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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: April 2022

As I work on a new project tentatively titled “The Color of Paper: Representing Race in the Comics Medium,” new research questions keep emerging:

  • Do viewers decode race from skin color and facial features equally or is one more determining?
  • Does the use of metaphorical color to denote racial categories influence those perceptions?

In other words, does how we see Color shape how we see color?

Look at this drawing of a face. What race or ethnicity does it suggest to you?

I can’t give my first impression because I know the source material, but I’m guessing most viewers would say the face looks racially White. The interior, the unmarked area of the page surface the image is drawn on, is literally white. As far as the black marks that represents the facial features, I suspect most viewers, whether Black or White, would register the nose as White. The lips might be ambiguous since they may resemble the exaggerated drawing norm for generic “sexy female lips” more than any actual lips. And the eyes I suspect are probably too large and the eyebrows too non-naturalistic to suggest anything about a real-world person.

Now look at the same line art after its been inked and colored:

The interior area representing skin is now a mixture of browns, probably suggesting to most viewers that the figure is Black — if Black skin is a more significant racial marker than a White nose.

How might hair influence that perception?

In the line art version, the interior areas between the black lines representing hair are the white of the background surface, same as the interior of the face. The number of hair-representing lines may suggest hair color through density: the more black lines the darker the implied hair. The shape of the lines suggest qualities other than color, which could indirectly imply color too. The hair is not shaped like most Black hair. Whatever its specific represented color, I suspect most viewers would perceive it as falling in the range of White hair.

Now add color again:

The hair is white or silver, which further contradicts racial expectations if the figure is understood to be Black — which she typically is. The image is David Cockrum’s rendering of Storm from one of four variant covers of X-Men #100 (May 2000).

Viewers familiar with the character know she is intended to be Black, despite her having flowing white hair and White or ambiguous facial features. Viewers not familiar with the character would have to weigh those qualities against the contradictory brown skin to conclude anything about race.

So which is more defining: Black skin or White features? Researchers have been working for decades to answer those kinds of questions. Clearly, both skin color and physiognomy are important:

In “A Punishing Look: Skin Tone and Afrocentric Features in the Halls of Justice” published in American Journal of Sociology (Volume 122, Number 1), Ryan D. King and Brian D. Johnson analyzed “850 booking photos of black and white male offenders in two Minnesota counties” and “coded and then matched to detailed sentencing records,” concluding that “darker skin tone and Afrocentric facial features are associated with harsher sanctions” (90).

Storm is a combination of traits, what the study terms “intraracial heterogeneity.” Defendants who are coded as White in the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission’s sentencing records and who have “facial features that more closely resemble blacks are treated more harshly than other whites,” and “skin tone matters for white defendants insofar as complexion is confounded with perceived ethnicity,” probably because “whites with darker complexions are perceived by others to be of Hispanic or Latino origin” (110-111),

But what exactly are “facial features that more closely resemble blacks,” AKA “Afrocentric facial features”?

In “What’s in a face? The role of facial features in ratings of dominance, threat, and stereotypicality” published in Cognitive Research (2021, 6:53), Heather Kleider‑Ofutt and her co-authors confirm “previous work noting that a stereotypically Black face is some combination of a wide nose, full lips, and darker skin,” while clarifying “that a stereotypical [Black] face-type is a combination of wide nose and higher reflectance [a quantitative measure of skin color] and, to a lesser extent, full lips. Thus, a face is not likely to be judged as stereotypical based on full lips alone.”

That finding matches my impression of the first black and white version of Storm’s cropped face above. Cockrum’s drawing of “full lips” is racially ambiguous, and because the nose is not wide, viewers would probably not identify the face as Black.

So while both skin tone or facial features are important, it’s unclear if one is more influential:

In “The Development of White-Asian Categorization: Contributions from Skin Color and Other Physiognomic Cues” published in PLoS ONE (June 2016), Yarrow Dunham and his co-authors found that “while skin color and physiognomy were roughly equal contributors to White-Asian judgments, skin color was approximately four times as powerful a predictor of adult White-Black judgments. This likely reflects genuine differences in the features that are most diagnostic of the category boundary, validating the intuition that skin color is a less clear cue to the White-Asian than the White-Black category boundary. Indeed, young children showed a near-total reliance on skin color in the case of the Black-White racial distinction, but did reliably attend to physiognomic cues in the White-Asian case …”

Yet in “The role of skin colour in face recognition” published in Perception (2009, volume 38, pages 145-148), Yair Bar-Haimô, Talia Saidelô, and Galit Yovel conclude: “despite the notion that skin colour plays a major role in categorising faces into own and other-race faces, its effect on face recognition is minor relative to differences across races in facial features. In fact, other-race facial features appear to serve as a primary racial marker that reduces face recognition. And, only once a face is categorised as belonging to one’s own race on the basis of its features, colour becomes an additional component that modulates recognition.”

The example of Storm provides an additional complication that I’ve yet to see addressed in any research: she’s a drawing. The above studies used photographic and computer-manipulated images. None were simplified and exaggerated in the style of superhero comics art.

Cockrum designed Storm for her premiere in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975). She has the weather-controlling superpowers of Typhoon, one of several characters Cockrum intended for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. He told interviewer Peter Sanderson: “I had a girl who had wings but not out of her back: they were from her arms like bird’s. She was green and her name was Quetzal and she had long flowing hair. If you put Quetzal and Typhoon together you got kind of a strange version of Storm” (X-Men Companion, Fantagraphics 1982).

Quetzal and Typhoon would have appeared with a Black superhero named Trio whose hair, unlike Storm’s, Cockrum drew in a 70s-style afro. After leaving DC for Marvel in 1974, he designed another Black superhero with black but still racially ambiguous hair: “When I did up the original X-Men designs, one of the characters was called the Black Cat. Take a look at Storm without the white hair and without the cape, and that’s essentially the Black Cat. She had dark hair which was sort of like Wolverine’s, tufted on top with the ear effect.”

X-Men Anniversary Magazine #1 (January 1993) explains the process that led to Storm’s final design: “Cockrum had already designed an alluring female named Quetzal, but everyone thought Dave’s design for an African-American shape shifter named the Black Cat better fit the X-look, so they took the Black Cat’s powers, and Quetzal’s beautiful features, and combined them into Storm.”

Actually, they took Trio’s and Black Cat’s costumes and skin colors, while Storm’s “alluring” and “beautiful” hair and eyes originated as humanoid bird traits. So Storm is an amalgam of fantastical and real-world qualities, and even where real-world, her Black features are those understood and rendered by a White artist.

Do viewers perceive race differently for drawn images than for photographic ones? I suspect they do, but that claim requires a cognitive science study to provide supporting evidence. I’ve co-authored two cognitive science studies on literary genre fiction, but I’m not sure if this topic will lead me down that particular path again. Either way, I have more research ahead.

Meanwhile, Marvel is still having Storm issues.

Princess Weekes at The Mary Sue wrote “Colorists at Marvel Are Still Getting Storm’s Complexion Wrong—So Wrong She’s Unrecognizable,” commenting on a 2019 image that altered all of the character’s Black qualities:

Weekes: “people didn’t even recognize the character as Storm because it looks more like Felicia Hardy joined the X-Men than a realistic depiction of Storm. For me, the complexion of the character is not only jarring, but it also looks like all of her Black features don’t even exist at that angle. Whoever that woman is, I don’t know that woman. I’m sorry to that woman.”

“As a visual medium, the use of color in comics is specific and intentional. There is a specific color to the Spider-Man suit, to Scott’s costume, to Jean’s dress. There is a sense of color consistency that it supposed to be there. Plus, with technology, all you have to do is plug in the proper color code and adjust when needed. At this point, after forty-four years of being a character and lasting as one of the most important Black characters in comics period, it’s about time we got this right, both on the page and in the casting for any upcoming films, cause this ain’t it. Not even close.”

The xenophobic hate group Sons of the Serpent convened a private meeting in the Imperial Ballroom of the Trump Plaza casino in Atlantic City. “They’re basically the Klan in snake outfits,” said lawyer Jennifer Walters. When interrupted by Walters’ newly formed New Jersey branch of the national law enforcement Initiative, the terrorists lost control of the “organic weaponry” they were beta-testing in the Ballroom. The weapon, a mystically summoned incarnation of the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl of Mesoamerican lore, was intended as the “first step in fixing the immigration nightmare,” said an apprehended member of the organization. “Next stop, Mexico,” he added. Though the Initiative team eventually subdued the creature, the conflict resulted in significant damage to the Trump Plaza Hotel. “Trump’s going to have a field day with this,” Initiative organizer Tony Stark reportedly complained, “I’ll never hear the end of it!” Branch member Blazing Skull was also overheard shouting during the altercation: “Tell the Donald he needs to comp us the high rollers’ suite!” The New Jersey Initiative team, AKA The Defenders, has been disbanded.

That’s how Trump Plaza was destroyed in May 2008 on Earth-616. Here on Earth-1218, it fell into financial and then physical decline, closed in 2014, and, after repeated delays, was imploded in February 2021.

The Earth-616 events are documented in The Last Defenders #1-2 (May- June 2008) by Joe Casey, Keith Giffen, and Jim Muniz. I hunted down the eight-issue mini-series because I’m interested in how Marvel comics portrays White supremacy and am using Sons of the Serpent as a multi-decade case study. Stan Lee and Don Heck created them in 1966, and they last appeared in Daredevil #28-36 (September 2013 – April 2014).

I wasn’t expecting Donald Trump.

Though the comic does not say Trump is a member of the Sons of the Serpent (I suppose any organization could rent the Imperial Ballroom), I doubt Casey and Giffen (who co-plotted the issues) picked him randomly. The Apprentice was in its fourth season, and the Trumps had a reputation for racial discrimination dating back to the 70s. The Last Defenders pre-dates Trump’s comments following the 2017 Unite the Right in Charlottesville rally by almost a decade.

I’m more interested in Quetzalcoatl.

Though a hero and deity in Aztec, Maya, and other Central and South American cultures, the Sons of the Serpent incarnation is a mindless and indiscriminately destructive Godzilla-esque monster. While it could seem ironic that White supremacists would conscript a mythological serpent of the region and nationality that they consider ethnically inferior, the choice reiterates a Marvel story pattern of implicating non-White characters for central elements of White supremacist supervillainy. Stan Lee unmasked a Chinese general as the organization’s first leader, Roy Thomas paired a White man and Black man as the second co-leaders, Steve Gerber scripted a Black man as the third incarnation’s financier, and Fabian Nicieza ended the fourth story arc with the supernatural personification of racial hatred assuming a Black identity.

Casey and Giffen also repeat the narrative racial logic of White supremacist supervillainy necessitating a Black heroic character to oppose it (including Bill Foster, Black Panther, Luke Cage, Rage, Falcon, War Machine). The second panel of The Last Defenders #1 introduces SHIELD Field Team Leader Joaquin Pennysworth—later identified as the son of the former Sons of the Serpent financier. By the final issue, Agent Pennysworth assumes the role of Nighthawk.

The pattern complicates Kenneth Ghee’s critique that “most Black superheroes do not explicitly fight for Black cultural integrity or relevance from a culture bound perspective and some if not most, may not fight for the (Black) community or culture (or Black people) at all” (232). In the case of the Sons of the Serpent narratives, Black superheroes seem to be selected as a response to White supremacists only because they are Black, and, if a Black superhero is already present in a title, White supremacists are selected as an appropriate villain. Though in other narratives Black superheroes fight both White and Black supervillains, in no cases are White supremacist villains opposed by White superheroes alone.

That narrative pattern places White supremacy and Black heroism in a dichotomy, implying that White supremacy is (or is primarily) a Black problem requiring a Black solution. It also implies that White supremacy is not necessarily a White problem and so White heroism need not oppose it. The repeated unmasking of a White supremacist leader being non-White and manipulating racial tensions to accrue power goes further by revealing that White supremacist supervillainy does not actually exist, requiring White superheroes to address only a manipulated but mindless threat. The four members of the Defenders who battled Quetzalcoatl in Atlantic City were White.

Previous Sons of the Serpent stories compensate for those implications by first portraying an injustice involving White people (a White couple not calling the police when witnessing a Latino man being assaulted, for example). Casey and Giffen alter the pattern by introducing no larger social context in which an essential racial conflict exists. Previous Sons of the Serpent stories hinged on a villain exploiting existing racial tensions for a personal agenda, implying that, without outside agitation, racial tensions are insignificant and addressable at the level of individual responsibility.

Casey and Giffen instead portray no racial division. Their Sons of the Serpent intend to explode their “Madbomb,” “a device capable of driving the American public mad” and that “will certainly provoke the race wars” the new leaders need “to divide and conquer the populace” and “enact their racist vision of society” of “a singular White ruling class.” That racist vision originates outside of society, and so the American public would remain undivided and sane if left alone.

This was early 2008, before the rise of the Tea Party during Barack Obama’s first term and before Donald Trump’s presidential run at the end of Obama’s second term. When Trump announced he was running in 2015, he said: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best …They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists.” His plan for “fixing the immigration nightmare” was to build a physical wall, which made about as much sense as conjuring a mythological serpent from his casino ballroom.

When the Defenders destroy the Sons of the Serpent’s West Virginia base in issue #3, Giffen doesn’t include an image of the Madbomb. Maybe it’s still under the surface somewhere, leaking its racist madness. Or maybe the heroes didn’t see that it had launched already, its invisible explosion radiating across all fifty states.

I had Covid last December. I must have caught it just before Thanksgiving and then spread it to my daughter, who tested positive at work the following Monday, closing down her pre-school in the process. I had some mild symptoms, but I thought they were a reaction to the booster I received the day before traveling. I got a negative test before traveling too. I tested again afterwards, since my daughter was positive, and sure enough, so was I. It took me longer than it should have to figure out the direction of infection, tracing it back to someone else who had tested negative before traveling only to come down with symptoms afterwards too. The coincidence of getting the booster on the same day as my first symptoms scrambled my employer’s Covid protocols, and so I was placed in an excessively long quarantine. It was the pandemic, so I couldn’t really complain. I spent ten days upstairs in my house commuting between my daughter’s former bedroom and my son’s former bedroom, with pitstops in the bathroom between. I made one daily trip to the kitchen, but otherwise relied on the kindness of my wife’s food deliveries. I watched some disturbing TV, while worrying obsessively about the possibility that I had given my father and/or step-mother Covid during Thanksgiving too. I also completed the following image sequence, which I gave the uninspiring title “December 2021.” I’m now renaming it “Delta in December.” It further develops some of my earlier experiments with text as texture (there’s an impossible-to-reconstruct Picasso deep in the there too). The sequence feels like an artifact from an increasingly repressed and so distant apocalypse. By some counts, the total number of Covid deaths in the U.S. has already surpassed a million; by others we’re merely around 985,000.

According to the definition of the comics form in my forthcoming The Comics Form: The Art of Sequenced Images, the following 3×3 arrangement of the above images may be in the comics form and so is arguably a kind of comic as formally defined. But it depends on whether “sequence” requires a set viewing order, and if without a set viewing order an arrangement is simply an arrangement, and so not a sequence, and so not in the comics form, and so not a comic, formally or otherwise. More confusingly, some works in the comics medium include arrangements that don’t have set viewing orders and so aren’t formally comics even though they may be comics according to publishing context. Like a lot of things, I think it may come down to viewer perception.

This is my favorite diptych from the sequence.

Recent readers may have noticed that I’m caught up on the topic of whiteness/Whiteness: both the literal color as it appears in comics, and how that color relates to the Color of racial Whiteness. Both are complicated, so here’s my first attempt to map out each and their intersection.

In color comics, racially White characters are not rendered white—there skin is not the color of the white page visible inside the black contour lines designating the edges of exposed skin. Some combination and density of ink is added to the white page to represent skin color. That rendered color is in one sense realistic. The colors are meant to mimic the colors of actual skin, and that shared resemblance is how the image represents its subject matter.

But since the limitations of color technology typically allow for only partial resemblance, the rendered color differs from the represented color, sometimes significantly, and yet the rendered color still represents that dissimilar skin color. One actual color is understood to be a different actual color. That’s a paradox I need to examine further.

Also, because the number of rendered colors is limited in comics (especially 20th century ones), single colors recur for multiple characters, vastly reducing the range of actual skin colors. That repetition creates groupings of characters with identically rendered skin color, and those groupings are understood to reference races. A comic’s simplified range of possible colors literalizes the reductive nature of racial categories. Where racial labels ignore individual differences to create groups, rendered color eliminates differences entirely.

In a color comic, all White characters have identically colored skin. So do all Black characters. Rather than imitating actual skin colors, color comics imitate color-defined racial categories imposed on actual skin colors. The use of skin color to name racial and ethnic groups is a synecdoche (a part stands for a whole), but since the colors are inaccurate, the racial terms “Black” and “White” are also misnomers.

Citing examples from 1500s travel documents detailing some of the earliest contact between Europeans and Africans, Winthrop Jordan notes the original inaccuracy of the adjective “black” to describe skin color: “Englishmen actually described Negroes as black —an exaggerated term which in itself suggests that the Negro’s complexion had powerful impact upon their perceptions. Even the peoples of northern Africa seemed so dark that Englishmen tended to call them ‘black’ and let further refinements go by the board” (1968: 4). That inaccurate physical description evolved into an inaccurate categorical label. 

Presumed skin color is present but secondary to geography in Carl Linnaeus’s 1735 four-part categorization, which included the Latin terms for white, dark, red, and black: Homo Europaeus albescens, Homo Americanus rubescens, Homo Asiaticus fuscus, and Homo Africanus niger. “For Linneaus,” argues Carolyn Purnell, “these colors were still quasi-metaphorical. For example, there isn’t a single case in which ‘yellow’ was used to refer to an East Asian’s skin until the nineteenth century. In Linnaeus’s time, East Asians were described as having white skin but being symbolically yellow: a color then associated with jaundice, weakness, and treachery. Over time, these terms grew increasingly literal.”

Though his 1795 five-part system was partly based on skull measurements, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach still placed skin color first when describing each category: “Caucasian variety. Colour white …” Just as Jordan identifies black as an “exaggerated term” for African skin color, white is at least as inaccurate. Blumenbach then joined that initial misnomer with another, coining “Caucasian” under the belief that Noah’s ark landed in the Caucasus mountains in contemporary Georgia, the origin point of all races.

“Skin color,” Nina G. Jablonski writes, “was the necessary differentiator of types or races of humans in European and Eurocentric race concepts of the eighteenth century. It was the keystone trait that defined races” (2020). The trend continued and arguably deepened in the nineteenth century. George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, further prioritized color in his 1853 three-part categorization: White or Caucasian, Yellow or Mongolian, and Black or Melanian. 

Those pseudo-scientific categories influenced governmental ones. The first U.S. census in 1790 designated only one race explicitly, “whites,” changing only in capitalization and plural form since. The 1870 census included five races: “white,” “Black,” “mulatto,” “Indian” and “Chinese.” “Black” became “Black (Negro)” in 1910, “Negro” in 1930, “Negro or Black” in 1970, “Black, African American, or Negro” in 2000, and “Black or African American” in 2020.

The terms “colored” or “of color” have never appeared on the census, but their histories are similar. The Oxford English Dictionary cites the first recorded use of the obsolete first meaning of “colored” in 1591, referring specifically to a Spanish person but generally to any “dark-complexioned” “white person.” The meaning shifted from a descriptively identified subgroup of white people to “any dark-skinned group of peoples,” especially of African descent but also South Asian and South American. Formerly enslaved Black people adopted the term after the Civil War, before its falling out of use after the Jim Crow era. It stopped in Britain at roughly the same time, though there “coloured” had referred to a mixture of racial groups, including mixed-race. In South Africa, it meant only mixed-race.

The prepositional phrase “of color” referred to “a person who is not white-skinned,” though the OED’s first 1786 example refers to “blacks and people of color,” suggesting distinct categories. The 1797 example includes an inhabitants list of St. Domingo with “three great classes: 1st, pure whites. 2d, people of colour, and blacks of free condition. 3d, negroes in a state of slavery… The class which, by a strange abuse of language, is called people of colour, originates from an intermixture of the whites and the blacks.” Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to “citizens of color” in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, and the phrase grew in popularity in the following decades. The acronym BIPOC, which came into popular use in the second decade of the current century as a widely inclusive term, combines “People of Color” with “Black” and “Indigenous,” though in some uses “of color” is already inclusive.

Color in the comics medium is comparatively simpler. Four-color separation allows for three variations (variously labeled 25%/2, 50%/3, and 100%/no number) for each color (variously labeled cyan/blue, yellow, magenta/red, and key/black), producing 64 possible combinations. “Legion of Andy” reports: “Inside DC comics, every white person was R2 — only until 1969, when artist Neal Adams got them to start using the yellow tints Y2 and Y3 for the first time in decades. White skin in Atlas and Marvel books was always Y2R2…” (April 7, 2021).

Whether 25% magenta or 25% magenta and 25% yellow or 25% magenta and 50% yellow, the combinations require the surface of a white page to produce the intended effect. R3 means that 50% of the skin color is the white of the paper. Y2R2 also means that 50% is the white of the paper. White is the universal background that all other rendered colors assume.

Africans appeared black to European travelers in the 1500s only in exaggerated contrast to their own equally relative whiteness, the skin color they treated as the norm to define all other colors and then Colors. In the comics medium, the white page serves a parallel function: other colors require it as their defining background, including for the representation of race-defining skin colors. When a color becomes a Color, whiteness and Whiteness merge.

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