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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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:

As I work on a new project tentatively titled “The Color of Paper: Representing Race in the Comics Medium,” new research questions keep emerging:

  • Do viewers decode race from skin color and facial features equally or is one more determining?
  • Does the use of metaphorical color to denote racial categories influence those perceptions?

In other words, does how we see Color shape how we see color?

Look at this drawing of a face. What race or ethnicity does it suggest to you?

I can’t give my first impression because I know the source material, but I’m guessing most viewers would say the face looks racially White. The interior, the unmarked area of the page surface the image is drawn on, is literally white. As far as the black marks that represents the facial features, I suspect most viewers, whether Black or White, would register the nose as White. The lips might be ambiguous since they may resemble the exaggerated drawing norm for generic “sexy female lips” more than any actual lips. And the eyes I suspect are probably too large and the eyebrows too non-naturalistic to suggest anything about a real-world person.

Now look at the same line art after its been inked and colored:

The interior area representing skin is now a mixture of browns, probably suggesting to most viewers that the figure is Black — if Black skin is a more significant racial marker than a White nose.

How might hair influence that perception?

In the line art version, the interior areas between the black lines representing hair are the white of the background surface, same as the interior of the face. The number of hair-representing lines may suggest hair color through density: the more black lines the darker the implied hair. The shape of the lines suggest qualities other than color, which could indirectly imply color too. The hair is not shaped like most Black hair. Whatever its specific represented color, I suspect most viewers would perceive it as falling in the range of White hair.

Now add color again:

The hair is white or silver, which further contradicts racial expectations if the figure is understood to be Black — which she typically is. The image is David Cockrum’s rendering of Storm from one of four variant covers of X-Men #100 (May 2000).

Viewers familiar with the character know she is intended to be Black, despite her having flowing white hair and White or ambiguous facial features. Viewers not familiar with the character would have to weigh those qualities against the contradictory brown skin to conclude anything about race.

So which is more defining: Black skin or White features? Researchers have been working for decades to answer those kinds of questions. Clearly, both skin color and physiognomy are important:

In “A Punishing Look: Skin Tone and Afrocentric Features in the Halls of Justice” published in American Journal of Sociology (Volume 122, Number 1), Ryan D. King and Brian D. Johnson analyzed “850 booking photos of black and white male offenders in two Minnesota counties” and “coded and then matched to detailed sentencing records,” concluding that “darker skin tone and Afrocentric facial features are associated with harsher sanctions” (90).

Storm is a combination of traits, what the study terms “intraracial heterogeneity.” Defendants who are coded as White in the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s sentencing records and who have “facial features that more closely resemble blacks are treated more harshly than other whites,” and “skin tone matters for white defendants insofar as complexion is confounded with perceived ethnicity,” probably because “whites with darker complexions are perceived by others to be of Hispanic or Latino origin” (110-111),

But what exactly are “facial features that more closely resemble blacks,” AKA “Afrocentric facial features”?

In “What’s in a face? The role of facial features in ratings of dominance, threat, and stereotypicality” published in Cognitive Research (2021, 6:53), Heather Kleider‑Ofutt and her co-authors confirm “previous work noting that a stereotypically Black face is some combination of a wide nose, full lips, and darker skin,” while clarifying “that a stereotypical [Black] face-type is a combination of wide nose and higher reflectance [a quantitative measure of skin color] and, to a lesser extent, full lips. Thus, a face is not likely to be judged as stereotypical based on full lips alone.”

That finding matches my impression of the first black and white version of Storm’s cropped face above. Cockrum’s drawing of “full lips” is racially ambiguous, and because the nose is not wide, viewers would probably not identify the face as Black.

So while both skin tone or facial features are important, it’s unclear if one is more influential:

In “The Development of White-Asian Categorization: Contributions from Skin Color and Other Physiognomic Cues” published in PLoS ONE (June 2016), Yarrow Dunham and his co-authors found that “while skin color and physiognomy were roughly equal contributors to White-Asian judgments, skin color was approximately four times as powerful a predictor of adult White-Black judgments. This likely reflects genuine differences in the features that are most diagnostic of the category boundary, validating the intuition that skin color is a less clear cue to the White-Asian than the White-Black category boundary. Indeed, young children showed a near-total reliance on skin color in the case of the Black-White racial distinction, but did reliably attend to physiognomic cues in the White-Asian case …”

Yet in “The role of skin colour in face recognition” published in Perception (2009, volume 38, pages 145-148), Yair Bar-Haimô, Talia Saidelô, and Galit Yovel conclude: “despite the notion that skin colour plays a major role in categorising faces into own and other-race faces, its effect on face recognition is minor relative to differences across races in facial features. In fact, other-race facial features appear to serve as a primary racial marker that reduces face recognition. And, only once a face is categorised as belonging to one’s own race on the basis of its features, colour becomes an additional component that modulates recognition.”

