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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Black Panther

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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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Trump promised a return to the Golden Age, and the Golden Age in superhero comics was the 40s and early 50s–an era far from golden for African Americans. Ester Bloom writes:

The boundaries of America’s “golden age” are clear on one end and fuzzy on the other. Everyone agrees that the midcentury boom times began after Allied soldiers returned in triumph from World War II. But when did they wane?

Some put the end point “at the economic collapse of 1971 and the ensuring malaise.” For superhero comics, that late 50s and 60s era is called the Silver Age. Maybe that’s the historic period Trump wants take us all back to? Let’s take a look. Here’s what it meant to be black in the Golden Silver Age:

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The 1954 Comics Code mandated that “Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible,” and its first decade and a half saw an end to overtly racist caricatures and an incremental shift toward more complex representations (Code 1954). Initially, however, superhero comics avoided black characters entirely and employed no well-documented black creators. President Eisenhower’s use of federal troops to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 and the 1961 freedom riders bus tour testing desegregated interstate travel in the South produced no immediate reaction in superhero comics. But when Marvel’s Stan Lee and Jack Kirby returned to World War II for the first issue of Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos in 1963, they included African American soldier Gabriel Jones in the seven-member outfit—even though President Truman did not sign the executive order desegregating the armed forces until three years after the war ended. The first issue was on sale while Martin Luther King was arrested during anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Alabama, and the second while King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 Civil Rights marchers in Washington, D.C.

Obeying Code guidelines barring racial ridicule, Kirby gives Jones no caricatural features. If not for his skin tone—rendered in the African American-signifying gray typical of the period—he could be mistaken for white. Kirby instead renders two white characters with occasionally exaggerated expressions (188, 189). If Jones’s musical skills are a racial stereotype popularized by jazz celebrities Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis (“‘Gabe’ used to blow the sweetest trumpet this side of Carnegie Hall!”), they do not stand out in the relatively diverse but otherewise all-white company of an “ex-jockey from Kentucky,” a “one-time circus strongman,” “an Ivy-League college” grad, an Italian “swashbuckler” actor, and a Jewish mechanic (Lee et al 2011: 184-5). While Kirby and Lee treat Jones respectfully, they also employ him minimally. He is one of the least depicted characters in the premiere episode, and, unlike Binder and Wojtkoski’s 1940s Whitewash Jones, Gabe Jones is never central in terms of plot or panel composition, speaking only four times in twenty-three pages. Whitewash spoke more than twice as often, twenty-eight times in his first fifty-seven pages.

The following year saw the ratification of both the 24th Amendment, which overturned voting taxes in the South, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Lee Falk had been scripting General American English for Lothar since the mid-1950s, and after artist Fred Fredericks replaced the late Phil Davis on Mandrake the Magician in 1965, Lothar would no longer wear his 1930s costume but open shirts, trousers, and shoes. Fredericks also experimented with facial features, which, given the black and white newspaper medium, sometimes resulted in a white-looking African prince. After the murder of Malcolm X in February, the attack on protestors in Selma, Alabama in March, passage of the Voting Rights Act and riots in Watts, California in August, and President Johnson’s “affirmative action” executive order in September, 1965 also saw the first African American hero featured in his own comic book title. Dell Comics’ western Lobo, featuring the titular black cowboy, premiered in December 1965, but folded after its second issue, nine months later.

