The Forgotten Forerunners of Black Comics: Part I – Orrin C Evans

Written by Fabian Wood

February 4, 2022

In 1993, talented African-American comic book creators Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T Dingle founded the venerated and lauded Milestone Media imprint. They planned to create comics that highlighted and promoted underrepresented minorities – particularly African-Americans. It gave them both a voice and a more significant presence in the medium and the industry as a whole. However, these four accomplished men were not the pioneers of such an ambitious goal. During the middle of the prolific Golden Age of comics (circa 1938 to 1956), one man had a similar dream of being a vanguard and herald of Black representation and empowerment using the popularity and ubiquity of comics. That man was Mr. Orrin C Evans (1902 – 1971).

Evans had a successful career as a journalist and editor of newspapers with over 25 years of experience. His employ and credentials included working with the Chicago Defenders, The Philadelphia Tribune, The Philadelphia Intendent, among other magazines. Seeing the sheer absence of already marginalized African-Americans in media, Mr. Evans was compelled by his strong beliefs in racial equality and Black empowerment. He decided to create a comic book comprised of the neglected niche of Black writers and artists. With young and impressionable readers in mind, he desired to illustrate, educate and inspire their minds through this medium of art and stories. This gave birth to the first-ever comic book published by an all-Black crew of creators in American history. He would do this in collaboration with his brother, George J Evans Jr., who provided editorial input.

Envisioned as an anthology of African and African-American stories, the self-published and aptly titled “All-Negro Comics” #1 hit newsstand shelves in mid-1947. A groundbreaking achievement at the time, the comic opens up with an inspirational foreword by the company’s president and founder, Mr. Orrin C Evans himself, highlighting the monumental significance of this comic to the Black identity.

Its first story featured the titular “Ace Harlem” – the Negro Detective, the first of two Black heroes in comics ever created. Finely illustrated by artist John Terrell, this was a simple murder mystery. While overall, the visual quality of this comic is slightly above par for the time, it dips in one large open-scene panel featuring the villains’ hideout. This subtly informed of a slight weakness in Terrell’s talents for anything other than close-up paneling. The story wraps up quite conveniently enough, with even our introductory protagonist exclaiming that he’d “never saw a case solve itself so quickly before.”. Not the strongest of openings, given how little sleuthing played in solving the crime, but one villain’s neurotic obsession with luck and superstition showed admirable creativity nonetheless.

The second entry is dubbed “Dew Dillies,” a plain childish fairytale featuring a pair of dark-skinned cherub-like beings called “dew dillies.” The adventurous boy, Bibber, has angelic wings, while the bright girl is more of a mermaid named Bubbles. The story boils down to the meeting, spending the day together, and deciding on something to eat. The artist is noted simply as “Cooper.” There are a lot of early Disney-esque elements in this story, particularly its vibrant colors and inoffensive, whimsical nature.

Next is two-paged prose entitled “Ezekiel’s Manhunt,”; a harrowing adventure set in a marsh that follows two characters, Ezekiel and Tom. Beyond the header artwork, this one is left up to the reader’s imagination. Unfortunately, I could not confirm its author. Regardless, he should be applauded for being able to summate perfectly a complete story within just two pages. It’s no easy feat, one requiring discipline and high linguistically acumen.

“Lion Man” marks the midpoint of this premier issue. Created by George J Evans Jr., the story follows our stalwart protagonist known only as the “Lion-Man.” He is commissioned to singlehandedly protect a vast uranium deposit from malicious governments and their agents on the African gold coast. He is accompanied by a mischievous orphan named “Bubba,” who will be comic relief and somewhat unintentional foil for our hero.

Forged in the same mold as stereotypical African-based adventurers such as Tarzan and The Phantom, Lion Man are an accomplished scholar and an athlete of peeking physical prowess, with no extraordinary skills or abilities. He runs afoul of two nefarious men, and the comic ends with the promise of the antagonist’s vengeful return – perhaps as a potential recurring nemesis? As with Ace Harlem, Lion Man would be the second every Black hero in a comic book, solidifying these two in the annuls of comic history. My only complaint is the character “Bubba” and his off-putting emaciated physique.

After that, the issue meanders, with “Hep Chicks on Parade” up next, also illustrated by John Terrell. It’s a single page of exaggerative illustrations poking fun at ladies’ fashion, particularly extravagant and bespoke hats worn by women of the time. “Lil Eggie” follows, which is about a “comedic” married couple showcasing a stubby, cowardly man demeaned by his overbearing and obnoxious “henpecking” wife. While this depiction of spousal abuse (both verbal and physical) would be bemoaned and frowned upon in modern times, this type of comedy was quite common, such as in “I Love Lucy” or “The Lockhorns.” Fortunately, “Lil Eggie” is cut abruptly short on a single page.

The comic’s last entry is “Sugarfoot,” courtesy of “Cravat.” It features the traveling misadventures of the titular nomadic musician Sugarfoot and his partner Snake-Oil. The plot revolves around them trying to hoodwink an old farmer they come across and woo his dimwitted daughter. After some exaggerated physical comedy, our two unlucky ne’er-do-wells find themselves on the road…well, “tracks,” once again. The comic formally ends with a public service disclaimer by Ace Harlem to the young readers.

It was clear that the main headliners of the comic book in the future would be stories featuring Ace Harlem, Sugarfoot, and Lion Man. The rest of each issue would have been padded out by new, interchanging one-shot tales, like the “Dew Dilles” and “Ezekiel’s Manhunt.” Surprisingly, its premiere issue forgoes stories featuring space adventures, westerns, horror, or superheroes, which were all equally prevalent genres at the time. Perhaps such stories were kept in reserve, intentionally left out, or awaiting the right creative talent to introduce them.

Tragically, only one issue of “All-Negro Comics” was ever published. While the second issue was ready for the presses, the newsprint would no longer sell to him, nor any other vendor. While not explicitly proven, it was heavily speculated that the same newsprint and vendors were pressured or outright intimidated by other more prominent, White-owned publishing and distribution companies. The well-established and more affluent competition would have been likely motivated either by selfish greed or entrenched racial prejudice, or even both, to see the immediate end of Mr. Evan’s novel and noble endeavor. Despite his earnest determination, with only a single issue to its name, “All-Negro Comics” came to an abrupt and unceremonious end by forces far beyond Mr. Evan’s control.

That “torch” Mr. Evans and his colleagues first lit would then be taken over by the likes of industry juggernauts DC and Marvel Comics. These two publishers debuted their Black heroes and comics with Nubia, Black Lightning, Vixen, Black Panther, The Falcon, and Luke Cage in the intervening decades later.

Evans himself, ever the indomitable optimist and trailblazer, subsequently returned to the newspaper business. He eventually became an editor at the Chester Times and Philadelphia Bulletin. He also became director of the Philadelphia Press Association and an officer of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. In 1966, he won the Inter-Urban League of Pennsylvania Achievement Award. He covered numerous conventions held by the National Urban League and NAACP (National Association of the Advancement of Colored People). Before his death, the NAACP created a scholarship in his name, and at his eulogy, the New York Times called him the “dean of black reporters.”

Despite the tragic fate of “All-Negro Comics,” it will remain a permanent, inalienable accomplishment of Mr. Orrin C Evans personally – along with his other innumerable accolades – as well as a victory and aspiration for Black writers, artists, and creators as a whole. May his audacious dream and arduous work never be forgotten and always inspire future generations.

Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics, or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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