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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

Since I discussed the new Philosophy of Comics in two previous posts (here and here), I thought it fair to give the authors a chance to respond, which they kindly do below.

Guest bloggers, Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray


We can’t thank Chris enough for the kind words about the book. Happy to report, too, that we specifically requested to Bloomsbury that they approach him for a blurb, given how useful we found his own work as well as his collaborative efforts with Nathaniel Goldberg. (Big plug for Chris’ “‘Something Like This Just Couldn’t Happen!’: Resolving Naturalistic Tensions in Superhero Comics Art” in Studies in Comics.) And we’re grateful, too, for the chance to say a bit in response to Chris’s perceptive remarks here.

There are a lot of moving pieces, and Chris points in some fruitful and interesting directions that we won’t be able to tackle in a short post. Mostly, we’ll aim to give a rough sense of how we are inclined to approach the taxonomic questions around comics (the things) and ‘comics’ (the word or concept).

It’s scarcely debatable that the term ‘comics’ is vague. When philosophers think about vagueness, we typically model it using precisifications: various contextually acceptable means of making the meaning precise. In this way, precisifications are sharpenings. One way (but surely not the only way!) to view the literature on defining ‘comics’ is as a purely semantic debate that presupposes that there’s a uniquely acceptable sharpening. We’re pretty happy to grant that there are actually a range of acceptable sharpenings, but that their aptness depends upon the context of inquiry and conversation. For our part, the aim of the first chapter of our book—aside from the implicit aims of introducing different kinds of comics and some general philosophical methodology—is to ask what might demarcate the most general sort of precisification that folks have in mind when they, say, debate who should win an award at Angoulême, be featured in Kramer’s Ergot, or be read in a class specifically centered on comics. Our best shot—a shot that requires a lot more than a chapter to count as a full-fledged account—is that comics are artifacts produced to be engaged with through a certain kind of reading.

We’re super interested in Chris’ proposal. (What are pre-orders for, after all?) In part, it’s because we’re not sure what a “form” is. We recognize that there can be—and is—ample disagreement about what categories count as mediums—e.g., Matthew Smith and Randy Duncan suggest that there isn’t a general medium of comics in The Power of Comics. Our untutored, prima facie hunch is that forms are intimately bound up with aesthetic engagement. Roughly, “form” is properly viewed as a distinctive kind of aesthetic category that subsumes all and only those things that are created with suitably related aesthetic purposes, engaged via suitably related aesthetic techniques, and evaluated using suitably related aesthetic criteria. That conception of form would make one sharpening of ‘comics’ pick out a unified aesthetic kind. It would presumably exclude certain artifacts that fall outside that aesthetic remit. That’s surely a relevant sense of ‘comics’ that we would want to point to in making sense of the medium—e.g., it would explain why certain kinds of non-art instructional comics might fall outside of the relevant form. We’re eager to hear more about Chris’s views and see if they point in this direction.

Pending a better sense of how to disentangle forms from mediums, our lone departure from Chris is probably about the semantics of ‘comics’. Homophonic ambiguity of the sort Chris mentions seems less apt than polysemy for capturing the proposed distinction in meanings. Since the meanings are clearly related—e.g., like ‘face’ (noun) and ‘face’ (verb)—rather than accidental homonyms. Our hunch is, however, that the multiplicity in meaning is more modest—that it’s vagueness rather than ambiguity (or polysemy).


What should our focus be trained on when taking up the venerable (but largely frustrating) question: which things are comics? In Philosophy of Comics, our general hunch is that we are best served to focus on comics as artifacts and, in doing so, keep in view their commonalities with things like bathtubs, doorknobs, and cowboy hats. They are human creations, produced by intentional processes, with certain kinds of functions in mind. As Chris aptly notes, any approach of this sort is liable to be messier than accounts that focus upon specific formal elements or historical traditions that seek a precise account of comics. This is liable to leave the account we prefer comparatively vague, but notice that it would be a tremendous surprise if we had laser-like clarity in definitions of other sorts of artifacts like bathtubs or doorknobs. That doesn’t mean, of course, that anything goes, and in this short note we’ll say a bit about how we’d respond to Chris’ criticism.

Two quick caveats before digging in: (1) In the book, we place heavy emphasis on the practice of picture-reading and mark the centrality of a theory of picture-reading for comics theory. That said, we don’t develop a fully-fledged theory in the book, but we do note at least two very different ways to go in developing a theory–a hard-line psychological account and a rougher normative or sociocultural account. Our sympathies reside with the latter, but there’s a whole spectrum of views available in between. We hope to map them out and put them to work elsewhere, but however you go with your theory of picture-reading, it will have a substantial impact on which artifacts will count as comics. (2) It’s crucial to note that the Intentional Picture-Reading View takes artifacts to be those things that are created with apt intentions for picture-reading count. That means, among other things, that not just any object that could be picture-read counts as a comic. Doubtless, we can try to picture-read non-comics and we might even succeed in some cases, but we deny that all picture-readable things are therefore comics–indeed, that’s partly why we’re committed to an intentionalist view. A rough parallel: comics are like crowns, not door stops. For something to be a crown, it needs to be created with a certain kind of intention. Door stops merely need to serve a function and most anything can be appropriated as a door stop. Quick moral: the creative intentions matter in ways that merely possible uses do not.

This second caveat is a significant one for marking our departure from Chris and for explaining our view. While Chris is surely correct to note that creative or authorial intentions are a thorny topic, we take them to be absolutely essential to our preferred account. Chris’s interesting “adjusted” definition elides intentions and so the resulting view is one on which anything that could in principle be picture-read is a comic. We think that yields a far too generous view for pretty much the reasons Chris notes. There are paintings that aren’t comics that look markedly similar to things that are comics and the difference between the two can’t be explicated in terms of things someone could do with either. (Each could be a door stop, after all.) But on the Intentional Picture Reading View, the fact that, say, Gahan Wilson intended his comics to be picture-read is part of what separates them from a piece of line art that is, say, merely intended to depict a barn on fire. So although someone *could* certainly attempt to picture-read paintings and other non-comic artifacts, they regularly and correctly do other things with them (e.g., looking at them in ways that treat text and sequence differently than we would in comics) and that if they are picture-read, that wouldn’t make them comics. Again, that’s because it’s the artifactual intention that matters. Importantly, that makes our view potentially quite narrow contrary to the “adjusted” view Chris sketches.

The final concern Chris notes–namely, how informatively we can characterize picture-reading and, in turn, how distinctive it really is–strikes us as *the* question for the Intentional Picture Reading View. We reject the generic view that would assimilate picture-reading to the tremendously broad act of looking at picture-based artifacts. For our part, we take picture-reading to be a specific practice essentially tied to phenomena like panels, text-image interaction, and grawlix. Accordingly, articulating a comprehensive and credible theory of picture-reading is *the* project at the heart of the philosophy of comics. And maybe the project for another book.

As I discussed in a previous post, I’m a big fan of Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray’s Philosophy of Comics. I think it may surpass Nathaniel Goldberg’s and my Superhero Thought Experiments. Keeping in mind that praise, I do object to their definition of comics—the first new definition I’ve seen presented by any comics scholars for several years.

Sam and Wesley (who I call by their first names since Sam and I know each other by email) offer what they term a “functional approach to defining comics,” one based on “a characteristic use as objects,” specifically that “comics are to be ‘read.’” This would mean that “comics are ultimately a functional artifact rather than one that can be defined formally or historically.”

Though I agree that comics overall cannot be defined formally or historically, I instead define the comics form and the comics medium separately, and then I use those two definitions to determine whether a given work is in one, the other, or both. This approach produces no general definition of comics. Let’s call that the homonym approach, since it treats ‘comics’ as a word with two non-exclusive meanings. Sam and Wesley follow the single-definition approach, calling their definition the ‘Intentional Picture-Reading View.’

What does it mean to ‘read’ a comic? They identify their use of the verb ‘read’ as a “linguistic accident,” because “whatever reading we do when we engage with comics, it is not the same activity as the reading we undertake when we engage with a novel.” Following Wertham, they call this distinctive kind of intended activity ‘picture-reading,’ and they characterize it is an “openness” to various “sociocultural practices” such as “incorporating one or more images into our unified attention,” “taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative,” “finding closure among panels,” and “taking text (or a solitary image) as determining what’s true according to the narrative.” That produces the following comics definition: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be picture-read.”

I think authorial intentions are an unnecessary and distracting topic, but rather than diving down a non-useful rabbit hole, I’ll adjust their definition to avoid it: “x is a comic if and only if x is perceived as aptly intended to be picture-read.” (Sam and Wesley seem to suggest something along this line through their later requirement that “competent audiences would be able to picture-read it and that competent audiences would recognize it as an attempt at producing something for picture-reading.”) The result is the same: something would be a comic because it is or can be “regarded with a certain kind of attention.”

Interestingly, they assert that this kind of attention also applies to single images, “since juxtaposed images … aren’t required for picture-reading,” just “an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention.” Does an openness to incorporating juxtaposed images into one’s pattern of attention require the physical presence of juxtaposed images? If so, then can viewing a single image produce it? Looking at the Mona Lisa or an installment of The Far Side does not involve the expectation of additional images entering one’s attention or an openness to taking juxtaposed images as components of a narrative or finding closure among them. It would likely exclude such things since each single image is understood instead to be a complete work. When other images are juxtaposed (on a gallery wall or on a newspaper comics page), those other images are likely not regarded with the same kind of attention and sociocultural practices as the perceptually isolated single image.

That suggests to me that single images are not picture-read in the sense that their definition requires. Since Sam and Wesley reject what they term the Deliberate Sequence View because it does not account for “the objection from single panel comics,” their Intentional Picture-Reading View could suffer similarly.

Alternatively, picture-reading does apply to single images. When I look at the Mona Lisa I am certainly open to incorporating the solitary image into my unified attention and to taking it as determining what’s true according to the narrative. It would seem then that any single image could be picture-read, or certainly any single-image narrative artwork. If so, then so many things become comics that ‘comics’ does not appear to differentiate a meaningful category of works.  

Returning to multiple images, Sam and Wesley examine the example of an art gallery owner hanging three paintings on a wall and then afterwards declaring that the three images are a comic. According to their definition, the three paintings are a comic if “a component comics reader recognizes” them as a comic, and the three paintings are not a comic if such a reader does not. They acknowledge that perceptions will likely vary, concluding: “This, we suspect, is where we ought to expect and therefore accept vagueness in a proposed definition of comics.”

While individual perceptions of most anything can vary, the primary vagueness here is not general to any proposed definition of comics, but only to those that rely on vaguely defined sociocultural practices. Perhaps such practices are inadequate for comics definitions. 

Regarding such pre-comics works as the Bayeux Tapestry, Sam and Wesley argue that “the sociocultural activity of picture-reading in its current form had not yet arisen when it was created” and “simply was not operative in [that] context.” Therefore the Bayeux Tapestry is not a comic, even though its creators “intended for it to be looked at and read in some sense.” What sense might those creators have intended their work to be read and how does that kind of picture-reading differ from the picture-reading that has the “distinctive history” required for a work to be a comic? Sam and Wesley state that for such things as the Bayeux Tapestry to not be comics “a distinction is needed between picture-reading as a historically specific activity and a more general, arguably universal activity of pictorial storytelling.” Since they do not offer such a distinction, it would seem then that Bayeux Tapestry might be a comic according to their Intentional Picture-Reading View.

What images are not comics according to that view? The potential range seems to include all single-image and multi-image art of any culture and time period.

What are the necessary and sufficient qualities of ‘picture-reading’? I suspect the term could be substituted with something like ‘comics-reading’ or ‘comics-medium-reading’ without a discernable change in meaning. If so, the proposed definition seems circular: “x is a comic if and only if x is aptly intended to be read as a comic.”

The above, and my previous blog too, are my tentative objections to the only two claims that I didn’t find immediately persuasive in all of Philosophy of Comics. Which is to say: it’s a pretty damn persuasive book.

But to be fair, I’ve invited Sam and Wesley to respond, and I will post their comments to my comments tomorrow.

Poet and literary critic Lesley Wheeler writes in her new hybrid essay collection Poetry’s Possible Worlds:

“The distinction between [fiction and nonfiction] rests not in intrinsic differences but on information external to the text. This story is on the front page of a trustworthy newspaper: factual. That one appears beside a moody illustration near the end of The New Yorker: you think ‘fiction’ and you assume references are invented or at least disguised and manipulated.”

My co-author Nathaniel Goldberg and I draw a similar philosophical conclusion in our Revising Fiction, Fact, and Faith: “A discourse is a fictional or factual diegesis if and only if read as that kind.” And we include an example that vacillates according to the kind of “information external to the text” that Wheeler mentions.

The New York newspaper The Sun published Richard Adams Locke’s “Great Astronomical Discoveries Lately Made by Sir John Herschel” in daily installments in August 1835. Though The Sun proved extremely untrustworthy, most readers read the story as factual—until they got to descriptions of bat-winged creatures building temples on the moon, and even then many believed the hoax until the newspaper announced it was fiction the following month. Had the story originally appeared in the New Yorker (though hybrid newspapers like The Sun may be the closest early nineteenth-century equivalent), or at least been identified within the publication as fiction, probably no one would have read it as a work of nonfiction. 

Note the point that Goldberg and I share with Wheeler: “Great Astronomical Discoveries” is not intrinsically fiction, even though its author wrote it as fiction. That’s because, in our shared view, the status of something being fiction or nonfiction is determined entirely by the experience of readers.

When Wheeler writes “you assume references are invented,” she means references to some world: “The effects readers experience as they enter possible worlds—such as transportation—don’t rely on the authors’ intent to mimic verifiable events, or, for that matter, to distort or ignore them entirely.” It’s about the world a reader imagines.

Goldberg and I discuss that too: “when a factual diegesis refers to the actual world, and a fictional diegesis refers to a merely possible one, each does so by reporting on its respective world.” Wheeler’s invented references are understood to report on a merely possible world, though she’s equally interested in the actual world. Both are kinds of possible worlds. Goldberg and I explain: “While there is only one actual world, which is itself possible, there is an infinity of merely possible worlds.”

Poetry’s Possible Worlds explores that infinity through the world-building enacted by readers of poetry.

Disproving Marie-Laure Ryan’s claim that a short lyric poem such as William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say” is not “a system of reality,” Wheeler reports her experience of its reality: “I visualize an old-fashioned kitchen with an early-model icebox and linoleum table, the kind with a corrugated metal rim. Williams is wearing a light button-down shirt, cuffs open because it’s summer, and his posture is cocky.”

That’s not the kitchen I see, but the fact that I do see some kitchen (the one from my childhood home) proves her point. She continues: “As a reader, I may be an outer-limits case, yet where there is plot and character and sensory detail, imaginative world-building is possible.”

Later she describes a bar she imagined while reading another poem: “I mentally placed it … not in a pub I had really visited but in my Universal Fantasy Tavern. Like many people who seek to lose themselves in books, I recycle imagined settings to save attention for other elements of the work and speed immersion. None of this was conscious until I started researching the cognitive science of literary transportation, but I must have generated many of these spaces as an untraveled preteen.”

The term “transportation” is apt because it implies transportation to somewhere—though apparently never to the same place. Goldberg and I acknowledge this point in order to set it aside: “no two readers may read the same discourse in precisely the same way. Even so, typically there would reman overlap. If extensive, call the resulting diegesis ‘the diegesis.’”

Rather than setting them aside, Poetry’s Possible Worlds delves into those individual readerly worlds fully, revealing that “Taking Poetry Personally” (the title of the introduction) is an inevitability to be embraced rather than ignored. In the process, she also reveals the underappreciated fact that poetry relies on and produces the same levels of transportive and immersive world-building as longer works of fiction.

Poetry’s Possible Worlds is itself narratively immersive, merging a sequence of literary essays with a novel-like progression of short memoirs about not only the author’s reading experiences but the personal life experiences that surround them and give them context-specific meaning. I read early and multiple drafts of each chapter, but as I reread passages now, I am transported to events in my own life too.

The chapter exploring the thresholds of a poem by a poet she met while on a Fulbright in New Zealand includes the sentence: “Meanwhile, my husband, Chris, planned to work on a novel in our rented house.” My Alzheimer’s-suffering mother haunts the chapter on poetic “Fiction”: “Chris reproached himself for having missed so many signs, but Judy was smart enough to mask incapacity.” “Voice,” which explores another poet’s creative relationship with her husband, includes: “Chris and I are fascinated by literary couples.” But more revealingly: “You’d think Chris, whose first book was a novel, would believe in narrative. Yet since our first years together, Chris has resisted transforming real experience into tales.”

Do I co-write works of philosophy to avoid writing memoir? Possibly. But as Wheeler tells her readers: “All literature, however, even when it’s autobiographical, is fantasy.” Poetry’s Possible Worlds is one of my favorite works of fantasy, and not just because I’m married to the author or because the Acknowledgements and the book as a whole concludes on this sentence: “My real and imagined worlds are indebted to him.”

First some unqualified praise: “With the methodological patience and precision that their multi-faceted subject demands, Cowling and Cray provide the comics medium with its most thoroughly philosophical analysis to date.”

That’s the back-cover blurb I wrote for Philosophy of Comics by Sam Cowling and Wesley Cray. If you’re not a philosopher (which I’m also not, but I’ve been spending a great deal of time in that corner of the multiverse in recent years), you might miss the eye-bulging exuberance of that statement. (Seriously, read it again.)

I assume Bloomsbury requested my endorsement because I co-wrote Superhero Thought Experiment with philosopher Nathaniel Goldberg—which, not coincidentally, Sam reviewed back in 2020. After Nathaniel contacted him and introduced us by email (philosophers who study comics is not an enormous demographic, so we have an impulse to wave hello when spotting one from a distance), Sam and I corresponded about the manuscripts we were working on then, my The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images and his and Wesley’s Philosophy of Comics, both from Bloomsbury and both forthcoming in 2022. Sam’s is available this month, and mine next month.

(Sidebar: I’m the series editor of Bloomsbury’s Comics Studies, which does not include either Philosophy of Comics or The Comics Form. That’s because Bloomsbury publishes a range of comics studies works outside of their Comics Studies line. Their Comics Studies line would be more accurately called “Critical Guides in Comics Studies”—which is what I asked them to change it to when I become its editor. Bloomsbury said yes, but more recently it seems Bloomsbury may be saying no, due to marketing reasons and so definitely not philosophical ones.)

I’d like to focus on Sam and Wesley’s second chapter, “What Are Comics?” Though comics scholars have largely abandoned the question, most do not approach it with Sam and Wesley’s thoroughly philosophical precision. I address the question (I hope with similar thoroughness) in the introduction of The Comics Form, concluding that no single definition of ‘comics’ is possible. I then spend the rest of the book analyzing the nature of sequenced images.

Applying image sequence as a general definition of comics (which I don’t), Sam and Wesley term the approach the ‘Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they identify two objections:

  • “The objection from single panel comics works by noting a discrepancy between the critical practice surrounding comics and the formal features identified in the Deliberate Sequence View.”

Let’s call this The Far Side objection. Since single-image works such as The Far Side appear in newspaper comics sections, single-image works must be a subcategory of comics, which therefore are not necessarily sequenced images. The objection is self-evidently true: single images are not multiple images. Their second objection is similarly true. A part of a work is not a whole work:

  • “The Deliberate Sequence View therefore entails that things that we don’t ordinarily treat or think of as comics—the juxtaposed mere parts of comics—are errantly deemed to be comics…. Since the Deliberate Sequence View is not equipped to avoid counting arbitrary mere parts of comics as comics, it delivers another incorrect verdict about the conditions for being a comic.”

Call this the Alexander Pope objection. Pope’s long poem The Rape of the Lock is composed of 794 lines in heroic couplets. Any two juxtaposed and rhyming lines within the complete poem is a heroic couplet. That’s because heroic couplets is a form that applies equally to a compete work and to mere parts of a work. Just as a heroic couplet requires at least two rhymed lines, an image sequence requires at least two juxtaposed images.

Combining their objections, Sam and Wesley conclude: “Each of these challenges dims the hope of defining comics purely in terms of their sequential features.” That conclusion is both correct and misleading.

‘Comics’ cannot be defined purely as sequenced images because ‘comics’ has more than one definition. It’s a homonym.  Consider the word ‘bark.’ It cannot be defined purely in terms of the sounds that a dog makes. That’s because ‘bark’ also refers to the outer part of a tree—which also does not purely define it.

Comics has (at least) two meanings:

  • (A) works in the comics form
  • (B) works in the comics medium

As is obvious from my book title, The Comics Form, I’m interested in the first definition. As is obvious from my book subtitle, The Art of Sequenced Images, I define the comics form as sequenced images.  If you prefer, substitute ‘sequenced images’ for the first definition. However, if you think some other necessary and sufficient set of intrinsic features defines the comics form, substitute that instead.

Regardless of what the comics form is, the comics form is not the comics medium. Unlike the form, the medium is historically and so contextually based. Though not attempting to define the medium, Sam and Wesley summarize a comics medium definition: “the production of [works that] is appropriately historically connected to the tradition began in the middle of the nineteenth century and developed largely out of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British humor magazines.”

They also show that a medium-based definition of comics opposes any form-based definition: “there is reason to reject any formalist definition of comics, since the medium of comics is a historically specific one.” Again, this is misleadingly true. There is also reason to reject any dog-related definition of ‘bark,’ since the nature of ‘bark’ is a botanically specific one—only if the definitions are all-encompassing. 

