Skip to content

The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Avengers

As part of my wandering research into Marvel’s use of the white supremacist supervillains Sons of the Serpent, I posted a two-part discussion of a 1991 Avengers story warning against Black anger after the Rodney King beating.

As my comics analysis has grown increasingly color-oriented, this third of the intended two installments focuses on colorist Christie Steele — whose complete color code art for Avengers #341 I recently found at (Rob Tokar colored #342, but his color code art, like the vast majority of color code art, can only be inferred from the published comic.)

#341-2 features the fifth appearance of the Sons of the Serpent, what Stan Lee intended as a fictional counterpart of the KKK when he co-created them in 1966. In this iteration, the villains are led by Leonard Kryzewski, a minion retconned into the group’s 1975 appearance. Not surprisingly, Steele assigns Kryzewski White skin and yellow hair, implying northern European descent.

Steele assigns the same combination to a male figure in the next panel:

The sameness of penciller Steve Epting and inker Tom Palmer’s line art emphasizes the sameness of the White characters’ skin color. The first time I looked at the pairing, I briefly mistook the two to be the same figure — an unintentional recurrence effect that attention to other visual details eliminates.

After assigning most of Kryzewski’s group yellow hair and beige shirts, Steele gives other figures in the crowd the same combination, again visually blurring White people of opposing political stances. Since it defies probability that a dozen figures would all be wearing shirts of different design but identical color, the only naturalistic explanation is that the sameness is due to some quality of light.

Though Steele’s White people, whether White supremacists or not, visually combine, Steele attempts to differentiate non-Whites.

The newscaster has Black skin, labeled on Steel’s color code pages as Y4R3B2, meaning 75% yellow, 50% red, and 25% blue on off-white paper. Rage and Falcon receives the same codes throughout the issue too

But unlike the coloring of skin in previous decades, Steele provides some vacillation.

The first figure interviewed in the crowd of protestors appears to be Black, but Steele assigns the majority of his face Y3R3B2, creating a lighter brown that subtlety contrasts two Black faces in the background on either side. Steele also colors one side of his face a yellow that creates the naturalistic effect of a specific light source, presumably a late afternoon sun.

The next panel features three figures: a man with White skin in the center, a woman with White skin on the right, and a man with an ambiguous combination of brown and gray on the left.

Steele’s color codes art is ambiguous too. Some codes are written directly over colored areas, others are connected by arrows from the white margins, and some codes are missing — presumably with the assumption that the printer would interpret them from the colors themselves. Though her medium is identified as “colored pencils,” Steele may have worked with a brush, producing shapes of non-uniform color unlike the later printed art. In the case of the ambiguous figure, Steel’s original coloring appears more brown and therefor more naturalistic than in the published version.

The published version also recalls the taupe skin of Black characters used during earlier decades, including for Bill Foster introduced in the first Sons of the Serpent story in1966.

Where a 1966 colorist assigned the Sons of the Serpent’s first victim, Mr. Gonzales, White skin, Steele appears to designate the protester as Latino using the formerly Black-denoting taupe. The discordant color is more prominent in a riot scene near the end of the issue, with an apparently Latino man in a short-sleeve shirt throwing a rock; his taupe arm contrasts the Black figure in the background drawn directly below.

Where taupe designated Blackness in the 1960s, here the slightly evolved but still essentially limited color technology repurposed the color to designate an additional ethnic group.

Returning to the three figures in the earlier crowd panel, Epting pencils the third in a headscarf, presumably implying that she is Muslim. Though Epting could intend her closed eyes and gripped hands to suggest prayer, Nicieza instead scripts an unrelated defense of the police: “Maybe the police had a good reason? Who’s to say? Kids today …” Rather than assigning her Black or possibly Latina-associated taupe skin, Steele uses White skin, relying on the headscarf to differentiate her from the White man behind her.

The mixed-race superhero Silhouette poses a similar challenge. Nicieza and artist Mark Bagley introduced the character a year earlier in New Warriors #2 (August 1990), indicating that her father was Black and her mother Cambodian.

The six members of the New Warriors appear in a bottom banner on the cover of Avengers #341, with the Black character Night Thrasher’s brown skin juxtaposed with Silhouette’s taupe skin, revealing that taupe is not Latino per se, but a color generally designating an ethnicity outside a Black/White dichotomy.

