Jeet Heer posted a really thoughtful comment or two in the Ebony White thread. It seemed a shame to have them buried in comments, so I thought I’d highlight them here.
I’m on deadline so can’t respond at length right now but basically Noah is closer to the mark on this than Matt is. Eisner was no Mark Twain; in creating Jim Twain was able to do something miraculous: take a minstrel stereotype and imbue him with human feelings (most of the time: Huckleberry Finn is a very uneven work). Ebony White was closer to Amos and Andy than to Jim: i.e., not a malicous or hate-filled stereotype but just a condescending one.
One other point: it really doesn’t work to say that Eisner was a product of his time: the civil rights movement was already challenging stereotypes in that era and many cartoonists responded by trying to create more believable black characters. By the late 1930s in Gasoline Alley Rachel stopped being and maid and set up her own household; in Little Orphan Annie circa 1942 Harold Gray created a very smart, non-stereotypical black boy named George who befriended Annie; and in his Our Gang stories Walt Kelly took Buckwheat (who started off not dissimilar to Ebony White) and made him an equal to the other white kids. So Eisner didn’t represent the way everyone was in the 1940s; in many ways he was behind the times. And he got rid of Ebony because black readers complained and also his very young assistant Jule Feiffer didn’t like Ebony. Again, a sign that Eisner wasn’t leading the pack but rather responding to other people who were more progressive than he was.
I’ll add that in addition to Ebony White, Eisner also created Chop-Chop (the very stereotypical chinese cook of Blackhawk) and Blubber the Eskimo boy. So there was something in Eisner that responded to stereotypes of ethnics. And again, he was behind the times because other cartoonists (see Milton Caniff in Terry in the early 1940s) tried to portray the Chinese (although not the Japanese) in a more respectful way.
And here’s a second brief one.
Yeah,Sean (and Derik) are right: Eisner’s racial stereotyping is related to his affinity for caricature and theatricality (wasn’t Eisner’s dad involved with the Yiddish theater?). This actually makes Eisner distinctive in a current sense: more contemporary cartoonists like Spiegelman and Ware tend to eschew the tradition of theatrical histrionic, preferring comics were the range of gestural expression is more muted. And, of course, as Noah says, comics have a long history of this. In part, I’d argue, because their is an affinity between caricature and stereotyping.