Getting ready to speak with some art educators this summer, I collected some EC Comics stories for us to discuss. One of those stories was Al Feldstein’s “The Slave Ship” from Weird Fantasy #8 (1951). George Russos illustrated the published version, but some Bernard Krigstein also illustrated the story. (I do not know exact dates, but you can find Krigstein’s work here, just search “The Slave Ship”.) There is a stark difference in Russos’ and Krisgetien’s illustrations, and that is a discussion worth having, but it is not one I want to have today. Rather, I want to look at “The Slave Ship” as a whole in its published form.
“The Slave Ship” is pretty straight forward. It’s a classic EC twist ending, one that a reader can see coming from the very beginning if they are attuned to the narrative strategies found within titles such as Weird Fantasy. The story takes place in 1839 and begins with enslavers bringing forty-four Black men and women from Africa in chains aboard a slave ship bound for the United States. The narrative language throughout this section plays upon the stereotypes of Africa both during the slave trade and later, calling the enslaved “savages” and “uncivilized.”
As the ship nears the United States, it encounters a Coast Guard vessel. Even though congress prohibited the importation of enslaved individuals back in 1808, the internal slave trade as well as the importation of enslaved continued until the end of the Civil War. The enslavers in the ship worried about the Coast Guard boarding them and catching them in the act of importing enslaved individuals, so they chain the forty-four men and women to the anchor and throw them overboard, killing every person. When the Coast Guard boards the ship, they find no enslaved individuals and thus have no cause to arrest the sailors or confiscate the ship.
For the enslavers, the men and women they murdered were not men and women. They were merely profit, and while one of the crewmen points out the inhumanity in drowning the men and women, the captain retorts by saying it saved him and the crew, adding, “Besides, m’mate, they were only savages.” In the next panel, the Coast Guard finds the ship abandoned, floating aimlessly in the Atlantic waters and wonders what happened to the crew. The story could have ended here, leaving the reader pondering what happened on board the ship. Did the crew mutiny? Did something else occur?
However, the story continues by flashing back to the ship and what happened to the crew. We come back to the captain dehumanizing those he enslaved, telling his mate, “Each one of those blacks would have brought two . . . three hundred dollars!” As well, the mate tells him that
[t]he men are restless” because they want to count their losses and not return to Africa. At this moment, as the reader starts to feel that a mutiny may have occurred, the mate sees a spaceship flaying towards them above the surface of the ocean. It pulls up alongside them, paralyzes the crew, and alien creatures board the ship, enslaving the men.
The latter half of “The Slave Ship” sees the white enslavers in the same position that they placed the Black men and women. The creatures enslave them, and when they encounter a patrol spaceship, they jettison their cargo into the vastness of space, and the white men expand and explode within the vacuum of space. The narrative ends by linking the two parts of the story together within the last two sentences: “An efficient way to get rid of evidence! More efficient, even, than tossing same into the ocean, eh?”
“The Slave Ship” works on reversals, and, as many of the EC Comics stories do, on positioning. The white enslavers are the focus throughout the story. At the start, the white men on the boat are enslavers, presenting the Black men and women they enslave as uncivilized or savage and not even working to communicate with them. When the creatures enslave the white men, these men get placed in the position of the enslaved Black men and women. Again, we only see one side, the white enslavers. We do not get words from the creatures. Instead, as we do with the first part of the story, we get the white enslavers’ reactions, their interpretation of the events, not the “true” events or nature of the individuals.
In this manner, the story serves as a mechanism to position the white reader within the position of the enslaved Blacks. While it may appear overt, at least in regard to the narrative arc of the story, this positioning is more subtle when we think about the language and the ways that the white men describe those they enslave and those that enslave them. When describing the Black men and women, the whites call them “savages,” “heathen savages,” and ultimately nothing more than “cargo.” The white men describe the creatures as “monsters” and “these creatures.” In both instances, the Blacks and the creatures are not human; however, in the physical representation (the illustrations), the Blacks are human and the creatures are extraterrestrial. As well, the creatures are frightening to the white enslavers while the Black men and women are a nuisance who can be subjected to violence at the enslavers’ whims.
At work here is more than the mere reversal of positions for the white enslavers. We see the ways that language and perception create meaning and feeling. When they enslave the Black men and women, the whites are monsters and unflinching violent creatures to those they enslave. Yet, the white enslavers view themselves as civilizers of the heathen savages and merely as businessmen dealing in cargo. When the creatures enslave the white men, they become the cargo, merely monetary currency for the creatures to do with as they please. In this part, the creatures construct the meaning and definitions of who counts as human or worthy of existence.
The point of the story is straightforward in its condemnation of the dehumanizing of individuals. Yet, the story uses this straightforward premise to comment on the construction of power and the ways that we use language and position to construct and maintain power. We see that shift within the language that the white enslavers use and in the ways that they view those they enslave and then those that enslave them. Within the historical context, this discussion becomes even broader when we consider that the story takes place the same year as the Amistad rebellion and the story appeared following World War II and during the leadup Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 1960s.
There is more to say, but I’ll leave it here for now. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.