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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Last week I compiled a political portrait of 1966, to explain the context of Marvel’s first portrayal of the KKK through the counterpart villains the Sons of the Serpent.

This week I delve into the story.

The Avengers #32 (September 1966) opens with the team returning from the previous issue’s adventure and Goliath upset that he’s permanently stuck being ten-feet tall. After Captain America picks a fight with him, Goliath rededicates himself to finding a cure, thanking Captain America for knowing “sympathy won’t do me any good! I’ve got a problem, sure – but I’ve got to face it – like an Avenger!” The attitude may reflect Stan Lee and artist Don Heck’s attitude toward race relations too. The Sons of the Serpent debut at the bottom of the same page.

Following the so-called “Marvel Method,” Heck would have penciled the images with empty caption boxes and speech bubbles, which Lee would have filled with text afterwards. Reverse-engineered, Lee’s script would look something like this:

Page 4, panel 5:

  • Narrator: But, just when it seems as though the Avengers are in for some peace and quiet, in another section of the city we find –
  • Sons member: “We warned you not to move into this neighborhood!”
  • Gonzales: “But, it’s a free country! I’m a law-abiding citizen! You have no right –”
  • Sons member: “You dare speak to us of rights?”
  • Sons member: “You —  were not even born here!”
  • Sons member: “Enough talk! He must be taught what it means to defy the Sons of the Serpent!”

Page 5, panel 1:

  • Woman: “Henry! What’s the commotion outside the window?”
  • Man: “It’s the Sons of the Serpent! They’ve cornered Mr. Gonzales! We – we have to do something –!”
  • Woman: “No! Come away from there! It’s dangerous to get involved!”
  • Man: “But, they’re beating him!”
  • Woman: “It’s none of our business.”

Page 5, panel 2:

  • Narrator: Thus, we take our leave of Henry and his wife – two less-than-admirable citizens who feared to get “involved” – as we return to the street once more –
  • Sons member: “We’re lucky no one called the police! Now, let’s go — !”
  • Sons member: “We’ll leave our Serpent sign – as a warning to any other foreigners!”

Instead of anti-Black, the Sons are anti-immigrant, specifically anti-Latino. This is a closer match to the eugenics-oriented KKK popular in the 1910s and 20s that supported the Immigration Act of 1924, which based national-origin quotas on the 1890 census and barred Asian immigration entirely.  Lee’s script also emphasizes the generalized values of “freedom” and being “law-abiding.” Even the Sons are surprised that none of Mr. Gonzales’s White neighbors contacted the police, and the narrator condemns only the White couple’s inaction, not the Sons’ criminal assault, which occurs mostly between panels.

Similarly, when Black Widow infiltrates a meeting, she thinks: “If such poison is allowed to spread, there’s no telling where it will end.” The poison metaphor, which Lee uses multiply times in the two issues, implies that the Sons are primarily a threat to the American public, rather than to the “foreigners” they persecute.

Lee and Heck also need to make White supremacy legible in the all-White context of the Avengers, requiring the introduction of a new Black character to assist Goliath’s work. Lee’s script never mentions Bill Foster’s race, and Heck draws him with a bowtie—an ambiguous fashion item that could reference Malcolm X, who had been murdered the year before, though White viewers might have associated it with Sean Connery’s first four James Bond films or formal attire generally.

Uncredited colorist Stan Goldberg gives Foster the gray-brown skin tone standard for Black characters of the period. I think his face and hands are closer in color to the gray machinery surrounding him in his first panels than to the human, White-denoting color of Goliath’s face.

Lee and Heck also create a space for Foster within the Avengers tiered social structure through misogynistic treatment of the lone White female member. When Wasp tries to assist in Goliath’s private lab, he scolds her: “I keep tripping over you every time I turn around! You’ve got to leave me alone, Jan!”

“But, you need an assistant!”

“Sure I do – and I’ll get one – a top-notch scientist – not a chattering female!”

After Goliath has told Foster to call him by his first name as they conduct experiments, Wasp returns with a steaming food tray: “I figured you’d starve to death if I didn’t return to look after you! Hi, Bill! I’m Janet Van Dyne – happy Henry’s hand-maiden!” The men continue working as she sits with a coffee cup: “You gents certainly have a way of making a girl feel needed!”

Though Wasp is clearly less skilled than either man, her portrayal is not necessarily different than in surrounding issues. In The Avengers #56 (September 1968), Roy Thomas scripts Wasp staying behind while the male characters perform a time-travel mission; her one job is to watch the controls, but she dozes off, nearly trapping them in the past.

When the Sons of the Serpent beat Foster unconscious outside Goliath’s home )a violence that Heck again obscures between panels), Goliath sets aside his personal quest to seek revenge, “before their deadly venom spreads any further!”

Wasp objects: “Can’t the local police cope with a few bully boys like the Serpents?” The complaint clarifies that the Sons of the Serpents are not primarily a supervillain organization of the kind typically introduced in Marvel superhero comics, but a fictional counterpart to the actual KKK.