The example of Storm provides an additional complication that I’ve yet to see addressed in any research: she’s a drawing. The above studies used photographic and computer-manipulated images. None were simplified and exaggerated in the style of superhero comics art.

Cockrum designed Storm for her premiere in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975). She has the weather-controlling superpowers of Typhoon, one of several characters Cockrum intended for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. He told interviewer Peter Sanderson: “I had a girl who had wings but not out of her back: they were from her arms like bird’s. She was green and her name was Quetzal and she had long flowing hair. If you put Quetzal and Typhoon together you got kind of a strange version of Storm” (X-Men Companion, Fantagraphics 1982).

Quetzal and Typhoon would have appeared with a Black superhero named Trio whose hair, unlike Storm’s, Cockrum drew in a 70s-style afro. After leaving DC for Marvel in 1974, he designed another Black superhero with black but still racially ambiguous hair: “When I did up the original X-Men designs, one of the characters was called the Black Cat. Take a look at Storm without the white hair and without the cape, and that’s essentially the Black Cat. She had dark hair which was sort of like Wolverine’s, tufted on top with the ear effect.”

X-Men Anniversary Magazine #1 (January 1993) explains the process that led to Storm’s final design: “Cockrum had already designed an alluring female named Quetzal, but everyone thought Dave’s design for an African-American shape shifter named the Black Cat better fit the X-look, so they took the Black Cat’s powers, and Quetzal’s beautiful features, and combined them into Storm.”

Actually, they took Trio’s and Black Cat’s costumes and skin colors, while Storm’s “alluring” and “beautiful” hair and eyes originated as humanoid bird traits. So Storm is an amalgam of fantastical and real-world qualities, and even where real-world, her Black features are those understood and rendered by a White artist.

Do viewers perceive race differently for drawn images than for photographic ones? I suspect they do, but that claim requires a cognitive science study to provide supporting evidence. I’ve co-authored two cognitive science studies on literary genre fiction, but I’m not sure if this topic will lead me down that particular path again. Either way, I have more research ahead.

Meanwhile, Marvel is still having Storm issues.

Princess Weekes at The Mary Sue wrote “Colorists at Marvel Are Still Getting Storm’s Complexion Wrong—So Wrong She’s Unrecognizable,” commenting on a 2019 image that altered all of the character’s Black qualities:

Weekes: “people didn’t even recognize the character as Storm because it looks more like Felicia Hardy joined the X-Men than a realistic depiction of Storm. For me, the complexion of the character is not only jarring, but it also looks like all of her Black features don’t even exist at that angle. Whoever that woman is, I don’t know that woman. I’m sorry to that woman.”

“As a visual medium, the use of color in comics is specific and intentional. There is a specific color to the Spider-Man suit, to Scott’s costume, to Jean’s dress. There is a sense of color consistency that it supposed to be there. Plus, with technology, all you have to do is plug in the proper color code and adjust when needed. At this point, after forty-four years of being a character and lasting as one of the most important Black characters in comics period, it’s about time we got this right, both on the page and in the casting for any upcoming films, cause this ain’t it. Not even close.”

The xenophobic hate group Sons of the Serpent convened a private meeting in the Imperial Ballroom of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City. “They’re basically the Klan in snake outfits,” said lawyer Jennifer Walters. When interrupted by Walters’ newly formed New Jersey branch of the national law enforcement Initiative, the terrorists lost control of the “organic weaponry” they were beta-testing in the Ballroom. The weapon, a mystically summoned incarnation of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl of Mesoamerican lore, was intended as the “first step in fixing the immigration nightmare,” said an apprehended member of the organization. “Next stop, Mexico,” he added. Though the Initiative team eventually subdued the creature, the conflict resulted in significant damage to the Trump Plaza Hotel. “Trump’s going to have a field day with this,” Initiative organizer Tony Stark reportedly complained, “I’ll never hear the end of it!” Branch member Blazing Skull was also overheard shouting during the altercation: “Tell the Donald he needs to comp us the high rollers’ suite!” The New Jersey Initiative team, AKA The Defenders, has been disbanded.

That’s how Trump Plaza was destroyed in May 2008 on Earth-616. Here on Earth-1218, it fell into financial and then physical decline, closed in 2014, and, after repeated delays, was imploded in February 2021.

The Earth-616 events are documented in The Last Defenders #1-2 (May- June 2008) by Joe Casey, Keith Giffen, and Jim Muniz. I hunted down the eight-issue mini-series because I’m interested in how Marvel comics portrays White supremacy and am using Sons of the Serpent as a multi-decade case study. Stan Lee and Don Heck created them in 1966, and they last appeared in Daredevil #28-36 (September 2013 – April 2014).

I wasn’t expecting Donald Trump.