There’s usually nothing confusing about a two-definition homonym because the definitions tend to be mutually exclusive. To the best of my knowledge, no bark is both a dog sound and a tree part. In the case of comics though, the two definitions produce a very large overlap since many works are in the comics form and in the comics medium simultaneously. Sam and Wesley call that combination the ‘Historicist Deliberate Sequence View,’ and they reject it as a definition of comics generally (because manga).

I also reject it as a definition of comics generally, but for a different reason. It’s the middle section of the form/medium Venn diagram, and so it defines neither the form or the medium, only subsections of each.

Comics scholars, including Sam and Wesley, resist treating ‘comics’ as a homonym, preferring instead either to champion one definition exclusively (Sam and Wesley have their own, which I look forward to exploring another time) or to reject all definitions as necessarily false. I don’t understand either impulse. I first offered the two-definition approach in MoMA magazine last September (“What Are Comics?”), and I will offer a more involved explanation in The Comics Form, which I hope might uncontroversially tilt some scholarly interest in that direction soon.

Meanwhile, go read Philosophy of Comics. It’s excellent.

I’m on my way back to Virginia after spending several days in Budapest, plus three more in Venice for the Invisible Lines comics symposium. During scattered downtime I found myself toying with what I’m tempted to call my digital charcoal technique in MS Paint. I’ve been fiddling with the approach for a while now, but I think the results have mutated significantly again. Here are the five I made in Budapest:

And here are two I made earlier in May:

Plus two I made last year but then altered and extended further with the same technique this month.

I’m delighted to report that I am currently in Budapest vacationing with my family and soon will be in Venice where I will present a paper for the Invisible Lines comics conference. The paper (which I started drafting last summer after I was invited to a comics forum workshop in Michigan) is growing into a book project, but it started as an observation about the effect paper color has on images of people. Here’s an excerpt:

When Ebony Flowers draws a mother and narrating daughter in the title chapter of her 2020 collection Hot Comb, their bodies are shaped by black lines without additional colors or gradations. The art is printed on white paper, and so that shade of white represents the two characters’ skin colors because it is the literal color visible within the body-defining black lines. If the art were printed on a different shade of paper, that shade would instead represent those same actual skin colors. If “Hot Comb” is understood as a memoir (its status is ambiguous) the representations of Flowers and her mother are likely perceived as having the same or similar skin color, but whether Flowers and her mother actually have the same skin color is impossible to determine.

Philosopher Roy Cook proposed the “panel transparency principle,” claiming that: “Characters, events, and locations within a fictional world described by a comic appear, within the fictional world, as they are depicted in typical panels within that comic” (2012: 134). Since Flowers’ and her mother’s skin are represented by the same page color, a strict interpretation of the transparency principle might require understanding them both to have paperwhite skin. Alternatively, if paper color is understood to be outside the principle (perhaps because it is selected by the publisher and so beyond Flowers’ artistic control), viewers might still conclude that the absence of other differentiating details indicates that Flowers and her mother have the same skin color, one represented by whatever color paper the line art happens to be printed on.

Even this less strict interpretation, however, is difficult to support. Cook later rejected his own transparency claim, arguing instead that “our access to the physical appearance of drawn characters in general is indirect, partial, inferential, and imperfect” (25). If so, viewers may understand skin color, along with a range of other details, to be underspecified, meaning the unmarked negative spaces within body contour lines lack representational information. The pristine white of the page does not correspond to complexion or other related qualities.

While Cook’s second claim replaces his first, it does not reverse it. Where the panel transparency principle concludes that represented subjects are as they appear, the second claim draws no corresponding conclusion. Represented subjects may, may not, or may partially be as they appear, and a subject’s individual qualities may each vary along unknowable spectrums. As a result, the representational nature of a white page varies too.  

In the cases of Flowers and her mother, viewers likely understand that neither has paperwhite skin and, while their precise skin tones are unknowable, that each is considerably darker than they appear in their representations. However, in the case of Flower’s childhood friend, Ellie-Mae, the representational nature of the white background shifts. Because Flowers’ text identifies her friend as racially white, viewers likely understand her skin color to be nearer to the whiteness of the page than is Flowers’ skin color. While Ellie-Mae’s skin color is still unknowable, the page whiteness is more representationally suggestive for the racially white friend. Also, for Flowers and her mother, because both are Black and also related, the white page represents an unknowable but possibly similar skin color. The contrast between Flowers and Ellie-Mae is presumably greater. The same whiteness then implies two racially dissimilar skin colors and also two racially similar skin colors simultaneously. 

Rather than an exception, Hot Comb encapsulates a norm. Yuan Alagbe’s collection Yellow Negroes and Other Imaginary Creatures reveals the same relationship between page color and race. Page whiteness makes the skin colors of an interracial couple indistinguishable, prompting viewers to project colors based on facial and hair features alone (2018: 29). Viewed in isolation with hair significantly cropped by the panel frame, the female figure might appear racially ambiguous. Though Alagbe’s text previously establishes that the character is White (because her father is shocked to learn that she is in a relationship with a Black man), the text does not account for differences in skin color within the racial category.

Theo Ellsworth makes the conflated relationship between page and skin colors explicit in Secret Life, an adaptation of a Jeff VanderMeer story. Ellsworth draws a fountain pen in the white space between two panels, and inside the lower panel, he separately frames two interior images:

The same pen drawing a line across a cropped area of a white piece of paper, and fingers touching a cropped area of a figure’s back. Through a Gestalt effect, the black line defining the top edge of the represented paper and the black line defining the top edge of the figure’s back seem continuous, as though the two diegetically distant areas are a single area interrupted—which, as ink-framed portions of the same actual piece of paper, they are. Above both images a caption box contains: “The point rode across the page as effortlessly as his fingers rubbing his wife’s back” (2021: np). The color of “the page” within the represented world and the color of the wife’s back are both represented by the actual color of the actual page, which is white. Though the visually implied assumption that the represented page is a similar color as the actual page may be justified, an assumption that the wife is White is not.

Ellsworth draws the wife’s face four pages later, but his cartooning style is simplified and exaggerated in ways that do not provide sufficient detail for determining ethnicity. Ellsworth follows the image of the two having sex with two caption boxes: “He could not think of the pen without thinking of her soft, hot skin” and “He could not think of the pen without remembering her nakedness, shining in the dark room.” In the mostly undrawn and therefore white area between the captions and their connected panels Ellsworth draws the pen again. The description “soft, hot” suggests nothing about skin color, and “shining” might describe a range, especially when contrasted to the literal blackness of the surrounding room. But the white space framed between the two texts is connotative, likely directing a reader to imagine the wife to be very light-skinned—even though nothing in the text suggests that.  

Page whiteness then literalizes the assumption of racial whiteness as universal, representing the skin color of all characters, regardless of race.  Yet page whiteness is comparatively more representational for racially white characters than for non-white characters. If a character is understood to be dark skinned, viewers must see past the contradictory quality of the page color. Since light-skinned characters are also not literally white, viewers must also see past the page color in those cases too, but to a lesser degree. Moreover, the literal whiteness of the page and the metaphorical whiteness of racial Whiteness are aligned and so easily conflated. The statement ‘White people are white’ seems self-evidently redundant, while ‘Black people are white’ seems overtly paradoxical.

(More on all of that after I return!)

Last week I compiled a political portrait of 1966, to explain the context of Marvel’s first portrayal of the KKK through the counterpart villains the Sons of the Serpent.

This week I delve into the story.

