Fort Valley professor researches black comics

FORT VALLEY, Ga. – For B. Keith Murphy, what began as a boyhood passion for comic books and superheroes has grown into a pursuit for rare and largely forgotten black comic strips.

Murphy, a professor at Fort Valley State University in central Georgia, has spent the past year collecting and studying the comic strips, which were published in black-owned newspapers, some from as early as the 1820s.

He spent his own money to collect some comic strips, but a $24,000 grant he won recently from the National Endowment for the Humanities should help his research.

“I have been doing research on comics and pop culture for years,” said Murphy, who also taught at Purdue University. “This grant will let me study comic strips that open a window to the viewpoint of blacks that often stood against beliefs of mainstream America.”

Murphy, a white professor at the historically black Georgia school, was first drawn to comics while growing up on a western Kentucky tobacco farm. He collected hundreds of comic books and still keeps superhero memorabilia in his Fort Valley office.

He decided to study black comic strips because the subject had not been fully explored by scholars, black or white, he said.

Randy Scott, who archives comics at Michigan State University, which has one of the largest comic strip collections in the nation, agrees that the study of black comics has been widely ignored.

“They are a unique literature of their own, not just an entertainment medium,” said Scott. “It is great that he (Murphy) will get money to study them, but $24,000 is not enough for all the digging he will have to do.”

Black-owned newspapers in the 19th century often hired artists to avoid running syndicated white strips, Murphy said. Some were some whimsical, others explicitly political.

It’s a tradition that continues today, with black comic strips such as “The Boondocks,” a sometimes controversial strip by Aaron McGruder about a group of black kids adjusting to life in a predominantly white suburb.

Murphy owns only a handful or original comic strips, but he plans to spend the next several months tracking down more, on the phone with comics enthusiasts and libraries nationwide.

He eventually plans to archive the comics at Fort Valley State and publish a book about the comic strips, tracing their history and importance to the civil rights movement.