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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Earlier this month I overviewed the Second Wave origins of Jane Foster, Carol Danvers, and Jenifer Walters. This week their characters transform even further.

Captain Marvel

Because Captain Marvel never became a popular character (Marvel published Captain Marvel only every other month before cancelling the series after #62 [May 1979]), Marvel allowed Jim Starlin to script and pencil the 1982 graphic novel Death of Captain Marvel, in which Mar-Vell dies of cancer.

Unlike the vast majority of superheroes whose apparent deaths are retconned as non-deaths, Mar-Vell is likely the only major Marvel superhero not to be restored after more than forty years. The editorial decision prompted Marvel to create a new character, presumably to maintain control of the trademark. Scripter Roger Stern and penciler John Romita, Jr. introduced Monica Rambeau in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (October 1982) who transforms into an unrelated superhero and adopts the name “Captain Marvel” with no apparent reference to Mar-Vell.

Though Third Wave feminism begins several years later (arguably when Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989), because Rambeau is a Black woman, she reflects the later shift away from feminism focused primarily on white women. The vast majority of Marvel’s female superheroes, however, remained white.

After featuring Rambeau in The Avengers during the 80s, Marvel changed the character’s superhero name multiple times, applying “Captain Marvel” to other characters (including briefly Mar-Vell’s son, Genis-Vel), before Carol Danvers (who had also undergone multiple name changes) was rechristened “Captain Marvel” in scripter Kelly Sue DeConnick’s and penciller Dexter Soy’s Captain Marvel #1 (September 2012).

Deepening Danvers’ claim to her new name, scripter Margaret Stohl further retconned Danvers’ origin beginning in The Life of Captain Marvel #1 (September 2018), revealing that the Kree device that Thomas scripted in 1969 and that Conway retconned in 1977 to have duplicated Mar-Vell’s powers in Danvers had instead awakened Danvers’ own powers inherited from her Kree mother who had defected and lived as an Earth woman.

Ms. Marvel

Since Danvers’ assuming the name “Captain Marvel” left the name “Ms. Marvel” unused, editor Sana Amanat assigned scripter G. Willow Wilson and penciller Adrian Alphona to create Kamala Kahn in Ms. Marvel #1 (February 2014).

Like Amanat, Kahn is a New Jersey teenager of Pakistani immigrants. Because Kahn idolizes Carol Danvers, when her Inhuman superpowers emerge, she initially shapeshifts to look like Danvers (in the Ms. Marvel costume introduced by artist Dave Cockrum in 1978) before assuming an appearance of her own (which included the scarf of John Buscema’s original 1977 design).

Thor

Later the same year, Jane Foster assumed the title role in scripter Jason Aaron’s and penciller Russell Dauterman’s Thor Vol. 4, #1 (Oct. 2014), which replaced the previous Thor series that had featured the original character (though Thor’s Donald Blake identity had been discarded since 1983).

After Thor’s hammer chose Foster, she assumed the name “Thor” when in her superhero form, and Thor became known by the full name “Thor Odinson,” retconning “Thor” as having always been an abbreviation of that full name. Aaron’s Foster now calls him “Odinson,” explaining to him as she succumbs to cancer:

‘There must always be a Thor.’ That’s what I said right before I lifted Mjolnir and was transformed for the first time. I was honored to carry that mantle for a while. Honored that you bestowed upon me your own name. But it’s time you reclaimed who you are. […] There must always be a Thor. And now … once again … it must be you. […]  The hammer made me the Thunderer. But not you. You did that yourself. Odinson, look at me …”

Foster remains the title character until Mighty Thor Vol 2 #706 (June 2018), when she dies (though soon resurrected), and Thor Odinson returns beginning Thor Vol. 5 #1 (August 2018).

She-Hulk

After her initial series, The Savage She-Hulk, concluded on #25 (March 1982), Jennifer Walters appeared in multiple team titles and eponymous titles, including: The Sensational She-Hulk #1-60 (May 1989-February 1994), She-Hulk #1-12 (May 2004-April 2005), She-Hulk Vol. 2 #1-38 (December 2005—April 2009), and She-Hulk Vol. 3 #1-12 (April 2014-April 2015).

All-New Savage She-Hulk #1-4 (June 2009-September 2009) features a different character (a time-traveling Hulk descendant from an alternate future timeline) in the title role. Marvel had also introduced Red Hulk in 2008 and Red She-Hulk in 2009, expanding “Hulk” as a category rather than as a proper name.

When Walters assumed the title role in Mariko Tamaki’s Hulk Vol. 4 #1-11 (February 2017-December 2017), it was the first time she was featured in a series without She-Hulk in its title, and also the first time a Hulk title did not feature Banner, who at the time was dead (and not yet resurrected).

The trend continued with Totally Awesome Hulk #1-23 (February 2016-November 2017), which featured Amadeus Cho (who removed the Hulk from Banner and placed it himself) in the title role, after which the original character was known as “Banner Hulk,” appearing next in Generations: Banner Hulk & Totally Awesome Hulk #1 (October 2017).

As with Jane Foster who is no longer called “Thor” (Foster is currently “Valkyrie,” another superhero name and identity with a complex history I won’t try to cover here), Jennifer Walters is no longer called “Hulk.” Reverting back to her earlier name, Walters was next featured in She-Hulk #159-163 (January 2018-May 2018) and currently in She-Hulk Vol. 4 beginning with #1 (March 2022). The latest title coincides with the Disney+ series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law, which premiered in August 2022. She-Hulk Vol. 4 #12 is scheduled to be released in April 2023.

Reboots

The MCU versions of Foster, Danvers, Walters, and Kahn are reboots of these originals, condensing and altering their complex comics and inconsistently feminist histories.

In all four cases, the original superhero name (Hulk, Thor, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel) began as a proper noun that referenced one specific (and usually male) character, before the name later became either a transferable title referencing one person (of any gender) at a time or a kind of category referencing two (or more) people (of any gender).

  • “Hulk” originally meant only Banner Hulk, but now “Banner Hulk” means only Banner Hulk, and “Hulk” means multiple people including both Banner Hulk and Jenifer Walters.
  • “Thor” originally meant only “Thor Odinson,” but now “Thor Odinson” means only Thor Odinson, and “Thor” can mean different people including formerly Jane Foster and currently Thor Odinson.
  • “Captain Marvel” originally meant only Mar-Vell, but now “Captain Mar-Vell” means only Mar-Vell, and “Captain Marvel” can mean different people including formerly Mar-Vell and currently Carol Danvers.
  • “Ms. Marvel” originally meant only Carol Danvers, but now “Ms. Marvel” can mean different people including formerly Carol Danvers and currently Kamala Khan.

While the trend is toward gender-inclusive names (with “Hulk,” “Thor,” and “Captain Marvel” formerly male-specific but now gender-neutral), “Ms. Marvel” was and remains female-specific. That’s an artefact of the title originally meaning roughly “female version of Captain Marvel,” just as “She-Hulk” meant something like “female version of Hulk.”

