Martin Luther King comic book redefined superhero for a generation
Comic books are not usually thought of as instruments of social change. Nor does the comic-book medium readily come to mind when thinking about the dramatic days of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.
However, in January 1958, a comic book was published that not only directly engaged with the charged issues of racial discrimination and Civil Rights activism, but also spurred social change in the American South in a wholly distinct manner.
Titled “Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” it was a comic book like none other, and though 250,000 were initially printed and disseminated around the country, only a handful remain. Now, after much scholarly research by Carlow College art-history professor Sylvia Rhor, this rare comic book is the subject of the latest exhibit, “Civil Rights Superheroes: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story,” at the Toonseum, Downtown.
Rhor, a former Martin Luther King Jr. Scholar at New York University, has spent the past year researching the comic, which led her to the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.
“I just found such a treasure trove about this comic book there,” Rhor says, adding that she found two letters by King himself referencing the editing of the comic, as well a personal correspondence that mentions it as well.
Copies of these letters are displayed on a timeline that accompanies larger-than-life, two-page spreads of the entire comic arranged on 5-foot panels around the entire exhibit space.
In contrast to the lurid true-crime comic books of the period or the innocuous Sunday “funnies,” this comic book highlighted the extraordinary feats of a very unlikely superhero: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The only mainstream African-American character in comic books before this was ‘Whitewash Jones,’ ” Rhor says. “And as you can imagine from the name, it was not the most favorable image.”
The setting was not one located in a far away galaxy, but rather Montgomery, Ala., during the 376 days of the legendary bus boycott that many see as one of the first significant steps in the struggle for racial equality in the South during the 1950s and 1960s.
“The Montgomery bus boycott was one of the initial events of the Civil Rights struggle,” Rhor says. “It inspired the sit-ins, it inspired the Freedom Rides, it inspired a lot of the movements that came after it.”
The comic display is supported by primary documents, films and other comic books and cartoons of the period, such as three political cartoons each from the same time period by Washington Post cartoonist Herbert Block (1909-2001) and the Pittsburgh-born Pittsburgh Courier cartoonist Jackie Ormes (1911-1985), who is often referred to as the first African-American woman cartoonist.
Part of Rhor’s research led her to who funded the production of the comic. Just five months after the start of the bus boycott, a pacifist organization called the Fellowship of Reconciliation began work on this unique comic book. This organization hoped that the democratic comic-book medium would appeal to children and adults, white Americans and black Americans.
The organization collaborated with the Al Capp Organization (creators of “L’il Abner”) on the artwork. Blacklisted comic writer Benton Resnick, who had testified at the Senate Comic Book Hearings of 1954, was hired to write the script. Though it was originally intended to focus only on King and what was thought at first to be a short-term boycott, the final comic book bears witness to the more complex history that unfolded during its two-year production process.
The final 16-page comic book is divided into three sections. The first section traces the life of Martin Luther King, emphasizing his Christian upbringing as a root of his pacifism. The second section presents the history of the Montgomery bus boycott as told by the fictional character Joe Jones. The final pages provide a primer on the history and principles of nonviolent resistance, as told by King. In commissioning this singular comic book, the Fellowship of Reconciliation redefined the standard comic-book superhero and found an innovative conduit for the organization’s message of nonviolent resistance.
“It was a how to, but also a (record of) history that promoted African Americans to a whole other level,” Rhor says.
Rhor says that one of the most amazing discoveries she found while researching the comic was how its influence went well beyond the Civil Rights struggle here in America.
“When I was doing research on this, I found a letter from a South African missionary saying ‘thank you for this comic book, because you know we’re dealing with the same situation here, and this comic has inspired my anti-apartheid work.’ ”
In addition, Rhor says a Spanish version was later printed and disseminated throughout South America. “It was all part of the liberation theology movement of South America, and it’s all in Spanish, completely translated.”
Recently, the comic was translated into Farsi and Vietnamese. And in 2008, it was produced in Arabic and is being distributed throughout the Middle East, teaching people of the Middle East about the methods of peaceful resistance.
That’s a long way from a time when this comic was considered too controversial to hold on to.
“People were told to destroy it after they had read it, because it was so dangerous to keep,” Rhor says. “I have never actually found a document that says that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was true, given the time period. That would explain why so few remain.”
‘Civil Rights Superheroes: Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story’
When: Through March 14. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $4; $3 students and ages 5-17; free to children younger than 5
Where: The ToonSeum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown
Details: 412-232-0199 or Web site