Thursday, February 17, 2011

Friday Foster #1 (October 1972)

I like to think of myself as pretty well-informed when it comes to old comics, but I had never heard of Friday Foster #1 until I purchased a copy for the princely sum of $3. One glance at the indicia compounded my confusion, since it was copyright the Chicago Tribune, and not publisher Dell as I would have assumed. Who was this Friday Foster, and what was her deal?

Well, turns out Friday Foster is the first black character to star in her own widely-syndicated newspaper strip. There was even a movie starring Pam Grier and a host of other familiar names that had somehow escaped my notice. That was why Friday Foster was deemed a worthy contender for her own comic, and I can't argue with it. Too bad the comic book itself does not live up to this fascinating pedigree.

It's certainly not the art that is the problem. Though he has been much-maligned in some quarters, I've always suspected Jack Sparling was a lot more talented than superhero fanboys would admit. I love the art in this book, which leads me to believe he was one of those whose strengths were not always in the sci-fi/superhero realm.

And if the GCD is to be believed, the scripting on Friday Foster #1 is by prolific old pro Joe Gill. I have no trouble believing such an attribution, since Gill penned more scripts than I can even imagine. The story has some interesting things going on, like an early portrayal of paparazzi that is almost eerily prophetic of Princess Diana. So if the scripting is by a vet, and the art is good, where does the problem lie?

Let's recap the story itself. Jenny Trevor (who is a synthesis of Grace Kelly and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) arrives at the airport, returning to American soil for the first time since marrying "Prince Wimoweh of Teri-Aki" (groan!) and becoming Princess Shangri. Friday and her intrepid employer Shawn North (handsome blond WASP) are there to take pictures, but none of them come out. Why? Friday doesn't like this woman because she is rich and privileged, and sabotages the shots to make her look bad!

Meanwhile, Jenny and her two children are pursued by reckless and unethical photographer Ferdy Trask. When Trask runs them off the road, the time for kidding around is done. Jenny wants to sue Trask, but needs evidence of his harassment. Her lawyer contacts the magazine that employs Shawn, and the plan is launched that Friday will shadow Jenny to get this proof.

Friday still doesn't like Jenny, and is rather overbearing about it. She even questions the authenticity of Trask's existence (despite Shawn insisting the guy is real). That all changes abruptly and decisively when she encounters the creep himself. This leads inevitably to the Big Plan which leads to a Happy Ending for all. Except Trask, but screw that guy.

Not bad, huh? Well, no, it's not bad on the surface. The problem only becomes obvious when you consider the comic book in the context of the times, and the message it sends beneath the surface. Remember: this book came out in the early 1970s. In fact, it is probably the first comic to star a black female lead, and one of the first with a black protagonist at all. With that understanding, I REALLY question the decision to portray Friday Foster, a black woman, as prejudiced in the first issue of her own comic book.

No, really. Friday is completely closed-minded about Jenny Trevor until confronted with the fact that Jenny really is being hounded. She dismisses her out of hand. Jenny takes it all in stride and is totally understanding about the whole thing. By the end, they are BFFs.

The message I got from this comic book? "Black people should not resent rich and privileged white people, because golly, they are people, too. Sometimes, even nice people!"

Wo-ooo-ow!

To make the underlying racial issues in this story even more uncomfortable, none of the white people are ever portrayed as prejudiced toward Friday. Forget Jenny and Shawn; not even Ferdy Trask or the owner of an upscale dress shop named Armand make comments that are as loaded as Friday's toward Jenny. There is also a decided lack of black people in a comic starring a black person. I went back and checked and the only African-Americans in the book besides Friday are a maid named Yvette (two panels) and Friday's younger brother Cleve (four panels). There is a pimp-looking guy that was probably also intended to be black, but the colorist chose to render him as pink as the rest of the cast.

Setting aside the rather odd notion of a comic starring a black person where only the black person is prejudiced, I still don't understand the logic at work here. Yes, it's nice to have a story where a character learns a lesson and is changed by the end. Groovy. Is this the way you want to launch a book? This was the FIRST ISSUE of Friday Foster, and honestly, it doesn't give me a whole lot of reason to care about her. She comes across rather badly until her sudden change of heart. I don't know if I would have felt compelled to follow her further adventures if this was how Dell wanted to depict them. I would have probably been too annoyed by the approach.

It's all academic, though. This was not only the first issue of Friday Foster, but also the last. According to Don Markstein's link above, it might even be the last comic to bear the "Dell" name. Not exactly a high note to end on for a once-storied comics brand.

Friday Foster #1 : what were you thinking, Joe Gill and Dell Comics staff?

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