[Note: If you've come here looking for the Comic Book Shipping List feature, it's been discontinued. In its place, we'll debut a new ongoing feature next Wednesday called Slang of the Week. In the meantime, enjoy this preachy ComicShocker.]
Late last week, I was bothered by this blog post featuring the art of Winsor McCay that included one of his "jungle imps." Mostly, I was disturbed that the positive post casually included such a painfully offensive cartoon without acknowledging its more bigoted content.
Am I overreacting (see my comment on the post for details)? Personally, I still find racist imagery in comics ugly and ignorant even if the comics were created during a time when racism was more socially acceptable in America.
In the case of Winsor McCay, the guy was a talented artist but one hell of a practitioner in racist caricatures. This message board post I found tries to explain away the notion that McCay was a racist (or at least a practitioner of racist imagery) by presenting the concept of “presentism.” To me, presentism is a fancy way of saying, “oh, well, it was okay to publish these racist Winsor McCay images everywhere back when they were created so it’s okay to wave them around now.” I find the notion to be more apologetic than objectively critical.
The whole Memin Penguin thing is a more recent (and possibly relevant) example of racist imagery in comics. Those Mexican comics were not received well in a Texas Wal-Mart, where American shoppers found the Memin character and his cartoon to be deplorably racist. Even though many Mexican-Americans tried to explain Memin’s status in Mexico as a beloved character, it didn’t lessen his visually offensive impact.
With all that said, I’m of the mind that: 1) the racist imagery of Winsor McCay shouldn’t be excused on the grounds that it was created a century ago, and 2) there's nothing wrong with celebrating what McCay did well, but applauding his work while displaying his racist caricatures is simply tasteless. If you do insist on showing his art that features racist imagery, at least note that the guy drew some bigoted images (whether they were socially acceptable at the time or not).