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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Trump promised to make America great again. But when it comes to African American representation and authorship, that Golden Age started during the Clinton presidency and has only begun to peak right now. This is my fifth and final installment in this series exploring African American superhero history.

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The presence of black superheroes continued to expand across the comics industry in the 90s. Former sidekick Shilo Norman assumed his predecessor’s identity in Miracle Mister—though in a costume that entirely obscured his racial identity, as had the Jim Rhodes Iron Man five years earlier. Former characters continued: Don McGregor wrote another Black Panther mini-series with artist Dwayne Turner in 1991, John Stewart starred in Green Lantern: Mosaic and Luke Cage in Cage in 1992. Darryl Banks penciled a new Green Lantern series beginning in 1994, and Tony Isabella renewed Black Lightning in 1995, the same year newcomer Doug Braithwaite began penciling at Marvel. New characters debuted: Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee introduced Bishop to The Uncanny X-Men in 1991, Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove’s Steel first appeared in The Adventures of Superman in 1993, and Marvel’s Night Thrasher series began in 1993.

The most influential new character, however, came from Image Comics, a creator-owned company that formed a year before Milestone. Todd McFarlane’s 1992 Spawn altered the unchallenged domination of Marvel and DC in superhero comics, with reports of the first issue selling 1.7 million copies. Where Black Panther’s skin-covering costume might have been an avoidance of race in 1966, Spawn’s equally skin-covering costume might suggest the altered significance of race as a comparatively incidental characteristic a quarter of a century later. Svitavsky, however, argues otherwise: “This concealment is yet another way of soft-pedalling black superheroes to resistant readers,” noting the costume pattern in nine black characters (2013: 159).

Less commercially successful, Ania, a consortium of Dark Zulu Lies Comics, Africa Rising, UP Comics, and Afro Centric Comic Books, released a number of short-lived titles in the early 90s (Poole), and Dawud Anyabwile and Guy A. Sims’ Brotherman Comics debuted in 1990 and ran for five years. Pioneering artists Jones and Pollard both left comics in 1995 after co-penciling Daredevil #343. Ania folded shortly after its formation, and Milestone began cancelling titles in 1995, before closing its comics branch in 1997. McDuffie moved to TV animation, writing for Teen Titans, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, and beginning in 2000 his Milestone character Static starred for four seasons on the WB’s morning cartoon Static Shock. McDuffie returned to DC for a Milestone Forever mini-series in 2008, and after 2008’s Final Crisis, the Milestone universe was merged into DC’s main continuity, with Static joining the Teen Titans, while Icon, Rocket, and their team members appeared in a Justice League of America story arc. After McDuffie’s death in 2011, Milestone Media and DC continued their partnership with a Static Shock reboot as part of the initial lineup of DC’s company-wide New 52 reboot in 2011 and with the Milestone universe entering DC’s multiverse as Earth-M in 2015.

Other superhero comics by black creators continued through the 90s. Jimmie Robinson founded his Jet Black Graphiks imprint in 1994, soon expanding into Image Comics and later Marvel. Kerry James Marshall presented Rhythm Mastr as an art installation in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art and weekly in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beginning November 1999: “Marshall’s comics propose an alternative to mainstream superhero culture by introducing protagonists taken from African archetypes and African American cultural life” and spirit powers “which once guided enslaved Africans to insurrection and freedom” (Carnegie). Jim Owsley, having changed his name to Christopher Priest, developed the new title character Xero for DC with artist ChrisCross in 1997. Xero continued the black cyborg motif of the 70s Misty Knight, the 80s Cyborg, and the 90s Deathlok, now with a black man “reconstructed of chemically-dependent bio-mechanical implants” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 21), earning Marc Singer’s praise for “its richness and complexity, free of the tokenism and erasure which have dominated the genre” (2002: 116). Though introduced and drawn as “a 6’6” blond man” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 7), Xero removes his light-skinned face and wavy hair to reveal dark skin and a black goatee near the conclusion of the first issue (19). Priest wrote all twelve issues, before beginning yet another Black Panther series in 1998. This iteration proved to be one of the most commercially successful, with Priest writing the final 62nd issue in 2003.

