I wanted to comment on Matt Seneca’s blog about this picture , but the site or my browser is wonky so I couldn’t, so what the hell. We’re not at tcj any more; I can do short posts twelve times a day if I want. Who’s to stop me?
Anyway, Matt argues that Eisner’s use of Ebony White is comparable to Mark Twain’s use of “nigger” in Huckleberry Finn.
When I try to think of a comparison for the comics field’s benign neglect of Eisner’s Spirit work, the first thing that jumps to mind is the recent, much-maligned “New South” edition of Huckleberry Finn, which replaces all Mark Twain’s original-text uses of the word “nigger” with “slave”. New books for a new world. But it’s not a perfect comparison because Ebony White, the ridiculously offensive racial caricature above, was the Spirit’s sidekick for the better part of a decade — and this being comics, there’s no easy way to replace Eisner’s cringe-inducing pickaninny with a more palatable depiction of the black kid who helped Denny Colt’s alter ego out of many a jam when he wasn’t commenting wryly on the hero’s tangled love life. Instead, The Spirit remains shielded by comics, never really put forward as a sterling exemplar of the form by its critical community or marketed with the aggression the material deserves by DC, who own the trademark. There’s a very real fear that comes into play when the medium’s spokesmen, whether aesthetic or commercial, deal with Eisner’s masterpiece — a nervousness that the wider world simply won’t be able to take the skeletons in comics’ closet.
Matt goes on to compare Ebony to Huck Finn, and argues that the character is vital and funny enough that you can almost forget the racism.
I’m pretty sure I immediately think of the New South Twain book when I think about Ebony because he just might be the closest thing to Huck Finn that 20th century pop culture produced, a gutsy, vulnerable, melodramatic, flawed, truly good kid trying to find his way in a world that’s thrown him into an array of increasingly outre characters. He’s the most fun part of pretty much every Spirit story he appears in, the “kid sidekick” archetype done better than anywhere else; driving the action forward with youthful impulsiveness here, saving the day with a child’s wisdom there, and providing a steady stream of arch, borderline satirical meta-commentary whenever else. It’s also interesting to see the way that Eisner’s playing to reprehensible stereotypes works as effective character construction in a world that no longer traffics nearly as heavily in overt racism. Ebony’s grossly patois-laced dialogue, his minstrel-show pratfalls and caricatured appearance and body language serve to give him more sheer personality than any of the numerous ciphers that filled up the rest of Eisner’s stories. Ebony was a springboard for some of Eisner’s funniest humor material — humor material, let me add, that never succumbed to racial jokes, which supports the view that Eisner was simply blinkered by his times and harbored no particularly intense prejudicial malice — and the subject of his most affecting and least cloying paeans to the freedom of boyhood. He’s always the thing on the page that’s most alive, most unpredictable (by comparison the Spirit is little more than a one dimensional wind-up fighting machine) — and it’s a testament to Eisner’s strength as a storyteller that you can almost forget all that energy is generated by pure racism during the best sequences.
I’m not super familiar with the old Spirit stories. When I’ve read them they tend to bore me; fairly tame genre stuff, it seemed like. But I’m willing to accept for arguments sake that they’re better than I thought, and that Ebony White is a great, funny character despite being a disgraceful racial caricature. I’m willing, too, to accept Matt’s argument when he says that Eisner’s was a “casual racism”, more about prevailing cultural mores (which were very racist indeed at the time of the writing of the Spirit) than about strong personal animosity.
The problem here is…well, none of this actually makes Eisner look anything like Twain. Twain wasn’t a casual racist. He was an ideologically committed, angry, courageous anti-racist. The whole point about the “nigger” controversy in Huck Finn, the reason it’s so wrong-headed is that the book is about the fact that slavery is evil and black people deserve to be treated as human beings. Twain’s later masterpiece, the searing “Puddin’head Wilson,” is even more explicit and devastating. A black light-enough-to-pass slave switches her own son with the lord of the manor’s child; the black child grows up to be a swaggering, evil bastard, and the cause is pinned firmly not on the fact that he’s (nominally) black, but on the fact that owning slaves is evil and corrupts everyone it touches.
This isn’t to say that Twain had no touch of racism; the slapstick end of Huck Finn comes close at points to forgetting that Jim is human, turning him into a carnival butt and almost ridiculing his desire for freedom. But the point is, Twain actively struggled with the evils of racism, and mostly came out on the side of the angels.
This is very different from Will Eisner. And it’s part of the reason why this is just wrong:
Eisner has an alright case as comics’ Twain, to be honest, a massively influential yarn-spinner whose tendency toward painting in broad strokes may get in the way of his status as a true master of his medium, but whose ability to entertain keeps him deeply relevant while veiling a massive amount of nuance.
Twain isn’t just a influential yarn-spinner; he didn’t paint in broad strokes — at least not always — and there is nothing and no one who stands in the way of his status as a true master. Twain wasn’t an entertainer in Huck Finn and Puddin’Head Wilson — he was one of the most honest, most perceptive, and fiercest critics of America’s original sin. That’s (one of the many reasons) why he’s considered a great writer; because of his treatment of race, not despite it.
And that’s why this summing up is deceptive as well:
But as an expurgated Huck Finn is, so is a whitewashed comics history that shies away from confronting the sins of the past, especially when it happens at the expense of great work. Strangely, perversely, Ebony White is one of the most interesting parts of Eisner’s Spirit, a look into that textured, carnivalesque America of yesteryear that reminds us it wasn’t all unambiguous heroics.
Cutting out “nigger” from Huck Twain defaces one of the great anti-racist texts we’ve got; doing so lies about the nature and the contours of the struggle against. On the other hand, Ebony White doesn’t show Eisner struggling with racism. It just shows him being racist. And when you talk about Ebony White as part of a “textured, carnivalesque America of yesteryear,” you come really close to celebrating it for its racist caricature. Because that textured, carnivalesque America? It was really racist — more racist than Mark Twain’s America, in many ways, which still had a strong strain of racial idealism and hope which got crushed after massive Southern resistance to Reconstruction.
The point is, The Spirit is significantly more racist than Huck Finn, as America in Eisner’s time was more racist than America in Twain’s. For his time, too, Twain was anti-racist, while Eisner was, for his, just casually, everyday racist. I don’t think that means that Ebony White should be censored, and I don’t think it means that no one should enjoy reading the Spirit. But I also think that if someone were to look at The Spirit and say, “fuck this racist shit” — well, that would be a really, really defensible position, because that shit is racist. America still needs anti-racism; it still needs Huck Finn and Mark Twain. Ebony White though? Even if he’s all that Matt says he is, I think the culture is probably paying the Spirit’s sidekick just about as much attention as he deserves.
Update: If wading through the comments is too much, I’d encourage you to at least read what Jeet Heer has to say about Ebony White.