PITTSBURGH -- Comic books are full of superheroes and a dazzling variety of characters, but in the early days of the industry one thing was conspicuously rare: black characters. Now, an exhibit in Pittsburgh chronicles some early artists and a publisher who started to break the comic color barrier in the 1930s and 1940s.
The exhibit called "Beyond the Funny Pages" coincides with Black History Month and is being shown through the end of February at the City/County building. It chronicles the contributions of Matt Baker, the first black to work in the industry; Zelda "Jackie" Ormes, the first black female comic artist; and Orrin Evans, the first black comic publisher.
The Toonseum, which celebrates comic art, is helping curate the exhibit. Toonseum Director Joe Wos notes: "Even today, the funny pages lack diversity." But decades ago, the situation was even tougher.
Baker was so talented that he was hired in the early '40s by New York's prestigious Eisner & Iger Studio, an otherwise all-white organization. He later drew for Marvel Comics, Gunsmoke Westerns and Playboy magazine.
Amber and Dean Bierkan visited the exhibit Friday and noted that the struggles of black artists are still relevant today. They were struck by Baker's achievements.
"And he had to draw white men and women," Dean Bierkan marveled. "That was the market."
When Orrin Evans came up with the idea of a comic book filled with all-black characters, he faced a backlash. In 1947, Evans published a single issue of "All-Negro Comics" and noted in the introduction that he hoped his project would give black artists an opportunity to use their talents.
After that, the big companies that controlled the comics industry "pretty much locked him out. He couldn't get paper. Nothing," Wos said. A planned second issue never happened.
Wos said it appears the big comic publishers were threatened by the subject matter and the fact that Evans was an independent publisher.
The comics venture failed, but Evans had a successful career as a pioneering journalist for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin.
Ormes, the first black female comic artist, is credited with convincing editors at the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937 to let her draw a comic strip "Dixie to Harlem." It chronicled Torchy Brown's move from the Deep South to New York City, mirroring a real-life shift many were experiencing. Ormes later created a black comic character named Ginger who discussed civil rights, poverty and other controversial topics in the late '40s and early '50s. That led to questioning by the FBI and allegations that Ormes was a Communist, the exhibit notes.
Chay Tyler, who helped curate the exhibit, said he hadn't previously known much about the history of blacks in the comic industry.
"A lot of it was a surprise to me. Because when I was growing up, I'd never seen a black comic book, period," said Tyler, a program coordinator for the city Department of Parks and Recreation.
It took decades for black comic characters to enter the mainstream, Wos said. For example, in the mid-1960s, Morris Turner created "Wee Pals," the first nationally syndicated comic strip featuring black characters -- but only about 10 newspapers carried it.
Three months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, 100 newspapers were carrying the strip.
"It took that for white America to recognize, we need to listen to these voices," Wos said.