JAY JACKSON'S BUNGLETON GREEN:
THE FIRST BLACK SUPERHERO
This article originally appeared in shorter form on the Chicago Defender website as a three-part series titled "Jay Jackson and the First Black Superhero" on January 7-9, 2021. Permission to reprint the article and add additional material courtesy of the Chicago Defender. All images from the Defender are reproduced with their written permission.
For more information on Jay Jackson, see my article JAY JACKSON: FIRST BLACK SF PULP ARTIST.
Please also see my other articles on pioneering black f&sf artists:
Jay Jackson introduced the world to the first black superhero on January 6, 1945 in the most obvious place, “the oldest, longest continuously running black comic strip,” Bungleton Green, in the pages of the country’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender. Bungleton Green, the name of the character as well as the strip, became the literal embodiment of the black ideal, a man who in all ways was equal, even superior, to the whites whose relentless oppression Jackson constantly fought.
That he did this during World War II is no coincidence; the time was ripe. Jackson felt that Americans needed to be reminded of the unequal status of black Americans fighting in and supporting a war effort purported for the freedom of all. The result was some of the strongest social commentary ever put into comic form, with excoriations of white supremacy, bigotry, and systemic racism that resonate with current events. Why this important first has been forgotten is a mystery, but celebrating it today is critical. The time is again ripe.
Jay Paul Jackson
Born on September 10, 1905 in Oberlin, Ohio, Jay Paul Jackson dropped out of school at the age of thirteen to drive spikes for a railroad, “heaving an eleven pound hammer ten hours a day.” He moved to Pittsburgh for another tough job in a steel mill. After marrying young, he attended Ohio Wesleyan College for a year where a brief and mostly losing stint as a boxer nevertheless left him with a lifelong love for the sport. Better fortune came his way when he dropped out to start a sign-painting business, a success that almost turned deadly when he contracted lead-poisoning from the paint. Back in Pittsburgh, Jackson found a position as a feature artist for the Pittsburgh Courier, another historic black newspaper, doing at least two weekly comic strips.
Then, a staggering disaster. “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 [named Carrie Lou] and not the vaguest idea how to fold a diaper. I was twenty-two,” he later wrote.
Jackson moved to Chicago in 1928, possibly to be near his sister Mabel and learn folding. Art took care of itself. He took courses at Chicago’s prestigious Art Institute when not busily freelancing. For the next five years he drew posters for Warner Brothers and murals for speakeasies as “more work than I could handle was tossed my way.” Some of his illustrations appeared in Abbott’s Weekly and Abbott’s Monthly, both magazines published by Robert S. Abbott, coincidentally also the publisher of the Defender.
Even though he had been working for literally half his life, the Depression caught up with Jackson in 1933. He caught a break when hired to produce the mural in the Old Mexico building at the Chicago Century of Progress Exposition. Jackson also reconnected with the Courier with a series of illustrated poems.
Elmer A. Carter, the editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, a publication of the National Urban League, sent a letter to the editor that ran on June 17, 1933.
I have noticed the work of Jay Jackson in the Feature Section of The Pittsburgh Courier, and I wish to congratulate The Courier and Mr. Jackson for what to me is the best presentation and the best cartooning that I have seen in a Negro newspaper. As a matter of fact, Jackson’s work is not surpassed in this field by any cartoonist in any newspaper, white or colored.
A rave like that will get you a job even at the lowest point of a Depression. The Defender made him assistant to lead cartoonist Henry Brown. Allowed to continue freelancing, Jackson supplemented the low pay with “a three-year contract from a New York publisher to fill up a half page each week in his magazine section,” probably the black New York Amsterdam News, with whom he worked for thirteen years.
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.
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.
Despite the extravagant praise, Jackson was still learning his trade as a cartoonist. A flood of short-lived cartoon strips followed in the Defender as his work slowly improved in quality: As Others See Us (1933); The Adventures of Bill (1934) – billed as by Jay Jackson and Mabel; Society Sue (1935); Bibsy (1935); Between Us (1936); Memphis Blue (1936); Cream Puff (1936); Tish Mingo (1937); and Ben Franklin (1938). The strips veered between simple gags and strong condemnation of the follies of humanity, especially concerning skin color. An As Others See Us strip from July 7, 1934, blasted the split between light-skinned and dark-skinned blacks.
"As Others See Us," Chicago Defender July 7, 1934
The middle of the Depression was not a good time for ideals. Jackson temporarily packed them away in 1935, around the same time he married his second wife. Eleanor Poston was an artist and writer at the Defender who developed, according to Amy M. Mooney, a “working partnership” with Jackson, writing many of the gags and verses for his cartoons. That marriage would be long and happy, but it’s probably not coincidental that, given his new extra responsibilities, in 1935 he also became the artist for the Fan Tan company and created Fan Tan Anne, who touted to black audiences in the Baltimore Afro-American and the Philadelphia Tribune the miraculous results of Fan Tan. Fan Tan bleach crème was a skin lightener. Taking gigs as they came was the norm for all working creators.
Pittsburgh Courier, August 1, 1936
Jackson got promoted to head cartoonist sometime around 1936. His editorial cartoons are scathing indictments of prejudice, Jim Crow laws, and unequal opportunities for blacks, his anger palpable in every pen stroke. Part of his duties along with original cartoons and comic strips, was taking over the production of the Defender’s seminal strip, Bungleton Green, in 1934.
Evidence suggests Jackson didn’t care at all for the silly strip, preferring his own brand of social commentary in his own strips. Bungleton Green often failed to appear and Jackson had his assistant, Daniel Day, do many of the strips starting in 1939.
The date is significant. The year before Jackson was given a thoroughly unexpected freelancing opportunity, alleviating his boredom at work and his often-precarious financial situation. In a world which had not yet seen the introduction of Superman, the path to the first black superhero necessarily started with the other venue for weird science and fabulous imagination: science fiction.
Amazing Stories, the now-legendary first science fiction (sf) magazine founded in 1926, reached an all-time low in circulation in 1938. Widely considered febrile nonsense for near-illiterates, the sf pulp magazines stood out on newsstand racks mostly for their gaudy brightly-colored covers full of giant insects, gruesome monsters, and exotic spaceships. Nonetheless, their small cadre of hard-core fans knew what they wanted and it wasn’t what the stodgy 86-year-old editor offered. When Amazing’s current owner gave up and sold it and the rest of their magazines, the new owners moved the editorial offices to Chicago.
Chicagoan William B. Ziff thought big and built an empire from nothing. He was a cartoonist himself, studying at the Chicago Art Institute a decade before Jackson attended. He also found that cartooning didn’t pay well, so in 1920, at the age of 22, he founded an advertising agency. Soon he was making an astounding $75,000 a year.
His magazine empire began in 1923 with a humor magazine called Ziff’s Magazine, soon improved when he hired the editor of the University of Pittsburgh humor magazine to take it over. By 1929 Bernard Davis was made a partner and in 1936 the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company was born. A few months after Davis came on board, Ziff created Popular Aviation and brought in an art director who formed the third necessary leg. Herman R. Bollin was a genius artist and designer, whose eye-grabbing covers somehow made their airplanes seem to pop out in a third dimension. Ziff-Davis’s magazine line gave them money to spare even in a Depression.
Advertising also continued to bring in fortunes. One of the W. B. Ziff Company’s first acts as a business was to exploit an untapped market niche. Most large cities had a black newspaper. Most white advertisers ignored them. The white Ziff realized he could become a central clearinghouse for advertising in black newspapers nationally and thereby entice large white corporations as clients. Soon he had a near lock on the market, pushing aside black pioneers like Claude Barnett. With both headquartered in Chicago, Ziff-Davis and the Defender had close ties.
Davis for some reason wanted to enter the pulp magazine business. He snapped up Amazing, a tagalong to the real prize, the vastly more profitable nonfiction magazine Radio News, and officially became its editor, although he wisely hired a young and super-energetic local sf fan, Ray Palmer, to do the actual editorial work. Palmer threw out everything the old editor had in stock and started fresh with local writers and local artists. Bollin acted as art director, although his name never appeared. It isn’t known who contacted Jackson, but both former cartoonist Ziff and humor editor Davis must have been intimately familiar with the work of the staff cartoonist at the Defender, and Bollin had contacts all over Chicago.
Good, versatile, and fast, all utter necessities of a freelancer, Jackson was always in demand in the Chicago market, second only to New York as a home for publications. None of the jobs mattered much; they came and went quickly. He must have presumed that this gig would be no different. The pressure was on. His drawings illustrate three stories in Palmer’s first, June 1938, issue of Amazing. Given bimonthly magazine lead times, Jackson likely got hired about five minutes after the ink dried on the purchase contract and turned in his completed artwork not much later.
Amazing Stories, October 1938
Similar time demands faced him over the summer. The August issue had eight Jackson illustrations spread across five stories. Three more stories followed in October. Then they stop. Bollin and Palmer quickly built a cadre of artists who would become famous in the field, reducing the need for a tyro to the genre. If Palmer hadn’t been a whiz kid with an unusual talent for attracting readers (his command to one writer was “Gimme Bang-Bang,” perfect advice for a comic strip artist as well) the stoppage might have been permanent.
Instead, Palmer made the magazine fun again and readers noticed. Circulation quickly shot up, Amazing started appearing monthly, and so in 1940 did a companion magazine, Fantastic Adventures, added in 1939. The amount of art needed therefore quadrupled and Jackson was brought back as a regular. Over the next four years his work appeared in more than three dozen issues of the pair, often for multiple stories.
Jay Jackson was the first black artist to be regularly published in the sf magazines, one of the earliest in any pulps. He wasn’t a fan favorite in the beginning: the savvy readers noticed his lack of genre experience. Slowly, though, the comments in the letter columns warmed, especially because his comic stylings fit the many humorous stories that Palmer doted on.
Fantastic Adventures ran a feature called “Introducing the Author,” which, despite the title, occasionally included short autobiographies of its most popular artists as well. Reflecting his increasing status, the October 1941 column was by Jackson. The column included a photo, ensuring that readers knew that the Jackson providing images of “The Wizard of Baseball”, the “Doorway of Vanishing Men”, and “The Masterful Mind of Mortimer Meek” was a black man who had attended college, drew for the Chicago Century of Progress world’s fair, was the proud father of a teen daughter in his suburban home, and had a decade of varied art experience.
Fantastic Adventures, October 1941
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.
And yet, Jackson absorbed all the tropes of 1930s science fiction: time machines, superbeings, rocket travel, mad scientists, and weird inventions. Even better for a cartoonist, he realized that sf gave writers a unique ability to comment on contemporary America by safely displacing the action to another world or time.
He displaced himself first. In 1942 he stopped drawing for Ziff-Davis (although lead time meant his work still appeared into 1943) and devoted himself to the reviving the moribund cartoon page at the Defender. (He also helped John H. Johnson launch Negro Digest, the founding magazine for the company that later brought out Ebony and Jet magazines.) For most of 1942, Bungleton Green had been a four-panel gag-strip, similar to Blondie then and now. Jackson’s other strip, So What?, a single-panel joke strip, like The Family Circus but far more topical, ran at the top of the Defender’s features' page.
The page changed abruptly on November 24, 1942, with a new Bungleton Green that would rely upon the sf devices and tropes that Jackson soaked up during his four years of illustrating them for Ziff-Davis, ultimately leading to a startling crescendo: a black superhero avenging the wrongs of American society.
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 most of the page. “Speed” is a former track star at Howard University. A giant of a man, better with his fists than Jackson ever was, he would beat up lots of fascists and saboteurs during the war.
Speed Jaxon, Chicago Defender, November 28, 1942
Bung was as small as Speed was huge. Earlier his size 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 off to war or at work all day, a major issue during WWII – a place to go for wholesome fun.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, November 28, 1942
The bad kids aren’t having any of it. Bung creates the Mystic Commandos, a gang of good black kids who will not only stand up against the black gang bullies but make decent citizens and patriots of them. (Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had created the Boy Commandos earlier in 1942, a gang of multinational ethnic stereotypes who fought the Nazis in Europe; comic books did not deal in subtlety.)
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 and very popular device for comics of the day. Zack Mosley had done it for airplanes in Smilin’ Jack and Russ Westover designed glamorous outfits for Tillie the Toiler.) The first hero so honored was Booker T. Washington.
The second was a complete surprise: Prince Whipple. Prince Whipple was also a real historic figure, 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 some newly-arrived African slaves.) Emanuel Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware” depicted a black oarsman; legend had it that the figure was Prince Whipple. This is almost certainly impossible from what we know of Whipple’s movements, but it was popularly believed at the time and Jackson understood propaganda as well as anyone in Washington. His December 19, 1942, strip makes the legend real.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, December 19, 1942
In the first example of the new otherworldly tone of the strip, Prince Whipple literally emerges out of thin air to frighten off the black gang teens. The next week he hands the Mystic Commandos a magic Zulu ring they can use to call him whenever they’re in trouble. Jackson was way ahead of Jimmy Olson’s Superman signal watch with this.
In these early strips, references to “ghosts” and “spiritland” extend the strip only into the realm of fantasy. Jackson took a step farther on January 1, 1943, when he resorted to a prime trope of science fiction: time travel. When they frame good-guy Bud for robbery, gang members “Pig” and “Knifey” (their badness illustrated by their names) are taken back in time by Prince Whipple for a face-to-face meeting with George Washington himself, the ultimate good guy, a real “jive cat.”
Just as Washington had “caught a wholloping” from his father for cutting down the cherry tree, Washington in turn throws them over his knee for a spanking. Jackson, who had been against the war fever, arguing that asking oppressed American blacks to fight for freedom overseas they couldn’t get at home amounted to national hypocrisy, was emerging out of his earlier cynicism and giving himself over to super-patriotism.
In his history lessons drawn from grade-school readers, Washington is an edifying wise man and Benedict Arnold becomes the literalized devil, throwing Pig and Knifey into a cauldron of boiling water. (This reversal of racist jokes about how African cannibals treated captive missionaries was typical of Jackson’s satiric commentary on the standard white point of view.) The boys aren’t hurt; it is all a dream or mystic spell. Whatever, it works. Scared straight, Pig and Knifey come clean and join the Mystic Commandos. Bud would become a recurring character.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, January 30, 1943
The storyline shifts to other contemporary issues, seemingly far distant from science fiction. Jackson, however, was playing what turned out to be a long game. 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 President Roosevelt proclaimed “the arsenal of democracy.” Wartime factories needed even more millions of workers than the armed forces, so jobs opened for women and people of color 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 was that black workers were resented, often relegated to menial tasks, and seldom made bosses if that put them over whites.
Jackson added melodrama to unpleasant reality by introducing a German spy ring led by the uber-Teutonic “Monocle.” (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.) 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. Jackson overturned conventions again, in the most eye-popping way. They’re tortured and they die, their bodies thrown into a ditch. Heads must have exploded all over Chicago in August 1943.
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Chicago Defender, 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 concerns an anti-Nazi German scientist who invents 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. Jackson puts the unsayable into the mouth of the scientist, whose double meaning would surely be obvious to his readers. “My dear, we must become as certain other folk .. talk of freedom for all but think of it as being reserved only for the master race!” (Typography in all panel quotes as in original.)
The Mystic Commandos will do nicely as her slaves. If the Monocle plans on killing them, then her husband must invent a resurrection device to bring them back to life. (The casual way seeming miracles are produced through technology was a major draw of sf, then and now.)
The genius scientist solves this seemingly impossible problem in a moment. He creates a poison that simulates death. Since the Commandos are conveniently having their toenails pulled out outdoors, he uses a blow dart to deliver his poison so that the Monocle believes they were too weak to stand up under torture and throws them into that ditch. The "old scientist" (Jackson doesn't bother with a name until much later when he was called Dr. Goebles, punning on Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels) steals them out of the ditch and reverses his drug.
The Monocle must be given his comeuppance and the method Jackson chose was what distinguishes cartoonists’ 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.
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Chicago Defender, August 21, 1943
The rest of the characters land back in 1778 America, not a place black characters or their suspicious-looking supposed master can stay. The Commandos get their turn at derring-do and miraculous escapes for a few months, until the scientist can repair his time machine, damaged during a fracas. George Washington was unbesmirchable in war time, but Jackson could invent an abundance of evil slave owners for the Commandos to fight and foil, history as both social commentary and wish-fulfillment fantasy in the best comic strip tradition.
Building a time machine from 1778 parts was no easy task and the old scientist should be forgiven a slight glitch. When he turns it on Bung and the Commandos they wind up in Memphis, TN, not in 1943 but 2043. The future is a different realm from that of the known past. It belongs purely to science fiction. Jackson soon hammered home the sf connection to the famous comic strip Buck Rogers in the 25th Century by changing the name of his strip to Bungleton Green in the 21st Century.
