BlackJack Speak Easy
By Alex Simmons
I’ve been asked this question, in various forms, since I first pitched the concept in the late 1980s. Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway – I’ve tried to answer it a dozen different ways.
The questioning didn’t stop when I ceased publishing in 2000, and now that I’ve decided to re-launch, the question has come at me again with even more …”enthusiasm.”
So, here is yet another manner in which I will address the three tier query, Why now, why the past, why Blackjack?
Answer, phase one … Revelation. Because of these people, and people like them.
Garrett A. Morgan
Traffic Signal and Gas Mask Inventor — http://www.black-inventor.com/Garrett-Morgan.asp;
Civil War Soldiers — http://www.civilwaracademy.com/civil-war-black-soldiers.html
Charles Richard Drew — http://www.infoplease.com/ce6/people/A0907158.html
Eugene Bullard — http://www.eugenebullard.blogspot.com/, http://www.nationalmuseum.af.mil/factsheets/factsheet.asp?id=705,
Japanese American Soldiers in WW 2 — http://www.history.com/videos/japanese-american-soldiers-in-wwii#japanese-american-soldiers-in-wwii
Women Explorers — http://www.squidoo.com/femaleexplorers
Native American Explorers — http://denniskennedy.com/blog/2005/04/guest-author-sacagawea-native-american-explorer-and-heroine/ (I am particularly impressed that this piece is actually an essay written by a 5th grader. We can learn from children, too.)
[The links provided are only one of many available, if you seek them.]
Guess where I’ll be January 2012.
By Alex Simmons
Let me start off by saying this will not be a definitive essay on the film history of the character created by Earl Derr Bigger.
Nor will it be a scathing expose on the depictions of Asian in American cinema. There are expert far more suited to take up that torch, than myself.
This is simply part of my efforts to continue to answer several questions that often come my way when being interviewed about Blackjack:
Why the 1930s?
Why a black man in that era?
Why give him a Chinese servant?
Why not a fantastic, cyber punk, sci-fi piece with creatures, gadgets, and nympho-maniacal-scantily clad snake women?
Okay, I made up the last question. But someone might wonder just the same.
Well, I’ve answered the Why A Black Man question several times in past interviews, so I’ll skip that one for now.
Instead, let me try to handle the, “Why that era,” and “Why a Chinese servant” queries.
First off, I grew up in the late fifties and sixties. This was when TV truly exploded on American culture. There was a black and white TV set in the homes of at least 4 out of the 10 people you knew. And much of the B category content was old movies.
This meant that for a kid like me, I saw the old Universal horror films on TV. I met Bogart and Cagney through their gangster films on TV. Sixty percent of the old suspense, comedies, and dramas I saw starred the old film actors like the Marx Brothers, or Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrew, and Cary Grant (I know — who the heck are they? Another story) on TV.
But out of all that brain numbing magnificence my favorite films were the mysteries. Of course there were lots of one-shot films (like Fingers At the Window, or Ten Little Indians), but it was the sequel kings for me — Sherlock Holmes, and Charlie Chanthat kept me glued to my seat.
I devoured those movies every chance I got. The affect that Sherlock Holmes had on my life is a story I’ll go into at another time. (Yes, I have plenty of bedtime stories to tell.)
This article is reserved for Charlie Chan. Over the 30 plus years that I experienced those films, five actors played the roles: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Ross Martin (on TV), and Peter Ustinov. And like Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto, and Boris Karloff portraying Mr. Wong … none of these actors were of Asian descent.
The Charlie Chan films were among the longest running and most successful series, from 1931 until 1949. (Martin and Ustinov’s portrayals occurred in the 70s and 80s).
I should mention here that this was more the norm back in those days. Film stars like Katherine Hepburn, Agnes Morehead (and about six others) played all the leads Chinese characters in a film called, “Dragon Seed,” a 1944 film about the Japanese invasion of China. And as much as I enjoyed James Cagney’s, “Blood on the Sun,” the majority of the Japanese characters (leads) were played by actors in makeup. I could go on, but you see what I mean.
The Chan films from Toler to Winters often contained a black comedy relief character known as Birmingham Brown. Again, I could go into a thing about that – but I don’t want to digress from my original point.
From the beginning of those early films the Chan’s children were portrayed by Chinese actors. But up until a year ago, I had never seen the lead played by a Chinese performer. And except for some moments here and there, I never saw the Chinese community portrayed with much depth of character either.
