BUNGLETON GREEN IN THE 21ST CENTURY:
THE FIRST BLACK SUPERHERO
Plessy v Ferguson, the Supreme Court case that gave us the phrase “separate but equal,” is dim history today. Most people know that states created separate school systems for the children then politely called Negroes. Separate water fountains – one gleamingly modern, one old and creaky - are recorded in pictures that make a mockery of equality.
Lost, at least to the majority white community, is the understanding that separate systems pervaded all of American society in the century from the end of the Civil War to the Civil Rights Act. Separate colleges, now known as HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), turned out separate doctors and lawyers, ministers and bankers, a whole professional system in parallel to the white one which too often turned aside black clients.
These communities of separate professionals found one another in and drew support from a similar system of what were then called colored or Negro, then black, and now African-American newspapers. They date back to 1827's Freedom's Journal, and by the early years of the 20th century every major city had one or more, with their success, like other periodicals, dependent on the entrepreneurial daring and business savvy of their owners and editors. The Baltimore Afro-American, founded in 1892, led to the Pittsburgh Courier, the Boston Guardian, and the New York Amsterdam News, among many others. They created an Associated Negro Press (ANP) syndicate in 1919 to parallel the Associated Press and the United Press.
The ANP was created in Chicago, home to the Chicago Defender, usually lauded as the leading black American newspaper. Founded in 1905, it gave voice to the migrants streaming north to factory jobs to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South, while loudly denouncing the conditions they had to deal with in all areas of the country. The weekly paper cheered the baseball Negro Leagues, advertised the black and brown night life that accepted colored patrons, made readers aware of beauty products specifically targeted for black skin and hair, and opened up every other aspect of a parallel society.
That included a comics page. Newspaper comic strips – exclusive to a single paper in a city – were enormous draws for white newspapers in an era when a half dozen daily newspapers fought constant circulation wars. Sunday color comic sections might run 16 pages, with two strips on a page, enough to keep the kids quiet for a whole afternoon. Black newspapers didn’t have the incentive to spend large amounts of money on strips and color presses: they already had all the circulation that readers could afford. Their editorial cartoonists had more cachet, as loud voices denouncing prejudice. Still, comics were expected in a newspaper and bits of fun were always welcome in any community.
Leslie Rogers was hired as staff cartoonist in 1919. Perhaps to get a bit more income, he created Bungleton Green in 1920, the very first African-American comic strip.
From: A History of African-American Artists, from 1792 to the Present by Romare Bearden & Harry Henderson:
“Bung” as he was usually known, fell partway between a stereotype and a caricature. He was quite literally the proverbial little man, usually desperately poor but happy-go-lucky, but sometimes a sharp operator who kept clawing himself to the top.
Rogers was succeeded as staff cartoonist by Harry Brown in 1928, Jay Jackson in 1936 and Chester Commodore in 1953, and each took over Bungleton Green in turn (along with interstitial stints by Daniel Day and Jack Chancellor). The strip was an afterthought, with Bung’s looks, personality, and marriage status changed at whim and adventures abandoned halfway through to take him down a new road. He remained a fixture until 1964 nonetheless, the longest running African-American newspaper comic strip of all time.
All this is fascinating lost history but seemingly touching science fiction at no point. That’s wrong, as I accidentally discovered. We dive from one world to the other through Jay Paul Jackson, 1905-1954.
The best collection of facts about Jackson’s life is found at Alex Jay’s Stripper's Guide blog, one of the great resources about comic strips on the Internet.
Who’s Who said Jackson married Adeline C. Smith in 1925. Jackson attended Ohio Wesleyan University from 1925 to 1926. Beginning in 1926 Jackson was a feature artist with the Pittsburgh Courier newspaper. American Newspaper Comics (2012) said Jackson produced two weekly panels, Seeing Ourselves As Others See Us and The Jingle Belles, for the Courier in 1928. That same year Jackson began studies at the Chicago Art Institute. Jackson was a poster artist for the Warner Brothers’ theaters from 1928 to 1933. Jackson also contributed illustrations to the digest, Abbott’s Monthly, in 1928 and 1929. Abbott’s publisher was Robert S. Abbott who also published the weekly newspaper, Chicago Defender, which printed editorial cartoons by Jackson. In MELUS, Summer 2014, Amy M. Mooney said Jackson formally joined the Defender staff in 1933. The short-lived Abbott’s Weekly was another periodical with Jackson’s art.