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Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s most significant contribution to the representation of racial and ethnic minorities in superhero comics was the introduction of Black Panther in Fantastic Four. The issue is cover-dated July 1966, three months prior to the founding of the national Black Panther Party for Self-Defense organization. Kirby had intended the character to be named “Coal Tiger,” and his costume design would have revealed his race by exposing his face. Lee, who routinely reprised Golden Age characters and characteristics, may have revised the character’s name after Paul Gustavson’s 1941 Black Panther, a white superhero in Centaur Comics. Fantastic Four #52 is also a variation on Richard Connell’s classic pulp fiction short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” with Black Panther, the chieftain T’Challa of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, inviting the Fantastic Four to his kingdom “for the greatest hunt of all!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #52: 4). After being nearly overpowered by Black Panther’s superior Wakandan technology, the Fantastic Four escape his traps, and he surrenders. Despite this villainous introduction, the following issue begins with a “dance of friendship” performed by tribesman reminiscent of 40s-era Africa stereotypes, as Black Panther recounts a Batman-like origin story in which his father is murdered and he vows revenge against the killer—who coincidentally is attacking Wakanda at that moment. With the Fantastic Four’s help, Black Panther defeats his enemy and, with their urging, pledges himself “to the service of all mankind!” (#53, 20). As a result, the character does not serve what Kenneth Ghee identifies as “the sociological function of any redeeming hero mythos; that is working to save his own people first” and so is only “a generalized ‘humanitarian,’” not a “Black superhero” (2013: 232, 233).

Lowery Woodhall regards Black Panther’s first story arc as “a frustrating one to read from a racial standpoint,” beginning with “a ruthless, cunning and ferociously independent black man” and concluding with his “almost immediate emasculation” (2010: 162-3). While Lee and Kirby replace Black Panther’s personal duty of avenging his tribe’s previous leader with a superhero’s generically all-inclusive and so predominantly white-focused mission, they also portray him in a complex mix of racial tropes. While his costume and codename reinforce animalistic stereotypes, Black Panther reverses the racial structure of “The Most Dangerous Game” by assuming the role of the white hunter. He also defeats his enemy primarily through his intelligence: “You did not realize—I am a scientist too–!” (Lee & Kirby 2011: #53, 19), an opinion echoed by the Fantastic Four: “Apparently the talent of inventive genius is not limited to any one place, culture, or clime!” (#54, 8). His “jungle” palace includes “the latest fashions from Paris” and a grand piano played by “the world’s most renowned pianist” (#54, 7, 4). Lee also uses the Thing’s dialogue to mock his and Kirby’s use of African tropes common to comics since the 40s: “Yer talkin’ to a guy who seen every Tarzan movie at least a dozen times!” (#53, 6), and Black Panther admits, “Perhaps my tale does follow the usual pattern” (#53, 7). Kirby’s visual merging of Tarzan motifs with science fiction technology, however, reversed those Golden Age patterns. Still, Derek Lackaff and Michael Sales note how the character is undercut by the fact that “the sovereign Black monarch of a high-tech civilization is rarely allowed to exercise that power and authority” (2013: 68).

Lee followed Black Panther with the 1967 introduction of newspaper editor Robbie Robertson, second only to editor-in-chief J. Jonah Jameson at Spider-Man’s The Daily Bugle. Identified only as “Robbie” through dialogue, the character enters giving orders to a white reporter after Jameson has been abducted: “I’ll hold down his desk, while you see what you can uncover! Let’s go, boy! There’s no time to waste! (Lee & Romita 1967). Depending on production time, the August cover-dated inclusion of a graying black man in a position of authority directly follows president Johnson’s June nomination of Thurgood Marshall to the Supreme Court. Marvel integrated the Avengers when Black Panther joined the team in an issue on sale while Martin Luther King was murdered in Memphis and President Johnson signed the third and final Civil Rights Act in April 1968. Lee editorialized in his December 1968 “Stan’s Soapbox” in Fantastic Four #81: “Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today . . . if man is ever to be worthy of his destiny, then we must fill our hearts with tolerance” (Lee 1968). DC, in contrast, prevented creators from introducing black characters. Future Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter, who wrote for Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes from 1966-70, recalled:

I wanted Ferro Lad to be the first black Legionnaire, and Mort [Weisinger] said, “No, we’ll lose our distribution in the South.”… those were the rules back in those days. That’s another reason why Marvel appealed to me, because they were daring to do things that DC wouldn’t do. (Cadigan 2003: 53)

Weisinger, who had edited Superman since the 40s and was vice president of public relations, left in 1970.

[So much for the Golden Silver Age. But maybe Trump supporters have yet another era in mind? I’ll continue my search next week.]

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