Robot 6

Could some racist jungle comics have been subversively egalitarian?

It’s no secret that Golden Age comics were full of racist imagery, especially Golden Age jungle comics. But Steve Bennett at Super ITCH pointed out something today that I hadn’t noticed in the examples that I’ve read. Like most jungle girl comics from that time period, Rulah the Jungle Goddess is racist at its very concept: “a standard-issue bored thrill-junkie/society-girl aviatrix who crashed her plane in Africa. There she saved a tribe from a tyrant’s rule who were so grateful the natives dubbed her Rulah, Jungle Goddess and made her their ruler.” A couple of things differentiate Rulah from similar comics, though.

First, they were drawn by Matt Baker, a black man. That doesn’t mean that all Africans are portrayed with respect in Rulah comics, as you’ll see if you click through the link. After all, Baker wasn’t writing these stories. But it adds an interesting facet to thinking about these things, especially in light of the other major difference Bennett points out:

…all the ‘native’ women were white and the men black. It’s not true in all her stories but in the bulk Rulah rules over a world where females were exclusively drawn like white showgirls and the men like (fairly non-stereotypically drawn) blacks.

…as drawn the characters…are committing miscegenation, i.e. race mixing. In 1948 when the comic was published this was still a crime in 30 out of then 48 states…

Bennett also speculates that this itself was done for racist reasons: to make the women in the comic more attractive to white, male readers. But even if that’s the case, it still created a fictional culture that – all else being equal – was subversively egalitarian. And readers didn’t seem to mind.

I hope I’ve made it clear that I’m not at all looking to excuse any type of racism in these comics, but I find this unexpectedly (and yes, possibly unintentionally) anti-racist part of it fascinating and noteworthy.

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Not to be a wet blanket, I’m not really sure the history of white women with men of color in the popular culture of the early 20th century really supports much speculation about a hypothetical “egalitarian” subtext in a comic like this.

The Black women in these jungle queen comics (and I’m thinking Sheena especially) tended to look like recolored white women, though. Additionally, I remember looking at old Buck Rogers comics. The male aliens were horrible parodies of Asians (tiny eyes, big buck teeth), but the women? Also basically white women. It’s like that old Chris Tucker joke: all women are white women.

Scratchie, that’s not being a wet blanket at all. It’s very likely that I’m just ignorant of the cultural history you’re referring to, but I’m eager to be educated. Gaining a wider perspective was one of the reasons I wanted to point out Bennett’s article.

El Santo, you’re right. I’m not that familiar with Buck, but Flash Gordon was the same way.

Hey, Mike Sterling did a review of the comic, Plazma Peril!, which he described as “Revenge of the Smoo”. Too bad I can’t find it in his archives right now.

I remember looking at old Buck Rogers comics. The male aliens were horrible parodies of Asians (tiny eyes, big buck teeth),

Actually, I am familiar with the old Buck Rogers strips, and it isn’t quite that simple, though arguably still had racist elements.

The early strips were a science fiction take on the “yellow peril” stories popular in the pulps of the time, taking place in a far future where the world has largely been conquered by a technologically advanced “Mongol Empire.” Most of the villains are portrayed as being East Asian, but fairly realistically illustrated– yet not all of the “Mongols” are portrayed as villainous and that particular story arc ends in a peace-treaty. (Also, Native Americans, though portrayed stereotypically– still living as 19th century Plains Indians, albeit, with rocket vehicles, they’re presented as with the good guys.)

The Martians are a different matter: when first introduced, they are a feline race of “Tiger-Men” they only start appearing as “Asian” caricatures after Pearl Harbor, when Mars becomes an stand-in for Imperial Japan (or the Axis, in general, as we often see swastikas on their spaceships.) So is it racism? War time propaganda? Both?

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