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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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