The early serial (episodic adventure movies usually divided into 12 to 15 chapters, about 15 minutes long) did make two Green Hornet movies and Kato was Asian, though there is some depute as to which specific culture. But again, there was no real depth beyond stereotype.
So, here I come creating a hero from that era, and creating (or recreating) some of the same backdrops and locales that impressed me in my youth. But I certainly wasn’t going to write multi cultural characters to then trap them in the same one or two, dimensional roles of the past. This was my chance to have fun in that time period, and to more honestly represent the “people,” no matter what culture or race.
I’ve recently learned that several movies were made in the 1920s, which did feature an Asian actor playing Charlie Chan (though he made only minor appearances in each movie). But I hear they were not financially successful. And even when Chinese studios made Chan films in the 30s and 40s, it is said that the American version proved to be more popular.
So, meet Tim Cheng Su. He’s not a brilliant detective, nor a martial artist. He is also not slow witted, submissive, or inscrutable. He is a human being with secrets, fears
and dreams that will unfold as the series continues. And for those of you who have already read “Blackjack: Blood and Honor,” you know one very important thing about Tim Cheng’s life.
For those of you who have not … Shame on you.
So, why did I choose to play in this arena? With all this rich material to work with, plus hidden history and characters to reveal … how could I not?
— 30 —
- Wikipedia has an “interesting” piece on the Chan history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Chan
I often tell my creative arts students that the more you know about your characters the easier it is to write scene for them. When the students are creating their own characters I let them list what they know already, then I ask questions…
Who are their friends and foes (if they have any)?
Where do they come from?
What are their goals?
And somewhere in there I’ll ask, what is their name?
Writers don’t always have that, fresh out the gate. Sometimes it takes weeks, or months to come up with just the right name for a character. We might name them after a relative, or some celebrity we know of. There’ve been times a sign or item flashes past our eyes as we travel, and we instantly know – That’s it!!!
Arron (spelled with 2 “r”) came to me out of nowhere. I originally had intended to make his “professional nom de plume” The Dark Angel. That is what I called him when I made my first presentation to Dick Giordano at DC Comics. Dick was a VP at the time, but I’d first met him when I was a teenager, years before. Over the years I’d run into him at comic cons, and through my buddy, the relentless writing machine, Don McGregor.
Dick was always a great listener and a gentleman, and in the months following my presentation, I learned he was an excellent mentor.
As I worked to learn the scripting tricks he taught me, and strengthen the story, I changed Dark Angel to Blackjack, and locked on to Matthew as the name of Arron’s father. And — I chose Arron Day, and the civilian name of my hero.
I don’t know why I spelled his name that way. Perhaps the visual of the name with 2 “a” staring back at me from the page, basically turned my stomach. But I do remember the day I came up with the explanation he’d give in the stories.
The first mini series, BLACKJACK: SECOND BITE OF THE COBRA, had done well and I was busy working on the script for the second issue of the next story arc, BLACKJACK: BLOOD & HONOR.
As the scene where Arron and Tim Cheng arrived at the airport in Tokyo unfolded before me, I remember thinking, “The men checking his passport are going to ask him why he spells his name this way … NO … They’re going to ask why he spells his name wrong?” And depending on their attitude (racially motivated or not) they’re going to make it seem like he might be illiterate.
The character of those men grew out of that one thought. And the need to explain why I spell Aaron, Arron, came to me about two days later. I went back to who named him. In those days, his mother and father might have talked about it, but Matthew Day would have had the last word. He would have chosen name, and he would have either misspelled it, or changed it for a reason. Which?
Up until that moment I had never decided if Blackjack’s father were an illiterate. I knew his mother read the bible to her children, so she had some schooling, somehow. But Matthew … it was highly unlikely. He would probably have learned certain words, symbols, necessary for his work. But his up bringing did not include schooling. Still, I didn’t want Arron’s name to be a mistake. His mother wouldn’t have permitted that. So it was deliberate … but why?
Then it came to me. The father was a fighter, a solider for all intents and purpose, and thus would think in those terms. He’d been raised to be strong and would want his son to be even more so. He’d want him to be strong, and tall, and straight … straight as an arrow. Arrow … Arron.
And so the name was born, as was the child, the character. People in and out of the stories have trouble with the spelling, but that’s all right. We’ve got plenty of time to learn it … now.