Insider Histories: Black Cartoonist E. Simms Campbell

E. Simms Campbell was an indispensable part of Esquire’s birth in the early 1930s. He established its visual style. He invented the original Esky character. And, in the words of its founding editor Arnold Gingrich, his full-page color cartoons “catapulted the magazine’s circulation from the start.” Campbell may also be the first African-American illustrator not only to break the color line in mass-market publications, but to earn widespread public acclaim as well.

E Simms CampbellDuring his art career, Campbell produced cartoons for a variety of magazines such as Life, Cosmopolitan, and nearly every issue of Esquire until his early-1960s hop over to Playboy. He did covers for Judge and The New Yorker. He worked on ad commissions. And he created woodcut-style illustrations for a Langston Hughes young adult novel. Although he was highly celebrated for four decades, he’s barely mentioned these days. The good news is that he’s just been prominently profiled in the new Insider Histories of Cartooning: Rediscovering Forgotten Famous Comics and Their Creators.

RCH-inset_coverThe author, comics artist, cartoon chronicler, and critic Robert C. Harvey, has written regularly for The Comics Journal for 38 years and produced over a dozen books about his beloved medium. He describes his latest as “…a book of little histories, biographies of cartoonists who were once well-known, even famous, but who’ve fallen off the edge of the drawing board into obscurity.” It’s also packed with fascinating anecdotes and enlightening details. Harvey transmits his profound affection for his subjects and their creations with a delightfully breezy, down-to-earth writing style.

Harvey recounts the legend of Gingrich discovering Campbell after Russell Patterson recommended “a fantastically talented colored kid” in Harlem, “…if you don’t draw the color line.” He details Campbell’s rise to fame and fortune and close friendship and drunken spakeasy carousing with Cotton Club scat-singing superstar Cab Calloway. And throughout, he insightfully illuminates Campbell’s artistic achievements.

During the following interview, we discuss Campbell, Insider Histories, and Harvey’s own career. For more Harv, visit here.

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Dooley: What’s Campbell’s primary appeal for you?

RCH-inset_BlatzHarvey: I’m interested in Campbell more for his personal history and career than because of his art, although he’s obviously a fine artist. He’s probably the first famous African American cartoonist, but he wasn’t known at the time as being African American. He was known for harem girls – and other representatives of the curvaceous gender – but not at all for his race.

Campbell and his publisher and the syndicate that distributed his cartoons had kept his race a secret, so Southerners wouldn’t reject the publications in which his work appeared. By a perverse extension of logic, then, they also kept him a secret, or – at least, I suppose – never much mentioned him, in order to avoid revealing his race.

I’d run across copies of Esquire when I was a kid, and I saw his cartoons in the magazine, but his gauzy watercolors – admirable work, no question – never appealed to me qua art. And his black-and-white drawings for his syndicated cartoon, Cuties, are too wispy for my taste. Again, beautifully done, but in those days, I was into Mad and Wally Wood and Jack Davis, and Campbell was on the other side of a distant horizon.

I think I first got interested in Campbell when I heard the story of how he got into New York night clubs back in the 1940s and even 1950s. He’d be out doing the town with other cartoonists, and to get him past the color bar at some establishments, the other cartoonists introduced him as an Arabian prince. Presto, the barriers went down.

black cartoonistsblack cartoonistsRCH-10_HarlemRCH-11_darktown-bDooley: Do you know of any specific instances in which the “color line” impeded freelancers?

Harvey: Not really. We all realize now that George Herriman, creator of the famed Krazy Kat comic strip, was African American. Technically, he was of “mixed race.” But he was reluctant to admit his African heritage and even wore a hat indoors most of the time, presumably to hide his kinky hair. This behavior is surely symptomatic of his working in an environment that would have rejected him and his work had it been known that he was African American. He apparently told his fellow workers that he was Greek – or so, at least, another cartoonist, the famed TAD, Thomas A. Dorgan, said.

illustration by George Lee

illustration by George Lee

Prowling the web in search of African American comics a few years ago, I ran across Tempus Todd, a strip that started in 1923. It was drawn by H. Weston Taylor, who probably wasn’t black, based on my research. However, this may have been the first strip with an adult male African American protagonist. Until Todd’s advent, most African American characters in cartoons and comic strips had been children, or, if adults, they filled secondary roles as servants or other kinds of menials and fools, importing their imagery and comical conduct from black-face minstrelsy, which is to say, not from actual African Americans but from whites with burnt cork on their faces, “caricatures derived from the popular stage routines of white males’ gross parodies of ‘black life,’ originally the slave life of blacks,” according to Steven Loring Jones in “From ‘Under Cork’ to Overcoming: Black Images in the Comics.”

