PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — February is Black History Month. There are many things planned in Pittsburgh to celebrate it.
One of them, a month-long exhibit called “Beyond the Funny Pages: The Works of Art and Life Captured in Comics,” kicked off Monday night at the City County Building.
The walls tell stories from funny pages of the past. But there’s nothing funny about the hurdles once faced by African-American cartoonists.
Joe Wos, owner of the Toonseum, and Chay Tyler of Citiparks, exhibit the work of three pioneering cartoonists with local ties.
“Pittsburgh really was a hub for black cartooning in America, and I think that is an important legacy,” Wos says. “And this is the first time it’s really being recognized on this scale.”
Monongahela native Jackie Ormes, who featured independent women, got her start with the Pittsburgh Courier.
“They had maybe nine of 10 people on staff that just did comic art,” Tyler says. “Jackie was mentored by some of those comic artists.”
Matt Baker, raised in Pittsburgh, was limited to white characters.
“Romance comics, a lot of it, or jungle girl,” Joe Wos adds. “And he was forced sometimes to do things that are ethnic stereotypes, but that was the only way to keep that job.”
Oren C. Evans was a Philadelphia publisher who put out the first comic book depicting African-Americans in a positive light. That was 1947. Industry opposition prevented him from ever putting out another issue.
“He come to believe that he was black balled from the major industries of comics,” Tyler explains. “So he wouldn’t get into the industry and soak up some of the talent that they had on their staff.”
But his work has endured. Cartoonists know how to get the last laugh.