Aware of the dearth of black superheroes in the first several decades of the genre, 21st-century comics have literally rewritten superhero history. The 2004 miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black retconned a black Captain America into a super-soldier variation of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, followed by the character’s grandson joining Young Avengers in 2005. In 2008, Blue Marvel was retconned as a 1962 superhero forced to retire when the public learned he was black. For the revisionist Young Allies Comics in 2009, Whitewash Jones was renamed Washington Carver Jones, with an explanation that the World War II comics produced by the Propaganda Office “exaggerated the story” and that the “art was all caricature,” with Jones made to “look like something out of a minstrel show!” (Stern & Rivera 2009), Cyborg also received a miniseries in 2008 and was retconned as a founding member of the rebooted Justice League in 2011, and starred in an on-going Cyborg title in 2015.

Black representation continued and in some cases has increased in other 21st-century titles. DC recreated its 1930s Crimson Avenger as a black woman in 2000. Alex Simmons and Dwayne Turner premiered Orpheus in DC’s Batman: Orpheus Rising in 2001. Marvel’s 2002 The Ultimates introduced an alternate Earth Nick Fury based on Samuel L. Jackson, who would play the film version of the character beginning in 2008. In 2003, the daughters of Black Lightning became the duo Thunder and Lightning, and a black teenager assumed the title-role of DC’s Firestorm in 2004. Reginald Hudlin wrote a new Black Panther series beginning in 2005, giving the title to the sister of the original character in 2009. Luke Cage joined as a permanent member of The New Avenger in 2005, before becoming team leader in 2010 and finally leaving the team after 95 issues in 2012. Coordinating with the animated TV series Young Justice, DC introduced a new black Aqualad in 2010 and added an African Batman Incorporated character David Zavimbe in 2011, giving him his own Batwing series the same year, before passing the Batwing identity to African American veteran Luke Fox in 2013. Beginning in 2011 Ultimate Spider-Man featured Miles Morales, a mixed black and Hispanic teen, as title character. Marvel’s Storm was featured in 2005 and 2014 miniseries, and in 2014 Marvel introduced its fifth Deathlok series, with a new black character in the title role. Continuing the John Stewart Green Lantern and Jim Rhodes Iron Man tradition, the final December 2014 issue of Captain America introduced the Falcon as the new Captain America, launching All-New Captain America the following month, followed by the ongoing series Sam Wilson: Captain America in 2015. As a result, four of the seven members of the 2016 All-New All-Different Avengers are characters of color: Sam Wilson Captain America, Miles Morales Spider-Man, Sam Alexander Nova, and Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. The five-member 2016 Ultimates include one white woman, Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, and four characters of color: Monica Rambeau, Black Panther, Blue Marvel, and Miss America Chavez. 2015 also saw three new black lead characters: Lunella Lafayette of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur; the first black Robin, Duke Thomas in a team of Robins in We Are Robin; and a new black female Iron Man, Riri Williams Ironheart, who assumed the title role with Invincible Iron Man #1 (January 2017).

Fifty years after Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther premiered in Fantastic Four and coinciding with the introduction of the film version of the character, renowned journalist Ta-Nahesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther debuted in spring 2016, selling roughly 300,000 copies, one of the year’s best-selling superhero comics—a reversal of Roy Thomas’s early 70s lament that it is hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character is black. The change in representation, writes Carolyn Cocca, reflects “how much the fan base has changed just over the last several years,” one that includes readers who, “due to changing population demographics and gains of civil rights movements, are not only more diverse but also more vocal with their desires and their dollars”; “The superhero genre,” she concludes, “has come far in a number of ways, but has far to go” (2016: 2-3). Laura Hudson draws a similar conclusion in a 2015 Wired editorial, acknowledging that “the faces on the pages [of] popular comic books have steadily grown more diverse,” while also critiquing a “demographic imbalance” in which “the editors and creators of mainstream comics remain overwhelmingly Caucasian” (Hudson 2015). According to Tim Hanley, roughly one of every five comics employees was non-white in 2014 (Hickey 2014). As editors Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II write in their introduction to Black Comics, “comics are still only peppered with representations of the multifaceted Black experience by Black artists” (2013: 4).

