A smartly rendered pin up girl gag watercolor cartoon for Esquire Magazine by the noted African American cartoon artist and illustrator E. Simms Campbell. Part of his long-running series of harem girl cartoons, which used the exotic historic setting as a jumping off point for often biting satire and off-color humor, the image shows a tense negotiation over the nearly nude beauty, the tagline reads “Personally, I think the camel is a much smarter buy.” There is growing awareness of the subtle ways in which Campbell nodded to his own racial identity in his Esquire work, and this example, in which the question of slavery hides in plain sight, is no exception. Work is ink stamped by Esquire Magazine on the verso and signed by the artist lower right.
Through his most well-known creation, Eksy, and his whimsical and biting risqué cartoons, E. Simms Campbell helped develop the unmistakable Esquire style. One of the first African-American illustrators to achieve mainstream mass-market success, his work could be seen everywhere from Cosmpolitan magazine to The New Yorker. Along with Alberto Vargas, Hugh Hefner recruited Campbell for Playboy, in his notable attempt to give the title an Esquire inspired flavor.
A look at the life of E. Simms Campbell from Tim Jackson’s Salute to Pioneering Illustrators of Color:
Born in St. Louis, E. Simms Campbell holds the record for being the first openly known Black cartoonist to draw for many of the biggest name national publications in America during a time when segregation was widely practiced subtly in the North and more flagrantly in the South.
Prevented from participating in strenuous sports, although he was once a halfback in high school, E. Simms Campbell spent his early years as a young artist at Englewood High School in Chicago, where he was editorial cartoonist for the “E” Weekly, the school’s newspaper. It was with this high school paper back in 1926 he first captured national attention when he created award-winning Armistice Day commemoration cartoon. It was an illustration of a soldier kneeling in front of the grave of a comrade. The caption read: “We’ve Won, Buddy!” Another drawing of a turkey which he sold for 75¢ back in 1922 would later serve as the foundation for two of his most popular characters, “Cutie “and the Sultan. More on that later.
Described as an idealistic overly romanticizing adolescent, Simms’ artistic style showed a mature irony that developed & became perfected over the years to come. Two qualities remained, according to an article written in the 1950s by Michael Carter- the irony, and his use of White characters in his comics. But to make a living as a commercial artist, he had a reason for making this choice.
As a boy in St. Louis, he was told that is was a waste of time for a ‘Negro’ to try to make a living in commercial art. But the prevailing negative attitudes did not deter his love for drawing. E. Simms Campbell left the home of his father, a high school principal & his mother, a noted painter who taught him the fundamentals of his art, at the age of 14 to attend the University of Chicago. He also attended the Chicago Art Institute, while freelancing with a magazine called College Comics. This experience prepared him for his future when he went to New York in 1932 to attend the Art Student’s League. He enlisted the help of others in the cartooning business, & soon began to freelance artwork to some of the top magazines in town. Therein lay the reason Mr. Campbell infrequently drew comics containing Black people. His work was primarily used in ‘mainstream’ publications such as Esquire, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, the New Yorker, Opportunity & ultimately syndication in 145 newspapers.
Esquire’s art department recognized talent in this young Black artist & was first to sign E. Simms Campbell to a long term contract, ignoring public dogma.. His illustrations can be seen in almost every issue from 1933 to 1958. He is also credited with creating Esky, the magazine’s mascot. In business, skin color can sometimes be easily overlooked, when making money is at stake. Soon this talented artist was in demand with other advertising agencies. At the height of his career he turned out over 500 finished pieces of high quality art a year. In the mid 1950s with his work appearing in both the newly started Playboy Magazine & Esquire, Mr. Campbell had the distinction of having cartoons appear in competing publications.
Essentially a gag cartoonist. He is credited in an Esquire “Who’s Who as being unlike many other humorous artists who buy ideas for cartoons, he is his own gag man. That is he comes up with the jokes as well as doing the drawings. “I try to get at least 10 (gags) a night. They have to be different.” He is quoted as being inspired to come up with ideas after looking over household bills. “At that point I say- jeez- then I get funny!”
Unquestionably his most popular character was the sexy red-head, Cutie. It was because of an illustration created in his youth of a turkey that Mr. Campbell merits as bringing him his fame as the creator of Cutie. “The slim-legged, full-hipped, lusty red-headed woman grew out of a turkey…because it was the first thing I ever drew back in St. Louis.” Cutie has sold everything from stockings, soap, & deodorants when her charms were used in advertising. There are some who say that it was a bold, ground breaking move on the part of King Features Syndicate to allow a Black man to draw sexy cartoons of nearly nude White women in a time of open race hatred. “In…1936 (William Randoph) Hearst papers and other White outfits rarely identified him as colored.” Had this been known, it was speculated, it might have sparked violence against Black men by association, or at least led to mass cancellations of papers that carried the cartoon. When asked “How do race hating Whites feel when they discover that the creator of these sensuous half naked girls is colored?” Simms replied, “Who gives a damn. I guess they get over it.”
E. Simms Campbell says of Cuties: “She was a red-head because red reproduces well. Nearly every magazine in America uses red… & almost every flag in the world has some red in it. That’s why she’s a red head. …I sell a commodity. I sell what people want.” When criticized about making his living drawing a comic about a White woman, Mr. Campbell’s opinion was, “If she came to life, she would be colored. Colored girls have better breasts and more sun and warmth. I like a fine backside, & they have it!”
The talent of this pioneering cartoonist of Color has earned him a place in Current Biography, We Have Tomorrow, Who’s Who in Colored America & the Encyclopedia of Black America. He is also responsible for illustrating a number of children’s book such as, Popo and Fifina by Arna bontemps & Langston Hughes, and the Haitian poetry collection, We Who Die & Other Poems by Binga Dismond.