Monday, October 15, 2007

Wahoo, Yellowpony and Graphic Indians


Last week’s reflection on Chief Wahoo—born on the comics pages, resettled in Cleveland as a baseball team mascot—has caused me to think a little more about depictions of Indians in graphic media in the same period, especially the 30s through the 50s. I neither wish nor pretend to be encyclopedic here, only to add a few sources and thoughts about mid-century images.

Aside from the ghastly Wahoo, the most direct connection between Indians, comics, and baseball can be found in the fictional person of Chief Yellowpony, a steadfast fellow in Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy strip. Yellowpony was modeled after a Pawnee Indian named Yellowhorse who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1921-22 but washed out of baseball due to alcoholism.




Above, Yellowpony goes on the road with Dick Tracy. They drive around Oklahoma looking for the bad guys. Strictly an all-guy thing. “Woman’s place is in wigwam, not in posse chasing gunman,” announces Yellowpony, having earlier been advised by Mr. Tracy to send the wife on her way, to keep her out of danger. (Detail panel 2.)

The Rainbow Dictionary was illustrated by Joseph Low. It seems to have been his first commercial book project, in 1947. This dictionary for children provides textual definitions to many words for children plus a great many small illustrations and a few big ones.


Among the latter category, count the perfectly domesticated illustration for the entry “Indians” below. The book merits sustained reflection, which I promise to give it, but for now, ponder the genre scene of Plains Indian life--buffalo, tipis--and the lullabye lyric about each little Indian sleepy-head.


The seeming innocence of the image collides with the seeming innocence of the copy: "I like to pretend I am an Indian." I am very fond of Low's work in this book, but there is something creepy about that mock-innocence. Seems damning in a different way than the cartoon images do. Sure, the latter are obnoxious. But the pretending seems worse--a fantasy of replacement, the reduction of a tragedy to a costumed activity. Admittedly, I may be over-interpreting, but I don't know how you get around the discomfort.

The image of the sleeping child caused me to think of an animated short from Disney in 1956 called A Cowboy Needs a Horse, about a slumbering kid in an modernist suburban home. As the boy floats above his bed, the title Western song is sung and he begins to dream of life on the range, including a dramatic encounter with hostile Apaches (or the like.) The Indians are from the Chief Wahoo Meets Mr. Magoo school of cartooning. Lots of war-whooping on the audio track.




The Indian chief at the top of this post has modernist attributes, on the order of a UPA cartoon. The warriors in this sequence share some of those characteristics, but the failure to differentiate between the characters (you know, they all look the same) works against an advanced interpretation. This is pretty standard big-nose Injun stuff.

The harmlessness of the dream insulates us from worrying about the boy as he rides through a hail of arrows. He fires his pistols (foundational equipment, according to the lyric of the song) at the Indians, who "die" by grabbing their chests in the manner of backyard actors. There is a sense of play at work, of knowingness, but the Indians are different, more expendable. For comparison's sake, at the end of the cartoon the boy does battle with an outlaw who is more threatening than the Indians, but caucasian. The boy only shoots near the villain's feet to send him running.

Images: Indian Chief smoking “peace pipe” with boy, When a Cowboy Needs a Horse, Walt Disney Productions, 1956, directed by Bill Justice; Chester Gould, Dick Tracy comic book cover, n.d. Dell Publications; Joseph Low, cover illustration and entry for “Indians,” Rainbow Dictionary, World Publishing Company, Cleveland, 1947; animation stills depicting easily foiled Indian ambush from When a Cowboy Needs a Horse.

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