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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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