Recently, I’ve written about Al Feldstein and Wallace Wood’s work in EC Comics’ Shock SuspenStories. I’ve examined how they confront the reader in “The Guilty!,” how they address racist thought in “Hate!,” and how they address fears surrounding interracial intimacy in “Under Cover” and “The Whipping!” Today, I want to look at another story that Wood drew, “Blood-Brothers.” Unlike the other stories, we are unsure if Feldstein wrote the script. According to Bill Mason, most likely either Al Fedstein or Jack Oleck wrote the script. No matter who wrote the script, it is still a story that addresses issues of racism head on. Today, I want to look at this story and specifically the way it uses the burning cross as a multi-layered symbol as an expression of hate and at the same time the collapsing of that hate.
“Blood-Brothers” tells the story of a man, Sid, who finds out that his friend and neighbor, Henry Williams, is part Black. Upon learning this, Sid ostracizes Henry in order to hopefully force the man and his family to move out of the white neighborhood. Sid’s actions lead to Henry losing his job, his wife dying for lack of medical care, financial troubles, and eventually his own suicide. After Henry’s suicide, Doc Falk tells Sid that he has “Negro blood” running in his veins due to a blood transfusion that saved his life as a child. In many ways, this story echoes “Hate!”, but that is a discussion for another day.
In a last-ditch effort to get Henry to move, Sid decides to burn a cross in his neighbor’s yard. The story takes place after this terrorist act and after Henry kills himself. Doc Falk and Sid talk about what led to the current events, and we see the story through flashbacks. With each flashback, we get a new image of the burning cross as it crumbles to the ground in ashes. This cross serves as a symbol that shows the absurdity of Sid’s beliefs in his superiority based solely on the idea of “blood.”
The opening panel shows a crowd of men gathered in from of Henry’s house as Doc Falk and Sid talk in the foreground. The cross appears on the left side of the panel. The narrator starts by intoning, “A last faint whisp of smoke curled upward from the blackened and charred cross that still stood grotesquely upon the singed lawn as they brought the body out.” The image and the narration call the reader’s attention to the burning cross, thus setting it up as something we must pay attention to throughout the story.
In the first flashback, Sid tells Doc Falk about he learned of Henry’s ancestry. Sid comes to Henry to warn him about another neighbor, Jed Martin, who plans to sell his house to a Black family. Henry listens to Sid’s racist harangue then asks him, “Didn’t you know that I’m part Negro, Sid?” The panel where Henry asks this question recalls, in many ways, Ed hearing about John’s ancestry in “Hate!” Sid stands there, staring slack jawed at Henry with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Sid thinks that Henry is joking, but when he discovers that it is true, Sid begins to plot against his one-time friend and neighbor.
The story shifts back to the present, for one panel. We see Sid talking to Doc Falk about his bewilderment at the news, and Doc Falk telling him to continue. In the background, off the right, the silhouette of the cross appears. It still appears intact, just as Sid’s feelings of superiority and hatred remain intact even though he is telling Doc Falk about his mixed feelings regarding Henry’s news.
The next flashback shows Sid focusing his anger on Jed Martin rather than Henry. Pointing his finger out of the panel and with a look of fear, not anger, Sid tells his wife what will happen to the neighborhood if Jed sells his home to a Black family. He embodies the unsubstantiated racist fears that position himself and his family as superior as he tells her, “The neighborhood’s gonna change! Our kids will be playin’ with colored kids . . . and . . . and . . . I’m no going to let that happen.” He continues by telling her he has worked too hard to see his “decent neighborhood” transformed. What Sid does not mention, though, is how his thoughts and “fears” do not consider how he came to be in the “decent neighborhood” himself. Jed tells Sid that he has changed his mind about moving, then Sid moves on to plotting against Henry.
Again, we get another panel in the present as we move out of the flashback. Here, the positioning is changed. The cross stands in the foreground, and the narrator describes the scene: “Little flecks of white ash fell from the crude charred cross standing in the singed lawn.” In front of the collapsing cross, Sid tells Doc Falk about how he went about trying to get Henry to move. He warned his kids against playing with Henry’s children, he talked to storeowners about serving “colored folks,” he put up a fence between his house and Henry’s, he called Henry’s job to get him fired because of his race, and he called the bank to “warn” them against lending money to Henry. The latter salvo led to the death of Henry’s wife because she did not have the money for treatment. For Sid, he “felt no compassion.” In fact, he thought he had won.
Henry refused to sell, so Sid burned the cross in his yard. These two panels are very interesting. In the first, Sid lights the cross. His face, shadowed in the dark, does not appear white. The coloring, in fact, makes him look Black. What does this do? Is this foreshadowing the end? In the next panel, we see Henry at his window with the reflection of the cross on his chest, close to his hear. Sid tells Doc Falk, “I saw Henry’s face at the window, staring out at the dancing flames! Can you imagine?! Even though he had Negro blood in his veins, his face was ashen white. . .” Here, the previous panel comes into focus. The panels juxtapose the “white” Sid against the “Black” Henry. Sid looks Black in the first panel and Henry is “ashen white” in the second. The pairing of these images highlights the absurdity of believing race exists within the blood that courses through our veins.
To drive this point home even further, the story shifts back to the present. Here, half of the burnt arm of he cross falls to the ground as Doc Falk and Sid continue to talk. In the first panel, the cross is in the background. In the second panel, Doc Falk essentially accuses Sid of Henry’s death and Sid tells him, “Henry had Negro blood in him, Doc! Can’t you understand?” Here, the charred cross, with one arm missing, sits in the foreground. The next panel shows a closeup of Doc Falk’s face as he drives home the point that “[a]ll human blood is the same, whether it is the blood of an Oriental, or an African, or an European.” Here, Doc Falk goes into the story of how George, a Black worker on his family’s farm, saved Sid’s life by providing blood for a transfusion.
Before revealing that Henry was the boy who George’s blood saved, a panel shows the second arm of the cross falling to the ground as Doc Falk points a finger at Sid and proclaims, “The Negro save the boy’s life, Sid. He gave the boy over a quart of blood!” Still defiant, Sid replies, “Don’t preach to me Doc.” At this, Doc Falk tells Sid to roll up his sleeve, and the physician shows Sid the scar from the transfusion. This revelation causes Sid to reflect upon his actions and his false beliefs around race.
The final panel shows a downtrodden Sid underneath a streetlamp as he thinks, “Oh God, . . . sob . . . what have I done. . . ?” A cloud of smoke rises in the background, and the final narration reads, “And on the singed law, the charred upright, the remains of the burned cross, collapsed into a pile of ash and carbon.” The cross crumbles, just as Sid’s false beliefs crumble. The slowly dissolving cross chronicles Sid’s journey throughout the story. He begins as a full-throated bigot who thinks that because of his white skin, and the blood that flows in his veins, he is superior to Henry and other Blacks. However, the doctor tells him otherwise, and when he finds out the story of his life, he cannot comprehend and justify his actions. The fantasy of his superiority crumbles into ashes on the lawn of his one-time neighbor and friend, dissolving into the air we all breathe.
There is more that could, and should, be discussed here. Like the other stories I have written about, we do not really see George. He appears as a shadow in the doorway, and we only see him from behind in a couple of panels. This is something that occurs in other stories as well, except for “The Guilty!” In these stories, we either do not see the Black characters or they do not have any agency within the narrative. This is something that needs to be addressed. (Granted we do hear from and see Henry act.)
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.