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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Captain Marvel #1 (February 1994)

I teach Eve Ewing’s 12-issue 2018-9 run of Ironheart: Meant to Fly in my first-year writing seminar, so I’m especially pleased to see Ewing scripting the new Monica Rambeau: Photon series. Cover-dated February 2023, #1 was released last December, and the June #6 is already on stands now (I find the increasing gap between cover dates and release dates odd, but the fact that I still think in expressions like “on stands” is probably part of the problem).

I’m even more pleased to find that Carlos Lopez is coloring. Lopez is not a well-known name in comics, but I discovered the new series while googling him. He colored the 1994 Captain Marvel I discussed last week.

I assume the character has undergone significant revision during the three-decade gap (especially since the MCU Rambeau is now linked to the Carol Danvers Captain Marvel in ways that the 1982 character was not), but I’m more interested in changes in comics color technology and how they altered the decades-long norms for representing race and ethnicity in the comics medium.

A lot changed in the 90s as four-color processing gave way to experiments that culminated with Photoshop redefining coloring norms by the end of the decade. Though working with essentially the same limits as all of the previous colorists of Sons of the Serpent stories I’ve been looking at (1966, 1970, 1975, and 1991), Lopez’s work reveals changes in visual representation.

On the opening page, Lopez assigns two Chinese characters identical skin color, a light yellow-orange rendered in two tones to suggest naturalistic shading not indicated by the line art.

During the previous three decades, Asian characters were typically assigned the same skin color as White characters — an improvement over the literally yellow skin of the World War II and the Korean War periods. The characters are being chased by two Sons of the Serpent who, when arrested and unmasked, have paler faces.

Though at first Lopez appears to be continuing the norm of using skin colors monolithically as racial and ethnic codes, he instead emphasizes variations between Black characters.

Rambeau’s skin is a dark brown, but not as dark as FBI Agent Freeman’s.

Individual skin color is also not permanent. In a later panel within the same scene, Lopez assigns Rambeau a darker brown than Freeman, followed by Rambeau in the next panel with a brown identical to Freeman’s.

Lopez varies hair color too. Instead of the standardized blue for Black and Latino hair, Lopez assigns a dark red for the non-black areas of Rambeau’s cornrows, while an additional brown highlights or caps Freeman’s hair.

The intent is presumably naturalistic, as later described by colorist Ronald Wimberly changing a single character’s “hue depending on whim and light source” (2015). M. D. Bright and McKenna’s line art alters impressions of skin color too. Breaking with the more simplified style of the comic and the genre generally, one rendering of Rambeau’s face includes unusually detailed stippling that alters the shade of Lopez’s brown.

Lopez assigns Freeman’s nephew Ray Washington an additional shade, reminiscent of the non-human taupe used for Black characters before 1968. Washington’s hair is also blue, a further throwback to earlier racial coloring norms.

Because Washington is first introduced in a photograph, I considered whether Lopez was suggesting that the less naturalistic skin tone was a photographic distortion accented by Rambeau’s dark brown hand in the same panel. But a figure within the photograph has the same coloring as Rambeau, reducing the possibility.

Lopez later assigns Washington the same taupe in person, contrasting both Rambeau and an unnamed Black police officer.

Lopez also extends color variations to other racial and ethnic groups.

A crowd of students includes two shades of dark brown skin, but also two shades of orange skin, one repeating the Asian characters from the opening page, but the redder brown of two background faces are more ambiguous because of the absence of blue in their hair. The emphasis on visual differences within group identities aligns with McDuffie and Coye’s narrative of multi-cultural diversity growing stronger through “I’m of me” individualism.

McDuffie’s Milestone Comics, however, was already advancing further. “The company,” reports Justice A. Whitaker in his 2022 documentary Milestone Generations, “revolutionized the way comics were painted and printed by creating the Milestone 100-process to better represent the richness and variety of real-world skin tones.” Instead of acetate color separation, Milestone colorists such as Noelle Giddings used colored pencils and watercolors to create color art that was reproduced directly.

As co-founder Denys Cowan tells Whitaker: “there isn’t one Black skin tone” and “we were able to show the full range.”

Lopez appears to have had a similar goal — though Marvel’s color technology remained a barrier. I’m not sure if Lopez was limited to the 64 colors that Marvel had been using for decades. Marvel published their color chart in 1984:

Or if by 1994 Marvel had expanded to 124 colors — the range that had been available since 1973 but had largely gone unused since the darker colors printed poorly on comic books’ cheap paper stock. Eclipse had started using the wider range by 1983:

Neither was designed to represent the naturalistic tones of human skin. I’m guessing Lopez prefers the range of digital colors he’s using in Monica Rambeau: Photon.

