Ted Shearer, Groundbreaker for Black Cartoonists

June 15, 2007

     A professional in the illustration and cartooning field, Ted Shearer had the knack of subtleness. As one of the few black cartoonists of his time drawing the few black characters in comics, Ted let his cartoons speak for themselves. He didn't whack the politically egregious reatment of different races. He let the sweet young characters of Quincy tell the story instead.

     Ted Shearer's early story is one of immigration to America. He was born in Jamaica in 1921, and arrived in New York City at the tender age of 9 months. Growing up in Harlem, he earned scholarships while a student at DeWitt Clinton High School, with art school in mind. He must have been an inspired teenager - his first cartoon was published at age 16 in the Amsterdam News in New York. Sharpening his skills at the Art Students'League and Pratt Institute, the young man was also practical, working after classes as a busboy and waiter.

     World War Two came calling. Ted joined the army's 92nd Division, the only segregated division to see action in Europe. (The nickname of the Division's troops was "The Buffalo".) Ever the cartoonist, he submitted comics about military life to Continental Features. a newspaper feature agency. Attaining the rank of Sergeant in service, he also produced cartoons for the military newspaper, receiving a Bronze Star in his position as Art Editor.

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    Continental Features continued to publish Ted's work after the War. Mainly addressed to adults,he created two different one-panel comics. "Around Harlem" featured the social lives of young men and women in the 1940s, with bobby socks, dancing, "Zoot suits" and very concerned parents. "Next Door" was more family-oriented, focussing on families in a city setting. All done by hand, Ted made use of the new techniques of shading screens and cross-hatching papers. *(1) His other cartoons appeared in a number of popular magazines: Ladies Home Journal, Our World, Collier's, Saturday Evening Post, and in newspapers such as the New York Herald-Tribune. King Features Syndicate also published some of his cartoons.

     Taking a position at the advertising agency Batten, Barton, Durstine and Osborne as Art Director, Ted gathered five awards for his artwork over the 15 years he was with the firm. While employed, he began work on a comic strip, called Quincy.

     The characters of Quincy were delightful, ordinary children, sampling the everyday joy in life - from the basis of being black. The main character, Quincy, was a clever little nine-year-old. There was no wailing about their station in life, no complaining about their situations. Just kids having good old kid fun. Quincy resembled Tiger, by creator Bud Blake, in its simplicity and well-grounded humour. Ted drew the backgrounds of the comic as the kids lived, "including, the squalor in the crumbling tenements and cracked sidewalks... without rancor. The dilemmas the kids faced "were cheerfully endured in an atmosphere of fellowship and fun." He just created it as it was, no false beautifying was needed.*(2)

     But Ted didn't necessarily feel so positive about the situations that black people were subjected to. "His goal as a cartoonist was to present the lifestyles and conditions under which Black America lived. He never tried to preach about discrimination or hard-hitting racial issues, although in his words he was '...hurt so many times... but I always have to catch myself and ralize I'm doing ahumor strip and not an editorial cartoon." His readers could make their own choices about his humor and views.

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Quincy © King Features Syndicate

     Leaving the ad agency to work solely on his comic strip, Quincy began syndication under the King Features Syndicate on June 17, 1970 and had a good run of 16 years, completing in 1986. There was one book of strips in 1972, published by Bantam Books. In 1976, Ted and his son, writer John Shearer, collaborated on a series of kids' mysteries. Some of the characters were later used by Ray Favata in Sesame Street segments. *(3) After a life of much success and raising the profile of black cartoonists, Ted died in 1996 at age 75.

     Ted Shearer became a groundbreaker for black cartoonists, opening the door for many other talented, creative artists, such as Ray Billingsley of "Curtis" and Aaron McGruder of "The Boondocks", just to name a few. Because what really matters isn't the colour or race or gender of the artist, but a good sense of humour and a good cartoon that makes us think and smile.

    Ted Shearer did just that, and with a great, memorable signature, too.

*(1) http://www.clstoons.com/paoc/shearer.htm A great site to find cartooning pioneers. (Link broken)

*(2) The Encyclopedia of American Comics, Edited by Ron Goulart, Published by Promised Land Productions, 1990.  Pp. 299.

*(3)  Muppet Wikia

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© Susanna McLeod 2007
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