|First appearance||June 2, 1940|
|Created by||Will Eisner|
Ebony White is a fictional character from the 1940 comics series The Spirit, created by Will Eisner. He first appeared in the The Spirit comic strip of June 2, 1940. He is a black sidekick to Denny Colt, the title character. His age is ambiguous: although the majority of the time he's a resourceful young boy, at the beginning of the strip he is clearly an adult who drives a taxi. He frequently helps the Spirit out of tough situations.
The character is cited as an example of racial stereotypes in mainstream 20th century United States culture. His name is a racial pun, and his facial features - including large white eyes and thick pinkish lips - are typical of the era's darky interpretation of blacks. As he is routinely the height of a small child, he resembles a stereotypical pickaninny. As a loyal assistant to the hero, he has been compared by a few critics to the Uncle Tom stereotype. However the storyline refers to the character as the Spirit's unofficial ward/work partner with the two sharing a homelife in their Wildwood Cemetery headquarters. A few years later shows the Spirit and the Dolan family sponsoring his partner's formal education; the closeness of their relationship is illustrated by the crimefighter occasionally reading letters from his protege to the Commissioner and other friends.
Eisner reported receiving letters of both praise and criticism for the character at the time. In a 1966 New York Herald Tribune feature by his former office manager-turned-journalist, Marilyn Mercer claimed, "Ebony never drew criticism from Negro groups (in fact, Eisner was commended by some for using him), perhaps because, although his speech pattern was early Minstrel Show, he himself derived from another literary tradition: he was a combination of Tom Sawyer and Penrod, with a touch of Horatio Alger hero, and color didn't really come into it".
Eisner later expressed mixed feelings about his portrayal of Ebony White. He acknowledged that he was conscious at the time that he was using a racial stereotype, but was unapologetic about it, defending it by stating that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity." In reference to his graphic novel Fagin the Jew, Eisner acknowledged parallels between Charles Dickens' use of racial stereotyping for that character (which Eisner criticized) and Eisner's own portrayal of White, but asserted that his own work had not "capitalized on" the stereotype.
Appearances aside, Ebony came across as a well-heeled performer in the Spirit's efforts. Many are the occasions where he disarms a villain and finds minutia evidence the hero tends to overlook. Although about 12, Ebony still is able to drive a car as a taxi driver; his occupation has given him an encyclopedic knowledge of Central City. In many stories, Ebony exhibited above average knowledge of science; for example he constructed a Morse Code transmitter using a standard light bulb socket and an electric alarm. Aside from the Spirit, Commissioner Dolan, daughter Ellen and the police force in general hold Ebony noteworthy in his skill at field research and his instinctive understanding of human nature. Ellen and the police all consider the sidekick as much their personal charge as he is the Spirit's, providing him family and appreciating his sometimes brilliant participation in crimesolving.
In DC Comics' Spirit comic-book series, which began in 2007, White is portrayed as a fourteen year-old street kid, illegally driving a taxi. In an early appearance, the script alludes critically to his historic racist portrayal, with a character asking if he "will be standing on the Spirit's lawn with a lantern". He is portrayed as putting his street experience and his daring attitude to work at the Spirit's service. His origins are now tied to Colt's, with White being the cabbie who brought Colt to the place in which Colt apparently met his demise. Knowing of his death, a guilt-stricken White acknowledged that his previous prejudices against Colt, whom he had considered an amateurish detective afraid to sully his hands, were harsh, and that White could have helped him more. Colt, who had already awakened from his apparent death, then asked White for help. The youngster gladly accepted, keeping himself on call for his new friend.
The character also appears in Brian Azzarello's neo-noir First Wave universe, once again as the sidekick of the Spirit. Here Ebony is portrayed as a teenaged girl rather than a young boy.
- Mercer, Marilyn, "The Only Real Middle-Class Crimefighter", New York (Sunday supplement, New York Herald Tribune), Jan. 9, 1966; reprinted Alter Ego #48 (see References)
- The Spirit (TV 1987) at the Internet Movie Database
- Billington, Alex. "Complete Frank Miller Movie Adaptation Round Up", FirstShowing.net, February 19, 2007
- Time interview with Eisner
- Comic Book Artist interview with Eisner
- Alter Ego #48 (May 2005), pp. 7–25: Will Eisner interview