Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: May 2022

I was born in June 1966, a month before the release of The Avengers #32 and its portrayal of the first KKK-like White supremacist group in Marvel comics.

The entry in the fan-run Marvel Database (which is not known for its social and political commentary) concludes: “The plot twist at the end of this story is in extremely poor taste. Having a foreigner who had been a victim of racist violence be revealed to be the mastermind behind it all undercuts the presumed message of racial tolerance and quite literally blames the victim of racist violence for what happens to him. Hawkeye’s final comment (“Boy, if ever there was an undesirable alien, it’s him.) actually SUPPORTS the Sons of the Serpent’s racist attitudes. Even more unfortunately, it’s a plot twist that seems to get repeated whenever the Sons of the Serpent appear.”

Before delving into the story, I want to explore the national context that produced it.

The original, Reconstruction-era Klan was a loose network of local terrorist groups that resisted Union occupation and so-called “Negro rule” and that disbanded after federal troops withdrew from the South in 1877. The second, 1914 incarnation of the KKK, legally the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. disbanded in 1944 due to its inability to pay back taxes to the IRS. The third incarnation emerged in the late 1940s and early 1950s in violent opposition to the Civil Rights movement, but was never unified. The House Committee on Un-American Activities identified fourteen distinct organizations, with due-paying memberships ranging between 25 and 15,000 (Schaefer 152).

The Alabama-based United Klans of America formed in 1961 in an attempt to unite the various groups, becoming the largest by 1965. Their leader Robert Shelton served a year in prison after refusing to turn over membership lists to Congress in 1966. Though overt support of the Klan was low, the organization remained popular in a different sense. Defining “Klan mentality” as “an acceptance of what has been the Klan ideology without identifying oneself with the Ku Klux Klan or without even being aware that one’s prejudices form the core of Klan thinking,” Richard T. Schaefer concluded in 1971 that “although no longer an effective and viable force in American life, the klan mentality remains, if not thrives today” (144).

The KKK did not appear in a Marvel comic until 1975, but The Avengers #32-33 (September-October 1966) features the fictional Sons of the Serpent. Stan Lee seems to have intended them to be a recognizable KKK stand-in, describing their costumes as “robes,” their members as “hooded punks,” their leader as “sheet-covered,” and their public meeting as a “rally.” Don Heck’s costume design includes a short, short-sleeved robe with attached hoodie, though Stan Goldberg’s uncredited color art lessens the Klan resemblance by replacing white with brown and green. Heck also replaces burning crosses with snake staffs erected beside victims, but Stan Lee restores a different Christian allusion: “As the original serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden – so shall we drive all foreigners from this land!” Lee presumably intends the logic to be counter-intuitive and self-incriminating. (Though some KKK-affiliated ministers including William Branham preached that Eve and the serpent had produced an inferior race of hybrids, Lee and Heck do not seem to have the serpent seed doctrine in mind.)

Given Lee’s so-called “Marvel Method” approach, Heck likely either plotted the issue himself, leaving empty word containers for Lee to fill-in afterwards, or Heck worked from unscripted ideas that he and Lee developed through informal conversation first. Since Lee was also editor, the decision to feature White supremacists as supervillains was likely his decision. It coincides with the premier of non-White characters in other Marvel titles, including Wyatt Wingfoot in Fantastic Four #50 (May 1966), Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52-3 (July-September 1966), and a year later, Daily Bugle editor Joe Robertson in The Amazing Spider-Man #51 (August 1967). President Johnson had signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 the previous August, the same month as the Watts riot in Los Angeles, which, while triggered by an incident of police violence during the arrest of a drunk driver, a governor-appointed commission concluded primarily resulted from the segregated area’s poor living conditions, poor schools, and high unemployment.

