A 1970 one-panel cartoon from Charles Johnson.
A 1970 one-panel cartoon from Charles Johnson. Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Imagine a world to come when mysterious green people subject whites to Jim Crow segregation and a multiracial duo of time travelers launches an uprising. Or conjure a view of the 1960s when race riots became the source of children’s inventions or romantic entreaties. Chicago’s African American cartoonists have created such tales for decades, and their often neglected work is now receiving wider attention.

These cartoonists comprise a significant part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibit, “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now.” These artists are also the subject of the MCA’s 200-page companion book, It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists In Chicago, 1940-1980. Numerous styles, attitudes, and subjects encompass this legacy. Some of these comics were originally printed several years ago in African American newspapers and magazines but have been languishing in archives. A few others were self-published and distributed by the artists themselves.

“This stuff was marginalized: no one knew where it was,” said cartoonist and author Charles Johnson, whose art and writing appears in the exhibit and book. “Just like the curriculum in our schools—because of segregation—marginalized, if not erased completely, people of color. That was true up through the 60s and beyond. Black art just wasn’t there. Black intellectuals just weren’t in the curriculum.”

The new compilation and exhibit address that exclusion while these comics also offer daring and often hilarious depictions of the 20th century’s major political and social movements. Tom Floyd’s single-panel satires of corporate racial initiatives were part of his 1969 book, Integration Is A Bitch!, and remain prescient more than 50 years later. The children in Morrie Turner’s Dinky Fellas and Wee Pals discussed racism within the comics pages of the mid-1960s Chicago Defender. Seitu Hayden’s comic strip, Waliku, highlighted both the struggles and warmth in everyday urban life in early 1970s issues of the same newspaper. While shared ideas run throughout the comics, all of these cartoonists approached their art through distinctive experiences.

“Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” is on view through October 3 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago at 220 E. Chicago.

It’s Life as I See It can be purchased through the Museum’s online shop.

Johnson began passionately drawing while he was growing up in Evanston. As a teenager in the 1960s, he studied with New York-based cartoonist Lawrence Lariar while also publishing comics in his high school newspaper (Evanston Township High School’s The Evanstonian). He read his parents’ books on Black history, but hearing Amiri Baraka speak while he was a journalism student at Southern Illinois University inspired where he should focus his creative energy.

“Baraka impressed me with one thing that he said,” Johnson recalled. “He said, ‘Take your talent back home to the Black community.’ I had been drawing intensely for seven years, anybody who would give me a chance, I would do it. For college paper, town paper, I did everything, panel cartoons, comics. But I hadn’t thought about accessing and dealing imaginatively with Black history and Black culture.”

Right after Baraka’s talk, Johnson cut classes for a week and drew 89 cartoons in that time. He began assembling his ideas for a book called Black Humor, which Johnson Publishing Company published after selections of it ran in the Chicago Tribune Magazine. The 1970 book satirizes racists and racial assumptions but also makes light of Black militancy. Still, a gentleness runs throughout these panels—Johnson’s caricatures are never overly harsh.

“One of the lessons of Lawrence Lariar’s course was avoiding stereotypes,” Johnson said. “There used to be very vicious stereotypes of Jewish, Black, and Irish people, and he was a liberal Jewish man who said, ‘Don’t do that.’ And I remember cartoons that were in Muhammad Speaks, the cartoonist would always draw white characters with tails, like devils, and I looked at that and thought, ‘Well, OK, that’s the Nation Of Islam, that’s what they talk about and how they depict things,’ and I don’t do that. I know lots of different kinds of people who are good people.”

Like Johnson, Seitu Hayden spent his youth collecting comics and had pivotal encounters with Black consciousness programs in college. He moved to Chicago from Fort Wayne, Indiana, to attend art school in the late 1960s. Hayden became involved with Black student groups at Roosevelt University while also becoming aware of activists at the galvanizing 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary. At the same time, he absorbed the underground drawings of Robert Crumb and Spain Rodriguez while watching Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor. All of this played a part in his early 1970s comic strip that adapted its name from the Swahili word for grandchildren.

“I was sort of politicized,” Hayden said. “I was young, idealistic, and thought maybe we can rid ourselves of pesky old racism. My dad thought I was becoming a Black Panther, but I was looking at Spain.”

A 1972 strip by artist Seitu Hayden.
A 1972 strip by artist Seitu Hayden.Credit: Courtesy of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Hayden gleaned from his own childhood for Waliku, although he said that Fort Wayne was different from the city neighborhood he depicted. Local thugs—real and imagined—are part of the humor but so is a loving memory of Christmas in a time of deprivation. The Chicago Defender’s fine arts editor Earl Calloway liked it and the strip ran weekly. Although Hayden had hoped for it to run daily, he said he did not understand that syndication meant that it was cheaper for the paper to run old strips of Popeye. Still, he added, “Ten dollars a week was decent cash for a broke college student in 1972. I bought most of the Marvel [comics] I wanted and a few snacks.”

Settings, situations, and dialogue made Waliku ahead of its time. Hayden added that a main character, Marcus, may have been a precedent for the outspoken Huey Freeman decades later in The Boondocks. While Hayden’s use of dialect derived from reading Richard Wright’s novels, the scant response he received came from his use of language.

