like how in Twain’s day “nigger” was a relatively commonplace part of English, in Eisner’s this kind of racial caricature was a part of the comics lexicon. There are still problems with the language of comics — a notable one being the way hourglass figures and balloon breasts are the medium’s most common code for “woman” — but time was that dinner-plate eyes and inner-tube lips were just as common a code for “black person”. Eisner certainly deserves as much blame as anyone else for propagating such a grotesque aspect of his field, but Ebony White’s appearance was sprung from the generalities of the era’s action comics, a character design as nondescript in its milieu as the Spirit in his suit and domino mask was. Racism was a part of the world once upon a time, and as such it was a part of comics. And it’s hardly left the world, let alone America, let alone American comics — but at least there are certain things you can’t do in public anymore, and this is most definitely one of them. Ebony White will always ensure that The Spirit isn’t presented in the grand fashion the work’s aesthetic value merits. In a way that’s poetic justice, a casual racism that no doubt endeared Eisner’s work to a populist audience in its day now preventing it from getting over to the world at large in ours. And there the story would end, if Ebony White wasn’t such a good character.

I’m pretty sure I immediately think of the New South Twain book when I think about Ebony because he just might be the closest thing to Huck Finn that 20th century pop culture produced, a gutsy, vulnerable, melodramatic, flawed, truly good kid trying to find his way in a world that’s thrown him into an array of increasingly outre characters. He’s the most fun part of pretty much every Spirit story he appears in, the “kid sidekick” archetype done better than anywhere else; driving the action forward with youthful impulsiveness here, saving the day with a child’s wisdom there, and providing a steady stream of arch, borderline satirical meta-commentary whenever else. It’s also interesting to see the way that Eisner’s playing to reprehensible stereotypes works as effective character construction in a world that no longer traffics nearly as heavily in overt racism. Ebony’s grossly patois-laced dialogue, his minstrel-show pratfalls and caricatured appearance and body language serve to give him more sheer personality than any of the numerous ciphers that filled up the rest of Eisner’s stories. Ebony was a springboard for some of Eisner’s funniest humor material — humor material, let me add, that never succumbed to racial jokes, which supports the view that Eisner was simply blinkered by his times and harbored no particularly intense prejudicial malice — and the subject of his most affecting and least cloying paeans to the freedom of boyhood. He’s always the thing on the page that’s most alive, most unpredictable (by comparison the Spirit is little more than a one dimensional wind-up fighting machine) — and it’s a testament to Eisner’s strength as a storyteller that you can almost forget all that energy is generated by pure racism during the best sequences. Eisner has an alright case as comics’ Twain, to be honest, a massively influential yarn-spinner whose tendency toward painting in broad strokes may get in the way of his status as a true master of his medium, but whose ability to entertain keeps him deeply relevant while veiling a massive amount of nuance. And Ebony is Eisner’s Huck, his best character, the eternal, effusive American boy that readers can’t help but care about despite the problems with the language that he’s built out of. As before, it’s not a perfect analogy, but I think it works.

Of course, it’s impossible to really leave the rest of it behind, to take Ebony as the fantastic character before taking him as the shameful caricature. That’s why he’s such a problem, that’s why DC’s mass-market Best of The Spirit collection doesn’t feature any stories with him in them, that’s why Eisner’s best work exists as a series of ridiculously expensive archival hardcover reprints that are bound only to end up in the hands of diehard comics-history buffs who understand the times that motivated his creation all too well — some of whom are even old enough to have experienced them firsthand. But as an expurgated Huck Finn is, so is a whitewashed comics history that shies away from confronting the sins of the past, especially when it happens at the expense of great work. Strangely, perversely, Ebony White is one of the most interesting parts of Eisner’s Spirit, a look into that textured, carnivalesque America of yesteryear that reminds us it wasn’t all unambiguous heroics. It’s best that we look these caricatures in their distended faces, remember where we came from, and look to the future while savoring the fact that we’ve at least gotten this far ahead of the past.”


Acknowledging and lamenting racist or sexist elements in old stories is not the same as PC censorship. I like Raymond Chandler and H. P. Lovecraft, I think people should read their books (with no modification). But it doesn’t stop me from noticing how hideously bigoted some aspects of them are, even as I admit that some of the fascination of reading them is in the old-fashioned ideas.

The road to acceptance is bumpy for any minorities. Their depiction in fiction usually goes like this. First stage: Invisibility and/or depiction as disgusting villain. Second stage: stereotypical comic relief. Third stage: slightly less stereotypical, slightly more serious supporting character. Fourth stage: idealized figure, sainted, magical. Fifth stage: almost the same as majority characters. Sixth stage: same as other characters, can be even used as the villain of the piece without implying racism.

We’ve seen it with blacks, we’re seeing it with gays now. I disagree with T., in that I think the second stage is better than the first, it marks the beginning of acceptance. The majority character can start to socially interact with the minority, even if it’s condescending.

I also find Will Eisner’s hypocrisy hardly unusual. A lot of black people are okay with homophobia, for instance. Being a minority never guaranted that you’ll be any more open-minded than anyone else.


I think Taxi Driver and Schindler’s List are very enjoyable films.

I agree with Alpha. I’ve never met a person IRL who liked this comic,it looks boring as hell. Not to mention I’ll never know whether it’s any good or not,since I could never bring myself to purchase a book with illustrations that racist. Imagine if a friend or family member saw it,how would you explain it? “Oh it’s OK Jamall,I can like these pictures because the internet said those were different times.”

I have no doubt that future generations will find FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR and MC HAMMER and other rappers of the last decade or so just as offensively racist.
Has anyone pointed out that-and I may be wrong-but, while Eisner created Ebony….I’m not entirely sure the picture above was even drawn by Eisner? I know they reprinted his stories in the comics, but often the covers weren’t even drawn by Eisner or anyone in his studio.
And to this reader-the Spirit is among the top five comics works ever created. Period. Any time, any place. Warts and all.

Yeah Welles was a cinematic genuis, but could you really sit down and enjoy “Citzen Kane?” I couldn’t and that goes with The Spirit as well.

Holy shit.

Well this was an interesting comment section…

Yay me for suggesting a story Brian was going to do! One bit about the Capp story that didn’t seem explicit here was how Capp was making Eisner look like a jealous young upstart trying to take down the established cartoonist by getting Eisner to do the parody. From what I understand, Capp was generally a jealous sort. The implication to me is that Capp was jealous of how good Eisner was, and wanted to be sure he knocked him down a peg or two. Also he got Newsweek to promote him some, too. Clever man.

A bit more about John Law, from what I remember. The reprint above I assume is from the Eclipse version of John Law, which is a cool book. (Eclipse’s cat yronwode was an Eisner fan who became the person who organized his files in the late ’70s early ’80s, iirc, and got Eisner to reprint this through Eclipse. According to the book where I read the Capp story, Eisner and cat had a big falling out around his 80th birthday, but the book frustratingly doesn’t go into details. cat apparently has some sort of new age medicine shop in CA, according to some book I read [I honestly can’t remember what the book was, but I was surprised when reading to find cat referred to.] On Steve Bissette’s blog, (www.srbissette.com) he’s had a couple of recent posts on Miracleman and Eclipse and so forth, and there’s a bit about cat there. Anyway…)

John Law was intended as a comic book, iirc, and would have been released as such but Eisner wasn’t too successful with a couple of other comics he had packaged at that time (Kewpies, Baseball Stories, and something else, iirc). Since they failed, he canned John Law. It works so well as a Spirit story because to me, there’s no real difference between Denny Colt and John Law (as one comment above puts it, the Spirit’s just a wind up fighting machine, to a certain degree).

I believe that John Law was revived in the early 2000s online by Gary Chaloner. Not sure how long that lasted.

