THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Comic strips as vehicles of social and political commentary

bioline_Greg RobinsonOne area of 20th century popular culture that is fascinating for historians to interpret is the comic strip. The first strips were introduced in the United States at the turn of the 20th century. They quickly attracted mass readerships and boosted newspaper circulation. (The term “yellow journalism” was even coined in reference to the lowbrow dailies that ran the strip “The Yellow Kid”). Yet the “funnies” also included innovative productions by serious artists such as Lyonel Feiniger and Winsor McCay.

By the 1930s, comic strips had become important vehicles of social and political commentary as well. Harold Gray’s “Little Orphan Annie” criticized the New Deal and the rise of labor unions, while Al Capp’s “L’il Abner” (and later Walt Kelly’s “Pogo”) made satirical thrusts at politics and social mores. Yet, aside perhaps, from Lothar in Lee Falk’s “Mandrake the Magician,” representations of racial minorities in mainstream strips, especially positive ones, were rather rare. (Not only did George Herriman, creator of the renowned strip “Krazy Kat,” not allude to racial matters in his comics, but he concealed his own mixed African American ancestry). As a result, I was pleasantly surprised recently when I came across the Toya Matsu episode in the 1930s comic strip “You be the Judge,” by L. Allen Heine.

Leslie Allen Heine was born to a German-Jewish family in Louisville, Ky. in 1883.

He graduated high school in Louisville then briefly attended the University of Michigan. In his early 20s, he wrote the music for a popular ragtime song, “De Barrel House in de Sky” and also penned “The Lay of the Katydid.” At some point during those years, he became newspaper advertising agent for such newspapers as the Louisville Herald and The Kentucky Kernel.

Sources differ somewhat on the comic strip’s origins. According to comic book historian Allan Holtz’s Website “Stripper’s Guide,” the initial inspiration came from Louisville Courier-Journal reporter William Lanahan, who made a hobby of collecting information on odd or interesting court cases. When Lanahan died, he willed his possessions — including the manuscripts — to Heine. There was a trunk full of transcripts of such cases. At this time, Carlile Crutcher, assistant to the publisher of the Louisville Courier-Journal, was creating his own newspaper syndication service. He commissioned Heine to create a daily comic strip using summaries of the cases that had been collected by Lanahan. Crutcher hired artist Robert Wathen to illustrate the panels.

The final product, which would variously be entitled “You Be the Judge” and “Bela Lanan, Court Reporter,” first appeared in July 1936. The strip (in which the court reporter never appeared) dramatized real-life cases collected by Heine. Each episode was structured as a six-day serial, covering a past case that came to trial, and reporting the evidence presented by each side. At the end of the week, readers were invited to give their own judgment as to the verdict. The newspaper then reported the actual judge’s decision on a separate page. (One intriguing aspect of the strip is that it carried a sponsor, whose product received a dedicated advertisement alongside the plot reveal in the weekend edition). By early 1938, according to Advertising Age, the series was running in 75 newspapers, including some in Spanish, Portuguese and French translations.

“The Case of the Japanese Gentleman,” a six-part series, appeared in the “Bela Lanan” strip during the week of Oct. 10, 1938. A caption accompanying the first installment stated “Time..1931! Place…Berkeley, California.” The strip introduced Toya Matsu, a “native-born Japanese,” and his wife. In the opening panel, Toya is congratulated on finishing college by the white American pastor of his Christian church, who asks him about his plans. Toya responds that he intends to be a worthy citizen. In the second strip, Toya is stopped for speeding by a racist police officer, who tells him he is not in Japan and adds, “Don’t give me no lip …or I’ll pop you on the nose.” Toya protests that this is no way to treat an American citizen, but the police officer sends him to a judge. In the third strip, the judge lets Toya off for speeding, in view of his past record. Nonetheless, he decides to leave California (readers can infer that it is because of the anti-Japanese climate) and go to Hawai‘i. He explains to his wife that they are not leaving America: “Hawaii is America!” and adds that there are schools and churches and business opportunities there.