“At one point, I got wind that some people at the paper didn’t like my use of grammar, Black English,” Hayden said. “There was not even the term Ebonics at that time. Looking back, I would have used more commas and apostrophes. But I got zero feedback as far as what people thought of the strip, I was just doing it.”

As It’s Life as I See It shows, Waliku also continued a theme of children, or childlike characters, bringing up tough issues in comics. In the late 1940s, Jackie Ormes’s precocious Patty-Jo, from her Patty-Jo ’N’ Ginger, questioned military spending. The boys and girls in Turner’s strips debate historical and lingering issues of identity (as do their dogs). Dan Nadel, who edited the book and curated the exhibit, said that these tropes represent a lengthy tradition.

“This is a technique that is woven into the history of comics: Like with Ignatz Mouse in [early 20th century strip] Krazy Kat expressing complex philosophical ideas,” Nadel said. “It’s an old trope and it works because you can say from the mouths of babes, have these innocent figures saying sophisticated things and people will listen.”

Science and science fiction also run throughout these cartoons, all of which predate the term “Afrofuturism.” Jay Jackson’s allegorical serial, Bungleton Green And The Mystic Commandos, from 1944 depicts a 21st century when “ruthless green men” deny whites jobs and housing as well as subject them to police brutality and lynching. His episodes were drawn in a style similar to his era’s DC Comics (Superman, Wonder Woman). Using more kinetic visuals, Turtel Onli’s NOG, Protector Of The Pyramids from 1981 blends Egyptology with intergalactic combat.

Onli’s friend Yaoundé Olu combined her career as a science teacher with producing a range of art and running the South Shore arts institution Osun. Like Hayden, she also saw that the late 1960s underground comix movement from artists like Crumb and Chicagoan Jay Lynch opened up unconventional possibilities. Her use of physics and space travel—such as in Slinky Ledbetter & Comp’ny Vs. The Gravity Gang from 1980—have been described as Afrofuturist. While she is aware of the word and once hung out with the musician closely associated with it (Sun Ra), Olu does not feel that it is entirely accurate. She prefers the term “retrofuturism.”

“My work is not about the future,” Olu said. “It’s about the past, present, and potential future and other times in the here and now. Retrofuturism goes back to the past. Kind of like Star Wars, the introduction to Star Wars [“A long time ago, in a galaxy far away . . .”] is where my images originate. These are African kinds of concepts that may be right now in other dimensions, but not necessarily the future. I use other living modalities, usually focusing on African American images in the cosmos, not necessarily just the future.”

That cosmos goes back to some core elements as Olu drew the fanciful adventures of Oxy and Calci Adams. Commonly known as oxygen and calcium, the pair would meet and their union formed a compound. But Olu also cast them in everyday situations where they took on other dimensions in interacting with people on the street.

“These are superheroes not of brawn, but brains and mysticism,” Olu said. “They’re about helping people spiritually.”

While African American cartoonists in Chicago have had fewer opportunities with the decline in Black print publications, they have continued working. Some, like Olu, created their own venues. Others, like Hayden, took on assignments in other industries, such as hair care.

“It would have been cool to do the comic strip my whole career, but I’ve enjoyed the smorgasbord of art I’ve been able to do,” Hayden said. “I’ve had a whole career doing art and that’s what I’m especially proud of. It doesn’t matter how it happens, I’m just happy I was able to support myself, my wife, my kids and still be around doing stuff.”

Some of the cartoonists in the exhibit and compilation built reputations through working across different media. Johnson remains committed to drawing but became far better known for his words rather than his images. His novel Middle Passage won the National Book Award in 1990 and along with myriad accolades for his fiction and nonfiction, he directed the creative writing program at the University of Washington. Kerry James Marshall contributed his recent comic strips to the exhibit and created the book’s cover, although it’s his mastery as a painter that is globally acclaimed. Olu retired from teaching but she previously balanced her scholastic duties along with cartooning—drawing editorial cartoons weekly for the Crusader Newspaper Group—with drumming and displaying her artwork at the Bridgeport Art Center (she is regularly part of its Third Friday series).

The new book <i>It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980</i> features a cover designed by artist Kerry James Marshall.
The new book It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 features a cover designed by artist Kerry James Marshall.

The exhibit and It’s Life as I See It provide these cartoonists with a substantial new platform for their comics, and its participants are upbeat about this visibility.

“I hope that people see this as an opportunity to broaden the conversation of what history is and most importantly look at more cartoonists, publish more of this work,” Nadel said. “I just wanted to show the diversity of approaches, people who make comics, themes, ways of drawing, ways one can make personal comics free of constraints.”

More diverse cartoonists are seeing their work published in high-profile publications nowadays. Johnson said that in the 1960s there were no Black cartoonists in The New Yorker. Today, Olu pointed to the praise that the magazine’s contributor Liz Montague is earning as an example of a young African American artist’s achievement within current media. Olu added that the book and exhibit will tell everyone about who blazed the trail for such changes to happen.

“I would love to have not just the broader community but the African American community heighten their awareness of African American cartoonists,” Olu said. “I would hope that we could be pacesetters for a future when people would readily see their role models as a guide to what they’re going to be doing.”  v