When reading old comic strips, it has to be understood that stereotypes will be encountered, regardless of the thoughts and opinions of the artist. The basic pro and con arguments go like this:
The cartoonist is racist. Look at the way he draws African-Americans and Asian characters. The way they speak is also an embarrassment.
You have to place this work in a historical context. You are being politically correct to apply modern standards to the comics of the past.
Were artists racists? Some probably were, but stereotypical depictions were probably more to do with lazy representations. An artist with no personal feelings might draw a character in a stereotypical way, just because that was the way others depicted them, and it was an easy shorthand.
Is historical context just an excuse? Stereotypes were often included for comic relief, and were rarely central to the story, humor, or art. It is also important to remember the prevalent racism that existed at the time, especially in places like the American south. For example, depicting African-Americans positively would just as likely result in complaints from the reading public and newspaper owners which could affect the sales of strips.
Can these still be enjoyed? There is a lot to love in early comic strips, so long as you understand the context. Being offended by certain depictions now shows how far we have come.
Examples: Smokey (Joe Palooka), Rachel (Gasoline Alley), Sunshine (Barney Google), Opal (Boots and Her Buddies)
Characteristics: Minstrel big lips, ape-like appearance, speaking heavily accented English, lazy (especially men), loud or shabby clothing, stereotypical jobs (porter, maid, cook), Africans portrayed as savages.
The most common stereotypes depicted in comics were African-Americans (the largest minority in the USA), as many of the artists were Americans. These stereotypes existed since the beginning of comics, and could easily be seen as a quick and easy depiction, regardless of the views of the artist. This shorthand could even go so far as to depict Africans (in Africa) with American “black accents” and mannerisms, since this “minstrel” quality would be known to the reader. Since minstrel shows remained popular even in the 1920s and 1930s, it was normalized.
There were some exceptions to the stereotypes, to a certain degree. Many black maids are portrayed in the “Mammy” stereotype (big and fat, barely literate, and having no life outside the white family she serves). Rachel, the maid in Gasoline Alley, was a much more complicated character. Though her appearance was stereotypical, she is shown to have a life of her own, including friends, boyfriends, and family. These interactions would also become storylines, such as when she visited family in Alabama (where they treated her as a big city success), or difficulties with boyfriends, and whether she should get married. Her portrayal during the war years was praised in the African-American press. In 1944, “The character Rachel, who in the past has been a maid in the home of the Wallets, is a maid no longer. Last year she took a job in a defense plant. This year, with one of the characters home on furlough from the war, she is visited. A look at her home is enough to show you that something unusual in comic strips has taken place. Instead of the usual shanty in which Negroes are always supposed to live, she is housed in an attractive apartment house, with living room furniture that is quite as nice as that of her old employers.”
Examples: Connie (Terry and the Pirates)
Characteristics: Poor English (Ls for Rs), slant eyes, buck teeth, yellow skin, bald heads or pigtail “queue”, stereotypical jobs (cooks and laundry men).
Asian characters were often portrayed as villains in the early 20th century (the “Yellow Peril”). Others served as comedy relief, like Connie in Terry and the Pirates. He was created specially for this role, where his mangled English often became the punchline. Since the strip takes place almost entirely in China or South-East Asia, he quickly becomes a sympathetic character, though he does not lose his stereotypical appearance or speech.
Examples: Lonesome Polecat (Lil Abner)
Characteristics: Poor English (How! Ugh!), portrayed in buckskin or other traditional dress that would not be common for the time, lazy, thieving
Native Americans were usually portrayed as “Injuns” in children’s comics, often as comic relief, or in adventure strips as villains. Even when stereotypical portrayals of other groups diminished in the 1950s, stereotypes of Native Americans continued much longer.
Examples: Wilma Deering (Buck Rogers), Burma (Terry and the Pirates), April Kane (Terry and the Pirates)
Characteristics: Jealously, Conniving
Although some stereotypes existed such as the nagging, violent wife (Maggie in Bringing Up Father), or the poor, pitiful girl seeking the attention of the hero (Daisy Mae in Lil Abner, often seen with a tear in her eye) it is the wild personality changes in some female characters that can be jarring to the modern reader. This would manifest in insane jealousy in strong female characters that could result in actions that put the heroes in real danger. For example, in Buck Rogers, Wilma could be a very competent military lieutenant in one story, but become a crying mess wondering “oh Buck how can I live without you” in the next. Burma (a recurring heroine in Terry and the Pirates) became insanely jealous and teams up with villains to remove her rival. Her later regret is fully accepted.
One notable exception is Ooola (Alley Oop), who is regularly portrayed as much cleverer than Alley, (especially when the time travel stories start), and a key problem solver in their adventures. There was rarely a belief that she could not handle herself in any situation, though she too would occasionally have jealous fits, or need rescuing. Later, it is even shown that her strong, independent streak is a liability in “getting a man (Alley Oop)”.
When did it Change?
Sensitivity improved somewhat during and after the Second World War. Civil rights groups were able to make the argument that it didn’t make sense to fight Nazi racism in Europe while upholding segregation in America. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) were active in picketing and boycotting popular entertainment that depicted African-Americans in negative or stereotypical ways. Editors and artists became more sensitive to this, but rather than draw more realistic portrayals, they simply were removed from the comics. The concern was that the realistic portrayal of black people would not sell in the segregated south, so it was better to exclude them altogether. Offensive characters were written out of strips, and non-white characters became rare. It would not be until the late 1960s and early 1970s that they would return to mainstream newspapers, like in Peanuts.