Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Apparently, I have no sense for the topic/post ratio on my own blog since this is now the fifth installment of a two-part look at The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970).

Last week I discussed how those two issues are altered when reprinted in black and white, especially for the representations of Black and White characters. Here’s another look at Monica Lynne (the tenth image of her in her first two pages in #73), a character I didn’t initially realize artist Frank Giacoia had intended to be Black:

I’ve been staring at these images for a long while now (sometimes through a digital microscope mounted to my phone), so I can no longer say with any certainty but I suspect I would have identified the race of the figure on the left as either White or racially ambiguous.

I’m less certain about the image embedded in the right panel. It’s intended to be a photograph – which adds a metafictional quality since the image is composed of the same black marks as Lynne’s other representations, and the photograph’s border suggests a comics gutter. In terms of rendering style, the face in the photograph is more detailed, though not significantly so. If I saw the two images in a different context, I’m not sure I would identify them as the same person. I want to say the photograph face is slightly more suggestive to me of a Black face. I suspect that’s due to the drawn qualities of the nostrils (which I think are just slightly wider than what I have been conditioned to expect from renderings of a White female face, where noses are sometimes rendered as if seemingly non-existent with diminutive black dots for nostrils) and the lower lip (which is drawn to extend slightly lower than I might expect, though the quality is difficult to distinguish from the “full lips” of White feminine beauty, which is even more racially complicated).

But any racial ambiguity vanishes with the original color art:

I was emailing a lot with color expert Guy Lawley a few months back, and he very kindly studied these (and many other images) under his own (and much better) microscope to determine the color breakdowns.

Monica Lynne on the left has skin colored 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan (or “YR3B2” in c. 1970 printer speak) and hair 100% cyan. Those are the colors used for every Black character in the two-issue arc, including the multiply portrayed Montague Hale and Black Panther when unmasked (which is unusually often in this story), as well as several unnamed background characters who make only one or two appearances (any slight differences are likely due to the poor and varying quality of my digital reproductions):

Monica Lynne is different in the photograph.

There her skin is 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), with hair 25% magenta and 50% cyan (“R2B3”). Her irises are colored the same as her skin, and her lips the same as her hair. The uncredited colorist also added paler streaks (25% magenta, 25% cyan) in the photograph’s border that aren’t part of the line art.

All three colors could be called variations of gray. Guy suggested “purplish-tinged gray,” “pale purple” or “lilac” for the hair and lips, noting that the addition of yellow to the skin creates a “richer warmer gray.”

The color art paradoxically turns the image into a representation of a black and white photograph. The line art is ambiguous, but since Lynne’s real face and photographed face are rendered similarly and with no indication of difference since the large areas of skin in both are the unmarked page, I suspect most viewers would perceive the photograph as a color photograph when reproduced in the black and white reprint.

The tilt of the image, as well as the villain’s thumb in the corner, establish that it is a photograph in the line art, producing no confusion. Presumably a color photograph would produce no confusion either, though perhaps someone—the colorist or Stan Lee as editor—feared it would. Thomas could have included the detail in his script too. If so, he may have had only the narrative effect in mind, being careful to distinguish the two images of Lynne appearing in the same row.

He or the uncredited colorist may also have been referencing earlier depictions of Black characters. Before about 1970, Black characters were colored in what could be called “gray.”

In The Avengers #32 (September 1966), when the KKK-inspired Sons of the Serpent made their first appearance, Stan Lee and artist Don Heck also introduced Bill Foster, a Black biochemist assisting Goliath. The uncredited colorist (probably Stan Goldberg) colored Foster’s skin 25% yellow, 25% magenta, 25% cyan (“Y2R2B2”).

Guy suggested calling that combination “pale brown,” “beige,” or “taupe.” It was used for the one other Black character in the same issue, an unnamed SHIELD agent (elsewhere called “Slim”).

It was also the standard color for Black characters in the comics medium generally in the 1960s and earlier.

Where the standard color for White skin (50% yellow, 25% magenta) produced a loosely naturalistic effect, the gray of Black skin seemed comparatively less human, with the 25% yellow distinguishing it only partially from the gray of machines and sidewalks.

There were exceptions.

Don Heck includes a full-panel close-up of Bill Foster in the next issue, which Goldberg colors the standard Black-denoting taupe, but because the face is atypically large, he raises the cyan from 25% to 50% for the ear and small areas of the face and hair to produce variations in shading. That’s 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), the color of Monica Lynne’s face in the black and white photograph. (Again, I am entirely indebted to Guy Lawley for identifying the exact color percentages and combinations.)

I’m not sure when exactly taupe skin was replaced, but it occurred somewhere between 1966 and 1970. The Avengers #73 includes a two-page recap of The Avengers #32-33, and the colorist instead gives Bill Foster the new standard for Black skin: 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan.

Raising yellow from 25% to 100% and magenta from 25% to 50% creates an equivalently naturalistic effect for Black skin as White skin. Since the change was not the result of any technological shift and so the more human color was always available, it is unclear why Marvel did not employ it sooner.

It also seems more than coincidental that taupe-colored Black people vanished during the cultural shifts of the late civil rights era.

It would help to know when exactly that change occurred. The closer it is to the publication of The Avengers #73 the more likely it seems to me that someone at Marvel was referencing it by coloring the photograph of Monica Lynne to evoke the recently replaced gray. Maybe more on that another time?

Meanwhile, since this post wouldn’t exist with out Guy Lawley, it seems fitting to give him the final insights:

“I would not be totally surprised to find that Thomas understood it as a visual pun on the theme of the story (‘this isn’t a simple B&W issue’ or somesuch) … I know this colour has been described (in this context, I would suggest, often mocked or – no pun intended – denigrated) as ‘grey’, but … I’m pretty certain that her grey colour in that panel was not intended as a reference to comics of old, and their far more simplistic / colonialist / racist depictions. … Thus ‘grey Monica’ while calling to mind the ‘grey depiction’ of Black skin in many 60s (and older) comics,- I fully agree with you there – actually demonstrates IMO a degree of distinction between ‘comic book grey(s)’ and ‘comic book taupe.’ … In other words, ‘grey Monica’ looking something like the older comic book depiction of black skin was more of a coincidence than a built-in commentary. But she is a certainly a gift to the contemporary comics scholar who wants to open up the issue… We might … see the grey photo as a rich metaphor for the more sophisticated level of story going on in Avengers 73/74; comics which surely can only benefit from a comparison with … so many older comics stories populated by grey African ‘natives’… And yes, as you imply, if such a comparison is to be drawn, both stories do need to be seen in a much longer context which includes plenty of grey ‘black’ skin.”

Tags: , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: