|First appearance||June 2, 1940|
|Created by||Will Eisner|
Ebony White is a fictional character from the 1940s syndicated newspaper comics series The Spirit, created by Will Eisner. He first appeared in the June 2, 1940 debut instalment of The Spirit and became one of the three major characters in the first nine years of The Spirit's twelve-year run, until being phased out in late 1949. He is a black sidekick to Denny Colt, the title character. His age is ambiguous: throughout most of his nine-year run he's portrayed as a resourceful young boy around twelve years of age, while 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 stereotyping in mainstream 20th century United States culture. His name is a racial pun and his short stature and exaggerated facial features - which include large white eyes and thick pinkish lips - are typical of the era's darkie interpretation of blacks. He is routinely depicted as being less than five feet tall and resembles a stereotypical pickaninny. As a loyal assistant to the hero, he has been compared by a few critics to the classic/infamous Uncle Tom stereotype. However, the storyline refers to the character as The Spirit's unofficial ward/work partner, with the two sharing a home life in their Wildwood Cemetery headquarters, located beneath Denny Colt's tombstone. Despite his exaggerated, caricatured appearance & speech patterns, Ebony is always treated with respect by his fellow cast-members and he develops beyond his comic-relief minstrel stereotype as the series progresses. Eisner later introduced other non-caricature African-American characters, such as the no-nonsense Detective Grey, who defied the media stereotypes of the day. Some of the later Ebony-era instalments show The Spirit and the Dolan family sponsoring Ebony's formal education (the closeness of their relationship is illustrated by the crimefighter reading letters from his protégé 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, Mercer stated that "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 remained unapologetic about it, 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 the Fagin character (which Eisner criticized) and Eisner's own portrayal of Ebony White but asserted that his own work had not "capitalized on" the stereotype.
Strengths and personality
Appearances aside, Ebony was a well-heeled performer in The Spirit's efforts. Many are the occasions where Ebony disarms a villain and finds minutiae evidence The Spirit himself has overlooked. Although appearing to be about twelve years of age, Ebony is able to drive a car and occasionally works as a taxi driver; his occupation has given him an encyclopedic comprehension of Central City. In many stories, Ebony exhibited above average knowledge of science; for example, in one installment he constructed a Morse Code transmitter using a standard light bulb socket and an electric alarm. Ebony and The Spirit develop a loving son/father bond very early in the life of the strip and this is maintained through to Ebony's final appearance. The Spirit, Commissioner Dolan, Ellen Dolan and the Central City police force in general all hold Ebony noteworthy for his skill at field research and his instinctive understanding of human nature. Ellen and the police all consider Ebony as much their personal charge as he is The Spirit's, providing him with a loving family unit and appreciating his sometimes-brilliant participation in crime-solving.
Ebony debuted (as a resourceful taxi-driver) in the first-ever Spirit Section, published Sunday June 2nd 1940 and distributed in the Sunday editions of Register and Tribune Syndicate newspapers. He became a mainstay of the strip and the principal member of The Spirit's supporting cast, alongside Commissioner Eustace P. Dolan, until Eisner phased him out of the narrative in late 1949 and replaced him with another assistant, the Caucasian and blond-haired but far-less-capable Sammy. Ebony's last "starring" role in a Spirit story (a semi-regular event where he was the focus of the story rather than The Spirit himself, usually with a comic twist) was "Young Dr Ebony" published on Sunday May 29th 1949. Sammy first appeared in "The Ballgame" published on Sunday July 31st 1949 (as part of a six-episode story arc set in the South Seas, in which Ebony does not appear). Sammy returns to Central City with The Spirit (and is welcomed into the cast by Ebony, Commissioner Dolan and Ellen Dolan) in "The Return" published Sunday August 14th 1949. Ebony makes two wordless one-panel appearances over the next two weeks, in "The Candidate" published Sunday August 21st 1949 and "White Cloud" published August 28th 1949, before making his final appearance in five panels of "Lurid Love" (a humorous tale focused on Sammy's love life, similar in tone to earlier tales of Ebony's romantic exploits) published Sunday September 18th 1949. After this (apart from one final mention of his name in the text-based splash page of "The Inner Voice" published Sunday November 6th 1949) Eisner phased Ebony out of The Spirit Section altogether (without fanfare or explanation) and Sammy functioned as The Spirit's assistant for the strip's final three years, until The Spirit Section came to an end in October 1952.
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, after awakening from his apparent death, then asked White for help. The youngster gladly accepted, keeping himself on call for his new friend. Commissioner Dolan later learns of White's illegal taxi setup but does nothing to stop him.
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 teenage girl rather than a young boy.
In the 2015 series Ebony White's real first name is "Aloysius" and now a Private investigator working with a boy named "Sammy Strunk" (an update of Ebony's mid-1949 successor as the Spirit's partner) and his cousin Francis "Bolder" White.
In other media
- 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)
- Wickline, Dan (February 18, 2015). "Matt Wagner To Write Will Eisner's The Spirit For Dynamite". BleedingCool.com. Archived from the original on February 19, 2015. Retrieved February 19, 2015.
- The Spirit (TV 1987) on IMDb
- Billington, Alex. "Complete Frank Miller Movie Adaptation Round Up", FirstShowing.net, February 19, 2007