(The strip’s name changes have confounded today’s historians. For the record, Bungleton Green became Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos on April 14, 1943. It stayed that way for almost a year until it lengthened on March 25, 1944 to Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the Twenty-First Century. Starting June 17, 1944, it reverted to the numeric Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, except for September 2, where Jackson apparently plain forgot to include the date. On December 16, 1944, the strip brought back the long-missing title character and removed the Mystic Commandos from the title. It read Bungleton Green in the 21st Century for seven of nine weeks and Bungleton Green in the Twenty-First Century for the other two. At that point, February 3, 1945, Jackson returned the action to the present and the strip became and stayed the simple Bungleton Green.)
The 21st century was instantly portrayed in science-fictional terms: a remote televiewer, a flying woman, and gravity (actually anti-gravity) tubes.
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Chicago Defender, December 25, 1943
If Jackson’s 1778 was the world not emphasized by the patriotically simplistic history books, his 2043 was a device for bitter commentary on the conditions of 1943; a world of role reversal in which whites are at the bottom, in every way treated as badly as blacks had been throughout American history. The past was known; the future could be written with infinite possibilities, likely or not. Displacing the current world into an allegorical future was a lesson from Amazing Stories that a clever writer could safely mine while winking at readers who got the double meanings.
In the time line of Jackson’s future, a massive earthquake raised an ancient continent from the seabed, wiping out much of North America. The continent was ruled by green people, who become horrible oppressors of the whites when they encounter them. Blacks existed in the middle, there to continually point out the irony.
What’s left of America, however, is a utopian paradise of equality in this future. (Another science-fictional device was brought on board to accomplish this. A scientist in this timeline’s 1943 invented a fountain of youth pill and with it bribed old Southern bigot senators to vote to end Jim Crow.)
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, takes along a white man, a yellow man, and black Commando Bud. (That the future America considers a "yellow man" an equal, while elsewhere in 1944 the Japanese were vilely caricatured, is as historically interesting today as that a proud black cartoonist could casually refer to Asians presumably non-derogatorily as yellow people.)
Jon Smythe, the white man, is the narrative device who wanders around perpetually confused 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. Life in a truly egalitarian country has never introduced him to the banality of racism.
For Jackson, at least at this moment, racism was best treated as a product of ignorance that could be swept away by education and good examples. This great hope would continue to pop up no matter how much evidence he himself presented against its fulfillment.
Equality seems very far off from the moment the rocket transport lands them on the green continent. Discrimination is everywhere and immediate. “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 the delegation tries to 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 with us green people,” says the miniskirted receptionist. (Buck Rogers had made miniskirts a signifier of the future. The men wear shorts.) “We might make room for the brown or yellow people with you … but you … colorless individual … never! Oh, bouncer!”
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Chicago Defender, February 5, 1944
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Chicago Defender, February 19, 1944
The green world is one too dangerous for Jon to remain in, but their racist laws perversely give him no way to leave either. Even their planes have Jim Crow sections for whites; without enough whites to fill the section Jon can’t board. The brown and yellow delegates go but Bud stays behind to help protect Jon, simplifying the parable to stark terms of literal black and white.
The pair keep running into the mindless discrimination of the greens, who have deliberately adopted the Jim Crow laws of 20th century America to turn the tables on the whites. When the two seek jobs, Jon, the white president of a steel mill before becoming the President’s secretary, is denigrated with a pickax to sweat out heavy labor while the inexperienced but black teenager Bud is made a foreman. Yet the plant boss has a hidden purpose. He understands that whites and “coloreds” have to work together to win the war.
The prejudices of the workers foil his plan. 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 simply because he has touched a green woman.
Jon and Bud must flee, and travel hopefully 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. (Jackson gave them hairdos with upsweeps that resemble devil’s horns.) When Bud and Jon try to eat in a restaurant they can’t get a menu; when they insist on their rights they’re asked for their membership cards – the restaurant is a private club, a common dodge of the 1940s era to refuse black patrons.
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.) After the reds threaten the invasion the factory has been preparing for, the greens call upon all their people, even the “chalkies,” to resist. Jon metaphorically grumbles that, “These green men are threatened with war and still treat us loyal whites in this country worse than they do the enemy!”
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, August 5, 1944
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, August 12, 1944
Just as the north had a few sympathetic greens, it had rebellious whites, whites so bitter from decades of oppression that they teetered 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 Mobile, AL, and Beaumont, TX, in 1943, an effective counterargument to anyone claiming how wonderful attitudes were when the country all pulled together as one during the war.) Russia invades the green continent to force equality on the greens. Forced equality works in this future. Within weeks discrimination is not merely legally abolished but forgotten by green and white alike. Bud and Jon catch a stratorocket, itself a science fictional device, for America.
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, November 11,1944
Readers hadn’t seen Bungleton Green himself for a year, but on November 25, 1944 he makes a dramatic return to the strip. He has been stuck in 21st century America, a paradise, true, but one without his wife, Beebe. Mad scientists who want to experiment on a body no one will miss kidnap him. They want to turn Bung… into a robot superman!
Jackson’s science was murky at best. All we see is Bung lain out on an operating table and anesthetized. When he awakens, 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 isn’t clear, because the new Bung is never again referred to as a robot after the strip leaves the scientists behind. And, as seen in the panel at the top, Boo, the scientists’ beautiful captive who sides with Bung against them, says, "You tried to make Bun Green a super robot but you made him a super man!"
The now super Bung has most of the powers of the early Superman. Jackson revealed himself to be as widely familiar with comic strips and books as he was with prose media. The scientist’s transformation of a puny man into a pinnacle of perfection was reminiscent of Captain America's origin, also by Simon and Kirby. For that matter, time travel was used in science fiction strips like Brick Bradford and had successfully reinvigorated caveman strip Alley Oop in 1939. Comics in those days were like a giant community stew into which everybody contributed ideas for the taking, to be reworked with individual touches.
Bad guys never learned from experience: even in the 21st century, evil scientists take their fiendish plans one step too far. “You are a slave!” one scientist tells Bung, trying to brainwash him. “Think like a slave!” How does a slave think? Not as the master imagines.
“I want to be FREE!” Bung yells, in a panel as powerful as any in comics history. Freedom clears his head. The now superman easily overcomes the scientists, who had fortuitously earlier wrested the secret of a time machine from Bung’s brain. Bung immediately demands to return home and to the wife he left behind. The rest of the Commandos refuse to go back to the racist hell that they left; the utopian America of the 21st century is far preferrable. The Mystic Commandos disband and Bung travels back in time accompanied only by Boo.
Below, for the first time anywhere, the complete ten-episode run of Bungleton Green himself in the 21st century.
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, November 25,1944
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, December 2, 1944
Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, December 9, 1944
Bungleton Green in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, December 16, 1944
Bungleton Green in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, December 23, 1944
Bungleton Green in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, December 30, 1944
Bungleton Green in the Twenty-First Century, Chicago Defender, January 6, 1945
Bungleton Green in the 21st Century, Chicago Defender, January 13, 1945
Bungleton Green in the Twenty First Century, Chicago Defender, January 20, 1945
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, 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. (Logically, they should have been returned to 1943 a minute after he left, but that type of complexity was almost never allowed in time travel comic strips. Too confusing for audiences: it’s hard to comment on the here and now when your characters are living two years in the past.)
Jackson reprised a sequence he used in the 21st century, with a twist. Bun gets a job in a defense plant and catches a falling tank let loose by Nazi saboteurs. In the 21st century, Jon had similarly helped greens to catch a falling motor. That heroic act got him no respect from the greens, but Bun’s action is rewarded with a promotion… all the way to head janitor. Unlike the future greens, the white men at the plant won’t allow a black man to be a foreman.
With this vignette of 1945 attitudes as prelude, Jackson sent Bun and Boo north to Chicago. Back in August 1942, remember, Bung officially and literally died in a Nazi prison. That news had been reported home, while 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, he startles a happily married couple. 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.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, April 21, 1945
In yet another odd twist to segue into a new plotline, the police who find Bun use the technicality that attempted suicide is illegal to blackmail Bun into being an undercover agent for them, infiltrating a local mob. Quickie Snag is looking for a bodyguard and the now towering Bun is a perfect candidate. Unlike the legitimate businessmen in Jackson’s world, the mobster doesn’t discriminate. “Superiority in my mob is based only on your ability to handle a gun,” he says.
