By Wendy Browne
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Uncle Creepy wants you… to discover a world of myths, legends, monstrosities, and many, many horrors. Hitting the newsstands at the end of 1971 with a cover date of January 1972, Warren Publishing’s Creepy #43 opens with “Creepy’s Loathsome Lore,” a one-page depiction of the fate of the last Incan emperor, Atahualpa, and his apparent connection to “The Golden Sun Disk of the Incas.” The tale touches on the sun disc’s many legendary powers and Atahualpa’s capture and eventual murder by the conquistador, Francisco Pizarro. Finally, Uncle Creepy’s disembodied head interjects to tell readers that a Peruvian brotherhood now has its hands on the golden sun disk and other Incan treasures, implying that they may be up to no good with it.
This tale by T. Casey Brennan is not particularly creepy, given the promises of the introduction, but Richard Corben’s artwork sets the tone for the caliber of illustrations to be expected throughout the rest of the magazine. Other artists in the issue include Jaime Brocal, Luis Garcia, Felix Mas, Galvez, and Jerry Grandenetti. Wrangling their artistic work into this issue of Creepy is Managing Editor William Henderson Graham, aka Billy Graham.
Not to be confused with the televangelist of the same name, Graham adopted the moniker “The Irreverent One.” A graduate of New York City’s Music & Art High School, Graham became the first Black artist in comics history to work on mainstream comics when he accepted a job with Warren Publishing. Prior to that, he had worked in comics, though it was as a mail clerk and later a janitor at E.C. Comics, Graham wrote in the backmatter of Vampirella #5 (1970). He would show his art to anyone who would pay attention, including Al Williamson and Marie Severin, whom he said helped him a lot. E.C.’s Publisher and Editor William Gaines gave Graham some apprenticeship opportunities to work on pencils and word balloons, but his big break — and first rejection — came with a rejected story from Williamson. A subsequent failure prompted him to join the Navy, where he spent four years writing and scribbling on walls and decks while he served his country.
After his term of service and time learning the ins and outs of various artist approaches in school, including commercial art and design, Graham pursued various design opportunities with studios and agencies. He even designed toys and did spot illustrations for cartoons before settling in with Warren Publishing, who’d bought one of the stories he’d also written and illustrated.
Taking his influences from artists like Williamson, George Tuska, Frank Frazetta, and Burne Hogarth (who taught him cartooning), Graham went on to provide pencils for the first twelve issues of Vampirella, and took on the Managing Editor (aka Art Director) role with Vampirella’s sister horror magazine, Creepy.
In a Comic Book Artist interview, publisher James Warren joked that it took a whole two weeks for that promotion to occur for “Good old Billy.”
“I sensed Billy had the ability to handle it; certain artists and writers are great but they can’t shift out of their specialty and do something else. Billy could. So I said, “Billy, you are now art director! Whether you like it or not.” Now you have to understand that all Billy wanted to do his whole life was just be Jack Kirby. I said, “You’ll be the Black Jack Kirby, but not today! Today you are art director of Warren Publishing.” But he said, “I can’t art direct!” And I said, “I’ll show you how. There’s your office; you now have a full-time job. A paycheck every Friday. Do you accept?” And he said, “Yer goddamn right!” And I taught him how to art direct during our slow period, and it only took a couple of issues — and he did pretty well (though I gave him a nervous breakdown).”
In just a brief period of time, Graham had gone from being the first Black artist in mainstream comics to the first Black art director in mainstream comics. Warren recalled being asked by Rolling Stone about his decision to hire a Black art director. “What? Is Billy black?,” Warren retorted, “I didn’t know that. Get him in here! Billy, are you black? You’re fired!”
Insensitive microaggressions aside, Creepy Magazine is a testament to Graham’s skills as an art director, before he moved on to work with Marvel on Luke Cage and Black Panther. Packed with content, Creepy is a blending of styles and layouts to create a seamless package that keeps the pages turning with its diverse imagery and content.
