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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Monthly Archives: November 2022

The new Shenandoah is live. I’ve served four years as comics editor now, and each issue has been an expanding preliminary response to the question: What is a literary comic?

I still don’t have a complete answer yet, but I know that checking Shenandoah‘s submission page won’t help. In order to throw the widest net of possibilities, the portal guidelines include no definition, only an aside that comics “can be in black and white or color” (which is more about technology than aesthetics).

But in one sense, the question is easy. If defined by medium, a literary comic is any comic published by a literary publisher. Since Shenandoah is a literary journal, anything listed under “Comics” in the table of contents is a literary comic. The new issues features nine by six creators:

I suspect some viewers would not consider everything on that list a comic. That’s partly because “comic” has multiple overlapping meanings. For the purposes of Shenandoah, I happily entertain them all, requiring no common denominator other than image-based composition.

I recently published a book titled The Comics Form, but not all of these publication-defined literary comics are in the comics form (which I define as sequenced images). David Sheskin‘s, for instance, is a single image (and so not sequenced):

Neither are Sarah J. Sloat‘s four erasures. Each combines words (left exposed from an otherwise obscured page of text) with collaged images. If the collage is perceived as a set of distinct images, then they could also be sequenced and so in the comics form. I happen to perceive each page as a unified whole.

Formally, Kathleen Radigan‘s five-page “The Cloud” behaves more like a traditional comic — even though it is also a collage, combining drawings and photographs for a pleasantly discordant stylistic effect.

In her two-page “Prairie Psalm,” poet Despy Boutris explores the edge of minimalistic style, rendering her speaker as a stick figure within a 4×4 grid (which coincidentally was Joe Shuster’s layout preference in 1939 Action Comics).

Richard Bonhannon avoids human figures entirely, rendering his family memoir in maps in his twelve-page “The World Is Not My Home.”

At yet another stylistic extreme, Sija Ma‘s 35-page photo essay consists entirely of photographs, with no text. I suspect many viewers would not consider “A Hundred Stories” to be a comic, but since photographs are images and the images are sequenced, it is in the comics form.

Taken together, I don’t think these new works produce a coherent definition for “literary comic.” Fortunately, that’s not the goal, but it may be an eventual side effect as Shenandoah continues to publish two issues each year.

The next will be guest-edited by José Alaniz:

So please stay tuned!

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Last week I focused on The Avengers #73 and the second appearance of the KKK-inspired supervillains Sons of the Serpent. The story arc continues in #74, but first Black Panther asks the celebrity singer Monica Lynne not to appear on bigot Dan Dunn’s TV show again with Black activist Montague Hue.

Black Panther: “I’m asking you as a soul brother!”

Monica Lynne: “Soul Br ..? Then you … Why haven’t you let anyone know before?”

Black Panther: “I thought it was enough to be just a man! But now I know it’s time to stand up and be counted!”

Lynne’s surprise was surprising to me, but it reveals the significance of Black Panther’s costume design. Unlike every other member of the Avengers, his race is ambiguous.

Jack Kirby’s original 1966 Black Panther cover premiere featured the more common superhero mask that exposed the lower half of his face, but was replaced by a full mask presumably for fear of anti-Black backlash. The reverse extreme of the skin-exposing hypersexualized costumes of Black male superheroes, the skin-obscuring became a secondary trend and later included James Rhodes Iron Man, Milo Norman Mister Miracle, and Spawn.

Thomas scripts Goliath (who is Clinton Barton, AKA Hawkeye, during this Avengers period) a King-echoing justification:

“T’Challa only hid the fact that he was black because he wanted to be judged as a man … not a racial type!”

After Black Panther is captured while infiltrating the Serpents, they send out a false Black Panther to victimize “businesses owned by known supporters of the ultra-rightists,” leading to “Speculation that he is both black … and the vanguard of a new type of marauding militant!”

Thomas seems to be reprising to Lee’s 1966 plot in which the Serpents captured Captain America and replaced him with an imposter. The difference emphasizes the fear of racial division driving the story: the fake Captain America was also White and voiced White supremacist rhetoric, and the fake Black Panther appears to be Black (the White imposter wears two masks, the black mask of the Panther costume and also a Black mask indistinguishable from T’Challa’s face) and voices anti-White rhetoric:

“No Black American can rest … while a White American lives!!”

Despite the splash page motto, the White supremacist goal is no longer to drive out foreigners:

“The Serpents want to start a civil war … to set black against white!”

Buscema draws the real and unmasked Black Panther in literal chains shouting, “I shall be free!,” an allusion to slavery and the Civil War.

The Avengers expose the scheme on live TV, revealing that the organization is run by two Supreme Serpents, Hale and Dunn, a Black man and a White man working together.

Dunn: “Of course, you costumed cretins! Did you really fall for our racist act? Were you as misled as the fawning sheep who fed upon our every epithets?”

Hale: “Did you truly think we cared for anyone … for any cause … except power for ourselves??”

Thomas makes Hale’s villainous sentiment echo Lynne’s earlier attitude of selfish indifference. It’s unclear whether Hale intended her to die earlier, or if the attack was orchestrated as manipulation. Either way, Lynne reflects afterwards to Black Panther:

“If only we could undo the harm which a man like Montague Hale has done to … my people! How many minds can a viper like him poison against our cause?”

No one condemns Dunn.

The harm Hale has done to Black people could be understood in two ways. The poisoned “minds” could be White minds now prejudiced against the cause of Black people due to Hale amplifying violently anti-White militancy, or they could be Black minds now prejudiced in favor of that militancy and so against what Thomas implies is the legitimate cause of Black people.

Since Black militancy is linked to Black selfishness, Thomas can’t allow Lynne to return to her initial selfish indifference or to her more recent selfish militancy (including criticizing well-intentioned police), and so he instead has her voice a different cause in the final panel:

“Maybe I’ve lost a singing career tonight … … and gained a new career … a worthier purpose …!”

Black Panther, a slavery-evoking chain sill around his neck, echoes: “so has the Black Panther!!”

The story arc then is Marvel’s lesson for Black people not to direct their political activism in what Marvel considered the wrong way: against police and White people. Since the right way, the “worthier purpose,” is evoked but not detailed or even named, what matters is to not increase national division, regardless of how the national status quo affects Black people.

Finally, one very minor mystery solved. When I first blogged about Sons of the Serpent’s debut in The Avengers #32-33 (September-October 1966), I mentioned that the Marvel Database included this note:

“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.”

Hawkeye’s comment doesn’t appear in that issue, but it does in the two-page summary in The Avengers #73. Or it almost does. According Thomas, Hawkeye said: “If there was ever an undesirable alien, this cat is it!”

The “victim of racist violence” also describes Hale. I agree the anti-progressive plot twist is in “extremely poor taste,” but more specifically it serves Marvel’s message of political moderation during a major period of Black activism.

“The End?” asks Thomas’s narrator in the final panel. “Hardly..!”

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I began a series on Marvel’s 1966 version of the KKK in two posts (here and here) last spring. Here’s the next installment.

Sons of the Serpents make their second appearances in The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970). In the four years since the white supremacists debut, Marvel had introduced only one additional Black superhero, the Falcon in Captain America #117-120 (September – December 1969). Black Panther, who also premiered in 1966, made occasional 1967 appearances in Fantastic Four and Captain America episodes of Tales of Suspense, before Marvel added him to The Avengers beginning with #51 (May 1968), where he appeared in every issue but #72, immediately preceding the Sons of the Serpents return.

Black Panther’s presence in the series reverses the creation of Bill Foster, a Black character introduced in response to the white supremacist villains for The Avengers #32, suggesting instead that scripter Roy Thomas revived the Sons of the Serpents in response to the pre-existing Black hero. Either way, a white supremacy story requires a central Black character to be legible in an otherwise all-white context.

Thomas, along with artist Frank Giacoia and editor Stan Lee, were also responding to national politics. The murders of two of the most prominent Black leaders, Malcolm X in 1965 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, coincided with the end of significant civil rights legislation.

The Fair Housing Act, passed in the senate largely in response to King’s death, was the last. Also, only months after both Black Panther’s and Sons of the Serpent’s 1966 premieres, Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party in October 1966.

The organization did not uphold the nonviolent, integrationist rhetoric and tactics of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, instead endorsing self-defense against the KKK and the anti-colonial resistance of Frantz Fanon.

New York city, the home of Marvel creators, saw riots in the summers of 1967 and 1968. The first was triggered by a police officer killing of a Puerto Rican man armed with a knife, and was one of dozens of similar riots across the country. The second was triggered by King’s murder and extended across the country too. The Kerner Report, the Johnson-appointed commission’s investigation into the causes of the 1967 and earlier riots, had been praised by King and became a national bestseller following his death.

The commission concluded: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it” (2).

The return of Marvel’s KKK-inspired Sons of the Serpents seems less about the KKK as an organization and more about its generalized legacy. Though overt support for the Klan was low, it 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 Avengers #73 opens with a splash page meeting of the Sons of Serpents, with Thomas repeating Lee’s earlier and intentionally illogical White supremacist rhetoric: “As the first serpent drove Adam and Eve from Eden … so shall we drive from this land the unfit … the foreign-born … the inferior!” Two pages later the terrorists bomb an office building housing New York’s Equal Opportunity Bureau and then assault Montague Hale, host of the fictional TV show “Black World,” after he calls for an investigation. Dan Dunn, “an equally controversial late-night host” who Hale calls “the foremost bigot in America,” invites Hale onto his own show, prompting “millions of viewers [to choose] sides between the two men depending upon their previous prejudices.”

The Kerner Commission had warned: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” Lee, Thomas, and Giacoia present the division, not the inequality, as the primary threat. Thomas scripts the contrasting thoughts of two white cameramen, dramatizing the division between white viewers: “Dunn’s really givin’ it to that trouble-maker .. and more power to him!” and “If a crumb like Dan can top the ratings … a show called ‘Son of Hitler’ oughtta be a smash!”

In the next issue, after Halen and Dunn nearly exchange punches while shouting “Communist!” and “Racist!” at each other, a man at the control board reacts: “Holy crow! The way those two’re gon’ at it, we better switch to commercial break fast! Can’t blame Dunn, though … the way that Hale guy was mouthin’ off! I’d like to punch ‘im out myself ..!”

The second man at the control board (Giacoia only includes the back of his head, so his race is ambiguous in my black and white reprint) responds: “Not while I’m around, friend! For my money, Hale’s just tellin’ it like it is!”

The division extends to the Avengers. After he returns from a previous adventure and his teammates explain, Black Panther responds: “I don’t know which is worse … the Serpents themselves, or TV shows like one you’ve described to me! A bigot like Dan Dunn can be the torch to enflame an entire nation!”

Wasp answers: “To tell the truth, T’Challa, I found Montague Hale something less than civil!”

Despite the division, Black Panther expresses his hope, and the story’s message, “that both sides realize they have responsibilities which match their rights!”

The plot also centers around Black singer Monica Lynne, who initially expresses a disinterest in politics, refusing Hale’s urging: “A girl with your future could do a lot … for the right cause!”

“I’ve got a cause, friend … Her name is Monica Lynne!”

“You can’t mean that, girl! After what the establishment’s done our people … after what the Sons of the Serpent did to me …!”

“None of what you’ve been talking about concerns me!”

Lynne changes her mind after she is attacked and nearly murdered by Sons of the Serpent. Black Panther intervenes as she shouts: “The police! My God – why don’t the police come?”

When white officers do arrive, one asks: “Any idea of why the Serpents should single you out, miss?”

“The name is Monica Lynne! And my skin is reason enough … for vermin like that! What I want to know is, where were the police until the danger was over? Did you want to dirty your hands … to rescue a black girl?”

“We do our best, lady … but we can’t be everywhere at once! You’ve got to understand …!”

“Perhaps I do understand … better than you want me to! Excuse me, please! I have to call a man … about a cause …!”

It’s not entirely clear how the authors intend viewers to receive Lynne’s reaction to the police. One officer seems dismissive at first, “Take it easy, lady … no need for hysterics now!,” but that may reflect general misogyny rather than racial indifference. The officer also adds, “We came running as soon as somebody reported all the shooting!,” and sure enough Giacoia draws him in a wide-gate run, baton in hand. Thomas may also be referencing the incident of racial violence that introduced the Sons of the Serpents in 1966. There, Lee’s narrator disparaged white neighbors for not calling the police, but in Thomas’s reprise, “somebody” has performed that civic duty. It seems likely then that we are to understand Lynne’s criticism of the police as unjustified—though not so unreasonable as to make her character unsympathetic.

Lynne appears on the next airing of The Dan Dunn Show with Hale, explaining why she was attacked by white supremacists and left unprotected by police: “Because my skin is black in a country that wants to keep itself lily-white!”

(More next week!)

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