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Guess Who's Coming To Riverdale?

We're fortunate to live in a truly color-blind society. Don't believe me? Ask anybody. Okay, now ask anybody who matters. Of course, when it comes to issues of inclusion and multiculturalism, the comic book industry has always led the way. But that hasn't always been the case. This week, I'm going to tell you a tale about our less than proud past, if only to better appreciate how far we've come. Join me now on a trip to the distant past, that dimly-remembered ancient shore men once called "1992."
Here's the way I've reconstructed the story, based on what several of the people involved told me. Darryl Edelman was the brand-new editor of Archie Comics, hired away from his post at Marvel to bring some contemporary, X-Men magic to the still-popular but creatively stagnant Archie titles. Darryl used to call it "stealing fire from the big cave," a line I've appropriated so often that it's sometime attributed to me. Nope. Darryl said it first. Darryl's mandate was to freshen up the Archie franchise and make it more relevant, give it a little edge, even. Darryl took to the task immediately, updating the gang's clothes and hangouts, replacing Archie's broken-down 1920's jalopy with a broken down 1970's Mustang, replacing stories about the kids going roller-skating with stories about the kids going roller-blading - I'm sure you get the idea.

One of Darryl's notions was to revamp the long-running title Betty and Me. The problem with the book, as he saw it, was that it wasn't particularly about Betty. So Darryl called up some writers and asked for pitches that would put Betty front and center. Eventually, he chose a proposal from Matt Wayne, who would later write for Milestone and DC but at the time had only done a few horror stories for Hamilton comics. Matt's pitch would give Betty a part-time job in the big city, working with a mobile TV news crew. This would allow her to get involved in lots of new situations. Sound good so far? Darryl thought so and ordered up some story pitches, reminding Matt to keep things contemporary. Matt thought about it for a while, then called Darryl up, "Can I do a story about drugs?"

"No." Darryl wasn't that crazy.

"Okay, can Betty date a black guy?"

"Ummm..."

With Darryl's okay, Matt whipped up some story pitches, this time rounding out his character descriptions. Betty's new supporting cast would include an avuncular boss, a vain on-air reporter and Dexter Howard, a college freshman working his way through college as a cameraman. In an extra twist to the set-up, Betty would fall for Dexter and be torn between him and Archie, in much the same way as Archie was torn between Betty and Veronica. Darryl liked it so much that when Matt rather cheekily suggested that after the fast-approaching 200th issue of Betty and Me, they scrap the book and start over at issue number 1 with the simpler and now more accurate title of Betty, Darryl and the suits upstairs agreed. Matt went to work writing the final four issues of Betty and Me and started planning her big premiere issue.

At some point, someone higher in the Archie Comics pecking order read Matt's outline. Actually, I know exactly who but my libel insurance may not completely cover me in this situation. I'm a coward, so sue me. No wait, I meant to say, please don't sue me. For the purposes of this story, we'll call the boss guy something innocuous, like "Doctor Victor von Doom." So Victor had a talk with Darryl. Darryl had a talk with Matt. "This is a really good story but what if it wasn't Betty dating the black guy? What if it were a friend of Betty's?" Matt pointed out that then it wouldn't be a story about Betty. Anyway, Matt reasoned, the stories are just basic Archie comics love-triangle stuff. They aren't about race. Dexter was to be Betty's new friend and confidant. He was the guy who would show her the ropes on her new job and help her navigate the minefield of newsroom politics. As the stories were written, Dexter was such a nice guy that he quickly became friends with Archie despite their rivalry (much as Betty and Veronica maintain their friendship, despite their tug-of-war for Archie's hand). Darryl went along with Matt's approach, albeit reluctantly as he sensed the potential for trouble. The book was penciled, lettered, inked and colored before Darryl found himself back on the carpet.

Darryl called Matt with the bad news. Dr. Doom had literally thrown the issue at him. He hated the stuff, wanting to know why Dexter was so much more accomplished than Archie, "What is he, super-Negro?" (at least, "Negro" is what everyone who told me this story reported him as saying. I have a sneaking suspicion that they were trying to save my feelings). Darryl was very upset and told off his boss, but to no avail. He was ordered to change the story in the cheapest way possible: Dexter was to be re-colored white. Unfortunately, this fooled approximately no one. Archie's offices were flooded with four or five letters congratulating them on their progressive move of adding that "cool, black guy" to Betty's cast. Uh oh.

Darryl had to deliver the bad news. The finished comics would see print, but Matt Wayne's run on Betty and Me was history; he was canned after only two issues, one of which hadn't even seen print yet. Two issues later, Dexter was gone from the cast, never to be seen again. Commenting on the controversy years later, Matt Wayne said, "Just as Sidney Poitier prepared us for Danny Glover, I'd hoped that Chuck Clayton had prepared us for Dexter Howard. I guess I was wrong."

Meanwhile, back in the comics, Archie's only remaining black friend, the talented basketball player Chuck Clayton, had this to say, "I told Dexter not to be messing with Betty but he didn't listen. And to go out on a date with her right on panel? He must have been out of his mind! She's blonde, for Christ's sake!" Chuck shook his head in disbelief as he slowly dribbled away, then paused, turned and added, "I still can't figure out why Dexter didn't just do like all the rest of us do between issues and get a piece of ass from Veronica."


Dwayne McDuffie, the co-creator of Static Shock and Damage Control, was surprised to discover that more green-skinned characters currently headline their own Marvel or DC comic book than blacks or Latino characters do. Maybe Archie isn't the only company that still has some issues to work out. When you're not viewing new episodes of the flash animation comedy series Super Models at Icebox.com, Dwayne wants you to visit his web site.



 



Dwayne McDuffie

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