Oddly in the MCU, Carol Danvers never used the name “Ms. Marvel,” and, even more oddly, neither does Kamala Kahn. Ms. Marvel is the title of a TV series whose main character never adopts a permanent superhero name. So the MCU includes Ms. Marvel but not Ms. Marvel.

Marvel Entertainment also chose to keep Jenifer Walters superhero name “She-Hulk,” despite Tamaki’s 1917 Hulk comics influence on the TV series. As a result, the MCU is arguably a feminist wave behind Marvel Comics.

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Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity. But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men — yes, Black men as well as white men — would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds. But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children. It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges. But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends. So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little Black boys and Black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day. This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring. And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

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With the death of Black Widow and the supervillaining of Scarlet Witch, the MCU currently features only four major female superheroes, all recently introduced.

Captain Marvel (2019), one the last films in Marvel Entertainment’s so-called Phase Three projects, fully introduced Carol Danvers. Phase Four featured Jane Foster in Thor: Love and Thunder (2022), Kamala Khan in the Disney+ series Ms. Marvel (2022), and Jenifer Walters in the Disney+ series She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022).

I’m tempted to compare the MCU superwomen with the Fourth Wave of feminism, in part because Fourth Wave is largely a continuation of the Third Wave, much as Marvel’s Phase Four is a continuation of its Phase Three. But Phase Four owes far more to Second Wave feminism.

Though feminist waves are not dated consistently, Second Wave is typically understood to span from the early 1960s (President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law in June 1963) through the 1970s and 1980s, stopping before the 1990s. The male superheroes Hulk, Thor, and Captain Marvel, as well as two of the three female characters who later assume those names, originate in early 1960s comics, but few reflected any feminist attitudes during their first incarnations.

Banner, Blake, and Mar-Vell

The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), cover-dated five months after the premiere of Fantastic Four, introduced the second superhero title under publisher Martin Goodman’s newly renamed Marvel comics. After caught in the radiation of a Gamma bomb detonation, Bruce Banner transforms into a “man-monster” with a distinct and separate identity.

Stan Lee scripts a pursuing soldier: “Fan out, men! We’ve got to find that – that Hulk!” Lee’s narrator responds: “And thus, a name is given to Bruce Banner’s other self, a name which is destined to become – immortal!”

Marvel followed the Hulk with Spider-Man in Amazing Fantasy #15 (August 1962) and Thor in Journey into Mystery #83 the same month. For Thor, Lee and penciller Jack Kirby created Don Blake, a doctor with a disability (Lee uses the adjective “lame”) who discovers an enchanted cane that transforms into a hammer with the etched explanation: “Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall possess the power of … THOR.” The hammer also transforms Blake’s body (Kirby draws muscular bare arms and long wavy hair) and clothing (Kirby combines superhero cape and briefs with nominally Nordic boots and winged helmet). Despite the physical changes, Blake’s consciousness remains. After reading the inscription, he remarks: “Thor!! The legendary god of thunder!! The mightiest warrior of all mythology!! This is his hammer!! And I – I am Thor!!!”

Lee was apparently influenced by the pseudonymous Wright Lincoln‘s “Thor, God of Thunder” published in Fox Comics’ Weird Comics #1-5 (April 1940–August 1940), in which the Norse god decides: “I will invest an ordinary mortal with my great powers.”

The absence of a separate Thor grew increasing complex in the Lee and Kirby stories, with the transformed Blake visiting Asgard and interacting with characters who understand him to be the actual son of Odin, including Odin himself. Lee also scripted the character’s speech in faux Old English, further blending Blake and Thor. Eventually, Lee and Kirby retconned an explanation, revealing in Thor #159 (December 1968) that Odin had erased Thor’s memory and created the mortal identity of Don Blake: “Yet ever were thou son of Odin … though thou knew it not! Twas I who placed thy hammer in an earthly cave … so thou wouldst one day find it! … And find it though didst … when thy lesson had been learned!”

One of the last of Lee’s co-creations, Captain Marvel first appeared in Marvel Super-Heroes #12 (December 1967).

An unrelated Superman-derivative character of the same name had premiered in Fawcett Comics’ Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940), prompting DC to sue for copyright infringement.

When the legal dispute was finally settled in 1953 and Fawcett agreed to cease publishing the character, the market for superhero comics was decimated.

In 1966, after DC and Marvel had revitalized the genre, a third company, M.F. Enterprises, released a new Captain Marvel title featuring an unrelated superhero to capitalize on the now popular Marvel Comics name. Marvel responded by introducing their own Captain Marvel to secure a trademark claim. Unlike the Fawcett original, Lee and penciller Gene Colan’s Captain Marvel was literally a captain (in the military of the alien Kree race) with the last name “Mar-Vell,” which human characters interpret as “Marvel.” Gil Kane updated his costume in Captain Marvel #17 (October 1969).

Foster, Danvers, and Walters

Lee, Kirby, and co-scripter Larry Lieber (Lee’s brother) introduced Jane Foster as a love interest in Thor’s second issue, Journey into Mystery #84 (September 1962), in a variation on the superhero-formula triangle relationship established by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in Action Comics in 1938. The Clark-Kent-like Dr. Blake secretly pines for his assistant nurse, who, fooled by Blake’s double identity, secretly pines for him and yet also for the hypermasculine Thor. Like Siegel and Shuster’s Kent, Lee and Kirby’s Blake feigns cowardice, explaining his absence during Thor’s heroics: “I was … ahh …. hiding behind the execution wall! I figured it was he safest place to be!” Foster expresses her disappointment in a thought bubble: “Hiding! Golly, why couldn’t you be brave and adventurous like — Thor!”

After Lee scripted Captain Marvel’s premiere, Roy Thomas took over the series, collaborating with Gene Colan when creating Carol Danvers in the subsequent issue, Marvel Super-Heroes #13 (March 1968). A U.S. general introduces her: “This is Miss Danvers! Man or woman, she’s the finest head of security a missile base could want!” Though the professional position of authority contrasts Foster’s assistant role when introduced six years earlier, Danvers narratively still serves as a Louis-Lane-derivative love interest, attracted to Captain Marvel while unaware of his secret identity when he poses as an earth man she is indifferent to. Mar-Vell also spends a lot of his superheroic time rescuing her.

As the women’s rights movement gained prominence in the early and mid-70s, Marvel introduced a range of female characters (Valkyrie, The Cat, Shanna the She-Devil, Satana, Tigra, Colleen Wing, Misty Knight, Storm, Red Guardian) and heightened older ones. A re-costumed Black Widow received her own series beginning in Amazing Adventures #1 (August 1970), and scripter Chris Claremont transformed Marvel Girl into the far more powerful Phoenix in Uncanny X- Men #101 (October 1976).