Though the comic does not say Trump is a member of the Sons of the Serpent (I suppose any organization could rent the Imperial Ballroom), I doubt Casey and Giffen (who co-plotted the issues) picked him randomly. The Apprentice was in its fourth season, and the Trumps had a reputation for racial discrimination dating back to the 70s. The Last Defenders pre-dates Trump’s comments following the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville rally by almost a decade.

I’m more interested in Quetzalcoatl.

Though a hero and deity in Aztec, Maya, and other Central and South American cultures, the Sons of the Serpent incarnation is a mindless and indiscriminately destructive Godzilla-esque monster. While it could seem ironic that White supremacists would conscript a mythological serpent of the region and nationality that they consider ethnically inferior, the choice reiterates a Marvel story pattern of implicating non-White characters for central elements of White supremacist supervillainy. Stan Lee unmasked a Chinese general as the organization’s first leader, Roy Thomas paired a White man and Black man as the second co-leaders, Steve Gerber scripted a Black man as the third incarnation’s financier, and Fabian Nicieza ended the fourth story arc with the supernatural personification of racial hatred assuming a Black identity.

Casey and Giffen also repeat the narrative racial logic of White supremacist supervillainy necessitating a Black heroic character to oppose it (including Bill Foster, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Rage, Falcon, War Machine). The second panel of The Last Defenders #1 introduces SHIELD Field Team Leader Joaquin Pennysworth—later identified as the son of the former Sons of the Serpent financier. By the final issue, Agent Pennysworth assumes the role of Nighthawk.

The pattern complicates Kenneth Ghee’s critique that “most Black superheroes do not explicitly fight for Black cultural integrity or relevance from a culture bound perspective and some if not most, may not fight for the (Black) community or culture (or Black people) at all” (232). In the case of the Sons of the Serpent narratives, Black superheroes seem to be selected as a response to White supremacists only because they are Black, and, if a Black superhero is already present in a title, White supremacists are selected as an appropriate villain. Though in other narratives Black superheroes fight both White and Black supervillains, in no cases are White supremacist villains opposed by White superheroes alone.

That narrative pattern places White supremacy and Black heroism in a dichotomy, implying that White supremacy is (or is primarily) a Black problem requiring a Black solution. It also implies that White supremacy is not necessarily a White problem and so White heroism need not oppose it. The repeated unmasking of a White supremacist leader being non-White and manipulating racial tensions to accrue power goes further by revealing that White supremacist supervillainy does not actually exist, requiring White superheroes to address only a manipulated but mindless threat. The four members of the Defenders who battled Quetzalcoatl in Atlantic City were White.

Previous Sons of the Serpent stories compensate for those implications by first portraying an injustice involving White people (a White couple not calling the police when witnessing a Latino man being assaulted, for example). Casey and Giffen alter the pattern by introducing no larger social context in which an essential racial conflict exists. Previous Sons of the Serpent stories hinged on a villain exploiting existing racial tensions for a personal agenda, implying that, without outside agitation, racial tensions are insignificant and addressable at the level of individual responsibility.

Casey and Giffen instead portray no racial division. Their Sons of the Serpent intend to explode their “Madbomb,” “a device capable of driving the American public mad” and that “will certainly provoke the race wars” the new leaders need “to divide and conquer the populace” and “enact their racist vision of society” of “a singular White ruling class.” That racist vision originates outside of society, and so the American public would remain undivided and sane if left alone.

This was early 2008, before the rise of the Tea Party during Barack Obama’s first term and before Donald Trump’s presidential run at the end of Obama’s second term. When Trump announced he was running in 2015, he said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” His plan for “fixing the immigration nightmare” was to build a physical wall, which made about as much sense as conjuring a mythological serpent from his casino ballroom.

When the Defenders destroy the Sons of the Serpent’s West Virginia base in issue #3, Giffen doesn’t include an image of the Madbomb. Maybe it’s still under the surface somewhere, leaking its racist madness. Or maybe the heroes didn’t see that it had launched already, its invisible explosion radiating across all fifty states.

I had Covid last December. I must have caught it just before Thanksgiving and then spread it to my daughter, who tested positive at work the following Monday, closing down her pre-school in the process. I had some mild symptoms, but I thought they were a reaction to the booster I received the day before traveling. I got a negative test before traveling too. I tested again afterwards, since my daughter was positive, and sure enough, so was I. It took me longer than it should have to figure out the direction of infection, tracing it back to someone else who had tested negative before traveling only to come down with symptoms afterwards too. The coincidence of getting the booster on the same day as my first symptoms scrambled my employer’s Covid protocols, and so I was placed in an excessively long quarantine. It was the pandemic, so I couldn’t really complain. I spent ten days upstairs in my house commuting between my daughter’s former bedroom and my son’s former bedroom, with pitstops in the bathroom between. I made one daily trip to the kitchen, but otherwise relied on the kindness of my wife’s food deliveries. I watched some disturbing TV, while worrying obsessively about the possibility that I had given my father and/or step-mother Covid during Thanksgiving too. I also completed the following image sequence, which I gave the uninspiring title “December 2021.” I’m now renaming it “Delta in December.” It further develops some of my earlier experiments with text as texture (there’s an impossible-to-reconstruct Picasso deep in the there too). The sequence feels like an artifact from an increasingly repressed and so distant apocalypse. By some counts, the total number of Covid deaths in the U.S. has already surpassed a million; by others we’re merely around 985,000.

