American comic strips have been around for just over a century. The newspaper business took off around 1900, and comics were one way to draw more readers to the paper. Like other industries at that time, mainstream papers did not employ many Black people. Yet from the very beginning, artists of color have been involved with—and even shaped—comics as we know them.
1913: George Herriman
Krazy Kat launched in 1913, and is lauded today as an inimitable work of art. This wasn’t George Herriman’s only comic strip, but it is the one in which his genius shines through. The premise seems simple: Ignatz Mouse throws a brick at the titular Kat. But Herriman wraps this motif in layers of colloquialisms, classical references, silly hijinks, and his one-of a kind flair. Herriman’s energetic pen line gives life to bizarre trees, vast desert canyons, and a peculiar cashew-shaped moon.
The strip wasn’t popular with the public. Perhaps it was too weird, or too complex for the casual reader. It ran as long as it did (until 1944) because William Randolph Hearst himself favored it. Over the years Herriman’s work has been rightfully recognized as one of the groundbreaking comics that inspired a generation of others, including Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson of Calvin and Hobbes.
Unfortunately, Herriman found it necessary to obscure his heritage. A detailed account of his life and complicated relationship with his race can be found in Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White (available through SearchOhio).
1937: Jackie Ormes
Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem, appearing in the Pittsburgh Courier, made Jackie Ormes the first Black female cartoonist to be nationally distributed, if not technically syndicated. Her later comic strip Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger was also a success. The young Patty-Jo was made into a doll, carefully designed and even hand-painted by Ormes. Jackie Ormes’ comics are remembered for their feminism and astute social/political commentary. She wrote strong, smart, independent Black females in a time when they were rarely depicted at all in the media.
World War II and the Comic Book Industry
This blog post focuses on newspaper comics, but superhero comics took off in the 1930s. A few Black cartoonists found work in the growing industry, especially while many men were overseas during WWII. Invisible Men, a well-researched collection by Ken Quattro, brings to light these forgotten artists. Quattro writes:
Why do these men matter today? After all, for most, their achievements in the comic book medium were relatively minor, even to them. Yet, they took that all-important first step, the one that everyone fears most. Quietly, they provided diversity to an industry before anybody was aware that was even a goal, let alone a possibility.Ken Quattro
1965-70: Morrie Turner, Brumsic Brandon Jr., and Ted Shearer
In light of the civil rights movement, comic strips starring Black characters finally started to appear in the papers. Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals was the first syndicated comic to have an integrated cast of characters. Brumsic Brandon Jr.’s strip Luther and Ted Shearer’s Quincy both have a young Black boy starring as the main character.
(In 1968, Peanuts also introduced its first Black character, Franklin, at the request of a reader. The original letter can be seen in Peanuts: A Golden Celebration.)
1979: Ray Billingsley
Billingsley’s first syndicated strip was Lookin’ Fine, which centered around a group of Black young adults. The strip only ran for two years, but Billingsley’s next comic, Curtis, is still going! Curtis, a third grader, seemed to match the overall tone of the funnies more than Lookin’ Fine did. Mainstream newspaper comics have been known for being excessively sanitized, which results in a lot of comics featuring cute, “harmless” children and animals. This also could be one of the reasons that Ormes’ Patty Jo was successful: even harsh truths are easier to receive from the mouth of a child. Billingsley maintains a lighthearted strip, but still uses Curtis to delve into current events and issues.
1989: Robb Armstrong
Robb Armstrong’s comic strip JumpStart chronicles the everyday life of a Black family: Joe and Marcy Cobb and their children. Over time, the family and their community have expanded. Armstrong gently guides his characters through a variety of situations, whether it’s Joe or Marcy at work, the kids with their schoolmates, or the everyday troubles of their friends and family. This sweet and empathetic strip has been going strong for over thirty years. There is a JumpStart treasury, available through SearchOhio, which provides a nice overview of the strip.
Armstrong was mentored by Morrie Turner and Charles Schulz. When the character Franklin needed a surname, Schulz (with permission) used Robb’s!
Also 1989: Barbara Brandon-Croft
The daughter of Brumsic Brandon Jr., Barbara Brandon-Croft is known for her comic Where I’m Coming From. She started it in 1989 and achieved syndication in 1991, making Brandon-Croft the first Black woman to be nationally syndicated. In the comic, her characters speak directly to the readers about their lives as Black people living in America.
1993-95: Keith Knight and Jerry Craft
A jack of all trades, Keith Knight has maintained a number of comic strips: The K Chronicles; th(ink); and The Knight Life. In 2020 he created a show titled Woke, loosely inspired by the events of his own life. It can be found on Hulu. Recently, he’s also slipped into the literature world, illustrating Robinson and Masbach’s Jake the Fake series. His distinct visual style is unmistakable!
Jerry Craft, known these days for his award-winning graphic novel New Kid, spent many years prior working behind the scenes in the comics and publishing industries. His comic strip Mama’s Boyz was syndicated in 1995.
1996: Aaron McGruder
Perhaps the most infamous Black cartoonist in recent years, Aaron McGruder pushed every boundary with The Boondocks. His scathing online comic achieved national syndication in 1999, ending its run in 2006 (the first collection is on Hoopla). The beloved animated series (available through SearchOhio) ran for four seasons starting in 2005, though McGruder was not involved in the creation of season 4. Outspoken in his politics and undeniably hilarious, McGruder is known for stirring up controversy. He’s a brilliant writer. Despite almost no new Boondocks content from McGruder in over ten years, the characters have remained culturally significant.
2003: Darrin Bell
Bell’s comic strip Candorville is, in fact, very candid. Writing the strips just a week or two in advance (while many other cartoonists work months ahead of deadline), Bell’s characters experience and discuss current events as they happen around us. He won a Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Cartooning! His autobiographical graphic novel, The Talk, comes out this year.
2019: Liz Montague, Bianca Xunise, and Steenz
Liz Montague wrote to The New Yorker asking why they didn’t feature more cartoonists of color. When they responded asking for recommendations, she recommended herself! She also draws her life in Liz at Large, and recently released a graphic memoir. Liz illustrated the Jackie Ormes Google Doodle from 2020.
Steenz and Bianca Xunise are the first Black nonbinary cartoonists to be nationally syndicated. Steenz took over Mark Tatulli’s strip The Heart of the City in 2020 around the same time that Xunise joined Six Chix, a collaborative comic strip.
In this post, I focused on “official” syndicated comic strips. However, the flourishing webcomic industry, the evolving superhero genre, and the enduring underground and self-published market means that there are many, many more artists of color who are out there making their mark. As a new generation of cartoonists find their place in the industry, the history of Black cartoonists is steadily expanding. Here’s to the next hundred years!