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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.

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