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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Frank Giacoia

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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