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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Desegregating Comics

Matt Baker is best know for his Phantom Lady art in the late 40s — which Monalesia Earle and I analyze in our chapter from Desegregating Comics out next month from Rutgers. We have lots to say about Baker’s layout techniques and how they relate to his being a gay Black man in the mid-century U.S. comics industry.

But first, a history lesson on a completely unrelated character:

Tyroc was one of DC’s first Black superheroes, premiering in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 (April 1976). He was preceded only by Jack Kirby’s Black Racer in New Gods #3 (July 1971), Denny O’Neil and Neil Adams’ John Stewart in Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow #87 (December 1972), and Robert Kanigher and Don Heck’s Nubia in Wonder Woman #204 (January 1973).

Tyroc’s first appearance over three years later coincides with Jeanette Kahn taking over from Carmine Infantino as DC’s publisher in January 1976. He featured prominently again in Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes #218 (June 1976) and #222 (December 1976) before vanishing for three years.

He reappeared as a member of the assemble cast in #250 (April 1979), in #263 (May 1980) and #264 (June 1980) of the retitled Legion of Super-Heroes, and in the three-issue limited series Secret of the Legion of Super-Heroes (January-March 1981). He vanished again for a decade, then reappeared as a member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes in #16 (March 1991) of a new Legion of Super-Heroes series, with sporadic appearances there and then in Legionnaires until 1994. He made no appearances until cameos a decade later, and then as a recurrent character in the 2011-13 Legion Lost.

One of Tyroc’s creators, artist Mike Grell, regretted his involvement. “Tyroc was sort of a sore spot for me,” Grell told an interviewer. When Dave Cockrum left DC to draw The X-Men at Marvel in 1974, Grell took over Superboy Staring the Legion of Super-Heroes. The series was set a thousand years in the future, and Grell didn’t understand why there weren’t any Black people. As discussed previously, when he interpreted a police rookie as Black while drawing his fifth issue—the script didn’t specify race for the one-off character—his editor made him change the artwork, promising him that a new and permanent Black superhero was in development. Grell received the script nine months later. He hated it.

He disliked the character’s superpower (“the world’s stupidest … By screaming really loudly and making different noises, he could cause different things to happen”), but more importantly Grell objected to DC’s explanation for why no other Black characters had appeared in the series before:

“far worse in my mind—as a writer, as a reader, as an artist, as an inhabitant of the planet Earth—was the concept of the explanation as to why there had never been any black people in the 30th century: they had all gone to live on an island, which sounds like the most racist concept I have ever heard.”

Grell complained similarly to another interviewer:

“Their explanation for why there were no black people ever featured in the Legion of Super-Heroes up until this point was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. I was dumbfounded. It’s possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life. I mean, it’s a segregationist’s dream, right?”

Grell wanted to do something in protest:

“So I cobbled up a costume that was a combination of Elvis Presley Las Vegas shows and old blaxploitation movies. I drew it, but I didn’t take credit for it” (9).

He explained in another interview:

“I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis’ Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing… I modeled him somewhat after Fred ‘The Hammer’ Williamson, who was a movie star at the time [and] a football player …” (89-90).

I had to google Fred Williamson (Hammer was released in 1972, a year after Shaft). The resemblance seems clear:

Grell references Elvis twice, but the open-shirt costume design was disproportionately common for Black male characters (including Lothar, Falcon, Brother Voodoo, Luke Cage, Blade, and Black Lightning). Grell also gave Tyroc Robin’s bare legs and ankle-exposing winged boots, a visual allusion that places the adult Black male in the position of a White adolescent sidekick. The voiced-focused superpower may follow another 1970s trend of giving Black male superheroes traits associated with White female characters, in this case DC’s Black Canary and Marvel supervillain Lorelei.

Despite its unflattering elements, Grell’s costume design did not concern his co-creator, scripter Carey Bates, or their editor Murray Boltinoff. This presumably was Grell’s intent, since an overt parody would have been noticed, rejected, and replaced. Though protesting the shortcomings of a Black character by adding more shortcomings is a questionable strategy, Grell may have employed an additional strategy that also slipped past his colleagues:

He draws misdirecting layouts.

Fellow comics scholar Monalesia Earle and I recently co-authored “Misdirections in Matt Baker’s Phantom Lady” for the collection Desegregating Comics edited by Qiana Whitted (Rutgers 2023). We explain in the essay: “misdirection functions as a series of performative feints” that “seeks to effect perceptual shifts.”

Matt Baker was a gay Black man working in a overwhelming straight White industry in the 40 and 50s. What he “demonstrated through his drawings was not just a deterministically inscribed awareness of his secondary status in the U.S. (hence, drawing at the margins), but most certainly a deliberate de-centering of the White gaze upon his Black body by drawing from the margins– i.e., drawing empowerment from his marginal status.”

This is especially apparent in his layouts: “His idiosyncratic approach to viewing paths may be his most significant contribution to comics and also his most salient self-expression in an industry and culture doubly biased against his race and his presumed sexual orientation… By employing misdirection in his layouts, Baker effectively mounted an implicit critique of White norms.”

To understand what’s so disruptive about his layouts requires understanding the norms he was quietly overturning. Z-paths and N-paths “assume that contiguous panels are viewed consecutively as determined by their placement in approximately straight horizontal or vertical paths, and that when a path segment ends, typically at the physical border of a page, viewers skip to the beginning of the next row or column. Such skips are termed saccades in vision science, and they typically create a backward, page-wide, diagonal leap over a lower horizontal gutter dividing the next row (or over a vertical gutter dividing the next column). Forward viewing movements within segments (either rows or columns) typically involve no leaps because images are contiguous and parallel.”

We identify five layout misdirections that, while not unique to Baker, emerge as his signature style. While we were writing the chapter, I assumed the misdirections were essentially limited to him. But now I see that Grell uses them for Tyroc too. Of the five we discuss for Baker, three matter for Grell:

  • Misdirecting appendage: a portion of an image drawn as though extending beyond its frame and into another panel that is not next in the viewing path.
  • Reversed path: a path that moves from a right image to the next contiguous left image.
  • Parallel saccade: a backward but non-diagonal leap over a middle image that has not yet been viewed to reach the beginning of a next row or column.

In a previous blog I discussed the most notorious panel from Tyroc’s premiere issue, where Superboy and his fellow Legionnaires explain that they are “Color-blind,” revealing to Tyroc that he has been wrong for feeling “only hatred and contempt” toward them.

The panel appears in the center of the page:

Note the unframed third panel of the first row. It features Tyroc’s and Superboy’s full bodies and extends down the right edge of the page for three rows. Though the depicted moment is the third in the sequence of images, Tyroc’s legs are to the right of the fourth image, and Superboy’s feet are to the right of the fifth image. Viewing the complete image produces a reversed path. Viewers must move right to left to reach the “Color-blindness” panel. Like in Baker’s Phantom Lady, the misdirecting appendages are legs, but they don’t break frame because Grell includes no frame edges for the third image (a strategy Baker never employs).

Baker uses the techniques often, but in the Superboy issues Grell drew, from #204 to Tyroc’s premiere in #216, this is the first time he uses either a reversed path or a misdirecting appendage. If that seems coincidental, look at a page from Tyroc’s second appearance in #218:

Again, Grell draws Tyroc and a second character in an unframed, right-edge image that extends below the next row. Because the third row has two panels instead of one, the result is parallel saccade instead of a reversed path: viewers need to leap over a sequentially unviewed panel to reach the correctly ordered panel.

I’m looking at the reprint Showcase Present: The Legion of Super-Heroes volume 5, which includes issues Grell’s #193-220, plus the one-off Karate Kid #1, for a total of seventeen comics. The only pages that include either a reversed path or a parallel saccade are the two Tyroc pages discussed here. (There is one other minor misdirecting appendage, but it is only a single boot extending into another panel.)

Did Grell know Baker’s style of layouts and imitate them to silently protest Tyroc? Maybe. Parallel evolution may be more probable: both artists innovated disruptive layouts for similar reasons. Grell was disturbed by a racist script and embedded a visual flow disturbance into his rendering. Baker was disturbed by a racist and homophobic industry and regularly embedded his signature disturbances into his art.

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