Issue #43 features five stories that peek into the future, the monstrous, the cultish, and more. First up is “Three Way Split” by Dennis P. Junot and artist Galvez. In the distant future of 1994 (lol), the world has discovered peace (lol) thanks to strong international treaties (lol). But capitalism’s ugly head still threatens (lol) with two moguls, Louis Carey and Byron Brian at war over their world-spanning economic control. A story of body-swapping infiltration at its nefarious finest, “Three Way Split” is a healthy reminder that greed never pays off the way you want it to.
“The Mark of Satan’s Claw” by Jaime Brocal and Ted Ott takes Jonathan Howard, a mystery and horror writer who occasionally looks a lot like Sir Roger Moore, to Scotland in hopes of learning more about the child-murders that took place in the village of Langwell in Scotland. Things never go well with this kind of story set up, but Creepy loves a good twist on such a ghastly tale. Similarly, “Quest of the Bigfoot” by Jerry Grandenetti and R. Michael Rosen offers another monstrous twist, complete with lots of horrible puns from Uncle Creepy. Both stories are a reminder that the monsters aren’t always the bad guys we want to believe they are — or rather, they just want the same things we do, like a safe home environment, love, and a cult of loyal, bloodthirsty worshippers.
“The Men Who Called Him Monster” by Luis Garcia and Donald F. McGregor also seems to take some influence from the movies with a main character that resembles Sydney Poitier in his role from In the Heat of the Night. Here, Alexander Richards is a Black detective who knows the precarious position he holds, and that he has no choice but to accept the case of a woman looking for her lost son. He succeeds in his mission, but with a sad conclusion that does not overlook the issues of racism and bigotry that plague humanity. “The Men Who Called Him Monster” is a good and poignant story on its own merits, but it’s also notable as featuring the first interracial kiss in comics.
The irony is that it’s unintentional, having been a misunderstanding by the artist and their translator when reading the script. The scene features Richards interviewing a white teenager about the case. The scene strikes as odd since Richards does not know this young woman outside of the case, yet they are hanging out on a hill, having a seemingly romantic picnic that ends in a kiss. It’s uncertain if the inappropriateness of the entire scene spawned from the misunderstanding of the script’s phrasing, “This is the clincher,” or if the misunderstanding centred purely on that final clinch.
Still, though this was an accidental occurrence, it was four years after the controversy of Kirk and Uhuru’s televised kiss in Star Trek. McGregor didn’t get to sneak in anymore history-making interracial kisses until Amazing Adventures #31 in 1975.
The final short story in the issue is called “Mirage” by Felix Mas and Gerard Conway. It serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t take our youth for granted, and we definitely shouldn’t abuse them. Mr. Samuels learns this the very hard way when he and a young boy traverse the desert as the only survivors of a plane crash. “Mirage” is where the art in Creepy breaks down a bit — or rather, the inking does. The style of each of the main features is unique and well-suited to the respective story, and certainly, Mas’ spacey, exotic imagery lends itself well to the fantasy, but the artwork isn’t as powerful as it could be thanks to a lighter touch on the inks.
Between these stories is a tonne of detail, from advertisements and order forms for other Warren Publishing titles or horror-themed merchandise, as well as “Dear Uncle Creepy” question and answer pages, and “The Creepy Fan Club” where fan short stories and artwork are shared. The interludes also feature details from the 1971 Warren Awards held at the New York Comicon in July, based on issues of Vampirella, Creepy, and Eerie from the past year. Warren’s keynote address to the one thousand fans who attended the event is documented on these pages, as well as images from the event, including one of Graham accepting an award on behalf of Jose Gonzalez.
Graham himself never won an award for his work in comics, nor did he become the Black Jack Kirby as he’d dreamed, but 2017’s Black Panther film garnered enough attention that his name is back in the spotlight – where it deserves to be.
Includes “The Men Who Called Him Monster” by Don McGregor and Luis Garcia
Managing Editor: Billy Graham
Published in 1971 by Warren Magazines
Creepy #43 was published in the 1970s and is not available as a reprint. However, you can find the issue available to read here.
Click here to head to 1972, and Luke Cage #1!
Wendy Browne is a comics critic and journalist, as well as the Publisher of WomenWriteAboutComics. You can find her writing on the site here – and you can follow her on Twitter here!