According to the definition of the comics form in my forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, the following 3×3 arrangement of the above images may be in the comics form and so is arguably a kind of comic as formally defined. But it depends on whether “sequence” requires a set viewing order, and if without a set viewing order an arrangement is simply an arrangement, and so not a sequence, and so not in the comics form, and so not a comic, formally or otherwise. More confusingly, some works in the comics medium include arrangements that don’t have set viewing orders and so aren’t formally comics even though they may be comics according to publishing context. Like a lot of things, I think it may come down to viewer perception.

This is my favorite diptych from the sequence.

Recent readers may have noticed that I’m caught up on the topic of whiteness/Whiteness: both the literal color as it appears in comics, and how that color relates to the Color of racial Whiteness. Both are complicated, so here’s my first attempt to map out each and their intersection.

In color comics, racially White characters are not rendered white—there skin is not the color of the white page visible inside the black contour lines designating the edges of exposed skin. Some combination and density of ink is added to the white page to represent skin color. That rendered color is in one sense realistic. The colors are meant to mimic the colors of actual skin, and that shared resemblance is how the image represents its subject matter.

But since the limitations of color technology typically allow for only partial resemblance, the rendered color differs from the represented color, sometimes significantly, and yet the rendered color still represents that dissimilar skin color. One actual color is understood to be a different actual color. That’s a paradox I need to examine further.

Also, because the number of rendered colors is limited in comics (especially 20th century ones), single colors recur for multiple characters, vastly reducing the range of actual skin colors. That repetition creates groupings of characters with identically rendered skin color, and those groupings are understood to reference races. A comic’s simplified range of possible colors literalizes the reductive nature of racial categories. Where racial labels ignore individual differences to create groups, rendered color eliminates differences entirely.

In a color comic, all White characters have identically colored skin. So do all Black characters. Rather than imitating actual skin colors, color comics imitate color-defined racial categories imposed on actual skin colors. The use of skin color to name racial and ethnic groups is a synecdoche (a part stands for a whole), but since the colors are inaccurate, the racial terms “Black” and “White” are also misnomers.

Citing examples from 1500s travel documents detailing some of the earliest contact between Europeans and Africans, Winthrop Jordan notes the original inaccuracy of the adjective “black” to describe skin color: “Englishmen actually described Negroes as black —an exaggerated term which in itself suggests that the Negro’s complexion had powerful impact upon their perceptions. Even the peoples of northern Africa seemed so dark that Englishmen tended to call them ‘black’ and let further refinements go by the board” (1968: 4). That inaccurate physical description evolved into an inaccurate categorical label. 

Presumed skin color is present but secondary to geography in Carl Linnaeus’s 1735 four-part categorization, which included the Latin terms for white, dark, red, and black: Homo Europaeus albescens, Homo Americanus rubescens, Homo Asiaticus fuscus, and Homo Africanus niger. “For Linneaus,” argues Carolyn Purnell, “these colors were still quasi-metaphorical. For example, there isn’t a single case in which ‘yellow’ was used to refer to an East Asian’s skin until the nineteenth century. In Linnaeus’s time, East Asians were described as having white skin but being symbolically yellow: a color then associated with jaundice, weakness, and treachery. Over time, these terms grew increasingly literal.”

Though his 1795 five-part system was partly based on skull measurements, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach still placed skin color first when describing each category: “Caucasian variety. Colour white …” Just as Jordan identifies black as an “exaggerated term” for African skin color, white is at least as inaccurate. Blumenbach then joined that initial misnomer with another, coining “Caucasian” under the belief that Noah’s ark landed in the Caucasus mountains in contemporary Georgia, the origin point of all races.

“Skin color,” Nina G. Jablonski writes, “was the necessary differentiator of types or races of humans in European and Eurocentric race concepts of the eighteenth century. It was the keystone trait that defined races” (2020). The trend continued and arguably deepened in the nineteenth century. George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, further prioritized color in his 1853 three-part categorization: White or Caucasian, Yellow or Mongolian, and Black or Melanian. 

Those pseudo-scientific categories influenced governmental ones. The first U.S. census in 1790 designated only one race explicitly, “whites,” changing only in capitalization and plural form since. The 1870 census included five races: “white,” “Black,” “mulatto,” “Indian” and “Chinese.” “Black” became “Black (Negro)” in 1910, “Negro” in 1930, “Negro or Black” in 1970, “Black, African American, or Negro” in 2000, and “Black or African American” in 2020.