That Midnight bit was probably a necessary clarification. Didn’t Jack Cole work on the Spirit as well when Eisner was in the service?

Now to the stuff brought up in the comments.

While I would definitely characterize Eisner’s later views of Ebony as a blind spot vis a vis his railing against Jewish stereotypes, I’d say that’s as much that someone is going to be particularly sensitive to the stereotypes against his own race, and less worried about other people’s views, than anything that Eisner was completely ignorant of what Ebony was. As people have pointed out, Ebony is “hard to swallow” because of his appearance, mostly, but as a character was a pretty important part of the story. And the diction of Ebony is basically what was used on Amos and Andy, right? So Ebony was certainly a product of the times, and that’s no excuse, but it certainly shouldn’t prevent an aware reader from studying Eisner’s work. As someone above said, Ebony is particularly looked down upon because of the sheer talent of Eisner, and if there were similar depictions by hack artists, we’re not really seeing them.

To respond a bit more to T about Fagin the Jew, I’d argue that the Spirit WAS aimed at adult readers, to a degree. Eisner certainly made statements to that effect (something about newspapers having a larger/broader audience than comic books), and wasn’t it Tom DeFalco who argued sometime that the early comic strips were aimed at adults since adults were the ones buying newspapers? The Spirit struck a balance between aiming at adults and at kids, certainly. Don’t forget the P’Gell splash intro, “this is NOT a story for little boys!”

Another thing about Eisner’s later view of Ebony is that in the “underground” reprints of the Spirit, from Kitchen Sink in the late ’60s/early ’70s, Eisner did a few one page stories in that book, and one of them is where a “Black Panther” type character is trying to interview Ebony about how he was depicted in the ’40s, while Ebony is doing all these things to help out the Spirit. The punchline is that basically, the Spirit couldn’t survive without Ebony’s help, so what’s this talk about subservience and so on? To me, it still evades the issue a bit, because there were elements of Ebony that are still cringeworthy (and iirc, the depiction of Ebony there is less clownish than the ’40s stories), but it seems he both recognized that Ebony was offensive but was a bit huffy that people overlooked the good qualities of Ebony. (I’ll try to dig out the underground book in question and send Brian a scan.)

Also, as someone mentioned, it seems significant that before the Spirit ended, Eisner took Ebony out of the series (entirely?), and introduced other, somewhat similar (in sidekick status) characters. That seems to point to an awareness of the cringeworthiness of Ebony (perhaps due to WWII era encounters with blacks in the military, maybe? Just spitballin’.), even if later on he tried (too) hard to defend him.

To alpha centurion, I think a lot of the problem in being able to appreciate Eisner or Citizen Kane is that the innovations achieved by them have been used SO MUCH since then that it’s hard to appreciate HOW innovative they were. I’ve always found the Spirit and Eisner very enjoyable, but also from the perspective of a student of comics absolutely fascinating. His style and innovations have been used by so many comics artists, including Frank Miller on Daredevil, Wm Messner Loebs’ Journey, and so many others. Citizen Kane, I’ll admit, was harder to get into (I fell asleep the first time I tried to watch it — I claim work related fatigue!), but it’s a really good movie. My mom had watched it and wasn’t sure what the big deal about it was, which I think is partly due to the formal innovations being so commonplace now. (To tie this in together a bit more, in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, he has a nice sequence where one of the guys goes to see Citizen Kane and is so impressed he starts trying to achieve what CK did in comics form. Possibly one of the best parts of that book….)

Man, I went on a lot, huh?

I also find Will Eisner’s hypocrisy hardly unusual. A lot of black people are okay with homophobia, for instance. Being a minority never guaranted that you’ll be any more open-minded than anyone else.

This is a comparison I truly, truly hate. The idea that one’s race/skin color is the same or comparable to another person’s sexual orientation.

