THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

23 May 2018

Indigenous Australian Comic Characters in the British Library

IMG_6809
Left: X-Men Anthology featuring Gateway. Right: The compiled Millennium series, featuring Betty Clawman. See endnotes for publication details.

After reading Luke Pearson’s blog post on Indigenous X about Indigenous Australian characters in comic books, I decided to see what comics the British Library held that represented Indigenous Australasian characters.[1] Instead of reiterating Pearson’s existing article, which I recommend reading, I have simply listed the comics I was able to find and their shelfmarks at the end of the post. The Condoman poster for a sexual health campaign is a great example of how comic characters can appeal to and educate children and teenagers. By making Condoman an Indigenous man there is a clear relatability for the Indigenous teens that this poster was aimed at.

It is clear that creating characters that readers or viewers can identify with is important; it provides a role model that one can recognise themselves in. Ryan Griffen, creator of the television show Cleverman – a program centred on Indigenous Australian characters and inspired by Indigenous culture, explained how he had created Cleverman so his son had Indigenous superheroes he could be as excited by as he was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles:
‘I wanted to create an Aboriginal superhero that he could connect with, no matter what others said. I wanted a character that would empower him to stand and fight when presented with racism. Just like the old dreaming stories, Cleverman would be able to teach moral lessons; not only for my son, not just for Aboriginal people, but for many more out there as well.’[2]
As Pearson points out, the majority of the Indigenous characters he lists were created by non-Indigenous people. I was interested in how some of these Indigenous characters were depicted so decided to focus on one of them, a DC character named Betty Clawman. She appears in the Millennium comic, the compilation of which is in the British Library collections.[3]

Betty does not appear until week two of the series, where she is found squatting by ‘the aptly named Ayres Rock, near Alice Springs, Australia.’[4]  The comic series was produced three years after custodianship of Uluru was returned to the Anangu traditional owners so it seems likely this event caught the international imagination and resulted in Indigenous Australians being associated with Uluru. Ayres Rock was the name that colonisers gave the rock, it was named after a South Australian Premier called Sir Henry Ayres, I am unsure how this makes it ‘aptly named’ and I assume it underlines how little research the comic writers had undertaken into Indigenous Australian history and culture. Betty has been selected as one of a group of people to become immortal guardians of earth, a fact she already knew before she was approached as she foresaw it in the ‘Dreamtime.’[5] While Betty seems to impress the existing Guardians, she is rather passive throughout the encounter and makes multiple references to dreaming and the land – ‘while I, rather than dreaming on the land, learn how to wake from its embrace!’[6] These vague references around dreamings and land could also be reference to a half-formed understanding of Indigenous culture through the debates surrounding the return of Uluru. It seems no coincidence, however, that this comic was produced in 1988, the same year Australia celebrated the Bicentennial of its ‘founding’. On 26th January 1988 (Australia Day) Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike took to the streets to protest the celebration of two-hundred years of history that tried to rewrite the 40,000 years of history Indigenous Australia had prior to British conquest. The protests sought to highlight ongoing denial of land rights along with the integral structural racism Indigenous Australians often experienced. It would be interesting to know how much of this political background Englehart, Staton and Gibson were aware of when they conceived Betty Clawman.

The other future Guardians set to join Betty suggests that the writers were keen to create an inclusive and diverse range of characters, yet they fell into the trap of easy cultural stereotypes (another future Guardian is Xiang Po, a Chinese woman who seizes the opportunity because ‘it never would have happened before the reforms)[7]. While I understand that the pages of comic books do not lend themselves to nuance and subtlety, it is a shame that the characters are so stereotyped. Betty’s willingness to follow the existing Guardians could at first be taken as passivity, but she often shows that she is confident and intelligent, such as questioning the teachings that the universe is logical. She is fore fronted in the cartoon frames and praised for her readiness to become a Guardian. I was very excited about the empowering depiction of Betty until the selected new Guardians transitioned into their new forms – the stereotyping became almost comical again: Xiang Po becomes incredibly sexy and her whole appearance is Westernised. Betty quite simply disappears! She becomes an invisible spirit that is simultaneously part of the earth and the other Guardians but no longer visible or audible; she informs others and perhaps shapes their actions but can no longer take actions herself.

This characterisation of the spiritual silent Indigenous person is reminiscent of Gateway, the Indigenous character Marvel created the same year the DC created Betty Clawman. Like Betty in her Guardian form, Gateway is silent and only communicates through telepathy. He simply sits and watches the actions of the X-Men, opening portals for them on request.[8] From my close reading of these two comics and looking at the Indigenous characters on Pearson’s list, it does seem that if writers want a mysterious character that is imbued with spirituality, they make that character Indigenous. While there is perhaps nothing necessarily wrong with depicting an Indigenous person as deeply wise and spiritual, it becomes problematic when that is all they are shown as. It firmly places Indigenous Australians in a position of ‘other’, making it difficult for Indigenous people to identify with those characters, let alone other comic book fans.

Joanne Pilcher is currently carrying out a PhD placement project at the British Library, exploring contemporary publishing in Australia. If you would like to know more about placement opportunities at the Library for doctoral students please click here.

In my placement at the Library I have suggested the purchase of comic books that show a wide variety of Indigenous characters and complex personalities. If you have any other good suggestions do tweet me: @JoannePilcher1

Comic books/graphic novels in the British Library Collections that feature Indigenous Australian characters:

Grant Morrison et al, The Multiversity: the deluxe edition, New York: DC Comics, 2015, [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.559]

Hugh Dolan, Adrian Threlfall, Reg Saunders: An Indigenous War Hero, Sydney, NSW, Australia: NewSouth, 2015 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YKL.2017.b.766]

Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; London : Diamond, distributor, 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]

Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]

 

References:

[1] Luke Pearson, ‘The Wombat to Kaptn Koori – Aboriginal Representation in Comic Books and Capes,’ Indigenous X, 13th June 2017, https://indigenousx.com.au/luke-pearson-the-wombat-to-kaptn-koori-aboriginal-representation-in-comic-books-and-capes/#.Wm8DF1hLHcs, [last accessed 29/01/18]

[2] Ryan Griffen, ‘We need more Aboriginal superheroes, so I created Cleverman for my son’, The Guardian, 27th may 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/may/27/i-created-cleverman-for-my-son-because-we-need-more-aboriginal-superheroes, [last accessed 29/01/18]

[3] Steve Englehart, Joe Staton, Ian Gibson, Millennium: Trust No One, DC Comics, New York 2008. Originally published as an eight part magazine series in 1988. [shelfmark: General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.9556]

[4] Millennium, DC Comics, p32

[5] ibid

[6] ibid p33

[7] ibid p40

[8] Marvel Comics, Essential X-Men, Volume 8, New York, N.Y. : Marvel Publishing ; [London : Diamond, distributor], 2007, [General Reference Collection YK.2009.b.171]. Originally printed as serial magazines in 1988.

16 May 2018

Over There, All Over Again: American Sheet Music, World War 1 and Nostalgic Musicals

It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library’s excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am researching American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville. 

As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.

More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.

Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.

Over There - LOC photo

Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917.  British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010518

In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I.  He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.

And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values. 

Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_poster

Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)

In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."

Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.

Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).

Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”[1] The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).

For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer.  In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.

I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.

 

[1] Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]

09 May 2018

Spring news from the Eccles Centre

North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.

Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.

Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:

  • North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
  • Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • Book history and arts in North America
  • Pacific politics and geopolitics
  • Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
  • LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US

Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule

We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies