Here’s a racist Looney Tunes comic that might *gasp* leave you siding with Fredric Wertham – Bugs Bunny in Diamond Daze (Four Color #250)
Fredric Wertham and his decades-old comic book witch-hunt still takes a lot of flak, and justifiably so. The Seduction of the Innocent was a ninnyish, schoolmarmy overreaction to some things that were borderline offensive and many things that were utterly harmless — like criminals acting like criminals. Wertham read between a lot of lines and found any number of things that weren’t there, which undermined his entire case (such as it was). He was earnest but overreaching, the latter so much so we’re still yacking about his seminal work in a new millennium, and not in a flattering way.
But a broken clock is still right twice a day. A blind squirrel can still find the nut. And now and again, Wertham’s wild arrows sailed to their mark. One of those wobbly arrows hit, if not the bullseye, at least the area around the bullseye, and in none other than a Bugs Bunny comic.
Yes, Bugs. Dear, sweet, irreverent, cross-dressing Bugs. Of all the characters to get us almost/kind of siding with Wertham, it’s perhaps most galling that it’s the carrot-chomping Mr. Bunny. He took a wrong turn at Albuquerque, though, and verged into unpleasant territory not seen — at least on this blog — since the pickaninny grotesqueries of Li’L Eight Ball. Sure, Bugs and Mickey Mouse and every other cartoon icon of those days of yore had brushes with racial material, which has kept vast swaths of their respective libraries unseen by today’s delicate politically correct eyes. And while it’s just as offensive to pretend that these uncouth cartoons didn’t exist (like they’ve become 1984 unpersons — …thought crime does not entail death, thought crime is death…), we can understand the impulse to sweep them under the rug. We’ve evolved as a society, and, because it’s been at times a painful maturation, no one is clamoring to look back to whence we came.
In fairness to our forbears, there were many among them who looked at hideous racial caricatures and said this is not right. But it’s a bit upsetting that one of those protesting was the bespectacled, censorious, ready-to-whack-your-wrists-with-a-ruler Wertham. (Why him? Why did it have to be him? Wouldn’t it have been easier to shunt him to the side if he was a cheerful bigot?) The issue of Bugs Bunny that’s the subject of this post is addressed on page 309 of SOTI, in the hyperbolically-titled section “The Devil’s Allies.” Here’s what Wertham has to say, for us to keep in mind as we look at a couple of scans:
The same theme of race ridicule is played up in the good animal comic book Bugs Bunny. Colored people are described as “superstitious natives” and you see them running away.
The story has Bugs and Porky Pig travelling to Africa after a rich crunt (who employs Porky as his butler) with a hankering for rabbit flesh deeds Bugs a diamond mine, so that he (the miser) can one day dine on the most expensive rabbit meat in the world (because Bugs will be rich, see?). So off our two cartoon champions go to Africa. And their first encounter with real live Africans? They’re of the oddly-skulled, big-lipped, spear-chucking variety:
The natives are headhunters/cannibals, and what follows is Bugs and Porky running around trying to remain uneaten. While the Africans at least “speak” in clear language, not in the OOGABOOGA you might expect/fear, there’s enough visually to make your skin crawl. For some reason this one panel stood out for offensiveness, both head-on and in profile:
They’re like the lawn jockeys you’d expect to see in a Klansman’s front yard.
“Race ridicule” isn’t the only thing raising Wertham’s hackles in this comic. No, there’s also another of his bugaboos at play:
The injury-to-the-eye motif is added, Bugs Bunny being shown throwing little diamonds into the eyes of the colored people. They are “big enough to blind a feller!” says Bunny. “Awk! I can’t see!” says one victim. Is that not the same crime-comic-book ingredient adapted to the youngest set?
Okay, just ignore his repeated use of “colored people,” actually a fairly enlightened term for his time — you could do a lot worse — and that he refers to our main character not as Bugs Bunny or Bugs, but Bunny. Because you don’t even need those things to make this ridiculous. Here’s the offending sequence:
I think we can all agree that this isn’t one of Wertham’s strongest arguments.
Why does any of this matter? Here’s Wertham’s somewhat breathless conclusion on this one link in his chain of infamy, where he makes a decent point and then goes way too far with his conclusion:
“Very young children,” says the child psychiatrist Dr. David Levy, “have no prejudice. Their later antagonistic reactions to those who are different are regarded as the result of parental or group indoctrination.” Has there ever been a greater and earlier and more insidious indoctrination with race hatred than American children are exposed to in comic books, “good” or bad?
Maybe, maybe not — mainly maybe not. “Insidious indoctrination” seems a bit extreme, especially since the material here isn’t anywhere near as offensive as the Li’L Eight Ball refuse cited earlier. One the scale of offensiveness, the scheming headhunters within certainly aren’t a Spinal Tap 11. They’re ugly but fairly mundane for the time. Yet Wertham wasn’t as off-base here as he was at other points in his screed — except when the eye stuff comes in. (Is throwing diamonds at people’s faces really the downfall of the Republic?)
Bottom line? Old racial ugliness is bad enough even without adding fuel to Fredric Wertham’s book-burning fire. Like it does here. Oh, Bugs. (Or Bunny, as it were.) You gave Wertham an inch, and helped him take a mile.