Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016
VCU Libraries has acquired an extremely rare copy of All-Negro Comics No. 1, the first comic book written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists.
“It’s one of the holy grails of comics,” said Cindy Jackson, library specialist for comic arts, who oversees VCU Libraries’ Comic Arts Collection, which has roughly 175,000 items, including more than 125,000 comic books. “It is so important to the history of comics. I’ve been in this job for 20 years and I never thought I’d ever hold one of these in my hands. And now we have one in the collection for researchers to use."
It’s one of the holy grails of comics.
All-Negro Comics No. 1 is a 48-page anthology comic published in June 1947 and remembered not only for being the first comic by African-American creators, but also for its positive portrayal of African-American characters — such as detective Ace Harlem and Lion Man, a college-educated, scientist superhero — in an era in which most African-American comic book characters were racist caricatures.
“It’s the first time you see respectful treatment of African-American characters,” Jackson said. “It is a time capsule. It is a very of-the-1940s comic, but it shows the African-American characters doing things that previously had only ever been done by white characters — things like solving mysteries and being the hero, not the sidekick.”
All-Negro Comics was published by Philadelphia newspaper reporter Orrin C. Evans along with two partners. Evans, who died in 1971, was inducted into the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 2014.
Tom De Haven, a creative writing professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences and the author of “It’s Superman!” and “Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies,” among other novels and graphic novels, said that All-Negro Comics No. 1 is “one of the very rarest of the rare.”
“[It’s] an impressive and very important addition to the Cabell Collection,” he said. “The publisher, Orrin C. Evans, who’s been inducted into the Eisner Hall of Fame on the basis of that book, was a remarkable man with a fascinating career in journalism and publishing.”
Inside the comic, a letter to the reader from Evans under the headline “Presenting another FIRST in Negro History” demonstrates that Evans set out to produce a comic book that reflected his values and showcased African-Americans in heroic roles.
“Dear Readers: This is the first issue of All-Negro Comics, jam-packed with fast action, African adventure, good clean humor and fantasy,” the letter says. “Every brush stroke and pen line in the drawings on these pages are by Negro artists. And each drawing is an original: that is, none has been published ANYWHERE before. This publication is another milestone in the splendid history of Negro journalism. All-Negro Comics will not only give Negro artists an opportunity gainfully to use their talents, but it will glorify Negro historical achievements.”
All-Negro Comics ended up running for only a single issue, likely due in part because it cost 15 cents — higher than the typical 10-cent cover price of comics in the 1940s — and because it would have had a difficult time getting attention among the mainstream comic audience because of its subject matter.
“It had a lot of factors going against it,” Jackson said. “But it was still amazing and groundbreaking, even though it didn’t go beyond the one issue.”
Few copies of the comic remain, and far fewer still are in good condition.
“It had a small print run. Because of the subject matter and the time period, most people didn’t keep it. And it was printed very cheaply, so the paper deteriorated,” Jackson said. “Finding one that is in fairly decent condition is extremely rare — most of the time you’re going to find it with a very bad cover, disintegrated paper, very brown pages. But this copy is actually in pretty good shape. It’s definitely been loved, but it’s in decent shape.”
All-Negro Comics No. 1 is an example of how scholars at all levels can explore complex themes in the comic arts. “We all acknowledge comics as entertainment,” said Yuki Hibben, assistant head and curator of books and art for Special Collections and Archives, “but comics also document the culture and concerns of their time. Students and scholars are increasingly turning to comics to obtain unique insights into social and cultural history.”
The copy of All-Negro Comics No. 1 was donated to the Comic Arts Collection by VCU alumnus Dave Anderson, (D.D.S., 1982) who practices dentistry in Northern Virginia.
Last spring, Anderson visited Cabell Library’s Special Collections and Archives Department to see and talk comics. He has been collecting since he was a child and is a certified comics appraiser.
“We had a big display in the Cabell Room laid out for him to see,” Jackson recalled, “and [Anderson] asked me: ‘If there’s one thing you could have for the collection, regardless of cost, what is the one thing you’d want to see donated?’ Without hesitation, I said ‘All-Negro Comics No. 1.’”
In December, Anderson returned to Special Collections and Archives and donated the comic.
“He brought it down and presented it to me personally because he wanted to see my face,” Jackson said. “He said that I was so excited just talking about it with him in April, that he wanted to get one and see my reaction. I might have gotten a little teary. Because it is so important to the history of comics.”
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