Today is Thursday. If I don't read my new comics on Wednesday, I usually read them on Thursday. If, for whatever reason, I don't get to them on Wednesday or Thursday, I read them on Saturday morning. In any case, if I spend more than, say, 20 minutes on a post, I break it out (from "What Comics Have You Read Today?") to a thread of its own. When I first learned about Walt Kelly's Our Gang (back in '87/'88 from Eclipse Comics' Walt Kelly's Christmas Classics and Springtime Tales), I wasn't particularly interested because "Kelly soon adapted it out of all resemblance." 

Having recently read All In Color For a Dime, however, I learned that "For one thing, [Kelly] altered the Negro stereotype kid, Buckwheat, saddled on him by the movie version, to make him almost indistinguishable from the rest of the kids except by color. Bucky, as he became known, was one of the very, very few non-stereotyped Negroes in the comic books of the forties." That notion intrigued me.

When I was a kid, I was equally a fan of "The Little Rascals" as I was of "The Three Stooges." Although I could tell that, generally, some were earlier and some were later, I didn't have as good of a handle on which "Little Rascals" were which in comparison to "The Three Stooges" [perhaps because there were fewer Stooges (six) to account for] and how they related, chronologically, to "Our Gang." My sister once explained that "Out Gang" came first, then became "Little Rascals" over time. She was only partially correct. The series of film shorts was known as "Our Gang" through out the duration of it's run; when they were later rereleased (and released to television) they became "The Little Rascals." For the record, "my" Rascals were primarily Spanky, Alfalfa, Darla, Buckwheat and Porky. 

The first volume of Fantagraphics' Walt Kelly's Our Gang reprint series takes place towards the end of the movie series and features Mickey, Buckwheat, Froggy, Janet and Spanky. (George "Spanky" Mc Farland soon left the movie series and his comic book counterpart was renamed "Happy.") Volume one reprints issues #1-8, and Billie Thomas's character was referred to as "Buckwheat" throughout. But the movie series was nearing its end which would give Kelly the creative control to "rebrand" (as we would say today) "Buckwheat" into "Bucky." 

Volume one of the Fantagraphics series features an "appreciation" by Leonard Maltin and a introduction by Steve Thompson. In his introduction, Thompson notes: "Speaking of caricatures, however, it is necessary to discuss the portrayal of Buckwheat. Often derided by later movie viewers as an offensive racial stereotype, he didn't fare much better in the early comic book stories. It's difficult to say how much of this is carryover from the films and how much was because this was the way blacks were portrayed in comics. In this volume, for instance, he is shown with the enlarged light lips common to black comic book characters at the time. In 'The Great Our Gang Circus.' Buckwheat immediately volunteers to be 'The Wild Man,' decked out in jungle attire. Unfortunately, the representation of Micky's family maid is even more egregious, and we almost expect her to say, 'Feets, do your stuff.' The maid, as with all adults, would already have been less important to the Gang than were their peers, but the image of Buckwheat in these stories sometimes contradicts the apparently casual integration of Our Gang." 

Leonard Maltin: "As the months rolled on, Kelly had some of the cast members grow up and move away. In time, he did away with all of the original Gang members and introduced his own characters. Red becomes the tough leader, and younger brothers and sisters come to the fore, including Button-Nose and Two-by-Two (the former black, the latter white, but portrayed as equals--echoing the relationship between Buckwheat and Porky in the Hal Roach comedies of the 1930s).

"Kelly presumably had the freedom to do all of this because MGM pulled the plug on Our Gang in the spring of 1944. The momentum of the series, a staple of moviegoing for more than twenty years, was more than enough to propel the comic books to the end of the decade--that, and the entertaining stories themselves."

Leonard Maltin also quotes CBG editor (and Walt Kelly fan) Maggie Thompson: "Janet and Bucky are the smartest members of the gang. ([Kelly] drops Buckwheat fairly soon and becomes Bucky.) This is a comic where the kids age in real time. He eventually becomes a high school track star; he'll be the one to come in and analyze things. and solve problems. Later we meet Buckwheat's family, who are just as smart as he is. they even outwit a conman." 

I plan to read successive volumes with an eye toward the evolution of Buckwheat/Bucky. 

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The stories in volume two (from issues #9-15, 1944-1945) are somewhat more fanciful than those in volume one. A multipart story runs from issues #9-12 which starts with the gang on a pirate ship replica filming a movie (presumably one of their own shorts). A storm comes and blows them out to sea along with the ship's caretaker, Captain Deadlight Dan. Because the ship is only a replica, it is not equipped for a real voyage, but they are gone for weeks and eventually become shipwrecked on an island with Japanese spies and (tame) stranded circus animals. It is Janet who saves the day by radioing the Coast Guard for help.

Issue #13 is about juvenile delinquency. By issue #14, Micky has gone away to military school and is replaced by Red. Happy is in this story but moves away. It is also this issue in which "Bucky" becomes "Buckwheat," but if you are reading this thread to follow Buckwheat's transition from stereotype to realistic kid, this isn't it. Janet fares better in the story about the shipwreck, but as far as the portrayal of the Japanese spies is concerned, forget it! We've seen hints of the changes to come, but I'm expecting more in the next volume. 

Volume three comprises issues #16-23, 1945-1946. #16 contains the last stereotypal reference in regard to Buckwheat Bucky. In it, the Gang considers putting on a minstrel show to raise money. Although the story goes in another direction, we'll have to wait until the next volume to read any of the more "progressive" stories mentioned in this thread's initial post. In her chapter on "The Spirit" from The Comic-Book Book, Maggie Thompson mentions Walt Kelly's Our Gang comics: "We watched him evolve the character of Buckwheat quite swiftly from the cowardly comic stereotype in the Our Gang movies, to the completely rounded, nonstereotyped individual, Bucky. That was a character of great humor, none of which came from looks or accent or superstitions."

She (understandably) discusses Will Eisner's "Spirit" supporting character Ebony White in somewhat more detail: "Ebony served faithfully for nine years. He was a rich character, a humorous character, a varied character. He had heartbreaks and loves, likes and dislikes. He was brave and loyal and fierce. He was known to solve cases that the spirit fouled up. He had his own circle of friends, chief among whom was Pierpont Q. Midas. He saved the spirit's life, often.

"But he became an embarrassment because--in character design and speech pattern--he was  Negro stereotype. From the first, he had blubber lips and pop eyes. He was a comedy relief shrimp whose comedy often came from his deciding that he deserved more respect than he was given. It was never made absolutely clear what his age was; he was a cab driver, but later on (1946) it was necessary to point out that he was privately tutored by the Spirit. His other friends were children. The year 1946, in fact, seemed to mark the first effort to Do Something about Ebony. In the strip for February 10, a Negro major criticized another character who mocked Ebony: 'You're being very unfair! It's no disgrace to talk with a SOUTHERN drawl! What's more, my grandfather was a minstrel during the Civil War and I'm PROUD of him...'

"As a sort of substitute, Blubber the Eskimo (same size as Ebony--and same general type of character) was introduced, and Ebony went off to Carver's School for Boys. (The title was changed shortly--and it was referred to as Mr. Carter's school.) By mid-May, however, Blubber headed back to the North Pole and Ebony returned home.

"It took till 1949 to drop Ebony conclusively--and the Christmas strip that year did not show him. The new sidekick was a kid (similar in design--but white) named Sammy.

"'Ebony was done with a great deal of love and affection,' Eisner [said]. 'To me, Ebony was a very human character, and he was very believable... at the time. With all the idealism I had then, I felt that he deserved to be treated as a human being, and have emotions. Remember, that was a breakaway in itself... no one ever showed Negroes in comics with any emotions other than weeping over the death of poor little Mandy, and the little white girl. Only Ham Fisher did anything like it and he stayed with the safe stereotype...

"Reportedly, though, Ebony never briought criticism at the time from black groups, and some even praised Eisner for the use of the character. Nevertheless, ebony's disappearance was thorough, though one nostalgic scripter apparently forgot it in 1951 long enough to have the spirit wonder whether Ebony would pop up out of the hideout as the Spirit took someone through Wildwood."

Walt Kelly wrote and drew Animal Comics/Pogo and Our Gang Comics simultaneously through most of the '40s. After he transitioned Pogo to a newspaper strip, there was period where the comic book and comic strip overlapped, but he was forced to give up Our Gang at some point. Fantagraphics has released a four-volume set of Walt Kelly's Our Gang which reprints issues #1-30, spanning 1942-1947. The fourth volume collects #24-30, BUT... I just realized today that Our Gang Comics lasted through #59 (becoming Tom & Jerry Comics with #60), and that Kelly stayed with the title through #57, 1949. The Fantagrphics series was projected to last seven volumes, but volume four was published in 2010, so it doesn't look as if I'm going to be able to witness the full transformation of "Buckwheat" into "Bucky" as I had hoped.


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