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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: January 2017

I was going to keep it to one meme a day, and so collect a round-up of my political image-texts here every couple of weeks or so. But then the March inspired me, and Trump’s lies about his penis inauguration size, and the latest fascist parallels, and his hilariously dismal ratings, and then, dear God, the ban.

I will offer one apology though. The fourth image features Trump’s words superimposed over pictures of Melania during her modeling days. The juxtaposition, while striking, invited slut-shaming when I first posted it on Facebook, and that’s my fault. If anything, I think we should feel concern for her. I can only imagine what kinds of mental, emotional, and physical abuse marriage to Donald Trump must involve.

So here’s our pussy-grabbing, Muslim-hating President’s first week in office:

























Facebook memes combine my top two areas of interest: comics studies and political speech. Like other political cartoons, political memes are image-texts, though not in the usual “cartoon” sense. The images aren’t exaggerated, caricatural drawings, and the words aren’t contained in speech bubbles or caption boxes typical of one-panel comics. Memes usually use photographs, and their words are often superimposed without borders. I make mine on Word Paint, the digital equivalent of a woodcutting in the age of Photoshop, but the limitations can be practical and aesthetic too.

I’ll save the formal and creative analysis for another time. For now, here’s the collected sequence I created and posted on Facebook, beginning in October and ending (for now) with the inauguration. Though it wasn’t my intention, they form a diary-like chronicle of political events surrounding Donald Trump, as filtered through my indirect narration. Some are amateurish on the graphic design learning curve (it turns out that font size and ink color are everything, and that some photographs are basically impossible as backgrounds), but many hit the note they’re stretching for. If there are any you like, copy and paste at will.

The first two are before the election, starting with a quote from Speaker Paul Ryan taken out of context. The first after the election is my angriest (and features my Two-Face alter-ego, who also appears in longer cartoons here, here, here, here, and here). After Trump’s official election by the Electoral College, my tone shifts to inspirational activism (which coincides with my other blog, Dear Bob, in which I’m writing my Congressman Bob Goodlatte every day).  After that I started posting images everyday too. There’s a three-meme sequences on fascism and another after Meryl Streeps’ Golden Globes speech, followed by confirmation of Russia’s interference in the election and Trump’s cabinet nominees contradicting his policy statements during their Senate hearings. After the first White House press conference, they shift to overt calls-to-action in the week before the inauguration. The day of which there’s no direct reference to Trump, just scifi allusions, because, seriously, we’re in an alternate reality now, right?




















































Trump promised a return to the Golden Age, but when was that exactly? Once again Ester Bloom:

The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane? The economist Joe Stiglitz, in an article in Politico Magazine titled “The Myth Of The American Golden Age,” sets the endpoint at 1980, a year until which “the fortunes of the wealthy and the middle class rose together.”

We’ve already toured the not-so-golden decades of the 40s, 50s, and 60s. So that leaves the 70s. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, the first year of what comics fans call the Bronze Age. How do you think it looked for African American characters and creators?

Take a look:

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Reflecting the legislative gains of the Civil Rights Movement, superhero comics featured black characters at an increasing rate. Though more African American artists entered the industry, black superheroes were still written exclusively by white authors who relied on shifting stereotypes and expressed ambivalent attitudes about black political power. Acknowledging both the “good intentions” and “cultural ignorance” of white creators, William L. Svitavsky summarizes black superheroes of the era as combining “a veneer of streetwise attitude with a core of values comfortable for middle-class white readers” (2013: 153, 156). In 1969, Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan introduced Sam Wilson as the Falcon in a three-issue Captain America story arc, with a fourth-issue epilogue leaving the new hero to fight crime in Harlem. Because Black Panther is African, the Falcon is considered comics’ first African-American superhero. He returned for a single episode six months later, in which he tells Captain America: “Your skin may be a different color . . .  But there’s not man alive I’m prouder to call . . . Brother!” (Lee, Colan & Romita 1970). Like Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther, the Falcon places interracial unity above black identity. Colan’s chest-exposing costume design echoed the open-shirt of the 60s Lothar and established a norm for black superheroes for the coming decade. Though white superheroes of the 70s also sometimes wear shirts with v-shaped openings (Sub-Mariner, Killraven), the pattern is disproportionately common for black men, who, writes Conseula Frances, “in the popular American imagination, are often read as hypersexual” (2015: 141). The costume design reflected that hypersexuality visually while writers contained it narratively by portraying black men as physically powerful but willingly subservient.

For the Falcon’s one-issue return to Captain America, Stan Lee had pitted him against a black gang whom the Falcon denounces: “They’re like a black version of the Klan! All they preach is hate Whitey! They can set our progress back a hundred years!” (Lee, Colan & Romita 1970). After another six months, Sam Wilson becomes a permanent character. The January 1971 Captain America cover includes the bottom subtitle “Co-Starring: the Falcon!” and for the following issue the title was redesigned Captain American and the Falcon, which it remained until 1978. Captain America’s previous sidekicks included Bucky from 1941-1947 and Golden Girl, from 1948-9, making the Falcon his longest serving partner. Andre Carrington argues:

Narratives of the black and/or female superhero as a team player promulgate a reductive politics of representation that puts minoritized characters on the page in order to support white male characters’ claims to iconic status. Black and female characters frequently appear to buttress the notion that the white male superhero is the sine qua non of the idealism that white Americans spread throughout the globe. (2015: 155)

While Sam Wilson significantly increased the representation of African Americans in comics, in terms of social power, the character also positioned a black man as the equivalent of a white adolescent male and a white adult female.

The Comics Code Authority’s revised guidelines went into effect in February 1971, and one of the first new series affected was Jack Kirby’s New Gods. Issue #3, cover-dated July, introduced Black Racer, an incarnation of death in the form of a paralyzed Vietnam vet, months after the Supreme Court upheld bussing as a means of integrating public schools. July also saw the release of Shaft, widely popularizing the “Blaxploitation” film genre and heavily influencing the portrayal of defiant African Americans in subsequent superhero comics.

Between the Falcon’s premiere and his 1970 return, Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams had started their seminal run on DC’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, beginning with an indictment of Green Lantern by an unnamed African American man: “I been readin’ about you…how you work for the blue skins…and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins…and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there’s skins you never bothered with–! …the black skins! I want to know…how come?!” (O’Neil & Adams 2012: 13). Now a year into their run, O’Neil and Adams replaced the previous Green Lantern substitute with John Stewart, an architect who lives in an “urban ghetto” and challenges white authority figures, including police officers, a Senator, and the Hal Jordan Green Lantern: “Listen, whitey, that windbag wants to be President! He’s a racist…and he figures on climbing to the White House on the backs of my people!” (276, 280). Two months later, Marvel premiered the first superhero comic book series featuring an African American character, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Archie Goodwin and George Tuska’s Cage gains his superpowers by volunteering for human experimentation while wrongly imprisoned, calls people “baby” and “jive-mouth,” and utters “a cry of raging defiance” (Thomas et al 2011: 192, 208). Tuska’s splash page features Cage posed in his open shirt, giving an eye-clenching, open-mouthed roar, his apparent response to the “Harlem” backdrop surrounding him (190). The creative team also included inker Billy Graham, one of the first African American artists employed at Marvel.

Where Adilifu Nama reads Stan Lee’s earlier Falcon dialogue as signaling “a rejection of the type of race-based political brotherhood (and sisterhood) advocated by Black Power nationalism” (2011: 72), Marvel’s new editor-in-chief Roy Thomas retitled the series Luke Cage, Power Man the following year, echoing the increasingly popular movement. Beginning in 1974, Ron Wilson, another recently hired African American artist, would provide cover and pencils, and when the series changed to Power Man and Iron Fist in 1978, it would be the second Marvel title in which a white character received second billing after an African American. In 1972 Marvel also premiered “Reno Jones and Kid Cassidy” in the western Gunhawks. Reno is the third African American Marvel character named “Jones,” and the seventh and final issue, retitled Reno Jones, Gunhawk, featured him alone. Also due to dropping sales, DC cancelled O’Neil and Adams’ Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow in 1972, two issues after introducing John Stewart.

Samuel R. Delany, possibly the first black writer in superhero comics, scripted two issues of Wonder Woman in 1972. He left before completing his intended arc because of DC’s decision to restore Wonder Woman’s original costume and powers. Delany was replaced by Robert Kanigher, who with Don Heck co-created a dark-skinned Wonder Woman named Nubia for three issues in 1973, ending the industry’s forty-year exclusion of black women from superhero comics. Jack Kirby also introduced a young black sidekick, Shilo Norman, in Mister Miracle #12—a title cancelled seven issues later. The same year, Marvel elevated Black Panther to the cover-feature of Jungle Action, which had previously starred Tarzan knock-off “Tharn the Magnificient.” Luke Cage alum Graham penciled twelve issues of writer Don McGregor’s nineteen-issue run, which included the story arc, “Panther vs. the Klan.” A month after Black Panther’s Jungle Action debut, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan’s Blade the Vampire-Slayer premiered in The Tomb of Dracula, with likely the first comic book cover to depict a black man protecting a white woman from a white man. Colan again draws a black man with an open shirt, and Marv Wolfman scripts Blade with standard Blaxploitation slang, “dig?” and “dude” and telling a disrespectful police officer that he did not understand “Pig English” (Wolfman et al 2004: 6). At the end of the same summer, Len Wein and Gene Colan’s Brother Voodoo began a five-issue Strange Tales run. The Haitian wizard is a “noted psychologist” who dismisses voodoo as “superstitious bunk” before assuming his dead brother’s role as the island’s “Houngan, voodoo priest” in a costume that largely reproduces Colan’s chest-revealing Falcon design (Thomas et al 2012: 49, 52). Joining the small but expanding group of African Americans in mainstream comics, Wayne Howard, who worked mostly in horror and had received his first credit at DC in 1969, inked the October issue of Marvel Team-Up in 1973. Keith Pollard and Arvell Jones received their first Marvel credits in 1974. Jones would move to DC in 1977, and Pollard would pencil and ink the final issue of Black Panther’s Jungle Action in 1976, later taking over as penciller for Amazing Spider-Man in 1978.

Jeffrey A. Brown acknowledges DC’s and Marvel’s attempts “to create legitimate black superhero characters,” but attributes their failure “to achieve any long-lasting success” to those characters being “too closely identified with the limited stereotype commonly found in the Blaxploitation films of the era,” including Superfly in 1972, Coffy in 1973, and Mandingo in 1975 (2001: 4). Marvel’s Blaxploitation phase peaked in 1975, with Steve Englehart’s retconning of the Falcon’s past as a Harlem criminal named “Snap.” Marvel introduced its first two black female superheroes that year. Influenced by actress Pam Grier’s performances in Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby, Tony Isabella and Arvell Jones created Misty Knight for an episode of Marvel Premier Featuring Iron Fist. Her bionic arm later established her as the first African American cyborg—a motif for black superheroes expanded in later decades. Len Wein and Dave Cockrum’s Storm had debuted in the new, multi-ethnic X-Men team a month earlier. Cockrum had intended the character to be called “Black Cat,” before merging her with another of his unused ideas for a white male superhero “Typhoon.” Storm is worshipped as a rain goddess by a tribe in Kenya in her first appearance. 1975 also saw Tony Isabella and George Tuska’s Black Goliath debut in Luke Cage, Power Man. The superhero’s alter ego, Bill Foster, was originally created by Lee and Don Heck in 1966 as an assistant to Henry Pym, A.K.A. Goliath, in The Avengers. Marvel launched a Black Goliath solo title the following year, which, like Brother Voodoo, lasted only five issues. Rather than an open shirt, Tuska’s costume design included a bare midriff, a variation on the skin-exposing costumes of female superheroes. Black Goliath, like John Stewart Green Lantern earlier, casts a black superhero as an imitative replacement of a white character and so, argues Svitavsky, “falls too easily into the cliché of the competent ethnic supporting character, such as Tarzan’s ally Mugambi or the Lone Ranger’s Tonto, who ultimately reinforces the white hero’s preeminence” (2013: 158). At DC, Dennis O’Neil’s Bronze Tiger shared the first cover though not title of Richard Dragon, Kung-Fu Fighter, and a second, unrelated Powerman appeared in 1975 too. Commissioned by a Nigerian ad agency and designed by British artist Dave Gibbons of later Watchmen fame, the black and white Powerman was distributed in Nigeria for two years. On the color covers, “Africa’s Hero with Super Powers!” sports a fuchsia unitard and lion-print briefs.

Murray Boltinoff, who had been editing Superboy since the late 60s, prevented artist Mike Grell from introducing a black character in 1975. Grell recalls Boltinoff explaining: “You can’t do that because we’ve never had a black person in the Legion of Super-Heroes, and now you’re going to have one in there who’s not perfect. We can’t do that” (Cardigan 2003: 89). Boltinoff’s concern that a black superhero must be depicted as “perfect” reflects the overwhelmingly white-dominated industry’s anxiety over representing African Americans, especially when the general lack of representation places a greater burden on each individual character.  Grell still drew the character, Soljer scripted by Jim Shooter, as “a black man who had been colored pink” (89). Soljer’s pink skin thematically reverses the norm of white authors creating black characters who are what Kenneth Ghee terms “White heroes in Black Face” (2013: 232), as signified most obviously with the use of “Black” as a modifier, indicating “White” as the unstated norm.

The DC policy barring black superheroes changed in 1976 when Grell and Cary Bates created Tyroc, who defends his all-black island against the Legion of Super-Heroes before joining the team. “When it comes to race, we’re color-blind!” explains the white-skinned Superboy, who is then echoed by three of his multi-colored teammates: “Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin…we’re brothers and sisters…united in the name of justice everywhere!” (quoted in Singer 2002: 111). Grell so disliked Bates and Boltinoff’s handling of race that, now given the opportunity to draw a black superhero as he had previously advocated, he intentionally undermined the character by designing what he considered an unappealing costume for Tyroc—which included the same open-shirt design as worn by the Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage, and soon Black Lightning (Cardigan 2003: 89). DC’s change regarding black superheroes coincides with Jeanette Kahn succeeding Carmine Infantino as publisher in January 1976. The Tyroc episode of Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes is cover-dated April, and a second black superhero was added to a pre-existing team that fall. After the series had been cancelled in 1973, Teen Titans resumed with “The Newest Teen Super-Hero of All . . . The Guardian!” on its cover (#44).  Mal Duncan, an amateur boxer from “Hell’s Corner” introduced in 1970, assumes the superhero identity of the pre-Code character Guardian—and then the magic trumpet-wielding Hornblower in the subsequent issue, which also introduced his girlfriend Karen Beecher, who would become Bumblebee and join the team three issues later. Both remained on the team until the next cancellation in 1978. Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton’s Tempest joined Doom Patrol in 1977, becoming the third black superhero to join one of DC’s pre-existing teams.

Marvel introduced its next black superhero, Thunderbolt, in 1977 for three issues of Luke Cage, Power Man, but killed the character after his next appearance in 1980. Lee Alias’s costume design is the first since Black Panther to not feature an exposed chest—though, also like Black Panther, the costume also completely disguises the hero’s racial identity, repeating the second most common pattern for black superheroes. Thunderbolt, like DC’s Guardian/Hornblower, also reprised a black character first introduced in 1970, this time in Daredevil #69. The practice of reusing and expanding previous secondary characters is common—though here it also emphasizes the dearth of such black characters since both sets of authors went back seven years to find ones to transform into new superheroes.

As Jack Kirby returned to Marvel and a new Black Panther series, DC premiered its first African American superhero title in 1977, Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden’s Black Lightning, a very late example of Blaxploitation influence. The hero’s costume includes a mask attached to an afro wig to disguise his identity as a school teacher who wears his hair conservatively short. “The Afro-mask,” writes Blair Davis, “also serves to make an ethnic minority character ‘more ethnic’ by giving him a hairstyle that was viewed not only as a fashion statement but also as a form of political expression in the 1970s” (2015: 203). Isabella was originally hired to script a very different black character:

The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he’d taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle….  I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments… “Do you REALLY want DC’s first black super-hero to be a white bigot?” (Isabella 2000)

Von Eeden, identifying himself as the first African American artist employed at DC, recalled in a 2016 interview how his white colleagues “chose to play a very mean-spirited and ill-advised ‘prank’ on me” involving a collapsing chair. He never “heard of any other such pranks being played on anyone else at DC Comics,” and in addition to “being ALWAYS treated as a ‘black’ artist (as if I represented an entire nation of fundamentally alien people, all by my lonesome),” he soon found “it was very hard to even want to do one’s best for people who seemed to not only not really appreciate it—but had actually tried to punish and humiliate me, in return.” Von Eeden later left during “DC’s eventual downsizing of its entire staff (freelancers like me being the first to go),” concluding that the “very same people who’d given me the opportunity to live my dreams, had directly caused that dream to become a living nightmare” (Gill 2016).

DC cancelled Black Lightning after its October 1978 issue, and Marvel cancelled Black Panther after its May 1979 issue. Gerry Conway also scripted Black Lightning in a 1979 Justice League of America issue in which Superman asks him to join the team. Len Wein had desegregated the team in 1974 when he included the John Stewart Green Lantern in a single episode, but Conway’s Black Lightning declines. Nama reads the issue as “a clear critique of black tokenism” (2011: 26). Marvel, however, expressed no qualms when Falcon joined two issues of The Defenders in 1978 and eleven issues of The Avengers beginning in 1979. DC had intended to debut their first African American female superhero in her own series in 1978, but Vixen and a range of other planned and low-selling titles were cancelled due to the company’s financial troubles during the industry-wide slump. Gerry Conway and Bob Oksner’s Vixen debuted in Action Comics in 1981 instead. The character echoes Black Panther’s African-based animalistic powers, but with a sexualized name, and like Cockrum’s Storm, cover artists Ross Andru and Dick Giordano draw her hair in flowing waves for her debut image. DC also briefly introduced E. Nelson Bridwell and Ramona Fradon’s Doctor Mist in Super Friends in 1978, adding the character to main continuity in 1981. Like Black Panther, Doctor Mist hails from a fictional African nation.

Reviewing superhero comics in 1982, Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet formulated “a descriptive framework of the general patterns found in the subgenre,” concluding that a superhero is “an adult white male” because “Black heroes (Black Panther, Black Goliath, Black Lightning, the Falcon) don’t seem to appeal to a predominantly white readership; they are not role models” (1983: 185-6). Roy Thomas, Marvel’s editor in chief from 1972-1974, observed the phenomenon with frustration: “It’s kind of a shame. You could get blacks to buy comics about whites, but it was hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character was black” (Howe 131).

[So much for the Golden Bronze Age? Next week we’ll try the Golden Age of the 80s.]

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Trump promised a return to the Golden Age, and the Golden Age in superhero comics was the 40s and early 50s–an era far from golden for African Americans. Ester Bloom writes:

The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane?

Some put the end point “at the economic collapse of 1971 and the ensuring malaise.” For superhero comics, that late 50s and 60s era is called the Silver Age. Maybe that’s the historic period Trump wants take us all back to? Let’s take a look. Here’s what it meant to be black in the Golden Silver Age:

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The 1954 Comics Code mandated that “Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible,” and its first decade and a half saw an end to overtly racist caricatures and an incremental shift toward more complex representations (Code 1954). Initially, however, superhero comics avoided black characters entirely and employed no well-documented black creators. President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and the 1961 freedom riders bus tour testing desegregated interstate travel in the South produced no immediate reaction in superhero comics. But when Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby returned to World War II for the first issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963, they included African American soldier Gabriel Jones in the seven-member outfit—even though President Truman did not sign the executive order desegregating the armed forces until three years after the war ended. The first issue was on sale while Martin Luther King was arrested during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the second while King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 Civil Rights marchers in Washington, D.C.

Obeying Code guidelines barring racial ridicule, Kirby gives Jones no caricatural features. If not for his skin tone—rendered in the African American-signifying gray typical of the period—he could be mistaken for white. Kirby instead renders two white characters with occasionally exaggerated expressions (188, 189). If Jones’s musical skills are a racial stereotype popularized by jazz celebrities Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis (“‘Gabe’ used to blow the sweetest trumpet this side of Carnegie Hall!”), they do not stand out in the relatively diverse but otherewise all-white company of an “ex-jockey from Kentucky,” a “one-time circus strongman,” “an Ivy-League college” grad, an Italian “swashbuckler” actor, and a Jewish mechanic (Lee et al 2011: 184-5). While Kirby and Lee treat Jones respectfully, they also employ him minimally. He is one of the least depicted characters in the premiere episode, and, unlike Binder and Wojtkoski’s 1940s Whitewash Jones, Gabe Jones is never central in terms of plot or panel composition, speaking only four times in twenty-three pages. Whitewash spoke more than twice as often, twenty-eight times in his first fifty-seven pages.

The following year saw the ratification of both the 24th Amendment, which overturned voting taxes in the South, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Lee Falk had been scripting General American English for Lothar since the mid-1950s, and after artist Fred Fredericks replaced the late Phil Davis on Mandrake the Magician in 1965, Lothar would no longer wear his 1930s costume but open shirts, trousers, and shoes. Fredericks also experimented with facial features, which, given the black and white newspaper medium, sometimes resulted in a white-looking African prince. After the murder of Malcolm X in February, the attack on protestors in Selma, Alabama in March, passage of the Voting Rights Act and riots in Watts, California in August, and President Johnson’s “affirmative action” executive order in September, 1965 also saw the first African American hero featured in his own comic book title. Dell Comics’ western Lobo, featuring the titular black cowboy, premiered in December 1965, but folded after its second issue, nine months later.

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Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s most significant contribution to the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in superhero comics was the introduction of Black Panther in Fantastic Four. The issue is cover-dated July 1966, three months prior to the founding of the national Black Panther Party for Self-Defense organization. Kirby had intended the character to be named “Coal Tiger,” and his costume design would have revealed his race by exposing his face. Lee, who routinely reprised Golden Age characters and characteristics, may have revised the character’s name after Paul Gustavson’s 1941 Black Panther, a white superhero in Centaur Comics. Fantastic Four #52 is also a variation on Richard Connell’s classic pulp fiction short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” with Black Panther, the chieftain T’Challa of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, inviting the Fantastic Four to his kingdom “for the greatest hunt of all!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #52: 4). After being nearly overpowered by Black Panther’s superior Wakandan technology, the Fantastic Four escape his traps, and he surrenders. Despite this villainous introduction, the following issue begins with a “dance of friendship” performed by tribesman reminiscent of 40s-era Africa stereotypes, as Black Panther recounts a Batman-like origin story in which his father is murdered and he vows revenge against the killer—who coincidentally is attacking Wakanda at that moment. With the Fantastic Four’s help, Black Panther defeats his enemy and, with their urging, pledges himself “to the service of all mankind!” (#53, 20). As a result, the character does not serve what Kenneth Ghee identifies as “the sociological function of any redeeming hero mythos; that is working to save his own people first” and so is only “a generalized ‘humanitarian,’” not a “Black superhero” (2013: 232, 233).

Lowery Woodhall regards Black Panther’s first story arc as “a frustrating one to read from a racial standpoint,” beginning with “a ruthless, cunning and ferociously independent black man” and concluding with his “almost immediate emasculation” (2010: 162-3). While Lee and Kirby replace Black Panther’s personal duty of avenging his tribe’s previous leader with a superhero’s generically all-inclusive and so predominantly white-focused mission, they also portray him in a complex mix of racial tropes. While his costume and codename reinforce animalistic stereotypes, Black Panther reverses the racial structure of “The Most Dangerous Game” by assuming the role of the white hunter. He also defeats his enemy primarily through his intelligence: “You did not realize—I am a scientist too–!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #53, 19), an opinion echoed by the Fantastic Four: “Apparently the talent of inventive genius is not limited to any one place, culture, or clime!” (#54, 8). His “jungle” palace includes “the latest fashions from Paris” and a grand piano played by “the world’s most renowned pianist” (#54, 7, 4). Lee also uses the Thing’s dialogue to mock his and Kirby’s use of African tropes common to comics since the 40s: “Yer talkin’ to a guy who seen every Tarzan movie at least a dozen times!” (#53, 6), and Black Panther admits, “Perhaps my tale does follow the usual pattern” (#53, 7). Kirby’s visual merging of Tarzan motifs with science fiction technology, however, reversed those Golden Age patterns. Still, Derek Lackaff and Michael Sales note how the character is undercut by the fact that “the sovereign Black monarch of a high-tech civilization is rarely allowed to exercise that power and authority” (2013: 68).

Lee followed Black Panther with the 1967 introduction of newspaper editor Robbie Robertson, second only to editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson at Spider-Man’s The Daily Bugle. Identified only as “Robbie” through dialogue, the character enters giving orders to a white reporter after Jameson has been abducted: “I’ll hold down his desk, while you see what you can uncover! Let’s go, boy! There’s no time to waste! (Lee & Romita 1967). Depending on production time, the August cover-dated inclusion of a graying black man in a position of authority directly follows president Johnson’s June nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Marvel integrated the Avengers when Black Panther joined the team in an issue on sale while Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis and President Johnson signed the third and final Civil Rights Act in April 1968. Lee editorialized in his December 1968 “Stan’s Soapbox” in Fantastic Four #81: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today . . . if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, then we must fill our hearts with tolerance” (Lee 1968). DC, in contrast, prevented creators from introducing black characters. Future Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who wrote for Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes from 1966-70, recalled:

I wanted Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire, and Mort [Weisinger] said, “No, we’ll lose our distribution in the South.”… those were the rules back in those days. That’s another reason why Marvel appealed to me, because they were daring to do things that DC wouldn’t do. (Cadigan 2003: 53)

Weisinger, who had edited Superman since the 40s and was vice president of public relations, left in 1970.

[So much for the Golden Silver Age. But maybe Trump supporters have yet another era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

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Trump supporters long for a Golden Age. “I used to sleep on my front porch with the door wide open, and now everyone has deadbolts,” one guy told Republican pollster Frank Luntz early in the primary race. “I believe the best days of the country are behind us.” So Trump gave him what he wanted, what The Atlantic‘s Ester Bloom calls “a sugar pill coated in nostalgia.” Actually, Trump didn’t give him anything. He just sold him a slogan. “We know his goal is to make America great again,” another supporter told pollsters. “It’s on his hat.” And now that time-travel hat is headed to the White House. “But,” Bloom asked over a year ago, “to what era does he intend to take the nation back? And what would that look like, practically speaking?”

Well, superhero comics have a very specific Golden Age. It runs from the 1930s to the 1950s. I write about it in my forthcoming book Superhero Comics. (I didn’t choose the title, but Trump has taught me that simplicity sells.) So what did the superhero Golden Age look like? That depends on who swallows the sugar pill. Practically speaking, it’s not so golden if you weren’t a white guy in tights. So adjust your hats, and let’s take a peek …

Image result for ebony white will eisnerSuperhero comics in the pre-Code years of the 30s, 40s, and early 50s are dominated by a lack of black representation and punctuated by instances of extreme racist caricature. “Racism was built into the foundations of entire once-popular genres, especially jungle comics … and war comics,” writes Leonard Rifas, noting the predominance of “early American comic books that show white characters in dominant positions of over nonwhite domestics, natives, or sidekicks”.

The pattern begins with the first recurring black character in superhero comics, Lothar, created by Lee Falk for his daily newspaper strip Mandrake the Magician. For the June 11, 1934 debut, artist Phil Davis drew Mandrake’s sidekick in what would be the character’s signature wardrobe: shorts, cummerbund, lion-skin sash, and fez. Although in the second installment Lothar introduces his “Master” in what was termed General American English in the 30s, before the end of the year, Lothar’s speech had devolved into ungrammatical fragments: “Three men fight lady. Is bad. Me almost get mad.” The “lady” is Barbara, Mandrake’s white love interest, who then dubs Lothar “My watchdog”.

As Mandrake continued its newspaper run, readers witnessed Jesse Owens’ Olympic and Joe Louis’ boxing victories, as well as the appointment of the first African American federal judge, William H. Hastie. But five years after his debut, Lothar’s speech has not improved; after rowing his master through a swamp and holding an umbrella over Barbara’s head, Lothar faces the ghosts of two pirates: “Me scared—but me sock!” Although identified as the prince of several African tribes, Lothar chooses to live in the United States as an ambiguously slave-like servant to a white, Orientalist magician.

The following year, Will Eisner introduced newspaper readers to another crime-fighting sidekick, The Spirit’s Ebony White. Nonwhite sidekicks were a standard outside of comics, with the Lone Ranger’s Tonto and the Green Hornet’s Kato speaking broken English on the radio, and The Spider’s “turbaned Hindu” valet Ram Singh speaking in faux middle English in the pulps: “Fortunate it is that thy servant obeyed his orders”.

Eisner introduced Ebony as an unnamed taxi driver in the first The Spirit newspaper insert on June 2, 1940. In the second, he apologizes for speeding: “Sorry, boss, dis car jes’ nachelly speeds up when ah drives past Wildwood cemetery!!” In the third, he acquires his name and becomes the Spirit’s “exclusive cabby”, though by July, the Spirit has his own car, and Ebony is his “assistant” in August. Ebony’s face dominates the entire splash page the following month: bulging cheeks, round and crossed eyes, a tiny upturned nose, two protruding teeth, and, most prominently, enormous red lips—a cartoon embodiment of blackface minstrelsy. Eisner described the caricature as “a product of the times”.

Black characters in comic books were rarer. Joe Shuster drew no African Americans in the first three years of Action Comics, and Harry G. Peter drew only four in Wonder Woman’s first two years: a train porter, two hotel workers, and an elevator operator. The first three speak in slightly abbreviated General American English: “Yes, Ma’am! Suitcase comin’ up! This suitcase is heavy! Must be fulla books!”, but the last William Marston scripts: “Bell done buzzed f’om dis floah—but dey ain’ nobody heah!”

Analyzing the seventy-eight issues of Captain America’s 1940-1954 titles, Richard A. Hall counts only two African Americans: a cowering and superstitious butler named Mose in 1942 and a member of the adolescent Sentinels of Liberty named Whitewash a year earlier. Both are rendered in a style Hall terms “Amos and Andy-esque,” referencing one of the most pervasive and demeaning representations of African Americans by white authors of the period. Charles Nicholas Wojtkoski’s rendering reproduced the enormous lips of 19th century cartoons, the same tradition Eisner followed.

Beginning in 1941, the zoot-suit-wearing, harmonica-playing, watermelon-eating Whitewash Jones regularly appeared in Young Allies, which ran twenty issues before being cancelled in 1946, and in ten issues of Kid Comics from 1943-46. Although Hall concludes that “There were literally no non-white heroic figures during this period”, Whitewash, while fulfilling the role of comic relief through racist caricature, is also the first African American hero in superhero comics.

In the Young Allies premiere, Wojtkoski and writer Otto Binder present him as an equal member of the “small band of daring kids”, one who wrestles Nazi spies, discovers a trail that leads to the Red Skull’s cave, saves team leaders Bucky and Toro by triggering a cave-in, and saves the entire team by discovering that their drinks have been poisoned. When a military officer presents “each with a distinguished service medal” for “exceptional bravery in action,” Wojtkoski draws Whitewash beside Toro and in front of two other white members, and for the chapter four splash page, contributing artists Joe Simon and Jack Kirby place Whitewash at center, pinning Hitler with his team members. In one panel, the character leads the team on bicycles stolen from German soldiers.

Yet Whitewash also exposes the team as stowaways and is chided for his shocking “ignorance”. He is, however, no more comic than his teammates. Though Whitewash is afraid to enter the cemetery, Knuckles dives head-first behind a bush at the sound of an owl. Whitewash trips over his own rifle, but only because Tubby backs into him. Whitewash complains about walking, while Tubby complains about hunger and Jefferson Worthington Sandervilt about the smell of fish. Sandervilt also voices fear, “My. What a harrowing experience!” before Whitewash, “Is dey gone?” Arguably all four of the secondary Young Allies characters are sidekicks to Bucky and Toro, and so are not independently heroic themselves. But Whitewash, while a grotesque amalgam of African American caricatures both visually and verbally, is not singled out for comic relief and often contributes more significantly than his white teammates.

Despite these exceptions, nonwhite protagonists remained a rarity in pre-Code comics, superhero-oriented and otherwise, and black creators were even rarer. Jackie Ormes is considered the first African American woman cartoonist, with her 1937 comic strip Candy running in the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally distributed African American newspaper. Beginning in the early 40s, Alvin Hollingsworth drew for Holyoke’s Cat-Man Comics, as well as “Captain Power” in Novack’s Great Comics, female Tarzan knock-off “Numa” in Fox Feature Syndicate’s Rulah, Jungle Goddess, and “Bronze Man” in Fox’s Blue Beetle. In 1947, Philadelphia publisher Orrin Cromwell Evan’s one-issue All-Negro Comics featured artist George J. Evan, Jr.’s “Lion Man,” the first African American superhero by black creators and one, the publisher explains in his introduction, intended “to give American Negroes a reflection of the natural spirit of adventure and a finer appreciation of their African heritage”.

Matt Baker achieved the highest level of success and, indirectly, notoriety in the early comics industry. Alberto Becattini and Jim Vabedoncoeur, Jr. index over six hundred credits for Baker in roughly 150 different titles. Working through the Iger Studio, which had previously included Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, Baker began his career on “Sheena, Queen of the Jungle” and “Sky Girl” in Fiction House’s Jumbo Comics in late 1944, before expanding to “Skull Squad” in Wings Comics and “Wambi the Jungle Boy” in Jungle Comics. Baker rendered his African tribesman in the same relatively realistic style as his white characters, with no hint of Eisner’s and Wojtkoski’s racist cartooning.

Baker’s off-page experiences were less integrated. A fellow Iger artist recalled how Baker “would go off on his own” during lunch breaks, “acutely aware of the perceived chasm that separated him” in “an industry almost totally dominated by white males”. Baker’s greatest successes came in his sexualized renderings of women—a style that may have been influenced by Jackie Ormes’ Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger one-panel comics that ran in the African American newspaper Chicago Defender beginning in 1945. After Sheena imitations “Tiger Girl” and “Camilla,” Baker drew Fox Features’ redesigned Phantom Lady as one of his last projects before expanding to freelancing.

While Baker was amassing romance credits in the 50s, Frederic Wertham reproduced his April 1948 Phantom Lady cover in Seduction of the Innocent with the caption: “Sexual stimulation by combining ‘headlights’ with a sadist’s dream of tying up a woman”, and a blow-up of the “objectionable” cover was displayed during the 1954 Senate Subcommittee Hearings into Juvenile Delinquency. Wertham condemned “race hatred” in his testimony (specifically a Tarzan comic in which a “Negro” blinds twenty-two white people, including “a beautiful girl”), but the absence of any mention of Baker in the hearing transcripts is likely due to committee members not knowing that a black man had drawn the images of a scantily-clad white woman. Juvenile Emmett Till would be murdered for flirting with a white woman and his killers acquitted the following year.

[So much for the Golden Age. But maybe Trump supporters have a slightly different era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

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