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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Monica Lynne

Apparently, I have no sense for the topic/post ratio on my own blog since this is now the fifth installment of a two-part look at The Avengers #73-74 (February-March 1970).

Last week I discussed how those two issues are altered when reprinted in black and white, especially for the representations of Black and White characters. Here’s another look at Monica Lynne (the tenth image of her in her first two pages in #73), a character I didn’t initially realize artist Frank Giacoia had intended to be Black:

I’ve been staring at these images for a long while now (sometimes through a digital microscope mounted to my phone), so I can no longer say with any certainty but I suspect I would have identified the race of the figure on the left as either White or racially ambiguous.

I’m less certain about the image embedded in the right panel. It’s intended to be a photograph – which adds a metafictional quality since the image is composed of the same black marks as Lynne’s other representations, and the photograph’s border suggests a comics gutter. In terms of rendering style, the face in the photograph is more detailed, though not significantly so. If I saw the two images in a different context, I’m not sure I would identify them as the same person. I want to say the photograph face is slightly more suggestive to me of a Black face. I suspect that’s due to the drawn qualities of the nostrils (which I think are just slightly wider than what I have been conditioned to expect from renderings of a White female face, where noses are sometimes rendered as if seemingly non-existent with diminutive black dots for nostrils) and the lower lip (which is drawn to extend slightly lower than I might expect, though the quality is difficult to distinguish from the “full lips” of White feminine beauty, which is even more racially complicated).

But any racial ambiguity vanishes with the original color art:

I was emailing a lot with color expert Guy Lawley a few months back, and he very kindly studied these (and many other images) under his own (and much better) microscope to determine the color breakdowns.

Monica Lynne on the left has skin colored 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan (or “YR3B2” in c. 1970 printer speak) and hair 100% cyan. Those are the colors used for every Black character in the two-issue arc, including the multiply portrayed Montague Hale and Black Panther when unmasked (which is unusually often in this story), as well as several unnamed background characters who make only one or two appearances (any slight differences are likely due to the poor and varying quality of my digital reproductions):

Monica Lynne is different in the photograph.

There her skin is 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), with hair 25% magenta and 50% cyan (“R2B3”). Her irises are colored the same as her skin, and her lips the same as her hair. The uncredited colorist also added paler streaks (25% magenta, 25% cyan) in the photograph’s border that aren’t part of the line art.

All three colors could be called variations of gray. Guy suggested “purplish-tinged gray,” “pale purple” or “lilac” for the hair and lips, noting that the addition of yellow to the skin creates a “richer warmer gray.”

The color art paradoxically turns the image into a representation of a black and white photograph. The line art is ambiguous, but since Lynne’s real face and photographed face are rendered similarly and with no indication of difference since the large areas of skin in both are the unmarked page, I suspect most viewers would perceive the photograph as a color photograph when reproduced in the black and white reprint.

The tilt of the image, as well as the villain’s thumb in the corner, establish that it is a photograph in the line art, producing no confusion. Presumably a color photograph would produce no confusion either, though perhaps someone—the colorist or Stan Lee as editor—feared it would. Thomas could have included the detail in his script too. If so, he may have had only the narrative effect in mind, being careful to distinguish the two images of Lynne appearing in the same row.

He or the uncredited colorist may also have been referencing earlier depictions of Black characters. Before about 1970, Black characters were colored in what could be called “gray.”

In The Avengers #32 (September 1966), when the KKK-inspired Sons of the Serpent made their first appearance, Stan Lee and artist Don Heck also introduced Bill Foster, a Black biochemist assisting Goliath. The uncredited colorist (probably Stan Goldberg) colored Foster’s skin 25% yellow, 25% magenta, 25% cyan (“Y2R2B2”).

Guy suggested calling that combination “pale brown,” “beige,” or “taupe.” It was used for the one other Black character in the same issue, an unnamed SHIELD agent (elsewhere called “Slim”).

It was also the standard color for Black characters in the comics medium generally in the 1960s and earlier.

Where the standard color for White skin (50% yellow, 25% magenta) produced a loosely naturalistic effect, the gray of Black skin seemed comparatively less human, with the 25% yellow distinguishing it only partially from the gray of machines and sidewalks.

There were exceptions.

Don Heck includes a full-panel close-up of Bill Foster in the next issue, which Goldberg colors the standard Black-denoting taupe, but because the face is atypically large, he raises the cyan from 25% to 50% for the ear and small areas of the face and hair to produce variations in shading. That’s 25% yellow, 25% magenta, and 50% cyan (“Y2R2B3”), the color of Monica Lynne’s face in the black and white photograph. (Again, I am entirely indebted to Guy Lawley for identifying the exact color percentages and combinations.)

I’m not sure when exactly taupe skin was replaced, but it occurred somewhere between 1966 and 1970. The Avengers #73 includes a two-page recap of The Avengers #32-33, and the colorist instead gives Bill Foster the new standard for Black skin: 100% yellow, 50% magenta, and 25% cyan.

Raising yellow from 25% to 100% and magenta from 25% to 50% creates an equivalently naturalistic effect for Black skin as White skin. Since the change was not the result of any technological shift and so the more human color was always available, it is unclear why Marvel did not employ it sooner.

It also seems more than coincidental that taupe-colored Black people vanished during the cultural shifts of the late civil rights era.

It would help to know when exactly that change occurred. The closer it is to the publication of The Avengers #73 the more likely it seems to me that someone at Marvel was referencing it by coloring the photograph of Monica Lynne to evoke the recently replaced gray. Maybe more on that another time?

Meanwhile, since this post wouldn’t exist with out Guy Lawley, it seems fitting to give him the final insights:

“I would not be totally surprised to find that Thomas understood it as a visual pun on the theme of the story (‘this isn’t a simple B&W issue’ or somesuch) … I know this colour has been described (in this context, I would suggest, often mocked or – no pun intended – denigrated) as ‘grey’, but … I’m pretty certain that her grey colour in that panel was not intended as a reference to comics of old, and their far more simplistic / colonialist / racist depictions. … Thus ‘grey Monica’ while calling to mind the ‘grey depiction’ of Black skin in many 60s (and older) comics,- I fully agree with you there – actually demonstrates IMO a degree of distinction between ‘comic book grey(s)’ and ‘comic book taupe.’ … In other words, ‘grey Monica’ looking something like the older comic book depiction of black skin was more of a coincidence than a built-in commentary. But she is a certainly a gift to the contemporary comics scholar who wants to open up the issue… We might … see the grey photo as a rich metaphor for the more sophisticated level of story going on in Avengers 73/74; comics which surely can only benefit from a comparison with … so many older comics stories populated by grey African ‘natives’… And yes, as you imply, if such a comparison is to be drawn, both stories do need to be seen in a much longer context which includes plenty of grey ‘black’ skin.”

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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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