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We have survived another two weeks of President Trump’s multi-media reality show. Because the star continues to approach his job with the research, responsibility, and nuance of a Golden Age comic book writer, I’m continuing to respond in the form of one-panel political comics, AKA Facebook memes.

While that means more 1984 and Fascism references, this past week Trump’s Congressional yesman Bob Goodlatte has claimed more of my satirical spotlight. Despite Congress being on recess for “district work,” Bob somehow found himself on the other side of the globe. (This was confusing until I found a World Geography quiz in his elementary school file.)

Bob did however “phone it in” for a fake town hall before going AWOL. In addition to my ostrich and Where’s Waldo? spoofs, I also made Bob a wild west Wanted poster. The first version included the generic phrase “Dead or Alive,” which some especially conscientious folks on Facebook objected to, so I removed it from the second version.

Moving further down to the most influential local issue, I also designed an anti-gerrymandering bumper sticker (“crooked,” get it?), which appears on my Facebook banner as well as my actual car bumper out here in the non-virtual world. (If you want one for your own non-virtual car, let me know.)

Finally, I make a cameo in the last meme. That’s me standing next to Bob’s cardboard cutout at the town hall held in Roanoke last week. It was an overflow crowd, even though everyone knew Bob wasn’t going to be there. That might help to explain why Senator Kaine is reporting a 900% increase in calls and letters since the election.

























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I started this series on African-American superheroes and creators searching for the “Golden Age” that Trump promised his voters. So far I’ve eliminated the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. Many consider Ronald Reagan the greatest President in history, and in fact the 80s are the most positive decade I’ve found yet. But not for the reasons some conservatives might think.

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The early 80s is a transitional moment in black representation. When DC re-introduced the Teen Titans in a 1980 DC Comics Presents backstory, Guardian-Hornblower was absent, but the team now included Marv Wolfman and George Pérez’s Cyborg, who would also be featured in the following month’s The New Teen Titans first issue. Pérez’s black and white costume design literalized the duality of African-American identity by juxtaposing the character’s exposed skin with his white machinery—arguably an extension of Lee and Kirby’s Africa/technology binary established in Black Panther’s 1966 debut. Pérez’s costume design, at least the eighth iteration of a black male superhero with a chest-exposing top, pushed the motif to its final extreme. The effect, writes Davis, reminds “the reader that he is more than just a mere robot,” while “reinforcing the double consciousness that he embodies” as a black character (2015: 209).

Cyborg also deepened the trend away from the use of “Black” in superhero names and so deemphasized race as a black characters’ most defining trait. Uncanny X-Men writer Chris Claremont established Storm as team leader in 1980, a role the character would play extensively and through multiple authors and titles for the following four decades. Marvel followed with two new superheroes in 1982: Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan’s Cloak of the Cloak and Dagger duo premiered in Peter Parker, the Spectacular Spider-Man and Roger Stern and John Romita, Jr.’s new female Captain Marvel, Monica Rambeau, in Amazing Spider-Man Annual. A Cloak and Dagger mini-series followed in 1983, and Captain Marvel would appear regularly in The Avengers until 1988, including as team leader. The Falcon also received a mini-series in 1983, and Jim Rhodes, as scripted by Dennis O’Neil, assumed the lead role in Iron Man and in the mini-series West Coast Avengers until 1985. Beginning in 1984 John Stewart similarly replaced Hal Jordan in Green Lantern, until the retitled Green Lantern Corps was cancelled in 1988, the year Black Panther returned in a mini-series. In 1986, John Ostrander, Len Wein, and John Byrne introduced Amanda Waller in Legends; though not a superhero, and often villainous, Waller would become one of the most prominent black female characters in the superhero genre.

The 80s also marked an increase in African-American creators working in superhero comics. Mark Bright entered in the late 70s, soon followed by Denys Cowan, Larry Stroman, and Paris Cullins. Wayne Howard left the industry in 1982, and Billy Graham died in 1985, but Ron Wilson continued to draw Marvel titles through the 80s. Bright teamed with writer Jim Owsley on the 1983 Falcon four-issue mini-series and the final ten issues of Power Man and Iron First in 1986. Arvell Jones became the primary artist for DC’s All-Star Squadron in 1984, and Keith Pollard’s titles included Green Lantern and Vigilante. Chuck Patton was lead artist on Justice League of America from 1983-1985, Milton Knight drew the retro-style Mighty Mouse for Marvel in 1987, and Malcolm Jones inked DC’s Young All-Stars into the late 80s. Cowan drew the 1988 Black Panther four-issue mini-series, while also teaming with Dennis O’Neil on the 1987-90 The Question. Joe Phillips started his career on NOW Comics’ Speed Racer in 1987, and Brian Stelfreeze would be featured as the primary cover artist for DC’s Shadow of the Bat in the 90s.

As black writers grew more prominent, black representation grew more complex. In 1989, Bright and Dwayne McDuffie revived Monica Rambeau for the single issue Captain Marvel. Bright replaced Rambeau’s previously vague afro with distinctly rendered cornrows, a first for a black superhero. Beginning in 1990, Cowan drew McDuffie’s Deathlok, a reboot of the early 70s cyborg super-soldier. Matt Wayne, eulogizing McDuffie after an award for diversity in comics was named after him, called McDuffie “the first African-American to create a Marvel comic,” one who “challenged our worldview, but so subtly that we could ignore it and watch the explosions, if that’s all we wanted” (Wayne 2015). McDuffie said himself of Deathlok, “I also managed to sneak in something of myself, Humanistic values somewhat at odds with the conceit of vigilante fiction” (2002: 29). In his March 1991 script draft for issue #5, he explained to Cowan: “I’m trying to implicitly connect the cyborgs to mutants and oppressed minorities” (2002: 49). At the story’s conclusion, Deathlok holds a copy of W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk, which he quotes at length (56). McDuffie’s collected run is titled The Souls of Cyber-Folk.

In 1993, McDuffie and Cowan created Milestone Media with Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle. Jim Owsley was originally involved, but left before the founding. Unlike other independent comics companies, minority-owned and otherwise, Milestone partnered with DC in order to secure wide distribution while also maintaining creative and legal control of its properties. Both the Milestone and the DC logos appeared on all covers. Milestone launched four titles in its first month: Hardware, Blood Syndicate, Icon, and Static, all written or co-written by McDuffie, with three more titles to follow in 1994, plus the DC-Milestone multi-title crossover and one-shot Worlds Collide the same year.

Like Deathlok, Icon’s Robin-esque sidekick Rocket, Raquel Ervin, reads from her copy of DuBois in the Icon premiere. McDuffie also alludes to Booker T. Washington and Toni Morrison, but the four-page wordless opening is most striking for its revision of the Superman origin story. Instead of the early twentieth-century mid-west, Icon’s spaceship crashes near a 1839 cotton field where an enslaved black woman, not an elderly pair of white farmers, adopts the alien infant. August Freeman, now a lawyer and a “big rich, conservative” (McDuffie & Bright 2009: 167), hides his abilities until challenged by his future sidekick, a black teenager named Raquel: “I told him how just seeing him opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me … how I thought he could help lots of people if only they could see what he can do” (23). Her challenge also encapsulates Milestone’s mission. Echoing O’Neil’s 1970 Green Arrow and Green Lantern, Rocket teaches Icon that submission to authority is misguided when authorities abuse their power—as when white police officers attack them without provocation. She also brokers a truce with a gang of mutated criminals, the Blood Syndicate, challenging them to do more than fight turf wars (143). With a supporting cast that includes Raquel’s grandmother and a female African-American mayor, Icon contain a range and density of black characters previously unseen in superhero comics.

