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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

'Green Lama' a step in march for civil rights)

June 29, 2009

Sunday, June 28, 2009

By ANDREW A. SMITH Scripps Howard News Service

A lot of comics from the past are offensive to modern sensibilities,
reflecting as they do the derogatory racial stereotypes prevalent at the
times. Not so "Green Lama," a 1940s character being reprinted by Dark Horse.

In some ways, the Lama is fairly forgettable as '40s characters go. He was
published by the obscure Spark Publications. His costume was unremarkable -
hood, cape and leotard ensemble, all in various shades of emerald. Like
Superman, Dr. Fate and a half-dozen others, his powers were super-strength,
speed, flight and invulnerability. Like Batman, Sandman, Green Arrow and a
host of others, his secret identity was the standard-issue "bored playboy"
(Jethro Dumont). Like Captain Marvel, Johnny Quick and others, his powers
were activated by a magic word or phrase ("Om Mani Padme Hum"). Like the
Lone Ranger, Mandrake the Magician, The Spirit and many others, he had an
ethnic sidekick (Tsarong).

But in other ways, the Lama was unique. For one thing, despite his
regrettable name, Tsarong often acted more as an adviser than a sidekick -
despite not being white. Plus, the Lama was drawn by the remarkable Mac
Raboy ("Captain Marvel Jr."), who was revered then and now for his graceful
figures, clean embellishment, storytelling skills and breathtaking mastery
of anatomy, foreshortening, design, perspective and rendering. Also, as his
name implies, the Green Lama's powers didn't derive from the scientific and
industrial prowess of the West - they came from, and practically idolized,
Tibet and its Buddhist tenets.

But most importantly, "Green Lama" may be the most enlightened comic book
I've read from the '40s. For example, a full-page house ad in "Green Lama"
No. 2 (February 1945) makes a plea - no, a demand - for tolerance. Under a
stark image of a U.S. helmet next to a battlefield grave marker with no
name, the text reads in part, "Let's put an end to the foul prejudice fanned
by our enemies . . . When you find anyone - yourself included - thinking,
speaking, acting with racial or religious prejudice - STOP IT! If Smith,
Kelly, Cohen or Svoboda is good enough to die for us, he's good enough to
live with us . . . as an equal. Be American!"

You're not going to read that in "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" in the 1940s!

And in "Green Lama" No. 5 (May 1945), there's a story even more remarkable.
The Lama reacts to a bigoted American soldier by taking him behind enemy
lines and showing him the logical end of racial prejudice: Nazi Germany.
Realizing that he's acting like the enemy, the soldier has a change of
heart, even buying the "Negro" soldiers he had previously abused some
ice-cream sodas!

As Chuck Rozanski says in his foreword, "though the underlying egalitarian
message may seem obviously virtuous today, it was practically suicidal in
1945."

And it was. Spark Publications began receiving hate mail, of course. But the
publisher didn't back down - in fact, they turned it up a notch. In "Green
Lama" No. 6, they published a real letter from an anti-Semite on the first
page of the hero's adventure. In "An American Story," the Lama goes to Texas
(where the letter was from) to confront the writer (fictionalized), whom he
shows the error of his ways - as he breaks up a KKK-like hate group,
complete with white hoods.

Wow! Why is this title not famous?

Here's a hint: It was canceled two issues later.

There are a number of pedestrian reasons why this might be so. The market
was flooded with new comics after the wartime paper-rationing was eased, and
a lot of books came and went during the Lama's short run (1944-46). And some
of the Lama's backup features, like Angus MacErc and Lt. Hercules, were
painfully bad.

But it seems more likely, as Rozanski speculates in his foreword, that
"Green Lama" was simply too liberal for its times. "It doesn't take a huge
leap of logic," he writes, "to realize that when you write comics that are
deeply offensive to a significant number of your readers, for many of whom
racism was a deeply ingrained value in 1945, you're going to lose some
sales."

I'd recommend Dark Horse's "Green Lama Archives" Vols. 1-2 ($49.95 each).
But I also believe this early, baby step in the long march for civil rights
deserves recognition.

As the Green Lama would say, "Be American!"
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