Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Diversity in Comics: African Americans in the Funny Books

As African American characters gradually appeared in mainstream comic books in the latter half of the 1960s, the publishers of funny books began to illustrate greater diversity in their fictional populations. I do seem to remember an African American character, Tiny, appearing in Little Audrey comics around this time, but I'm unable to find an example. Instead here's the second issue of Josie and the Pussycats (#46, art by Dan DeCarlo), which I think is the first Archie cover featuring an African American character, from Feb 1970. Valerie Smith first appeared in the previous issue (Dec 1969), joining Josie's new band, and is now on the cover of issue 46. In this particular story she is not the main focus, but is there throughout. Here's a couple of pages that are typical of her level of involvement:

And again, later on, she's obviously an equal member of the cast of characters in this comic. In this story she's as much in evidence as is Josie.

Almost like a romance comic, there's a double page fashion feature, again including Valerie:

There's no big fuss made about race with Valerie - she's simply included in the new line up as the book changed direction (and the characters became hugely successful!). Also introduced in Archie comics was Chuck Clayton, an African American male character who first appeared in August 1971 in Jughead 195 and Life With Archie 112. His first cover appearances were on Life With Archie 115 and Archie Annual 23 (see images below from the Grand Comics Database).

Below are a few more images I borrowed from the Grand Comics Database that illustrate some other 1970s funny/teen humor comics that featured African American characters. The first issues of Harlem Globetrotters (Apr 1972 - Jan 1975) and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids (March 1974 - Feb 1979), published by Gold Key are shown here - these two series are related to TV cartoon shows.

Fast Willie Jackson was a short-lived series that had a majority African American cast. Published by Fitzgerald, this Archie-style teen humor book ran from Oct 76 - Sept 77. For comparison, here's an Archie cover from July 1977 with a similar dance scene to that on Fast Willie Jackson 1 - not much change at Archie since Valerie Smith debuted in 1970.

If anyone knows any other information on the early appearances of African American characters in funny comics (not disrespectful stereotypes) it would be greatly appreciated if you could post it in a comment here. The earliest I have heard of is 'Tiny', friend of Little Audrey in the Harvey Comics' series of that name, in the mid-1950s! What I'm also interested in is any ideas for analyzing these images. Were the Archie books including token African American characters to be politically correct, or did they have a serious agenda through which they aimed to more accurately represent diversity in American society in their very American comic books?


  1. Harvey's teen humor book Bunny featured a Black co-star, Marcy, from #7 on.
    Besides being a model like Bunny, Marcy also sang in an all-Black band called "the SOULar System"
    Her first cover appearance is Bunny #11 along with the SOULar System.

  2. BTW, We've also done entries (with complete comic stories reprinted) on Lobo (the first Black character to have his own comic)
    and The Butterfly (the FIRST Black superheroine)

  3. Britt: Thanks so much for all this info! Marcy and The Butterfly are completely new to me, and I had been entertaining no hope of ever getting to see the interior of a Lobo comic!!! I don't suppose you have a copy of Negro Romances do you? Or the rest of the pages on All-Negro Comics 1 that are missing from the Digital Comics Museum scan? I'm working with a colleague on a big project to do with minority characters in comics, so these leads you've given me here are extremely valuable.

  4. Regrettably, only have cover scans from "slabbed" copies of Negro Romances. The guy I borrowed them from would've killed me if I opened them...
    I'm looking for interiors of any of the Fast Willie Jackson series, if you happen to come across them... ;-)

  5. I so wish that copies were available for our younger generations. I just learned of this while watching PBS History Detectives.

  6. Anonymous: Copies are available on eBay, at reasonable prices if you are patient and keep checking for good deals.