A big slab of my research for Now the Hell Will Start took place in the bowels of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. I spent way too many hours jacked into the library’s microfilm machine, flipping through wartime copies of the Chicago Defender. As you might expect, a lot of what caught my eye wasn’t necessarily germane to my tale. But I’m a sucker for time-capsule curios, and I’d linger over vintage ads, police blotters, and cartoons for hours on end.
The one cartoon I really obsessed over was a strip called Speed Jaxon, which was sort of a cross between Mark Trail, James Bond, and the 1988 Carl Weathers vehicle Action Jackson. (The Weathers movie is solely notable for the hero’s painfully awful quip after roasting a baddie with a flamethrower: “How do you like your ribs?”) Speed Jaxon snagged me not just with its obvious camp value (eat your heart out, Undercover Brother), but also with its earnest attempts at political relevancy. I remember this whole storyline, which lasted for months, in which the cartoonist threw Speed in a Nazi P.O.W. camp along with a bunch of white Southerners. You can guess at the message, which was every bit as heavy-handed as you might imagine. But there was also something oddly touching about the cartoonist’s plea for basic human dignity.
Alas, the strip’s take on non-Western cultures is, shall we say, rather un-PC.
Check out the Speed Jaxon archives on Thrillmer, a site dedicated to reviving “the adventurous spirit of yesterday” as depicted in bygone comics.