The Avengers #32 (September 1966) opens with the team returning from the previous issue’s adventure and Goliath upset that he’s permanently stuck being ten-feet tall. After Captain America picks a fight with him, Goliath rededicates himself to finding a cure, thanking Captain America for knowing “sympathy won’t do me any good! I’ve got a problem, sure – but I’ve got to face it – like an Avenger!” The attitude may reflect Stan Lee and artist Don Heck’s attitude toward race relations too. The Sons of the Serpent debut at the bottom of the same page.

Following the so-called “Marvel Method,” Heck would have penciled the images with empty caption boxes and speech bubbles, which Lee would have filled with text afterwards. Reverse-engineered, Lee’s script would look something like this:

Page 4, panel 5:

  • Narrator: But, just when it seems as though the Avengers are in for some peace and quiet, in another section of the city we find –
  • Sons member: “We warned you not to move into this neighborhood!”
  • Gonzales: “But, it’s a free country! I’m a law-abiding citizen! You have no right –”
  • Sons member: “You dare speak to us of rights?”
  • Sons member: “You —  were not even born here!”
  • Sons member: “Enough talk! He must be taught what it means to defy the Sons of the Serpent!”

Page 5, panel 1:

  • Woman: “Henry! What’s the commotion outside the window?”
  • Man: “It’s the Sons of the Serpent! They’ve cornered Mr. Gonzales! We – we have to do something –!”
  • Woman: “No! Come away from there! It’s dangerous to get involved!”
  • Man: “But, they’re beating him!”
  • Woman: “It’s none of our business.”

Page 5, panel 2:

  • Narrator: Thus, we take our leave of Henry and his wife – two less-than-admirable citizens who feared to get “involved” – as we return to the street once more –
  • Sons member: “We’re lucky no one called the police! Now, let’s go — !”
  • Sons member: “We’ll leave our Serpent sign – as a warning to any other foreigners!”

Instead of anti-Black, the Sons are anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Latino. This is a closer match to the eugenics-oriented KKK popular in the 1910s and 20s that supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which based national-origin quotas on the 1890 census and barred Asian immigration entirely.  Lee’s script also emphasizes the generalized values of “freedom” and being “law-abiding.” Even the Sons are surprised that none of Mr. Gonzales’s White neighbors contacted the police, and the narrator condemns only the White couple’s inaction, not the Sons’ criminal assault, which occurs mostly between panels.

Similarly, when Black Widow infiltrates a meeting, she thinks: “If such poison is allowed to spread, there’s no telling where it will end.” The poison metaphor, which Lee uses multiply times in the two issues, implies that the Sons are primarily a threat to the American public, rather than to the “foreigners” they persecute.

Lee and Heck also need to make White supremacy legible in the all-White context of the Avengers, requiring the introduction of a new Black character to assist Goliath’s work. Lee’s script never mentions Bill Foster’s race, and Heck draws him with a bowtie—an ambiguous fashion item that could reference Malcolm X, who had been murdered the year before, though White viewers might have associated it with Sean Connery’s first four James Bond films or formal attire generally.

Uncredited colorist Stan Goldberg gives Foster the gray-brown skin tone standard for Black characters of the period. I think his face and hands are closer in color to the gray machinery surrounding him in his first panels than to the human, White-denoting color of Goliath’s face.

Lee and Heck also create a space for Foster within the Avengers tiered social structure through misogynistic treatment of the lone White female member. When Wasp tries to assist in Goliath’s private lab, he scolds her: “I keep tripping over you every time I turn around! You’ve got to leave me alone, Jan!”

“But, you need an assistant!”

“Sure I do – and I’ll get one – a top-notch scientist – not a chattering female!”

After Goliath has told Foster to call him by his first name as they conduct experiments, Wasp returns with a steaming food tray: “I figured you’d starve to death if I didn’t return to look after you! Hi, Bill! I’m Janet Van Dyne – happy Henry’s hand-maiden!” The men continue working as she sits with a coffee cup: “You gents certainly have a way of making a girl feel needed!”

Though Wasp is clearly less skilled than either man, her portrayal is not necessarily different than in surrounding issues. In The Avengers #56 (September 1968), Roy Thomas scripts Wasp staying behind while the male characters perform a time-travel mission; her one job is to watch the controls, but she dozes off, nearly trapping them in the past.

When the Sons of the Serpent beat Foster unconscious outside Goliath’s home )a violence that Heck again obscures between panels), Goliath sets aside his personal quest to seek revenge, “before their deadly venom spreads any further!”

Wasp objects: “Can’t the local police cope with a few bully boys like the Serpents?” The complaint clarifies that the Sons of the Serpents are not primarily a supervillain organization of the kind typically introduced in Marvel superhero comics, but a fictional counterpart to the actual KKK.

Since no Avenger has ever been shown having a personal relationship with a Black person, Foster also serves the purpose of demonstrating that a White hero can feel passionately about Black people. Goliath declares: “We’ve been on many missions before – but never was there one that filled me with such a burning desire for vengeance!” However, he justifies his passion through a connection to other White people: “Every second that they remain free is an insult to the men who made this nation great!”

Lee and Heck next introduce General Chen, one “of the leaders of a hostile Oriental nation,” “an enemy … whose troops have fought ours on the battlefield in Asia,” but who is allowed in New York to address the United Nations. Though Lee does not name Vietnam, readers would have recognized the allusion. The U.S. had deployed 184,300 troops in Vietnam in 1965, and was in the process of deploying 385,300 in 1966. U.S. casualties had risen from 216 in 1964 to 1,928 in 1965, and would reach 6,350 in 1966.

After surviving an apparent assassination attempt, Chen complains about the protestors: “They are probably members of the Sons of the Serpent!” In the following issue, he taunts a “special committee” that includes Senator Byrd: “America claims to be a land of freedom – and yet they allow the Sons of the Serpent to preach their doctrine of hatred and tyranny on every corner!”

Byrd: “You come from a land where countless thousands live in abject fear – where they may not speak, or read, or even think as they please! And you talk of freedom!”

Chen: “I will not trade epithets with you, Senator Byrd! When the world one day comes under our rule, we will know how to deal with the likes of you!”

Byrd: “The world will never follow your lead – not while one free man remains alive!”

Byrd is the only real-world character depicted in the two-issue story. He had served as a West Virginia senator since 1958, supporting segregation. He participated in an 83-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before it passed 77 to 18. He would be one of only 11 senators to vote against Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination the following year.

Byrd had also been in the KKK, recruiting a local chapter of 150 members in 1941-2, before running for state delegate in 1946, the same year he wrote to the KKK’s Grand Wizard: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.” The year before Byrd complained that Truman was integrating the military: “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” His KKK affiliation was revealed during his first run for Congress in 1952, but he apologized and won, explaining that he joined the Klan “because it was strongly opposed to communism.” (I’m pulling quotes from Eric Pianin’s “A Senator’s Shame” published in the Washington Post in 2005).

Lee accordingly scripts Byrd seeing through Chen’s plan. He thinks: “The whole purpose of Chen’s visit here is to win a propaganda victory – and the Serpents are handing him one on a silver platter!”

Understanding the Sons of the Serpents as a thinly veiled representation of the Klan, Lee’s Byrd places opposition to communism ahead of loyalty to the Klan and so presumably also ahead of opposition to Civil Rights through a Klan mentality. The scene also reverses Hoover’s warning against Black activism as communist-supported, since it is the White supremacists who are, still apparently unintentionally, aiding the general’s communist cause.

After a convoluted plot involving the false appearance of the Avengers supporting the Sons of the Serpent, which prompts Foster to quit working for Goliath (“you can get yourself another boy –!”) and White public opinion to vacillate (“See? I told you the Serpents can’t be so bad – not if the Avengers themselves are behind ‘em!”), General Chen is unmasked as the Supreme Serpent on the final page.

A White bystander remarks: “And he almost got away with it! Why were we so blind – so gullible?”

Goliath offers a final lesson: “Beware of the man who sets you against your neighbor!”

Heck draws the face of a listening Black man as the most prominent element of the concluding panel.

Marvel’s first portrayal of apparent White supremacy is instead a communist plot to poison White Americans with racial antipathy. Though Mr. Gonzales is beaten for moving into an otherwise White community, and Bill Foster is beaten for walking through Goliath’s White neighborhood, the primary plot threat is to the body of the White population: “For, so long as their insidious poison can corrupt even one man, America will never be secure!”

The meaning of “man” in Stan Lee’s sentence is implicitly “White man,” since a non-White person would not be so susceptible to White supremacist beliefs, and by extension “America” is “White America,” then between 84% and 87% of the population, which must be made secure against communism. White supremacy then must be opposed, not because of its overt harm to its non-White victims, but because of its potential harm to its White supporters.  

On a side note, last week I also quoted the Marvel Database about this two-issue arc: “The plot twist at the end of this story is in extremely poor taste. Having a foreigner who had been a victim of racist violence be revealed to be the mastermind behind it all undercuts the presumed message of racial tolerance and quite literally blames the victim of racist violence for what happens to him. Hawkeye’s final comment (“Boy, if ever there was an undesirable alien, it’s him.) actually SUPPORTS the Sons of the Serpent’s racist attitudes. Even more unfortunately, it’s a plot twist that seems to get repeated whenever the Sons of the Serpent appear.”

Oddly, that Hawkeye comment is not in the issue. Also, the fictional communist general at first appears to have been attacked by the Sons of the Serpent not because he is a “foreigner,” but because he has been waging a war against U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. The “extremely poor taste” is instead at the deeper level of indifference to the two actual acts of racist violence against a Latino man and a Black man and the use of racial tolerance as a means of protecting White Americans. The unmasking “plot twist” though is repeated in the next two appearances of the Sons of the Serpent and without the complicating factor of an anti-communist message. (More on that another time.)

I was born in June 1966, a month before the release of The Avengers #32 and its portrayal of the first KKK-like White supremacist group in Marvel comics.

The entry in the fan-run Marvel Database (which is not known for its social and political commentary) concludes: “The plot twist at the end of this story is in extremely poor taste. Having a foreigner who had been a victim of racist violence be revealed to be the mastermind behind it all undercuts the presumed message of racial tolerance and quite literally blames the victim of racist violence for what happens to him. Hawkeye’s final comment (“Boy, if ever there was an undesirable alien, it’s him.) actually SUPPORTS the Sons of the Serpent’s racist attitudes. Even more unfortunately, it’s a plot twist that seems to get repeated whenever the Sons of the Serpent appear.”

Before delving into the story, I want to explore the national context that produced it.

The original, Reconstruction-era Klan was a loose network of local terrorist groups that resisted Union occupation and so-called “Negro rule” and that disbanded after federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The second, 1914 incarnation of the KKK, legally the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. disbanded in 1944 due to its inability to pay back taxes to the IRS. The third incarnation emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s in violent opposition to the Civil Rights movement, but was never unified. The House Committee on Un-American Activities identified fourteen distinct organizations, with due-paying memberships ranging between 25 and 15,000 (Schaefer 152).

The Alabama-based United Klans of America formed in 1961 in an attempt to unite the various groups, becoming the largest by 1965. Their leader Robert Shelton served a year in prison after refusing to turn over membership lists to Congress in 1966. Though overt support of the Klan was low, the organization remained popular in a different sense. Defining “Klan mentality” as “an acceptance of what has been the Klan ideology without identifying oneself with the Ku Klux Klan or without even being aware that one’s prejudices form the core of Klan thinking,” Richard T. Schaefer concluded in 1971 that “although no longer an effective and viable force in American life, the klan mentality remains, if not thrives today” (144).

The KKK did not appear in a Marvel comic until 1975, but The Avengers #32-33 (September-October 1966) features the fictional Sons of the Serpent. Stan Lee seems to have intended them to be a recognizable KKK stand-in, describing their costumes as “robes,” their members as “hooded punks,” their leader as “sheet-covered,” and their public meeting as a “rally.” Don Heck’s costume design includes a short, short-sleeved robe with attached hoodie, though Stan Goldberg’s uncredited color art lessens the Klan resemblance by replacing white with brown and green. Heck also replaces burning crosses with snake staffs erected beside victims, but Stan Lee restores a different Christian allusion: “As the original serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden – so shall we drive all foreigners from this land!” Lee presumably intends the logic to be counter-intuitive and self-incriminating. (Though some KKK-affiliated ministers including William Branham preached that Eve and the serpent had produced an inferior race of hybrids, Lee and Heck do not seem to have the serpent seed doctrine in mind.)

Given Lee’s so-called “Marvel Method” approach, Heck likely either plotted the issue himself, leaving empty word containers for Lee to fill-in afterwards, or Heck worked from unscripted ideas that he and Lee developed through informal conversation first. Since Lee was also editor, the decision to feature White supremacists as supervillains was likely his decision. It coincides with the premier of non-White characters in other Marvel titles, including Wyatt Wingfoot in Fantastic Four #50 (May 1966), Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52-3 (July-September 1966), and a year later, Daily Bugle editor Joe Robertson in The Amazing Spider-Man #51 (August 1967). President Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the previous August, the same month as the Watts riot in Los Angeles, which, while triggered by an incident of police violence during the arrest of a drunk driver, a governor-appointed commission concluded primarily resulted from the segregated area’s poor living conditions, poor schools, and high unemployment.

Production norms suggest that the decision to create the Sons of the Serpents occurred by May 1966. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. met with Johnson to discuss the Civil Rights Act of 1966, but because of King’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s call for a “prompt withdrawal” earlier that month, Johnson did not invite King to the White House Conference on Civil Rights planned for June. April marks a turning point in public opinion. A March Gallup polls found that 59% of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam was not a mistake, down slightly from 61% six months earlier; the figured dropped ten points in May, to a 49% minority (Lunch and Sperlich 25). 1966 also marks a shift in the Civil Rights movement, which is often described as ending in 1965—due in part to the defeat of the Civil Rights Act of 1966 by Senate filibuster.

Opposition to the movement had always overlapped with fears of communism. Johnson’s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s 1958 Masters of Deceit warned that “the communists” were urging “the abolition of ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ ‘full representation,’ and ‘the fight for Negro rights’” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of “a Soviet America” (194, 192). Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Gallup had found that a plurality of Americans believed that most “of the organizations pushing for civil rights have been infiltrated by the communists and are now dominated by communist trouble-makers” (“Public Opinion on Civil Rights: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 blog,” July 2, 2014).

1965 also saw passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, eliminating the national-origin quotas established in 1924. According to the 1960 U.S. census, 88.6% of the population was White, virtually unchanged from 88.9% in 1910. According to Pew Research, the number was 84% in 1965, with only 5% of the population foreign-born (Pew 2015). The Act still met with conservative opposition. North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin objected to European countries being treated the same as African: “I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.” Myra C. Hacker asked a 1965 Senate immigration subcommittee: “are we prepared to embrace so great a horde of the world’s unfortunates?” Anti-immigrant ideology grew significantly in the years and decades following.

Finally, passage of the Civil Rights legislation also marks a shift in the ideological make-up of the two major political parties. Though Democrats controlled roughly 67% of each congressional chamber in 1966, they and Republicans included ideologically diverse memberships of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Johnson united northern liberals of both parties after the interparty conservative coalition weakened in 1964, prompting a conservative shift within the Republican party that would eventually culminate in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.

Lee and Heck’s Sons of the Serpent reflect these national tensions. (More on that next week.)

As discussed in the previous blog (“Hulk Is Not White!“), The Defenders #15 (September 1975) introduces Nighthawk’s right-hand man “Pennysworth,” an allusion to Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth.

Glynis Wein colors Pennysworth’s lone hand the same as Nighthawk’s face, 50% magenta and either 25% or 50% yellow, with the remaining color supplied by the white of the newsprint stock paper. Here’s what the pixilated scans look like zoomed in:

Pennysworth’s hand is on top, Nighthawk’s chin below. As I’ve been discussing in recent weeks, that’s the color of White people in the simplified world of four-color separation comics in the 1970s.

Pennysworth makes a similarly partial appearance in The Defenders #19 (January 1975), where Sal Buscema again pencils only one of his hands, this time with a corruption-signifying cigar:

Bill Mantlo colors Pennysworth’s skin the same color as Glynis Wein did, though here the racial distinction is sharper in contrast to the Black character in the same panel:

The rest of Pennysworth’s body doesn’t appear until The Defenders #25 (July 1975). Here’s the climatic page as it appears in the black and white reprint collection Essential Defenders vol. 2 (which looks blue due to the apparently horrific lighting in my office when I snapped the photograph):

The page reveals that Pennysworth is Black, obscuring his face until the final panel. His race is especially significant because he has been investing Nighthawk’s millions in the White supremacist organization in order to start a race war that would increase his employer’s profits (see the last post for the justifying monologue Steve Gerber scripts for the “despicable” character). The scene continues a Marvel trend for scapegoating non-White characters in portrayals of White supremacy (more on that later). Here I want to focus on how keeping Pennysworth’s race unknown till the final panel requires colorist Petra G (I assume that’s Petra Goldberg, AKA Petra Scotese, but I need to research further) to make intriguing artistic choices.

Here’s the page as originally published with Scotese’s color art.

Pennysworth appears in the second panel, but with his head cropped. His right hand is an opaque black shape as if obscured by shadow, while his left hand is fully visible, including fingernails, joints, and musculature. That difference in the line art requires a light source behind and to the left of Pennysworth, somewhere near and to the right of the implied viewer. And yet Scotese colors Pennysworth’s left hand the same non-human gray-blue as his clothing. The chair is a shade of purple, darker than the purple curtains on the other side of the room, indicating instead that Pennsyworth’s side of the room is overall darker — even though he had just been seated reading. The book seems to be falling from his into the lit half of the room. Every other page of the falling book is the color of the actual page of comic, but the brightest objects in the image are Nighthawk’s yellow boots, gloves, and chest insignia, as well as the yellow sound effect “SPASH” of the breaking window. Despite the previous panel appearing to take place outside in daylight, the outside visible through the window is now opaque black, providing no light source.

Scotese’s color art contradicts elements of Buscema’s and Abel’s black and white art, as well as general diegetic assumptions. The third panel intensifies those effects. When Nighthawk and Pennsyworth were in different areas of the room, it was naturalistically possible for each to be lit differently. But when Nighthawk grips Pennysworth, the fabric of Pennysworth’s robe appears to remain in comparative shadow while the fabric of Nighthawk’s glove remains the same bright shade of yellow. Rather than being lit by a light source, each figure seems to be inherently bright or shadowed. Scotese colors Pennysworth in two shadow-suggesting shades, the brighter shade creating an additional division not in Buscema’s and Abel’s line art. Both of Pennysworth’s thumbs are brighter because they are within a semi-circle dividing Pennysworth’s figure as though lit by Nighthawk.

The fourth panel continues the same effects. Scotese again creates a division within unmarked areas of the line art, coloring the areas closer to Nighthawk a brighter shade. Although both of Pennysworth’s hands are detailed as though fully visible, the coloring suggests he is still somehow obscured in shadow.

The final panel eliminates the effect, making the now fully lit Pennysworth’s skin color the standard color for Black characters. The black areas of the line art indicate a light source, one aligned with the position of Nighthawk’s cropped face, but because the left edge of Pennysworth’s face is a lighter brown, Scotese’s color art simultaneously indicates a light source from the opposite angle.

That contradiction is missing from digital reproductions using new color art based on but distinct from the original.

The sequence offers several lessons about color art. First, while penciler Sal Buscema is the most consistent artist over the span of issues, colorists Glynis Wein, Bill Mantlo, and Petra Scotese changed with each issue. Since two of the colorists are women, and there are no other women anywhere in the credits, coloring at Marvel was disproportionately female within a disproportionately male industry. Glynis Wein was also married to scripter Len Wein. (I don’t know if there’s a connection between Petra Goldberg and Stan Goldberg, Marvel’s primary colorist in the 60s.)

The second change in colorists parallels the change in Pennysworth’s race. Wein and Mantlo colored him White, and Scotese colored him Black. That change was likely a result of each colorist following a different writer’s script. Len Wein did not indicate any race, and so Glynis Wein defaulted to White (which also matched the allusion to Batman’s White butler). Len Wein plotted, Chris Claremont scripted, and Mantlo colored Pennysworth’s second appearance, continuing the same racial assumption. Gerber’s script instead pivots on Pennysworth’s race, and so Scotese avoided Color-signifying skin color until that reveal.

Gerber’s script does not acknowledge that, let alone explain how, Pennysworth changed races between The Defenders #15/19 and #25. In his first two images, the color of his hand is not a naturalistic representation of how the light in his office refracts off his skin at each moment. Skin color in the world of four-color separation art denotes absolute racial categories. That representational paradox reveals the contradictorily non-naturalistic qualities of color art generally — something I need to explore further.

So what color is the Hulk?

Short answer: green. Even though he’s gray-white in the above black and white reprint of The Defenders #25 (June 1974).

The long answer starts with a detour. This is the second two-panel row on page three of The Defenders #15 (September 1974), the first comic book I ever read:

In the left panel, millionaire Kyle Richmond, AKA Nighthawk, is phoning his employee, Pennysworth, to purchase a well-secluded riding academy so his teammate Valkyrie has a place to keep her winged horse Aragorn. This is the first appearance of Pennysworth, and though his name will be expanded to J.C. Pennysworth by other writers in 1991, scripter Len Wein presumably had Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in mind here. Penciller Sal Buscema draws him mostly in the shadow of his massive desk chair, with only an arm visible.

I presume Len Wein’s script indicated that Pennysworth’s face should not be drawn, though I’m not sure why. The trope creates an expectation of a later reveal, but it’s also possible that Wein was only extending the joke, thinking viewers would imagine Batman’s Pennyworth in the absence of visual information. He and Buscema may also have been avoiding editor Roy Thomas nixing the nominally-disguised allusion entirely if Buscema drew anything even remotely resembling the DC-copyrighted character. Wein never uses Pennysworth again.

Steve Gerber took over scripting on The Defenders #20 (February 1975), while Buscema remained penciller. Their #22-25 (April-June 1975) story arc features the White supremacist supervillain organization the Sons of the Serpent. I thought they were a Gerber invention, but after a little googling I find they were created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1966 (more on that another time).

After trying to burn down a mostly Black apartment building, they declare: “Tonight the great White race begins its march to dominance once again! Tonight begins the return to rule of the majority — with death the fate of any who oppose us! For two decades this nation has felt the tyranny of the non-White minority — but no more! White and only White is beautiful!”

Some quick context: “two decades” ago would mean1955 and so the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the “Black is Beautiful” movement began in 1962 with the fashion show “Naturally ’62”; and according to the 1970 census, 87.7% of the population was White, and 11.1% Black.

Gerber’s response for Hulk is more to the point: “Only … White? Hulk is not … White … The snake-men also hate Hulk! Snake-men are Hulk’s enemies! And Hulk will SMASH them!”

So what color is Hulk?

For his premiere issue The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), his skin was gray, which matched Jack Kirby’s Boris Karloff Frankenstein monster rendering. Stan Lee reportedly selected gray because he did not want to suggest any ethnic group. While the motive is possible, Lee is notorious for revising events. When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee claimed: “I just wanted to create a loveable monster—almost like the Thing but more so … I figured why don’t we create a monster whom the whole human race is always trying to hunt and destroy but he’s really a good guy” (95). But neither the Thing nor the Hulk of their original eight- and six-issue runs were good guys, let alone loveable ones. The Hulk was a barely controlled monster threatening the world as much as the villains he battled.

As far as his skin, colorist Stan Goldberg explained to Jim Amash in a 2003 interview in Alter Ego #18: “I steered away from the gray on the inside, because anything could happen once the silver prints were out of my hands… The colors would come through from the other side of the page, and the paper wasn’t white, either. We couldn’t get a white background on the page. The colors would sometimes be way off from what we wanted. That’s one reason why the gray didn’t work on The Hulk… we kicked around the idea of making him green, but Stan wanted to try gray. I fought him on that. I told him why it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t work, because we couldn’t keep the color consistent throughout the book. Sometimes The Hulk was different shades of gray, and even green in one panel. If we hadn’t already made The Thing orange, that’d have been the perfect color for The Hulk… We could do more with gray and brown on covers. That’s why I used them more on covers rather than the interiors, because gray was more unpredictable on that inside paper.” (16-17)

According to “How a Printing Error Gave Us a Green Incredible Hulk” at the Holland Litho printing services website: “It is easy to imagine how this printing error occurred. If one wanted grey and instead got green, the density on press was either light on magenta or heavy on some combination of cyan and yellow. After seeing the first published issue with the sometimes-greenish skin, Lee changed the Hulk’s skin tone to green…”

Though later writers retconned explanations, the change for The Incredible Hulk #2 (July 1962) was not referenced within the story and so the character was treated as though his skin had always been green.

So the Hulk is green, but what Color is? He presumably isn’t Green. As discussed in previous blogs, capitalizing could imply that the Hulk belongs to a group of Green people who “share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

His alter ego Bruce Banner is White. Alter egos typically share a race, but most transformations involve disguises not cellular mutation. Stan Lee initially had Jekyll and Hyde in mind, and Hyde codes a range of ethnic and/or racial crossing. Banner also originally transformed at sunset, a nod to werewolves, which would seem to be a species transformation well beyond race.

Does the Hulk even have a race? Or at least a color identified one? Because comics lettering norms capitalize all letters, when he shouts at the Sons of the Serpent, there’s no way for readers to distinguish between “white” and “White.” Which did he mean? The Hulk became toddler-minded (not connected to the color change as later implied and loosely retconned) upon returning from a time-travel adventure in Tales to Astonish #78 (April 1966). Perhaps he’s not capable of differentiating between color and Color, and so green and Green?

Nighthawk calls him by the apparently affectionate nickname “Greenskin,” and they had fought alongside Luke Cage starting in issue #19 (January 1975). Their antagonists include the Black supervillain Thunderball, who Len Wein’s plot reveals in a sympathetic flashback had been working for Richmond Enterprises when he developed a hand-held gamma bomb ten times as powerful as Bruce Banner’s but “Richmond’s righthand man, Pennysworth,” patented it for the company giving him no credit or compensation.

Whatever Len Wein may have intended in #15, Gerber reveals in #25 that Pennysworth, profitably investing Nighthawk’s millions, is the financial mastermind behind the Sons of the Serpent. After tracking him down and confronting him, Nighthawk shouts: “how could you do what you did — — to your own people?!?”

Pennysworth explains: “Do you think me despicable, sir — for turning on my “brothers” and “sisters”? Before you answer, ask yourself — is every White man your “brother”? Do you feel kinship with him — because your skins are the same color? Of course, you don’t! Why should you? Why should I?”

Nighthawk: “B-but I don’t go out and murder people because they’re White, either!”

Pennysworth: “Ah. But you hold stocks in companies which gouge the public of millions each year — and in firms that pollute the air and water — and in –but need I go on, sir? You never objected to those investments. Never even asked where the money was. On that basis, I assumed —

Nighthawk: “That I wouldn’t object to plunging the nation into civil war?!?”

Pennysworth: “Yessir — if it would help increase your fortune.”

This isn’t the first or last time Marvel implicated a non-White character in a story about White supremacists (much more on that later). For right now I want to take a closer look at the words themselves.

All of the letters in Pennysworth’s and Nighthawk’s above dialogue were rendered by Ray Holloway. He lettered all of The Defenders #25 . Holloway had worked at Marvel since the early 40s when Martin Goodman’s company was still called Timely. Artist Allen Bellman said in a 2016 comics panel: “We had one black artist, Ray Holloway. He was a freelancer and he did a comic strip Scorchy Smith for the Associated Press. There was no animosity against color. I never heard anybody say or use the N-word. Some guys were nasty, but, eh….” (The Monomythic blogger adds in passive voice: “And with that, the subject changed.”)

Judging from a staff photo printed in Alter Ego #18, Holloway was still the only Black employee in the 50s. Stan Goldberg is in the photo too. He had started at Marvel, then called Atlas, as a color artist in 1949: “You know, all those years that Stan put credits on the book, he never mentioned the colorists. The writers, pencilers, inkers, and letterers got credit, but not the colorists. I thought about saying something about it once because it bothered me, but I didn’t. If the letterer got credit, so should the colorist. I personally thought the colorist was more important than the letterer.”

Goldberg left Marvel in 1969 to work for DC and Archie. In 1975, when Defenders #25 was on stands, he was drawing the Archie Sunday newspaper comic strip. Early 70s Marvel includes work by Black artists Billy Graham, Ron Wilson, Wayne Howard, Keith Pollard, and Arvell Jones. I’m having trouble finding any credits for Ray Holloway other than his Marvel lettering (which sometimes appeared on covers). He’s not listed for Scorchy Smith, which ran in newspapers from 1930 to 1961, but that could just mean his work was uncredited. A prominent Black artist, Alvin Hollingsworth, drew the strip in the 50s, but I’ll treat that as coincidence.

These are definitely Holloway’s letters though:

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