In the next strip, Toya has moved to Honolulu and opened a novelty shop. He attempts to sell something to a white tourist, who expresses suspicion of “foreigners.” Toya is insulted and explains that he is an American. The white man asks whether he has been naturalized, and says that until he is, he can’t call himself an American citizen. In the next installment, Toya, upset by the unpleasant encounter with the tourist, resolves to become naturalized so that he won’t be viewed as a foreigner. In the final strip, Toya sits in the office of the local district attorney, who examines his dossier: “Born in Japan … thirty years ago! Lived twenty years in America … Berkeley, California! Graduate … Berkeley High School and University of California! Married … three children! American schools and churches! Now proprietor … ‘Toya novelty shop’… here in Honolulu!” The district attorney tells Toya to let him think it over and to come back in a week. The strip ends by asking readers how they would decide the case, and directing them to another page for the real decision.

In the last page, Heine reveals that Toya Matsu, despite his accomplishments and love of America, was denied naturalization because he was Japanese. “This may seem hard and unjust to many readers of ‘Bela Lanan’ … why was this worthy young husband and father refused?” The column proceeds to explain that no Japanese, whatever his worthiness, could become an American citizen — nor Chinese nor any other alien who was not “free white” or African (the strip noted that the term “free white” dates from the dark ages when some whites were slaves, but simply meant “Caucasian.”) Although the strip posed the exclusion as a matter of law, the author clearly considered it an injustice, and his sympathy for the “Japanese gentleman” was evident.

Readers were invited to send in a self-addressed stamped envelope to receive the citation of the true case. In fact, the “Toya Matsu” case, though set in the 1930s, closely tracks the notorious case of Takao Ozawa, a Berkeley High School and UC Berkeley graduate who applied for citizenship in Honolulu in 1914. Like “Toya Matsu,” Ozawa was a Christian and spoke English fluently. One minor difference was that Ozawa was already 19 years old by the time he came to the United States. After being denied naturalization by the Hawai‘i district attorney, Ozawa brought an appeal in federal court. His case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1922 ruled unanimously that Japanese were ineligible for naturalization on racial grounds.

The “Bela Lanan, Court reporter” comic strip did not last all that long after the end of the “Toya Matsu” episode.

Joe Wathan, the son of strip artist Robert Wathan, cited his father as explaining that the strip languished after its very good Jewish salesman stopped selling it in syndication, due to the fact that the strip was sponsored by the Bayer company, a German firm that did business with a government hostile to his people. (The “Jewish salesman” referred to by Wathan may actually be L. Allen Heine himself). Conversely, in July 1940 the Communist newspaper Daily Worker gleefully reported that, after running an episode that described union “goons” accused of murdering a recalcitrant employer, Heine’s strip had been the target of union-led boycotts, and that the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette had decided to discontinue the strip. The last record of the trip was sometime in 1941. Leslie Allen Heine died in October 1959.

Meanwhile, the power of comic strips to shape public opinion remained a source of concern for Japanese Americans and their supporters. In the weeks after Pearl Harbor, Nisei journalist Bill Hosokawa persuaded cartoonist Ham Fisher to include a Japanese American character in his “Joe Palooka” strip. Then, as historian Gordon Chang has recounted, during 1943 plans for the Superman comic strip to feature a series set in a Japanese American concentration camp and depicting disloyal inmates led to hurried intervention by the Office of War Information. Two years later, Japanese American cartoonist Bob Kuwahara broke the color bar in mainstream newspaper comics with his strip “Miki,” although he did not include any Asian characters in it, and signed his name “Robert Kay” to hide his ethnicity.

It was not until 1996, when Quebec-based artist Daniel Shelton began his syndicated comic strip “Ben,” that a mainstream strip featured recurring Nikkei characters. Three years later, Tak Toyoshima debuted his strip “Secret Asian Man,” which would launch a new era of Asian American creators and characters in the “funnies.”

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is a professor of history at l’Université du Québec À Montréal. He can be reached at robinson.greg@uqam.ca. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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