The terms “colored” or “of color” have never appeared on the census, but their histories are similar. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first recorded use of the obsolete first meaning of “colored” in 1591, referring specifically to a Spanish person but generally to any “dark-complexioned” “white person.” The meaning shifted from a descriptively identified subgroup of white people to “any dark-skinned group of peoples,” especially of African descent but also South Asian and South American. Formerly enslaved Black people adopted the term after the Civil War, before its falling out of use after the Jim Crow era. It stopped in Britain at roughly the same time, though there “coloured” had referred to a mixture of racial groups, including mixed-race. In South Africa, it meant only mixed-race.

The prepositional phrase “of color” referred to “a person who is not white-skinned,” though the OED’s first 1786 example refers to “blacks and people of color,” suggesting distinct categories. The 1797 example includes an inhabitants list of St. Domingo with “three great classes: 1st, pure whites. 2d, people of colour, and blacks of free condition. 3d, negroes in a state of slavery… The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.” Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, and the phrase grew in popularity in the following decades. The acronym BIPOC, which came into popular use in the second decade of the current century as a widely inclusive term, combines “People of Color” with “Black” and “Indigenous,” though in some uses “of color” is already inclusive.

Color in the comics medium is comparatively simpler. Four-color separation allows for three variations (variously labeled 25%/2, 50%/3, and 100%/no number) for each color (variously labeled cyan/blue, yellow, magenta/red, and key/black), producing 64 possible combinations. “Legion of Andy” reports: “Inside DC comics, every white person was R2 — only until 1969, when artist Neal Adams got them to start using the yellow tints Y2 and Y3 for the first time in decades. White skin in Atlas and Marvel books was always Y2R2…” (April 7, 2021).

Whether 25% magenta or 25% magenta and 25% yellow or 25% magenta and 50% yellow, the combinations require the surface of a white page to produce the intended effect. R3 means that 50% of the skin color is the white of the paper. Y2R2 also means that 50% is the white of the paper. White is the universal background that all other rendered colors assume.

Africans appeared black to European travelers in the 1500s only in exaggerated contrast to their own equally relative whiteness, the skin color they treated as the norm to define all other colors and then Colors. In the comics medium, the white page serves a parallel function: other colors require it as their defining background, including for the representation of race-defining skin colors. When a color becomes a Color, whiteness and Whiteness merge.

This is a panel from Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 (April 1976):

Superboy and three Legionnaires are addressing a Black superhero who is surprised they saved him and his self-segregated Black city after he had shown them “only hatred and contempt.” He realizes in the next panel, “I guess I’ve been wrong … about a lot of things,” and agrees to try out to join the Legion. Artist Mike Grell disliked the script so much, he attempted to undermine the story by designing an intentionally unflattering costume for the Black superhero (more on that later).

I first saw the image in a digital reprint of Marc Singer’s 2002 essay “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race” in African American Review. Singer presumably scanned the color comic, which the journal reproduced in black and white, converting colors to grayscales. Images printed on the opposite side of the original comics page bleed through, muddying the artwork further.

Singer writes: ‘four members of the Legion of Super-Heroes meet an African superhero named Tyroc and induce him to join their organization with this appeal: “When it comes to race, we’re colorblind! Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin … we’re brothers and sisters … united in the name of justice everywhere!” (Bates and Grell 12; see fig. 1). The Legionnaires cite their own skin colors as proof of their inclusivity. Significantly, no race is assigned to the first character in the tableau, the white Superboy; even though he hails from an alien planet, his white skin normalizes him and, by the logic of the comic, marks him as not belonging to any “race.” The character Karate Kid, who was represented as Asian during artist Mike Grell’s tenure, is presumably the bearer of the “yellow skin” — such was the cultural sensitivity of 1970s comic books — while the other two characters are racialized by their blue and green skins. Both “races”‘ are patently fictitious, yet it is their inclusion which permits the Legion’s easy but hollow claim to racial harmony.’ (110)

Since all four figures have similarly gray skin in the scan of a scan, I had to hypothesize which, if any, of the named colors referenced which, if any, of the drawn characters. Reading Singer’s summary first, I thought perhaps each character spoke their own racial Color, but all three are spoken by the second figure only. Knowing Superboy is invariably colored White, and recognizing the third figure as Karate Kid, whom Singer identifies as “yellow,” I guessed the second and fourth were “blue” and “green,” and that the order of the characters followed the order of the words.

Though I guessed correctly, I did not realize that Superboy and Karate Kid are colored identically. I think that’s 25% magenta and either 25% or 50% yellow, depending on which color expert I ask. Here’s a pixelated comparison:

That sameness further complicates Singer’s observation, since Superboy’s skin color goes unnamed, yet Karate Kid’s literally identical but racially distinct skin color is named and implicitly distinguished from Superboy’s. The skin of both characters is at least half yellow in the printing process, but that yellow represents Superboy’s racially “White” skin and Karate Kid’s racially “yellow” skin.

