Tuesday, November 04, 2008

'60s Catholic comic strip anticipates political first.

It took until the morning of Election Day, but the New York Times political blog The Caucus finally caught up with Governor Timothy Pettigrew:
Before Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, there was Gov. Tim Pettigrew of New York, the first black presidential nominee for the Democratic Party. But that happened in 1976, and in the pages of “Treasure Chest,” a comic book distributed to Catholic school students around the country.

“It’s been on the edge of reality,” Berry Reece, author of the series, said of the current election. “I frankly had forgotten about this Pettigrew series,” Mr. Reece added, until National Public Radio unearthed it earlier this year.

Writing in 1964 of an election 12 years later, Mr. Reece, now 76, initially used the story of Mr. Pettigrew and his bid for the Democratic nod to walk students “through the ABCs of the nomination process.”

The candidate survives an assassination attempt and soldiers through a debate with Senator Willard Oilandgas, but his face is hidden until the last few panels of the final episode.

“What we wanted to do,” Mr. Reece said, “was get the readers in deep through this Pettigrew’s integrity, his charisma, before we ever disclosed his race so that they would not prejudge him.”

. . .

Mr. Reece ended the series with a cliffhanger: “Could he win? Well, it would depend in part on how the boys and girls who were reading this grew up and voted.”

Forty-four years later, the strip will have a conclusion.

As the NYT acknowledges, National Public Radio broke the Pettigrew story in February. The Catholic University of America sought to draw attention to Pettigrew in March, sending out a press release noting that it has the relevant issues of "Treasure Chest" in its archives. I first got wind of the story last month, when National Catholic Reporter did a story on the Pettigrew comics. So you might say that the New York Times is belatedly catching up. That said, it's worth reading some of the very moving comments online readers posted in response to the original NPR story to get a sense of what the Pettigrew series meant to its young readers in 1964. AMDG.


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