Relations between Euro-Americans and American Indians have been regulated by images from the beginning. In his book, The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press, John Coward discusses the formative role of illustration in America’s perception of Indians in the late 19th century, saying the following: Illustrating American Indians “was a task with important symbolic and real-world consequences,” one involving “the cumulative power of… representations to maintain and reinforce the existing order” (187). These images used visual stereotypes (stoicism, savagery, choppy speech, lazy men, specific clothing and facial features) to perpetuate the shared belief that American Indians were inferior to whites, “othering” them with the power of the dominant culture’s visual artifacts (illustrations, comics; see image 0), artifacts that the general consumers took for reality despite their distance from the culture being described. Things began to change in the depression-era (1930s) when whites began feeling the effects of poverty experienced by American Indians for decades past, and initiatives like the Indian Reorganization Act chipping away, however slightly, a historically clear-cut white dominance. We will be examining how Garrett Price’s comic strip White Boy navigates this soup of previously developed racial imagery and underlying anxiety.
Garrett Price (1896 – 1979), a Kansas-born Illustrator and graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, after years of work for The Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker, created his comic, White Boy, in 1933. The comic follows the titular Whiteboy who find himself adopted by a village of sympathetic American Indians. The strip serialized weekly, first appearing in the Chicago Tribune and featured narrative through-lines carrying the story from week to week. Price’s minimalist realism and control over his compositions and color choices (ranging from simply effective to sublime and dramatic) shine through as formal triumphs over the medium, utilizing the ink lines and process color to a fulfilling extent. The writing is mostly humorous and light with the occasional intense confrontation. Price does not shy away from racial issues, portraying prejudice and hypocrisy on both sides, ultimately, however, favoring Whiteboy as his infallible protagonist, humanizing the American Indian characters only to have them kindly dominated. What’s most notable about the communication strategy taken on by Price is his subtle use of visual metaphor, symbolic framing, and implicit association that feels beyond the scope of weekly strips today. A deconstruction of Whiteboy’s relationship with his mysterious bear cub companion Whimper will be most useful in examining these forces. This relationship, I argue, exemplifies an underlying racial anxiety born out of depression era race relations.
We’re first introduced to Whimper the bear after Whiteboy observes a fight between a mountain lion and a mother bear. After remarking on the mother bear’s courage in taking on the lion, Whiteboy observes a bear cub — Whimper — who he immediately relates to deeply, represented in dialogue by the shared trauma of losing a mother figure, humanizing the animal right away. Given the cub’s muteness, we understand that this is really just Whiteboy humanizing himself though an avatar. Visually, this closeness manifests in Whiteboy removing his shirt and sharing a moment of physical closeness with the cub, their backs turned away from the viewer in the final panel, denoting an intimacy that is non-inclusive and ambiguous. With this, Price keys us into the mode of communication that Whimper exemplifies, a communication between Whiteboy and a part of himself that neither he nor the audience sees clearly. The scene seems unrelated to the comic’s main themes of racial tension, until we allow ourselves to make the association between animal color and race, easily made because of the minimal treatment of surfaces in the style, to the point where horse, bear or lion fur can read as ‘skin’ to a certain extent. What then of the conflation of a dark ‘skinned’ bear and a light skinned boy? Furthermore, how do we parse this with the more general connection between American Indians and animals, a large part of their controlled image (see Image 0).
Image 2 can help us understand these questions. It depicts Whiteboy riding atop his pure white horse, bunny, with his friend and love interest Starlight, an interesting character in her own right, though outside our present scope. Visually speaking, there is no tension between Whiteboy and the horse Bunny. Their color schemes unify so it seems as if Whiteboy’s shirt simply flows into the horse. There is a comfortable straightforwardness to the pairing; Whiteboy rides above on his high horse of whiteness, which is then stolen away by the Sioux, an unfriendly American Indian faction, setting up the narrative framework for White boy saddled to prove his worth by regaining his horse (power) on their terms. The horse is not granted a personality, (having small eyes, and being mentioned mainly as an object to be possessed) as Whimper is, because there is nothing in this conflation to think about. The horse is white, so is the boy, and so the race animal color association is set up to be duly subverted by Whimper, who is more than a pedestal. The presence of Dan Brown, a father figure and superego of white superiority in the comic, is fitting here as well. Dan saves Whiteboy from losing his agency completely to the strength of the Sioux, solidifying his white power even as Whiteboy loses his “horse.” Dan will come into play again later, but first let’s observe some moments with Whimper to better understand the cub’s place in White Boy’s symbolic structure.
Image 3 depicts Whiteboy putting on his shirt after his moment of closeness with the cub, reestablishing a distance between them, then shows him naming the animal for the first time, stating “you’re so mournful” despite absent visual indicators to the point (although one could read the cub’s slightly downturned head in the fourth panel as mournful; it’s subtle if anything). Whiteboy is likely projecting. When our protagonist spots his lost pure horse, the bear scares it away which leaves Whiteboy no choice but to tie up the cub. Whatever Whimper represents, as yet a fluid thing having to do with orphanhood or race, Whiteboy is clearly not comfortable with the threat the bear poses to his white superiority. The intruding arrow in the last panel warns of the danger of repressing these insecurities.
Image 4 depicts a humorously misplaced signifier with Whimper wearing a chief’s headdress, a purely visual detail concretizing the association between Whimper and the condition of American Indian-ness without the character saying a word. Image 5 shows Whiteboy making compromises for his bear companion despite the cub’s terrifying nature (an aspect of his which confounds the simple Whimper-American Indian correlation; He represents something more abstract than that, anxieties about race and belonging, loss and identity formation in the face of foreign surroundings). They travel at the back of the pack just so Whimper can tag along. The emptiness of this final panel speaks to Whiteboy’s loneliness in his condition as feeling not fully white, but obviously not American Indian. He is coming to terms with this weight.
Images 6 shows a dream state which is rife with possible interpretations, with the manic buffalo bull and Dan brown as a bear. The image is here to simply say that none of these relationships, symbolic, metaphorical or otherwise are as direct as they seem when put into words. That is the beauty of this kind of visual undertone; There are hints of meaning but nothing is spelled out. Is Whimper the bear market of the 1930’s depression and this buffalo the hopped-for bull? There’s no reason why not as nothing here is set in stone (in fact that seems to fit our interpretation thus far). Images are fluid and Price himself may not have intended all these interpretations. But they’re all of his time. Image 7 flips the human animal transmutation of Whimper by showing a man who changed into an animal and marked as divine by the village. Dan Brown smugly grins at the absurdity of this, tied to his noble white tree, like the horse, like his shirt. As absurd as this may be to Dan, animal transmutation is, in some way, what Whiteboy is doing with Whimper. Image 8 shows an anonymous bear essentially protecting Whiteboy, the spiritual implications of which would cause Dan Brown to roll his eyes were they more than dots. The final two examples serve to separate Whiteboy from Dan Brown, showing an initial deviation from the White superego.
The next image presents a complex challenge for anyone interested in deciphering these symbols. Whiteboy saddles up to race (wordplay?) a Sioux competitor and reclaim his horse, but the competitor himself is riding Bunny, while Whiteboy rides Dan Brown’s horse. The race is won because Whimper scares Dan’s Horse into speeding up. The fact that Whimper didn’t terrify Bunny, Whiteboy’s horse, is telling given what we established earlier about the one-to-one relationship between Bunny and Whiteboy. Our protagonist gets to maintain and regain his white agency by way of his own deep seated alienation. In this page, Whimper loses his light face and is entirely black, evoking purity of terror and estrangement. Perhaps Whiteboy needed these intense complexities to defeat his adversary, for the pure white Whiteboy on the White horse was clearly not enough to hold off the Sioux. What makes Whiteboy win is his affiliation with the American Indians and acknowledgment of complexity, a remarkably progressive message.
As an aside, his sort of complexity is contrasted sharply by the strips contemporaries, which followed the lead of other media in depicting American Indians as strictly dumb and inferior. Image 10 shows several panels from Big Chief Wahoo by Woggon and Saunders. There is a clear hierarchy between the implied white reader and the Chief himself: the reader is not meant to experience any tension. There is no questioning, and the white presence is so devouring, it doesn’t even have to be drawn, just embodied by the reader. Whiteboy, on the other hand, may win the race, but he is in the comic struggling for it, and only really wins because of a strange fluke, fraught with meaning.
These conclusions about the power of complexity and perspective are directly supported by the final image, Image 11, which shows a moment of paternal bonding between Dan Brown and Whiteboy. It’s a sweet page with some heartwarming gestures of competence and fatherly pride, but it wouldn’t be complete without the oedipal subversion in the final panel: after Dan brown criticizes Whimper, the little cub comes out and steals the man’s meat, expressing finally the value placed on Whiteboy’s split identity. He doesn’t appear in the page once Whimper is mentioned, signifying his transmutation into the bear, playfully undermining but not killing entirely the ideology of Dan Brown, the non-superstitious white superego, a personification of the values of the previous generation, of late 19th century Illustrated news, of stereotyping and “othering.”
The comic’s presentation of race can be stated thus: The anxiety that whites are ultimately just as vulnerable to the wares of the world as American Indians is never stated but nonetheless felt and depicted; value is placed on the lessons learned from American Indians, their perspective and their humanity— more than Dan would like anyway — but Whiteboy always comes out on top as the container and frame for all of this. A frame, zooming out, echoed in the very format itself. This is a comic, one likely read and created by people identifying with Whiteboy. The images and narratives appropriated, however sympathetically, are filtered through the inescapable form and infrastructure surrounding it (publishers, distributors etc.). The comic talks about American Indians, not to or with them necessarily. The cub never gets to speak, and is left playing ambiguous second to the concrete driving force that is Whiteboy’s supremacy and chipper spoken word. To have him falter at all, however ambiguously, to have him followed by this specter, questioning himself, is a remarkable thing for this time. White Boy complicates race, hierarchy and identity, while still relying on simplified tropes developed in the previous era’s illustrated press, all without once elucidating these complexities with words. This image-text relationship echoes the feelings no-doubt felt by many whites of the era: spoken dominance and lip service to lessons of solidarity and perspective, versus unspoken fear of fragility and similarity to the other.
A few questions to consider: What do these subtle messages communicate that the direct statement of a state-of-affairs cannot? Was this a matter of hiding a progressive message while giving white readers what they may have wanted? Or was it a matter of pure formal appropriateness for the feeling being conveyed? Did these images want something that Price didn’t intend them to want? Or do I only want them to want this?
Coward, John M. Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2016. Print.
Woggon, Elmer. “Big Chief Wahoo”. Yesterdays Papers
This post is part of a series published by students in D. B. Dowd’s Spring 2017 course Special Topics in Visual Culture: The Illustrated Periodical.