Or “Yellow” skin?

The capitalization rules for race and ethnicity are not always clear. As I explained in an earlier blog post, I need to distinguish between literal colors (“white” and “black”) and metaphorical colors used to name parallel racial categories (“Black” and “White”). Robert S. Wachal argued in 2000: “The claim that black is a color word requiring lowercase makes meaning the major criterion for determining upper versus lower case. However, capitalization is determined by whether a term is a proper noun or not. Surely Black is synonymous with Negro, just as White is synonymous with Caucasian” (364-5).

The capitalization of “Black” was largely universalized in 2020, following the death of George Floyd, but “White” was not. The Associated Press explained: “AP style will continue to lowercase the term white in racial, ethnic and cultural senses. This decision follows our move last month to capitalize Black in such uses… There is, at this time, less support for capitalizing white. White people generally do not share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color…. We agree that white people’s skin color plays into systemic inequalities and injustices, and we want our journalism to robustly explore those problems. But capitalizing the term white, as is done by white supremacists, risks subtly conveying legitimacy to such beliefs.”

Similarly and more succinctly, At The Columbia Journalism Review, we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to groups in racial, ethnic, or cultural terms. For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.”

“White/white” was still in flux a year later. Jeffrey Barg, Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Grammarian” columnist, wrote in July 2021: “on white, for which The Inquirer abides the AP’s lowercase guidance, unanimity is elusive. The New York Times, MSNBC, and the News Leaders Association lowercase white; the Washington Post, CNN, and the Society of Professional Journalists capitalize it.”

I have a chapter appearing in an essay collection later this year from an academic press that has no white/White policy, so my editor recently wrote: ‘Finally, I am asking all contributors to follow the updated guidance from the Diversity Style Guide by capitalizing the B in “Black” when referring to racial identity. I also recommend, in keeping with scholars such as Eve L. Ewing as well as the [Diversity Style Guide] and [National Association of Black Journalists], that we capitalize the W in “White.”’

I need to research further, but I tentatively believe that when Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 was published in 1976, capitalizing both “Black” and “White” was common. But the comics norm of capitalizing all letters eliminates the distinction. Shadow Lass may be saying, “blue skin, yellow skin, green skin” (as Singer, after capitalizing the first letter of the sentence, transposes her speech), or she may be saying, “Blue skin, Yellow skin, Green skin.”

Capitalizing suggest that the fictional “Blue” and “Green” characters are understood to have “a shared sense of identity and community” akin to actual Black people. So Blue and Green people have blue and green skin. Not capitalizing might suggest that the skin of “blue” and “green” people are those literal colors but that the physiological fact does not align with a community identity based on “history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.” So blue-skinned and green-skinned people are not Blue and Green.

Using skin color as a group-defining characteristic typically conflates ethnicity and race, but in this science-fiction setting it also conflates race and species. The four Legionnaire characters originate from four different planets. Their apparently human anatomy is unexplained but might be understood and then ignored as convergent evolution. Regardless of the science-fiction premise, the producers of the image treat the four as belonging to the same species, making the advocacy for racial color-blindness a reference to the readers’ real world.

Whatever the intention, the overall effect changed when the issue was reprinted in black and white in Showcase Presents: Legion of the Super-Heroes Vol. 5 in 2014:

The four figures’ skin-representing interiors are the identical color: the white of the paper. As a result, all four may appear to be White since Grell’s art seems to suggest European facial features (though as Singer points out above, Karate Kid’s art fluctuates, and here it seems potentially Asian but ultimately ambiguous to me). The original image’s supposed racial diversity was communicated either primarily or entirely through the color art, and so removing the coloring collapses the intended meaning of the panel. The three referenced colors either have no depicted referents or indeterminate ones. The second of four speakers names three colors (or Colors) with no indication that they refer to herself or the others. They appear to be White people naming non-existent color-defined racial categories–which accurately describes the DC creators.

And to further clarify my own capitalization rules, here’s my White hand framing a black and white reprint of color art advocating for Color blindness.

The short answer: M25 Y50.

That’s 25% magenta and 50% yellow in the CMYK printing model for cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). I learned that last weekend from Erika Rothberg who was a fellow panelist on the Advancing Comics Theory panel at the Northeastern MLA conference in Baltimore. Erika is a graduate student at the University of Florida, and before that she was a color expert at DC working on reprints. She can eyeball the size differences of those tiny little colored dots in the comics I grew up reading.

As far as skin, she told me: “It definitely depends on the character, but I’d say M25 Y50 was used in the 70s more often than M25 Y25,” which was more common in the 60s. I was born in 1966, but started reading comics in the mid-70s, so I’m not sure what that says about my white skin.

Or my White skin. I’m torn about capitalization since “White” isn’t standard for referring to white people, but it helps to differentiate the metaphorical white of race and the literal white of color when you’re talking about both. The statement “white people aren’t white” seems more paradoxical than “White people aren’t white.”

Eve L. Ewing (whose Ironheart series and Electric Arches poetry collection I’ve been teaching in my first-year writing seminar this semester) argues in her essay “I’m a Black Scholar Who Studies Race. Here’s Why I Capitalize ‘White’” that not capitalizing the term “runs the risk of reinforcing the dangerous myth that White people in America do not have a racial identity… Whiteness is not only an absence. It’s not a hole in the map of America’s racial landscape… As long as White people do not ever have to interrogate what Whiteness is, where it comes from, how it operates, or what it does, they can maintain the fiction that race is other people’s problem, that they are mere observers in a centuries-long stage play in which they have, in fact, been the producers, directors, and central actors.”

That’s the kind of Whiteness I’m interested in. But I’m also interested in literal whiteness and how the two kinds intersect on comics pages where sometimes “Whiteness” can be represented “only by an absence.”

That’s a page from Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #207 (March 1975), as reprinted in Showcase Presents: Legion of Super-Heroes Vol. 5 (2014). The character is Science Police Officer SPXX342-Dvron. The reprint is in black and white and so only reproduces artist Mike Grell’s line art, eliminating the original color art as it first appeared here:

The issue only credits “Art: Mike Grell,” even though it is unlikely that Grell, who presumably penciled and inked, also colored his line art. Since the unknown colorist was working at DC in the mid-70s, it’s likely they selected M25 Y50 for Dvron’s skin (thank you again, Erika). As you can see from my fingers in the photographs, my White skin does not match Dvron’s White skin in either version.

In the 1975 printing, Dvron’s skin is a one part magenta to two parts yellow. In the 2014 printing, Dvron’s skin is the color of the paper. I need to research exactly what kind of paper that is (so far I can only find the description “coarse, matte-quality”), but I would say its color falls in the white to off-white range. So in the reprint, white paper represents White skin, turning literal whiteness into metaphorical Whiteness. Alternatively, the paper color has no representational qualities, and the overlap of White skin and white paper is representationally irrelevant—and yet still present and so potentially connotatively significant.

This particular example is unusual because, as I wrote in a previous blog, Grell intended Dvron to be Black but his editor made him change the art. Grell told an interviewer:

“Reluctantly, I did change the character… ever so slightly, leaving enough characteristics that it was obvious to the readers that he had been intended to be black. Sure enough, we got mail from black readers who spotted it and knew it had been a black man colored pink.”

Grell misidentified the character to another interviewer, but reported similarly:

“So I changed a couple of things about [Dvron], but left enough of them the same so that it was really obvious to anybody who looked at the artwork on the book that basically he had had been a black man who had been colored pink. And most of my black friends spotted that…”

Is it “obvious” that the character was “intended to be black”? And if “it was really obvious to anybody,” why did Grell only mention “black friends” and “black readers” noticing? I can’t look at the image without my knowledge of the events influencing what I see, but I suspect I wouldn’t have paused over the image—and yet when I do pause, I find it unsettling. Zooming in may explain why.

Dvron’s top lip seems anatomically impossible. I suspect Grell retained the top line of the original Black lip and then erased the lower line and drew a flatter White lip. As a result, it doesn’t seem that the character could comfortably close his mouth.  

Whatever the specifics, if we accept Grell’s report that Black readers (some of whom were his friends) recognized Dvron as an altered Black character, they did so despite his White, M25 Y50 skin color.

So how does the removal of M25 Y50 affect readers’ perceptions of Dvron? How does the default color of the paper influence racial identification? In the black and white reprint, an identifying marker of Whiteness is a literal “absence,” a paradoxical intensification of Ewing’s description of Whiteness as “not a hole in in the map of America’s racial landscape.” Would a new reader (someone not familiar with Grell’s story behind the art) be more, less, or equally prone to recognize Dvron’s erased Blackness?

I would like to imagine that the absence of information about skin color would not influence a viewer to make any assumptions about racial color. But I also suspect that the actual universality of the background color of the page’s paper parallels the false universality of Whiteness culturally. White viewers, even when viewing ambiguous or contradictory facial markers of race, may be more prone to assume a character is White. That would mean that White viewers first hypothesize Whiteness and then accept that hypothesis in the absence of some explicit “not White” marker. Or, more simply, characters are White until proven otherwise.

According to Grell though, Black viewers did not default to that same hypothesis and so were able to correctly recognize Dvron’s intended Blackness despite the ambiguous racial markers of Grell’s line art and the contradicting racial marker of M25 Y50 coloring. Assuming a spectrum of viewers, removing the White coloring should enable more to recognize the character as Black. Those who still don’t would fall on the more extreme end of the spectrum described above. I was nine when Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #207 was originally published, and I suspect I was firmly in the “White unless explicitly not White” group of White viewers. I don’t know where my implicit bias would currently place me.

These are the kinds of research questions I’m exploring.

The above image is a digitally altered photograph of me. The image below is also a digitally altered photograph me.

I’m curious about the relationship between the two, especially when they are juxtaposed:

According to some definitions, if two images are juxtaposed, they are a comic. Since what is and is not a comic is contestable (comics scholars routinely disagree), I prefer to define the comics form and then use that definition to identify works that are in it, calling each a “work in the comics form.” That phrase is clunkier than “comic,” but it is also clearer.

While the definition of the comics form is also contestable, the range of disagreement is smaller. I believe most scholars would accept “sequenced images” as a reasonable definition. Some might agree that “juxtaposed images” is acceptable too. I’ve vacillated. While I was drafting The Comics Form, my original working subtitle was “The Art of Juxtaposed Images.” At some point I revised that to “The Art of Sequenced Images.” Neither is necessarily correct. For images to be a sequence they need to be juxtaposed, but juxtaposed images are not necessarily sequenced and so do not need to be viewed in a specific order. The two images above are juxtaposed but not sequenced. A viewer may begin with either before moving to the other.

Whether they are in the comics form or not, the juxtaposition suggests a relationship between them. McCloud borrowed the term “closure” from Gestalt psychology to refer to the effects of juxtaposition. Following Neil Cohn, I prefer to call those effects “inferences,” and I identify a dozen in The Comics Form.

I may have just noticed a lucky thirteenth, which I’m tentatively calling “extrapolation.”

When I first published an article on juxtapositional inferences in 2018, I wrote: “The categories offered here also are not definitive – because all systems of categorisation are necessarily interpretive and therefore extrinsic rather than intrinsic to the images they analyse. Future analysis or future artistic productions might reveal juxtapositional effects not accounted for here.” Sadly, I don’t think I included that caveat in the chapter “Juxtapositional Inferences” in The Comics Form, but I hope it’s implicit.

I am now hypothesizing that viewers of the above juxtaposed images will attempt to infer a third, extrapolated image. “Extrapolation” is commonly defined as “the action of estimating or concluding something by assuming that existing trends will continue or a current method will remain applicable.” My suggested meaning is similar: viewers will infer something akin to the two images’ overlap or mean.

Viewers almost certainly will if I provide this fact: the two images were derived from the same photograph.

Knowing that the two images are distortions of me may be enough to prompt viewers to imagine what I might look like. Knowing the fact about the history of the creative process likely prompts viewers to attempt to imagine the specific source photograph.

I suspect each viewer will construct a unique mental image. Those mental images are not the original photograph. They are each an inference unique to each viewer. Since mental images are not actual images (our imaginations are surprisingly inexact and idea-based), it’s difficult to say much about how different inferred mental images may or may not relate. Do viewers infer something basically similar? Perhaps. Or perhaps differences between them are more significant.

Either way, if I provide the actual photograph, it will prevent any further inferencing. Here is a cropped version of a selfie I took in my closet mirror, juxtaposed with the first photo illustration I produced from it:

I made the second image in MS Paint, plus color saturation in Adobe Illustrator. Here is the same selfie with the second photo illustration created through slightly different variations of the same process:

By combining them, I can suggest the extrapolated inference I evoked above.

The middle image is likely not inferable, though perhaps elements of it are. I do not know whether someone who has never seen it (or me) before, would be able to infer a mental image that resembles me. But regardless of accuracy, viewers would infer an image of some kind. I am calling that mental image an extrapolated inference, expanding the kinds of inferences that juxtaposed images can produce in viewers.

It’s possible that “extrapolated” isn’t the right or best word, since all inferences made between juxtaposed images might be extrapolated and therefore are extrapolations. I’m also reminded of Neil Cohn’s term “Prolongation,” which in his narrative panel types is “a medial state of extension.” Since an inferred image can’t be a type of panel, Cohn’s term doesn’t apply, but perhaps many if not all juxtapositional inferences are medial states. Both McCloud and Cohn though emphasize spatiotemporal effects, which is not the case here. My inferred “middle” image is not the mid-point in a sequence of events. Documenting the events of the creative process, the photo is the starting point, and then it’s the starting point again, which would sequentially look like this:

If the two juxtaposed images are a sequence, they are a different sequence involving different inferences. Or possibly no inferences. If I had not stated that both images are distortions of me, there may be no inferable relationship between them. Viewers would not have tried to construct a mental image (of me), but simply experienced similarities and differences between the two images, without inferring a cause for them and so no medial image.

For a further demonstration, I will repeat the same process, minus all the annoying words.

And finally, no explanations or creative progressions, just two juxtaposed images. Do they trigger any inferences for you?

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