Comic Art Friday: Foster children

I’ve made the observation numerous times that ideas for my Common Elements commissions are sometimes triggered by the least expected stimuli. Today’s featured artwork makes a prime example of this principle.

Beautiful Dreamer, Jean Grey, and Ultragirl, pencils and inks by Carlos Rafael

Several years ago, I was channel-surfing late one night when I happened upon a documentary about composer Stephen Foster on the local PBS station. Foster, for the benefit of the non-history-buff segment of our audience, was perhaps the first American popular songwriter to achieve major commercial success. Many of his compositions quickly became staples of American music and remain familiar today, more than 150 years after Foster’s untimely death at age 37.

To the extent that I ever thought much about Stephen Foster, it was in the context of the not-terribly-subtle thread of racism laced through many of his lyrics. Foster wrote a considerable number of songs intended for minstrel shows, in which performers wearing blackface presented mocking caricatures of African Americans. These caricatures, and the epithets associated with them, find a home in such Foster songs as “Camptown Races,” “Old Black Joe,” “Old Folks at Home” (more commonly known as “Swanee River”), and “My Old Kentucky Home,” although these elements are frequently altered when the songs are performed today. (One of the most surprising facts I learned from the Foster documentary was that, although Foster’s oeuvre is filled with ditties about life in the antebellum South, Foster was born and raised in Pennsylvania and lived much of his adult life there, as well as in Ohio and New York. He may have actually visited the South only on a couple of brief occasions.)

As I viewed the documentary, though, it occurred to me that Foster also wrote quite a few songs that fall into a less controversial category: romantic ballads. This class includes some of Foster’s most enduring works — i.e., “Beautiful Dreamer,” “Jeanie (With the Light Brown Hair),” and “Oh! Susanna.”

That observation set off a lightbulb in my comics-attuned mind. Legendary creator Jack Kirby appropriated the name Beautiful Dreamer for the female member of his Forever People. One of the most enduring superheroines since the Silver Age is original X-Man Jean Grey. (I know, I know… Jean’s hair is usually depicted as red, not light brown. But that’s nothing a bottle of Miss Clairol couldn’t fix.) I had to ponder a while before I recalled that the adopted human name of Ultragirl, Marvel’s short-lived Supergirl riff, is Susanna Sherman, but with that realization, the picture was complete.

Or would be, maybe a decade later, when I finally got around to commissioning this project from Brazilian artist Carlos Rafael, best known for his work on such Dynamite Entertainment titles as Red Sonja, Dejah Thoris, and Battlestar Galactica.

Thus, another Common Elements concept wings in from left field.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Comic Art Friday, Hero of the Day, Soundtrack of My Life, SwanStuff, That's Cool!

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