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Life in Trump’s alternate reality provided its usual opportunities for political memes these past two weeks. The first below is a reference to Clinton’s final vote count, 2.9 million more than Trump, and of course the Republican insult of calling liberals “snowflakes.” Mussolini made a couple of encore appearances, flanked again by the ironies of Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric and even a few non-fascist GOP voices. There are my own attempts at inspirational call-to-arms, and of course our President is always good for at least one stunningly hypocritical tweet. Oh, and he said “a bad high school student would understand” his Muslim ban was right. That I thought everyone on Facebook would instantly recognize the references suggests maybe I’m spending a little too much time in the deep end?























And here are two I can’t take credit for. The 50 Ways Rockbridge logo was designed by another member, Katie Knudson, and I inserted it between two photos I took during our last meeting (over 125 attended, up from 25 the month before). It’s the banner on our Facebook page now:




And the “Missing” flyer is out of Indivisible Harrisonburg. We share Representative Bob Goodlatte, so I just inserted our Rockbridge address as instructed:



DeVos's phrasing mirrored boilerplate language used frequently in the education policy world. (Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner)

“Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment where they can learn, thrive, and grow.”

That’s what Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, wrote on her Senate confirmation questionnaire.

Vanita Gupta, President Obama’s  head of the Justice Department civil rights division, wrote in a 2016 press release: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment that allows them to thrive and grow.”

Is that plagiarism?

According to the Washington Post, it is. The newspaper first reported the story and made the allegation.

According to the Washington Examiner, it’s not. That newspaper’s Jason Russell argues: “Phrasing like that is a fairly standard talking point in the education policy world. It’s one of those noncontroversial vague statements that anyone might say.”

I teach writing to college students, so forgive me if I point out that Russell seems a little confused about the difference between adjectives and adverbs. I’m not sure whether he means “noncontroversially vague statements”  or “noncontroversial statements that are also vague.” If it’s the second, he should really place a comma between the two adjectives, but even then the relevance of “vague” is unclear. Worse, “fairly standard” is a contradiction. Either something is standard or it is not standard. If we allow for degrees of standardness, then “fairly standard” would be synonymous with “fairly non-standard.”

Sticking to plagiarism though, Russell gives two examples from education websites to support his claim that DeVos did not commit any infraction.

The New York Foundling Child Abuse Prevention Program: “CAPP believes that every child should receive their basic right to safety so that they can have the opportunity to grow and thrive.”

Let’s Grow Kids: “Police officers play an important role in ensuring that each child is growing up in a safe environment where she/he can learn and thrive.”

Do his examples support his claim?

The website statements share two consecutive words: “and thrive.” He’s right. That’s not plagiarism.

DeVos’ statement shares five non-consecutive words with CAPP: “every child … learn … and grow.” That’s also not plagiarism.

But her statement shares eight non-consecutive words with LGK: “child … safe … environment where .. can learn … and grow.” Is that plagiarism?

There are a variety of rules about the limits of verbatim language, some as strict as three consecutive words, some as lenient as seven. Indiana University, for example, identifies “word-for-word plagiarism” when “seven or more words are copied from the source, and quotation marks are missing.”

DeVos more than doubles that limit. Her statement shares a total of fourteen words with Gupta’s, the first eleven consecutively: “Every child deserves to attend school in a safe, supportive environment .. thrive[,] and grow.”

