Last week’s profile of trailblazing sci-fi writer Octavia Butler mentioned her passion for comic books and strips as a young person, and that brought to mind the creations of Orrin Cromwell Evans. If you don’t know much about the publication of Black comic books and strips in newspapers then you probably know little about Orrin.
He was born in 1902 in Steelton, Pennsylvania. His father, George Evans Sr., was fair enough to pass for white and his much darker skinned mother, Maude Wilson Evans, often had to pretend to be the family maid when strangers visited them. Clearly, this racial complexity left young Orrin with a challenging identity path to negotiate. Whether this had a consequence on his early exit from the classroom is left to conjecture.
There is a biographical gap between his dropping out of school in the eighth grade and his arrival at the highly-regarded Black newspaper The Philadelphia Tribune as a teenager. By the early 1930s, he was the only Black reporter on the staff of The Philadelphia Record where he covered race issues in the armed services during World War II. And in this capacity may have been among the first Black reporters on general assignment with a white publication. Despite racial taunting and death threats, Orrin was a fearless reporter and was often caught in the throes of white reaction, including an incident in which he was denied entry to a press conference on the pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh.
His reportage was featured in other papers as well, most prominently in the Chicago Defender, The Philadelphia Independent, and The Crisis, the organ of the NAACP. The popularity of his stories convinced him that he could reach a larger audience with a comic book. That opportunity came when The Record was closed during an extended strike in 1947. With his partners the sports editor Bill Driscoll and Harry T. Saylor, the former editor of The Record, Orrin was a co-founder of All-Negro Comics, Inc. and he was the president.
In 1947, the company published the only known issue of All-Negro Comics, a 48-page standard-sized comic book with a typical glossy cover and newsprint interior. As to the run of that issue, no count has been published, though there was apparently other Black comic books in existence at that time, according to comic book historian Stanford Carpenter, who noted that “While there were a few heroic images of Blacks created by Blacks, such Jive Gray comic strip and All-Negro Comics, there images did not circulate outside of pre-civil rights segregated Black communities.” Orrin, as described by writer Tom Christopher, “Co-created the features in the comic along with the artists, who included his brother, George J. Evans Jr., two other Philadelphia cartoonists, one of whom was John Terrell, and the other named Cooper, and a Baltimore artist who signed his work Cravat. The cartoonists probably wrote their own scripts, and there was further editorial input by Bill Driscoll.”
One of the lead features in the 1947 edition was “Ace Harlem,” an African American police detective who like other characters “Lion Man and Bubba,” was mainly created to inspire African Americans and fairly represent their cultural heritage. Orrin’s attempt to publish a second issue floundered when he was unable to purchase the required newsprint, which was rumored to be an obstacle devised by white publishers who began issuing their own Black-themed titles.
At some point he married Florence and they had one child, Hope.
From 1962 until his death in 1971 in Philadelphia, Orrin worked at the Chester Times and the Philadelphia Bulletin. He was the recipient of many tributes and awards—the Urban League of Pennsylvania, the NAACP, and a scholarship was created in his name. In 2011, he and his brother were posthumously given the ECBACC Pioneer Lifetime Achievement Award for the creation of All-Negro Comics. Three years later, Orrin was elected to the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame as president of All-Negro Comics.