Production norms suggest that the decision to create the Sons of the Serpents occurred by May 1966. In April, Martin Luther King, Jr. met with Johnson to discuss the Civil Rights Act of 1966, but because of King’s growing opposition to the Vietnam War, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s call for a “prompt withdrawal” earlier that month, Johnson did not invite King to the White House Conference on Civil Rights planned for June. April marks a turning point in public opinion. A March Gallup polls found that 59% of Americans thought sending troops to Vietnam was not a mistake, down slightly from 61% six months earlier; the figured dropped ten points in May, to a 49% minority (Lunch and Sperlich 25). 1966 also marks a shift in the Civil Rights movement, which is often described as ending in 1965—due in part to the defeat of the Civil Rights Act of 1966 by Senate filibuster.

Opposition to the movement had always overlapped with fears of communism. Johnson’s FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s 1958 Masters of Deceit warned that “the communists” were urging “the abolition of ‘Jim Crow Laws,’ ‘full representation,’ and ‘the fight for Negro rights’” in order to achieve the ultimate goal of “a Soviet America” (194, 192). Shortly after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Gallup had found that a plurality of Americans believed that most “of the organizations pushing for civil rights have been infiltrated by the communists and are now dominated by communist trouble-makers” (“Public Opinion on Civil Rights: Reflections on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 blog,” July 2, 2014).

1965 also saw passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act, eliminating the national-origin quotas established in 1924. According to the 1960 U.S. census, 88.6% of the population was White, virtually unchanged from 88.9% in 1910. According to Pew Research, the number was 84% in 1965, with only 5% of the population foreign-born (Pew 2015). The Act still met with conservative opposition. North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin objected to European countries being treated the same as African: “I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.” Myra C. Hacker asked a 1965 Senate immigration subcommittee: “are we prepared to embrace so great a horde of the world’s unfortunates?” Anti-immigrant ideology grew significantly in the years and decades following.

Finally, passage of the Civil Rights legislation also marks a shift in the ideological make-up of the two major political parties. Though Democrats controlled roughly 67% of each congressional chamber in 1966, they and Republicans included ideologically diverse memberships of liberals, moderates, and conservatives. Johnson united northern liberals of both parties after the interparty conservative coalition weakened in 1964, prompting a conservative shift within the Republican party that would eventually culminate in the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.

Lee and Heck’s Sons of the Serpent reflect these national tensions. (More on that next week.)

As discussed in the previous blog (“Hulk Is Not White!“), The Defenders #15 (September 1975) introduces Nighthawk’s right-hand man “Pennysworth,” an allusion to Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth.

Glynis Wein colors Pennysworth’s lone hand the same as Nighthawk’s face, 50% magenta and either 25% or 50% yellow, with the remaining color supplied by the white of the newsprint stock paper. Here’s what the pixilated scans look like zoomed in:

Pennysworth’s hand is on top, Nighthawk’s chin below. As I’ve been discussing in recent weeks, that’s the color of White people in the simplified world of four-color separation comics in the 1970s.

Pennysworth makes a similarly partial appearance in The Defenders #19 (January 1975), where Sal Buscema again pencils only one of his hands, this time with a corruption-signifying cigar:

Bill Mantlo colors Pennysworth’s skin the same color as Glynis Wein did, though here the racial distinction is sharper in contrast to the Black character in the same panel:

The rest of Pennysworth’s body doesn’t appear until The Defenders #25 (July 1975). Here’s the climatic page as it appears in the black and white reprint collection Essential Defenders vol. 2 (which looks blue due to the apparently horrific lighting in my office when I snapped the photograph):

The page reveals that Pennysworth is Black, obscuring his face until the final panel. His race is especially significant because he has been investing Nighthawk’s millions in the White supremacist organization in order to start a race war that would increase his employer’s profits (see the last post for the justifying monologue Steve Gerber scripts for the “despicable” character). The scene continues a Marvel trend for scapegoating non-White characters in portrayals of White supremacy (more on that later). Here I want to focus on how keeping Pennysworth’s race unknown till the final panel requires colorist Petra G (I assume that’s Petra Goldberg, AKA Petra Scotese, but I need to research further) to make intriguing artistic choices.

Here’s the page as originally published with Scotese’s color art.

Pennysworth appears in the second panel, but with his head cropped. His right hand is an opaque black shape as if obscured by shadow, while his left hand is fully visible, including fingernails, joints, and musculature. That difference in the line art requires a light source behind and to the left of Pennysworth, somewhere near and to the right of the implied viewer. And yet Scotese colors Pennysworth’s left hand the same non-human gray-blue as his clothing. The chair is a shade of purple, darker than the purple curtains on the other side of the room, indicating instead that Pennsyworth’s side of the room is overall darker — even though he had just been seated reading. The book seems to be falling from his into the lit half of the room. Every other page of the falling book is the color of the actual page of comic, but the brightest objects in the image are Nighthawk’s yellow boots, gloves, and chest insignia, as well as the yellow sound effect “SPASH” of the breaking window. Despite the previous panel appearing to take place outside in daylight, the outside visible through the window is now opaque black, providing no light source.

Scotese’s color art contradicts elements of Buscema’s and Abel’s black and white art, as well as general diegetic assumptions. The third panel intensifies those effects. When Nighthawk and Pennsyworth were in different areas of the room, it was naturalistically possible for each to be lit differently. But when Nighthawk grips Pennysworth, the fabric of Pennysworth’s robe appears to remain in comparative shadow while the fabric of Nighthawk’s glove remains the same bright shade of yellow. Rather than being lit by a light source, each figure seems to be inherently bright or shadowed. Scotese colors Pennysworth in two shadow-suggesting shades, the brighter shade creating an additional division not in Buscema’s and Abel’s line art. Both of Pennysworth’s thumbs are brighter because they are within a semi-circle dividing Pennysworth’s figure as though lit by Nighthawk.

The fourth panel continues the same effects. Scotese again creates a division within unmarked areas of the line art, coloring the areas closer to Nighthawk a brighter shade. Although both of Pennysworth’s hands are detailed as though fully visible, the coloring suggests he is still somehow obscured in shadow.

The final panel eliminates the effect, making the now fully lit Pennysworth’s skin color the standard color for Black characters. The black areas of the line art indicate a light source, one aligned with the position of Nighthawk’s cropped face, but because the left edge of Pennysworth’s face is a lighter brown, Scotese’s color art simultaneously indicates a light source from the opposite angle.

That contradiction is missing from digital reproductions using new color art based on but distinct from the original.

The sequence offers several lessons about color art. First, while penciler Sal Buscema is the most consistent artist over the span of issues, colorists Glynis Wein, Bill Mantlo, and Petra Scotese changed with each issue. Since two of the colorists are women, and there are no other women anywhere in the credits, coloring at Marvel was disproportionately female within a disproportionately male industry. Glynis Wein was also married to scripter Len Wein. (I don’t know if there’s a connection between Petra Goldberg and Stan Goldberg, Marvel’s primary colorist in the 60s.)

The second change in colorists parallels the change in Pennysworth’s race. Wein and Mantlo colored him White, and Scotese colored him Black. That change was likely a result of each colorist following a different writer’s script. Len Wein did not indicate any race, and so Glynis Wein defaulted to White (which also matched the allusion to Batman’s White butler). Len Wein plotted, Chris Claremont scripted, and Mantlo colored Pennysworth’s second appearance, continuing the same racial assumption. Gerber’s script instead pivots on Pennysworth’s race, and so Scotese avoided Color-signifying skin color until that reveal.

Gerber’s script does not acknowledge that, let alone explain how, Pennysworth changed races between The Defenders #15/19 and #25. In his first two images, the color of his hand is not a naturalistic representation of how the light in his office refracts off his skin at each moment. Skin color in the world of four-color separation art denotes absolute racial categories. That representational paradox reveals the contradictorily non-naturalistic qualities of color art generally — something I need to explore further.

So what color is the Hulk?

Short answer: green. Even though he’s gray-white in the above black and white reprint of The Defenders #25 (June 1974).

The long answer starts with a detour. This is the second two-panel row on page three of The Defenders #15 (September 1974), the first comic book I ever read:

In the left panel, millionaire Kyle Richmond, AKA Nighthawk, is phoning his employee, Pennysworth, to purchase a well-secluded riding academy so his teammate Valkyrie has a place to keep her winged horse Aragorn. This is the first appearance of Pennysworth, and though his name will be expanded to J.C. Pennysworth by other writers in 1991, scripter Len Wein presumably had Batman’s butler, Alfred Pennyworth, in mind here. Penciller Sal Buscema draws him mostly in the shadow of his massive desk chair, with only an arm visible.

