By Andrew A. Smith
Scripps Howard News Service
June 23, 2009 -- A lot of comics from the past are offensive to modern sensibilities, reflecting as they do the derogatory racial stereotypes prevalent at the times. Not so Green Lama
, a 1940s character being reprinted by Dark Horse.
In some ways, the Lama is fairly forgettable as 1940s characters go. He was published by the obscure Spark Publications. His costume was unremarkable; hood, cape and leotard ensemble, all in various shades of emerald. Like Superman, Dr. Fate and a half-dozen others, his powers were super-strength, speed, flight and invulnerability. Like Batman, Sandman, Green Arrow and a host of others, his secret identity was the standard-issue “bored playboy” (Jethro Dumont). Like Captain Marvel, Johnny Quick and others, his powers were activated by a magic word or phrase (“Om Mani Padme Hum”). Like Lone Ranger, Mandrake the Magician, The Spirit and many others, he had an ethnic sidekick (Tsarong).
But in other ways, the Lama was unique. For one thing, despite his regrettable name, Tsarong often acted more as an advisor than a sidekick – despite not being white. Plus, the Lama was drawn by the remarkable Mac Raboy (Captain Marvel Jr.
), who was revered then and now for his graceful figures, clean embellishment, storytelling skills and breathtaking mastery of anatomy, foreshortening, design, perspective and rendering. Also, as his name implies, the Green Lama’s powers didn’t derive from the scientific and industrial prowess of the West – they came from, and practically idealized, Tibet and its Buddhist tenets.
But most importantly, Green Lama
may be the single most enlightened comic book I’ve read from the ‘40s. For example, a full-page house ad in Green Lama
#2 (Feb 45) makes a plea – no, a demand – for tolerance. Under a stark image of a U.S. helmet next to a battlefield grave marker with no name, the text reads in part, “Let’s put an end to the foul prejudice fanned by our enemies … When you find anyone – yourself included – thinking, speaking, acting with racial or religious prejudice – STOP IT! If Smith, Kelly, Cohen or Svoboda is good enough to die for us, he’s good enough to live with us … as an equal. Be American!”
You’re not going to read that in Sheena, Queen of the Jungle
in the 1940s!
And in Green Lama
#5 (May 45), there’s a story even more remarkable. The Lama reacts to a bigoted American soldier by taking him behind enemy lines and showing him the logical end of racial prejudice: Nazi Germany. Realizing that he’s acting like the enemy, the soldier has a change of heart, even buying the “Negro” soldiers he had previously abused some ice-cream sodas!
As Chuck Rozanski says in his foreword, “though the underlying egalitarian message may seem obviously virtuous today, it was practically suicidal in 1945.”
And it was. Spark Publications began receiving hate mail, of course. But the publisher didn’t back down – in fact, they turned it up a notch. In Green Lama
#6, they published a real letter from an anti-Semite on the first page of the hero’s adventure! In “An American Story,” the Lama goes to Texas (where the letter was from) to confront the writer (fictionalized), whom he shows the error of his ways – as he breaks up a KKK-like hate group, complete with white hoods.
Wow! Why is this title not famous?
Here’s a hint: It was canceled two issues later.
There are a number of pedestrian reasons why this might be so. The market was flooded with new comics after the wartime paper-rationing was eased, and a lot of books came and went during the Lama’s short run (1944-46). And some of the Lama’s back-up features, like Angus MacErc and Lt. Hercules, were painfully bad.
But it seems more likely, as Rozanski speculates in his foreword, that Green Lama
was simply too liberal for its times. “It doesn’t take a huge leap of logic,” he writes, “to realize that when you write comics that are deeply offensive to a significant number of your readers, for many of whom racism was a deeply ingrained value in 1945, you’re going to lose some sales.”
But Spark Publications took a truly heroic stance, befitting a publisher of superhero comics. I’d recommend Dark Horse’s Green Lama Archives
Vols. 1-2 ($49.95 each) for the gorgeous Mac Raboy artwork alone. But I also believe this early, baby step in the long march for civil rights deserves recognition.
As Green Lama would say, “Be American!”
Contact Andrew A. Smith of the Memphis Commercial Appeal at