Monday, March 1, 2010

Minorities in Comics in a Segregated America: World's Finest 17 (Spring 1945)

Okay, I know the cover of WF #17 really doesn't look like it's going to say anything socially relevant on the inside, but appearances can be deceptive. Besides the main features, this issue included an 8-page Johnny Everyman story dedicated to exposing the plight of African American G.I.'s returning home after World War II to segregation. It is written by Jack Schiff (who wrote about a million public service announcement pages for DC for several decades), with pencils and inks by John Daly (worked on Congo Bill, Robotman, Sub Zero, and a variety of other Golden Age characters).

The first few pages show a segregated African American unit in action on the front line against the Nazis. The story then shifts to the USA, and Ralph, who's an African American soldier from that unit, is home on leave and meeting up with his buddy George outside the munitions plant where George works. Ralph is keen to sit and catch up with George over some food, but Ralph has been away a while and forgotten that eating places are segregated around there.
George and Ralph are in the process of being turned away at a second restaurant, by a waiter who knows he's in the wrong but just claims all the tables are reserved, when Johnny Everyman steps in and makes it impossible for the restaurant to deny them. Ralph is grateful, but it is still a bitter pill to swallow. Without their white-skinned friend coming to their aid, they wouldn't have been allowed to eat there. The real problem hasn't gone away, only temporarily thwarted in this small way. Probably the strongest lines in the story are when Ralph, twice decorated war hero, expresses his frustration:

"Sure I'm a hero! I almost gave up my life to help wipe out fascism. So what? I come back here and I can't even eat a meal where I want to... what's the use?"

Johnny launches into a long speech, reminding Ralph of gains that had been made towards eventually establishing racial equality, and encouraging Ralph to have faith that his will come about. It's a tough analysis to take, but it's probably accurate to the way things were in the mid-40s. There would be no overnight changes, only gradual movement in a more positive direction. Hard that a whole section of the population had to continue waiting for the rights that were theirs, and have to endure discrimination and abuse in the mean-time. Not difficult to see why some people might just get fed up with that situation, after how many generations since the Emancipation Proclamation, and take a proactive stance.
I can't say for sure, obviously, that this story is unique, but it's a contender until something similar shows up. Who was DC editor at this time? This isn't revolutionary old EC, but reliably mainstream mom's apple pie DC, taking an admirable very public stance against segregation, even if reluctantly conceding that it wasn't about to end that day. I liked the dedication at the beginning, which set the mood for the whole piece:

"Dedicated to the millions of American Negroes who are doing their share in the armed forces and on the home front, to win the war and usher in a new era of peace and understanding among men".

Not bad for 1945. I wonder if pre-code DC war comics used less of the racist terms referring to Asians in the 1950s than did those of other companies, e.g. Atlas. That would be interesting to find out.

I think this 'scan' was from Joshua Thirteen again, but it looks like it was actually a microfiche originally. I don't happen to have a copy of this one in my collection!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reprinting this story. I've been wanting to read a Johnny Everyman story ever since I first heard about the character. Jack Schiff was not one of DC's great writers or editors, but he gave the company a social conscience.