I hate this idea that black people are obligated to support any group that is a statistical minority simply because they are a statistical minority in America. NAMBLA members are a statistical minority, and many argue they as pedophiles are born that way as well. Does that mean blacks should support them?

I understand when people call blacks hypocrites because they decry anti-black racism and attack black stereotyping, yet they can often be racist toward other races themselves and stereotype nonblacks. But the idea that a black person as a minority is a hypocrite for not embracing gays, a matter very different than race, I don’t agree with.

I think no one should discriminate against gays, simply because it’s wrong to do, regardless of the race of the disriminater. But the idea of nonblack people lecturing blacks that they are “obligated” to automatically cosign gay rights because they are black is something I can’t get behind. If white people are free to choose whether or not they support homosexuality based on the available evidence, the same courtesy should apply to blacks and they should be persuaded with evidence just like you would any other group of people. Otherwise the implication is that white people must be engaged on the homosexuality issue by winning their hearts and minds, but blacks, as a minority, should view it as an obligation dictated to them by white liberals, because they are a minority group. I also feel the implication when I talk to white liberals that they feel that it’s really about them. In their minds, they, white liberals, “gave” blacks their rights, and as a result, blacks “owe” it to them to support their issues, in this case, gay rights.

Googam son of Goom

November 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm

Maybe someday we can get over skin colour, sexual preference and what cereal do you prefer. Then we can be friends and enemies for other reasons.

Another thing that bugs me about the whole “blacks are hypocrites for not supporting gays” thing is that the gay community is notoriously racist but seems to rarely get called on it by the media, yet the reverse of blacks discriminating against gays comes up all the time. Ask around of some minority gays or google it, the white gay community is incredibly racist against nonwhites. It’s an issue that comes up a lot in the gay community.

Googam son of Goom

November 27, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Depends what you read. T.

At this point I expect to hear “Will Eisner was a beer, bellied share cropper!”

“Not to mention I’ll never know whether Huckleberry Finn is any good or not,since I could never bring myself to purchase a book with The “N” word. Imagine if a friend or family member saw it,how would you explain it? “Oh it’s OK Jamall,I can like is book because the internet said those were different times.””

Yeah. Good Luck with that.

Googam son of Goom

November 27, 2011 at 5:09 pm

It`s a good book. You know that`s what people said back ten. It was a racist society. It was America. Live and learn.

Googam son of Goom

November 27, 2011 at 5:11 pm

@ David Fullam why?

See if you can find some classic Bad News Brown interviews on You Tube. All honkies (of which I am one) were Beer Bellied Share Croppers.


November 28, 2011 at 3:06 am

Heya Brian,

I just saw via the ‘JohnByrneSays’ twitter feed, that on his forum, John Byrne claims to have created the first Jewish superhero.

Not sure if a post from Byrne counts as a urban legend, but is it true?

Brian from Canada

November 28, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I disagree with the charge that Eisner was a hypocrite in his criticism of Charles Dickens.

Dickens cannot be labelled “a product of his time” because there is no evolution in the ideas during his time. Like Shakespeare, the view of the Jew is one of a money hugger best robbed of anything valuable before being spit upon as something unworthy of civilization — and yet the modern sensibility refuses to identify it as anything but “a literary classic” that children are encouraged in their formative years.

Eisner and Twain can. Eisner and Twain both recognize the poor representation of minorities — and it’s not just African Americans, it’s Native Americans too in Twain because of Injun Joe — and try to instil a nobility in them to make you care about their well being. Jim and Ebony are too worthy to be spit on, and you are meant to feel a bit embarrassed about it.

Moreover, I think — and this is just my opinion, mind you — that America’s communities need to stop and accept that the past is something we can learn from to avoid WITHOUT having to resort to bans, accusations, etc. Or, in other words, let’s acknowledge that Ebony uses stereotypes, where those stereotypes came from, and how it inspired writers and artists to move away from that and move into newer stereotypes that we are still dealing with.