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the interior art, Epting draws her stopping a Black man from throwing a bottle during a riot. Steele assigns her skin neither Black nor taupe, but a yellower brown not previously used (or identified in the color codes).

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the next issue, Tokar assigns her and Night Thrasher the same Black as Rage in the preceding panel.

But when she appears later in that issue, her taupe skin instead contrasts Rage.

The fluctuations, whether intentional or unintentional, could be understood as a reflection of the character existing outside of a clear racial division. They might also reflect the colorists’ attempts to use the highly limited technology more naturalistically, since actual skin colors fluctuate with changes in light.

For one page in #341, Steele assigns Falcon and Rage’s grandmother identical maroon skin in multiple indoor images.

In #342, an unnamed Black teenager vacillates between shades of brown in consecutive panels. Falcon even appears in one panel with inexplicably green-brown skin.

Even if all of the fluctuations are errors (by the color artists or by color-dividers later in the production process), the variations in skin color correlate with Marvel’s expanding depiction of racial and ethnics categories. They also reveal the inadequacy of 1991 printing technology to represent complex racial categories — and therefore to represent race generally.

Since color code art is pretty rare, I’ll conclude with Steele’s 22 pages:

Tags: , , , , ,

Last week I began this two-part post on the Black superhero Rage and his use in an Avengers story responding to the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The first issue begins with a newscaster’s captioned voiceover: “The videotape of what has been dubbed ‘The Carmello Clubbing’ has been burned into the collective mind of New Yorkers — — and their opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

A man (later identified with the Polish last name Kryzewski) declares: “Punks like that deserve what they get! All them types do! City’s become a sewer since all your types showed up!”

Rage leaps down from a rooftop and challenges Kryzewski and his group—all given identical yellow hair by colorist Christie Scheele. After the group disperses, Rage speaks into the news camera:

“Cops got a lot to answer for. The ‘hood’s scared. Trust goes out the window, you know. We want to feel like the police are protecting us, not clubbing us down in the street.”

Later in the Avengers training room, Falcon explains to Rage: “The Avengers, as a concept, aren’t about dealing with problems of this kind.”

When Rage complains, “You don’t remember what it’s like to be a suspect just cause of the color of your skin!” Captain America responds: “I don’t think that’s very fair, son.”

Falcon: “Things aren’t always so black and white — –no pun intended — — age and experience have given me patience and tolerance.”

After Rage storms out, Captain America asks Falcon: “He has so much anger in him – where does it come from?”

“Same place as it all does, Steve – from what’s inside and what’s outside …”

Elsewhere, another Black superhero, Dwayne Taylor, AKA Night Thrasher (introduced December 1989, one month before Rage) trains with his Black father figure, Chord, echoing the Falcon’s attitude:

“Is there really that much I can do about it, Chord? […] I mean, how do I know who’s right and who’s wrong?”

Meanwhile Kryzewski, with the help of an unknown benefactor, re-forms the Sons of the Serpent, a “Radical hate group,” last seen in The Defenders #25 (July 1975). The retconned Kryzewski was arrested then for: “Aggravated assault. Inciting to riot. Attempted man-slaughter. Illegal possession of firearms,” but apparently wasn’t convicted given the fourteen years between publication dates—which would mean Rage was born the year the Sons of the Serpent attempted to start a genocidal civil war against Black Americans. Given the ambiguous nature of time within the Marvel universe though, the coincidence probably doesn’t reflect an in-world fact.

When the Sons of the Serpent incite a riot by challenging protestors outside a Brooklyn police district (“The time has come t’ eat the insects which are burrowing under the White skin of America!”), Night Thrasher’s team, the New Warriors, divide the two sides, with the Black female Silhouette chastising a Black man for throwing a bottle at the Sons:

“Now why don’t you calm down before you make matters worse?”

Soon Night Thrasher is responding with near homicidal force (“Because of my skin color they want to kill me!”), but only because the Sons’ secret benefactor is revealed to be Hate Monger—not the human Adolf Hitler clone from elsewhere in the Marvel universe but a new and apparently supernatural entity psychically intensifying and feeding from displays of hatred. (Nicieza also scripts him singing the Rolling Stones songs “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Shattered.”)

As the scene spills into Avengers #342 (December 1991), the Avengers arrive, making matters worse. Captain American eventually chastises the New Warriors:

“This is a matter best left to the police and community leaders!”

As far as the Rodney King character, even Rage’s grandmother agrees: “maybe the police were wrong for what happened to him, but how does fighting them solve the problem?”

When the four Avengers find the Sons’ headquarters and effortlessly defeat them, Captain America declares: “They weren’t very skilled, but better to stop it here and now before their hate group could grow.”

Falcon adds: “Kind of a shame to think that there are people out there who would agree with these clowns!”

But then Hate Monger returns, followed by Rage and the New Warriors, who Hate Monger incites into new passion before draining their energy. Only Rage struggles to keep fighting:

“You’re the reason my friend was clubbed down in the street. You’re the reason me and my people have been put down all our lives!”

Captain America: “Rage—stop! You’re giving him exactly what he wants! […] Stopping the Hate Monger won’t stop that madness, son! It has to start inside each of us. It has to start inside of you.”

In the page gutter between consecutive panels, Rage changes his mind: “You’re right … … There’re better ways to fight people like the Serpents .. than giving them exactly what they want …”

Hate Monger is disappointed, but promises to return when Rage’s resolve fades.

Captain America: “Rage—what you did—letting go of your hatred—it took a lot of courage.”

However, having learned that Rage is only fourteen, Captain America explains he can’t remain on the team. Rage is content with the decision: “maybe I won’t need to be Rage anymore – ‘cause there’ll be nothing to rage about!”

Nicieza’s allegorical script offers several messages. Here are the first few that come to mind:

  • avoid violence,
  • trust the police and others in authority,
  • don’t judge police officers videotaped beating a darker skinned man,
  • racists are small in number and ineffectual if ignored,
  • all racial animosity is equivalent,
  • national racial problems can only be addressed at the individual level.

Most of these opinions are expressed by a White man wearing an American flag, but I find the use of Falcon (included exclusively because he is Black), other Black superheroes (the equivocating Night Thrasher and scolding Silhouette), Rage’s grandmother (a trope of Black wisdom), and (the reformed and immediately retired) Rage more unsettling. As Nicieza’s newscaster said: “opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

But I’m most unsettled by a less direct message conveyed in the final color art.

The second issue’s one-page admonitory epilogue features a crowd of Black citizens gathered in an unnamed City Hall listening to a charismatic Black speaker:

“We can’t allow ourselves to be oppressed any longer! For centuries we have been placed in a position of inferiority and called a minority. They must feel the whip as we have! They must swing from the hangman’s noose as we have! Segregation equals degradation. We won’t be degraded anymore! There’s so much to be angry about, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to fight against, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to hate … isn’t there?”

The final panel reveals the speaker to be Hate Monger—now with Black features. For the previous issue, Scheele had given the character White skin, but for #342 colorist Tob Tokar instead uses an inhuman shade of yellow distinct from the skin color of White characters. On the cover, Hate Monger’s skin is a more overtly non-human grayish blue. Tokar’s revision of Scheele’s initial choice also evokes Scheele’s avoidance of White-signifying skin color for the White police officers beating the Rodney King character in the opening splash page.

It seems Hate is more at home in Black skin than in White.

Tags: , , , , ,

This is the unintended fourth part of my two-part post on the KKK-like Sons of the Serpents’ second appearance in The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970).

I was initially using Essential Avengers Vol. 4, a black and white reprint collection of The Avengers #69-97 published in 2004. I figured it would be sufficient but then discovered that the line art created some unexpected ambiguities. I’d started looking at the issues as part of my examination of Marvel’s portrayal of White supremacy, which is part of a larger project about whiteness in the comics medium, so I shouldn’t have been surprised by the odd overlaps of whiteness and Whiteness.

First consider these panels.

Scripter Roy Thomas and penciller Frank Giacoia created Monica Lynne for the Avengers story, and I assumed she was limited to it, though I later realized that she became a recurring Marvel character through the 70s (though I don’t think she’ll ever make it into the MCU Wakanda cast). She is introduced here by Dan Dunn on his late night show. Afterwards she talks to the other guest, Montague Hale, a Black activist who tries to enlist her help. When she refuses, I was surprised when Hale objects:

“You can’t mean that, girl! After what the establishment’s done to our people!”

I hadn’t realized Lynne was Black.

Here are three possible reasons why:

Giacoia’s drawings reflect the norms of simplified naturalism in superhero comics c. 1970, and since those norms construct feminine beauty as essentially White feminine beauty, he renders Lynne’s facial features in a way that I registered as generically White.

Alternatively, I am working with an implicit bias that a character is White unless drawn with a contradicting non-White racial marker.

Or maybe the off-white paper visible within the contour lines defining Lynne’s body influenced me to perceive White skin?

Giacioa’s hair design adds to the ambiguity, since the flipped bob could be worn be either a White or Black woman, and any distinguishing hair qualities are lost in the simplified rendering style.

I had pictured something like this:

But not this:

After I saw the color version I imagined Lynne’s hair differently:

I believe the uncredited colorist assigned Lynne’s skin solid yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan (“YR3B2” in printer speak), and the areas of her hair that are not opaque black in the line art are blue (solid cyan I think, though I need to check on that too). Those seem to be the race-denoting colors of Black people in Marvel comic books c. 1970. Since Giacoia knew that a colorist would be adding them, I wonder if he felt less need to render Lynne in a way that would suggest her race. If so, the line art is still influenced by the color art—even when the color art is absent in reprint.

I missed another Black character in the black and white version, a police officer identified as “Captain” in Thomas’s dialogue.

Here it’s unclear at what stage race was assigned. Lynne would have been identified as Black in Thomas’s script, and even earlier if he and Stan Lee had discussed the plot in advance. But Thomas could have left the police captain racially unspecified, leaving the decision to Giacoia while penciling. As with the black and white Lynne, I didn’t register the captain’s face as Black until looking at the color art. Again, that could just be my own implicit bias, but it’s also possible that Giacoia did not intend the captain to be Black and that the uncredited colorist, experiencing the facial features as racially ambiguous, chose Black skin. That decision could also have been Lee’s, especially since placing a Black character in a position of authority is significant in a story about racial politics. If so, Lee as editor could have inserted the detail at any stage of production, though I suspect it would have only come to his attention after Giacoia completed his pencils.

Note also that the hand of the officer reporting to the captain is White and so wholly a product of the color art. A Black hand would alter the connotative meaning of the image, with only Black police officers present in an investigation of the bombing of New York’s Equal Opportunity Bureau.  

I actively wondered about the race of one other character when viewing the line art. When Dunn and Hale are arguing during a live telecast, two men in the control booth have opposite reactions.

The character whom Sal Buscema (he took over line art in the second issue of the two-issue story arc) draws with White-suggesting hair supports Dunn, but the second character Buscema draws from behind, leaving his race ambiguous. Buscema gives the character hair that could be Black, and perhaps is meant to be Black, but I still experienced the image ambiguously.  

Thomas and Giacoia depict a similar moment earlier, with the opinions of two cameraman dividing the same way. But in that case, both cameramen appear White in Giacoia’s line art, and accordingly are colored White by the colorist. That earlier moment made me less likely to assume the race of the control-board character supporting Hale.

I was surprised that the colorist avoided the issue in the original publication by selecting colors that do not denote skin color.

Understood naturalistically, the blue and gray denote that the control room is unlit and so both men are obscured by shadows. Buscema’s line art, however, does not suggest this, and so the effect is a producet of the color art alone. It seems possible that the colorist (either acting under Lee’s instructions or not) was avoiding the implications of representing the second man’s race: if he is Black, the image shows a widening racial divide; if he is White, the image shows a political divide within White culture.

If the goal is ambiguity, it’s undermined by an earlier color decision. I missed this detail, but Guy Lawley pointed it out to me in an email: “we see the two guys in page 5 panel 1, coloured unambiguously.”

Each is placed in the background nearest the character they later support. Their heads are so small that Buscema’s art suggests nothing about race, but the colorist makes it explicit.

Again, it’s impossible to determine who made these decisions. Perhaps Lee wanted to obscure race and so had the colorist use shadowy blue and gray in the second image, but didn’t notice the race-denoting colors in the first panel.

The rest of the two issues, however, does not avoid representing race, usually because the line art designates it.

