This week's Saturday feature will be going back to the funny pages. In particular, the funny pages that could be found in a standard Archie Comics Digest.
I imagine that for some of you, my constant talk about everything Archie comics related might be a bit overkill, but as you might know, I have a huge soft spot for the comics.
I always saw Riverdale (the town that Archie and the gang live in) as the perfect place for anybody to live in. It's a town where everybody on the street greets each other with warmth and kindness. It's a town in which everyone seems to be welcome wherever they go. And, in recent years, it's been a town in which people of all backgrounds have been welcome.
Seriously, pick up any random comic book from Archie Comics dated 2013. There are white characters, black characters, Asians, and Hispanics. There are straight characters and gay characters. There are characters that have physical disabilities and there are characters who have learning disabilities. What is amazing is that no matter what the situation is, they are all there for each other unconditionally. Riverdale is a fictional representation of the perfect community, and I'm sure it's a representation that we all would hope to be a part of at some point in our lives. I know that in my life, I've wanted to be a part of something fantastic like that, and maybe someday I will be.
Of course, Riverdale wasn't ALWAYS this diverse.
The serial's first openly gay character only moved into Riverdale two and a half years ago. The comic's first Asian characters (that weren't blatant stereotypes) began appearing sporadically in the late 1980s/early 1990s). Frankie Valdez and Maria Rodriguez made history in the mid-1970s by becoming the very first Hispanic characters to be drawn into the pages of Archie Comics. And, the creation of the serial's first wheelchair-bound character, Anita, was part of the Jughead comic revamp in late 1991.
And, since this month is “Black History Month”, we'll be taking a look at a couple of African-American characters who have been prominently featured in Archie Comics for decades.
Just to put things into perspective here before I continue with this discussion, I want to tell you how Archie Comics first began.
Archie, Jughead, and Betty made their very first appearances in Pep Comics #22 (December 1941). Veronica and Reggie came later. If you want to see their first appearance, you can either pay $50,000 for the original comic book, or you can try to find the reprint in Archie Digest #236. One option is thousands of dollars cheaper, so I'll leave that with you as to what way you want to go about seeing it.
But when Archie Comics debuted in 1941, the world of Riverdale was very much a white bread world. Seriously, every citizen of Riverdale was Caucasian. And, this lasted during the 1940s, 1950s, and much of the 1960s. It wasn't until the late 1960s that a character of African-American origin began appearing in the pages of Archie Comics. That character, of course, was Valerie from Josie and the Pussycats.
In Riverdale, however, the wait would be just a little bit longer.
In 1971, Archie Comics released Pep Comics #257 (September 1971), and in that book marked the very first appearance of Chuck Clayton.
Unfortunately, I don't quite know what the story that featured Chuck in his debut appearance was all about (I have issue #255, but not #257). But I can tell you that Chuck marked the first time that an African-American character had a starring role in an Archie comic.
Chuck was introduced along with his father, Coach Floyd Clayton. Coach Clayton joined the faculty of Riverdale High School shortly after Chuck's first appearance, and as of 2013, he alternates with Coach Kleats (sometimes both coaches appear at the same time) when the stories involve the gang playing a variety of sports. Coach Kleats usually coaches the football team, but Coach Clayton almost always coaches track and field or basketball.
I do remember one thing about Chuck Clayton though. In some of the earliest appearances that I have seen of Chuck, his attitude was completely different. Chuck was almost like an African-American version of Reggie. He constantly got into trouble, he had an ego the size of Alaska, and he frequently challenged authority. In one case, he disrespected the vice-principal of Riverdale High (in the 1970s, it was Ramon Rodriguez), by calling him Choo-Choo, and opening his mouth a little too wide. In another, he bragged about being able to do what he wanted in the gym because his father was a coach...only for Coach Clayton to tell him off. And, in one hilarious story that I read, Chuck accidentally filled all the basketballs in the gym with helium, leaving a bewildered Coach Clayton to wonder how they were supposed to play the new game that Chuck invented.
Yes, early 1970s Chuck was kind of a jerk. And, I think that's why they gave Chuck a mini personality makeover in the mid-1970s. Why Archie Comics did this, I'm not sure...but my guess is that there was room for only one Reggie Mantle, and Chuck was just an imitator. But, I suppose that I could also see the argument that they didn't want to give off the wrong impression when it came to portraying a character of colour. Just a hypothesis though, I do not know for certain.
By 1976, Chuck became more of a heroic character, often a frequent face in the “Life With Archie” and “Archie at Riverdale High” titles. In many of the stories, Archie and Jughead are forced to help Chuck get out of hot water when he is accused of cheating on a test, or when rival high schools prevent him from competing in championship sporting events. But Chuck was also a key player in helping Archie uncover some of Riverdale's dirty little secrets, such as discovering corruption within Riverdale High, or exposing an international scandal, or trying to find out the truth behind why people acted the way they did. There's one fantastic story entitled “On The Mark”, which was released around the mid-1980s, which showed Archie and Chuck trying to help a boy named Mark who was illiterate.
The image makeover seemed to work, as Chuck quickly rose up in the ranks of secondary characters. He didn't quite appear as often as say, Dilton Doiley or Moose Mason, but he appeared in far more stories in the 1980s than he did during the 1970s. And, in late 1975, he was given a girlfriend named Nancy (one of the first female African-American character to attend Riverdale High), who made her first appearance in Pep #309 (January 1976).
Granted, Chuck and Nancy dating each other was no surprise, given the backlash that surrounded interracial dating at the time. It actually wasn't until 2010 that interracial dating made it into the pages of Archie comics, when Archie began dating Valerie in a Josie and the Pussycats crossover story...but Chuck and Nancy are also one of the most stable couples in Archie comics history, with the couple going on strong for thirty-seven years and counting!
In the late 1980s, Chuck's personality began to develop even further, as one of his hobbies was created to increase the amount of stories that he would appear in. When Chuck developed an interest in art and cartooning, many of his stories featured Chuck drawing and painting. He painted murals and store windows for cash in one episode, and used his art skills to appear as a contestant on a spoof of “Win, Lose, or Draw”. Unfortunately, his artwork would often be seen as a crutch in the relationship between Chuck and Nancy, as Chuck would often choose painting a mural, or attending a comic book convention over taking Nancy out for dinner, or dancing.
But the new design in character for Chuck paid off again, as Chuck was brought to the forefront in special issues.
Take Riverdale High #5, for example. Chuck is the star of the whole comic book, as he creates a new comic serial called “Animal Krackers”. The characters are based off of the Archie gang. The cover is up above. See if you can guess which animal corresponds with which character. On a related note, the Reggie and Jughead characters are quite funny.
Or, how about Pep #624, in which Chuck and Archie have to investigate a mysterious happening at the San Diego Comic Convention (where the character of Wendell looks awfully familiar).
And, in Archie & Friends, there were multiple story arcs which featured Chuck doing his artwork, and getting involved in various conflicts that cause Chuck to make some interesting choices.
Even in the Life With Archie Magazine, which depicts Archie and the gang years into the future, Chuck and Nancy have opened up a comic book store together. So, it's nice to know that Nancy has eventually grown to accept Chuck's love of comics as they grew older.
And, there you have it. Our spotlight on Chuck and Nancy from Archie Comics. It may have taken them three decades to get drawn into the pages of Archie comics, but they were the lynchpin characters that opened up the world of Riverdale just a little bit more...and made it a happier place.