Saturday, December 17, 2016

Black People and Africa on the Cover of Weird Tales

Now comes a not very pleasant part of categorizing the covers of Weird Tales. Black people are on the cover of ten issues of the magazine. Few if any of these covers show a black person in a positive light. Most depictions here are either neutral or negative. The first, from December 1924, shows a white guy pummeling a black man in the back of the head. Some would say that things haven't changed very much since then.

It might be worth noting that the first three covers shown here were published while Weird Tales had its offices in Indiana and that the 1920s were a high point in the power of the Ku Klux Klan in the state. I wouldn't make too much of that, though, for official or semi-official attitudes towards black people were pretty bad pretty much everywhere in the first few decades of the twentieth century. When I say official or semi-official, I mean within the offices of government, academia, magazine publishing, and Hollywood moviemaking, among other places. Few writers, artists, screenwriters, or movie directors demonstrated the imagination and courage necessary to depict black people truthfully and honestly as human beings. Popular culture was especially bad in that way. In other words, these covers for Weird Tales were not out of the ordinary for the time. I wish it could have been different.

Weird Tales, December 1924. Cover story: "Death-Waters" by Frank Belknap Long, Jr. Cover art by Andrew Brosnatch. I don't know the story behind the illustration, but the implication is that the white men are the sympathetic characters and the black man is not. The complication here is that the depiction of the black man is naturalistic and does not rely on racial stereotypes. In other words, the artist Brosnatch did not dehumanize his subject in any way, even if he showed him being beaten up and abused.

Weird Tales, March 1925. Cover story: "The Last of the Teeheemen" by Arthur Thatcher. Cover art by Andrew Brosnatch. I don't know who the Teeheemen are. I'm not sure they are Africans. But I have included this cover here just in case. Anyway, here is more violence against the dusky races, this time perhaps justified by the need for self-defense and for the protection of the woman.

Weird Tales, August 1925. Cover story: "Black Medicine" by Arthur J. Burks. Cover art by Andrew Brosnatch. Black medicine is presumably the same as black magic, in which case the wizard (or is it a witch?) here is presumably a villain. I can't say that these are egregiously racialist depictions of black men (or women), but I can't say that they're especially favorable, either.

Weird Tales, February 1930. Cover story: "Thirsty Blades" by Otis Adelbert Kline and E. Hoffman Price. Cover art by Hugh Rankin. I can't tell who or what that is on the left. Is it a black man? Or a demon of some kind? Either way, he is standing over the woman, presumably protecting her. Or is the man in Arab dress protecting her? I don't know. Note that the figure of the woman is deemphasized by coloring her a neutral purple hue. Comic book artists of later years used the same approach for objects in the foreground or background.

Weird Tales, March 1930. Cover story: "Drums of Damballah" by Seabury Quinn. Cover art by C.C. Senf. Despite the fact that he was European by birth, C.C. Senf more easily fell back on racial stereotypes than did his American-born counterparts Brosnatch and Rankin. Here, the black man is not much more than a minstrel-show type. The phallic imagery of the snake--which is the same color as the man and his loincloth and originates from near his groin--is almost certainly unintentional but nonetheless too obvious to ignore.

Weird Tales, June 1930. Cover story: "The Moon of Skulls" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by Hugh Rankin. Here is the first (obviously) black woman on the cover of Weird Tales. The image here is pretty small and hard to see, but she looks okay in my opinion. Hugh Rankin seems to have been more interested in her as an element of design or as a decorative element than as a racial stereotype.

Weird Tales, December 1931. Cover story: "The Dark Man" by Robert E. Howard. Cover art by C.C. Senf. I'm not sure that the figure on the left actually represents a black man, but he is very dark. Maybe the title should be "The Very Dark Man." This cover also is in the category of reaching hands.

Weird Tales, July 1932. Cover story: "The Phantom Hand" by Victor Rousseau. Cover art by C.C. Senf. Here is the second (or third) black female figure in this category of covers. Although the depiction is not an extreme racial stereotype, the type of character shown here--the black witch-woman--is somewhat stereotypical. (Other, more recent examples: Gloria Foster as Oracle in The Matrix [1999] and Carmen Ejogo as Seraphina Picquery in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them [2016].) If she were a man, we could say that the snake once again represents something more than a snake.

Weird Tales, March 1934. Cover story: "The Black Gargoyle" by Hugh B. Cave. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. The theme of a creature ogling a woman is a common one. Again, I can't say that this is an egregious racial stereotype. The black character here looks more like a puppet, almost like a character from an animated cartoon. The whole effect is somewhat comical.