In Ms. Marvel #1 (January 1977), scripter Gerry Conway and penciller John Buscema reconceived Carol Danvers as the editor of Women Magazine, an allusion to Gloria Steinman’s Ms. magazine launched in 1972. Conway’s Danvers explains her career change: “Captain Marvel’s appearance at the Cape – and my inability to capture him – just about destroyed by security field career. I kept trying to hold it together, until I finally went back to my first love – writing.”

Danvers also suffers from migraines and black-outs, becoming a female version of Captain Marvel (Buscema’s costume design reproduces Mar-Vell’s, except with bare legs, stomach, and back) who is equally unaware of her double identity. When asked whether she has a name, she answers: “I don’t think I do!”

Though the title prefix “Ms.” was first proposed in 1901, and activist Sheila Michaels had been promoting it since 1961, it did not gain popular attention until Michaels was interviewed on a New York radio show in 1969, and Steinman and organizers of the Women’s Strike for Equality began promoting it the following year (Zimmer 2009). Danvers adopts “Ms. Marvel” by the end of her first adventure, and Conway later retcons an incident from Captain Marvel #18 (November 1969)  in which Thomas had scripted Mar-Vell rescuing Danvers from an exploding alien device, now revealing that Danvers had absorbed his alien abilities as a result.

Dave Cockrum redesigned her costume for Ms. Marvel #20 (October 1978).

Marvel introduced the premise of Jane Foster becoming Thor a year later in What If #10 (August 1978). Scripter Don Glut described the series as “just one-shots” that came about at parties: “We’d get a little bit happy and someone would say something like, “Hey! What if Spider-Man had two heads?” (Imageantra). Glut recalled the question and eventual issue title “What If Jane Foster Had Found the Hammer of Thor?” emerging from such a conversation with Rick Hoberg, who later penciled the story. Glut’s recollection also implies that the notion of a female Thor was as outlandish as a two-headed male superhero.

For What If #7 (February 1978), Glut and Hoberg had imagined that three different characters, including Spider-Man’s first girlfriend, Betty Brant, “had been bitten by the radiative spider.” Spider-Girl, the lone female variant, initially avoids using her super-strength but then accidentally kills a criminal and so chooses to end her superhero career.

Hoberg’s female Spider costume includes bare legs, arms, shoulders, upper chest, and cleavage, but he draws Thordis in a costume closer to Kirby’s original (her legs are bare, and two of the previously decorative chest circles are now protruding breast armor).

The Jane Foster What If issue title also avoids the question of identity by focusing on Foster finding the hammer rather than on her becoming Thor. As originally scripted, when Lee’s Blake transformed, he vacillated ambiguously between two identities. Glut scripts Foster to draw a different conclusion: “Obviously, if I’ve got Thor’s powers now, I’m not really Jane Foster … so maybe I should call myself something else. I remember from nursing school a Norwegian girl named Thordis; that has a nice sound to it. All right, then … that’s what I’ll call myself – Thordis!!”

Ultimately, Odin requires Jane to “surrender” the hammer because “ownership of Mjolnir hath ages ago been decreed by fate.” After the hammer transforms Blake into Thor and Odin restores his memory, Thor is united with his Asgardian love interest, Lady Sif.

Odin has also transformed Foster into a goddess as reward for her service, and she weeps over the “cruel joke” of being “made an immortal only to suffer an eternity — — separated from the man I love.”

She asks to be made mortal again, but Odin instead proposes marriage to her, which she accepts, realizing in the concluding full-page panel “that those very qualities she admired and loved in the mortal Don Blake — — are also to be found in the father of the immortal Thor.”

Jennifer Walters premiered two years later in The Savage She-Hulk #1 (February 1980). As with Captain Marvel twelve years earlier, Stan Lee and penciller John Buscema created the character for copyright reasons. The TV series The Incredible Hulk began airing in 1977, and Marvel feared that producer Kenneth Johnson, who had created the spin-off series The Bionic Woman from a character originally introduced on The Six Million Dollar Man, would create a female Hulk.

Acknowledging the Marvel character, Johnson later explained in an interview that “we had plans for Banner’s sister having a disease where only the blood of a sibling would save her life. We weren’t going to do a bra-popping She-Hulk, but we were going to do a woman Hulk who was crazy and scary and dangerous” (inverse.com). The character would have appeared in the fifth season—but the series was cancelled mid-season in 1982, two years after Marvel debuted their version of “a woman Hulk.”

In Lee’s script, Walters is Banner’s younger cousin, a retconned character who Banner calls “Little Jen” but who he hasn’t seen since before he “quit med school for nuclear physics,” so prior to The Incredible Hulk #1. Walters is also a “big time criminal lawyer” with “Jennifer Walters ATTN” on her office door.

Because she planted a rumor about having murder evidence, she is shot by a hitman while leaving her office, prompting Banner to perform an emergency transfusion. Walters reflects in the final panel: “The blood transfusion must have caused it!”

Like Banner whose transformed self was named descriptively, Walters is described by an onlooker: “It’s a girl! But — look at the size of her! Her skin! It’s – it’s green!  It’s like — she’s some kind’a She-Hulk!” She adopts the name: “whatever Jennifer Walters can’t handle – the She-Hulk will do!”

Though “Hulk” remains a proper name referencing Banner’s alter ego, like the 1974-78 TV series Police Woman or DC’s “Lady Cop” in 1st Issue Special #4 (July 1975), “She-Hulk” distinguishes the character as a female variant of a nominally ungendered but implicitly male category.

(Next week: Third Wave Rechristenings!)

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I’m typing this on January 2nd, at the start of a final day in Kochi, India, before flying tonight and all day tomorrow to arrive back home tomorrow on January 2nd. That temporal diptych is made possible by the gutter of the international date line.

The diptychs below are divided by no gutters, but accepting my own default right-to-left and top-to-bottom reading paths, each is sequenced and so is in the comics form. If this blog counts as an occasional publisher of comics, they’re in the comics medium too, and so are webcomics, as well as photocomics. Most are not (or at least not primarily) narrative though, since each juxtaposition suggests different kinds of visual and thematic relationships.

When I began researching superheroes over a decade ago, one of the earliest texts I found was an obscure British penny-dreadful about Spring-Heeled Jack — an orientalist character supposedly born in India. Like other orientalist texts, this one has absolutely nothing to do with any actual place. But since I am currently traveling in India with my family, I thought I would schedule a post from the Spring-Heeled Jack section of my 2013 article “The Imperial Superhero,” later revised into a chapter for Superhero Comics (2017).

Summarizing the postcolonial critique of nineteenth-century British literature, Ania Loomba declares “no work of fiction written during that period, no matter how inward-looking, esoteric or apolitical it announces itself to be, can remain uninflected by colonial cadences” (2005: 73). The claim applies particularly to the body of literature that produced the pre-comics superhero. Emerging as a sub-genre of juvenile literature, the character type is an amalgamated product of several pre-existing and overlapping genres—juvenile fantasy, adventure, science fiction, detective fiction—each with its own nineteenth-century colonialist ties.

