Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

%d bloggers like this: