Thursday, November 6, 2014

TRULY GONE & FORGOTTEN : FAST WILLIE JACKSON

Who's that white guy above the logo? 
Of the legions of lookalikes which popped up following the immediate success of teenage comic book wunderkind Archie Andrews, none could claim to be quite as COOL, BAD, FAST and TOGETHER as the absolutely singular BROTHER AND SISTERS OF MOCITY USA – namely, Fast Willie Jackson and his pals!

A product of Fitzgerald Publishing – and, in fact, of FP publisher Bertram Fitzgerald, who co-created the crew of characters along with a very likely pseudonymous Henry Scarpelli – Fast Willie was the company’s sole entry into the teen humor market. I almost said “soul entry” there, because I’d bet that’s how the endeavor would have been described on Good Times.

Fitzgerald Pubs was best known for a series of historical titles – under the banned of Golden Legacy – which examined via comics the otherwise little-publicized history of African-American culture. Fast Willie made for a natural extension of the company’s apparent mission, creating a welcoming branch of comics for the young black reader, whose visual representation on the racks was typically limited to one or two black characters riding shotgun in someone else’s book. Fast Willie has its flaws in a strictly critical sense, but you can’t fault it for trying to break down a barrier which, frankly, remains in place to this day.

If you skim it instead of reading it closely, these two are having a very different conversation.
The team’s titular Archie-alike, Fast Willie Jackson, shared a lot in common with his carrot-topped Caucasian colleague. Besides being a continually broke, girl-crazy pleasure-seeker with a good heart (if slightly less than the quickest wit), he’s also got a pretty familiar crew hanging around. Jo-Jo plays Jughead to Willie’s Archie, which is a phrase that sounds like an innuendo but you’d need a chart to define how. Slow-witted Hannibal is the crew’s Moose, while their Reggie is a showboating, self-impressed and flamboyant Frankie Johnson. There’s not enough room in the book for both a Betty AND a Veronica, so the sole object of the communal affections of the male cast is Dee Dee Wilson. Lotta work going into these surnames.

Antagonists in the story come by way of assorted figures of authority, although only one of them happens to be a good, old-fashioned white devil: Officer Flagg, a dim-witted patrolman referred to as “The Man” and whose constant harassment of the kids in the cast isn’t quite as funny in a post-Ferguson world.

There’s a Pop (Jose Martinez) who runs the local soda shoppe, and a fortune teller named Sister Zola who’s apparently a con artist, and a couple other minor characters (I’m dying to know who Ms.Jane Fronda, portrayed in a subscription ad, is but I only have two issues) but the elephant in the room is Jabar.

Misandry is real!

A young afro-centric militant and, despite his antagonism, a member of the gang, Jabar’s portrayed either as the goat or an annoyance, and pinning down the reason is really tough. This book was published in 1976, and a portrayal of a black radical as a loon, a bore and a dope in the pages of an African-American publisher’s multicultural ensemble piece while other characters are celebrated who you might arguably describe as politically and socially apathetic is, uh, weird. Particularly given that the rest of the FP line celebrated black agitators who upset the status quo.

In a group shot (from the aforementioned subscription ad), even the book’s heavies are portrayed as calmly and cheerily congregating together, except for Jabar, whose sweating-and-shaking figure is contorted into comedic rage. Legitimately weird choice, this.

Excepting the portrayal of the book’s sole non-conformative character, Fast Willie’s other main problem is … it’s not great? Like a lot of the teen humor books which surfaced in the wake of Archie’s passing, there’s a few jokes about fashion, some hanging out at the malt shop and bouncing off one’s feet after being made the butt of a joke, but not a lot else going for it.

Still, it’s hard to resent Fast Willie Jackson for its failings, when something not unlike it would provide a welcome change to a comics rack which is only just beginning to become a little less monochromatic.

Seriously, I'm dying to know what the deal is with Jane Fronda.


3 comments:

BillyWitchDoctor said...

I'm fairly confident that Ms. Fronda is the "well-meaning but blinkered Daddy's little white liberal social-change-wanter" character who only makes things worse with her meddling. I'd love to see her and Jabar in conversation.

Even in days of the most fervent activism, the angry, shouty guy is either in charge, or a poseur everyone with a frontal lobe is laughing at. Jabar is the poseur.

Wait--their "Reggie" is (dressed like) a PIMP? I know this was the era of Huggy Bear, but Jesus H. Cream Cracker.

Damon Fordham said...

I remember reading issue 6 as a boy of 13 around 1977. I never quite equated this with Archie at the time. I thought of it more as a comic book version of "What's Happening," the then-popular ABC-TV sitcom about black teens. Although I was on the verge of black teendom myself, I remember thinking that it was interesting and okay, but that it wasn't really that groundbreaking. This was the same era of Valerie in Josie & The Pussycats, The Harlem Globeterotter Cartoons, The Jackson 5 cartoons, Kid Power, Fat Albert (there was even a Fat Albert comic book that I vividly remember)and even Flip Wilson got in the fray with the Clerow Wilson cartoon specials. It was sort of a golden age of blacks in cartoons and while I took it for granted at the time, I appreciate today how all of this affected our ability to dream and imagine ourselves doing things that no other generation of cartoon loving black kids had before (and few have had since). Although I only saw this one issue of fast Willie Jackson and didn't consider it earth -shattering, it was pleasant nonetheless and I'm now glad it was a part of my youth.

Calamity Jon said...

Thank you for sharing that, Damon, it was good to hear it from your perspective.

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