Since no Avenger has ever been shown having a personal relationship with a Black person, Foster also serves the purpose of demonstrating that a White hero can feel passionately about Black people. Goliath declares: “We’ve been on many missions before – but never was there one that filled me with such a burning desire for vengeance!” However, he justifies his passion through a connection to other White people: “Every second that they remain free is an insult to the men who made this nation great!”

Lee and Heck next introduce General Chen, one “of the leaders of a hostile Oriental nation,” “an enemy … whose troops have fought ours on the battlefield in Asia,” but who is allowed in New York to address the United Nations. Though Lee does not name Vietnam, readers would have recognized the allusion. The U.S. had deployed 184,300 troops in Vietnam in 1965, and was in the process of deploying 385,300 in 1966. U.S. casualties had risen from 216 in 1964 to 1,928 in 1965, and would reach 6,350 in 1966.

After surviving an apparent assassination attempt, Chen complains about the protestors: “They are probably members of the Sons of the Serpent!” In the following issue, he taunts a “special committee” that includes Senator Byrd: “America claims to be a land of freedom – and yet they allow the Sons of the Serpent to preach their doctrine of hatred and tyranny on every corner!”

Byrd: “You come from a land where countless thousands live in abject fear – where they may not speak, or read, or even think as they please! And you talk of freedom!”

Chen: “I will not trade epithets with you, Senator Byrd! When the world one day comes under our rule, we will know how to deal with the likes of you!”

Byrd: “The world will never follow your lead – not while one free man remains alive!”

Byrd is the only real-world character depicted in the two-issue story. He had served as a West Virginia senator since 1958, supporting segregation. He participated in an 83-day filibuster of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, before it passed 77 to 18. He would be one of only 11 senators to vote against Justice Thurgood Marshall’s Supreme Court nomination the following year.

Byrd had also been in the KKK, recruiting a local chapter of 150 members in 1941-2, before running for state delegate in 1946, the same year he wrote to the KKK’s Grand Wizard: “The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia.” The year before Byrd complained that Truman was integrating the military: “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” His KKK affiliation was revealed during his first run for Congress in 1952, but he apologized and won, explaining that he joined the Klan “because it was strongly opposed to communism.” (I’m pulling quotes from Eric Pianin’s “A Senator’s Shame” published in the Washington Post in 2005).

Lee accordingly scripts Byrd seeing through Chen’s plan. He thinks: “The whole purpose of Chen’s visit here is to win a propaganda victory – and the Serpents are handing him one on a silver platter!”

Understanding the Sons of the Serpents as a thinly veiled representation of the Klan, Lee’s Byrd places opposition to communism ahead of loyalty to the Klan and so presumably also ahead of opposition to Civil Rights through a Klan mentality. The scene also reverses Hoover’s warning against Black activism as communist-supported, since it is the White supremacists who are, still apparently unintentionally, aiding the general’s communist cause.

After a convoluted plot involving the false appearance of the Avengers supporting the Sons of the Serpent, which prompts Foster to quit working for Goliath (“you can get yourself another boy –!”) and White public opinion to vacillate (“See? I told you the Serpents can’t be so bad – not if the Avengers themselves are behind ‘em!”), General Chen is unmasked as the Supreme Serpent on the final page.

A White bystander remarks: “And he almost got away with it! Why were we so blind – so gullible?”

Goliath offers a final lesson: “Beware of the man who sets you against your neighbor!”

Heck draws the face of a listening Black man as the most prominent element of the concluding panel.

Marvel’s first portrayal of apparent White supremacy is instead a communist plot to poison White Americans with racial antipathy. Though Mr. Gonzales is beaten for moving into an otherwise White community, and Bill Foster is beaten for walking through Goliath’s White neighborhood, the primary plot threat is to the body of the White population: “For, so long as their insidious poison can corrupt even one man, America will never be secure!”

The meaning of “man” in Stan Lee’s sentence is implicitly “White man,” since a non-White person would not be so susceptible to White supremacist beliefs, and by extension “America” is “White America,” then between 84% and 87% of the population, which must be made secure against communism. White supremacy then must be opposed, not because of its overt harm to its non-White victims, but because of its potential harm to its White supporters.  

On a side note, last week I also quoted the Marvel Database about this two-issue arc: “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.”

Oddly, that Hawkeye comment is not in the issue. Also, the fictional communist general at first appears to have been attacked by the Sons of the Serpent not because he is a “foreigner,” but because he has been waging a war against U.S. soldiers in Vietnam. The “extremely poor taste” is instead at the deeper level of indifference to the two actual acts of racist violence against a Latino man and a Black man and the use of racial tolerance as a means of protecting White Americans. The unmasking “plot twist” though is repeated in the next two appearances of the Sons of the Serpent and without the complicating factor of an anti-communist message. (More on that another time.)

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