Silver Age comics writer and publisher Bertram Fitzgerald was honored with the festival’s Pioneer Award.
In a time when the re-ascension of the superhero genre began crowding out comics of other genres, Fitzgerald was unique in that not only did he fashion a career self-publishing historical comics, but he did so for a historically underserved market and attracted major corporate sponsorship in the process.
A graduate of Brooklyn College with an accounting degree, who also served in the Air Force, Fitzgerald was always drawn to reading in general and comics in specific. Among his favorite novelists included Alexander Dumas and Alexander Pushkin, but he was frustrated that the African heritage of these writers was being overlooked in biographical records.
Determined to present an account of Black history that could be utilized as an educational tool, Fitzgerald got together with writer artist Leo Carty, an army friend he had worked with before, to publish what would be the first in a series of comics called Golden Legacy, in 1966.The initial subject was Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian slave revolt, and over time, Fitzgerald would attract other creators to tackle a wide range of biographies, some written by Fitzgerald himself, of historical Black figures, including Harriet Tubman, Crispus Attucks, Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr., 16 in all through 1976.While he was able to secure distribution through commission men who serviced specialized products to the Black community, getting payment from them was often difficult.
Fitzgerald put his accounting degree to use by approaching Coca Cola, appealing to the fact that Blacks accounted for a higher per capita share of soft drinks as an enticement for them to sponsor Black-related products. At the company’s request, Fitzgerald suspended newsstand distribution until a deal could be brokered, and a year later, the third volume of Golden Legacy came out with a full cover back ad for Coke with Black models. In addition, Coke bought bulk amounts of the comic at discount and distributed them free to libraries, schools and charitable organizations, including the NAACP. Over time, additional sponsors would include McDonald’s,AT&T, Exxon and Columbia Pictures.
During the 70’s, Fitzgerald took on other projects. In 1970 he wrote an anti-drug one-shot called Drugs… Where It’s At, a full-sized,four-color publication. In 1976, he created an Archie-like teen comedy book called Fast Willie Jackson with artist Gus Lemoine. Lasting only seven issues, it had an integrated cast of characters, drawn in the classic Don DeCarlo Archie style, with 70’s slang and clothing. Though each issue had increased sales, the series did not break even until the seventh, last, issue, right as Fitzgerald was about to close an animation deal with Filmation, makers of the “Fat Albert” cartoon show.
In 1983, all 16 volumes of Golden Legacy were bootlegged as a result of Fitzgerald giving out circulation figures to an outside party who operated under false pretenses. Fitzgerald filed suit against both the party and the printer, which led to a trial that lasted four years.Though he was given an award, the party disappeared and the printer filed an appeal. The stress of the suit led to him retiring from publishing, and he continued working for the New York City Mayor’s Office as its communications industry advocate. His Golden Legacy series remains in print and continues to hold up as an example of the ability of comics to both educate and entertain.