Finding a ‘Face Like Ours’

My friend Bill Foster, Professor William H. Foster III to the rest of the world, is one of those special people who has uncovered hidden treasure. He shares it with the world and then he finds more and shares that. A professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College, he is indeed a scholar, but his area of expertise isn’t some arcane topic that us ordinary folk can’t wrap our heads around.

For many years, Bill has researched, and written about, and lectured on the world of comics and cartoons, specifically the images of people of color in comics and the lives of the people who drew and wrote them.

He actually began his studies a young boy growing up in Philadelphia (more about that below). But as much as he devoured the likes of the super heroes and Archie, he couldn’t find any pictures of black people. After he grew up, he searched and continued to find almost nothing into 1960s and beyond. He searched back and found stereotypes in early cartoons, but still no characters of substance, black supermen (or superwomen).

Eventually he was able to track down people who had created such characters (and a few heroines). Bill interviewed those creative pioneers and as he researched, he began to write about his findings and to publish his interviews. He compiled those essays and interviews in Looking for a Face Like Mine, which was published in 2005 by Fine Tooth Press.

I learned a great deal from Bill’s writings. For example, I had heard of The Justice League of America but had stopped reading comics by the time the series discovered African Americans in the 1970s. One episode included a black soldier who had the ability to control people with his voice, a power he discovers in Vietnam.

And I learned that trading cards have evolved far beyond the routine baseball cards that showed up in packs of bubble gum when I was a kid. Bill says he has more than 3,000 trading cards with an African American theme. Prominent items include the leaders of the Civil Rights era – Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – but also Franklin from Peanuts and Miss Black America.

Perhaps the most useful part of the book is the final chapter, “An Abbreviated History – Blacks in Comic Books” beginning with what Bill thinks is the first comic book by African Americans, published in 1947 and ending with a graphic novel The Festering Season, published in its entirety in 2002.

With Looking for a Face Like Mine, I thought Bill had exhausted his subject, but I was wrong.

On Saturday I went to a book signing for Dreaming of a Face Like Ours. He held the event appropriately at Sarge’s Comics in New London. I had a few minutes to kill after I arrived, so I wandered down toward the State Pier, where a 3,000-person cruise ship had docked that morning. Most of the passengers had departed for the casino or Mystic Seaport but some were already drifting back and filled the streets. I hope they gave some business to the few vendors selling arts and crafts at the bottom of State Street.

Then I returned to the store where I looked through the collection of New Yorker cartoons from 1928 to 1950. Talk about negative images of black folks! They were all there – thick lips, eyes with big whites, Brillo hair. I shut the book in disgust, though I probably should have bought it. And I read a graphic bio (graph-bio instead of biograph?) of Anne Rice. Who knew her parents named her Howard when she was born? I gained an appreciation of Rice’s ability to probe the dark side from her upbringing in a poor Irish section of New Orleans. But I still do not understand her return to the church unless maybe Type I diabetes  drove her back to her faith.

Pretty soon Bill and his wife Gretchen arrived, and I soon had a chance to dive into my autographed copy of Dreaming of a Face Like Ours. This time he delves into such topics as images of Harlem in comics and cartoons and images of black cowboys. He devotes a full chapter to graphic biographies of African American women, including two about Harriet Tubman. Aside from these world-famous people, I was proud to realize I had actually heard of some of the other characters and their authors.

Torchy Brown, drawn by Jackie Ormes, came up when I was researching At Home Inside. I remember noting the paper doll cutouts for her clothing and remarking on the fact that Torchy’s creator was a woman. I pursued this avenue bit because someone had compared Torchy to Elton Fax’s Susabelle, a sassy little kid. Fax’s charcoal drawing of my father is included in my memoir.

Bill drew my attention to two other familiar folk. One was not a cartoonist, but rather a brilliant storyteller. Langston Hughes created Jesse B. Simple in the mold of the comic anti-heroes. He was a “simple” man who with his pointed observations held a mirror up to a world pained by war and riots and poverty and of course racism.

The other man included in the same chapter was a friend of my parents. Oliver or Ollie Harrington created the character Bootsie, who appeared in black newspapers and elsewhere for years. Harrington became a victim of the McCarthy witch hunt and moved to Europe. But Bootsie lived on for years.

Aside from Torchy and Simple and Bootsie, I have learned a great deal from reading Professor Bill’s insightful prose. I particularly enjoyed the concluding essays “Foster’s Freehold” in which he discusses images of black people in science fiction, comics, and “other forms of popular culture.” His fourth column about the novel Space Relations by Donald Barr is especially thought-provoking. I plan to search out this tale of a young black man captured and held as a slave. Written in the 1970s it is, according to the “Freehold,” a commentary on the treatment of slaves in the United States more than a century earlier.

Thanks, my brother, for expanding our understanding of the world around us.

An aside: I met Bill through a mutual friend and learned that he had grown up in Philadelphia, not far from where I lived when I went to law school. Then I found out that when Bill first moved to this area, he rented a room from Larry’s grandmother. Small world!

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