In the same vein, I’m eager to read George Lee’s 1989 book – which I just learned about – Interesting People: Black American History Makers. Lee was an African American cartoonist who did portraits in words and pictures of famous black Americans, which were syndicated to newspapers in the 1930s and 1940s [note: see the illustration on the left]. It’ll be interesting to see if Lee talks about his own career and to what extent he encountered a color bar.

In his next online column, Harvey will write about how George Lee’s race prevented him from practicing his craft.

"–so Raphael cain't come to choir practice tonight on account of he's singing on de radio wid de 'Boogie Woogie Four'."

“–so Raphael cain’t come to choir practice tonight on account of he’s singing on de radio wid de ‘Boogie Woogie Four’.”

"You might at least take your hat off when you're talking to a lady."

“You might at least take your hat off when you’re talking to a lady.”

"What do you mean your wife doesn't understand you – I'M your wife!"

“What do you mean your wife doesn’t understand you – I’M your wife!”

"How d'ya spell 'polygamy'?"

“How d’ya spell ‘polygamy’?”

"Skyscrapers, traffic lights – oh boy, that's a REAL country!"

“Skyscrapers, traffic lights – oh boy, that’s a REAL country!”

Dooley: What made Campbell’s harem girls so popular?

Harvey: My guess: it was their near nudity in a magazine aimed at male readership.

Dooley: [laughs]

Harvey: They weren’t actually naked. By today’s standard, they were very nearly fully clothed. They wore a vest-like garment on top and pantaloons on the bottom. Only the midriff was bare. But probably into the 1940s, even the pin-up paintings in Esquire were fairly demure. So the popularity of Campbell’s seraglio may have resided more in the ambiance of the situation: a bevy of readily available beautiful women. That, and their attire.

RCH-inset_EskyIn addition to his single-panel cartoons, he wrote gags for Esquire’s other cartoonists. He also regularly wrote and illustrated articles about Harlem and New York night life, so he was one of the magazine’s public personalities, not just one of its cartoonists.

And, he designed Esky, the magazine’s pop-eyed old roue. In Gingrich’s book, Nothing But People, he said that he’d been trying to come up with a “mascot” for Esquire but had nothing until he saw sketches of an impish little man among heaps of drawings in Campbell’s Harlem room. He took some of the pictures and eventually turned them over to Sam Berman, who sculpted the familiar three-dimensional ceramic figurine that appeared on Esquire’s cover.

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Dooley: Do you know of other artists who might have been influenced by Campbell?

Harvey: It’s hard to say at this remove, but Esquire was the only magazine regularly running cartoons in full color, when it started and for years thereafter. I can’t help but think Hugh Hefner was affected by this when he launched Playboy. And when Jack Cole came along doing painterly renderings of gorgeous girls in his cartoons, he was well within the “Campbell mode.” And Cole, in effect, established the painterly manner that, to this day, prevails in most of Playboy’s full-page cartoons. Whether Cole was consciously aware of Campbell’s work when he started watercoloring his cartoons for Playboy, I can’t say. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he was fully aware of Campbell’s work, which was, in those early years, still appearing in Esquire. Later, when Esquire changed its format and function, Campbell went to Playboy.

RCH-22_woodcutRCH-23_woodcutDooley: How might the other cartoonists in your book interest graphic designers?

RCH_SebaldHarvey: Your question reminds me of what Milton Caniff told me about his high school art teacher, the redoubtable Martha Schauer, who remained one of Caniff’s idols all his life. She had a wholly pragmatic view of her subject, something many think of as an academic frill. He quoted her as saying: “Everything was drawn by someone. Everything except vegetation and other natural objects. Everything else was drawn by somebody. Somebody had to sit down at a drawing board and design it. Everything you see – houses, cars, clothes, furniture, machinery – except the trees.”

Cartoonists design worlds. They make worlds, fictitious worlds whose reality is often so compelling that newspaper readers, for instance, return every day to participate in those worlds, and they regard the characters as old friends. And in my book, we meet over a dozen cartoonists who made worlds so interesting to readers that their creators as well as their characters became famous.

The comic strip Red Ryder, for instance, was powered by B-movie plots, but creator Fred  Harman’s gnarly pictures made it all so real that the strip smacked of authenticity. And – to invoke another “western” comic strip – in Dick Sebald’s weekly strip starring Balin’ Wire Bill, we encounter a modern – circa 1949 – western that is as convincing as Bill’s worn blue jeans.

Dooley: And how do you go about finding these artists?

RCH_HumeWallgrenHarvey: My journey of discovery is different for each of them. The longest one was for Bill Hume. I bought a book of his Babysan cartoons soon after it was published in 1954, but I didn’t know at the time who he was. Then twenty years later, I ran across another of his books. By this time, I knew that I knew nothing about Hume and wondered why. His drawings of this attractive young Japanese girl, Babysan, are so sexy and appealing that I couldn’t understand why Hume was so unknown.  Then a comics historian friend told me Hume was still alive and living in Columbia, Missouri. At the time, I lived in Champaign, Illinois, only a day’s drive away, so I arranged to interview Hume and found out why he was so unknown. Short answer, he gave up cartooning and became a commercial artist in his hometown. But he had lots of fascinating stories to tell.

Wally Wallgren was a real mystery. Every once in a while, I’d run across his name, usually coupled with an assertion about how famous he was: “the doughboy cartoonist” of World War I. He was to WWI what Bill Mauldin was to WWII. If Wally was famous during the War, why was he unknown now? He doesn’t appear in any of the standard histories of American cartooning. So I began scratching around to find out who he was. That wasn’t too hard, but finding out why we’ve never heard of this guy after WWI was harder. I call him AWOL Wally. I finally ran across an article in an early issue of the newsletter of the National Cartoonists Society. Instead of getting syndicated after the War, Wally just did cartoons for local papers in his hometown, Philadelphia, and for the American Legion magazine.

Hume and Wally both deliberately and of their own volition disappeared after their moments in the spotlight of fame. But Kin Hubbard is a casualty of history losing sight of people as it unfolds. I found Kin’s name with Abe Martin’s on the cover of a little book of cartoons and sayings that I saw in an antique mall, and I liked the drawings. It took a while for me to figure out who was the cartoonist and who was the comic character. For twenty years or so until Hubbard died in 1930, he was as well-known a humorist as Will Rogers. But not now.

For almost all of the cartoonists in the book, my research started when I ran across a provocative scrap of information. I’d start with a little dangling thread of biography or oeuvre, and just kept pulling on the thread until it led somewhere.

Dooley: What were some of the surprises?

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RCH_HefHarvey: Hugh Hefner, for one. Most biographies of the founding publisher of Playboy mention that he edited – and perhaps founded – the undergraduate campus humor magazine Shaft while attending the University of Illinois. I lived in Urbana, home of the U. of I. for many years, and one day I learned that a branch of the university library had a file of these old humor magazines, so I went there and pawed through them. Turns out that Hef was, indeed, editor of Shaft, but only for one issue. And he was scarcely the founder: it was a going enterprise by the time he arrived. However, he drew cartoons for several issues, and some of those cartoons appear in my book.

The biggest surprise in the book is probably the comic strip Texas History Movies, a newspaper feature that told the history of the Lone Star State in comic strip form. I suppose Texans are familiar with this enterprise – and it was undoubtedly famous during its heyday – but I knew nothing about it until I ran across a reference to it, and then found a booklet that reprints all the strips.

Dooley: Do you have any “Forgotten Famous” favorites?

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RCH_SwordsHarvey: They’re all favorites. Once you spend time digging up their histories, you become intimately acquainted with them, and with intimacy usually comes affection.

But not all of the cartoonists in the book were famous. I’m glad to have the opportunity to include a favorite comic strip of my teenage years. Dick Sebald is one of a couple of the cartoonists in the book who were not well-known during their lifetimes, but I doted on his comic strip creation, Bailin’ Wire Bill, who starred in a short-lived – just 1949 – strip, Sage, Sand and Salt, in my hometown newspaper, the Denver Post. So I delight in telling the story of my adolescent infatuation and in presenting a few of the strips, which seem to me unique and picturesque in the history of cartooning.

And Betty Swords is a favorite, too. A magazine gag cartoonist, she was on the leading edge of the feminist movement back in the sixties. And she was a salty crusader even when I interviewed her in 1995. You can’t knock down any of her arguments, and I tried—purely in the spirit of playing the devil’s advocate. I wanted to provoke her into making the strongest, least vulnerable case in her panegyric, so I would try to pick apart some aspect of her arguments. No success. She not only defended herself but hit me over the head repeatedly with fresh, irrefutable arguments. She became a crusader when she realized one day that in all the jokes involving women, women were the butts of the jokes. Women in cartoons were beautiful but dim-witted when young and single, but when they married and aged a little, they became battle-axes. And Betty rightly saw the injustice in the comedy.

