Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sparky and the Racist Robots

Sometimes, when you look at the traditional British comics still on sale in the Newsagents, it seems as if time has been standing still for the past forty years.  The Commando picture libraries have changed little since they first appeared in 1961 and even 2000AD has an air of familiarity about it.   A quick look at a recent Beano revealed that all of the featured characters had been about for more than 30 years.  Some, like Dennis the Menace, The Bash Street Kids and Roger the Dodger, for more than 60.  But some characters don’t survive.  Time and social attitudes catch up with them and nothing can be done to adapt them for the present.  Take Sparky for example.

Sparky, the comic, debuted in January 1965 as a sister title to The Beano and The Dandy, but aimed at a slightly younger audience.   It was the same size as its more popular stablemates and printed on the same paper. 
The Moonsters from the cover of Sparky 100
Early issues were not exactly memorable for invention or originality.  Among the best of the new features was the Moonsters by Bill Ritchie.  Usually an excuse for a single large panel with lots of sight gags featuring little green men trying their hand at earth hobbies and activities.

But as well as new strips D C Thompson moved or revived a good number of humour strips from the Beano and the Dandy to start the new comic.   Hungry Horace, Keyhole Kate and Freddie the Fearless Fly were brought over from the Dandy and Pansy Potter, Frosty McNab and Hairy Dan from the Beano.

Sparky from issue 1.
 The cover feature, after the first issue, was another revival of an old strip, this time a much older one.  “Sparky”, the character, was as blatant a racial stereotype as ever graced the pages of a comic.  He was a black boy, with huge red lips, grass skirt, earrings, ankle bracelets and bare feet.   He lived, apparently alone, in suburban England and, to begin with at least, spoke a strange patois English.  “Golly! This sure am a steep hill” he said in the second panel he appeared in.   

And his precursor, Sooty Snowball from Magic no 1
Visually Sparky was a revival of “Sooty Snowball” who had run in the Magic comic in 1939.  Magic, like Sparky, was a companion title to the Beano and the Dandy that had been aimed at a younger audience.  It lasted little more than a year and a half, quickly falling victim to wartime paper shortages.  I’ve only ever seen the very first issue, reprinted in the excellent DC Thompsons’ Firsts book, but Sooty and Sparky were so alike that I can only assume that this was a straight revival but with someone deciding that Sooty Snowball was not an appropriate name for a comic book character in the mid sixties.

As the strip progressed Sparky lost his accent.  Indeed its difficult to see what point there was to the visual depiction.   In all but appearance, Sparky was simply a boy who had funny adventures.  The stories were no different in tone than those featuring Korky the Cat or Biffo the Bear in  Dandy and Beano. 

In 1969 Sparky lost his strip, but continued on as a disembodied head on the joke pages for a few more years.  On the cover of issue 210, his last issue, Sparky had trouble packing his suitcase for holiday, he never did come back from that holiday.  It would be nice to think that he was removed because he was offensive, but I very much doubt that to be the case.   Casual racism was the order of the day in the late sixties and early seventies.   We were still a few years away from television programs like “Love thy Neighbour” and “Mind your Language” which included racist language that would simply not be tolerated on television today.  No I don’t believe that Sparky lost his place on the cover for any other reason than he had run his course. 
Ironically British comics in the sixties were mainly seen as being wholesome, they reflected a post-war ‘respectable’ society.  Many, such as the Eagle, were even seen by parents as being ‘good for kids’.  American comics, on the other hand, were still suffering from the moral panic of the fifties and were seen as bad influences, leading to crime and all sorts of depravity.  All this despite the introduction of the Comics Code, a body of censors who made sure that nothing too unpleasant made its way onto the printed page.  

The Comics Code was the guardian of the morals of American kids. And each and every comic that bore its logo had to be submitted for approval.   In 1954, in an issue of Incredible Science-Fiction EC publisher William Gaines and editor Al Feldstein fell afoul of the code and one of their stories was rejected.  They decided to replace it with a reprint of a powerful anti-racist story by Joe Orlando from Weird Fantasy 18, Judgement Day.

In the story a helmeted representative from earth comes to the robot planet of Cybrinia.  He is there to judge whether the inhabitants are civilised enough to join the Galactic Republic.   All is well until he discovers that Robots are divided into an elite, with orange coatings, and a worker caste, who carry out all the menial jobs and are forbidden to be full citizens.   He discovers that the only difference between the two is that the lower caste have blue casings placed on them at construction.

Judgment Day from a recent Fantagraphics Reprint book.
The Robot leaders are distraught when told them they are not yet ready to join the Republic.  Asked by the Robot leaders is their hope that they may someday be ready the representative answers.
“Of course there is hope for you my friend.  For a while on earth it looked like there was no hope.  But when mankind learned to live together, real progress first began”.  Entering his spaceship and leaving the robot planet behind he removes his helmet to reveal that he is black.  

This proved too much for the Comics Code, a story about equality was fine, but equality with black people?   The story was rejected by Code Administrator, Judge Charles Murphy, unless the black astronaut was removed from the story.  Gaines refused and pulled the story from the comic, threatening to go to the Supreme Court. It proved to be the last straw for Gaines and EC comics stopped publishing anything other than Mad magazine, a title not covered by the Comics Code. 

It’s a strange contrast that in Britain the socially acceptable comics continued to reinforce unpleasant racial stereotypes well into the sixties and yet the American imports and reprints, which were seen as immoral and dangerous, could be the home of much more progressive, even moral attitudes.

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