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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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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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