Romance Comics and Black History Month - The Panel that Defied Charlton's Lack of Diversity
I know we are a week in now, but holy cow it’s February! I, for one, think it’s a great month. Not only does the most romantic holiday of them all -- Valentine’s Day -- fall in the middle, it’s also Black History Month!
Join me today in turning your attention to the panel below. It may not look like anything special or out of the ordinary at first glance, but it is. While DC and Marvel often did a commendable job of depicting racially diverse characters in a positive light in their romance comic book stories, Charlton was challenged in that regard (just take a look at "Xtachoa's Bride" and "Non' but a Brave” to see what I mean). This panel, however, depicts the young woman not as a mammy, not as hired help, but as a friend and one of the gang.
A little background on the panel -- it comes from a story called "The Nicest Girl in Town" which appeared in Teen-Age Love #37 (May 1964) and was illustrated by Vince Colletta (inks at the very least). In the story, a snobby high-schooler named Natalie gets the surprise of a lifetime when her wealthy but down-to-earth parents announce they are leaving her with family friends for six months while they travel out of town for work. The arrangement is a clear attempt on the part of the fed-up parents to teach their rotten daughter a lesson in humility. While living with the less fortunate family, Natalie is forced to do things like chores and walk to school. THE HORROR!
Most of Natalie's former "friends" ditch her because of the change in her living situation. Out of loneliness and burgeoning curiosity, Natalie starts to hang out with Mary, the daughter in the family Natalie resides with. Mary teaches Natalie how to bake and sew, and even introduces Natalie to her friends (as seen in the panel above). Natalie's mind is blown by how nice and interesting Mary's friends are -- friends that Natalie describes as "Kids I knew were in school but who I'd never bothered with!"
Though the new friends are depicted as Others by virtue of them being of the "lower class" that Natalie formerly despised when she ran with the rich kid crowd, they are still represented as friendly and rewarding people. Very subtly, this panel is a win for Charlton, a publisher that wasn't particularly daring when it came to sending social messages and had a history of questionable taste. I find the panel also compelling because of its relatively early appearance compared with when diverse characters started popping up in DC and Marvel romance stories. But maybe I shouldn't be all that surprised by the timing of this panel; 1964 was a big year with the adoption of the Civil Rights Act and Titles IV and VI which dealt directly with education and desegregation.
The young woman in the middle of the panel is still nameless and novel, but her existence for all time on the page of a romance comic is an important piece of the multi-textured cloth that is American popular culture. It's my hope that despite its spatial smallness, at the time of publication, this panel was a message to black teens that they were a part of youth culture and also, served as a lens through which those in homogenous areas witnessed a four-color reflection of a world in which not everyone was the same.