But that’s not all she did. Regardless of verbatim word choice, she also and more importantly did not acknowledge the source of the words. Even Russell acknowledges this: “DeVos gave answers that mirrored verbatim what a certain law or the Education Department website says,” adding the rhetorical question: “Is that really so bad?”

In my college, a student who submitted a paper that contained the uncited and verbatim passages that DeVos used would be brought before our Honor Council and likely expelled. Whether it’s “really so bad” for the U.S. Secretary of Education to be held to a lower standard than the students is in my first-year writing seminar is a matter of opinion. Whether she plagiarized is not. She did.

Russell acknowledges that too: “Yes, DeVos should have added, ‘As the law says, …’ or ‘As the department’s official policy reads, …’ But copy and pasting the law, and saying that it’s something you’ll do as secretary, isn’t worth making a fuss over.”

I’m sure the student who plagiarized in one of my classes last year felt his violation of the Honor Code wasn’t “worth making a fuss over” either. That’s why I begin every semester of WRIT 100 with a Plagiarism Test Certificate. Perhaps the Senate should use it for their confirmation hearings too.

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This semester I also included the admonitory example of another Trump appointee, Monica Crowley. The Fox News contributor was in line for a senior communications position in the National Security Council but stepped down after multiple examples of plagiarism were identified in her 2012 book, her Washington Times column, and her Columbia University Ph.D. dissertation. CNN provides a passage-to-passage comparison of dozens of examples. I recommend it as essential reading for anyone applying to Washington and Lee University. Prospective Trump nominees might take a look too.

I was going to keep it to one meme a day, and so collect a round-up of my political image-texts here every couple of weeks or so. But then the March inspired me, and Trump’s lies about his penis inauguration size, and the latest fascist parallels, and his hilariously dismal ratings, and then, dear God, the ban.

I will offer one apology though. The fourth image features Trump’s words superimposed over pictures of Melania during her modeling days. The juxtaposition, while striking, invited slut-shaming when I first posted it on Facebook, and that’s my fault. If anything, I think we should feel concern for her. I can only imagine what kinds of mental, emotional, and physical abuse marriage to Donald Trump must involve.

So here’s our pussy-grabbing, Muslim-hating President’s first week in office:

























Facebook memes combine my top two areas of interest: comics studies and political speech. Like other political cartoons, political memes are image-texts, though not in the usual “cartoon” sense. The images aren’t exaggerated, caricatural drawings, and the words aren’t contained in speech bubbles or caption boxes typical of one-panel comics. Memes usually use photographs, and their words are often superimposed without borders. I make mine on Word Paint, the digital equivalent of a woodcutting in the age of Photoshop, but the limitations can be practical and aesthetic too.

I’ll save the formal and creative analysis for another time. For now, here’s the collected sequence I created and posted on Facebook, beginning in October and ending (for now) with the inauguration. Though it wasn’t my intention, they form a diary-like chronicle of political events surrounding Donald Trump, as filtered through my indirect narration. Some are amateurish on the graphic design learning curve (it turns out that font size and ink color are everything, and that some photographs are basically impossible as backgrounds), but many hit the note they’re stretching for. If there are any you like, copy and paste at will.

The first two are before the election, starting with a quote from Speaker Paul Ryan taken out of context. The first after the election is my angriest (and features my Two-Face alter-ego, who also appears in longer cartoons here, here, here, here, and here). After Trump’s official election by the Electoral College, my tone shifts to inspirational activism (which coincides with my other blog, Dear Bob, in which I’m writing my Congressman Bob Goodlatte every day).  After that I started posting images everyday too. There’s a three-meme sequences on fascism and another after Meryl Streeps’ Golden Globes speech, followed by confirmation of Russia’s interference in the election and Trump’s cabinet nominees contradicting his policy statements during their Senate hearings. After the first White House press conference, they shift to overt calls-to-action in the week before the inauguration. The day of which there’s no direct reference to Trump, just scifi allusions, because, seriously, we’re in an alternate reality now, right?




















































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