Op-Ed: Chicago Defender Cartoonist, Jay Jackson & The First Black Superhero-Pt. 1
Hired by the Chicago Defender in 1933, Jay Jackson is one of the best cartoonists in black media. Became chief designer in 1936, he created a series of editorial comics with strong social commentary. On November 28, 1942, he relaunched the Defender’s signature strip, Bungleton Green. Historians call the strip “the oldest and longest running black comic strip”.
In Jackson’s hands, the main character, Bung, has become a pillar of the community. Bung started a youth center to address issues caused by parents absent in wartime or working in wartime. It was a serious problem in 1942. Eventually Jay Jackson moved the band into fantasy and science fiction. Bung was killed and resurrected, taken by a time machine in 1778 to comment on the shameful history of slavery in America. Jackson then moved the character to the 21st century, when America was a color blind utopia. Yet a continent of green people treated whites in a way that all blacks would recognize in the 1940s. Jay Jackson’s comics were avant-garde because there was nothing of this caliber before in any comic book. Social commentary is still relevant today.
Steve Carper is a popular culture historian. He researched Jay Jackson and compiled a unique commentary on Bungleton Green. The commentary uses illustrations by Jay Jackson, originally published in the Chicago Defender. January 6 was the superhero’s 76th birthday. In recognition, the Chicago Defender is pleased to present this special 3-part series, “Jay Jackson and the First Black Superhero” by Steve Carper.
Jay Jackson and the first black superhero-part 1
Written by: Steve Carper
Jay Jackson introduced the world to the world’s first black superhero on January 6, 1945. The oldest and longest running black comic was published in the pages of the nation’s leading black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.
Bungleton Green, the name of the character and the gang, became the embodiment of the black ideal. “Bung” was a man equal to, if not superior, to the whites whose relentless oppression Jay Jackson fought. It was no accident that Jackson defined his character during WWII. The time had come. Jackson wanted to remind Americans of the unequal status of black Americans fighting in war and supporting war efforts. The result was one of the most powerful social commentaries ever put into comedic form, complete with excoriations of white supremacy, bigotry, and systemic racism. The comic resonates with the news happening in the country.
Born September 10, 1905 in Oberlin, Ohio, Jackson dropped out of school at age thirteen to drive spikes for a railroad. He moved to Pittsburgh, working in a steel mill. After getting married young, Jay Jackson attended Ohio Wesleyan College for a year. He enjoyed a brief stint as a boxer. Better fortune came to him when he dropped out of school to start a sign painting business. In Pittsburgh, Jackson went on to become a featured artist for the Pittsburgh Courier, another historic black newspaper, creating two comics per week.
The Great Depression overtook Jackson in 1933. He took a hiatus when he was hired to produce the mural in the Old Mexico building at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Jackson also reconnected with the Courier with a series of illustrated poems.
Elmer A. Carter, the editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a publication of the National Urban League, sent a letter to the editor which was published on June 17, 1933.
“I noticed the work of Jay Jackson in the feature film section of the Pittsburgh Courier, and I want to congratulate The Courier and Mr. Jackson on what to me is the best presentation and the best cartoon I have seen. in a Negro newspaper. In fact, Jackson’s work in this area is not surpassed by any designer in any newspaper, white or colored. “.
A rave like this will give you a job even at the lowest point of a depression. The Defender appointed him assistant to the lead designer, Henry Brown. Allowed to continue freelance work, Jackson supplemented the low pay with “a three-year contract with a New York publisher to fill half a page each week in his magazine section.” It was most likely the black New York Amsterdam News, with whom he worked for thirteen years.
Jackson became the chief cartoonist around 1936. His editorial cartoons are scathing accusations of prejudice, Jim Crow laws, and unequal opportunity for blacks. You can see his palpable anger with every stroke of the pen. In addition to his duties of creating the original comics and comics, he took over the seminal comic book production of the Defender, Bungleton Green, in 1934. Created by Defender Team designer Leslie Rogers in 1920, Bungleton Green was the first and oldest black comic book.
Cartoonists have often treated the tape almost as an afterthought. With appearance, personality and marital status of Bung changed at the whim and adventures abandoned halfway to take him on a new road. “Bung,” as he was usually called, was literally the proverbial little man, usually hopelessly poor but happy. Yet sometimes a sharp operator who kept clinging to the top, portrayed in various ways as a stereotype, caricature, or commentary on everyday life.
Evidence suggests that Jackson didn’t care about the dumb gang at all, preferring his brand of social commentary in his tapes. Bungleton Green often did not appear, and Jackson had his assistant, Daniel Day, made numerous tapes starting in 1939.
The date is significant. The year before, Jay Jackson had had an unexpected freelance opportunity, easing his boredom at work and his often precarious financial situation. In a world that had yet to see the introduction of Superman, the path to the first black superhero began with the other place of weird science and fabulous imagination: science fiction. Amazing Stories, the now legendary first science fiction (SF) magazine founded in 1926, hit its lowest circulation level in 1938, when Chicagoan William B. Ziff bought it. He was himself a draftsman, a student at the Chicago Art Institute a decade before Jackson’s participation. He also found that cartoons didn’t pay well, so in 1920 he founded an advertising agency at the age of 22.
One of the first acts of WB Ziff Company as a business was to tap into an untapped market niche. Most of the big cities had a black newspaper. Most white advertisers ignored them. The White Ziff realized that it could become a central clearinghouse for black newspaper advertising nationwide and thereby attract large white companies as customers. Soon he had a virtual lock in the market, repelling black pioneers like Claude Barnett. With both being based in Chicago, Ziff-Davis and the Defender had close ties. Either he or the art director of his company’s many magazines, Herman R. Bolin, turned to local artists to provide illustrations for Amazing. Jackson was known to be good, versatile, and quick, with all the absolute necessities of a freelance writer.
His drawings illustrate three stories in Palmer’s first June 1938 issue, Amazing. Given the bimonthly magazine publication timelines, Jackson was likely hired about five minutes after the ink dried on the purchase contract and returned his work completed shortly thereafter. Over the next four years, his work appeared in over three dozen issues of Amazing and its companion, Fantastic Adventures, often for multiple stories.
Jay Jackson was the first black artist published regularly in science fiction magazines. He wasn’t a fan favorite at first: discerning readers have noticed his lack of experience in the genre. Eventually, the comments in the columns of letters heated up. His comic book styles match the many humorous stories Palmer loved. He was one of the few artists included in the “Author’s presentation” section. One photo ensured that readers knew Jackson was a black man who had attended college, was the proud father of a teenage daughter in his suburban home, and had a decade of varied artistic experience.
Jackson absorbed all of the tropes of 1930s science fiction: time machines, super-ones, rocket travel, mad scientists, and weird inventions. Better yet for a cartoonist, he realized that science fiction gave writers a unique ability to comment on contemporary America by safely moving the action to another world or another era.
He was the first to move. In 1942, he stopped drawing for Ziff and devoted himself to relaunching the Defender cartoon page. This page changed abruptly on November 24, 1942, with a new Bungleton Green that would draw on the sci-fi devices and tropes absorbed by Jackson during his four years. This ultimately leads to a surprising crescendo: a black superhero avenging the wrongs of American society.
Bungleton Green was expanded to 12 panels and a second 12 panel strip, Speed Jaxon, from Jackson under the pseudonym Pol Curi. Both filled most of the page. “Speed” is a former Howard University track star. A giant man, better with his fists than Jackson ever was, he beat a lot of fascists and saboteurs during the war.
Bung was small, but Speed was huge. Previously, his size had only been a comedic effect, like Barney Google, Snuffy Smith or Jeff of Mutt and Jeff. As realism seeped into the bone bands, he was known as a dwarf in the future. He is no longer a layman but an intelligent and respected member of the community. The first appearance of the new Bungleton Green shows him opening a community center for teenagers called The Rumpus Room. In this scene, he offers teens left unattended, when their parents have been gone to war or to work all day, a place to go for some healthy fun.
Bad kids don’t. Bung creates the Mystic Commandos, a gang of good black children who will not only rise up against the tyrants of black gangs, but make them decent citizens and patriots. Each week introduced a new “secret password” for the Commandos. Still the name of a “Negro Hero”, the password was explained in a trailer panel that could be cut out and scrapbooked. The first hero honored was Booker T. Washington. The second was Prince Whipple. Prince Whipple was also a true historical figure, born in Africa and sold and then emancipated by General William Whipple of New Hampshire. (The exalted nickname Prince has been sardonically assigned to some newly arrived African slaves.) “Washington Crossing the Delaware” by Emanuel Leutze depicted a black rower. Legend has it that the character was Prince Whipple. It’s almost impossible from what we know of Whipple’s moves. However, Jackson understood propaganda as well as anyone in Washington.
Check out Part 2 of our Special Series, Jay Jackson and the First Black Superhero, tomorrow in the Chicago Defender.