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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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