STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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Why would a Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author associate with the juvenile realm of comic books?
The exhibition “Comic Books Unmasked: A Look at Race” — on display through 2016 in the visitor center building at Pearl S. Buck International — argues that comic books are actually a telling reflection of society.
The exhibit’s 10-minute film “Shades of Grey” states that from the first comics of the late 19th century through the World War II era, African-Americans were only depicted in comic-relief, racist stereotypes, and Asians were always villains, with exaggerated yellow skin, buckteeth and slanted eyes.
The author of “The Good Earth,” Buck took great exception to prejudice. As a child of missionaries, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Buck was a target of minority discrimination in China.
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“She was very preoccupied with race relations,” PSBI marketing manager Laura Lomax said of Buck, who lived in China 40 years, thought in Chinese and was taught by a Confucian scholar.
Buck, who wrote more than 1,000 publications in her lifetime, joined the editorial board of DC Comics — the home of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern and Green Arrow — and also wrote for Real Facts Comics between 1946 and 1949 to promote education through comic books.
Buck and her husband, Richard Walsh, founded The East and West Foundation during World War II to help Americans, and the Allied troops, better understand Chinese and Indian cultures.
With the cooperation of DC and The East and West Foundation, Buck introduced the non-mask-wearing superhero Johnny Everyman, who fought racism with the power of persuasion and intellect in adventures set in China, India, the Philippines, Belgium, Germany and the U.S. Scripted by Jack Schiff and illustrated by John Daly, Johnny Everyman appeared in DC’s World’s Finest Comics and Comic Cavalcade in the mid-’40s.
PSBI curator Marie Toner, the leader of the team that brought “Comic Books Unmasked” to life, said that only a few writings existed on this little-known part of Buck’s career. “She definitely surprises me every day,” Toner said.
Something Toner found in the archives, and included in the exhibit, is an excerpt of a 1942 letter to an educator. Bucks wrote: “In the age upon which the world is now entering, I think superman (not capitalized) is the man who understands best the thoughts and feelings of all peoples, uses the skill of his understanding to help other people understand one another.”
On display are a selection of comic books with heroes of different ethnicity and gender, including a vintage 1957 account of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Montgomery bus boycott; a Muslim, Pakistani Ms. Marvel; a half-black, half-Latino Spider-Man; and a Tibetan Batgirl.
Pointing out an issue of Marvel Comics’ X-Men, Toner noted that an ongoing theme in the saga is intolerance toward the mutant superheroes.
You can also don masks and draw pictures of your own superheroes in the exhibit space.
It makes one wonder what other previously under-documented parts of Buck’s life there are.