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Since 1966, Marvel has published over a dozen stories featuring the KKK-based supervillain organization Sons of the Serpent. The double-length one-off Captain Marvel #1 (February 1994) stands apart as the first and only created by Black authors: writers Dwayne McDuffie and Dwight D. Coye, and penciler M. D. Bright.

McDuffie worked at Marvel as an assistant editor in the 80s, becoming a “touchstone” for race issues. (He had to explain to executive editor and Captain America writer Mark Gruenwald that “buck” was a racist slur, resulting in the new Black hero Bucky introduced in Captain America #334 (August 1987) being redesigned as Battlestar in #341.)

Bright began penciling at Marvel for the four-issue mini-series Falcon (November 1983-February 1984), and when McDuffie transitioned to writer, he partnered with Bright for Captain Marvel Giant-Sized Special (November 1989).

When roger Stern and John Romita, Jr. introduced the Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (August 1982), Romita based her afro on 70s blaxploitation film actress Pam Greer’s hair, which Bright altered to shoulder-length cornrows.

After working freelance at Marvel and DC, McDuffie co-founded and edited the Black-owned Milestone Comics, which launched its first four titles in 1993, including Icon, which McDuffie wrote and Bright penciled. The two continued their partnership for the 1994 Captain Marvel issue, though McDuffie is credited only for plot, and Dwight D. Coye for script. Coye had worked as a letterer at Marvel and was also scripting Meteor Man, a short-lived series featuring the Black superhero created by comic actor Robert Townsend for the 1993 film of the same name.

Though the story was developed specifically for Captain Marvel (likely for Marvel to retain rights to the name), the character seems secondary to the multicultural message, which the Black hero and the White supremacist villains serve. The cover features the phrase “Free Your Mind” equal in size to the title logo, and the Marvel Comics corner banner includes a no-hate symbol in the rectangular space typically reserved for a title character’s image. For his series Icon and Deathlok, McDuffie alluded repeatedly to W. E. B. DuBois, and the Captain Marvel story “Speaking Without Concern” takes its title from poet Audre Lorde’s splash-page epigraph:

“I speak without concern for the accusations, that I am […] too much myself […] through my lips come the voices of the ghosts of our ancestors […].”

McDuffie expands the target of White supremacy to encompass Asians for the first time. Coye gives the two college students fleeing the Sons of the Serpent on the opening page full names, Philip Pyun and Fie Kwan Lau, and brackets their speech with an asterisked footnote: “Translated from the Cantonese.” The Sons call them “Jap parasites” and a “Nip,” though they explain, “We’re Chinese, not Japanese!”

Though the Sons consider Captain Marvel an “inferior,” they do not target her or other Black characters, reasoning that Asians “hurt Black folks, too, buying up the country, taking all the university spaces away from average students.” After the two Sons are revealed to be students, Captain Marvel laments: “It’s hard to believe this kind of ignorance exists on a college campus.”

Another student mentions that the “Afro-American Studies building was blown up recently by a group of skinheads,” a reference to Web of Spider-Man #56-57 story (November-December 1989), in which penciler Alex Saviuk depicted the skinheads wearing identical gray business suits, white shirts, and black ties, while burning a twelve-foot cross on campus, an atypically explicit allusion to the KKK. (Coye’s use of the adverb “recently” to describe a five-year-old event is likely not ironic but an indication of the ambiguously condensed nature of time in Marvel’s story-world.)

McDuffie and Coye are responding to a broad national racial context, especially regarding college campuses. Though “only 9.6 percent of all full-time freshmen in 1990 were black” (Phillips 1994), a 1990 New York Times article reports that “racial discord has risen with the percentage of minority students,” citing “two firebombings and the spray-painting of racist graffiti on a wall of a black-student center” at Wesleyan (Rierden). Several colleges had faced accusations of unfairly limiting Asian enrollments during the 80s, with Berkeley publicly apologizing and Brown acknowledging the role of unconscious bias (Takagi 578). Black students at Brown also faced racist graffiti, “Niggers go home,” painted outside their dorms (“The State of History”). Charles Lawrence lists similar incidents at over a dozen other schools, including: “Racist leaflets in dorms … White Supremacists distribute flyers … Bomb threats … Shot fired … “(431-3).

Coye condenses nation-wide events into a single day at Marvel’s Empire State University: “Last night there were about a dozen RM attacks, including an explosion in the Women’s Studies department – several beatings of leaders in the Asian, Black and Jewish communities,” plus “hundreds” of Sons of the Serpent rally flyers: “Wake Up White People! Fight for your rights!”

Early 1990s racial debate extended well beyond campuses. Dana Takagi observes how neoconservatives used the issue of enrollment to shift national conversation “from one about discrimination against Asian Americans (1983-1986) to one about diversity in the University (1987-88), to, most recently, one about how affirmative action programs systematically disadvantage highly qualified Asian American students (1989-90)” in order to oppose affirmative action generally (579). The 1978 Supreme Court decision U. of California v. Bakke established that, while race could be considered as part of admissions decisions, racial quotas violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In the 1989 decision City of Richmond vs. Croson, which invalidated a requirement that 30% of construction subcontracts go to minority-owned businesses, Justice O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion: “The dream of a Nation of equal citizens in a society where race is irrelevant to personal opportunity and achievement would be lost in a mosaic of shifting preferences based on inherently unmeasurable claims of past wrongs.” President Bush cited “the destructive force of quotas” after vetoing the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which would have strengthened the anti-discrimination employment measures of the 1964 Act. In 1992, William L. Taylor and Susan M. Liss concluded: “Affirmative action is under siege in the 1990s. The courts are no longer a friendly forum for deprived and powerless citizens who in the past were often able to find redress when it was denied in the more political arenas” (35).

Coye lampoons anti-quota rhetoric with the Sons member’s accusation that Asian students are “taking all the university spaces away from average students,” since the anti-Asian policies achieved the opposite. Coye also frames the national debate in pro-American terms. While his narrator calls Sons of the Serpent “one of the most dangerous hate groups in recent history,” Coye’s Captain America calls them a “terrorist group who would deny others their fair share of the American dream” and is unable to imagine a “larger offense.”

McDuffie and Coye present a potential riot between students and Sons of the Serpent as the most serious threat, when Captain Marvel thinks: “This is a really sticky situation. Anything could spark a riot!” She also later scolds a Black student for organizing a counter-demonstration: “Ray, this is irresponsible and potentially dangerous for everyone!”

However, Ray tells the Sons leader: “I didn’t come here to fight — — none of us did […] We’ve all got our different agendas – and God knows we all have problems with each other now and again. But today we agree –the biggest problem is you.” When the leader calls a White student a “turncoat” and “one of them,” the student declares, “I’m one of me,” triggering all of the other Sons to unmask and disband.

The non-violent tactic appears to be effective for two reasons: a White male student supports it, and, rather than unifying around shared multi-cultural principles, the message champions individual self-interest. McDuffie and Coye’s script emphasizes paradoxically unifying “problems” between racial groups, accepting limited racial conflict as an acceptable alternative to violent extremism. Though the Sons attempted to commit multiple murders, Ray declares on the final page: “Hate consumes the hater and the hated equally.”

McDuffie and Coye also reprise the Sons of the Serpent unmasking trope by retconning Gerry Conway’s swastika-tattooed “Eddie the Cross” from Web of Spider-Man #56-57 (November-December 1989) into Eddie Cross, son of Rabbi Chaim Cross. The former skinhead leader is now the Sons of the Serpent leader, but with a secret Jewish identity. Coye scripts the rabbi father’s explanation: “I’m afraid that it is all my fault that Eddie turned out this way — — my pride in our heritage made Eddie feel like an outcast — — it is what made him hate himself and led to him becoming a skinhead.”

Captain Marvel disagrees, quoting the Audre Lorde epigraph and identifying the poet as an “African-American lesbian,” while insisting “the sentiment speaks to every American – no one should have to be ashamed of their culture.” Eddie’s father pleads to Eddie: “Let your hate go,” but it is Coye’s additional element, “Love yourself,” that transforms him from a blob-like monster literally consuming himself and others.

Captain Marvel offers Eddie a parting handshake, which he refuses.

It is one of Monica Rambeau’s final gestures as Captain Marvel. Marvel renamed her character Photon in 1996, after assigning the name “Captain Marvel” to a new character in 1995.

Bright draws her flying off in the final panel, thinking: “We’ve all got work to do …,” but it is unclear what that work would be for her, Ray, or the two nearly murdered Chinese students from the opening page. Though the genre requirement of lethal threats contradicts the thinly veiled reference to real-world circumstances, the authors emphasize Marvel’s message of political moderation consistent across decades.

[Other Sons of the Serpent episodes: 1966, 1970, 1975, 1991, 2008.]

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