Monday, December 23, 2013

Diversity in Comics - ANC#1: Ace Harlem - The Complete Story

Nearly 3 years ago, Out Of This World featured the extremely rare and equally important All-Negro Comics #1. At that time just a handful of pages were available on the web - low resolution scans and no complete stories. Just recently, however, something almost unbelievable happened. Although collectors pay literally thousands of dollars for this highly sought after gem, a magnanimous soul allowed 300 dpi scans of the entire book to be produced for the Digital Comics Museum, making this important work of sequential art available to the world for enjoyment and study (thanks to Yocitrus): All-Negro Comics #1. The digital version of the full book can be downloaded from the DCM website, but what I've done for this post is to crop, and 'clean' by removing the discoloration due to aging of the paper, John Terrell's Ace Harlem story in its entirety, so we can take a look at it here and discuss. First, the story:

This 15 page detective story sends home the "As ye sow, so shall ye reap!" message of inescapable karma pretty strongly. There are lots of period cultural details - the clothes, the activities of the characters, the language, the streets and buildings, cars, interior and street furniture, hardware such as the cash register, some sub-cultural references. The picture we get of this part of  a 1940s inner city area (Harlem?) is that it is populated exclusively by African Americans - good guys, bad guys, innocent bystanders, victims - everybody, evidencing the way this piece of art reflects the highly segregated nature of society at the time, and lives up to the book's title.

Because so much of the content of this story is period specific, full understanding of what it communicates would necessitate a detailed understanding of the cultural items mentioned above. Take the jukebox and the song that it was playing, for example. "Open the Door, Richard" was a novelty rhythm and blues song first recorded by Jack McVea in 1946. The way jukeboxes were loaded with disks, as well as the mechanism for paying for and selecting a song to play would need to be appreciated. What about zoot suits? The lucky charm found by Ace Harlem would have been attached to the lengthy zoot chain that was a required accessory to the zoot suit - this was a watch chain attached to the belt, dangling at least to below the knee, and then back up into the pocket at the side of the pants. The cultural significance of the zoot suit is a PhD in its own right. The further this and other Golden Age comics recede in time in terms of their origin, the more background knowledge is required with which to interpret them. While the basic plot is relatively easy to discern, the implications of all the details, such as those mentioned above, on the mental picture conjured by reading the story, can be better appreciated when one has some familiarity with the culture of the intended audience.

Period popular culture, particularly that of the 20th Century, an era of extremely rapid innovation and change, provides an incredibly valuable resource for analysis of this fascinating time. But African Americans are poorly represented in some areas of popular culture of that period, with items created by African Americans particularly scarce. In the case of comic books, ANC#1 is unique - the only comic out of the thousands of different books that were produced in the first decade of modern comic books' existence, that was written, drawn, and published by African Americans. Few seem to have survived, making the contribution of these scans to the Digital Comics Museum vastly important in terms of allowing access to this significant rarity.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this gem! 8__)

  2. It's interesting to see that one theme is cross-cultural: the depiction of young counter-culture types (zoot suiters, hippies, hepcats, beatniks, bikers, etc.) as budding criminals.