Page two includes Giacoia’s impression of “Africa” as Black Panther’s “airship” departs after a previous adventure and Thomas scripts Black Panther declaring: “They call it the dark continent … but now it blazes with the pulsing light of knowledge … of self-awareness!” Giacoia’s rendering of two figures, however, repeats absurd Tarzan-esque visual tropes of the 1930s. Unlike with Monica Lynne and the police captain, I instantly understood that both were intended to represent Black characters without the need of Black-denoting skin color.

Representations of contemporary Black characters rely on reductive visual markers too. Buscema draws a Black man on a New York sidewalk wearing a head band in contrast to an older White man wearing a fedora and glasses.

The young White man between them has an “A” on his jacket, suggesting a college jacket (despite the colorist later rendering it in greens), which may have been understood as distinguishingly White as is his parted hair. Thomas scripts the Black and White characters responding similarly to Vision, who passes through the street because: “I prefer not to walk among them!” The Black and White characters then are paradoxically unified by their shared othering of an android who has no race: “He ain’t White … and he sure ain’t Black!”

Yellowjacket must avoid a crowd too.

In this case, it seems that the colorist selected one child to be Black despite Buscema rendering what appears to be White hair. The three hands in the second panel are instead ambiguous, and the colorist chose the middle hand to be Black. And in the third panel, Buscema may have intended two of the children to be Black based on their hair, which the colorist followed, though the child in the foreground still appears to have White hair as rendered by Buscema though later colored Black-denoting blue.

Where line art can more easily leave race ambiguous through the absence of details understood to denote race, it is a requirement of color art (except when using shadow colors that may contradict an image’s naturalistic rendering) to make racial designations explicit. This is so despite actual skin color having no such properties, since the range of Black and White skin colors overlaps. It is the paradoxically non-naturalistic nature of color art — in contrast to the seemingly non-naturalistic nature of black and white line art — that produces the artificial visual impression of distinct racial categories.

Color art defines the stark lines of race in the comics medium.

Tags: , , , ,

This is the unintended third part of my two-part post on the KKK-like Sons of the Serpents’ second Marvel appearance in The Avengers #73-4 (February-March 1970). As discussed, the story arc features two political TV celebrities, one white, one Black, secretly masterminding their “racist act” to manipulate the American public and gain powers for themselves.

Although artist Frank Giacoia’s Dan Dunn is not necessarily a portrait of William F. Buckley, Jr., the character seems to be his fictional counterpart.

Buckley’s PBS show Firing Line began airing weekly debates in 1966, at first with Buckley and his guest at distant podiums, but later in swivel chairs with feet sometimes touching. “Buckley designed the program to convert viewers to the conservative cause,” writes Heather Hendershot, and his “intention was to debunk the principles of Black Power,” since “to him, it represented the very worst of left-wing radicalism” (2014).

Buckley conceived the show after debating “The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro” with James Baldwin in Cambridge in 1965. Though Black guests on Firing Line were an exception, Buckley debated “Where Does the Civil-Rights Movement Go Now?” with James Farmer in 1966, “The Ghetto” with Kenneth Clark in 1967, and in 1968, “Was the Civil-Rights Crusade a Mistake?” with Godfrey Cambridge, “The Black Panthers” with Eldridge Cleaver, “The Republic of New Africa” with Milton Henry, and “The Negro Movement” with Muhammed Ali.

Roy Thomas places the events of The Avengers #73-4 after the July 20, 1969 moon landing (“as the biggest audience since the moon landing hears an exchange of even more importance to the home of the brave!”), and the February cover-date suggests that scripting began in fall of 1969. Though C. Eric Lincoln appeared on Firing Line in June to debate “Afro-American Studies” and John James Conyers in October to debate “Race and Conservatism,” neither the sociologist nor the congressman seem to be a counterpart to Marvel’s Montague Hale. Of Buckley’s guest list, Hale bears a close resemblance to Cleaver, though Hale has a tie, not an open collar. The resemblance is overt in #74 where Hale’s beard is most clearly a goatee.

Sal Buscema also took over from Giacio that issue and so presumably imitated Hale’s original design, while also sharpening the resemblance to Cleaver. Giacio sometimes drew what appears to be a full beard.

Still, it seems Buckley was the primary target of Marvel’s critique, balanced by a far more fictional Black foil. Hale is the host of “Black World,” a show with no real-world counterpart. According to Hendershot, “Black Power leaders were covered by TV news as crazed radicals,” and ironically “Firing Line provided an uncensored window into the movement that was difficult to find elsewhere on TV” (2014). Marvel’s critique then is not that Buckley was using media to promote his own conservative causes, but that he was doing so by providing a forum for “equally controversial” disagreement.

Buckley rarely invited guests back (Barry Goldwater appeared in 1966 and again in 1969), and never for three consecutive episodes as Dunn does with Hale. That’s because Marvel refigures their Buckley stand-in as a “late night host.”

The format was growing increasingly popular. In 1968 and 1969, the 11:30-1:00 time slot featured Johnny Carson on NBC and Joey Bishop on ABC, soon joined by Merv Griffin on CBS, that network’s first entry in the genre. Giacoia and Buscema do not draw Dan Dunn behind talk show host’s desk, but the small round table and its array of papers, ashtrays, and water glasses is only a slight variation and also a closer approximation to the Firing Line set. Thomas’s narrator explains that Dunn works for a “rival network,” and “Thus it was inevitable that the two giants would meet, as millions of insomniac Americans watched…!”

No real-world late shows reached the top fifty Nielsen rating slots in 1969, and the top show attracted an estimated 15 million viewers, compared to the 53 million who watched the moon landing. Hyperboles aside, Marvel seems alarmed by the increasing media reach of TV, and imagined an amalgam of Firing Line, late night shows, and record-breaking viewership as a potential threat to U.S. society. Instead of creating a new supervillain to personify that threat, Lee and Thomas revived Lee’s obscure KKK stand-in that had gone unused for four years. Thomas also revived Lee’s original unmasking plot twist in order to satirize both Buckley and his Black Power guests, most specifically Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. Lee was also uncomfortable with the character Black Panther sharing a name with the organization and wanted to portray his Black Panther opposing an actual Black Panther Party leader.

Lee would later attempt to divide the superhero from the political group further by renaming him “Black Leopard” in Fantastic Four #119 (February 1972) with Roy Thomas scripting a politically moderate explanation: “I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name — but T’Challa is a law unto himself!”

The change was brief. When the character received his first series beginning in Jungle Action #10 (July 1974), he remained Black Panther.

Captain America #126 (June 1970), published three months after The Avengers #73-4, also offers a thematic epilogue to the Buckley-Cleavage story.

Stan Lee, with pencillers Gene Colan and John Romita (and Frank Giacoia now inking), brings Falcon back for a single issue after a six-month absence.  Captain America returns to Harlem to find that Falcon is wanted for murder, but he knows the allegations must be false: “He dedicated his life to fighting for justice … to helping his people … to helping anybody who was oppressed!”

Falcon soon explains that he’s been framed by a gang called the Diamond Heads: “They’re like a black version of the Klan! All they preach is hate whitey! They’re dangerous fanatics! They don’t care who suffers … or who gets hurt! They can set our progress back a hundred years!” Lee’s words are especially memorable because he scripts them in the talk bubble Colan draws above Falcon while he is changing into Captain America’s costume to elude the police.

Reversing the Sons of the Serpent plot twist, the heroes reveal the leader, Diamond Head, to be a White gangster: “The worse it got … the sooner we could take over!”

Captain America laments: “Your Diamond-Head hoods didn’t even know – they were being used!”

After Captain America calls him “amigo,” Falcon concludes the issue: “Your skin may be a different color … but there’s no man alive I’m prouder to call … brother!”

That’s the kind of ending Lee wanted on Firing Line, but that Buckley would never provide.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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..!”

Tags: , , ,


“There’s only one Hamlet (and most children don’t read it), whereas comic books come by the millions.”

That’s what Frederic Wertham told readers of National Parent-Teacher in 1949, his second of three reasons why comics are bad for kids. Six years later in Seduction of the Innocent, he quoted a publisher using the same Shakespeare play as an excuse for comic-book content:

“Sure there is violence in comics. It’s all over English literature, too. Look at Hamlet.”

kill shakespeare

Wertham roundly mocked the comment, but the publisher had a point, and not just about violence. Lone heir of an aristocratic family avenges his murdered father in a society ruled by corruption. Sound familiar? Hamlet is the boiler plate for Batman and other vengeance-motivated vigilantes across the multiverse.

So while it’s true most children don’t read Hamlet, Hamlet knock-offs come by the millions. But if you don’t think Batman is a Tragedy, take another look inside Shakespeare.


Bruce Wayne, haunted by the unjust death of his parents, dedicates himself to a noble war on criminals. Does that make Bruce a tragic hero? Depends on your definition. Hamlet is a tragic hero in the sense that he is the hero of a tragedy. Macbeth is also the hero of a self-titled tragedy, but the two characters are polar opposites. Macbeth overthrows the peaceful order of Scotland by murdering the king and stealing the throne. In Hamlet, that’s Claudius, the guy who murdered Hamlet’s dad and set his ghost wandering the ramparts. It takes the not-of-woman-born Macduff to defeat the usurper Macbeth and restore order. In Denmark, that’s Hamlet’s vigilante mission.

The ur-Tragedy Oedipus Rex combines the roles of Macbeth and Hamlet into one character. Oedipus is the supervillain who killed his own father, stole his father’s wife and throne, and sunk the city of Thebes into supernatural plague. But he’s also the hero who solves the mystery and restores order by punishing the criminal—which means gouging his own eyes out. If you define “tragic hero” as that sort of a self-punishing criminal, neither Hamlet nor Macbeth make the list.

But Hamlet, like Batman, is an avenger. He didn’t make Denmark rotten. That was Claudius, and if Claudius self-punished like Oedipus, Claudius would be a tragic hero too. But Claudius is just a garden-variety villain, and so Denmark needs a hero to set things right. Enter Hamlet. He’s “tragic” only in the sense that he dies, and since he dies after completing his heroic mission, he dies triumphant. But unlike the deaths of Claudius, Oedipus, and Macbeth, his death isn’t necessary to restore order. It’s just an epilogue.

Unlike tragic heroes who start out unjust and so corrupt their kingdoms before eventually punishing themselves, an avenger is aligned with justice from the start. Hamlet is “tragic” only because he ends in what Northrop Frye calls social isolation. The most extreme version is death—six feet under is pretty isolated—but social isolation comes in a range, and avengers embody it all. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett in The Myth of the American Superhero identify the standard type: “lonely, selfless, sexless beings” each of whom “never practices citizenship.”

Your traditional gunfighter doesn’t settle down after restoring order. He moves on. Which implies the role of avenger is socially subversive in itself. Because the avenger is a response to injustice, the avenger reflects and embodies that injustice. Once the criminal is punished and justice restored, the avenger also has to conform to tragedy’s ABA structure. His own pre-hero state has to be restored too.  It’s a mini-version of society’s former golden age, an age free of crime and so also free of crime-fighters. A full restoration of justice ends the role of the justice-seeking avenger, and so the avenger has to vanish with the villain.

To end in social integration instead, an avenger has to give up the avenger role. That means hanging up the costume and getting married—how early proto-superheroes Zorro, the Gray Seal, and Spring-Heeled Jack all ended their crime-fighting adventures. Serial heroes like Batman remain avengers by prolonging the B phase of the tragedy plot structure, that quixotic war on criminals that by definition can never end. If Bruce just needed to hunt down his parents’ killer, he could have retired a long time ago and married Julie. Remember Julie? Probably not. She was Bruce’s original fiancé, but, like Ophelia, Julie called it quits long before the end of the action.

Other avengers at least pretend to be on a simultaneous quest for personal restoration. Superheroes often figure their fantastical abilities as blessings for society, but curses to themselves, and so their ongoing serials project a desire to give up their powers and live a normal life. Alan Moore mocked this idea when he took over Swamp Thing, callingthe premise of a monster trying to regain his humanity” flawed because

“if that were to happen, the series is over. The dimmest reader realizes that isn’t going to happen, meaning the character is going to spend the remainder of the series on the run, moping about what was not happening. So Swamp Thing ends like Hamlet or just a Silver Surfer covered in snot.”

Hamlet, grandfather of monstrously moping superheroes, is a prototype of the isolated avenger whose identity is too defined by the avenging mission to give it up. Once he has completed the mission assigned to him by his father’s ghost and restored justice to Denmark by punishing his mother and usurper uncle, Hamlet’s death eliminates the last traces of Claudius’s corruption.

