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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.”

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