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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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