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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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