Gerald Early brings a mystery to PBS’ History Detectives

Rare 1950s comic book featuring African-American characters focus of episode to air July 12

It started with an unusual find on eBay in 2006: a 1950s comic book that featured African-American characters, a rarity for its time period.

Today, that comic book, Negro Romance, is the focus of a national TV show to air next week.

Gerald Early, PhD, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis, bought the comic book on an eBay auction and wanted to know more about its origin.

Did black artists create this book? Who was the intended audience? Because the copy Early bought was coverless, he also wanted to know what the cover looked like.

During the Golden Age of Comic Books — from the late 1930s to mid-1950s — famous superheroes were introduced, such as Superman, Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman. Rarely would people find African-Americans as central characters in comic books during that era.

“Blacks appeared in comic books and comic strips during this era largely as savage ‘jungle natives,’” Early explains, “or as racially demeaning caricatures like Ebony White, the sidekick of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, or Lothar, the exotic sidekick of Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician. Having blacks in comic books in non-racist ways was very rare. And there has not been a great deal written about blacks during this time who may have drawn or written comics.”

Not able to find the answers on his own, Early turned to the History Detectives, PBS’ popular series devoted to exploring the complexities of historical mysteries, searching out the facts, myths and conundrums that connect local folklore, family legends and interesting objects.

Negro Romance will be the focus of one of three investigations in an upcoming episode of History Detectives. The episode will air locally at 8 p.m. Tuesday, July 12, on Nine PBS. It will be repeated at 1 a.m. Thursday, July 14, and 4 p.m. Sunday, July 17.

During the show, History Detectives host Gwendolyn Wright, PhD, visits Geppi’s Entertainment Museum in Baltimore and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York City to search for answers to Early’s questions.

Wright is a professor of architecture, planning and preservation and professor of history at Columbia University.

Early has a particular interest in comic books. The Center for the Humanities Library is building collections in children’s literature and periodicals and in comics. The collection includes Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History by Fredrik Stromberg as well as a number of comics by black artists and writers or featuring black characters in either a positive or negative light.

Early, a professor of English, of African and African-American studies, and of American culture studies, is a noted essayist and American culture critic.

Early is the author of “The 1960s, African Americans, and the American Comic Book,” which was published in The Rubber Frame: Essays in Culture and Comics, edited by D. B. Dowd, WUSTL professor of art in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts.

The book was published in conjunction with two comic book exhibitions Dowd organized in the fall of 2004 at Washington University. Princeton Architectural Press republished the book in 2006 with the title Strips, Toons, and Bluesies: Essays in Comics and Culture.

This is Early’s second appearance on History Detectives. Last year, he was featured in an episode as an expert helping to solve a mystery about a Jackie Robinson All-Stars scorecard.

This episode of History Detectives also investigates a Civil War soldier’s letter and fabric from an aircraft that could be linked to Charles Lindbergh and helicopter inventor Igor Sikorsky.