Jul 17, 2014
Professor Behind Waterbury Comic Convention Studies Black Characters
Like most American children of the 1950s, William Foster III, liked comic books. They were cheap, they were readily available from any drug store or newsstand in his native Philadelphia, and they were—well, exciting and fun. He liked the plots, he liked the characters—but then it dawned on him: he never saw a face like his own.
Mr. Foster, now a professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College, is black and when he was growing up black characters were rarely depicted in comic books—and then never in a leading role.
“Comic books were my guilty pleasure. They were my Saturday routine because I always went to the movies and I could buy comics right in front of the theater. Over time I realized that you didn’t see African Americans in comic books,” he said last week as he sat in the dining room of his home in Middletown. “You only saw African Americans in public service ads or maybe as the aggressors in an African jungle in grass skirts—the imagery was never very positive.”
This was strange to the young boy who lived in a predominantly black neighborhood. “I thought there were more black people than white people,” he said, reflecting on the society that made up his pre-adolescent world. “I went to a black school—not until high school did I see white students and, of course, our teachers and principal were white. My father and mother were big in a black church [his mother was a highly regarded church organist; his father a cop]. We were fairly segregated even though Philadelphia was a northern city.”
Professor William Foster III is the event coordinator for the fifth annual Brass City Comic Convention, slated for this Sunday, July 20, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Naugatuck Valley Community College’s Ruth Ann Leever Atrium. Admission is 99 cents for adults and free for children 12 years of age and younger, as well as any guests who show up to the event in costume.
The face of bias, as he knew it, was relatively benign. In a day when African Americans could not expect to find a place to eat or sleep if they traveled, his mother was often on the move, taking him with her when she performed as a musician. “Before we traveled the kitchens in our church were humming,” he said with a smile, an activity he never questioned. “We [kids] always went to the back of the bus, but it was because that was where we could get away from our parents.”
He said he felt “very lucky” to have the youth he enjoyed in a large and supportive family and neighborhood. But, still, he wondered why he never “saw a face like mine” in his beloved comic books.
As early as the 1940s, some efforts had been made to change this standard, he said. “There was a push for more equitable representation, but they were really fledgling efforts.” The first Superman comic appeared in 1938 and was an instant success. That fate was not enjoyed the next year by Red Mask, the first African American superhero. Sales for Red Mask were abysmal and the prevailing racism of the time curtailed sales even after the protagonist was turned into a white man.
As the Civil Rights movement gained momentum in the 1960s, there was a gradual change in his perception of his place in the world as well as in the presentation of African Americans in comic books and other public venues, “By 1961, you could see an ad for the United Nations and see black doctors in Africa,” he said. And some strong African American characters were making their way into the pages as superheroes.
At the same time the young follower of Martin Luther King Jr. was given his own chance to explore the boundaries of American racial tolerance. He was selected for the ABC [A Better Chance] program, now in its 50th year, and spent the summer at Dartmouth College. He later attended Amherst with a select group of talented young blacks.
“When we got to Amherst, it was like, ‘Dude, where the hell are we?’” he said, “We had to bring our own hair products, our own music—talk about segregation. I really threw myself into school activities, though, and ended up going to England with the chorus. Everyone has stereotypes but we were kind of fearless. We challenged things—we just kind of came after it. If you want to change the face of the world, you have to challenge it. I was lucky to get Dartmouth, but I didn’t know it at the time—I had never heard of it.”
Professor Foster earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and a Master’s degree from Wesleyan University in Middletown. He became a poet, essayist, playwright and editorialist, writing 15 books and 10 plays. His interest in comic books, which had flagged during his college years, revived in the 1980s and now his interest became more academic. As he started collecting comics again, he looked specifically for black characters.
“It seemed important to document their presence in comics,” he said.
As his focus became more scholarly—and as his collection grew—he began to share his research, taking his collection to schools and libraries, conferences and comic book conventions. Soon he was writing articles and giving speeches. Professor Foster has been an expert commentator for CNN News and National Public Radio, was a consultant on the historical image of blacks in both comic strips and comic books for the Words and Pictures Museum of Fine Sequential Art in Northampton, Mass., and a consultant to the 2004 exhibit, “Heroes, Heartthrobs, and Horrors: Celebrating Connecticut’s Invention of the American Comic Book” presented by the Connecticut Historical Society.
His exhibit on the “Changing Image of Blacks in Comics” has been displayed at a number of venues across the country, including Temple University’s Paley Library, the 1998 Comic-Con International Comic Arts Conference, and the 2000 Festival of Arts and Ideas. He presented his research at the 2001 bi-annual conference of The International Association for Media and History in Leipzig, Germany, and at the 2002 Conference on Analyzing Series & Serial Narrative at John Moores University in Liverpool, England. He is the author of Looking for a Face like Mine published in 2005 by Fine Tooth Press. His collection of essays on Black comics, Dreaming of a Face like Ours, was published in 2010.
In 2007 Professor Foster’s exhibit was displayed at both the Geppi Entertainment Museum in Baltimore, Md., and at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in New York, N.Y. He was an invited speaker to the 2007 International Symposium on Langston Hughes at Central China Normal University in Wuhan, China.
In 2008 he was appointed to the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Comic Art and in 2011 he spoke at the International Popular Culture Association conference in San Jose, Costa Rica.
His expressive face takes on an impish look as he remembers the criticism his elders leveled at his reading habits as a child. “They said I would never get anywhere reading comics,” he said, “but I got to China, Germany and England.”
He has an extensive collection of comics featuring black characters, including some rare examples. While he continues to collect in an attempt to preserve precious remaining examples of rare comics, he never puts a monetary value on individual comics. “Back in the 1990s there was a boom when everyone was collecting comics and paying big prices,” he said. “I don’t denigrate their value, but a lot of people give me these comics, or sell them to me for less than they are worth, because they want them to be preserved. The world is good and the spirit of generosity is still strong.”
He says their value—whatever it may be—is irrelevant because he is looking for a permanent repository for his collection to ensure there ultimate preservation.
Professor Foster has been event coordinator for the fifth annual Brass City Comic Convention, slated for Sunday, July 20 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in Naugatuck Valley Community College’s Ruth Ann Leever Atrium. “I’m excited about having the convention at the school,” he said. “It’s a perfect forum for it.”
Admission is 99 cents for adults and free for children 12 years of age and younger, as well as any guests who show up to the event in costume.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a terrific way to raise money for a worthy cause,” said Mr. Foster, who has arranged for a portion of the profits to be donated to Safe Haven of Greater Waterbury. “Plus, it’s always a good time when you get a bunch of people together talking about and doing what they love – even if you don’t know what you’re talking about, it’s fun, it’s different and it’s something to do on your own or with your family.”
The convention will include hands-on activities such as art battles, discussion panels, speakers and a variety of items for purchase, including comic books, toys, games and collectibles. Each family will also receive a free comic book.
Editor's note: This story appears in the July 18 issue of The Litchfield County Times.Professor Behind Waterbury Comic Convention Studies Black Characters