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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: March 2022

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?

I’m starting a manuscript tentatively titled The Color of Paper: Whiteness in the Comics Medium, and I’m very fortunate to be presenting the first section at the Invisible Lines conference in Venice this July. My panel paper, “A Sharp White Background,” explores the representational qualities of unmarked areas of line art understood to be a character’s skin. Since the paper used to produce a comic is typically some variation of white, that default color represents a range of skin colors of characters of different races and ethnicities.

The section I’m starting now focuses on characters originally published in color but that were later reprinted in black and white. One of the first comics I read growing up was Defenders #15 (September 1974), which introduced Alpha the Ultimate Mutant. Through the course of the next issue, Glynis Wein renders his skin color a consistent pink (though my low-quality scans below obscure that consistency), while his body and facial features transform radically:

When the issue was reproduced in the black and white volume Essential Defenders in 2007, the areas of Sal Buscema’s and Mike Esposito’s line art that demark Alpha’s skin are the color of the off-white paper. While I suspect paper color has no overt representational qualities, it still overlaps with whatever skin color a viewer perceives. The first image of Alpha appears to me to be a racist caricature of a Black man, and the next two images suggest racially white facial features, before veering into fantastical proportions. Does the original presence of pink ink lessen the effects of the initial facial features? Does the absence of colors block or reverse those effects? Those are the kinds of questions I’m currently exploring, while also searching for other examples to study.

When I was writing The Black Superhero chapter in Superhero Comics a few years ago, I read that artist Mike Grell had drawn a Black character that a DC editor had colored pink. I thought it was “Soljer” from Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes #210:

Live Journal blogger Jkahane has the same impression: “I remember reading an interview about this story where Grell said that he intended Soljer to be a black man, but that idea was nixed by editor Murray Boltinoff.”

I went back through my notes and found what Grell told Glen Cadigan in The Legion Companion (TwoMorrows 2003): “Murray explained to me, ‘You can’t do that because we’ve never had a black person in the Legion of Super-Heroes, and now you’re gonna have one in there who’s not perfect. We can’t do that. Besides, we’re working on creating a black super-hero, and he’s gonna be featured in the Legion.’ I said, ‘Okay, fine.’ So I changed a couple of things about Soljer, 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 and gave me hell for it over the years, but when I told them the story, they pretty much understood.”

But when I tried to track down the actual issue (which I’d read as a kid along with that Defenders issue), the art didn’t match Grell’s description:

So I found a different Mike Grell interview from Back Issue #14 and discovered the incident was true but occurred three issues earlier in Superboy starring the Legion of Super Heroes #207 (March 1975). Instead of Grell’s misremembered Soljer, the episode is “about a member of the Science Police who at first betrays the Legion and then turns around and saves the day.”

Grell continues: “When I drew the character, I drew him as a black guy. And when I turned it in, Murray says, ‘You can’t do that. The guy’s black.’ And I said, ‘Yeah. Well, there’s nothing in the story that says he isn’t, so why couldn’t he be black?’ ‘Oh, um, well, you can’t do that because we’ll get a lot of negative mail from our black readers.’ ‘But there are no black characters in the Legion. Why not use one?’ He said, ‘Well, we’re actually going to do a black Legionnaire. We’re planning on it, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. We’re planning a big launch of the new character, so you’ll just have to make the changes and wait.’ 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.”

That issue was reprinted in black and white in Showcase Present Legion of Super-Heroes in 2014, and probably in the Australian Super Heroes Album in 1976. I have a used copy arriving in the mail soon, but knowing the background and Grell’s intentions, it’s impossible to know whether I would have understood the character to be Black if I had seen the black and white art first.

Raising these research questions on Florida University’s comics scholars listserv triggered another example. Originally intended as an on-going title, Jack Kirby’s “Dingbats of Danger Street” appeared as a one-off in 1st Issue Special #6 (September 1975):

When the two unpublished issues were collected and completed for Dingbat Love (TwoMorrows 1992), John Morrow explained: “Tom Ziuko … colored the whole batch in a 1970s-appropriate style. DC had oddly chosen to color Non-Fat with a Caucasian skin tone in 1st Issue Special #6, but we’re staying true to Kirby’s vision for this book’s presentation.”

Rob Steibel at notes that that the differences are more than coloring: “If [you] look closely at the pencil photocopy artwork I posted yesterday, you can see the character Non-Fat appears to have African American features in the original pencils; in the published version the character has been changed to look more like a Caucasian. I doubt this was [the inking artist’s] decision; the change was probably made at the DC offices. 40 years later artists still have to be careful when portraying characters from different ethnic backgrounds or they could face accusations of stereotyping or racism, so you have to think someone at DC figured it was a good idea to simply avoid any controversy altogether by changing the character’s ethnicity.”

But Kirby’s Non-Fat premiered well after other Black characters: Mal Duncan in Teen Titans #26 (March-April 1970), Kirby’s Black Racer in New Gods #3 (July 1971), John Stewart in Green Lantern #87 (January 1972), and Nubia in Wonder Woman #204 (January 1973). Also, “the DC offices” had not avoided stereotyping Black characters drawn by Kirby four years earlier. Against his advice, DC had assigned him to draw and write a Black romance series tentatively titled Soul Love.

Mark Evanier explains in Dingbat Love: “some were shown to a magazine distributor who was said to have expertise on the kind of mostly-black neighborhoods where DC hoped to sell most of the press run. This person—I know not his race—felt that the faces were ‘too realistic.’ … The order came down to have everyone redrawn so—and this is a quote—’…all the women look like Diahann Carroll and all the men look like Sidney Poitier.’ Those were two popular black stars of the day who were considered very attractive and perhaps more acceptable in some circles. … DC’s Production Department and inker Vince Colletta went to work on the pages that had already been completed. Much of what Jack had drawn was obliterated …. I recall the people on Jack’s pages looking very good, very human and very expressive when those pages left him. I do not think the revisions were.”

Since “Dingbats” and Superboy #207 were both published by DC in 1975, it seems possible that Murray Boltinoff, the editor who prevented Grell from making a Black character in the Legion of Super Heroes, also prevented Kirby from making a Black character in Dingbats. But Boltinoff doesn’t appear to have been involved in either the original Dingbats series plan or in 1st Issue Special.

I would have expected the decision to have been Mort Weisinger’s, because Jim Shooter, who wrote for Superboy Starring the Legion of Super-Heroes from 1966-70, said: “I wanted Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire, and Mort said, ‘No, we’ll lose our distribution in the South.’” But Weisinger retired in 1970. Carmine Infantino served as DC’s publisher from 1971-1976, and he was also closely involved with 1st Issue Special. Artist Gerry Conway told Back Issue: “1st Issue Special was a peculiar book concept based on Carmine Infantino’s observation that first issues of titles often sold better than subsequent issues. Carmine’s brainstorm: a monthly series of nothing but first issues.” … “We used to sit at editorial meetings and [Carmine] would say, ‘Who has an idea for 1st Issue Special next month?’”

Though it’s hard to conclude for certain who “at DC figured it was a good idea to” alter Kirby’s character, the decision seems to reflect an attitude toward race held collectively by “the DC offices” at the time.

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