Weird Tales, April 1934. Cover art: "Satan's Garden" by E. Hoffman Price. Cover art by Margaret Brundage. The whipping covers get to be pretty tiresome. I just don't understand the fascination with whipping and torturing women in popular culture, but that's another thing that has changed little in the eighty years since this cover was published, for moviemakers love to kill, maim, mutilate, dismember, torture, rape, and otherwise torment members of the female sex. Why? I suppose it reveals a deep-seated hatred, dread, or resentment of women. In any case, I should point out that Margaret Brundage was a friend and associate of black people in her native Chicago. Strangely, she was part of the crowd that gave us our current (though rapidly diminishing) president. Her depiction here of a black man, though somewhat poorly handled, is not what I would call racist or racialist, even if he is using violence against a white woman.

Updated April 12, 2017.
Text and captions copyright 2016 Terence E. Hanley


  1. The premise of the Damsel in Distress is as old as heroic fiction itself; strong virtuous men saving weak, defenseless females. So it makes sense that tellers of such tales would create horrific situations involving abuse and torture of the fair sex to underscore the evil of the villain of the story. What is odd and distressing is the fact that the torture itself became the draw, the source of titillation for such an apparently large segment of the audience.
    Early editions of the Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide used to indicate which issues of pre-code comics featured covers and stories depicting bondage and torture; highlighting them as being particularly desirable examples of a segment of what was called "Good Girl Art"; i.e, exploitational images of women. It is safe and accurate to say that there is a part of fandom comprised of socially and sexually awkward males who find escape from their own inadequacies in the pages of fantasy and heroic fiction. Likely there are more than a few who resent women for not being attracted to themselves and thus enjoy punishing them vicariously through such images. Such fantasies do hold a therapeutic quality, I'm sure, and only become a problem for those who can no longer distinguish between reality and fantasy...

  2. Mike,

    I understand the appeal of putting the damsel in distress. The idea is that the reader--a male--can identify with the hero and rescue her. This is how boys and men imagine themselves, as heroes and rescuers of women. The problem arises when the reader starts to see himself as the tormenter rather than as the hero. The problem becomes worse when the writer and the reader revel in descriptions of torment that reach pornographic detail and intensity. I think you have diagnosed the problem exactly.


  3. Hunting about for signs of white "racism" is, in my opinion, a worthless occupation, which is steadily becoming more absurd.

    But in fact Long's "Death-Waters" is highly nuanced. The black man being pummeled in the cover illustration is the story's most sympathetic character, though he is indeed a savage. The white man doing the pummeling is by far the least sympathetic, and the narrator -- seated at the back of the canoe -- is so limited in his outlook that he has difficulty understanding the events he is describing, though they have affected him deeply.

    It is a remarkable story, which was reprinted in the September 1933 issue, with Howard's "Slithering Shadow" as the cover illustration. Racial stereotypes abound, about both blacks and whites.

    Long's frame narrative may owe something to Conrad's "Heart of Darkness."

    If more people read "Death-Waters," I'm sure it would acquire the stature of a WT classic.

    Now comes a not very pleasant part of categorizing the covers of Weird Tales.

    You could also do a series of covers illustrating "transphobia" in WT. That would be a more cutting-edge brand of PC.

    It would also be a bit unfair to the magazine's editor and illustrators, since none of them had ever heard of "transphobia," just as none of them had ever heard of white "racism" and therefore were hardly in a position to avoid it.


    1. Dear RNL,

      I'm not sure what you mean by "white 'racism'," but I would like to emphasize that my entry here is on depictions of black people and Africa on the cover of Weird Tales, not on depictions of racism on the cover of Weird Tales. Some of these illustrations use or suggest racial stereotypes, but I can't say that any of them is overtly racist. But then I define that word pretty narrowly. To me, the worst cover here is Senf's for March 1930, and that's because it relies so heavily on a racial stereotype. Other viewers will have their own opinions.

      Thanks for letting us know more about the story "Death-Waters." I had a feeling that the man in the middle might be a villain, but his villainy isn't obvious in the illustration. Some people might look at it and ask, "What is he doing to that poor black man?" Others might say, "That's how it should be." That's one of the problems in doing these series about the covers for Weird Tales. I haven't read very many of these cover stories. Almost everything I know about them comes not from the story but from the illustration. I have to rely on the illustration and what it shows in categorizing these covers. I can't rely on the content of the story itself.

      Unfortunately, "Death-Waters" has not been widely reprinted in the United States, least of all in a mass-market paperback. I have it in my library, I find, so I'm going to read it tonight.

      I have heard the word "transphobia" before, but I had to look it up to get a better idea of its meaning. Anyway, I'm not sure what, if any, cover for Weird Tales would be considered "transphobic."

      Thanks for writing.