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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Cyborg

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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I’m Professor X, only with more hair and worse teeth. My mind control powers are less impressive, but I did just spend last month brainwashing my Spring Term class in the subtleties of superhero science. The Gavaler School for Gifted Youngsters is housed in Payne Hall at Washington & Lee University. To graduate, my twelve evil geniuses were required to breed their own mutations in the Petri dish of superhero conventions.

“Disrupt the tropes!” I bellowed from my levitating wheelchair. “Disrupt the tropes!!!”

Their frothy creations unmask a few facts about superheroes, themselves, and our college.

Professor G’s New Mutants include:

Seven superheroes and five superheroines. The class itself was an even split, but three of the women and one of the men quietly gender-jumped. The slight disproportion does not reflect my testosterone-heavy syllabus, with only one female author (Baroness Orczy) and only Wonder Woman in the otherwise all-boy club (Frank L. Packard’s Tocsin, arguably the first superheroine, is a brief exception, and Moore’s Silk Spectres are at least female, though not exactly heroic advances in gender typing).

Washington & Lee, since its co-ed reboot in 1985, maintains roughly the same gender ratio as my class, but the faculty is closer to my syllabus, about 2-to-1. Which still beats both the Justice League (see Wonder Woman above) and, worse, The Avengers’  6-to-1 casting rate (what happened to the Wasp? Scarlet Witch? Mockingbird? Tigra? Moondragon? She-Hulk? Hell, what about Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer?).

Of my students’ twelve characters, none self-identified by race. Guessing from appearance (my students created posters), two were African American. That’s roughly 17%, and it beats our university’s diversity stats, which list about 85% of the student body and 90% of the faculty as White, Non-Hispanic. I have numbers for African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans, but since my students’ characters didn’t fill out census forms, we’re left with the skin tones and limited facial features available at Hero Machine 2.5 (3.0, they tell me, is crazily more advanced, at least for identity-obscuring costumes).

My syllabus included only two authors of color (both of whom were poets, an even rarer presence in superhero demographics). The Avengers score lower (if you don’t count Nick Fury as a team member, then the only non-Caucasian skin is green). At least when the Justice League rebooted last year, they retconned a black cyborg (named Cyborg, which at least is better than Black Cyborg) onto the roster. W&L is trying its best too. reports our school “just isn’t too diverse, but it is working on it. The $100 million Johnson Scholarship has allowed students of many different backgrounds to attend, and everyone at the University seems to be embracing it.”

I have no idea which if any of my students are Johnson scholars, but some of their characters could qualify for financial support. There’s a homeless anarchist (secretly the creator of all life on Earth), a poverty-vowing monk (though he should probably leave his years as a drug kingpin off the application), and a slum-raised orphan (he would have had some serious money if a different drug kingpin hadn’t murdered his soda pop tycoon parents). If the eugenically bred right-wing millionaire mercenary donates another $100 million, W&L could pull the next roster of need-blind heroes past the $56,400 attendance costs. Meanwhile, the other 2/3rds of the team appear solidly middle class.

There are no boxes for sexual orientation on the superhero application form, but since “love interest” was one of the most analyzed tropes in class, most of the characters had their sexualities on full display. Of the twelve, only one was openly gay. Even though that’s below 10%, it’s still a promising sign for W&L. It’s now possible to be an out student here, and a friend over in Counseling Services says the gay support group gets happily raucous. When a student in my wife’s poetry class workshopped a poem about his boyfriend, he was more worried about meter than outing himself. Excelsior!

Age wise, the characters cluster close to their creators. We have only one parent on the team, a stay-at-home mother of two, and one child, an unrelated ten-year-old, plus two high schoolers (though one time travels, so technically he’s over a hundred). It may be a reflection of the current economic environment, but there’s only one hero holding down a regular day job. He’s a cop. I’m not counting the government assassin because her only paycheck is the government not murdering her brother.

Government, especially law enforcement, tends to take a pretty bad rap in superhero stories, but for this crowd, superhero vigilantism is worse. (This may have something to do with my presenting the 1914 KKK as a model for the formula.) A total of five of these characters use deadly force while heroing, often as an outgrowth of their own self-defined, Nietzschean morality. (There was a vandal in the group too, but he seemed to grow out it.) But three of these homicidal whack jobs pay the ultimate price and die themselves. On the other end of the spectrum, two characters are proud law-abiders, working with the police and community to fix long-term problems instead of pulverizing the bad guy of the moment. One’s even a vegan.

There was only one case of bullying in the origin tales. It was nerd-on-nerd violence, and given the near lethal doses of comic book geekness I was exhaling into the classroom, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. In the end, all my evil geniuses graduated from the Hall of Payne.

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