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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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