Daphne Kutzer laments how scholars too often ignore children’s texts and their role in forming a “national allegory,” texts which from the late nineteenth century to early World War II “encourage child readers to accept the values of imperialism” (2000: xiii). Jo-Ann Wallace identifies “the rise of nineteenth-century colonial imperialism” with “the emergence of … a ‘golden age’ of English children’s literature,” a genre of “primarily … fantasy literature” (1994: 172), with the term “imperialism” coming into popular use during this fantasy age’s middle decade of the 1890s (Eperjesi 2005: 7). Edward Said also cites “fantasy” as a primary example of “generically determined writing” that produces and shares orientalism’s “cumulative and corporate identity” (1978: 202). Fantasy is especially conducive to imperialist projections, as Elleke Boehmer emphasizes “the way in which the West perceived the East as taking the form of its own fantasies” (2005: 43). When defining “colonial literature,” Boehmer offers H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 lost world fantasy adventure King Solomon’s Mines as her representative example of a novel “reflecting a colonial ethos” and “the quest beyond the frontiers of civilization” as a defining motif of all colonial literature (2). Jeffrey Richards views adventure literature as “not just a mirror of the age but an active agency” that energized and validated “the myth of empire as a vehicle for excitement, adventure and wish-fulfillment through action” (1989: 2–3). John Rieder similarly observes how “the Victorian vogue for adventure fiction in general seems to ride the rising tide of imperial expansion,” while “the period of the most fervid imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth century is also the crucial period for the emergence of” science fiction (2008: 4, 2–3). Patricia Kerkslake reads science fiction as an exploration of “the notion of power formed within the construct of empire, especially when interrogated by the general theories of postcoloniality” (2007: 3). Caroline Reitz applies a parallel approach to detective fiction, reading the figure of the detective “as a representative of the British Empire” who rose in popularity as Victorian national identity shifted “from suspicion of to identification with the imperial project” (2004: xiii). Dudley Jones and Tony Watkins critique not only the adventure story for its associations “with colonizing pioneers and ethno-centric notions of racial superiority” (2000: 13), but the multi-genre figure of the hero whose “notions of exemplary value … influenced children’s literature through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth” and whose “moral virtues … were always articulated through the ideological frameworks of gender, imperialism, and national identity” (4). By combining these genres, the superhero is a depository and melding point for a multitude of imperial tropes and attitudes.

The earliest known manifestation is Spring-Heeled Jack who, paralleling Britain’s expansion from an empire of chartered entrepreneurs to one of direct governance, appeared in “at least a dozen plays, penny dreadfuls, story paper serials, and dime novel stories” (Nevins 2005: 821). Inspired by sensational newspaper accounts of a demonic assailant, John Thomas Haines brought the character to stage in 1840, followed by Alfred Coates’s 1866 penny dreadful. Alfred S. Burrage reimagined the character for two serials, the first also in 1886. John Springhall lists Spring-Heeled Jack among several highly popular penny dreadful characters (1994: 571), part of what Sheila Egoff identifies as a “brand of fantasy” that grew because boys “had little else to read in the adventure line after they had read Robinson Crusoe” (1980: 414). “In format, illustration, content, and popularity,” writes Egoff, such serial stories in boys’ sensational magazines “were matched only by the rise and influence of the comic book in the mid-twentieth century” (413). Peter Coogan acknowledges the character as the first “to fulfill the core definitional elements of the superhero” (2006: 177), and Jess Nevins declares him “the source of the 20th century concept of the dual identity costumed hero” (2005: 822).

It is striking then how deeply Spring-Heeled Jack is immersed in colonial narratives. In Alfred Burrage’s first treatment, Jack’s father is “a younger son” who “as was frequently the case in those days … had been sent out to India to see what he could do for himself” (1885: unpaginated). “[F]ortunes could be made in India by any who had fair connection, plenty of pluck, and plenty of industry,” and so Jack’s father “managed to shake the ‘pagado tree’ to a pretty fair extent,” resulting in his ownership of “plantation after plantation in the Presidencies.” After his death, the family’s lawyer plots with Jack’s cousin to cheat Jack of his inheritance, including “the Indian plantations.” The outlying colonial possessions both initiate the plot and provide its fantastical solution. Jack explains:

“I had for a tutor an old Moonshee, who had formerly been connected with a troop of conjurers … this Moonshee taught me the mechanism of a boot which … enabled him to spring fifteen or twenty feet in the air, and from thirty to forty feet in a horizontal direction.”

With the aid of this “magical boot” which “savoured strongly of sorcery,” Jack robs his enemies until his inheritance is restored. The old Moonshee (or munshi, an Urdu term for a writer which became synonymous with clerks and secretaries during British rule) is the first incarnation of Wonderman’s turbaned Tibetan, both variants of the magical mentor type transposed to a colonial setting. In both cases, a Westerner takes an Asian’s fantastical object to gain power at the metropolitan center of the empire, or metropole. Although narratively a hero, “Jack, who had been brought up under the shadow of the East India Company, had not many scruples as to the course of life he had resolved to adopt. To him pillage and robbery seemed to be the right of the well-born.”

As one of the first dual-identity heroes, Jack also imports a secondary persona that is not only contrastingly alien to his primary self but magical and demonic. As Richard Reynolds observes of the comic’s superhero character type: “His costume marks him out as a proponent of change and exoticism,” but because of his split self he “is both the exotic and the agent of order which brings the exotic to book” (1992: 83). Robert Young similarly notes how many nineteenth-century novels “are concerned with meeting and incorporating the culture of the other” and so “often fantasize crossing into it, though rarely so completely as when Dr Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde” (1995: 3). So complete a binary transformation, while rare in other genres, is one of the defining tropes of the comic’s superhero, where a Jekyll-controlled Hyde defines what Marc Singer identifies as “the generic ideology of the superhero” in which “exotic outsiders …work to preserve” the status quo (2002: 110).

Jack’s relationship to the racial Other expresses itself beyond his Indian-powered and devil-inspired disguise. Due to his colonial childhood, Jack is no longer simply European: “‘I am not yet sixteen, but, thanks to my Oriental birth, I look more like twenty.’” He has been altered by living away from his empire’s center. Jack has absorbed an element of the alien, a dramatization of how imperial culture is inevitably altered by the cultures it dominates. Looking at recent conventions in science fiction, Kerslake proposes that “extreme travel must render the traveler into a different form” as “a component of Othering” (2007: 17). If “the place of departure is the traveler’s cultural ‘centre,’” Kerslakes asks “how far a person must now proceed before he or she reaches the indefinable edge of a nebulous periphery” or, more simply, “At what point do we become Other?” (18). The figure of the superhero embodies this question.

