Friday, July 11, 2008

Mr. Tawny, the Feline Everyman

While many of Captain Marvel's adventures could be seen simply as fun adventures, there were times when moral lessons were imparted. These were frequently through the use of a very popular character, Mr. Tawky Tawny, the talking tiger.

Mr. Tawny was the everyman. A tiger from a non-specified jungle on another continent, he had been given a serum which enabled him to speak and think like a human. His curiosity of the big city brought him to America, where he did his level best to fit in. He would face those common challenges that we all have faced in our lives. He would struggle with his weight. At times he would fall prey to get-rich-quick schemes or “personality potions” or other gimmicks that he thought would make him more popular. But the most serious challenge came when he tried to get a new house.

Published in 1947, “Mr. Tawny's New Home” came out right when both pro football and big-league baseball were breaking their color barriers. Black people had come home from WWII proving that they could do anything whites could do, and the march towards the end of Jim Crow was beginning. But prejudice dies hard, and hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan still existed. This story had Mr. Tawny moving into a new neighborhood, where it turned out the people feared and distrusted him. They even formed a citizens group to drive him out, complete with robes, masks, torches, and pointy hoods.

Captain Marvel stopped their rampage, and Mr. Tawny proved himself to be a good fellow, and so the community learned something about tolerance and acceptance. This was a lesson Captain Marvel taught in several other stories as well. But this valid and important point was inadvertently undercut by some other things that had appeared earlier in the pages of Captain Marvel comics.

Early on, Fawcett had decided to try to appeal to a black audience, so Ed Herron created the character of Steamboat. Steamboat was a hot dog salesman who became Billy Batson's valet at station WHIZ. He spoke in a stereotypical “Negro” dialect, was nobly loyal to his boss, and had big red lips that took over half his face. In short, he was a demeaning racial stereotype.

But such stereotypes were the norm for popular entertainment at that time. Steppin Fetchit was the most popular (and wealthiest) black actor in mainstream Hollywood. One could still find blackface minstrels in the movies, with nothing thought bad of it. This even had a tradition within Fawcett Publications history; Captain Billy's Whiz Bang was notorious for its off-color and racial jokes. It is sad, really, that in an attempt to appeal to a specific audience, they wound up creating a character that described everything that that audience found offensive. The character was discontinued after a delegation from the black community marched into the Fawcett offices and demanded it.

Perhaps it is easier for people to swallow a moral lesson if they can see it as a parable, rather tan seeing the story in its unvarnished truth. Perhaps by seeing a real black person, prejudiced people would be blocked from the lesson by their prejudices. But Mr. Tawny was an already popular and beloved character (a mail-in contest to give him his first name drew thousands of responses), so using him to highling social issue must have seemed more effective.

Next: Captain Marvel Goes Hollywood!

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