Li'l Eight Ball and Honeysuckle.


Original Medium: Theatrical animation
Released by: Universal (Walter Lantz)
First Appeared: 1939
Creator: Burt Gillett
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The phenomenon of Political Correctitude has been responsible for the disappearance of many classic, highly enjoyable cultural artifacts, such as Coal Black & de Sebben Dwarfs, from …

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… our society. Those classics don't include anything connected to Li'l Eightball, a mediocre character at best, who would long since have been lost due to a general lack of entertaining qualities, even if he hadn't been grossly offensive.

Li'l Eightball was a Universal Studios character, a product of the cartoon factory that had grown out of events set into motion by the hijacking of Oswald the Rabbit from creator Walt Disney. With Eightball, studio head Walter Lantz showed he was no more sensitive to minority issues than anyone else at the time.

And neither was director Burt Gillett, recently of Disney, who joined the Lantz studio in 1938. Gillett's career at Disney had included the usual Donald and Mickey material, but he was better known for the Silly Symphony series — including the most famous Silly Symphony of all, Three Little Pigs.

Gillett's second cartoon at Universal, Stubborn Mule, released July 3, 1939, introduced Li'l Eightball. Tho not intended as offense, it did rely on crude stereotypes for its humor. Even Eightball's correct use of big words was probably an attempt to contrast his obvious intelligence with the audience's expectations of such characters. Mel Blanc (Bugs, Daffy and so much more) did his voice.

The second outing, Silly Superstition, which came out on the 29th of the following month, was already in the works by the time audience response to The Stubborn Mule was known. Since that was the final Li'l Eightball cartoon, it may be inferred that response didn't warrant continuing it as a series.

But a couple of years later, when the Lantz characters started appearing in Dell Comics' The Funnies, the character was revived (tho this time his name was spelled as two words). There was scarcely enough material to fill the funnybook, so they were pulling everything that looked even remotely likely to make a comic book series. A couple of years after that, even as big a nonentity as Homer Pigeon got a slot in New Funnies (as it had been retitled). Li'l Eight Ball joined the roster with the 64th issue (May, 1942), the same one as Andy Panda..

In the comic books, Eight Ball lived with his Mammy, and wooed a girlfriend, Honeysuckle Jones, tho he was opposed in the latter pursuit by rival Shadrack Paducah. He originally lived in a rural area where his neighbors were confined to a family of anthropomorphic woodchucks. Eventually, Eight Ball's surrroundings metamorphosed into a suburban landscape, where all the inhabitants — including Irish cops, an interesting use of compound stereotypes — were black.

Racial sterotypes, such as Captain Marvel's Steamboat and Tex Thompson's Gargantua, were common in comic books of the early 1940s, but tended to drop out as the decade wore on. By 1947, they, in particular Li'l Eight Ball, had become a target of The Cultural Division of The National Negro Congress. This led editor Oskar LeBeck (Twin Earths) to reply to a group of black schoolchildren who wrote to him in protest, apologizing for any offense and promising to drop the character. Li'l Eight Ball's final appearance was in #126 (August, 1947).

LeBeck implied that Eight Ball was discontinued solely because of that protest, but didn't explicitly state it. The reality was a bit more complicated. For a year or two prior to his disappearance, his environment was becoming more balanced, with a normal proportion of white background characters, and the black characters' dialect was toned down. Eight Ball was given a friend named Sidepocket, with Caucasian features, who was less bright than himself. However, due to inadequate communication, the colorist made Sidepocket black.

In the early 1990s, Harvey Comics licensed the Lantz characters. A set of proofs was available for Li'l Eight Ball stories originally published by Dell. Editor Sid Jacobson (Wally the Wizard) considered having him redrawn as a traditional funny animal, but — nah.


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Text ©2010 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Walter Lantz Studio.