Spring-Heeled Jack also established the trope of the non-European mentor of a European protagonist, one more widely popularized by Kipling’s 1901 Kim, a novel Said classifies with works of Conan Doyle and Haggard in “the genre of adventure-imperialism” (1993: 155). Kipling depicts “a guru from Tibet” who needs an English boy in order to achieve his life quest, and Kim in turn treats him “precisely as he would have investigated a new building or a strange festival in Lahore city. The lama was his trove, and he purposed to take possession” (Kipling 1998: 6, 13). While no superhero, Kim does, in Said’s analysis, possesses a “remarkable gift for disguise” and fulfills “a wish-fantasy of someone who would like to think that everything is possible, that one can go anywhere and be anything,” a “‘going native’” fantasy permissible only “on the rock-like foundations of European power” (1993: 158, 160, 161).

Spring-Heeled Jack emerged during England’s expansion as an imperial power and, after numerous Victorian publications, vanished during the British Empire’s transition from traditional colonies to self-governing but British-dominated settler nations. Australia gained dominion status in 1901, followed by Canada, Newfoundland, and New Zealand in 1907. Anxiety over this transition can be seen in Baroness Orczy’s 1905 The Scarlet Pimpernel—the most cited of early superhero texts—in which the plot-driving periphery contracts to France and the threat of a newly independent, democratic mob. Similarly, when Burrage reinvented Spring-Heeled Jack for his 1904 serial, he removed the character from his Indian origins and recast him in relationship to the Napoleonic wars. The post-Victorian serial was discontinued before it reached narrative closure (Nevins 2005: 824). Martin Green argues that “Britain after 1918 stopped enjoying adventure stories” because such narratives “become less relevant and attractive to a society which has ceased to expand and has begun to repent its former imperialism” (1984: 4). In contrast, the United States continued as “a world ruler,” making the adventure story “a peculiarly American form” (4–5). The British Empire and the British superhero halted together, but the narrative type and its colonialist underpinnings were adopted by American authors as the United States pursued its own imperial ambitions.

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Obviously I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But here’s one reason for Democratic optimism, and one reason for utter uncertainty.

First, a look at the polls (as compiled by FiveThirtyEight):

Biden has been in close vicinity of 42% approval since late August. Nothing has moved the needle, including the unexpectedly strong midterms for the Democrats. If he remains there, his chances of winning seem very low — unless Trump wins the GOP nomination. Let’s assume Trump doesn’t win and Biden faces someone else (my strong guess is DeSantis). The question is: given his low approval at the midpoint of his first term, what could improve it?

Historical precedents offer an answer. Look at Obama (thanks again, FiveThirtyEight):

The green line is Biden’s approval rating, the black Obama’s. Though Biden’s is lower, both were under 50% at their first midterm. But notice that Obama’s rose shortly afterwards in 2010, and, with some significant fluctuation, he was above 50% in time for re-election, which he of course won.

Now look at Clinton:

It’s a similar pattern. Clinton was below 50% at his first midterm, and then his approval rose in 1994, well above 50% come re-election.

What do Obama and Clinton have in common?

The Democrats lost control of the House at both midterms. Afterwards Clinton and Obama both looked better with a split government, especially with a dysfunctionally conservative House. In terms of re-election, having Newt Gingrich as Speaker was a gift for Clinton in 1996, and Obama had the entire Tea Party to thank in 2012.

And now Biden is about to have Kevin McCarthy for Speaker — assuming McCarthy can muster enough support from his right flank by January 3rd when the House votes. Pelosi had her in-party challenges too, both in 2021 and 2019, so I’m betting McCarthy pulls through. Still, the GOP’s unexpectedly small majority means hard-right Reps. like Gaetz and Greene and and Gosar and Boebert have major leverage. That’s what drove John Boehner out in 2015, and Paul Ryan out in 2019.

McCarthy is already struggling. The updates are daily and media-wide:

That last one gives McCarthy a 12% approval rating. The composite polls at Real Clear Politics are kinder with a 22% average, but that is still significantly lower than Pelosi’s 35%.

So there’s reason to predict that Biden’s numbers will start to rise after McCarthy becomes Speaker of a newly GOP House on January 3rd (if GOP dysfunction prevents McCarthy from becoming Speaker then there’s even more reason).

But the Gingrich Effect isn’t the only factor, and it might not be the primary one.

Take a look at Reagan:

His first-term trajectory follows the same pattern as Clinton’s and Obama’s — but for different reasons. The 1982 midterms didn’t usher in a new House majority. Democrats had controlled and continued to control the House, though with an increase of 27 seats. Setting aside the fact that the two parties still varied ideologically then (there were liberal, moderate, and conservative members in each), Reagan didn’t gain a new House Speaker as a public opponent. Tip O’Neill began as Speaker with Carter (1977) and left office with Reagan (1987).

Reagan’s post-midterm rise was linked to something else.

From 1980 to 1983, the world suffered the worst recession since World War II. Oil prices spiked. Triggered by the Iranian Revolution, a gallon of gas went from 63 cents in 1978 to $1.19 in 1980 (or $2.85 to $4.25 in 2022 dollars). Inflation hit 13.5% in 1980. After a “double-dip” recession from July 1981 to November 1982 (the month of the midterm election), Reagan’s approval dropped to a low of 35% in January 1983.

But as the U.S. economy began to recover from the “Reagan Recession,” so did his popularity. Inflation fell to 3.2% in 1983. Unemployment fell from a high of 10.8% in December 1982 to 7.2% on 1984 election day.  Reagan’s reelection was tied to the economy.

What’s that say about Biden?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor of Statistic, in May 2020 (during the pandemic lockdown), inflation dropped to .1%, and then it steadily rose to a 9.1% high in June 2022, before lowering to 7.1% in November.

Triggered by Russian invasion of Ukraine, gas went from $3.26 in 2021 to $4.90 in 2022 (Hallman).

Though U.S. economy is probably not currently in recession (as defined by two consecutive quarters of a generally slowing economy), some predictors are pointing in that direction.

Will inflation continue to drop? Will the price of gas? Will the next quarter show an economic increase?

I have no idea. But I do predict that Biden’s 2024 prospects will be a direct reflection of economic happenstance. 2023 will likely be rocky, but if Biden starts primary season with a solid economy, and given the Gingrich Effect from the House GOP, he should win a second term.

If not, his approval rating is likely to remain as flat as Trump’s:

Apparently, I have no sense for the topic/post ratio on my own blog since this is now the fifth installment of a two-part look at The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970).

Last week I discussed how those two issues are altered when reprinted in black and white, especially for the representations of Black and White characters. Here’s another look at Monica Lynne (the tenth image of her in her first two pages in #73), a character I didn’t initially realize artist Frank Giacoia had intended to be Black:

I’ve been staring at these images for a long while now (sometimes through a digital microscope mounted to my phone), so I can no longer say with any certainty but I suspect I would have identified the race of the figure on the left as either White or racially ambiguous.

