“People don’t realize how a man’s whole life can be changed by one book.”
–Malcolm X / Malik El-Shabazz, The Autobiography of Malcolm X (As Told To Alex Haley)
Running from 1940-1952, Will Eisner’s The Spirit was a newspaper insert back when publishers could afford to do such awesome things. It features Denny Colt, a detective who comes back to life to fight crime from his secret hide-out in Wildwood Cemetery. The Spirit is indeed everything good anyone has ever written about it—all the joyful adventure, groundbreaking art and genre play. But then there’s Ebony White, the Spirit’s African-American sidekick and driver, all eyes and lips and minstrel show dialect. And I can barely look at him, even though I know I should.
But who is Ebony White?
It’s actually hard to know who he is—or maybe even what he is, given how he’s drawn. Here are the facts: Ebony White’s a young African-American man or maybe an older child. He is, as is often written in comics collections, a product of his time. He’s one of the Golden Age’s many unpleasant black character types, ugly ones with ugly names that are painful but shouldn’t be forgotten. He speaks like Stepin Fetchit, though he’s a different kind of character—brave, hardworking and devoted to the Spirit. I hear that
ultimately he’s sent to school, though I haven’t gotten that far in collections because of him.
I often wonder what readers saw when they looked at characters like Ebony White back in the Golden Age of comics. In Fagin the Jew (Doubleday, 2003), Will Eisner writes about unintentionally “feeding a racial prejudice with this stereotype image….I never recognized that my rendering of Ebony, when viewed historically, was in conflict with the rage I felt when I saw anti-Semitism in art and literature.”
In a Time Magazine interview, he adds that Ebony’s rendering was comic relief at a time when “humor consisted…of bad English and physical difference in identity.” The cognates now might be animal or robot sidekicks, I suppose. Poor robots, we use them for everything we don’t want to do—comic relief, demonstrations of how scary adamantium claws are.
From this side of the millennium, though, I can only see a character drawn like Ebony as an alien or some sort of urban fantasy imp. The conventional rendering also reminds me of a horrible, never should’ve been, racialized chibi. Chibi or, more
accurately, “super-deformed,” refers to the physical distortion of manga or anime characters often based on their emotional maturity. Sometimes, ordinarily non-chibi characters go super-deformed, representing a moment of excitement, fear, joy or exasperation. Some less emotionally mature characters are always super-deformed. Big heads, big eyes, big mouths—big emotions for comedic effect. Sometimes super-deformed characters exist side by side with more “naturalistic” characters. And the stereotypical, Golden Age black characters have big emotions for comic effect while existing side by side with naturalistic, white
characters, just like Ebony White and the Spirit do.
In the Time interview, Eisner was asked how would he like it if someone else wrote a biography of Ebony White since he had written one of Dickens’ Fagin. He said:
I would deserve it. [Laughs] I would deserve that. As a matter of fact that probably would be a very worthwhile idea. I think more, if I were somebody else and were to undertake that, I would probably do something about his psychology. He lives with the Spirit, his engagement was solely tied up with the Spirit and I would probably touch on the slave mentality that he probably had.
But the task of looking for and finding Ebony White, the character, the missing black man, let alone writing his biography is a daunting one. It’s beyond me. And I’m not entirely sure who would want to write this biography, beyond fans of The Spirit
whose joy is dampened by the presence of a racist stereotype. Does anyone love Ebony White enough to salvage him for his own sake and not just The Spirit‘s?
Darwyn Cooke tried to salvage Ebony White in his 2006 relaunch of the comic, recreating Ebony as a kid who’s there when Denny Colt becomes a the Spirit. Frank Miller omitted Ebony White in his film adaptation rather than attempting to repair the damage and maintain continuity. I don’t blame him at all. Most recently, in the back pages of DC’s March comics, Brian Azzarello makes the argument in promotional material for First Wave, a comic featuring Golden Age heroes like the Spirit and Doc Savage, that Ebony White can only work as a woman. It sounds pretty Blaxploitation. And Azzarello’s belief says something about the perceived masculinity of African-American men in the 1940s, but maybe more about racialized masculinity—or hypermasculinity—in ours.
Could Ebony White, a male Ebony White, star in a racial uplift, Blaxploitation film, Who Is Ebony White? Would he join the Nation of Islam, as Lincoln Perry (aka, Stepin Fetchit) allegedly did? Would Ebony White love himself enough to write The Autobiography of Ebony White?
I like to think so. I’d like to think he found himself in school.