The Forgotten Forerunners of Black Comics: Part II – Oliver Wendell Harrington

Written by Fabian Wood

April 7, 2022

Editor’s Note: Read part 1 here.

Born to an interracial couple on Valentine’s Day 1912 in Valhalla, New York, Oliver Wendell Harrington possessed a natural talent for drawing. He would hone his gift by studying at the National Academy of Design and New York University, and Yale University School of Fine Arts, where he would earn a Bachelors in Fine Arts Degree in 1940. During his time in academia, young Oliver started working for many Black newspapers, including The Amsterdam News, The Pittsburg Courier, and The Chicago Defender. 

On May 25, 1935, the maverick cartoonist began to make his mark on history with his premier work at The Amsterdam News, one that would define Harrington’s life from then on.“Dark Laughter” was a single panel cartoon that followed a poor Black man from Harlem named “Bootsie” struggling to make his way in New York. Bootsie himself would have no dialog in the strip but would interact with and observe others around him. While never doing anything extraordinary,

Oliver Wendell Harrington

Bootsie would be the first comic to depict a man of color in a positive light. The pioneering artist described the inspiration for “Dark Laughter” like this; “I simply recorded the almost unbelievable but hilarious chaos around me and came up with a character. I was more surprised than anyone when Brother Bootsie became a Harlem celebrity”. Oliver described his work on “Dark Laughter” as cathartic. It helped him establish a more realistic and less stereotypical depiction of African Americans and permitted him to vent his anger about the continuing systemic racial discrimination throughout the US.

After graduating from Yale, Oliver continued to cultivate his brand of racial commentary and avant-garde representation through his art with another trailblazing and more audacious serial called “Jive Grey.” In the Pittsburgh Courier – one of the most prominent African American newspapers – on October 18, 1941, “Jive Grey” was a weekly comic strip about a Tuskegee airman. The serial was noteworthy for not only depicting Blacks as heroic but also for its then-novel portrayal of women.

Dark Laughter

While women were still drawn to an attractive physical beauty and eager to engage in romance, they were also self-confident, independent, and authoritative. Edward Brunner, from the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies at the University of Iowa, expounded that the sensational storylines of “Jive Grey” were “politically engaged, subtly confrontational, [and] darkly acerbic. It was, in fact, a decisive intervention in the tradition of male-oriented adventure strips”. 

Both “Bootsie” and “Jive Grey” went on hiatus while Oliver served as a wartime correspondence between 1943 to 1944. He traveled to Europe and North Africa to report on the Black troops there. The candid Harrington would diligently detail the events and ordeals of these overlooked and undervalued servicemen, especially highlighting the segregation and their ill-treatment in the army itself.

Oliver resumed his two cartoons with added commitment upon his return to the US. The already bold “Jive Grey” would often associate Axis evils with White supremacists, making the shared fascist beliefs indistinguishable. This was to mirror the homebred prejudices minorities faced during and after the second world war. To call “Jive Grey” provocative during a time of racial hatred and rising civil tensions would be an understatement, but Oliver was never one to shy away or neuter his view or message. This would result in significant consequences for the resolute artistic advocate.

Jive Grey

Oliver’s outspokenness and activism against racial injustices and inequality weren’t confined to his cartoons. In 1948, he began work for the NAACP (National Association of the Advancement of Colored People) as a staunch proponent of minority justice. These frequent agitations and vigorous critiques of the status quo painted a bull’s eye on his back. By 1951, Oliver became another target and casualty of the FBI’s McCarthy era fearmongering and prejudicial campaign. He subsequently fled the country that same year to Paris, France, along with many other blacklisted, like-minded minority journalists and artists under the administration’s vehement crosshairs. 

Harrington’s exodus would invariably prove to be a boon. Free from the jurisdiction of his pursuers, the undaunted Oliver continued his passion as a satirical political cartoonist, even publishing an anthology in 1958 titled “Bootsie and Others.” Harrington would eventually migrate to East Berlin in 1961, ostensibly trapping him behind the Iron Curtain. He nevertheless found work once more as a cartoonist. Oliver would compose works published in Eulenspiegel, Das Magazin, and Daily Worker, garnering internationally renowned and a loyal following of readers. This was in no small part due to his strips maintaining the same signature themes of socio-economic, political, and racial undertones. 

Harrington would marry a German journalist, Helma Richter (his 3rd wife), and father a son, Oliver Jr. After 20 years, in 1972, having outlived his persecutors and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Oliver briefly returned to the US. He did so to promote his book, “Soul Shots,” a compilation of his works abroad, without fear of reprisal from the US government. The decades away, however, left Oliver sadly estranged from the country of his origin, with Germany becoming his home as well as his heart.

Dark Laughter

Oliver would periodically tour the US in the early 1990s. In 1991, he gave a speech at Wayne State University titled “Why I Left America.” And in 1993, he published his last two books, a collection of nonfiction works called “Why I Left America and Other Essays” and “Dark Laughter: The Satiric Art of Oliver W Harrington.” He also had a brief stint as a professor at Michigan State University. Oliver Harrington would pass away on November 2, 1995, at the age of 83.

Throughout his life, the audacious Oliver Harrington tenaciously used his art to intelligently and unabashedly comment on the political climates of his time, gender and racial relations, issues of unemployment among African Americans, and poverty in urban ghettos. He also used his work to focus on the injustices from law enforcement, institutionalized segregation, and economic oppression that black Americans suffered with. His constant muse was the blatant and uncomfortable realities and hardships of minority lives.

He was undoubtedly a dogged vigilante whose almost ceaseless outcries poured from his pen onto paper, with a satirical comedy of, for and in a society of rampant, unchallenged racial hypocrisy and irony.  His tireless works gained national and international recognition up to his last years of life. Oliver Harrington exemplified the power and passion of his craft – imbuing it with decisive purpose and influence – both as a journalist and as a political cartoonist. Through adversity, the indomitably passionate Oliver Harrington triumphed. May those who dare to walk in his footsteps be inspired and spurred by his accomplishments and perseverance. 

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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