Marvel and Me

Flying superhero.

Many Americans had fictional childhood heroes, and those characters often came from the world of comic books. Characters such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman have ranked among the most popular fictional characters for decades and captured the imagination of many. However, despite their preeminence in American culture, they never captured my youthful imagination, and here are the reasons why.

As a child, I didn’t want to fly like Superman as much as I wanted to swing and jump from building to building like Spider-Man. To me, a character who chased criminals at night while dressed like a flying rodent couldn’t compare to one who donned supercharged armor that gave him enough power to challenge the might of gods and monsters. My preferences cast me as part of a minority, not one of color or ethnicity, but of people who preferred the less visible heroes of Marvel Comics over the iconic characters of DC Comics.

people-2574169_640.jpgEven as a youth, I could see that the world was a thing of depth and shadows, of some black, some white, and with overwhelming volumes of gray. It was certainly not as bright, cheery and ultimately shallow as a 1950s sitcom, yet such unreality was reflected in many comic books until the mid-to-late-1970s. Conversely, Marvel Comics’ characters had depth, conflict, and nuances that truly rounded out their presentation. They were the possessed of duality, of contrast, of extraordinary powers and stunning weaknesses, and their fictional lives overflowed with all the sweetness and conflicting bitterness that are inherent in the human condition.

The final reason why I preferred Marvel Comics was the presence of primary and secondary heroic characters who were literally black like me: Black Panther, Power Man, Falcon, and even the initially villainous Prowler. With the exception of Prowler, Marvel’s black, costumed adventurers weren’t secondary characters or sidekicks, but main characters. Even the oft-maligned Falcon was a primary character since he was featured as the equal partner of none other than Captain America himself.

Unrealistic superhero.

During my youth, Marvel’s primary competitor, National Periodical Publications (now called “DC Comics”)–the owners of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman–presented a fictional universe where, except for the villains, all was bright, happy, and harmonious. Theirs was a thing of pure sugar that would remain unrealistically sweet until a group of young writers and artists (such as Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams) introduced greater complexity into the characters and fundamentally transformed the DC landscape forever.

Prior to DC’s adoption of more realistic elements, the company introduced a minor black hero named Malcolm Duncan and a substitute hero named John Stewart, but after that, the good ship DC hit the proverbial rocks. The company went on to introduce voluntary segregation as the reason why blacks were never seen on Superman’s home planet of Krypton, and why blacks were never seen in the company’s “futuristic” title, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes.

Discrimination.It was during the course of providing a reason for the absence of blacks in their fictional universe of the future when DC did the unthinkable: it created a ridiculous, raging black hero who espoused racial segregation. Called “Tyroc,” the screaming champion of racists everywhere had an Afro that made martial arts star Jim Kelly’s ‘do seem conservative by comparison, and he wore a white costume that was a nightmarish mixture of disco styling and leather bar fashion, all with pixyish shoes Peter Pan would envy.

Both the character and its circumstances were things then-editor Murray Boltinoff expected DC’s readers to accept as a fair representation of empowered blacks and of a society made ideal via the absence of black people. Needless to say, the gross display of insensitivity, cultural bias, and overt racism against blacks and our place on Earth was met with widespread scorn. It was the last nail in the coffin of my DC readership. Though I would read some DC publications off-and-on over the years, my association with Marvel Comics grew from a mere preference to true brand loyalty.

It must be noted that Marvel was not completely innocent when it came to committing unforgivable racial faux pas. Battlestar, a black hero who rose from–what else?–illiteracy and poverty, was first named “Bucky.” The name was meant to be a throwback to Captain America’s youthful partner during WWII, but the black person then called “Bucky” was a man, not a child, and the word “buck”–when applied to black men–has a racial connotation that dates back to the antebellum South where blacks were little more than talking livestock and male blacks were often referred to as “bucks.” Superheroics and slavery. You know how that turned out…

A protest.

As William Shakespeare wrote in his play, Julius Caesar: “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war.” Mark Gruenwald, the co-creator of the black Bucky, became the focus of various social justice efforts. He was vilified, called a racist, and generally labeled as an utterly horrific human being. In truth, he was none of these, and he took the complaints to heart. Gruenwald wrote a poignant exchange in an issue of Captain America in which the black Bucky spoke with an elderly black man who informed the hero of the connection between being a male black and being referred to as a “buck” in any way. The hero then changed his name to “Battlestar” in short order. In doing so, Gruenwald acknowledged his error and his ignorance of painful history, and he corrected his unwitting mistake.

Such a true and lasting correction was never made by writer Steve Englehart in regards to his depiction of Falcon. Prior to Englehart’s treatment, Falcon spoke and conducted himself to very high standards. Under Steve Englehart, however, Falcon was portrayed as a man whose past was that of a thuggish, yet flamboyant pimp and overall hoodlum possessed of a limited command of the English language. Englehart accomplished this unexpected bit of character revision with an improbable twist that involved–of all things–a near-magical object of cosmic power and an unrepentant Nazi. The portrayal of Falcon’s past persists to this day, though later writers explained his past behavior on horrific family tragedy and not as some assumedly natural outgrowth of living in a black community. And then there was Luke Cage…

Long before Tyroc sported his disco-inspired abomination, Marvel’s Luke Cage had long ago blazed the trail of ridiculous costuming. The unbreakable black muscleman was portrayed with a huge Afro that was adorned with…wait for it…a tiara, a yellow disco shirt that existed well past the era of Donna Summer and the Village People, skin-tight pants supported by a thick chain, and floppy yellow boots that completed his garish presentation. Like Falcon, Luke Cage had a criminal past, and he was placed in a world of thugs and pimps. However, unlike Falcon, it was made clear that he was a wrongly convicted man who used his newfound abilities to escape captivity and perform heroic actions–for a price. 

Freedom!Luke Cage did not speak the Queen’s English. Instead, he was given a stereotypical black speech pattern, one where action sequences were enhanced with Cage’s yell of “Sweet Christmas!” in almost every issue of his comic. In retrospect, Cage’s speech and Falcon’s were unfortunately similar, but what led Luke Cage to become increasingly popular while Falcon remained a secondary character was his backstory and his placement within a comic of his own name. Through Marvel, it was Luke Cage–blaxploitation features, bad clothing, ridiculous hair and all–who became the first black character to star in his own comic. It was neither DC’s John Stewart nor was it their Malcolm Duncan or another of their minor black heroes. No, it was Marvel’s angry black “superman” who was wronged by “The Man” and forced to muscle his way back to freedom as the mercenary “Hero for Hire” who was made to blaze the trail for black superhero comics, much to the delight of many black youths at the time.

So, there you have it. Marvel’s presentations of depth, conflict, greater realism, and cultural outreach struck a chord with me during my younger days. DC tried to reel me back in with strong, complex characters such as those seen in “The New Teen Titans” of the 1980s and “Swamp Thing,” and with outstanding story arcs such as “The Judas Contract” and “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” However, thanks to all of the above Marvel had done beforehand, I was but one of many who adopted the axiom, “Make Mine Marvel!” with every trip to the local comics shop.

All the best,
-Keith V.

Sources:
Licensing:

  • All images are courtesy oPixabay.com and are labeled as free for use without attribution.

 

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