Hamlet could instead “regain his humanity” and reenter society by marrying, but Ophelia dies  because her boyfriend can’t stop being a hero—the same way Spider-Man would never willingly cure himself of his power-bestowing mutation. Marrying Ophelia before completing his mission would turn Hamlet into a failed hero or, worse, a villain, just another guy willing to be a citizen of a corrupt town. Like Batman, Hamlet can’t settle down till he’s scraped the rot out of Denmark. Lamont Cranston tells his fiancé the same thing: he can’t marry until he has completed his avenger mission as The Shadow, making Margo Lane an Ophelia who avoids death by accepting endless delay through a serial form’s never-ending B structure.

Which is a long way of saying: No, Frederic, there’s more than one Hamlet, and millions of fans do read them.


Tags: , , , , , , , ,

My wife and I have been discussing the proper disposal of bad guys lately.

Used to be a hero could just kill them. You didn’t even have to call it “homicide.” Unless you’re the 1930s Spider or his 21st century descendant, Dexter. Sometimes stories just have a convenient way of doing in the villain. The hero even gets to keep his moral high ground, as his enemy refuses to grasp his outstretched hand before plunging into the abyss (see Loki in the 2011 Thor).

Batman racked up a list of kills before DC instated the first code of comic book ethics and, more importantly, recognized the joy of a reoccurring nemesis. That’s why the Joker’s first appearance ends in jail bars instead of flames (Batman #1). When Superman’s original archenemy (the now deservedly obscure Ultra-Humanite) mysteriously vanishes from his plane wreckage, Superman muses: “Well, that finishes his plan to control the earth—OR DOES IT?”(Action Comics #13).

But the disappearing body trick gets old fast. And so if you can’t kill or lock up the guy, all you’re left with is banishment. Take Magneto. Even that all-plastic prison in X-Men 2 didn’t hold him for long. The first time the Avengers thwarted his plans for world domination, they sealed him in a magic bubble and dropped him to the earth’s core (Avengers #110).

It’s a nifty trick, but did they really think through the consequences? They were saving the earth, but did they consider the below-the-crust population? What about the mole men? Here they are, minding their own subterranean business, when suddenly, BAM!, world’s mightiest mutant plops into the heart of their community. Sure, he’s been de-fanged, no magnetic power waves pulsing from his battle helmet. But it’s still him. Same hulking physique. Same pompously flapping cape. Imagine having to face schlepping to work every day, never knowing when you’re going to find him slouching at the office copy machine, an unrepentant grimace scarring his face.

Because that’s the problem. He doesn’t know he’s a bad guy. In fact, as my ex-department chair’s husband’s brother says, Magneto is the best supervillain because he actually thinks he’s the hero.

But he’s not alone in that category. Only a few Bronze Age readers out there might remember the ex-Avenger Moondragon and her mission to bring peace to the world by establishing herself as its all-powerful goddess. Her rule wasn’t exactly a golden age for human morale, but she didn’t mean any harm. The Avengers had to thwart her too, but instead of allowing her to conveniently die or vanish, Thor’s dad demoted her with a power-absorbing headband and then forced her to join the Defenders for safe keeping (Defenders #124).

Great news for the world. Kinda shitty for the Defenders.

At least when Wonder Woman topples would-be world-conquers, she ships them to Transformation Island where they wear Venus Girdles and learn to submit to loving authority (Wonder Woman #28). But a guy like Magneto never changes. So when his next evil plan went horribly awry, he was demoted all the way down to the baby room. The leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants ends Defenders #16 as a bawling infant.

Again, great for humanity. But what about the x-babies at mutant daycare?

Imagine plopping your diapered butt down for storytime and who’s hogging the bean bag chair but the kid who just the day before was trying to remake your world in his own fickle image. It’s not fair. Mutant daycare was one of the best run departments in the multiverse, and now they have to babysit a dethroned ubervillain? The Defenders are a top-notch team of world-savers, and now they have to share a water cooler with a mind control goddess still pining for omnipotence?

When the Hulk went on a berserker rampage after losing the balancing presence of Bruce Banner, Dr. Strange banished him to an endless crossroads of alternate universes, ones where his green muscles could do no harm (The Incredible Hulk #300). It was a kindness to the poor brute because he got to choose where he would live, while still removing him from the world where he caused so much chaos. Sort of like job searching during an imposed sabbatical far far away.

Is that so much to ask?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: