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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

The first comic book I remember reading is The Defenders #15 (September 1974). I didn’t know it was #15. I didn’t know comic books were numbered. I just went to the 7-Eleven every week or so and looked for titles I liked with new covers in the spinning rack. They came out monthly, but I probably didn’t know that either. I wasn’t as young as I probably sound.

I did notice that Issues ended with previews. In the final panel of #15, Dr. Strange declares: “By the Ancient One’s Eyes! What horror has Magneto wrought?” And Marvel’s omniscient narrator promised in the bottom margin: “Afraid you’ll have to wait till next issue to learn the answer to that, Marvelite—but we strongly suggest you be here to meet … Alpha, the Ultimate Mutant.” And so I would have known to keep an eye out for a Defenders cover with that subtitle.  

It wasn’t until I was at some friend’s house looking through his collection that I came across that next issue. This could be a year, maybe two, even three years later. I was startled and excited—and then embarrassed when it became clear that front cover numbers were a well-established publishing norm that only I had somehow not decoded.

I didn’t actually read #16 for more than three decades. Marvel published Essential Defenders Vol. 2 in 2006, but my copy says: “Xmas 2009, Love, Lesley.” I think I had just started teaching my first superheroes course and had asked Santa for a sock full of nostalgia. The reprint volumes are in black and white, so when I started drafting what I hope will be my next book, The Color of Paper, I ordered an original copy too. Alpha the Ultimate Mutant dominates the splash page:

Color artist Glynis Wein renders his skin a consistent pink (probably 25% magenta and 25% yellow), while his body and facial features transform radically. “With each discharge of my power,” Alpha explains near the end of the issue, “my evolution has progressed with incredible alacrity.” His first line on page two was: “UUNNHH! UUNNHH!” Another member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants calls him a “big hairless gorilla,” and the narrator calls him a “Neolithic mutant.” By the middle of the issue, Alpha’s head is indistinguishable from Professor X’s, and by the end he’s a variation of the standard bulbous-headed alien (as seen on the cover).

So Glynis Wein (her husband, Len, scripted the issue) makes a visual claim: skin color is unrelated to evolution. The Neolithic gorilla version of Alpha has the same 25M25Y colored skin as the Professor X and bulbous-brained versions. I don’t know if Len Wein is making the same claim, since gorillas have nearly black skin. Perhaps the evil mutant Unus’s comment was a reaction only to Alpha’s hairless physiognomy, which was sufficiently gorilla-like to override his contradictory skin color. Or perhaps while Len Wein was scripting the issue, he pictured an initially dark-skinned Alpha?

Like most comics scripts, the one that Sal Buscema used while penciling is lost. After the first four pages, Alpha teleports himself and the Brotherhood to New York’s United Nations plaza, where he reappears with not just Glynis Wein’s White skin but also with what I imagine most viewers would register as White facial features, what Len Wein’s narrator describes as “a somewhat different Alpha!” Buscema’s and inker Mike Esposito’s depiction of Alpha’s features during the first four pages are strikingly different: his cranium is small, his nostrils are proportionately wide, and his lips and jaw protrude. He’s a racist caricature of a Black man.

When the issue was reprinted in black and white, the interior areas of line art that demark Alpha’s skin are the color of the off-white paper. Though that color is as consistent as Glynis Wein’s 25M25Y, it does not have the same representational qualities. Viewers do not perceive Alphas’s skin as off-white because the interior areas of all line-enclosed shapes are also the same off-white. His skin color, like the color of most objects, is ambiguous. Viewers would have to determine it according to other non-color visual clues.

A viewer who has seen a color art representation of the Hulk will likely recall that his skin was green and apply that knowledge to his black and white representation in the Defenders reprint. The off-white interiors of his skin-shaping line art would be understood to represent green skin. The off-white interiors of White characters—which includes all nine other repeated characters—would represent the color of White skin. It’s possible that viewers would recall the specific rendering of 25M25Y from earlier artwork, but I suspect they would visualize in a more limited sense and simply understand the characters to have skin that falls in the range of White skin.

But Alpha is different. His appearance on the splash page of #16 is his first appearance anywhere, so prior knowledge of his skin color is not possible. Because Glynis Wein gave him the same color as the White characters, Alpha appears White. But with no color information, how would a viewer interpret his skin color based on his facial features?

I suspect the racist caricature would trigger an impression of dark skin—not because viewers agree with the racist caricature but because they would perceive that the artists are intending to represent a fantastical version of a Black man. Viewers may consider the caricature as an offensively inaccurate portrayal but still perceive the representational intent. If so, the color of the paper within Alpha’s skin edges is likely perceived as falling in the range of Black skin.   

Glynis Wein’s color art blocks the possibility of that caricature-triggered perception of dark skin. Alpha’s White skin may also lessen the impression of his facial features. If so, the 25M25Y interiors alter the meaning of the black marks otherwise interpreted as racistly exaggerated Black physiognomy. The color art also presents a contradiction for viewers: is skin color or physiognomy the primary marker of race? If color defines Color, then Alpha is essentially (and consistently) White. If color doesn’t define Color, then Alpha begins as a Black super-gorilla and evolves into a White godling.

When Alpha teleports the Brotherhood to the United Nations, a man with a pointy goatee and a turban shouts: “By the eyes of Allah! It is … Magneto again!” Glynis Wein gives him redder skin, similar but darker than the skin of the figure next to him wearing what might be an orientalist robe and fez. Magneto removes another turbaned man from the podium before declaring his demands as the leader of “Homo Superior”: “produce a document granting mutants everywhere supreme domination over every civilized country in the world!” After battling the Defenders at Magneto’s command, Alpha eventually recognizes that Magneto lied about the Defenders being evil. Magneto explains:

“You were born an emotional infant! You couldn’t be expected to understand the reasons for our actions — — or the vicious persecution that forced us to them! Regardless of the deception, you are still a mutant – a mutant just like me! You must stand with us –with the others of your kind! It’s the only hope we have!”

Magneto, the Brotherhood, and the Defenders are colored identically. The only non-25M25Y-colored characters are the briefly glimpsed United Nation members. None appear Black, and Alpha’s evolved features no longer evoke caricatural Blackness either. Mutantkind then is apparently and exclusively White. Though the reference to “vicious persecution” could suggest a range of horrors in U.S. history, including the Jim Crow laws that ended a decade earlier, the exclusion of Black skin suggests otherwise. By blocking an understanding of Alpha as a mutant Black man, however racistly drawn, Glynis Wein’s color art defines Homo Superior as non-Black even at its most “Neolithic” stage.

I don’t recall my reaction to the Alpha artwork when I first glimpsed it c. 1976. I was about ten. I lived in an all or nearly all-White suburban neighborhood outside Pittsburgh. Since I hadn’t yet deciphered the complexities of numbering consecutive issues of comic book series, I doubt I registered the racial puzzle of Alpha’s appearance or the social context that heightened its meanings.

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