The 1930 census recorded Jackson, a widower, as a lodger in Chicago at 465 Oakwood Boulevard. His occupation was commercial artist for theaters.
According to Who’s Who, Jackson painted the mural, Old Mexico, for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. In 1934, Jackson began a fourteen year relationship with the New York Amsterdam News newspaper. Jackson’s second marriage was to Eleanor K. Poston of Republican, Nebraska, in 1935.
According to American Newspaper Comics, Jackson produced several comics strips, panels and advertising strips throughout the 1930s: As Others See Us (1933); The Adventures of Bill (1934); Bungleton Green (1934; the third artist on Leslie M. Rogers’ creation); Fan Tan Anne (1935); Society Sue (1935); Bibsy (1935); Between Us (1936); Memphis Blue (1936); Cream Puff (1936); Tish Mingo (1937); Ben Franklin (1938); So What? (1939); and Billy Ken (1939).
Some of Jackson’s commercial work was featured recently at the Chicago Cultural Center.
In 1940, cartoonist Jackson, his wife and thirteen-year-old daughter, Carrie, resided at 6011 South May Street in Chicago. The census record said Jackson earned $1,800 in 1939. Who’s Who said Jackson did fashion art, layout, and catalog design for the National Clothing Company throughout the 1940s. During World War II Jackson produced cartoons for the Office of War Information and The Sergeant for Office of Price Administration in 1945. Jackson received a citation from Henry Morgenthau, Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, for the cartoons and posters backing the war bond campaign.
American Newspaper Comics said Jackson drew Exposition Follies (1940); Speed Jaxon (1942–1947); Ravings of Professor Doodle (1947); and Glamour Town (1948).
The Real Pepsi Challenge: The Inspirational Story of Breaking the Color Barrier (2008) explains Jackson’s role in the company’s 1948 advertising campaign which ran in Ebony magazine. Who’s Who said Jackson was art director at Negro Digest and Ebony.
Being staff cartoonist for a minor newspaper didn’t pay many bills during the depression. Jackson, like most other cartoonists and artists of all kinds, busied himself by taking on every possible additional freelance work. Chicago was a major magazine publishing center, second only to New York. Advertising executive William Ziff started the humorous Ziff’s Magazine in 1923 and hired Bernard Davis, the editor of the University of Pittsburgh humor magazine, when he graduated in 1927. Davis fit in so well that the company became Ziff-Davis in 1936. And in 1938 he officially became the editor of a couple of bankrupt magazines when the company bought them and moved the editorial offices to Chicago. One of those magazines was named Amazing Stories.
Did Davis merely seek out established talent when the need to fill pages arose? Could Ray Palmer, who was billed as Amazing’s Managing Editor, running the operation behind a title normally saved for routine scut work, have known him? Or was it all Ziff’s doing, since his advertising firm had been the primary source of filling ad needs for the weekly black papers nationwide?
The how, when, and where remain mysteries but there Jackson is, illustrating three stories in the June 1938 Amazing, the first issue produced entirely in Chicago, meaning that he had to have been brought on about ten minutes after Amazing came to town. “The Man Who Ruled the World,” by Robert Moore Williams, “The Space Pirate,” by Eando Binder, and Ross Rocklynne’s “The Escape Through Space” all got Jackson illustrations, each of them much better than anything in the previous issue.
The near pin-up-quality female in the drawing is a hallmark of Jackson’s. Among his many gigs were glamor postcards and a series of pin-up girls for the Defender during a Speed Jaxon beauty contest sequence.
Jackson owned the next, August, issue of Amazing with four story illustrations and added another in October. He did two for the October 1938 Weird Tales, then was in the first several issues of the short-lived adventure pulp Golden Fleece, another Chicago-based publication, before going back to Ziff-Davis and appearing regularly in Amazing and its companion magazine Fantastic Adventures, when that started in 1939.
We can thank Fantastic Adventures, for it ran bios of popular authors – and a few artists, without bothering to change the “Introducing the Author” title. Jackson must have qualified because a bio and a picture of the boyish-looking artist appeared in the October 1941 issue.
BIG Frank Jackson spread a wide and pearly grin. His broad hairy chest expanded another four or five inches and he stuck hard calloused thumbs under his armpits. He strode the splintered creaky boards across the kitchen to the clock hanging on the shamelessly nude cracked plaster wall over the water pail.
The clock had stopped at five minutes to twelve, but “What the hell! ” he said, “who cares whether the kid was born on the tenth or eleventh of September. It’s here! it’s a boy, and everything is fine. Hot damn! ” The object of the old man’s affection was me—and although I don’t remember it, I’ve been told that I was lying in bed broadcasting my arrival to a sleepy, disinterested world in accents loud and clear.
My dad was pleased because the big bird with the long bill had short changed him with girls on three previous occasions, but this time, at long last, had come a man child to carry on the family name! And what a name—and what a boy!
This tender little scene took place in Oberlin, Ohio, some score and two thirds years ago... but time marches on, as we’ve heard tell, and the scene changes (for which you will no doubt be thankful). We find the hero (that’s me) of this here yarn swinging a spike maul on a railroad track near Columbus, Ohio. The weather is hot—so is the boss, because yours truly wasn’t so hot as a spike maul tosser, being only thirteen years old and a little light in the places and things necessary for heaving an eleven pound hammer ten hours a day.
So, down comes the curtain again, to rise on a steel mill scene in Pittsburgh, Pa. We find our slightly brawnier party of the first part with a pair of steel tongs in his leather-encased hands, grabbing at a hunk of white hot steel as it jumps out of the rollers. If he misses it, it won’t miss him, and will cut through his legs like a hot knife through butter.
The next thrilling chapter follows in the gymnasium of Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. This time my hands wear a pair of sweat and blood smeared mitts and above me stands a chunky little guy called Shorty Morrison. The referee calls a halt on this very touching murder —and it was strictly touching, too—Shorty touched me with everything but the ring posts. That wasn’t my first fight, but (thank God) it was practically my last.
An English teacher told me I should be an advertising writer because on one historic afternoon, I described a fried egg in all its taste tantalizing glory—in such a realistic way that she swore she could smell it. One of my art teachers suggested that I quit school and keep the night job I had driving a mail truck, because I might be an artist some day, and I might not—but I could always drive a truck.
Well, I didn’t take either teacher’s advice... being only nineteen years old and knowing (I thought) what everything was all about, I said “I do” to the girl of my dreams and started in the sign business. Business was good—in fact it was super, and I had sign painted the whole countryside before a severe case of lead poisoning put me out of the sign business and on the train to Chicago, where effortlessly I became first poster artist and then shop foreman for a chain of theaters.
Everything was swell until the old man with the scythe caught up with my life and struck swiftly, viciously—my father, my first child—my wife... leaving me with an infant daughter and not the vaguest idea how to fold a diaper. I was twenty-two.
The next scene comes on like an Orson Welles film set—crazy pictures at crazy angles... loneliness, bitterness, sullenness, strange hotels and soulless rooms, moonshine whiskey, bathtub gin, despair.... Life had done me dirt and I resented it... so I drew and wrote about people on the down beat —my inborn humor turned sour and came out on paper with a sardonic grin. I tossed them in a trunk and forgot them. As the years crawled by, bitterness and frustration hung around me like a shadow... but I was lucky too, for those were the years when hand painted posters we used in front of theaters and speakeasies went in for murals... more work than I could handle was tossed my way.
Then, after those years of wild prosperity came 1933. No job. I gave up my apartment and moved into a fine hotel... kept my big flashy convertible gleaming... changed suits every day—it seems crazy now, but at that time, it helped to keep my courage up.
Working on Old Mexico murals for the Century of Progress, I dug into my trunk and submitted a number of illustrated verses to a Pittsburgh newspaper on which I had worked while still in school. The drawings caught on, and I soon had a staff job on a Chicago magazine and national weekly newspaper, also a three year contract from a New York publisher to fill up a half page each week in his magazine section.
Then (in the Chicago office) I met the little lady who was destined to be my girl Friday, my good right arm and the rarely silent power behind the throne.
So, everything is all right now... I have my studio in our little suburban home, where my wife pinch hits at modeling for me, in between her own enthusiasm for dress design and the business of raising my daughter who graduated from the eighth grade this past June. I want to tell you how much I enjoy working for this fine magazine, and how much I appreciate your grand letters—even the ones telling me how lousy I am —because they all keep me trying harder to make each drawing better than the last, and some day, I hope to please all of you.
In all that vivid depiction of a freelancer’s life, one omission glares. Jackson says not one word about reading science fiction. Apparently Amazing was just another gig which he treated no differently than his other work. I’ve collected every bit of his science fiction interior art here and 90% of it could be swapped over into other pulp magazines without a line being changes. He never drew a bug-eyed monster or a robot and after that first issue of Amazing no rocketships.
As far as I can tell, no compilation records all of Jackson's science fiction illustrations. I was pleasantly surprised to find I could track down every one, and almost all of those appearing in Golden Fleece. Here for the first time ever is the complete pulp work of Jay Jackson.
Yet something about all those 60-odd stories he illustrated must have triggered the same light bulb experience that triggered the careers of so many other writers. Science fiction afforded creative minds opportunities to comment on the world by changing it, inverting it, or subverting it. Except for one last 1945 illustration, Jackson abandoned the pulps in early 1943.
I don’t think it’s at all coincidence that in early 1943 Jackson introduces science-fictional elements in Bungleton Green. Time travel, rocket transport, thought reading, scientific resurrections, and superpowers all make appearances in the strip, buried in and around two separate sequences during which the strip is relabeled to include "in the 21st Century." Nothing else like it existed at the time or would for decades to come. The overt anti-racist message is as loud and powerful as any of Jackson’s editorial cartoons and must have thrilled readers as much as Captain America’s punching Hitler in the face.
November 28, 1942
For most of 1942, Bungleton Green was a four panel gag-strip, similar to Blondie then and now. The Defender used eight columns to lay out its pages, standard practice for newspapers. Bungleton Green spread out across five columns at the bottom of the page. At the top of the page, they ran Jackson’s other strip, So What?, a single-panel joke strip, like The Family Circus, but far more topical. The page changed entirely on November 28, 1942.
Bungleton Green expanded to 12 panels and a second 12-panel strip, Speed Jaxon, by Jackson under the pseudonym Pol Curi, ran above it. The two filled five columns from top to bottom. “Speed” gets his name from being a former track star at the HBCU Howard University. A giant of a man, he would beat up lots of fascists and saboteurs during the war.
Bung is as small as Speed is huge. Earlier that had been no more than a comic effect, like Barney Google, Snuffy Smith, or Jeff of Mutt and Jeff. In the future he would frankly be called a dwarf as realism seeped into the strip’s bones. He’s no longer a layabout but an intelligent and respected member of the community. The first appearance of the new Bungleton Green has him opening a teen community center called The Rumpus Room, giving teens – who were increasingly unsupervised as their parents were at war or at work all day, a major issue of the war years – a place to go for wholesome fun. The bad kids aren’t having any of it. Bung creates the Mystic Commandos, a gang of good kids who will not only stand up against the bullies but make decent citizens and patriots of them. (Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had created the Boy Commandos earlier in 1942, a gang of ethnic stereotypes who fought the Nazis alongside superheroes in the pages of Detective Comics. The Mystic Commandos were never stereotypes.)
Each week featured a new “secret password” for the Commandos, always the name of a “Negro hero” out of history explained in a trailer panel that could be cut out and scrapbooked. (This was a standard device for comics of the day. Zack Mosley had done it for airplanes in his Smilin’ Jack Airport.) On December 12, the password was Prince Whipple. He and his explanatory panel show up the next week.
December 19, 1942
Prince Whipple was real, born in Africa and sold to and later emancipated by General William Whipple of New Hampshire. (The exalted nickname of Prince was sardonically bestowed on newly-arrived African slaves.) A black oarsman is depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” and a legend has grown up that the figure is Prince Whipple. This is almost certainly impossible from what we know of Whipple’s movements, but Jackson understood propaganda as well as anyone in Washington. His final panels contain a capsule history of Afrocentrism two decades before the term was invented.
When I say Prince Whipple shows up, I mean that literally. He emerges out of thin air to frighten off the black gang teens and hands the Mystic Commandos a magic Zulu ring they can use to call him up anytime they’re in trouble. Jackson was way ahead of Jimmy Olson’s signal watch with this. (The real Prince Whipple was not Zulu, a southern African people, but from Ghana in west-central Africa. Propagandistically, the fierce warrior Zulus would have resonated far better than the lesser-known Ghanan peoples. ) When good-guy Bud is framed for robbery, Prince Whipple takes “Pig” and “Knifey” back to meet Washington, the ultimate good guy, a real “jive cat.” Washington turns them over his knee for a spanking. (Look, America was at war, and super-patriot Jackson was never going to bring up how the real Washington treated blacks.) A visit to the devil, aka Benedict Arnold, and his cauldron of boiling water, just like those in the African missionary jokes, is next on the agenda. (I can’t explain this away, even in past iconography.) They aren’t hurt, of course. It’s all a dream or mystic spell. Whatever, it works. Pig and Knifey come clean and join the Mystic Commandos.
January 30, 1943
The storyline shifts. By 1943, the U.S. was completely on a war footing. Millions of men had enlisted or been drafted while industry retooled into defense plants working overtime to supply what FDR proclaimed “the arsenal of democracy.” Wartime factories needed even more millions of workers than the armed forces, so jobs opened for women and African-Americans to work side-by-side with the remaining white men. Jackson’s drawings personalized the headlines on other pages of the Defender. Despite the we’re-all-in-it-together propaganda the government constantly churned out, the reality of the 1940s is that black workers were resented, often relegated to menial tasks, and seldom made bosses if that put them over whites.
If Germany actually had as many saboteurs and fifth columnists as filled the panels of comic books and strips in the 1940s, American would have been doomed. Jackson added melodrama to unpleasant reality by introducing a German spy ring led by the uber-Teutonic Monocle. In July he captures Bung and some commandos and takes them to Germany in a submarine to be imprisoned and tortured in his “private concentration camp.” Readers were undoubtedly expecting some heroic derring do and a miraculous escape. Nope. They’re tortured and they die, their bodies thrown into a ditch. Heads must have exploded all over Chicago in August 1943.
August 7, 1943
Jackson had left reality, now fully committed to the science fictional miracles he soaked up in the Ziff-Davis world. A side plot concerned an anti-Nazi German scientist who invented a time machine intending to escape from Germany’s certain doom in the war. His shrewish wife is willing to travel into the past with him but insists on taking along slaves to serve her. The Mystic Commandos will do nicely. If the Monocle plans on killing them, then her husband must invent a resurrection device to bring them back to life. The scientist uses blow darts to poison them Commandos while their toenails are being pulled out so that the Monocle believes they were too weak to stand up under torture. The "old scientist" (Jackson doesn't bother with a name until much later when he is called Dr. Gobbles, punning on Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels.) is the one who steals them out of the ditch and reverses his drug. The Monocle must be given his comeuppance and the method Jackson chooses is what distinguishes cartoonist’s minds from those of mundane thinkers. The scientist turns his time ray on the Monocle and sends him back to Egypt in the time of the pharaohs, where he finds employment as a slave driver over those building the pyramids – and is killed by Moses fighting for his freedom.
August 21, 1943
The Commandos get their turn at derring do and miraculous escapes in 1778 for a few months, until the scientist can repair his damaged time machine. Building a time machine from 1778 parts is no easy task and he should be forgiven a slight glitch. When he turns it on Bung and the Commandos they wind up not in December 25, 1943 but 2043. Yes, finally it’s Bungleton Green in the 21st Century.
(A brief note on the strip’s name: Bungleton Green becomes Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos on April 14, 1943. It stays that way for almost a year until March 25, 1944 when it lengthens to Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the Twenty-First Century. Jackson randomly switches between “Twenty-First Century” and “21st Century” through December 9, 1944, except for September 2, where he apparently plain forgot to include the date. On December 16, the strip brings back the long-missing title character and emphasizes that by renaming itself Bungleton Green in the 21st Century for four weeks and Bungleton Green in the Twenty-First Century for the other two. At that point he returns to the present and the strip returns to the simple Bungleton Green.)
December 25, 1943
Jackson’s 1778 contained an abundance of evil slave owners, history as social commentary. His 2043 is pure social commentary as well, a world of role reversal in which whites are at the bottom, in every way treated as badly as blacks were in 1778. Making that world one in which blacks actively persecuted whites was probably too much even for a black newspaper in 1943. That’s a problem easily solved by science fiction. In the time line of this future, a massive earthquake raised an ancient continent from the seabed. The continent is ruled by green people, who are portrayed as the horrible oppressors of the whites. Blacks exist in the middle, there to continually point out the irony.
America, however, is a utopian paradise of equality in this future. The American president decides to send a delegation to convince the greens that “there can be no peace without unity and brotherhood.” Lotta, the brown-skinned Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, takes along a white man, a yellow man, and black Commando Bud Happyhollow. (That future America considers a "yellow man" an equal, while in 1944 the Japanese were vilely caricatured, is as historically interesting today as a proud black cartoonist could casually referring to Asians presumably non-derogatorily as yellow people.) Jon Smythe, the white man, is the narrative device who wanders around perpetually bemused by this upside-down world of green domination. “What have we white people ever done to have to suffer such rotton [sic] discrimination?” he asks plaintively. Living in a true egalitarian country he honestly doesn’t understand the banality of racism. We have to assume that Jackson expected whites to read the strip, and appealed to their better natures by insinuating that they were merely ignorant rather than inherently racist, and that once made aware of their behavior they would change, just like the good whites in his strip.
