Jay Jackson’s Audacious Comics

Jay Jackson’s Audacious Comics

Written during World War II, Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos offered its readers a science-fiction epic that imagined a future liberated from racism and inequality.

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In June 1941, Harold Gray’s nationally syndicated comic strip Little Orphan Annie made a singular contribution to the war effort: The titular heroine formed a group called the Junior Commandos, a club for boys and girls who wanted to fight fascism. The logic behind the Junior Commandos was that because the United States was in a total war, kids had to pitch in too. Some of the Junior Commandos’ adventures were fanciful, such as foiling a Nazi submarine attack off the shores of America. Others reflected the ways that total war had transformed everyday American life: starting up vegetable gardens, buying war bonds, rationing and recycling. The concept of the Junior Commandos took off in real life too, with many actual kids’ organizations mimicking the good citizenship promoted in the strip.

The Junior Commandos also mirrored the way the war was unsettling gender hierarchies—Annie is the girl in charge (aided by a war widow)—as well as racial ones. A Sunday page that ran on August 2, 1941, featured a young Black boy named George, who helps the Junior Commandos find an old train engine discarded in a quarry, the wartime recycling equivalent of a gold mine. At one point, George says he isn’t sure he can be a commando, and Annie responds, “You’re an American! We’re all loyal Americans…. It’s our fight—yours, George. Angelo’s… Fritz’s… Marie’s… mine!” The use of Italian and German names underscored that this conflict was, at least on the European front, an ideological war, not an ethnic or racial one. To drive home the message of national unity in wartime, Annie makes George a sergeant.

Gray wasn’t the only cartoonist who thought the idea of a junior commando unit could usefully integrate children into the war effort. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, fresh off their success in creating Captain America, would soon launch two wartime hits: The Newsboy Legion and The Boy Commandos. The Newsboy Legion followed a ragtag gang of white slum boys, saved from the lure of crime by a superhero mentor called the Guardian. The Boy Commandos took the same idea and applied it to the war effort, with a multinational teenage gang of Nazi fighters that included a Brooklyn boy, a London Cockney lad, a French garçon, and a Dutch jongen. The politics of both The Newsboy Legion and The Boy Commandos was broadly Popular Front, with stories insisting that fighting fascism required a reenergized New Deal at home and international alliances abroad (and that would also, in a few episodes, make nods to the contribution of the Soviet Union).

But it was a fourth series, in late 1942, that marked an even more radical turn in comics’ contribution to the war effort. In Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, Jay Jackson offered his readers a science-fiction epic that imagined that victory against the Nazis would also mark the beginning of a victory over global white supremacy, with the war effort necessitating an end to Jim Crow in the United States and the emergence of a country that had finally achieved equality for all its citizens. Going beyond pleas for national unity or even liberal demands for economic reform, Jackson offered breakneck time-travel adventures that leaped back into the past and forward into the future to show that the battle against Nazism was merely one phase of a war against racism that was older than America itself. In one particularly breathtaking sequence, Jackson imagined a utopian United States in the year 2044, where racism had been decisively defeated and the country served as a model of multiracial democracy. Published in the Black newspaper The Chicago Defender, the strip went beyond even the crusading liberal civil rights politics of the publisher, Robert Sengstacke Abbott, by presenting a truly utopian vision of a global anti-racist future.

One of the most highly regarded and widely published Black cartoonists of the early 20th century, Jay Jackson was born in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1905. He was the first boy in a family that already had three girls. Oberlin was an important city in the history of abolitionism. A hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment in the 19th century and a crucial node in the Underground Railroad, it also had become the home of a college famed for admitting Black students. Jackson’s Oberlin roots surely explain his immersion in African American history, which shows up in panels honoring Black heroes that appeared in many of the Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos strips, as well as the extensive time-travel story about the battle over slavery during the American Revolution.

Jackson’s family was middle-class but, as was common among the Black petit bourgeois, his parents were precariously so. Jackson’s father worked as a gallery photographer. In a charming autobiographical essay published in Fantastic Adventures in 1941, Jackson wrote about driving spikes for the railroad at age 13 and later working in a steel mill. But these stories also emphasized how difficult he found manual labor. He attended Ohio Wesleyan University for a year (where he met his first wife, Adaline Smith) and drove a mail truck at night to support himself. He also took up boxing and, while he would later dismiss his abilities and brief career, maintained a love of the sport.

After leaving college, Jackson started a sign-painting business in Pittsburgh, which led to a position as shop foreman for a theater chain. Then he was hit by a string of personal tragedies. “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,” Jackson recalled. “I was twenty-two.”

Jackson then described a period of being a lost soul: “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.” (The allusion to Welles, in an essay published the same year Citizen Kane was released, suggests that Jackson, like his fellow adventure cartoonists Milton Caniff and Will Eisner, was paying attention to cinematic experiments in visual storytelling.)

In 1928, Jackson moved to Chicago to be closer to his sister Mabel and pulled himself out of his slough of despond. He was always a productive commercial artist and honed his skills by taking classes at Chicago’s Art Institute. In addition to painting theater signs, he did murals for the Old Mexico exhibit at the Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933.

Unlike white artists like Gray or Kirby, Jackson never had the luxury of being able to specialize. Gray in particular benefited from the fact that syndication allowed him to reap a large income from one strip appearing in many newspapers. No such path was available for a Black cartoonist unless they passed as white, like George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat. The color line in newspaper syndication wasn’t broken until King Features accepted a syndicated panel strip, Cuties, by E. Simms Campbell in 1940. At that point, Jackson had already been locked into the African American newspaper market for roughly 15 years, although he made freelance forays outside of it.

Indeed, Jackson began to take on numerous gigs as a magazine illustrator, political and strip cartoonist, poster artist, and advertising illustrator. He had freelanced since the late 1920s for The Chicago Defender and Abbott’s Monthly (both owned by Robert Sengstacke Abbott), and in 1934 took a staff job at the Defender, although even after that he continued a busy freelance career, including providing cartoons for other African American newspapers such as the New York Amsterdam News.

At the Defender, Jackson met Eleanor Poston, who worked in the circulation department and was also an artist. They married in 1935, and Jackson’s career as a strip cartoonist began to take off as well. Just prior to his marriage, he took over the Bungleton Green comic strip, a mainstay at the Defender, which began running in 1920 and belonged to the popular early-20th-century comic strip genre that celebrated lower-middle-class ne’er-do-wells who quickly gained and lost fortunes. Bungleton Green was a Black counterpart to such white wastrels as Barney Google, Moon Mullins, and Andy Gump.

This type of boisterous comedy flourished in the 1920s, but soon found competition from more melodramatic adventure strips such as Little Orphan Annie (created in 1925), Buck Rogers (1929), and Dick Tracy (1931). As the type of humor in Bungleton Green fell out of fashion, the strip changed hands and changed styles. Jackson’s major innovation was to reimagine Bungleton Green as a comic strip dedicated to action and adventure. This shift happened gradually, with the early installments still having a burlesque feel to them. But Jackson had a strong instinct for the tastes of his times, and in particular for cartoons full of melodrama and adventure.

His 1942 introduction of the Mystic Commandos, however, allowed Jackson to go in an even bolder direction. Bungleton was still around, but now as the mentor to a group of young boys attracted to a life of crime. This was the formula for the popular Dead End Kids movie series, which Joe Simon and Jack Kirby had already adapted to comics in The Newsboy Legion. Bungleton Green became a secondary character, seeming almost to shrink in size from episode to episode, as the Mystic Commandos took over the strip and Jackson moved it away from urban melodrama (poor youths struggling against small-town hoodlums) and adopted the trappings of spy thrillers (with the gang fighting Nazi saboteurs) and science fiction (with the aforementioned time machine).

Jackson’s magpie career as a freelancer energized his creativity. Starting in 1938, he started illustrating pulp magazines for the Chicago-based publishing firm Ziff-Davis, among them Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, and Weird Tales. He became well-versed in the tropes of fantasy and science fiction, which now drove the plots of Bungleton Green; his foray into comic books, drawing the adventures of jungle adventurer Blond Garth, also helped. The pulps were an ambiguous demimonde for Black writers and artists. Unquestionably, there were racists in positions of power in that world, notably the recently deceased horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and John W. Campbell, the editor of the influential Astounding Science-Fiction, who would one day write editorials defending slavery and even rejected a Samuel Delany novel for featuring a Black leading character. In 1941, Astounding also serialized Robert Heinlein’s Yellow Peril novel Sixth Column, whose racist plot of an “Asiatic” conquest of the United States was supplied by Campbell.

But still, precisely because the pulps and the comics were on the lowest rung of the publishing world, and even if there were often racists in charge, they provided a precarious opening for a few Black artists. These included not just Jackson but also Matt Barker and E.C. Stoner, as well as many more cartoonists descended from Eastern and Southern European immigrants. The pulps offered Jackson not just freelance work but also a set of useful science-fiction tropes (time travel, hidden kingdoms) that the cartoonist repurposed to create pioneering Afro-futurist stories that imagined an inhabitable and indeed utopian future for Black people.

The glamour-girl art that Jackson did for his earlier comic strip Tisha Mingo would find another outlet in the women now populating Bungleton Green; so would the poster work he did for the US Treasury Department promoting war bonds. But if Jackson was a propagandist, he was a subtle one. Throughout Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos, he offered nuanced and sometimes critical support for the war: America had to win it, but defeating fascism would only be meaningful if racism were also eradicated. Fascism, he repeatedly stressed, had roots in racism and could have an afterlife in future racist regimes that did not declare themselves as fascist.

Deploying his various sci-fi allegories, Jackson pressed on this argument throughout the series. In one fantastic narrative of an anti-racist America confronting a society of green-skinned men who oppress whites, Jackson created more than a clever topsy-turvy scenario; he anticipated the postwar reality that a need to improve America’s global reputation would create an opening for the civil rights movement. The sequence was perhaps influenced by George Schuyler’s 1931 novel Black No More, a satire that also played with the theme of race reversal, but no matter its origins, it showed Jackson at his finest: impudent, scathingly sardonic, and audaciously bitter.

Bungleton Green and the Mystic Commandos proved to be a remarkable achievement. Rereading it today, it’s hard to deny its visionary qualities; there was no other satirical or adventure strip of the era quite as far-reaching in its challenge to conventional thought. The function of utopian fiction is to highlight our own imperfections. At its best, Bungleton Green offered a stinging critique not just of Jim Crow America but also of the world of the 21st century, which has yet to fulfill the hopes Jay Jackson had for the future. With the promised racial reckoning after the George Floyd uprising now stalled by political gridlock, it’s striking to reread comic strips from the 1940s that imagine an idealistic, multiracial group of young people figuring out a scheme to change the minds of doddering senators intent on filibustering all reform.

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