A few months ago, I chanced upon a piece of art which was up for sale at one of Russ Cochran’s on-line comic art auctions. It was a Hal Foster drawn Tarzan Sunday which is usually an event in original art collecting because of the rarity of such samples.
As you can see, it is a fairly reasonable example of Foster’s art on Tarzan. It was, however, a no-go area for me whatever my feelings for Foster’s artistry. The reasons are simple: this piece of art would not have given me any pleasure and I would have been embarrassed to put it on display in my apartment. I simply don’t have the blindness or nostalgia for racism which allows for an enjoyment of this kind of art. There’s the Aryan beauty standing before the squat depravity that is the Cannibal Chief and later the rather simian qualities of the cannibal tribe as they howl for blood. I have as little passion for the subject matter as I would a depiction of bestiality. There are many pit holes in collecting original art but this particular aspect is less often highlighted. After all, wouldn’t most comic art collectors salivate over the original art to this Frazetta-drawn cover…
…with its razor-toothed natives within an inch of pawing at the white female’s succulent breasts? Any objections would be easily dismissed with the notion that these were more gentle and less enlightened times where such stereotypes were the norm. And clearly they were. The fact that the art displays beautiful draftsmanship and is historically important ensures that such aspects are easily brushed under the carpet. A collector friend of mine who finds such images unpleasant was less happy with this easy acceptance which obviates concerns for subject matter. He placed a comment on this Frazetta cover (when it was displayed on Comic Art Fans) comparing it to Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s depiction of Storm Saxon in V for Vendetta.
As many readers will know, there is a whole area of collecting known as Jungle Girl art of which one of the prime examples must be this particular piece by Dave Stevens:
It’s all in good fun, both mocking homage and parody. It would seem churlish by some to find these items in any way offensive. There are of course people who collect “coon” art for historical purposes (which is absolutely valid) and others because it gives them pleasure. I don’t find the latter aspect particularly respectable.
Another story in the same vein which I chanced upon recently is “Yellow Heat” by Bruce Jones and Russ Heath from Vampirella #58 (Mar. 1977) the scans of which can be found here). The entire story was sold at a Heritage auction for $4370 in 2002
The story is one of Jones’ best remembered from Vampirella in part because of Heath’s lovely hyper-realistic art but mostly because of its twist ending. [I would suggest that those unfamiliar with “Yellow Heat” read the story before continuing with this article.] You’ll find two appreciations of “Yellow Heat” here and here. The Comics Journal message board regular Mike Hunter describes the effect as such:
“Bruce Jones and Russ Heath wreaking havoc with our “we humans are all alike, after all” expectations in “Yellow Heat”.”
Jones uses a number of tricks of sleight of hand to achieve the shock ending in this story. Part of the justification for the ending would appear to lie in the first page where a sort of incipient famine and breakdown in society is described. Jones’ script in the first panel would however suggest that the famine has not arrived and that these are much more bountiful times. The Masai warriors don’t look malnourished in the least which lessens the impact of this early description and any expectations of its relevance. There is also the description of the captive lady as a “beauty” and Heath’s great depiction of the same which effectively throws off the reader.
The confluence of a familiar coming of age story mixed with an unexpected twisting of facts and sensibilities is also a factor. These issues would be further heightened for readers familiarizing themselves with this story for the first time in the 21st century. With a greater appreciation for distant cultures, many readers would be cognizant of the fact that the Masai do not practice cannibalism and would not expect such a denouement. Others would realize that such accusations of cannibalism were often used by white colonialist as an excuse for their excesses thus eliminating such a possibility from their minds. Nor would the modern day reader (or one during the 70s I suspect) expect any writer to produce such blatantly racist caricatures of Africans in the final two panels. Readers perusing a Warren magazine in the 70s would probably be familiar with the elevated ideals of the EC line where stories like “Judgment Day” saw publication. Few readers would expect a backward looking ethos and this makes the ending that much more surprising. Perhaps it might be a useful exercise for readers to imagine a gentle story about Jews taking care of orphaned children during the Black Death before eating them in the story’s final panel. Children aren’t as delectable as beautiful African women but you get what I mean.
While I haven’t read any interviews with Campbell or Heath concerning the genesis of “Yellow Heat”, my suspicion is that there must be some explanation for the strange sensibility on display here. The story was, after all, created during the 70s and not the early 20th century when popular art was considerably less informed. It is entirely possible that “Yellow Heat” was created out of naiveté and plain wrong-headedness but it is also possible that it was born of a flippant underground sensibility – a remark on the excesses of the past (though it has to be said, nothing in the story even suggest this). In many ways, it is much more educational to read these stories “blind” than to rely on any form of stated authorial intent.
There are better examples of these kinds of cultural jibes from more recent times like Robert Crumb’s “When the Niggers Take Over America!” which is so hysterical in its excesses, all but the most simple-minded would mistake it for anything but satire.
There’s also the notable example of Chaland’s An African Adventure where every form of jungle imbued racism is brought forth.
There are the malevolent natives…
….and there’s this scene where a tribesman is slapped:
It should be clear to most readers that the only person taking a slap here is Hergé and Tintin in the Congo.
On the other hand, it would appear to many readers that Jones, Heath and Foster were drawing from the same well with respect to their imagery – the corpulent chief and malicious cannibals in both Tarzan and “Yellow Heat” being the prime examples. On a purely textural basis, Jones and Heath’s story is truly ambiguous in its racial sensitivity. Is “Yellow Heat” actually quite factual (this seems impossible), the product of a more enlightened age where having fun with racial stereotypes is perfectly acceptable (perhaps a satire; I’m sure certain African Americans would find it harmless enough) or is it symptomatic of something much less wholesome?