Tuesday, February 16, 2010

re: Alfonso Greene

(One of my ongoing areas of comic book study involves the history of African-American Golden Age artists. While my research is still unfinished, I felt that in honor of Black History Month, I'd present a brief biographical sketch of one of the most compelling stories I've come across. Be forewarned, this information is several years old and regretfully incomplete. If you have anything to add, including image scans, please feel free to contact me. Without further ado, here is the story of Alfonso Greene.)

None other than the great Alex Toth is the source for most of what is known about Alfonso Greene. Toth, in one of his famously rambling stream-of-consciousness writings*, recounts the story of Greene, his classmate at the High School of Industrial Arts.

"Al was roughedged well built, strong, and black--quiet and spare with words,"
wrote Toth, "a wannabe cartoonist/comic book artist--had the Caniff-doodle/ style in his mind's eye and hand...".

“Alfonso Greene made his connection with Shelly Mayer,” Toth recalled, “…and Shelly hired him to take over the backup feature, ‘The Black Pirate…”

(Mayer had a falling out with the previous Black Pirate artist Sheldon Moldoff, who abruptly got a raise that resulted in his making more than his editor. According to Moldoff in an interview with Roy Thomas in ALTER EGO #4, "And that was the end of our friendship! I went into the service two or three months after that, and when I got out, he wouldn't give me back "Hawkman" or "The Black Pirate.")

Toth continued, “Al drew three-or four…in his simple clean-lined Canifflike style…,”** but, “Trouble--Al's personal woes--Harlem street gang woes/wars…tough, quiet Al turned out was a gang member…”.

"Shelly Mayer, his booster, mentor, editor, friend, must've done his best to pull Al back, away, from that gang life he lived smack in the midst of..."

According to Toth’s recollection, Greene was involved in a gang fight, was either wounded or wounded someone else and subsequently ended up in prison.

(a side note: Around this time, in early 1946, the Lafargue Psychiatric Clinic opened in Harlem, primarily to offer treatment to young blacks involved with these street gangs. It is quite possible that Greene was treated at this clinic, and if so, he may well have been treated by its director, Dr. Fredric Wertham!)

Evidently he was soon out, however, and resumed working for Mayer.

Greene’s work on “The Black Pirate” , as well as the Alice Marble scripted WONDER WOMAN backup feature, “Wonder Women of History,” saw publication from late 1944 to early 1946. At this point it stops suddenly. There then is a period of several years until any more art bearing his name (in HEROIC COMICS) is published.

"Sojourner Truth" from Wonder Women of History
WONDER WOMAN #13 (Summer 1945)

According to Toth, another gang war had ensued and, “Al shot and, I think, shot to death,” someone from a rival gang.

Toth’s memory was fuzzy on the details, but he seems to remember that Eleanor Roosevelt testified on Greene’s behalf, “…citing his talent, proven and prior attempts to cut loose of his gang life…”

Despite the time that had elapsed, Toth’s fractured memory is generally supported by fact.

The New York Times reported fights between rival black gangs in The Bronx and Harlem on the nights of August 20, 21 and September 1, 1945. Several gang members were shot and at least one, died.

Toth’s claim that Eleanor Roosevelt provided character testimony on Greene’s behalf is still unproven. Such a magnanimous act by the most famous woman in America at that time would seem to be worthy of mention in newspapers of the day, but as of this point, I have been unable to find any corroboration.

"Enough Is Not Too Much"
NEW HEROIC COMICS #63 (Nov. 1950)

A gap of some seven years lapses between Greene’s work for Eastern Color and his reappearance over at Timely (commonly, and erroneously called Atlas) circa 1957.

For whatever reason, Timely employed many of the Black freelance artists working in comics during the Fifties. Cal Massey was the most consistently used, with job assignments spread fairly evenly throughout the decade. The majority of Warren Broderick’s identifiable work was for Stan Lee in a brief tenure. And most notably, the great Matt Baker, seeking work in the wake of St. John’s demise, finished out his comic book career at Timely as a penciler for Vince Colletta.

Greene must have pleased the editor because in a short period he turned in at least 16 jobs to Lee. Whatever dubious past he had, Greene now was gainfully employed and since he was still young, probably looking at a long career in the comic book industry.

Then came The Atlas Implosion.

As has been well documented, by the mid-Fifties comic books were undergoing a major upheaval. Governmental scrutiny, the popularity of television and various economic factors placed terrific pressure on the industry and resulted in the collapse of many publishers. The final straw came with failure of the distribution system of the American News Company (ANC) in April 1957. One of the companies most affected was Martin Goodman’s Timely (in actuality, multi-named, but now commonly referred to as Atlas). Within weeks of ANCs demise, Timely/Atlas stopped assigning work to artists and writers and for a period of several months, published from existing inventory.

During this period, there was even a brief hiatus when this publisher issued no comics. When Stan Lee once again began handing out work assignments, the greatly reduced line of comics required much less new material. Of all the African-American artists who had worked in comic books prior to The Atlas Implosion, until late in the 1960s, only Matt Baker ever worked in them again.

Evidently, Green was working at Timely/Atlas right on up to the brink of The Implosion. The company used a system that combined letters and digits to designate the story work assignments. These job numbers ended abruptly with O-403 pre-Implosion. Greene’s last assignment was O-370. Although his art appeared in STRANGE TALES #66 (Dec. 1958), apparently his last work for the company was completed in early 1957.

"The Tin Star"
WAYTT EARP #18 (Aug. 1958)
(image courtesy of Atlas Tales website)

Except for one story published in CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED “World Around Us” #2 [INDIANS] (October 1958), Greene’s promising art career was yet again thwarted, ironically this time not by his actions, but by the wane of the industry.

Where he went, what he did thereafter, has yet to be determined.

A possible postscript to Greene’s story may be found in the pages of the January 31, 1964, New York Times. It’s a short piece, only 3 paragraphs long, and tellingly, it’s not about the gallery showing of a rising young artist. The details of the article simply recount the release from police custody of four men being held on weapons charges. The men had been detained when they were found lingering suspiciously outside the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan with guns and a bottle of ether. A judge determined that there was insufficient evidence linking the men to a crime and the four, including Alfonso Greene, were released.

A man named Alfonso Greene, born in The Bronx in 1927, died in Harlem in October, 1977.

"But I'll never forget Alfonso Greene--and what might have been, for him, as a pro--a rough, tough, but good guy--amen!" -- Alex Toth

* From Toth's "Before I Forget" series that ran in ALTER EGO.

** Actually, Greene drew at least seven Black Pirate stories: SENSATION COMICS #41, 42, 49-51 and ALL-AMERICAN COMICS #72 & 73.


  1. Ken:

    Perhaps the Eleanor Roosevelt to whom Alex Toth refers is not the First Lady (wife of Franklin
    Delano Roosevelt) but Eleanor B. Roosevelt (wife of Teddy Roosevelt, Jr.). She was a past
    president of the Girl Scouts Council of Greater New York. Also a member of Editorial Advisory
    Board of Fawcett Publications, Inc., circa 1942-1943.

  2. That's an intriguing thought and I suppose it is possible that was the Eleanor Roosevelt Toth meant. However, Toth wrote about Greene some fifty years after that facts he was recalling, and if he meant Teddy Jr.'s wife, I'd expect he would have made the distinction if it was anyone other than the First Lady.

    I will try to follow up on this, Jake. Anything is possible. Thanks for the info.