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The history of African-American cartoonists in papers

Dave Astor has written another article regarding the February 10 “action” of several African-American cartoonists in which they will all draw the same cartoon (using their own characters) to hopefully draw attention to a tendency for editors to lump all of their features in as a “black” genre instead of merely the content of their comic.

The ball started rolling in early 1988, when the Detroit City Council’s Youth Advisory Commission urged Detroit newspaper editors to do something about virtually all-white comics pages.

Detroit News and Detroit Free Press executives subsequently mailed letters to various syndicates and 181 cartoonists about the lack of diversity.

Cartoonists were sent the letters in the hopes they would introduce more characters of color in their mostly white casts. The Free Press in 1988 counted the number of characters in its comics pages in a given month, and came up with 5,250 whites and 31 blacks (.6%). Detroit at the time was 63% black.

Later that year, the Free Press held a local contest for minority cartoonists and the (now-defunct) Newspaper Features Council discussed the matter at length during its annual meeting.

Whether coincidentally or not, several talented African-American cartoonists were offered syndication contracts in 1988 and soon after. The first was Ray Billingsley, whose “Curtis” comic was launched in September 1988 and sold to nearly 100 newspapers by year’s end.

Community Comments

#1 Angela Robinson
@ 11:13 am

Wow! Interesting stuff! Who would have thought some Youth Advisory Commission in Detroit would have been the catalyst for such great change in this industry.

#2 Marilla P. Alligator
@ 11:29 am

Yes, what an interesting history indeed. It just goes to show that people care enough about equality in comic strips to do something about it from a higher level, like government here.

I wonder what Barack could do for the funny pages!

#3 Dawn Douglass
@ 11:41 am

Even though I’m Republican, I think a Barack presidency could be good for this country, so long as he doesn’t govern too far left.

#4 Dawn Douglass
@ 11:45 am

btw, I hate the thought of Hillary winning, but as far as what it could do for the funny pages…I think there would wind up being many more professional female editorial cartoonists, because unless jabs are coming from a female, publishers will be afraid of the “Sexist!” accusation.

#5 Rich Diesslin
@ 1:48 pm

Is it odd that if the push for diversity came from editors originally (and as late as 1988), that now the editors are being accused of using race to limit diversifying further? Who determines when a comics page is diversified enough? If race should not be used to determine the type of cartoon genre, then how do you measure diversity? Are we dealing with 2 separate issues (race of the cartoonist and type of cartoon) or one really confused issue (diversity is what?)?

I guess this should be easier to understand, but I find it confusing.

#6 Dawn Douglass
@ 3:46 pm

Rich, editors definitely want diversity on the comics page. This is mainly based on demographics, of which race is just one component.

Age, sex, type of job, marital status, “life stage” (for example, new babies vs. empty nest), all of these things come into play.

But editors also seek diversity in terms of strip genre like “funny” vs. “political” vs. “adventure” vs. “serial.”

They also want a balance of human characters vs. animal characters.

Diversity is A LOT more than skin color.

#7 Angela Robinson
@ 4:42 pm

Rich said, “Is it odd that if the push for diversity came from editors originally (and as late as 1988), that now the editors are being accused of using race to limit diversifying further?…”

Actually, the article does NOT state that the initial push for diversity came from the editors. It says, “The ball started rolling in early 1988, when the Detroit City Councilâ??s Youth Advisory COMMISSION URGED Detroit newspaper EDITORS to do something about virtually all-white comics pages.”

So, a group of citizens (Youth Advisory Commission) approached the Detroit editors and made their concerns known about the need for diversity. These editors THEN acted on those concerns. I agree that these editors must be applauded for taking the action that they did back in 1988 and then championing the cause nationally. However, it is now 20 years later, and what might have been good in 1988, may not be acceptable in 2008.

MORAL OF THE STORY: If a you have a legitimate concern about the comics pages, bring it to the attention of the editors. If the editors believe the concern is valid, they just might work with you to resolve it. Which, by the way, lends even more credibility to what the 8 cartoonists plan to do on February 10th.

And, IF, the editors decide to address these concerns, then YES, they might have to sort through some diversity and race issues. But, if the editors were smart enough to figure things out in 1988, I imagine they are smart enough to figure it out in 2008.

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