To ensure Bun’s cooperation, nevertheless, he has Boo kidnapped and framed on theft charges by a publicly admired judge. No reader of comics should have been surprised that he is also the mob boss called the Owl. His disguise is a wig with the same devil horns as the greens, proving his evilness. Bun disposes of him with ease.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, June 16, 1945
Far more insidious is S. Lippery Eel, a villain’s name worthy of Dick Tracy, whose racket is the very real-world white-collar crime of preventing black families increasingly overcrowded into South Side Chicago - Bronzeville - from moving into white neighborhoods, a scandal heavily fought in the editorial pages of the Defender.
Eel is not subtle. “We want them burned out, bombed out, scared out! We want them out, see? And back across the tracks where they belong!” His moll, Proxie, is equally callous when she tells a dumb hood to “put on some brown make up and man-handle an ofay chic [sic]. The newspapers will arouse the dumb crackers and the tough negroes. You’ll have your excuse to put the blacks out, Mr. Eel.” The white papers “never mention the racial identity of any but negroes in a crime case!” Bun realizes.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, October 13, 1945
After riots break out between blacks and whites Bun has had enough. He drops through a skylight into Eel’s headquarters and singlehandedly lays out Eel and his henchmen. The official charge again them is starting a race riot, but, Bun says bitterly, they were “helped by professional race haters in Congress and some newspapers and real estate boards!”
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, November 17, 1945
The next set of adventures involves Eel’s chauffeur, Little Hat, who steals thousands of dollars of Eel’s stored cash. Little Hat is himself black but as crooked as the others. He runs a shoe shine parlor that is really a front for bookies and numbers runners, who prey on the black community by taking money they can’t spare. Jackson is not shy about mentioning the evictions, poverty, and broken marriages the pursuit of “something for nothing” resulted in.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, February 16, 1946
Complicating the plotline is Eel’s white accountant, Doola, who blackmails Little Hat, who by then wants to quit the rackets, into becoming his partner. Doola is far the worse of the two. In swift succession he is shown committing two murders, one that gets him thrown in jail and the other of a lawyer who happens to look exactly like Doola, allowing him to escape by assuming his identity. Dying his hair black, Doola hides on a farm under the name, “Slim Pickins” (sometimes spelled “Pickens”), a purportedly black man passing as white. (The actor known as Slim Pickins hadn’t yet started his movie career.)
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, June 22, 1946
“Slim” romances the farm’s “colored cook” as a ploy to bury all his old identities. In the kind of coincidence possible only in popular culture, Bun and Boo attend a country dance that just happens to be in the town where Doola is hiding. Even odder, Boo, who, remember, is from the future and has no old friends in America, knows Cookie and immediately recognizes her fiancé despite the disguise. Bun brings Little Hat, who can identify a birthmark of Doola’s, out for a showdown and allows him the honors of beating Doola to a pulp.
Bun and Boo take a much-needed vacation, but can’t escape crime. Bun finally displays some of his long-ignored superpowers when he interferes in a fight between the battling crooked couple Horseface and Sad Awhile and shrugs off a murderous blow to the head by a golf club as if it were a mosquito bite.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, October 5, 1946
Jackson had created such a powerful figure in his revamped Bungleton Green that he himself apparently lost sight of his making Bun an actual superman and worried that his readers had also. He took the extraordinary step of having a character supply the meta-exposition. “I had almost forgotten about the super strength those scientists gave Bun in the twentyfifth [sic] century,” he has Boo say. Now that he remembered, he started to feature Bun’s powers in almost every week’s strip, creating a new adventure far more satisfying than “tracking down petty thieves!”
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, November 23, 1946
Bun and Boo set off for a dystopian South of such horrors that the green continent is made to seem like a mild inconvenience by comparison. Every strip reveals a new humiliation that blacks in the South have to endure every day and another set of irredeemable bigots. A few decent whites could be found to give hope for the future, although Northern “liberals” are depicted as condescending and clueless until Bun straightens them out.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, December 14, 1946
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, January 18, 1947
Jackson again reprises scenes from the dystopian 21st century and sets them in the contemporary south: an attempt to get a cab turns out to be as futile as on the green continent, the “colored” hotel is “acrost the tracks,” the hatred and hypocrisy everywhere.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, February 1, 1947
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, February 15, 1947
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, March 22, 1947
The invulnerable Bun can shrug off the dangers, but the strip makes clear that the ordinary black dweller in the South had to face and endure them every day with no help from superpowers. Even his true 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 the Defender in 1942 that his "colored people" should wholeheartedly back the war because "Although Alabama is bad, the Axis is worse."
