Waiting for the Racism
by Travis Hedge Coke
Listening to a podcast last night, the hosts commented that we, the reader of today, cannot read a 1930s or -40s comic and enjoy it. We can appreciate it, but not enjoy. Lies! I said to myself, possibly out loud. Heck, I can enjoy a comic twice that old and from cultures completely removed from me. Yer nit the bossameee! podcast people!
But, at the same time, even rereading, for example, W.O. Wilson’s Madge, the Magician’s Daughter, a 1906-07 newspaper comic which appeared often as the front page of the color Sunday funnies in the San Francisco Call, I am waiting for the racism I missed before or have forgotten. I am waiting for the bigot moment. For the penny to fall. For the other shoe to drop.
Wilson is much a mystery, though we know he emigrated to the United States from South Africa before the beginning of the Twentieth Century and produced a handful of very successful comics strips and then single panel cartoons for Life, Harper’s Weekly, and Judge. Sometimes a Sorcerer’s Apprentice type strip and sometimes an understated fantastical, Madge is a world in which big weird stuff happens and hardly anyone bats an eye. It is very pretty.
The magic in the comic is mostly just animals where you would not expect or animals doing funny things because they have personality and autonomy.
Yet, as my eye lingers on the elegant art, the funny stuff, the big magic, I wait for what will hurt. Because, if you do not prepare yourself ahead of time, it can sneak up on you, and it can hit hard.
Is it because he came from South Africa? Is it because he is an old white male cartoonist? Is it me?
There is no one motivator for caution. It is no modern phenomenon to know you can be burned by anyone, by any artist; any publisher. Anyone who puts creative work into the world, where you can access it, runs a chance of disappointing or shocking you, whether that is their intention – or concern – at all.
Rather than being a case of not knowing to be cautious, if we are hit unawares, it is more often that we were cautious in the wrong direction or we were focused on the wrong thing.
The best we are is the base of what we are: Human.
Waiting for the Racism
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