Thursday, August 16, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Two

The Invisible People
African Americans virtually disappeared from comic books after 1954 and would not appear again until the Sixties. Not only would no African American characters appear regularly in comic books for the remainder of the Fifties, they were not even represented in crowd scenes. While this might seem strange to many today, it was an outgrowth of one of the tumultuous periods in comic book history.

Comic books had their share of detractors from the very beginning. As early as May 1940, children's author and literary editor of The Chicago Daily News, Sterling North, attacked comic books as appealing due to their violent content. By 1947, however, the content of comic books had become become something of a cause celebre in the United States. The mid-Forties saw the debut of several crime comic books. The late Forties saw the rise of several horror comic books. Many of the crime titles and many of the horror titles featured content that we would even find objectionable today. And while the crime comic books and the horror comic books comprised a distinct minority of the comic books published, they attracted attention for all the wrong reasons.

Starting in 1947 articles which attacked the medium began appearing in national magazines with more and more frequency. City governments (Hartford, Connecticut being an example) took measures to curb objectionable comic books. Comic books were even burned. According to Time, December 28, 1948, in Binghamton, New York, 2000 objectionable comic books were tossed onto a bonfire.

It was in 1947 that those who objected to comic books would find a champion for their cause. Dr. Frederic Wertham had been the senior psychiatrist of New York City's Department of Hospitals, and had already published two books. In his second book, Dark Legend (published in 1941) he had already expressed his theory that the media (movies, radio shows, comic books, and so on) could lead to juvenile delinquency. Dr. Wertham was then predisposed to see the crime and horror comics published in the late Forties as deleterious to the mental health of children.

Starting in 1948 Dr. Wertham wrote several articles on how comic books were detrimental to children in publications ranging from the Ladies Home Journal to Reader's Digest. It was in 1954 that his book Seduction of the Innocent, outlining what he saw as the harmful effects of comic books, was published. Seduction of the Innocent was Dr. Wertham's tour de force. Looked at today, there can be little argument that Seduction of the Innocent is not a particularly scholarly work. Dr. Wertham had a tendency to interpret things out of context, make a priori assumptions, and even jump to conclusions. Despite this, the book had an enormous impact. Wertham would even appear before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency to testify on his theory on how comic books played a role in juvenile delinquency.

Even though there was no real threat of government censorship (something which Dr. Wertham himself opposed), comic book publishers banded together to form the Comics Code Authority, a self regulatory body that would oversee the content of comic books, in October 1954. Today the Comics Code seems overly strict. Not only did it ban the walking dead, vampires, ghouls, and werewolves, it even banned the words "horror" and "terror" on the covers of comic books and regulated how large the word "crime" could be in comparison to other words in comic book titles. The end result of the Comics Code was to reduce comic books to the level of children's literature for several years.

Among the things that Dr. Wertham had attacked in Seduction of the Innocent was the use of racial stereotypes in comic books. Indeed, Dr. Wertham had once wrote a paper on the harmful effects of segregation (which was published in the American Journal of Psychotherapy) that was later used as evidence in the famous Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. Oddly enough, the original Comics Code only addressed race briefly. In Part C it simply states, "Ridicule or attack on any religious or racial group is never permissible." Regardless, the comic book industry responded to Wertham's criticism of racist stereotypes in comic books quite simply--they simply banished African Americans from their magazines.

This was despite the fact that the comic book industry had made considerable progress with regards to African Americans. After all, in thirteen years they had gone from Whitewash and Ebony White to Waku, Prince of the Bantu. Regardless, for the rest of the Fifties, the world of comic books was almost entirely European American save for the Native Americans who appeared in Western comic books and the Africans appearing in the jungle adventure books. Even though African Americans composed a substantial part of the American population, they were totally invisible in American comic books.

Marvels and New Gods

It was in 1961 that the comic book industry changed forever. That year at Marvel Comics editor and writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby created The Fantastic Four. The Fantastic Four was different from any comic book before it. Not only did its characters eschew secret identities, but they even had personal problems and personality conflicts. Essentially, The Fantastic Four was set in a world that was more realistic than that portrayed in most comic books up until that time.

Marvel Comics was the leader when it came to returning African American characters to comic books. Initially, African Americans simply appeared in crowd scenes and bit parts in Marvel's titles, but it was not long before there was a major character who was African American in a Marvel comic book. Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963) saw the debut of Gabriel "Gabe" Jones. Set during World War II, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos departed from history in that the United States Armed Forces were not yet integrated. Regardless, Gabe is an important character in the history of comic books. He was the first African American supporting character in a Marvel comic book who was not a stereotype. Gabe Jones would later appear in the series Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which debuted in Strange Tales #135, August 1965) as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.

While Marvel Comics led the way in bringing African American characters back to comic books, they were not the first company to feature an African American headlining his own series. That honour would go to Dell Comics, who published Lobo #1, December 1965. Created by D. J. Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico, Lobo centred on an unnamed, African American gunfighter in the Old West who is called "Lobo" by the villains in the first issue. Sadly, only one other issue of Lobo would be published, cover dated September 1966. In an interview Tony Tallarico explained that distributors were sending bundles of Lobo back to Dell without even having opened them. Out of 200,000 copies printed, only 10,000 to 15,000 were sold. It seemed that American society was not ready for an African American hero as the lead feature of a comic book.

That having been said, it would not be long before a black superhero would appear in an American comic book of the Sixties. Fantastic Four #52, July 1966, introduced a character called The Black Panther. The Black Panther was T'Challa, king of the technologically advanced nation of Wakanda in Africa. At the time The Black Panther was a revolutionary character. Not only was he a head of state, but his nation was more technologically advanced than the United States. Although The Black Panther made a huge impact on his first appearance and was a fairly character, he would not get his own series until Jungle Action #6, September 1973. Here it must be pointed out that The Black Panther predates the Black Panther Party by nearly half a year. That The Black Panther first appeared in 1966, the same year that the Black Panther Party was founded, is most likely coincidence.

Not only was The Black Panther the first black superhero of the Sixties, his name would also start a trend in African American heroes that would last into Seventies. That is, their names would often refer to their race in the use of the word "black." Beyond The Black Panther, there would be Vykin the Black of The Forever People, The Black Racer of The New Gods, Black Goliath, and Black Lightning.

As significant as the first appearance of The Black Panther was the appearance of African American supporting characters in comic books. One was Dr. Bill Foster, who made his first appearance in The Avengers #32, September 1966. Foster was hired as the lab assistant to Dr. Henry Pym (who went by such names as Ant-Man, Giant-Man, Goliath, and Yellowjacket). Eventually Foster would become the superhero Black Goliath (and like Dr. Pym would go through several name changes). A more important African American supporting character is Joseph "Robbie" Robertson, editor at the Daily Bugle. Robertson first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #51, August 1967. He has been a part of the Spider-Man cast ever since, even appearing in the recent movies. The character is significant in that Robertson was neither a superhero nor comic relief, but a realistic character who was in an important position.

While Marvel Comics had a black superhero (The Black Panther) and African American supporting characters, they did not yet have an African American superhero (The Black Panther being African). That would change with Captain America #117, September 1969. That issue introduced The Falcon. The Falcon was Sam Wilson, a social worker with a gift for communicating with birds. Meeting Captain America while both were stranded on an island, he became Captain America's partner. He appeared in the pages of Captain America until issue #222, June 1978. Thereafter The Falcon's appearances have unfortunately been sporadic. The Falcon is significant as both Marvel Comics' first African American superhero and one of the first African American superheroes to lack the word "black" in his name.

While the mid to late Sixties saw Marvel Comics adding black superheroes and supporting characters, it would not be until 1970 that DC Comics would debut an African American character. It was in the pages of Teen Titans #26, March-April 1970 that Mal Duncan first appeared. In that issue Duncan met the Titans, impressed with his abilities and resourcefulness. Duncan would eventually become a costumed hero called The Guardian. Still later he would become The Herald and Vox.

DC's next two black heroes would come to them courtesy of Jack Kirby, in the pages of two of his New Gods comic books. The first was Vykin the Black, in Forever People, February-March 1971. Vykin was one of the Forever People, individuals from Earth taken to the New Gods' planet of New Genesis and genetically altered. In Vykin's case, he gained the power to control magnetism (similar to Magneto). He was also gifted in both mechanics and electronics. Jack Kirby's various New Gods titles did not last long, although they have since seen various revivals. In such revivals, "the Black" would be dropped from Vykin's name.

The second black character created by Jack Kirby for DC Comics was The Black Racer, who debuted in The New Gods #1, July 1971. The Black Racer was an avatar of death. As a god, The Black Racer has many abilities, not the least of which is to deliver death with a mere touch. Like Vykin the Black, The Black Racer would appear in various revivals of The New Gods, as well as a few other sporadic appearances in DC Comics.

While Mal Duncan, Vykin, and The Black Racer are relatively obscure characters in DC Comics, their next African American hero would not be. In Green Lantern #87, vol. 2, December 1971, the character of John Stewart was introduced. As a member of the interstellar police force, the Green Lantern Corps, the Silver Age Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) had a backup in the form of Guy Gardner (who first appeared in Green Lantern #59, vol. 2, March 1968). In Green Lantern. #87, however, Gardner was wounded, forcing the Guardians of the Universe (the overseers of the Green Lantern Corps) to find another backup. That backup was architect John Stewart. For many years after his first appearance Stewart would appear infrequently, filling in for Jordan on occasion, even as part of the Justice League of America. Eventually, John Stewart would assume the mantle of Green Lantern when Hal Jordan retired in Green Lantern #182, vol 2, November, 1984. Becoming more visible with his stint as Earth's Green Lantern, he became a much more visible character after being featured on the Cartoon Network's Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

At the beginning of the Sixties African American characters were largely absent from comic books. By 1971 there were several African American characters, both superheroes and supporting players. This trend would continue throughout the Seventies, but not before it would feel the impact of a trend from another medium. Quite simply, comic books would feel the influence of the Blaxpolitation movies of the Seventies.

1 comment:

d. chedwick bryant said...

i have a lot of Tin Tin comics, and one, called Tin Tin Au Congo always looked racist to me--it was finally removed from the market just recently!