I presume Len Wein’s script indicated that Pennysworth’s face should not be drawn, though I’m not sure why. The trope creates an expectation of a later reveal, but it’s also possible that Wein was only extending the joke, thinking viewers would imagine Batman’s Pennyworth in the absence of visual information. He and Buscema may also have been avoiding editor Roy Thomas nixing the nominally-disguised allusion entirely if Buscema drew anything even remotely resembling the DC-copyrighted character. Wein never uses Pennysworth again.

Steve Gerber took over scripting on The Defenders #20 (February 1975), while Buscema remained penciller. Their #22-25 (April-June 1975) story arc features the White supremacist supervillain organization the Sons of the Serpent. I thought they were a Gerber invention, but after a little googling I find they were created by Stan Lee and Don Heck in 1966 (more on that another time).

After trying to burn down a mostly Black apartment building, they declare: “Tonight the great White race begins its march to dominance once again! Tonight begins the return to rule of the majority — with death the fate of any who oppose us! For two decades this nation has felt the tyranny of the non-White minority — but no more! White and only White is beautiful!”

Some quick context: “two decades” ago would mean1955 and so the Montgomery Bus Boycott; the “Black is Beautiful” movement began in 1962 with the fashion show “Naturally ’62”; and according to the 1970 census, 87.7% of the population was White, and 11.1% Black.

Gerber’s response for Hulk is more to the point: “Only … White? Hulk is not … White … The snake-men also hate Hulk! Snake-men are Hulk’s enemies! And Hulk will SMASH them!”

So what color is Hulk?

For his premiere issue The Incredible Hulk #1 (May 1962), his skin was gray, which matched Jack Kirby’s Boris Karloff Frankenstein monster rendering. Stan Lee reportedly selected gray because he did not want to suggest any ethnic group. While the motive is possible, Lee is notorious for revising events. When recalling creating the Hulk years later, Lee claimed: “I just wanted to create a loveable monster—almost like the Thing but more so … I figured why don’t we create a monster whom the whole human race is always trying to hunt and destroy but he’s really a good guy” (95). But neither the Thing nor the Hulk of their original eight- and six-issue runs were good guys, let alone loveable ones. The Hulk was a barely controlled monster threatening the world as much as the villains he battled.

As far as his skin, colorist Stan Goldberg explained to Jim Amash in a 2003 interview in Alter Ego #18: “I steered away from the gray on the inside, because anything could happen once the silver prints were out of my hands… The colors would come through from the other side of the page, and the paper wasn’t white, either. We couldn’t get a white background on the page. The colors would sometimes be way off from what we wanted. That’s one reason why the gray didn’t work on The Hulk… we kicked around the idea of making him green, but Stan wanted to try gray. I fought him on that. I told him why it wouldn’t work, and it didn’t work, because we couldn’t keep the color consistent throughout the book. Sometimes The Hulk was different shades of gray, and even green in one panel. If we hadn’t already made The Thing orange, that’d have been the perfect color for The Hulk… We could do more with gray and brown on covers. That’s why I used them more on covers rather than the interiors, because gray was more unpredictable on that inside paper.” (16-17)

According to “How a Printing Error Gave Us a Green Incredible Hulk” at the Holland Litho printing services website: “It is easy to imagine how this printing error occurred. If one wanted grey and instead got green, the density on press was either light on magenta or heavy on some combination of cyan and yellow. After seeing the first published issue with the sometimes-greenish skin, Lee changed the Hulk’s skin tone to green…”

Though later writers retconned explanations, the change for The Incredible Hulk #2 (July 1962) was not referenced within the story and so the character was treated as though his skin had always been green.

So the Hulk is green, but what Color is? He presumably isn’t Green. As discussed in previous blogs, capitalizing could imply that the Hulk belongs to a group of Green people who “share the same history and culture, or the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

His alter ego Bruce Banner is White. Alter egos typically share a race, but most transformations involve disguises not cellular mutation. Stan Lee initially had Jekyll and Hyde in mind, and Hyde codes a range of ethnic and/or racial crossing. Banner also originally transformed at sunset, a nod to werewolves, which would seem to be a species transformation well beyond race.

