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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

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As part of my wandering research into Marvel’s use of the white supremacist supervillains Sons of the Serpent, I posted a two-part discussion of a 1991 Avengers story warning against Black anger after the Rodney King beating.

As my comics analysis has grown increasingly color-oriented, this third of the intended two installments focuses on colorist Christie Steele — whose complete color code art for Avengers #341 I recently found at (Rob Tokar colored #342, but his color code art, like the vast majority of color code art, can only be inferred from the published comic.)

#341-2 features the fifth appearance of the Sons of the Serpent, what Stan Lee intended as a fictional counterpart of the KKK when he co-created them in 1966. In this iteration, the villains are led by Leonard Kryzewski, a minion retconned into the group’s 1975 appearance. Not surprisingly, Steele assigns Kryzewski White skin and yellow hair, implying northern European descent.

Steele assigns the same combination to a male figure in the next panel:

The sameness of penciller Steve Epting and inker Tom Palmer’s line art emphasizes the sameness of the White characters’ skin color. The first time I looked at the pairing, I briefly mistook the two to be the same figure — an unintentional recurrence effect that attention to other visual details eliminates.

After assigning most of Kryzewski’s group yellow hair and beige shirts, Steele gives other figures in the crowd the same combination, again visually blurring White people of opposing political stances. Since it defies probability that a dozen figures would all be wearing shirts of different design but identical color, the only naturalistic explanation is that the sameness is due to some quality of light.

Though Steele’s White people, whether White supremacists or not, visually combine, Steele attempts to differentiate non-Whites.

The newscaster has Black skin, labeled on Steel’s color code pages as Y4R3B2, meaning 75% yellow, 50% red, and 25% blue on off-white paper. Rage and Falcon receives the same codes throughout the issue too

But unlike the coloring of skin in previous decades, Steele provides some vacillation.

The first figure interviewed in the crowd of protestors appears to be Black, but Steele assigns the majority of his face Y3R3B2, creating a lighter brown that subtlety contrasts two Black faces in the background on either side. Steele also colors one side of his face a yellow that creates the naturalistic effect of a specific light source, presumably a late afternoon sun.

The next panel features three figures: a man with White skin in the center, a woman with White skin on the right, and a man with an ambiguous combination of brown and gray on the left.

Steele’s color codes art is ambiguous too. Some codes are written directly over colored areas, others are connected by arrows from the white margins, and some codes are missing — presumably with the assumption that the printer would interpret them from the colors themselves. Though her medium is identified as “colored pencils,” Steele may have worked with a brush, producing shapes of non-uniform color unlike the later printed art. In the case of the ambiguous figure, Steel’s original coloring appears more brown and therefor more naturalistic than in the published version.

The published version also recalls the taupe skin of Black characters used during earlier decades, including for Bill Foster introduced in the first Sons of the Serpent story in1966.

Where a 1966 colorist assigned the Sons of the Serpent’s first victim, Mr. Gonzales, White skin, Steele appears to designate the protester as Latino using the formerly Black-denoting taupe. The discordant color is more prominent in a riot scene near the end of the issue, with an apparently Latino man in a short-sleeve shirt throwing a rock; his taupe arm contrasts the Black figure in the background drawn directly below.

Where taupe designated Blackness in the 1960s, here the slightly evolved but still essentially limited color technology repurposed the color to designate an additional ethnic group.

Returning to the three figures in the earlier crowd panel, Epting pencils the third in a headscarf, presumably implying that she is Muslim. Though Epting could intend her closed eyes and gripped hands to suggest prayer, Nicieza instead scripts an unrelated defense of the police: “Maybe the police had a good reason? Who’s to say? Kids today …” Rather than assigning her Black or possibly Latina-associated taupe skin, Steele uses White skin, relying on the headscarf to differentiate her from the White man behind her.

The mixed-race superhero Silhouette poses a similar challenge. Nicieza and artist Mark Bagley introduced the character a year earlier in New Warriors #2 (August 1990), indicating that her father was Black and her mother Cambodian.

The six members of the New Warriors appear in a bottom banner on the cover of Avengers #341, with the Black character Night Thrasher’s brown skin juxtaposed with Silhouette’s taupe skin, revealing that taupe is not Latino per se, but a color generally designating an ethnicity outside a Black/White dichotomy.

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the interior art, Epting draws her stopping a Black man from throwing a bottle during a riot. Steele assigns her skin neither Black nor taupe, but a yellower brown not previously used (or identified in the color codes).

When Silhouette appears for the first time in the next issue, Tokar assigns her and Night Thrasher the same Black as Rage in the preceding panel.

But when she appears later in that issue, her taupe skin instead contrasts Rage.

The fluctuations, whether intentional or unintentional, could be understood as a reflection of the character existing outside of a clear racial division. They might also reflect the colorists’ attempts to use the highly limited technology more naturalistically, since actual skin colors fluctuate with changes in light.

For one page in #341, Steele assigns Falcon and Rage’s grandmother identical maroon skin in multiple indoor images.

In #342, an unnamed Black teenager vacillates between shades of brown in consecutive panels. Falcon even appears in one panel with inexplicably green-brown skin.

Even if all of the fluctuations are errors (by the color artists or by color-dividers later in the production process), the variations in skin color correlate with Marvel’s expanding depiction of racial and ethnics categories. They also reveal the inadequacy of 1991 printing technology to represent complex racial categories — and therefore to represent race generally.

Since color code art is pretty rare, I’ll conclude with Steele’s 22 pages:

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Last week I began this two-part post on the Black superhero Rage and his use in an Avengers story responding to the beating of Rodney King in 1991. The first issue begins with a newscaster’s captioned voiceover: “The videotape of what has been dubbed ‘The Carmello Clubbing’ has been burned into the collective mind of New Yorkers — — and their opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

A man (later identified with the Polish last name Kryzewski) declares: “Punks like that deserve what they get! All them types do! City’s become a sewer since all your types showed up!”

Rage leaps down from a rooftop and challenges Kryzewski and his group—all given identical yellow hair by colorist Christie Scheele. After the group disperses, Rage speaks into the news camera:

“Cops got a lot to answer for. The ‘hood’s scared. Trust goes out the window, you know. We want to feel like the police are protecting us, not clubbing us down in the street.”

Later in the Avengers training room, Falcon explains to Rage: “The Avengers, as a concept, aren’t about dealing with problems of this kind.”

When Rage complains, “You don’t remember what it’s like to be a suspect just cause of the color of your skin!” Captain America responds: “I don’t think that’s very fair, son.”

Falcon: “Things aren’t always so black and white — –no pun intended — — age and experience have given me patience and tolerance.”

After Rage storms out, Captain America asks Falcon: “He has so much anger in him – where does it come from?”

“Same place as it all does, Steve – from what’s inside and what’s outside …”

Elsewhere, another Black superhero, Dwayne Taylor, AKA Night Thrasher (introduced December 1989, one month before Rage) trains with his Black father figure, Chord, echoing the Falcon’s attitude:

“Is there really that much I can do about it, Chord? […] I mean, how do I know who’s right and who’s wrong?”

Meanwhile Kryzewski, with the help of an unknown benefactor, re-forms the Sons of the Serpent, a “Radical hate group,” last seen in The Defenders #25 (July 1975). The retconned Kryzewski was arrested then for: “Aggravated assault. Inciting to riot. Attempted man-slaughter. Illegal possession of firearms,” but apparently wasn’t convicted given the fourteen years between publication dates—which would mean Rage was born the year the Sons of the Serpent attempted to start a genocidal civil war against Black Americans. Given the ambiguous nature of time within the Marvel universe though, the coincidence probably doesn’t reflect an in-world fact.

When the Sons of the Serpent incite a riot by challenging protestors outside a Brooklyn police district (“The time has come t’ eat the insects which are burrowing under the White skin of America!”), Night Thrasher’s team, the New Warriors, divide the two sides, with the Black female Silhouette chastising a Black man for throwing a bottle at the Sons:

“Now why don’t you calm down before you make matters worse?”

Soon Night Thrasher is responding with near homicidal force (“Because of my skin color they want to kill me!”), but only because the Sons’ secret benefactor is revealed to be Hate Monger—not the human Adolf Hitler clone from elsewhere in the Marvel universe but a new and apparently supernatural entity psychically intensifying and feeding from displays of hatred. (Nicieza also scripts him singing the Rolling Stones songs “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Shattered.”)

As the scene spills into Avengers #342 (December 1991), the Avengers arrive, making matters worse. Captain American eventually chastises the New Warriors:

“This is a matter best left to the police and community leaders!”

As far as the Rodney King character, even Rage’s grandmother agrees: “maybe the police were wrong for what happened to him, but how does fighting them solve the problem?”

When the four Avengers find the Sons’ headquarters and effortlessly defeat them, Captain America declares: “They weren’t very skilled, but better to stop it here and now before their hate group could grow.”

Falcon adds: “Kind of a shame to think that there are people out there who would agree with these clowns!”

But then Hate Monger returns, followed by Rage and the New Warriors, who Hate Monger incites into new passion before draining their energy. Only Rage struggles to keep fighting:

“You’re the reason my friend was clubbed down in the street. You’re the reason me and my people have been put down all our lives!”

Captain America: “Rage—stop! You’re giving him exactly what he wants! […] Stopping the Hate Monger won’t stop that madness, son! It has to start inside each of us. It has to start inside of you.”

In the page gutter between consecutive panels, Rage changes his mind: “You’re right … … There’re better ways to fight people like the Serpents .. than giving them exactly what they want …”

Hate Monger is disappointed, but promises to return when Rage’s resolve fades.

Captain America: “Rage—what you did—letting go of your hatred—it took a lot of courage.”

However, having learned that Rage is only fourteen, Captain America explains he can’t remain on the team. Rage is content with the decision: “maybe I won’t need to be Rage anymore – ‘cause there’ll be nothing to rage about!”

Nicieza’s allegorical script offers several messages. Here are the first few that come to mind:

  • avoid violence,
  • trust the police and others in authority,
  • don’t judge police officers videotaped beating a darker skinned man,
  • racists are small in number and ineffectual if ignored,
  • all racial animosity is equivalent,
  • national racial problems can only be addressed at the individual level.

Most of these opinions are expressed by a White man wearing an American flag, but I find the use of Falcon (included exclusively because he is Black), other Black superheroes (the equivocating Night Thrasher and scolding Silhouette), Rage’s grandmother (a trope of Black wisdom), and (the reformed and immediately retired) Rage more unsettling. As Nicieza’s newscaster said: “opinions of the matter are as incendiary as the act itself!”

But I’m most unsettled by a less direct message conveyed in the final color art.

The second issue’s one-page admonitory epilogue features a crowd of Black citizens gathered in an unnamed City Hall listening to a charismatic Black speaker:

“We can’t allow ourselves to be oppressed any longer! For centuries we have been placed in a position of inferiority and called a minority. They must feel the whip as we have! They must swing from the hangman’s noose as we have! Segregation equals degradation. We won’t be degraded anymore! There’s so much to be angry about, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to fight against, isn’t there? Yes, there is! A lot to hate … isn’t there?”

The final panel reveals the speaker to be Hate Monger—now with Black features. For the previous issue, Scheele had given the character White skin, but for #342 colorist Tob Tokar instead uses an inhuman shade of yellow distinct from the skin color of White characters. On the cover, Hate Monger’s skin is a more overtly non-human grayish blue. Tokar’s revision of Scheele’s initial choice also evokes Scheele’s avoidance of White-signifying skin color for the White police officers beating the Rodney King character in the opening splash page.

It seems Hate is more at home in Black skin than in White.

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I wasn’t expecting this topic to be timely. When I started drafting this post last year, it was one in a continuing sequence about Marvel’s KKK-based supervillain group Sons of the Serpent introduced in 1966. Marvel resurrected them 25 years later to allegorize their political views about the 1991 beating of Rodney King. I can’t think about the King now without thinking about the disturbingly similar video of Tyree Nichols released last week.

It’s 32 years later, and I hope Marvel doesn’t resurrect the Sons of the Serpent again. The simplistic moral universe of mainstream superhero comics is not ideal for trying to address the complexities of police brutality in the continuing aftermath of Jim Crow. Marvel’s use of their their Black superhero Rage in 1991 is evidence of that.

Larry Hama and Paul Ryan created Rage in Avengers #326 (November 1990). The character was at least in part a critique of the Avengers, and so Marvel generally, lacking Black superheroes. Two issues later, he asks Captain America: “Why don’t you have any righteous African Americans in this outfit?”

“What about Black Panther and Falcon?”

“Panther went back to mother Africa. The man is millionaire royalty. He’s got entree into country clubs that wouldn’t let you past the parking lost. Falcon was around only because the Feds required you to meet equal opportunity standards… Now that you don’t have any minority Avengers, you start building a fancy mansion in the middle of a ritzy, lilly-white neighborhood!”

Hama’s dialogue doesn’t reference the 1982 Monica Rambeau Captain Marvel or the 1983 James Rhodes Iron Man, both former Avengers, but the fault is still relevant. Unfortunately, so is Ryan’s costume design, which reiterates the 70s trend of exposing more skin for Black male superheroes than for White male ones. Also, because Rage is actually a thirteen-year-old boy transformed, his character literalizes what Eve L. Ewing (education scholar and later writer of Ironheart) identifies as “the adultification of Black children” (Ewing 2021).

After Hama’s Captain America voices a color-blindness defense, “First off, nobody just walks in and gets to be an Avenger, no matter if they’re white, black, yellow, or green, for that matter!,” and then stops the other Avengers because there’s “been a terrible misunderstanding! Rage wasn’t attacking me, he was trying to make a point … … in fact a very valid point about perceptions!,” Rage is voted a “reserve substitute” “probationary Avenger” in the next issue. Falcon and Monica Rambeau are voted substitutes too, placing no Black heroes on the primary team–oddly reinforcing Rage’s original complaint.

Despite his probationary substitute status, Rage appears on eight more covers, including Avengers #342 (November 1991), his last as a team member. The two-issue story arc is memorable for other reasons.

On March 3, 1991, four LAPD officers beat motorist Rodney King with metal batons over fifty times while arresting him for felony evasion. Bystander George Holliday’s videotape of the beating was aired on CNN two days later and then on network news the next evening. A grand jury indicted the officers a week later. The trail was set for June, but a Court of Appeals granted a change of venue and reassigned the case to a new judge due to evidence of the initial judge’s bias (he secretly communicated to prosecutors: “Don’t panic. You can trust me.”).

Avengers #341 is cover-dated November 1991 and so would have been published in late September. Production times vary, but estimating a four-month norm, Fabian Nicieza scripted the story in May, well after news of the beating had broken but before the appeals court ruling.

Though Hama and Ryan had created Rage almost two years earlier, Nicieza’s use of the character and the reprisal of the White supremacist supervillains the Sons of the Serpent are a response to Rodney King. So is the unexplained reappearance of Falcon as a primary Avenger, making two of the five members Black. With the addition of Night Thrasher of the New Warriors, the #342 cover features three Black characters and two recognizably White ones.

I assume editor Ralph Macchio and editor-in-chief Tom DeFalco were involved in these decisions, especially since Nicieza, who was writing The New Warriors at the time, is credited as “guest writer,” with the previous writer, Bob Harras, returning after the two-issue arc. Falcon and Rage are replaced afterwards too, resulting in an all-White Avengers roster.

Penciller Steve Epting’s #341 splash page evokes the King video, with King’s fictional counterpart, Carmello Martinez, drawn on his knees surrounded by four police officers with raised batons. Inker Tom Palmer and colorist Christie Scheele contribute significantly to the image, rendering the majority of the White officers’ faces in a black that nominally denotes shadows cast by their police caps but connotes a metaphorical darkness. More than half of one face is so opaquely black it partly subverts the illusion of three-dimensionality. The officers’ legs are rendered the same, further challenging the naturalism of the overall image with the shapes of undifferentiated flatness. Where the White officers’ skin is exposed, the color is the white of the underlying page. In contrast, the face and figure of King’s shirtless counterpart is shaped by black contour lines and minimal crosshatching, with no black areas except for portions of his hair. His skin is a combination of brown and page-white.

Nicieza’s and Epting’s Black female newscaster narrates: “This was the scene two days ago as videotaped by an alert bystander.”

The Rage Wikipedia page identifies the superhero’s alter ego as “Elvin Daryl Haliday,” adding “sometimes misspelled ‘Holliday.’” I’m trying to track down where and when those “sometimes” occur, but I have to wonder whether the misspelling is an intentional allusion to George Holliday, the bystander who recorded King.

In the Marvel universe, Elvin (AKA Rage) and Carmello (AKA Rodney King) are best friends.

(More next week.)

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