Li’l Eight Ball sends Black History Month out on an unfortunate down note – New Funnies #96
It’s always said that you have to take the good with the bad, and this applies to history just as much as anything else. This means that, while we can take time in February to celebrate comics that honored African-American paragons, we should also carve out a moment or two to look at more unpleasant chapters in the stapled newsprint genre. God knows, there are enough low lights to be had in our beloved comic books.
And there are few more offensive chapters than the one inhabited by Li’l Eight Ball. Get out your surgical masks and rubber gloves.
A cartoon creation of Walter Lantz, Li’l Eight Ball was a vaguely human black character amongst the identifiable animal members of his creator’s stable — draw whatever unpleasant connotations that you wish from that company. Make no mistake, Li’l Eight Ball wasn’t some lame idea from a going nowhere hack. Lantz was an established creator who molded a toon titan in Woody Woodpecker as well as lesser but still viable characters like Andy Panda, Charlie Chicken and Homer Pigeon. He crafted gems. Yet there Eight Ball is amongst those old treasures, the proverbial you know what in the punch bowl, coalescing like racist force of nature.
Though he only had a couple of cartoons, Eight Ball was a fairly long-running feature in Lantz’s New Funnies publication. He was — and there’s no pleasant way to say this, so we might as well come out with it, like ripping off a band-aid — a pickaninny. That’s right, folks: a pickaninny. For those blissfully unaware of that old racially loaded trope, it was part and parcel of the whole blackface motif, and depicted young black children with big eyes, huge red lips, their hair excessively nappy (though Eight Ball, as his name attests, was smooth), and speaking in the ignorant, deeply accented English internalized by every devout segregationist. Dis for that, dose for those, dem for them, etc. Oh Lowdy Lowdy, I’s seen a g-g-ghost! That sort of thing.
Merely talking about this or typing it out makes your eyes involuntarily roll. Ugh. Li’l Eight Ball sharing a tailor with that wretched plague-carrier, Mickey Mouse, didn’t help either.
There’s nothing inherently offensive about the plot of the six-page Eight Ball story in this issue. But my God in heaven, is it ever cringe-worthy. Here are the first few panels, as he explains his idea to become a U.S. Marine:
Yes, that’s a mammy. All we need is a Sambo and we’d have a race caricature hat trick. None are available, though. Our loss.
Here’s some more:
And it goes on like that. What’s worst about it is how unnecessary the pickaninny angle is. You can have stupid characters interacting with other stupid characters and hijinks and all that without it. It’s gratuitous (much like Eddie Cantor in blackface, come to think of it), and its pointlessness amplifies the offensiveness, like fart jokes in a Michael Bay movie.
The rest of the material is your standard Lantz and Co. fare. Here are Andy Panda and Charlie Chicken meeting a very Betty Boopish, very nude mermaid:
Two things: 1) You don’t often see mermaid’s without their green scaly swimwear (see Lemaris, Lori), and 2) are there male mermaids? Merbutlers?
The Porky Piggish Homer Pigeon pursues love, Woody Woodpecker engages in his usual madcap hooliganism (though on the printed page he lacks his distinct staccato cackle), and others like the big-cheeked Oswald go in and out. Raggedy Ann and Andy have a distinctive visual component to their short, with unique artwork and no panel borders, and you can OH CRIPES THEY HAVE A MAMMY TOO:
Belindy, ladies and gentlemen. The mammy of the Raggedy-verse.
A Bug’s Life, Bee Movie, eat your hearts out. Also, UP YOURS, SMURFS.
As unpleasant as Li’l Eight Ball is to our eyes and inner ears, he and his blackface kin shouldn’t be forgotten. They’re testaments to things overcome, which is a necessary component of fully honoring trailblazers. It should be noted that the limited Li’ Eight Ball cartoons, long in mothballs alongside Song of the South and other victims of a PC-aware world, have seen the light of day in recent years. I think I read somewhere that one had made it onto a Woody Woodpecker DVD, so track that down if you want — Mel Blanc did the voice of Eight Ball, for whatever that’s worth.
And I’ve now typed as much as I ever will about the little guy. Farewell, LEB. A flight of Aunt Jemima-looking mammies sing thee to thy rest.