Does the Hulk even have a race? Or at least a color identified one? Because comics lettering norms capitalize all letters, when he shouts at the Sons of the Serpent, there’s no way for readers to distinguish between “white” and “White.” Which did he mean? The Hulk became toddler-minded (not connected to the color change as later implied and loosely retconned) upon returning from a time-travel adventure in Tales to Astonish #78 (April 1966). Perhaps he’s not capable of differentiating between color and Color, and so green and Green?

Nighthawk calls him by the apparently affectionate nickname “Greenskin,” and they had fought alongside Luke Cage starting in issue #19 (January 1975). Their antagonists include the Black supervillain Thunderball, who Len Wein’s plot reveals in a sympathetic flashback had been working for Richmond Enterprises when he developed a hand-held gamma bomb ten times as powerful as Bruce Banner’s but “Richmond’s righthand man, Pennysworth,” patented it for the company giving him no credit or compensation.

Whatever Len Wein may have intended in #15, Gerber reveals in #25 that Pennysworth, profitably investing Nighthawk’s millions, is the financial mastermind behind the Sons of the Serpent. After tracking him down and confronting him, Nighthawk shouts: “how could you do what you did — — to your own people?!?”

Pennysworth explains: “Do you think me despicable, sir — for turning on my “brothers” and “sisters”? Before you answer, ask yourself — is every White man your “brother”? Do you feel kinship with him — because your skins are the same color? Of course, you don’t! Why should you? Why should I?”

Nighthawk: “B-but I don’t go out and murder people because they’re White, either!”

Pennysworth: “Ah. But you hold stocks in companies which gouge the public of millions each year — and in firms that pollute the air and water — and in –but need I go on, sir? You never objected to those investments. Never even asked where the money was. On that basis, I assumed —

Nighthawk: “That I wouldn’t object to plunging the nation into civil war?!?”

Pennysworth: “Yessir — if it would help increase your fortune.”

This isn’t the first or last time Marvel implicated a non-White character in a story about White supremacists (much more on that later). For right now I want to take a closer look at the words themselves.

All of the letters in Pennysworth’s and Nighthawk’s above dialogue were rendered by Ray Holloway. He lettered all of The Defenders #25 . Holloway had worked at Marvel since the early 40s when Martin Goodman’s company was still called Timely. Artist Allen Bellman said in a 2016 comics panel: “We had one black artist, Ray Holloway. He was a freelancer and he did a comic strip Scorchy Smith for the Associated Press. There was no animosity against color. I never heard anybody say or use the N-word. Some guys were nasty, but, eh….” (The Monomythic blogger adds in passive voice: “And with that, the subject changed.”)

Judging from a staff photo printed in Alter Ego #18, Holloway was still the only Black employee in the 50s. Stan Goldberg is in the photo too. He had started at Marvel, then called Atlas, as a color artist in 1949: “You know, all those years that Stan put credits on the book, he never mentioned the colorists. The writers, pencilers, inkers, and letterers got credit, but not the colorists. I thought about saying something about it once because it bothered me, but I didn’t. If the letterer got credit, so should the colorist. I personally thought the colorist was more important than the letterer.”

Goldberg left Marvel in 1969 to work for DC and Archie. In 1975, when Defenders #25 was on stands, he was drawing the Archie Sunday newspaper comic strip. Early 70s Marvel includes work by Black artists Billy Graham, Ron Wilson, Wayne Howard, Keith Pollard, and Arvell Jones. I’m having trouble finding any credits for Ray Holloway other than his Marvel lettering (which sometimes appeared on covers). He’s not listed for Scorchy Smith, which ran in newspapers from 1930 to 1961, but that could just mean his work was uncredited. A prominent Black artist, Alvin Hollingsworth, drew the strip in the 50s, but I’ll treat that as coincidence.

These are definitely Holloway’s letters though:

%d bloggers like this: