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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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.)

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