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Celebrating Black History Month: Chuck Clayton joins the Archie Gang

HippieVan at 12:00AM, Feb. 5, 2016

Last year for Black History Month I profiled Black Panther, the first black superhero (see that newspost here). This year I’m sticking with the black comic character theme with a mini-history of Chuck Clayton, one of the first non-white characters in Archie comics.

These days Chuck is an established member of the Archie comics gang, although he’s never been as prominent in the group as other characters like Jughead or Reggie. But in 1971, he was introduced expressly for the purpose of adding more diversity to the cast.

Chuck was not actually the first black character in Archie comics, with Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats preceding him by two years. I chose not to profile her mostly because she’s not a terribly interesting character. It is interesting, though, that she was introduced without any explicit racial cast – she was simply included in the lineup of Josie’s band without comment.

In contrast, Chuck’s first story in Life with Archie 112 featured a small anti-racist message. But while I’ve sometimes been critical of Archie comics’ clumsy attempts to include ‘token’ characters in their comics (in the past several years they’ve added a gay character, an overweight character, and a disabled character, among others), I think they did a fairly good job of integrating Chuck. That first story wasn’t just about Chuck – it was about Archie learning a slightly cheesy lesson as well as his typical attempts to date Veronica. Chuck is very much involved, but he is injected into the life of the main character rather than loudly introduced, which I think allowed the character to become “part of the gang” more easily.

As Chuck became more established in the Archie universe, his personality expanded beyond the initial tokenism. His character became an amateur cartoonist, the basis for a number of Archie stories. In 1976 his girlfriend, Nancy, was introduced, and later his father was added as a coach at Riverdale High. The same year, another publishing company – possibly with the help of an Archie comics artist – attempted to introduce an Archie-style humour comic with an all-black cast called Fast Willie Jackson. Unfortunately, the comic lasted only seven issues. Chuck, meanwhile, continues to be a part of the Archie gang and was even given his own major storyline recently, “The Cartoon Life of Chuck Clayton.”

For those of you in Canada or the US, be sure to check out what’s going on in your city right now for black history month! Even my rinky-dink prairie town has a number of events, so I can only imagine that there are very cool things going on in bigger cities. If events aren't your thing, pick up a book or two this month - Souls of Black Folk is beautiful and the kindle version costs about a dollar, or if you're up for something a bit longer/more academic, Chicago's New Negroes is one of my favourite African American history books.

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bravo1102 at 4:44AM, Feb. 7, 2016

You know according to some you don't refer to Egyptians and Moroccans and others of North Africans descent as African-American. That term being reserved for sub-Saharan Africans without a definable nationality. Charleeze Theron is a South African. She has a definable nationality so she's called by that. If it was not apparent I guess you'd go with White African. Remember those outside a group usually lump everyone of that group into one category. To a non-Hispanic all Spanish speakers are Hispanic. To Hispanics they're Dominicans. Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans etc. I work with mostly Hispanics and they make all kinds of differentiation between specific groups that to me are one sea of Latin American people. But then to them I'm just another European or Anglo. They don't differentiate between Slav and English as opposed to Irish and Polish like I do.

HippieVan at 11:20AM, Feb. 6, 2016

@tupapayon: That's the point, I suppose. It's a tricky term and thus one I tend to avoid. Would you call Drake African American?

tupapayon at 10:58AM, Feb. 6, 2016

I guess I didn't explain myself... When I see a character in a movie and I can see his or her physical characteristics, the way he or she speaks and behaves, most of the times that's enough... I see mr. Jackson in a movie (meaning also speech and behavior), I know he's not Dominican... at the same time I see (again, all included) Will Smith in Concussion and I know he (the character) is African... Another question I have is: is Charleeze Theron considered African American?...

HippieVan at 6:30PM, Feb. 5, 2016

@irrevenant: That is not totally irrelevant pedantry in the context of Black History Month. In Canada, we don't have an equivalent term to African American so I'm often hesitant, or at least quite particular about how I use it.

irrevenant at 5:58PM, Feb. 5, 2016

Putting on my pedant hat for a moment, actually you can't tell Samuel L Jackson is African American just by looking at him. You can tell he's black, but you can't tell from his appearance which country he's from. If all you have to go on is his appearance he *could* well be from Mexico. PS. As I understand it, Black History month is different months in different countries because it's not a global initiative: as far as I know America and the UK each came up with the idea independently at different times and each fitted it into their already crowded calendars where they could.

tupapayon at 12:21PM, Feb. 5, 2016

Racism, sexism, and some other isms are still alive and well... I believe it unnecessary to point out that your character is African American if you can clearly see that he is... I mean, I don't see Samuel L Jackson in a movie and think: "I wonder if he is Mexican"...but sometimes those facts affect their background and backstory. Just like if a character grew up in a Catholic home or if his/her parents were Buddhist... "Adele: Why do you feel you have to pass for someone with 20/20 vision when you're blind as a bat? /Wally: I don't feel. I have to pass. 'Adele: Yes, you do. It's a sickness in your brain, just like if you were trying to pass for white. /Wally: You mean I'm not white?"

HippieVan at 10:51AM, Feb. 5, 2016

Also, ironscarf, I had never heard of that one! I'll have to have a look at it later. I have a couple other more obscure profiles in mind that I might do later this month, though.

KimLuster at 7:22AM, Feb. 5, 2016

While I applaud all the attempts in the various arts and medias to fight racism/sexism (absolutely something had to be done), I'm not really positive what the right way of attacking is.... When I look at the state of things these days, it seems like a lot of the efforts failed. But maybe I'm just looking at it negatively. Since it wasn't an instant turnaround - we deem it a failure... but maybe it takes a few more generations. I mean Slavery ending in 1865, but equality under the law didn't happen for another hundred years. Anyway, I do wish most attempts at diversity were like Veronica of Josie and the Pussycats. She's just... there! No attempts to point it out in story one way or another. It's how I've attempted to do Colonel Hauser in the Godstrain. He's African American, but he's never said so, and neither has anyone else...! He's just - in charge!!

Ironscarf at 7:10AM, Feb. 5, 2016

You would expect them to be. I don't know the reason for the difference - a bit too much for it to be a time zone thing!

HippieVan at 6:57AM, Feb. 5, 2016

Thanks for the correction, ironscarf! I just assumed they were all at the same time.

Ironscarf at 5:19AM, Feb. 5, 2016

There's nothing going on in the UK - black history month isn't until october. While we're waiting, check out Fears Of A GoGo Girl from Soul Love #1, a "proposed romance comic for African-American adults that was cancelled before it was published in 1971". Shame - even Jack King Kirby couldn't get this one past The Man.

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