By Wendy Browne
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
In October 1976, Bertram A. Fitzgerald took us to Mo City, USA to meet Fast Willie Jackson and his friends. There’s the soul sistah Dee Dee, Jo-Jo who is full of good vibes and Good Times, Jabar, the “power to the people” militant, the cool Frankie Johnson, and the sweet strong man, Hannibal. Drawn by Gus Lemoine (whom many believe was actually Archie Comics artist, Henry Scarpelli), Fast Willie Jackson series is referred to without irony as the Black Archie, with the only major white character being Officer Flagg, aka “The Man.”
Aimed at a similar age group as Archie Comics, though more relatable to a Black audience, Fast Willie Jackson followed a similar path of short strips focused on friends and hi-jinx, but with a deeper political lean that, frustratingly, remains relevant today.
The first issue features four stories focusing on various characters and the life and times of Mo City folks. Two stories feature Dee Dee, whom we learn is a bit of a snob, much like a Veronica Lodge, but there is no Betty to balance out the group or Willie’s affections. That Dee Dee is the only main female character is an immediate frustration, especially when she doesn’t seem to be written with much depth beyond her love of cool clothes. In fact, all of the characters lean heavily into stereotypes, and not in a particularly positive or even amusing way. Frankie (the Reggie-type character) is a flamboyant rich kid sporting the finest furs. Officer Flagg is portrayed as a dimwit, but his harassment is anything but humorous when read in today’s light.
Most disturbing is the portrayal of Jabar, who doesn’t quite have an Archie alternate. He is outspoken and in your face about his convictions, but often puts down his fellow brothers and sisters for not being as dedicated to the cause as he is. It’s not hard to see why they are hesitant to associate with him when the character is often shown sweating and shaking, with angry fists raised, but the validity of his anger is diminished because his militance is played as a joke.
Still, Fast Willie Jackson earning a place on the newsstands — even if short-lived — and offering young readers an opportunity to see some diversity on those stands was important. The art and colouring of the issue give us unquestioningly and unapologetically Black characters, unlike the often whitewashed imagery we see in comics today.
“Fast Willie Jackson was the closest publication there is to a Blaxploitation comic,” reads the February 2 issue of Gemstone Publishing’s The Scoop. Unfortunately, the comic was not well-received and fizzled out after only seven issues. Its legacy remains a valuable part of the archive of Black comics creativity though — and it’s not Fitzgerald’s only legacy.
In the same year, Fitzgerald Publishing Co. produced the sixteenth and final issue of Golden Legacy, a series that presents biographies of notable figures in Black history, from Harriet Tubman, to Alexandre Dumas, to Joseph Cinqué, and many, many more — though, notably, only one woman, Tubman, earns a titular spotlight across the series.
Written by Fitzgerald and featuring art by Leo Carty and Tony Tallarico, volume 16 is titled “The Black Inventors Latimer and Woods”. When you turn on the lights in your home every day, you have Lewis Howard Latimer to thank for that illumination – and of Granville Tailer Woods’ 60 U.S. patents, his most notable is the Synchronous Multiplex Railway Telegraph, which aids in the safety and improvements of the public transportation systems in U.S. cities. These men ought to be household names, but their contributions to history have been quietly erased in our books.
“The Latimer story really begins with his father’s escape from slavery in Virginia…” writes Fitzgerald in the opening page of volume 16. Fitzgerald’s research takes readers back to 1831 and a brief look at George Latimer’s path leading to the birth of Lewis. The ties to slavery are firm, but Fitzgerald does not dwell on that negative, focusing instead on the actions taking place around the country at the time and introducing other important historical figures like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass and their significance to Latimer’s own life.
Tailer Woods’ story follows a similar format, with each panel moving quickly from moment to moment in the timeline. The implication is that there certainly are details jumped over for the sake of pithiness, but what is provided hits on the most salient points. Fitzgerald’s brevity with words and the artists’ tightly focused panels maintain this press forward throughout, in colourful and engaging storytelling. The lines are clean and simple, and yet each character is uniquely designed to accurately represent the real people.
Through stories like these, Golden Legacy moves beyond the confines of Black History Month to remind us that Black history IS history – and it was because of Fitzgerald’s seventh grade history teacher, Dr. James Allen, that we have this series to explore Black history through today.
Born in Harlem New York in 1932 to a Virginian mother, Hattie E. Sessoms, and a Jamaican father, Bertram Fitzgerald Sr.; Fitzgerald was one of three children. Fitzgerald was an avid reader, devouring works of history and adventure. He had very little time for the childish fare of comics, preferring instead the more adult works such as The Three Musketeers, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Last of the Mochicans, and Moby Dick, spending as much time poring over the stories themselves as the biographies of the authors who wrote them. He loved these stories, but was also frustrated by the stereotypical and offensive depictions of Black or the absence of Black characters all together. Even, he would later learn to his chagrin, the biographies he read of authors such as Dumas or the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin omitted their African heritage.
Dr. Allen’s teachings helped alleviate some of this frustration by ensuring that his history lessons always highlighted the contribution of Black people across a broad field. This was a far cry from history classes that continue to touch on slavery, but do nothing to give Black youth anything to aspire to, or show white students that diversity strengthens their lives too. “It’s every bit as important for white children to learn about Benjamin Banneker as it is for black children to learn about Benjamin Franklin,” Fitzgerald told the New York Times in February 1974. “It deprives white students and it also misleads them,” he said in a later interview with the Times in 1993. “It encourages them to think that they made every worthwhile contribution to society, and it misleads them to believe that they are somehow superior.”
But it would be some time before grade 7 Fitzgerald would turn his engagement with Black history into a Golden Legacy. First, there was time spent in the Air Force, followed by a degree in accounting from Brooklyn College, from which he graduated in 1956. Then, it wasn’t until the mid-’60s that this mild-mannered accountant working at the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance became a hero in his own right.
Though he had placed little value on comics in his own youth, in 1966, he better understood their literary impact. “We decided on the format because, first of all, it appeals to youngsters aged 10 through 15, when lifelong attitudes are being formed,” he explained in the New York Times interview. “Secondly, the visual approach has more impact on the reader. Lastly, it takes the drudgery out of history and replaces it with excitement and adventure. It sort of puts a breath of life into it.” Calling on the one comics series that he actually did enjoy in his youth, Golden Legacy was styled after Albert Kanter’s Classics Illustrated series that adapted literary classics such as Les Miserables, Moby Dick, Hamlet, and The Iliad into comic form.
With only a shoe-string budget and facing many limitations in his attempts to print and distribute the first issue, Fitzgerald persisted, switching up his distribution focus by approaching Coca Cola, a company that saw a greater per capita share of soft drink sales to Black people than to white people. Coke took him up on the opportunity – as did other major companies as the series became more popular. Golden Legacy became a Black history series that has sold over 25 million copies, is lauded by educators, and has inspired many readers who have taken the role models they have found in these books and reached for a brighter future.
Golden Legacy #16 “The Black Inventors Latimer and Woods”
Written by Bertam A. Fitzgerald
Pencilled by Leo Carty and Tony Tallarico
Published in 1976