(The quote comes from a special “Victory Through Unity” edition filled with a multiracial cast of notables including President and Mrs. Roosevelt, meant to assuage government fears that the “colored people” were too oppressed to cooperate with the war effort. Jackson drew the cover for it.)
March 29, 1947
Chicago Defender "Victory through Unity" cover, September 26, 1942
Yet, as Bun 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!" Education, cultural contact, and empathy would win in the end.
Unfortunately, on February 22, 1947, the strip shrunk back to its original four panel length, an almost impossible format to develop action and plot in a weekly adventure saga. Why this happened is not clear, so we don’t know whether Jackson was busy with other work or the shrinkage was an editorial demand. Sending Bun and Boo back to Chicago, Jackson plotted out an ending to his time travel saga.
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 another astoundingly meta moment - that he would become again the "pathetic, little comic strip character" he had been.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, June 7, 1947
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, June 14, 1947
Although the strip stumbles on for a few more weeks, 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 has all been a dream. (Though he awakens in 1947, not 1943, and to 1947's cast of characters. Comics must be consistent in their unreality.) As uninterested in a weekly gag strip as he was in the 1930s, Jackson turned over the strip to staff artist Jack Chancellor.
Bungleton Green, Chicago Defender, 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 had to fight for 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 considered seditious writing, i.e., any article less than unstintingly complimentary about the war effort. As Ethan Michaeli noted in his history The Defender, Jackson, though there is no evidence that he was a member of the Communist Party, was hardly the only Defender staffer who saw communism as the solution to white supremacy. (Neither Jackson nor Bungleton Green are mentioned in the 536 pages of text, sadly.)
Additionally, the "Negro Press" as a whole continually published headlines documenting Army mistreatment of black soldiers. John Sengstacke, 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 “Victory through Unity” special issue was the direct result.
When the government let up its attacks, the Defender benefited as 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 weekly 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 as the staff cartoonist for the Defender and freelanced for almost all the major black magazines of his era. A promotional campaign he drew for Pepsi-Cola that appeared in Ebony magazine made history for 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 black Americans. Even better, it served as a refutation of the company's casually racist earlier ads. Four years before Pepsi had still been using grass-skirted natives with big lips to extol its product.
Jackson moved to California in 1949, where he stayed except for a stint doing murals in Mexico, a nice flashback to his work for the world’s fair. He became an illustrator for the Telecomics Corporation, an early attempt at creating cartoons for television, although only still images with a narrator were used. Recognition came via two “Front Page” awards from the American Newspaper Guild, one for “his skewering of HUAC’s attack on Hollywood,” wrote Stephanie Capparell, because Jackson “was known for his biting satire of racists and red-baiters.”
Jackson worked at levels both high and low. A two-page montage appeared in Who’s Who in Colored America and he did illustrations for Who’s Who in the United Nations. As always, awards didn’t pay the rent, so he churned out “Glamour Girls” postcards for Boston’s Colourpicture Publishers. He similarly planned two cartoon strips for syndication in the early 1950s, Girligags, with more pin-up-style women, and Home Folks, a large single-panel strip featuring a realistic slice of life of the American black experience. Neither sold and Jackson’s life got cut short by a sudden heart attack on May 16, 1954.
His widow managed to persuade the Defender to publish the two strips posthumously, and they were also syndicated to other major black newspapers, including the Michigan Chronicle, Louisville Defender, the Tri-State Defender and the New York Age Defender.
Home Folks is “a masterpiece,” said Daniel Schulman, the exhibition curator for “African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race,” a 2018 show at the Chicago Cultural Center. “It shows young, middle-class African Americans in a wonderful mid-century modern interior talking about how expensive things are, the dream of prosperity that was commonplace as a selling technique in the 1950s, this mass consumer market and postwar prosperity. In popular media, you don’t always see African Americans taking part of a stream of plenty in the 1950s.”
Jackson’s 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 inanities of his contemporary world, was as powerful and effective as that of the social commentary of more famous comic strips like Barnaby and Pogo. His characterization of Bungleton Green as the Platonic ideal of righteous humanity also prefigured the way mainstream superheroes like Batman and Superman were handled in the late 1940s and 1950s and is nearly identical to 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 2020. 2043 is fast approaching. We should expect and demand that 2043 see a utopian and egalitarian America as fervently as Jackson did.
January 20, 2021