Journal of American Studies

From Swarthy Ape to Sympathetic Everyman and Subversive Trickster: The Development of Irish Caricature in American Comic Strips between 1890 and 1920

a1 Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, USA 84602-6702.

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Observed from a distance, the prevalence of ethnic stereotyping in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century cartooning in the United States is disturbing. All one can see, initially, is that turn-of-the-century readers seemed to enjoy seeing blacks, Native Americans, and non-Anglo immigrants reduced to simplistic caricatures and made to say and do outrageously stupid things. The Distorted Image, the Balch Institute's exposé on the evils of ethnic caricature, agrees with this assessment, suggesting that “the strips from the early years of this century [the twentieth] are inevitably suffused with crude, even gross stereotypes” in which blacks and ethnic immigrants are “maligned and mistreated with blithe insouciance.” However, a closer inspection of particular characters, mediums, and creators, reveals that there was greater complexity to these “crude” images – a rich history, in fact, of shifting meanings and uses. There were, of course, some blatantly racist depictions of ethnic minorities in cartoons and comic strips during this period, but there was also a complex spectrum of ethnic characters who played out shifting comedic and social roles. By properly contextualizing some of these cartoons – considering how meanings and uses changed according to where the cartoons appeared, who created them, and who read them – many images that initially seem just like more entries in a long line of gross stereotypes begin to reveal layered, ambivalent, and even sympathetic codings.