Because parts of America’s arts community is STILL racist. And it’s very reverse racist too.

Comics are as guilty as any of them, as DC and Marvel struggle to come up with “representatives” of those minority communities without realizing often that we can have minority characters that are characters FIRST and minorities second. Blue Beetle was a huge step forward for the Hispanic community, just as Black Panther and Luke Cage have been for African American representation.

But I’d challenge that, without Ebony, we’d never get characters like Falcon getting angry over that behaviour. And the world is much better off that we HAVE had Falcon speak up.

T. –

I never realized the gay community was “notoriously racist.” Do you have anything to back that up? Granted, I am Brazilian, and the gay community I am familiar with is different, but I don’t think there is any more racism among them than among straight white people. I’ve found that some gays are very focused on good looks and status, but race isn’t necessarily a factor. Snobs are not necessarily racist.

I didn’t mean to pick on black people. I think it’s every bit as unfortunate when gays discriminate against blacks. No one is “forced” to accept anyone, but one hopes that the experience of facing discrimination will make one more open-minded in general, and it’s disappointing when that is not the case. But that’s the breaks, I suppose. There is a very cynical notion that everybody wants to feel superior to at least somebody…

And I don’t think NAMBLA is an apt comparision. Pedophiles want to have sex with kids, and kids are unable to give informed consent. That is a crime, with real victims. As opposed to the victimless crime of homosexuality. I really resent the notion that if you support homosexuality you must also support other sexual behaviours previously considered immoral. And by the way, sex with kids has been SUPPORTED in some past, traditional, very religious societies, old men used to marry underage women all the time.

“Dickens cannot be labelled a product of his time because there is no evolution in the ideas during his time.”

What do you mean, Brian?

Dickens DID create much more sympathetic Jewish characters in later works. Evidence that he realized the problems with Fagin’s characterization. There was evolution to his ideas.

@ sandwich eater

I saw that show on PBS! Gerald Early is the guy who owned the comic, right? It was really eye-opening and informative. Very neat to see black people being represented in such a good light.

It’s a tough situation looking at pop culture pre-civil rights, as you want to be appalled by what you see, but you also understand that things were different back then attitude-wise.

We still kind of fight with this today, as mentioned above by the depiction of Arabs in pop culture.

But, until people start seeing each person as an individual and not a group of people (as T. touched upon when he mentioned that some people are taken aback when one person who is a minority does not immediately support other minorities), we’re just struggling with the same problems over and over.

The “anonymous” above was me.

I have the “Best of the Spirit” softcover – the Ebony character is in it, but he’s been recolored white. I thought this was something DC did, but when I mentioned it in a comment somewhere, somebody else replied that this recoloring was something Eisner himself did.

So, is Ebony better recolored? Or is that “messing with the original”? And if it is, is it better or worse that it was Eisner who did it?

“You guys have to understand that it was a different era, and if we follow your logic, we must also hate the Lone Ranger because of the stereotyped Tonto. We must also hate Looney Tunes, Mickey Mouse, and almost every other work depicting any other race that existed in the 1940s. ”

Some people have no problem with that… hating is easy… understanding is hard.

Ebony White was the most positive portrayal of a black person I’ve ever seen from that time. Sure he looks ridiculous, and he SURE he talks funny (although, to be fair, some people DID talk like that), but he was brave and loyal and heroic. Will Eisner was certainly guilty of stereotyping, but racism? Come off it. If he were racist Ebony wouldn’t have been the person he was.

Was I banned or something? I posted a comment here a week ago and now it’s gone. It wasn’t a bad one or anything. . . .

Oh, wait, there it is. It didn’t show up till I asked where it was. Now I feel dumb.

Yes, T., if you want to rail against other people for prejudiced behavior with notlogical basis, then you are, in fact, obligated to support other victims of prejudiced behavior with no logical basis, unless you have no problem with being a self-centered hypocrite.

Yes, T., if you want to rail against other people for prejudiced behavior with notlogical basis, then you are, in fact, obligated to support other victims of prejudiced behavior with no logical basis, unless you have no problem with being a self-centered hypocrite.

You’re right. Thank goodness I wasn’t doing anything you describe like railing against anyone or saying anything without a logical basis for doing so first. As you point out, that kept me from being a self-centered hypocrite.

Anyway, sarcasm aside, just do a simple Google search for “gay community racism” if you want to see tons of discussion about the problems of racism against gay people:


Much of the commentary as you can see comes from within the gay community itself, including white gays who lament the prevalence of anti-black racism among gays. And I wasn’t railing against gays for their racism, I was railing against white people who seem justified in telling blacks that they “owe” gays and every other minority group automatic unquestioning blanket support because blacks are persecuted minorities, and all minorities are apparently interchangeable and supporting one must mean supporting another. The implication is that unlike white bigots, who must be convinced by intellectually engaging them on the merits of gays, blacks can simply have their prejudices decided for them from on high by white liberals. Although the sentiment comes from a benign place, it’s a very insulting sentiment.

It also bugs me because there’s often an assumption (admittedly not expressed so much in this thread but in other places where the issue has come up, like Dan Savage’s columns) that gays largely support blacks in their struggle and blacks are selfish ingrates who don’t return the favor. This annoys me because there is a lot of antiblack racism in the gay community that people turn a blind eye too when they create this one-sided fiction.

If my punctuation made my point confusing, I apologize, but I was referring to the prejudice as having no logical basis, not the railing at people. And my point still stands. Prejudice against gays come from a hateful place with no rational reason- just as prejudice against black people does. If you don’t support prejusice, you don’t support prejudice- period. Otherwise, you’re a rank hypocrite.

If, on the other hand, you’d like to make the argument that black people don’t have to support other minorities because they are naturally more concerned with their own struggles than they are with others, then that’s a reasonable, if debatable point. But, since you’re offended by exactly that in Will Eisner’s case (criticizing him for caring more about others’ anti-semitism than his own past racism), you are, again, left without a leg to stand on.

As far as gay prejudice against black people, what of it? I’m as against that as I am any prejudice against black people, as I am against homophobia. Are you making the argument that conflicting bigotries make bigotry okay?

“”The implication is that unlike white bigots, who must be convinced by intellectually engaging them on the merits of black people, Jews like Will Eisner can simply have their prejudices decided for them from on high by black people.”

Get my point?

[…] Comic Book Legends Revealed #342 […]

You guys is spot-ON about how Ebony is drawn! Just look at how REALISTIC all of the other Mystery Men’s comic relief sidekicks were drawn! Woozy Winks alone practically steps out of Hogarth’s “Dynamic Figure Drawing”!

Sorry anonymous, when a traditionally stereotyped minority is drawn in a traditionally stereotypical fashion, that raises issues that aren’t involved in say, the art of Woozy winks or Jimmy Olsen.

[…] famously (or infamously), this run of weekly strips features L’il Adam, where Eisner was “tricked” into starting a spoof “feud” with cartoonist Al Capp. Featuring fictional cartoonist […]

[…] we’re used to. Sand Saref was effectively a repurposing of another comic by Eisner – John Law. I actually don’t mind seeing a strip like that recycled here. Given how The Spirit would […]

What’s negative about Ebony’s portrayal, though? Other than– in hindsight– his appearance?
He’s a noble, intelligent and courageous character.

“I agree with Alpha. I’ve never met a person IRL who liked this comic,it looks boring as hell. Not to mention I’ll never know whether it’s any good or not,since I could never bring myself to purchase a book with illustrations that racist. Imagine if a friend or family member saw it,how would you explain it?”

Well, if they had any kind of historical perspective at all, you wouldn’t need to.
It’s hilarious that you don’t realize how ignorant you sound (clearly, or you wouldn’t have posted that for everyone to see).

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