As soon as the rocket transport lands them on the green continent, the discrimination starts. “Look! Non-green folks! Tell ‘em all our cabs are filled!” exclaims one green man. “The nerve! They’ll probably expect to stay in one of our best hotels!” says his companion. With no cabs available they take a street car, but whites have to sit in the back of the bus. The hotel is no better. “It’s a law that white characters are not permitted to sleep under the same roof as white people,” says the miniskirted receptionist. (Miniskirts had been a signifier of future worlds ever since Buck Rogers. The men wear shorts.) “We might make room for the brown or yellow people with you … but you … colorless individual … never! Oh, bouncer!”
(The strip shrinks to two lines usually containing nine panels on January 8, 1944.)
February 5, 1944
February 19, 1944
It’s too dangerous for Jon to stay, but there’s no way for him to leave either. Even their planes have Jim Crow sections for whites; without enough whites to fill the section Jon can’t board. The rest go but Bud stays behind to help protect Jon.
They keep running into the mindless discrimination of the greens. When they seek jobs, Jon, the president of a steel mill before becoming the President’s secretary, is given a pickax to sweat out heavy labor while the inexperienced teenager Bud is made a foreman. In the factory Jon saves the life of a green woman when she falls off a balcony, but his fellow green workers try to lynch him because he dared touch a green woman. That puts Jon and Bud on the run. They flee to the northern part of the green continent, where people are not reputed to be as prejudiced as the southerners.
The northerners have civil rights laws; they merely find subtler ways around them. Bud and Jon try to eat in a restaurant. At first no one will give them a menu; when they press they’re asked for their membership cards – the restaurant is a private club. To their rescue comes Red Greenman, a green northerner who believes in equality. “Red” isn’t the color of his hair, it’s symbolic of “the country in northern Europe that was the first to practice equality for all people.” Yes, Jackson means Russia. He contrasts that enlightened attitude with those of greens who don't care enough to work for change.
August 5, 1944
August 12, 1944
Just as the north has sympathetic greens it has uppity whites, whites so bitter from decades of oppression that they teeter on the edge of rioting. Contemporary readers would identify: deadly race riots in Detroit and Harlem killed three dozen people in 1943. (Whites also rioted against black workers in Detroit and Beaumont, Texas, in 1942 and 1943. You might want to point this out to anyone trying to tell you how wonderful attitudes were when the country all pulled as one during the war.) The situation gets so bad that Russia invades the green continent to force equality on the greens. Forced equality works in this future. Within weeks discrimination has not merely been legally abolished but forgotten by green and white alike. Bud and Jon catch a stratorocket for America.
We haven’t seen Bungleton Green himself for a year, but on November 25, 1944 he makes a dramatic return to the strip. He’s been stuck in 21st century America, a paradise, true, but one without his wife. He’s kidnapped by mad scientists who want to experiment on a body no one will miss. They want to turn Bung… into a robot superman!
Jackson’s science is murky at best. All we see is Bung laid out on an operating table and anesthetized. When he awakes he has the body of a Joe Louis. “You are the same Bungleton Green you always were,” says one of the scientists. “But now you are bigger, stronger, handsomer! Your mind is greater! Your muscles are spring steel! Your heart is metal! You cannot be destroyed!” Whether this is supposed to be literal or figurative is never made clear. (This is reminiscent of Captain America's origin, true. Time travel was not a new element in comic strips, either. It had successfully reinvigorated caveman strip Alley Oop in the early 1940s. Comics in those days were like a giant community stew into which everybody contributed ideas for the taking, to be reworked with individual touches.)
There's no question that Jackson meant for the new Bung to be a superhero just like those in the comic books. The panel at the top of this page, taken from the January 5, 1945 strip, explicitly calls him a "super man."
As always, the bad guys take it one step too far. “You are a slave!” the scientist tells Bung. “Think like a slave!” How does a slave think? Not as the master imagines.
“I want to be FREE!” SuperBung yells. Freedom clears his head. SuperBung cows the scientists, who by sheer coincidence happen to have a time machine on them. The rest of the Commandos want to stay in the utopian America of the 21st century, so when SuperBung returns he takes along only Boo, the scientists’ beautiful assistant who sided with Bung against them.
Below, for the first time anywhere, the complete ten episode run of Bungleton Green himself in the 21st century.
December 2, 1944
December 9, 1944
December 16, 1944
December 23, 1944
December 30, 1944
January 6, 1945
January 13, 1945
January 20, 1945
January 27, 1945
The last strip set in the future ran on January 27, 1945. On February 3 Bungleton - now shortened to Bun instead of Bung - and Boo land in 1945 Memphis. They should have been returned to 1943, a minute after he left, but that type of complexity was almost never allowed in time travel stories. Too confusing for audiences: it’s hard to comment on the here and now when your characters are stuck in the past.
Besides, Jackson had yet another gigantic plot twist in store. Back in August 1942, remember, Bung officially and literally died in a Nazi prison. That news had been reported home, while, obviously, his adventures in time were known to no one in the 20th century. Beebe, like many war widows, reformulated her shattered life and remarried. When a gigantic stranger rushes into his old house, a happily married couple are startled by him. Bun sees that he is the interloper and leaves. To commit suicide. Even SuperBun doesn't realize just how invulnerable he has become. Neither a train nor a fall from a bridge break a bone.
April 21, 1945
Worse, attempted suicide is illegal. The police use that charge to blackmail Bun into being an undercover agent for them, infiltrating a local mob. He mops up a crooked judge who runs the gang as the Owl and then tangles with the more insidious S. Lippery Eel, who is involved in the very real-world white collar crime of preventing black families increasingly overcrowded in South Side Chicago - Bronzeville - from moving into white neighborhoods, a scandal heavily fought in the editorial pages of the Defender. Later he travels through a dystopian South of such horrors that the green continent seems a mild inconvenience by comparison. In hindsight, readers could see that breaking up Bun's marriage was an editorial decision that allowed Bun to roam freely through undercover danger without having to account for his long absences or worry about his family. Boo, however, does serve the role pioneered by Buck Roger's Wilma and Superman's Lois Lane: she gets kidnapped regularly.
Bun's superpowers are rarely on display. Even when he scatters badguys by the dozen he looks little different than any other comic strip hero. Only occasionally is he shown doing something impossible like shrugging off bullets or bending jail bars. His superpower often seems to be his incredible self-control and moral suasion in the face of truly evil enemies out to prove Langston Hughes wrong when he argued in 1942 that his "colored people" should wholeheartedly back the war because "Although Alabama is bad, the Axis is worse." As he says in the March 17, 1945 strip, "Yes, tolerance and understanding are necessary on both sides! The more we learn of each others' problems, the less we'll hate each other!"
November 23, 1946
March 29, 1947
By 1947, he’s weary of the struggle: the end of the war seemingly did nothing to ease racial oppression, especially in the South. The strip itself diminished. On February 22 it shrunk back to four panels, an almost impossible format to develop action and plot in a weekly adventure saga. In retrospect Jackson can be seen signaling an end to the strip. The May 17 strip shows Boo's brother Targ appearing in Chicago bent on returning her to the 21st century. Bung almost decides that life in the future is better than hopeless struggle in contemporary America. Boo won't give up the fight, though, and Bung stands with her. To no avail. Targ uses a proton pistol on him, not merely taking away his superpowers but telling him - in an astoundingly meta moment - that he will become again the "pathetic, little comic strip character" he had been.
June 7, 1947
June 14, 1947
Although the strip stumbles on for a few more weeks, and disappears for a while from the national edition, on September 27, 1947, Jackson makes good his threat. Bung wakes up as the goofy-looking comic strip gagster he had been for decades. It had all been a dream. (Though he awakens in 1947, not 1943, and to 1947's cast of characters. Comics.)
September 27, 1947
It's hard to estimate how many people would have seen SuperBun during his postwar run. A public with a near-insatiable appetite for war news had boosted circulations among newspapers generally after Pearl Harbor. Black newspapers almost were denied the opportunity to take advantage of this increased interest. Not only were they on the short end of newsprint allocations but in the early months of the war, Attorney General Francis Biddle and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover attempted a major crackdown on communist influences and what they consider seditious writing, i.e., any article that less than unstintingly complimentary about the war effort. As Ethan Michalei noted in his history The Defender, Jackson was hardly the only Defender staffer who saw communism as the solution to white supremacy and the "Negro Press" as a whole continually published headlines documenting Army mistreatment of black soldiers. (Neither Jackson nor Bungleton Green are mentioned in the 536 pages of text, sadly.) John Sengstack, already the founder of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, representing black newspapers, inherited control of the Defender after his uncle's death in 1940. He led a concerted effort to reassure Washington of the loyalty of those Negro readers while maintaining that they would continue to protest official segregation and discrimination. The government relented, and the Defender benefited directly when the Office of War Information started buying 100,000 copies to distribute to black soldiers, a huge reversal of attitude. The Defender's national edition ran about 100,000 outside Chicago, where 60,000 copies were sold weekly. Assuming a huge pass-along rate, especially among soldiers, as many as 1,000,000 readers could have seen the adventures of SuperBun before the war ended. I haven't been able to find any information on the drop in circulation that would inevitably have followed the war, however.
Bung would live on for almost two decades without achieving the recognition of these glory years. Jackson continued not merely as the staff cartoonist for the Defender but worked for almost all the major African-American magazines of his era. A promotional campaign he drew for Pepsi-Cola that appeared in Ebony magazine made history by its normalization of the black image. In one 1948 ad a well-dressed father and daughter see a pre-Warholish painting of a bottle of Pepsi hanging in a museum. The girl exclaims, "Mmm, Daddy! Now that's art!" The dignity of the setting inverted all contemporary notions about African-Americans and marked a reversal on the company's part. Four years earlier Pepsi had still been using grass-skirted natives with big lips to extol its product.
Jackson's return to contemporary issues seemed to crowd out the fantastic scenarios he indulged himself with during the war, at least as far as researchers had discovered. Giving a strip a label of “in the 21st century” attracts eyeballs, to be sure. Without such a label a storyline is easy to miss and indeed the researchers missed one. A footnote to this saga of Jackson’s playfulness with science fictional tropes remains untold, although hidden in plain sight. Bungleton Green’s 21st century storyline has been known for years, although no researcher seems to have had access to a full run of the Defender to set down all the details. They appear here for the first time. Speed Jaxon ran above Bungleton Green for all those years, mostly ignored even by historians of comics. Certainly none of them ever picked up on an odd twist the strip made in 1946 when the hoariest of science fiction clichés pops up. Speed, who has spent the war years battling a similar mixture of Nazi saboteurs and racist haters, encounters his strangest foe: giant intelligent ants mutated by leaking atomic waste who want to take over the earth.
February 9, 1946
February 16, 1946
February 23, 1946
March 2, 1946
March 9, 1946
March 16, 1946
March 23, 1946
March 30, 1946
It's impossible to imagine Speed Jaxon, the pinnacle of erudition and athleticism, not being the ego projection of Jay Jackson, publicly faceless behind his easel, any more than it's possible to see Superman as other than the ego projection of teenaged Jerry Siegel as inked by similarly nerdy best pal Jerry Shuster. The super Bungleton Green, operated on by future doctors to be a towering figure of steel sinews, is Speed Jaxon writ even larger, invincible in his fight against evil forces. Jackson, like the Jewish Siegel and Shuster, grew up as an outsider in the WASP-dominated world; their fantasies of striking back at the forces of oppression no different from those of tens of millions like them except that their talent allowed them the tangible expression of those dreams. Their paths would diverge with tremendous irony. Siegel and Shuster's fantasy figure himself towers in the world's imagination as one of the primal heroes of popular culture, yet their personal stories were of future failure, penury, and lack of recognition. Jay Jackson's imaginary creations would be forgotten by all save a few historians, yet his career was showered with awards and multiple offers of prestigious work before he died suddenly in 1954, still in his forties.
His style, a mixture of pride, anger, education, conciliation, and conflict, prefigures the varied and sometimes contradictory approaches to civil rights battles that would be fought after the war as leaders worked through the impossible quandary of determining how to reverse 350 years of American racism and racist policies. His approach, using humor and satire to ridicule the obvious political insanities and inanies of his contemporary world, would be reflected in the social commentary of comic strips like Barnaby and Pogo. His characterization of Bungleton Green as the Platonic ideal of righteous humanity also marked the way mainstream superheroes like Batman and Superman were handled in the 40s and 50s and also prefigured the portrayal of the Black Panther when the character became the first black superhero in mainstream comics.
What deserves to be better recognized is Bungleton Green's priority: he is the first back superhero in comic strips or comic books, preceding even Lion Man, who appeared in the single, June 1947, issue of All-Negro Comics. (The college-educated Lion Man may be seen as a successor to Speed Jaxon as well.) Though the battle against officially-sanctioned Jim Crow is over, virtually all the issues Jackson tackled in his imaginary 21st century remain to blot our real 2018. 2043 is fast approaching. We should expect as much of that year as Jackson did.
August 28, 2018