don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”–Malcolm
X / Malik El-Shabazz, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told To
from 1940-1952, Will Eisner’s The Spirit
was a newspaper insert back when publishers could afford to do such
awesome things. It features Denny Colt, a detective who comes back to
life to fight crime from his secret hide-out in Wildwood Cemetery.
The Spirit is indeed
everything good anyone has ever written about it—all the joyful
adventure, groundbreaking art and genre play. But then there’s Ebony
White, the Spirit’s African-American sidekick and driver, all eyes
and lips and minstrel show dialect. And I can barely look at him, even
though I know
who is Ebony White?
actually hard to know who he is—or maybe even what he is, given how
he’s drawn. Here are the facts: Ebony White’s a young
African-American man or maybe an older child. He
is, as is often written in comics collections, a product of his time. He’s one of the Golden
Age’s many unpleasant black character types, ugly ones with ugly
names that are painful but shouldn’t be forgotten. He speaks like Stepin Fetchit, though he’s a different kind of
character—brave, hardworking and devoted to the Spirit. I hear that
ultimately he’s sent to school, though I haven’t gotten that far in
collections because of him.
often wonder what readers saw when they looked at characters like
Ebony White back in the Golden Age of comics. In Fagin the
Jew (Doubleday, 2003), Will
Eisner writes about unintentionally “feeding a racial prejudice
with this stereotype image….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.” In a
Time Magazine interview, he adds that Ebony’s rendering was comic
relief at a time when “humor consisted…of bad English and
physical difference in identity.” The cognates now might be animal
or robot sidekicks, I suppose. Poor robots, we use them for
everything we don’t want to do—comic relief, demonstrations of how
scary adamantium claws are.
this side of the millennium, though, I can only see a character
drawn like Ebony as an alien or some sort of urban fantasy imp. The conventional rendering also reminds me of a horrible, never
should’ve been, racialized chibi.
Chibi or, more
accurately, “super-deformed,” refers to the physical distortion
of manga or anime characters often based on their emotional maturity.
Sometimes, ordinarily non-chibi characters go super-deformed, representing a moment of excitement,
fear, joy or exasperation. Some less emotionally mature characters
super-deformed. Big heads, big eyes, big mouths—big emotions
for comedic effect. Sometimes super-deformed characters exist side
by side with more “naturalistic” characters. And the
stereotypical, Golden Age black characters have big emotions for
comic effect while existing side by side with naturalistic, white
characters, just like Ebony White and the Spirit do.
the Time interview,
Eisner was asked how would he like it if someone else wrote a
biography of Ebony White since he had written one of Dickens’ Fagin.
“I would deserve it. [Laughs] I would deserve that. As a matter of fact that probably would be a very worthwhile idea. I think more, if I
were somebody else and were to undertake that, I would probably do
something about his psychology. He lives with the Spirit, his
engagement was solely tied up with the Spirit and I would probably
touch on the slave mentality that he probably had.”
the task of looking for and finding Ebony White, the character, the
missing black man, let alone writing his biography is a daunting one.
It’s beyond me. And I’m not entirely sure who would want to
write this biography, beyond fans of The Spirit
whose joy is dampened by the presence of a racist stereotype. Does anyone love Ebony White enough to salvage him for
his own sake and not just The Spirit‘s?
Cooke tried to salvage Ebony White in his 2006 relaunch of the comic, recreating Ebony
as a kid who’s there when Denny Colt becomes a the Spirit. Frank Miller
omitted Ebony White in his film adaptation rather than attempting to
repair the damage and maintain continuity. I don’t blame him at all.
Most recently, in the back pages of DC’s March comics, Brian
Azzarello makes the argument in promotional material for First
Wave, a comic featuring Golden
Age heroes like the Spirit and Doc Savage, that Ebony White can only
work as a woman. It sounds pretty Blaxploitation. And Azzarello’s belief says
something about the perceived masculinity of African-American men in
the 1940s, but maybe more about racialized masculinity—or
Could Ebony White, a male Ebony White, star in a racial uplift,
Blaxploitation film, Who Is Ebony White?
join the Nation of Islam, as Lincoln Perry (aka, Stepin Fetchit) allegedly did? Would Ebony White love himself enough to
write The Autobiography of Ebony White?
I like to think so. I’d like to think he found himself in