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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: black superheroes

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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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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