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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, 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:

Image result for falcon first appearance in comics 1969

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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