Thursday, March 14, 2013


Obscurity of the Day: The New Bully

Richard Outcault's The New Bully is sometimes mistakenly called the first comic strip series to star an African-American, but it doesn't really have that distinction. The New Bully series began on February 13 1898, which means it trailed by a full year E.W. Kemble's The Blackberries, which is more likely to claim that title.

What The New Bully does have is a practically unique star. If you visit Stripper's Guide regularly, you are quite familiar with the common types of black characters in early newspaper comics, in pigeon-holes like the lazy man, the marble-mouth, the mammy, and the pickaninny child. However, The New Bully exhibits a black archetype that is unlike these. While the vast majority of the funnies' black characters are designed to be non-threatening to white newspaper readers, The New Bully is a violent and frightening type, something we very rarely see.

The New Bully has no fear of whites; he's amoral, violent, and has a hair-trigger temper. He brandishes a giant straight razor that he seems to have compunctions about using, and he's followed around by an attack dog at the ready. This is the black man who gives whites nightmares. He's a portrait of all the savagery that whites hope has been bred out of Africans by slavery and centuries of unremitting harsh treatment by whites. But in the backs of their minds, they know that a desire for revenge and capability for violence must burn bright, and the strong black man is a source of nightmares.

Outcault created this series for the New York World after he had already accepted a position with the New York Evening Journal. So did he offer this series to Pulitzer's World as a poison pill, or did he honestly think the public would respond positively to The New Bully?

As unlikely as it seems, the latter may be true. In 1895 a new song hit was making the rounds, titled May Irwin's Bully Song. This chilling ditty tells the story of two black men who vie for the title of being the biggest bully in town. The lyrics are racist in the extreme and horrendously violent, but if you'd like to read them, go take a look here. In 1896 the hit song was reprised by several other 'bully' songs, including one titled The New Bully. I can't make much sense of the popularity of these songs, but the fact is, they were popular. Outcault is obviously trying to ride on the coattails of this 'bully' fad. However, the big mistake he makes is veering away from the formula in the songs. In the song lyrics, the violence is black-on-black. In Outcault's series the violence, or rather the threat of it, is directed primarily at white folks. My theory is that the songs were popular because it was just fine with whites if those blacks want to carve each other into hamburger. But when the violence looks like it may be directed at whites, even if it's only a threat that is never acted upon, well, that's a horse of a different color.

Outcault's series, not surprisingly, was short-lived. It ran from February 13 to April 17 1898. When he next returned to the realm of black children in 1900, he went with a more traditional stereotype -- an unthreatening and downright cherubic pickaninny -- in Pore Li'l Mose.

Thanks to Cole Johnson for the scans!


The taste for this sort of thing must have lasted quite a while. Among my 78 RPM records I have 1940s recordings by Phil Harris's swing band of two "black people carve each other up" songs: "The Darktown Poker Club" and "George Washington Abraham Lincoln Ulysses S. Robert E. Lee." I assume they were covers of much older songs. They were played for laughs. Though racial epithets and Amos 'n' Andy dialect were removed, there's no question who Harris is talking about.

Perhaps envy was part the genre's appeal. The imaginary wicked world of free-spirited people with high passions and loose morals may have provided vicarious thrills to "respectable" white audiences.
Allan, ever hear of Goldtiger? Joakim Gunnarsson posted about it on his blog.
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