I’m less certain about the image embedded in the right panel. It’s intended to be a photograph – which adds a metafictional quality since the image is composed of the same black marks as Lynne’s other representations, and the photograph’s border suggests a comics gutter. In terms of rendering style, the face in the photograph is more detailed, though not significantly so. If I saw the two images in a different context, I’m not sure I would identify them as the same person. I want to say the photograph face is slightly more suggestive to me of a Black face. I suspect that’s due to the drawn qualities of the nostrils (which I think are just slightly wider than what I have been conditioned to expect from renderings of a White female face, where noses are sometimes rendered as if seemingly non-existent with diminutive black dots for nostrils) and the lower lip (which is drawn to extend slightly lower than I might expect, though the quality is difficult to distinguish from the “full lips” of White feminine beauty, which is even more racially complicated).

But any racial ambiguity vanishes with the original color art:

I was emailing a lot with color expert Guy Lawley a few months back, and he very kindly studied these (and many other images) under his own (and much better) microscope to determine the color breakdowns.

Monica Lynne on the left has skin colored 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan (or “YR3B2” in c. 1970 printer speak) and hair 100% cyan. Those are the colors used for every Black character in the two-issue arc, including the multiply portrayed Montague Hale and Black Panther when unmasked (which is unusually often in this story), as well as several unnamed background characters who make only one or two appearances (any slight differences are likely due to the poor and varying quality of my digital reproductions):

Monica Lynne is different in the photograph.

There her skin is 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), with hair 25% magenta and 50% cyan (“R2B3”). Her irises are colored the same as her skin, and her lips the same as her hair. The uncredited colorist also added paler streaks (25% magenta, 25% cyan) in the photograph’s border that aren’t part of the line art.

All three colors could be called variations of gray. Guy suggested “purplish-tinged gray,” “pale purple” or “lilac” for the hair and lips, noting that the addition of yellow to the skin creates a “richer warmer gray.”

The color art paradoxically turns the image into a representation of a black and white photograph. The line art is ambiguous, but since Lynne’s real face and photographed face are rendered similarly and with no indication of difference since the large areas of skin in both are the unmarked page, I suspect most viewers would perceive the photograph as a color photograph when reproduced in the black and white reprint.

The tilt of the image, as well as the villain’s thumb in the corner, establish that it is a photograph in the line art, producing no confusion. Presumably a color photograph would produce no confusion either, though perhaps someone—the colorist or Stan Lee as editor—feared it would. Thomas could have included the detail in his script too. If so, he may have had only the narrative effect in mind, being careful to distinguish the two images of Lynne appearing in the same row.

He or the uncredited colorist may also have been referencing earlier depictions of Black characters. Before about 1970, Black characters were colored in what could be called “gray.”

In The Avengers #32 (September 1966), when the KKK-inspired Sons of the Serpent made their first appearance, Stan Lee and artist Don Heck also introduced Bill Foster, a Black biochemist assisting Goliath. The uncredited colorist (probably Stan Goldberg) colored Foster’s skin 25% yellow, 25% magenta, 25% cyan (“Y2R2B2”).

Guy suggested calling that combination “pale brown,” “beige,” or “taupe.” It was used for the one other Black character in the same issue, an unnamed SHIELD agent (elsewhere called “Slim”).

It was also the standard color for Black characters in the comics medium generally in the 1960s and earlier.

Where the standard color for White skin (50% yellow, 25% magenta) produced a loosely naturalistic effect, the gray of Black skin seemed comparatively less human, with the 25% yellow distinguishing it only partially from the gray of machines and sidewalks.

There were exceptions.

Don Heck includes a full-panel close-up of Bill Foster in the next issue, which Goldberg colors the standard Black-denoting taupe, but because the face is atypically large, he raises the cyan from 25% to 50% for the ear and small areas of the face and hair to produce variations in shading. That’s 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), the color of Monica Lynne’s face in the black and white photograph. (Again, I am entirely indebted to Guy Lawley for identifying the exact color percentages and combinations.)

I’m not sure when exactly taupe skin was replaced, but it occurred somewhere between 1966 and 1970. The Avengers #73 includes a two-page recap of The Avengers #32-33, and the colorist instead gives Bill Foster the new standard for Black skin: 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan.

Raising yellow from 25% to 100% and magenta from 25% to 50% creates an equivalently naturalistic effect for Black skin as White skin. Since the change was not the result of any technological shift and so the more human color was always available, it is unclear why Marvel did not employ it sooner.

It also seems more than coincidental that taupe-colored Black people vanished during the cultural shifts of the late civil rights era.

It would help to know when exactly that change occurred. The closer it is to the publication of The Avengers #73 the more likely it seems to me that someone at Marvel was referencing it by coloring the photograph of Monica Lynne to evoke the recently replaced gray. Maybe more on that another time?

Meanwhile, since this post wouldn’t exist with out Guy Lawley, it seems fitting to give him the final insights:

“I would not be totally surprised to find that Thomas understood it as a visual pun on the theme of the story (‘this isn’t a simple B&W issue’ or somesuch) … I know this colour has been described (in this context, I would suggest, often mocked or – no pun intended – denigrated) as ‘grey’, but … I’m pretty certain that her grey colour in that panel was not intended as a reference to comics of old, and their far more simplistic / colonialist / racist depictions. … Thus ‘grey Monica’ while calling to mind the ‘grey depiction’ of Black skin in many 60s (and older) comics,- I fully agree with you there – actually demonstrates IMO a degree of distinction between ‘comic book grey(s)’ and ‘comic book taupe.’ … In other words, ‘grey Monica’ looking something like the older comic book depiction of black skin was more of a coincidence than a built-in commentary. But she is a certainly a gift to the contemporary comics scholar who wants to open up the issue… We might … see the grey photo as a rich metaphor for the more sophisticated level of story going on in Avengers 73/74; comics which surely can only benefit from a comparison with … so many older comics stories populated by grey African ‘natives’… And yes, as you imply, if such a comparison is to be drawn, both stories do need to be seen in a much longer context which includes plenty of grey ‘black’ skin.”

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This is the unintended fourth part of my two-part post on the KKK-like Sons of the Serpents’ second appearance in The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970).

I was initially using Essential Avengers Vol. 4, a black and white reprint collection of The Avengers #69-97 published in 2004. I figured it would be sufficient but then discovered that the line art created some unexpected ambiguities. I’d started looking at the issues as part of my examination of Marvel’s portrayal of White supremacy, which is part of a larger project about whiteness in the comics medium, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the odd overlaps of whiteness and Whiteness.

First consider these panels.

Scripter Roy Thomas and penciller Frank Giacoia created Monica Lynne for the Avengers story, and I assumed she was limited to it, though I later realized that she became a recurring Marvel character through the 70s (though I don’t think she’ll ever make it into the MCU Wakanda cast). She is introduced here by Dan Dunn on his late night show. Afterwards she talks to the other guest, Montague Hale, a Black activist who tries to enlist her help. When she refuses, I was surprised when Hale objects:

“You can’t mean that, girl! After what the establishment’s done to our people!”

I hadn’t realized Lynne was Black.

Here are three possible reasons why:

Giacoia’s drawings reflect the norms of simplified naturalism in superhero comics c. 1970, and since those norms construct feminine beauty as essentially White feminine beauty, he renders Lynne’s facial features in a way that I registered as generically White.

