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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

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

Tag Archives: Steve Epting

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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