Henry: Not Black Like Me

Who knew that the mute Henry was one of comics’ early integrationists? William H. Foster knew, and he discusses the strip’s trailblazing inclusiveness

One classic comic strip has always been a favorite of mine. It has also been a favorite of people over the world for a number of years, even though the main character wasn’t real handsome and never used dialogue balloons (only when he was turned into a comic book by Dell, did he suddenly find the power of speech). It’s Henry, the strip starring the bald, silent, adventurous white boy created in 1932 by late-blooming cartoonist Carl Anderson.

I started enjoying the strip in the 1960s every day in the Philadelphia Bulletin. By that time, the strip was more than 30 years old, and very few images of Black people (like me) appeared in the strip—or in other strips, for that matter.

And for what it’s worth, I don’t remember it mattering much to me that Henry didn’t look like me. I liked him anyway, for reasons that had little to do with racial identity. I could see through to his genuine “kid-ness.” Even though he never spoke, and some could see him as funny-looking, he had enough redeeming characteristics that I often wished he was my real friend. He was clever, daring and often successful with whatever scheme he was concocting. He wasn’t bad, just mischievous. He was curious, and never seemed to carry a grudge against anybody. And he was always looking to have fun. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with that guy? Or wouldn’t want to be him?

Yet in my scholarly search for images of Black people in comics, I later discovered that in its earlier manifestations, Anderson often had Black people in Henry while, intriguingly, avoiding the negative racial stereotypes that were quite common in syndicated comic strips of the same period (the 1930s through the 1950s). In Henry, they weren’t portrayed as lazy, shiftless or cowardly. He didn’t have them show up as witch doctors or cannibals. In short, he didn’t seem to see them as only comic foils or approach them in a mean-spirited way at all. How unusual!

Could it be possible that this man who was born only weeks after President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address was somehow able to lift his comic creations above the commonplace roles meted out by his peers and still create universal humor? Was Anderson an early unsung crusader embroiled in the struggle for racial equality? As a popular cartoonist, was he determined to create atypical, nonslanderous images of Black people while faced with threats of losing his syndication for offending newspaper readers across the (then) still legally segregated United States?

To answer these questions, I decide to take a closer look at Anderson’s life to gain some perspective into his decidedly unique comic relationship with Black people.

Born in Madison, Wis., on Feb. 14, 1865, Anderson was the son of Andrew and Johanna Anderson, Norwegian immigrants. The family was large; Andrew and Johanna eventually had seven children, of whom Carl was one of the middle children.

The family moved often, first to Janesville, Wis., and then to Beatrice, Neb., where 10-year-old Carl became a carpenter’s apprentice. Three years later, the family moved to Des Moines. Carl dropped out of school when he was 15 and worked in his father’s planing mill. He soon moved away from home and traveled around the country, first to Omaha, then to San Francisco and then to Seattle. He stayed in Seattle until 1889, leaving after a fire swept through the city.

In his travels, Anderson worked in various planing mills, honing his talents as a cabinet maker. For the rest of his life, he would practice woodworking as a hobby. By 25 he had patented a folding desk, and his future as a craftsman seemed assured. But just as he was patenting his new invention, Anderson found a new love: cartooning. He saw a correspondence course pamphlet on the subject and decided to move to Philadelphia to enroll in the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art (now the Philadelphia College of Art) to receive instruction in illustration.

In 1894 Anderson went to work at the Philadelphia Times, at $12 a week, as a fashion illustrator. From there he went to the Pittsburgh Comet to work as an art director, but the Comet folded a few months later, and Anderson was thrown out of work. He tried his hand at freelancing, contributing cartoons to various magazines including Judge, Life, Collier’s, and The Saturday Evening Post. In the late 1890s, Anderson moved to New York, where he stayed with his older brother Isaac (who later became a book reviewer for the New York Times).

Anderson joined the staff of the New York Herald. From there he went to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, where he drew Raffles and Bunny. Arthur Brisbane spotted Anderson there and hired him to draw a Sunday page, The Filipino and the Chick, for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Accounts of this period of Anderson’s life differ, and Anderson himself admitted that he “went back and forth so many times that I can’t remember how many.” Simply put, Anderson was part of the staff raids of the period’s newspaper wars.

In 1903, Anderson began drawing Herr Spiegelberger for the McClure Syndicate. Unfortunately, the strip folded. Anderson tried more strips, among them Main Street for the New York Daily News. Then that paper folded, and Anderson was once again forced to freelance.

In 1932, hurt by the Depression, Anderson moved back to Madison, where his father and his second wife had moved. Anderson lived with his three sisters and took care of his ailing father. He continued to freelance and began teaching a course on cartooning at the Madison Vocational School (today the Madison Area Technical College). Anderson eventually decided to go back to cabinet making and to draw cartoons as a sideline.

But in a true story worthy of the corniest Hollywood rags-to-riches musical, Anderson created Henry, the comic strip that would eventually win him more than 40 million daily readers.

One night, in the spring of 1932, Anderson’s students at the Madison Vocational School crowded around a classroom drawing board and watched as the cartoonist drew a sway-backed, pot-bellied horse. Two boys stood beneath the horse, one holding the other against the horse’s stomach, to warm his bald head. The caption: “Does your head feel warmer now, Henry?”

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