Dooley: What about your all-time comics artist faves?

RCH_DingVipHarvey: The top ten? Starting at the top, I think the best cartoonist – the one who did the most by blending words and pictures, fully exploiting the capacities of the medium – was Walt Kelly, who did the famously satirical comic strip Pogo. After Kelly, I’d put Milton Caniff for his Terry and the Pirates strip, which set the pace for adventure storytelling after it got going in the mid-1930s.

Next in the ranking order would be an editorial cartoonist, and the candidates are numerous. J.N. Darling, known as “Ding”; Herbert Block, who signed his work “Herblock”; and then Pat Oliphant. Ding set the standard for the first decades of the century; Herblock, for the middle decades; Oliphant for the rest. But Oliphant is greater than both of the others: he’s hard-hitting, unflinching, and also always very funny. Al Hirschfeld, the great theatrical caricaturist, is unquestionably in the top ten, as is Willard Mullin, who set the fashion for sports cartooning.

Then I’d say Roy Crane, whose Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy in the late 1920s and early 1930s showed that comic strips could tell serious adventure stories; Caniff and all the rest of the adventure story cartoonists owe their livelihoods to Crane. Alex Raymond, who did Flash Gordon and two other adventure strips, all simultaneously – Secret Agent X-9 and Jungle Jim – raised the bar for illustrating stories realistically.

I’d put The New Yorker’s Peter Arno at the top of the single-panel gag cartoonist list, right next to John Held, Jr., whose bell-bottomed sheiks and short-skirted shebas set the fashion for the 1920s. And Virgil Partch, the great “Vip” of True magazine fame, belongs with them: you can’t get the jokes in Vip cartoons without understanding both pictures and words.

Jack Kirby, who – with his writing partner Joe Simon – invented Captain America just before we went to war with Germany, gave comic books their focus on figure drawing, superheroes for the most part. And Harvey Kurtzman, who invented Mad but also wrote and drew serious comic book stories about war, was an education in verbal-visual storytelling.

By no means the last is Charles Schulz with Peanuts, a strip that showed us our insecurities and made us laugh at them.

Dooley: You’re a cartoonist as well as a comics historian.

RCH_HarveyHarvey: I say I’m a “bush league” cartoonist to distinguish what I did from what career professional cartoonists do. My career as a cartoonist has been, I should say, “spotty.” I started drawing cartoons by copying pictures out of comic books when I was seven.  My father was a more than competent artist – although he never made a living at it – and he used to amuse me by copying my favorite comic characters on sheets of paper for me, taking them out of the comics into the real world. One time when I asked him to draw something from a comic book, he said he was too busy at the moment and why didn’t I draw it myself? And so I started.

And I cartooned through high school and college and during a stint in the Navy, with the intention of becoming a professional cartoonist. I tried to sell a couple of comic strips into syndication, without success. I wanted to do a humorous continuity, but syndicates and newspapers preferred joke-a-day comics at the time. That was in about 1964. And for a period of about four years in the late 1970s, I moonlighted as a cartoonist, freelancing magazine gag cartoons by mail. To men’s magazines, mostly.

Also in the 1970s, I was reading an article about comics in a magazine, and I didn’t like it much. It was too elementary. Its author lacked real understanding of the medium. I muttered something like: “I could do better than this.” And my wife, overhearing me, said, “Why don’t you, then?” And so I did. Tried to anyhow. And I’ve kept on trying ever since.

Dooley: So what happened to the drawing part?

Harvey: Some years ago, Hank Ketcham invited me to try out to draw the daily Dennis the Menace. He outlined a process of several steps, and I completed the first one. And then I realized that I didn’t like drawing as much as I like writing. And if you’re going to do a daily cartoon, you must like drawing, above all else. So I apologized to Ketcham, gave up on the try-out, and concentrated on writing.

Incidentally, I think of myself as a “comics chronicler” rather than as a historian. History is about the past, and I write about present-day comic strips, editorial cartooning, comic books, and books about cartooning, so I think of myself as “chronicling” the history of cartooning as it happens. But I’m also intrigued by the past. And my Insider book is definitely history.

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One thought on “Insider Histories: Black Cartoonist E. Simms Campbell

  1. Robynp

    I found this article REALLY interesting! I recently wrote and delivered a paper on “Diversity, Perception and Responsibility in Illustration”. I would like to talk with you about some of the imagery that appears in this article.

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