Alternatively, I am working with an implicit bias that a character is White unless drawn with a contradicting non-White racial marker.

Or maybe the off-white paper visible within the contour lines defining Lynne’s body influenced me to perceive White skin?

Giacioa’s hair design adds to the ambiguity, since the flipped bob could be worn be either a White or Black woman, and any distinguishing hair qualities are lost in the simplified rendering style.

I had pictured something like this:

But not this:

After I saw the color version I imagined Lynne’s hair differently:

I believe the uncredited colorist assigned Lynne’s skin solid yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan (“YR3B2” in printer speak), and the areas of her hair that are not opaque black in the line art are blue (solid cyan I think, though I need to check on that too). Those seem to be the race-denoting colors of Black people in Marvel comic books c. 1970. Since Giacoia knew that a colorist would be adding them, I wonder if he felt less need to render Lynne in a way that would suggest her race. If so, the line art is still influenced by the color art—even when the color art is absent in reprint.

I missed another Black character in the black and white version, a police officer identified as “Captain” in Thomas’s dialogue.

Here it’s unclear at what stage race was assigned. Lynne would have been identified as Black in Thomas’s script, and even earlier if he and Stan Lee had discussed the plot in advance. But Thomas could have left the police captain racially unspecified, leaving the decision to Giacoia while penciling. As with the black and white Lynne, I didn’t register the captain’s face as Black until looking at the color art. Again, that could just be my own implicit bias, but it’s also possible that Giacoia did not intend the captain to be Black and that the uncredited colorist, experiencing the facial features as racially ambiguous, chose Black skin. That decision could also have been Lee’s, especially since placing a Black character in a position of authority is significant in a story about racial politics. If so, Lee as editor could have inserted the detail at any stage of production, though I suspect it would have only come to his attention after Giacoia completed his pencils.

Note also that the hand of the officer reporting to the captain is White and so wholly a product of the color art. A Black hand would alter the connotative meaning of the image, with only Black police officers present in an investigation of the bombing of New York’s Equal Opportunity Bureau.  

I actively wondered about the race of one other character when viewing the line art. When Dunn and Hale are arguing during a live telecast, two men in the control booth have opposite reactions.

The character whom Sal Buscema (he took over line art in the second issue of the two-issue story arc) draws with White-suggesting hair supports Dunn, but the second character Buscema draws from behind, leaving his race ambiguous. Buscema gives the character hair that could be Black, and perhaps is meant to be Black, but I still experienced the image ambiguously.  

Thomas and Giacoia depict a similar moment earlier, with the opinions of two cameraman dividing the same way. But in that case, both cameramen appear White in Giacoia’s line art, and accordingly are colored White by the colorist. That earlier moment made me less likely to assume the race of the control-board character supporting Hale.

I was surprised that the colorist avoided the issue in the original publication by selecting colors that do not denote skin color.

Understood naturalistically, the blue and gray denote that the control room is unlit and so both men are obscured by shadows. Buscema’s line art, however, does not suggest this, and so the effect is a producet of the color art alone. It seems possible that the colorist (either acting under Lee’s instructions or not) was avoiding the implications of representing the second man’s race: if he is Black, the image shows a widening racial divide; if he is White, the image shows a political divide within White culture.

If the goal is ambiguity, it’s undermined by an earlier color decision. I missed this detail, but Guy Lawley pointed it out to me in an email: “we see the two guys in page 5 panel 1, coloured unambiguously.”

Each is placed in the background nearest the character they later support. Their heads are so small that Buscema’s art suggests nothing about race, but the colorist makes it explicit.

Again, it’s impossible to determine who made these decisions. Perhaps Lee wanted to obscure race and so had the colorist use shadowy blue and gray in the second image, but didn’t notice the race-denoting colors in the first panel.

The rest of the two issues, however, does not avoid representing race, usually because the line art designates it.

Page two includes Giacoia’s impression of “Africa” as Black Panther’s “airship” departs after a previous adventure and Thomas scripts Black Panther declaring: “They call it the dark continent … but now it blazes with the pulsing light of knowledge … of self-awareness!” Giacoia’s rendering of two figures, however, repeats absurd Tarzan-esque visual tropes of the 1930s. Unlike with Monica Lynne and the police captain, I instantly understood that both were intended to represent Black characters without the need of Black-denoting skin color.

Representations of contemporary Black characters rely on reductive visual markers too. Buscema draws a Black man on a New York sidewalk wearing a head band in contrast to an older White man wearing a fedora and glasses.

The young White man between them has an “A” on his jacket, suggesting a college jacket (despite the colorist later rendering it in greens), which may have been understood as distinguishingly White as is his parted hair. Thomas scripts the Black and White characters responding similarly to Vision, who passes through the street because: “I prefer not to walk among them!” The Black and White characters then are paradoxically unified by their shared othering of an android who has no race: “He ain’t White … and he sure ain’t Black!”

Yellowjacket must avoid a crowd too.

In this case, it seems that the colorist selected one child to be Black despite Buscema rendering what appears to be White hair. The three hands in the second panel are instead ambiguous, and the colorist chose the middle hand to be Black. And in the third panel, Buscema may have intended two of the children to be Black based on their hair, which the colorist followed, though the child in the foreground still appears to have White hair as rendered by Buscema though later colored Black-denoting blue.

Where line art can more easily leave race ambiguous through the absence of details understood to denote race, it is a requirement of color art (except when using shadow colors that may contradict an image’s naturalistic rendering) to make racial designations explicit. This is so despite actual skin color having no such properties, since the range of Black and White skin colors overlaps. It is the paradoxically non-naturalistic nature of color art — in contrast to the seemingly non-naturalistic nature of black and white line art — that produces the artificial visual impression of distinct racial categories.

Color art defines the stark lines of race in the comics medium.

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This is the unintended third part of my two-part post on the KKK-like Sons of the Serpents’ second Marvel appearance in The Avengers #73-4 (February-March 1970). As discussed, the story arc features two political TV celebrities, one white, one Black, secretly masterminding their “racist act” to manipulate the American public and gain powers for themselves.

Although artist Frank Giacoia’s Dan Dunn is not necessarily a portrait of William F. Buckley, Jr., the character seems to be his fictional counterpart.

Buckley’s PBS show Firing Line began airing weekly debates in 1966, at first with Buckley and his guest at distant podiums, but later in swivel chairs with feet sometimes touching. “Buckley designed the program to convert viewers to the conservative cause,” writes Heather Hendershot, and his “intention was to debunk the principles of Black Power,” since “to him, it represented the very worst of left-wing radicalism” (2014).

Buckley conceived the show after debating “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” with James Baldwin in Cambridge in 1965. Though Black guests on Firing Line were an exception, Buckley debated “Where Does the Civil-Rights Movement Go Now?” with James Farmer in 1966, “The Ghetto” with Kenneth Clark in 1967, and in 1968, “Was the Civil-Rights Crusade a Mistake?” with Godfrey Cambridge, “The Black Panthers” with Eldridge Cleaver, “The Republic of New Africa” with Milton Henry, and “The Negro Movement” with Muhammed Ali.

Roy Thomas places the events of The Avengers #73-4 after the July 20, 1969 moon landing (“as the biggest audience since the moon landing hears an exchange of even more importance to the home of the brave!”), and the February cover-date suggests that scripting began in fall of 1969. Though C. Eric Lincoln appeared on Firing Line in June to debate “Afro-American Studies” and John James Conyers in October to debate “Race and Conservatism,” neither the sociologist nor the congressman seem to be a counterpart to Marvel’s Montague Hale. Of Buckley’s guest list, Hale bears a close resemblance to Cleaver, though Hale has a tie, not an open collar. The resemblance is overt in #74 where Hale’s beard is most clearly a goatee.

Sal Buscema also took over from Giacio that issue and so presumably imitated Hale’s original design, while also sharpening the resemblance to Cleaver. Giacio sometimes drew what appears to be a full beard.

Still, it seems Buckley was the primary target of Marvel’s critique, balanced by a far more fictional Black foil. Hale is the host of “Black World,” a show with no real-world counterpart. According to Hendershot, “Black Power leaders were covered by TV news as crazed radicals,” and ironically “Firing Line provided an uncensored window into the movement that was difficult to find elsewhere on TV” (2014). Marvel’s critique then is not that Buckley was using media to promote his own conservative causes, but that he was doing so by providing a forum for “equally controversial” disagreement.

Buckley rarely invited guests back (Barry Goldwater appeared in 1966 and again in 1969), and never for three consecutive episodes as Dunn does with Hale. That’s because Marvel refigures their Buckley stand-in as a “late night host.”

The format was growing increasingly popular. In 1968 and 1969, the 11:30-1:00 time slot featured Johnny Carson on NBC and Joey Bishop on ABC, soon joined by Merv Griffin on CBS, that network’s first entry in the genre. Giacoia and Buscema do not draw Dan Dunn behind talk show host’s desk, but the small round table and its array of papers, ashtrays, and water glasses is only a slight variation and also a closer approximation to the Firing Line set. Thomas’s narrator explains that Dunn works for a “rival network,” and “Thus it was inevitable that the two giants would meet, as millions of insomniac Americans watched…!”

No real-world late shows reached the top fifty Nielsen rating slots in 1969, and the top show attracted an estimated 15 million viewers, compared to the 53 million who watched the moon landing. Hyperboles aside, Marvel seems alarmed by the increasing media reach of TV, and imagined an amalgam of Firing Line, late night shows, and record-breaking viewership as a potential threat to U.S. society. Instead of creating a new supervillain to personify that threat, Lee and Thomas revived Lee’s obscure KKK stand-in that had gone unused for four years. Thomas also revived Lee’s original unmasking plot twist in order to satirize both Buckley and his Black Power guests, most specifically Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Lee was also uncomfortable with the character Black Panther sharing a name with the organization and wanted to portray his Black Panther opposing an actual Black Panther Party leader.

Lee would later attempt to divide the superhero from the political group further by renaming him “Black Leopard” in Fantastic Four #119 (February 1972) with Roy Thomas scripting a politically moderate explanation: “I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name — but T’Challa is a law unto himself!”

The change was brief. When the character received his first series beginning in Jungle Action #10 (July 1974), he remained Black Panther.

Captain America #126 (June 1970), published three months after The Avengers #73-4, also offers a thematic epilogue to the Buckley-Cleavage story.

Stan Lee, with pencillers Gene Colan and John Romita (and Frank Giacoia now inking), brings Falcon back for a single issue after a six-month absence.  Captain America returns to Harlem to find that Falcon is wanted for murder, but he knows the allegations must be false: “He dedicated his life to fighting for justice … to helping his people … to helping anybody who was oppressed!”

Falcon soon explains that he’s been framed by a gang called the Diamond Heads: “They’re like a black version of the Klan! All they preach is hate whitey! They’re dangerous fanatics! They don’t care who suffers … or who gets hurt! They can set our progress back a hundred years!” Lee’s words are especially memorable because he scripts them in the talk bubble Colan draws above Falcon while he is changing into Captain America’s costume to elude the police.

Reversing the Sons of the Serpent plot twist, the heroes reveal the leader, Diamond Head, to be a White gangster: “The worse it got … the sooner we could take over!”

Captain America laments: “Your Diamond-Head hoods didn’t even know – they were being used!”

After Captain America calls him “amigo,” Falcon concludes the issue: “Your skin may be a different color … but there’s no man alive I’m prouder to call … brother!”

That’s the kind of ending Lee wanted on Firing Line, but that Buckley would never provide.

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The new Shenandoah is live. I’ve served four years as comics editor now, and each issue has been an expanding preliminary response to the question: What is a literary comic?

I still don’t have a complete answer yet, but I know that checking Shenandoah‘s submission page won’t help. In order to throw the widest net of possibilities, the portal guidelines include no definition, only an aside that comics “can be in black and white or color” (which is more about technology than aesthetics).

But in one sense, the question is easy. If defined by medium, a literary comic is any comic published by a literary publisher. Since Shenandoah is a literary journal, anything listed under “Comics” in the table of contents is a literary comic. The new issues features nine by six creators:

I suspect some viewers would not consider everything on that list a comic. That’s partly because “comic” has multiple overlapping meanings. For the purposes of Shenandoah, I happily entertain them all, requiring no common denominator other than image-based composition.

I recently published a book titled The Comics Form, but not all of these publication-defined literary comics are in the comics form (which I define as sequenced images). David Sheskin‘s, for instance, is a single image (and so not sequenced):

Neither are Sarah J. Sloat‘s four erasures. Each combines words (left exposed from an otherwise obscured page of text) with collaged images. If the collage is perceived as a set of distinct images, then they could also be sequenced and so in the comics form. I happen to perceive each page as a unified whole.

Formally, Kathleen Radigan‘s five-page “The Cloud” behaves more like a traditional comic — even though it is also a collage, combining drawings and photographs for a pleasantly discordant stylistic effect.

In her two-page “Prairie Psalm,” poet Despy Boutris explores the edge of minimalistic style, rendering her speaker as a stick figure within a 4×4 grid (which coincidentally was Joe Shuster’s layout preference in 1939 Action Comics).

Richard Bonhannon avoids human figures entirely, rendering his family memoir in maps in his twelve-page “The World Is Not My Home.”

At yet another stylistic extreme, Sija Ma‘s 35-page photo essay consists entirely of photographs, with no text. I suspect many viewers would not consider “A Hundred Stories” to be a comic, but since photographs are images and the images are sequenced, it is in the comics form.

Taken together, I don’t think these new works produce a coherent definition for “literary comic.” Fortunately, that’s not the goal, but it may be an eventual side effect as Shenandoah continues to publish two issues each year.

The next will be guest-edited by José Alaniz:

So please stay tuned!

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