Sunday, February 03, 2013

Some Black History Month Comic-Book Notes -- Part 1

            In my collection of a thousand or so comic books, I was able to pull out a few for comment.  They are all DC, sorry.  I can’t comment on how with-it Marvel might have been.

            I can only guess, but perhaps a black comics fan might feel about DC’s attempts to treat black issues, in his most charitable moments, kind of the way a teenager thinks of his parents’ attempts to be hip:   Lame, but we can only assume their intentions were good.

            Amazing Heroes #159 (February, 1989) featured a guest editorial, “Growing Up Black Reading Comics,” by writer and artist Keith Brown.  In his reminiscences he talks about buying issues featuring the Black Panther, later called the Panther, after the radical civil-rights group added unwelcome connotations to the original name.

            And then came Luke Cage, Hero for Hire.  To Brown, Cage seemed not very heroic (since when do heroes get paid to do the right thing?) — plus, he had the same origin as every other black character Brown remembers:  He was a street punk from the Hood.

            Brown’s favorite black character seemed to be the X-Men’s Storm.  A big part of this is that she is an interesting character, “with dignity and intelligence, femininity and strength.”  In other words, her race is not made a big deal of either way — it is simply a facet of her total being.

            (And I have no idea if this is true of Storm today.)


Green Arrow #76, April, 1970

            In 1992, DC reprinted a series of “Silver Age Classics.”  One of them, the April 1970 issue of Green Lantern (co-starring Green Arrow), contained the tale “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight,” written by Denny O’Neil, with art by Neal Adams.  In it, Green Lantern Hal Jordan is prodded by his JLA partner Green Arrow (Oliver Queen) to bring his quest for justice out of space and down to Earth.  A famous sequence features a black man asking Jordan, “I been readin’ about you ... how you work for the BLUE SKINS ... and how on a planet someplace you helped out the ORANGE SKINS ... And you done considerable for the PURPLE SKINS!  Only there’s skins you never bothered with — !  ... The BLACK SKINS!  I want to know ... How come?”



            This confrontation takes place on the roof of a rundown tenement-type of building.  The superheroes had become involved when GL (Green Lantern) stopped a bunch of neighborhood  residents from beating up on a rich fat white guy.  After being prodded by the more with-it Green Arrow to investigate, GL finds out the fat white guy is a slumlord looking to sell the rat-infested, falling-apart building out from under its tenants to build a parking lot or something.  Together, GA & GL get the goods on the guy, and the mostly black residents get to keep their homes, which are better than being turned out onto the street (though maybe not by much!).

            To investigate the dirty tycoon Slade, GL had neglected an assignment in outer space given him by the Guardians, the galactic wise men, the “blue skins” mentioned above.  When they call him onto the carpet, his friend GA takes the stage and accuses them of lofty-minded complacency.  “How dare you presume to meddle in the affairs of humanity,” he demands, “when human beings are no more that statistics to you and your crew! … Come off your perch!  Touch … taste … laugh and cry!  Learn where we’re at … and why!”

            So, our story ends with a member of the Guardians, disguised as an Earthman, hitting the road in a beat-up pick-up truck with Hal Jordan (GA) and Ollie Queen (GA).  Just as Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda went in search of the real America in Easy Rider, Ollie tells his two compadres, “There’s a fine country out there someplace! Let’s go find it!”

            Of course, I tend to agree with the great philosopher Dorothy Gale, who said that if you can’t find your heart’s desire in your own backyard, then you never really lost it anyway.  Were GL, GA, and the Guardian looking for America, or running from themselves?


Superman’s Girl Friend Lois Lane #106, November, 1970

            “I Am Curious (Black)!” was written by Bob Kanigher and penciled by Werner Roth.  It’s a strange mix of the embarrassing and the genuinely thought-provoking.  (Please note that all comments about the characters and their behavior are made by me and not the storytellers.)



            Vapid, flighty Lois Lane gets it into  her empty, trendy head “to get the inside story of Metropolis’ Little Africa!”  In other words, she’s like the travelogue movie producers who shot newsreels of those weird people from that Other Part of the World.  It’s only interesting to learn about Little Africa, because it’s so different from her own (obviously much better) way of life.  Of course, this is only my opinion, mind.

            Anyway, when she gets to Little Africa (could you figure out this is the “black part of town”?), no one will talk to her.  After a page or two of this, she figures out that it’s because she is white.  Even a blind lady on a park bench gets up and leaves — “When she heard me speak — she knew I was white!” Lois muses.

            Sounds like prejudice runs both ways so far, eh, kiddies?  Next, she runs upon a street corner, where a nice-looking young fellow is haranguing a crowd.  He points at Lois and shouts, “She’s young and sweet and pretty!  But never forget … she’s whitey!  She’ll let us shine her shoes and sweep her floors! and baby-sit for her kids!    But she doesn’t want to let our kids into her lily-white schools!”

            Soon Lois asks for Superman’s help to get the real skinny (hardy-har-har) on Little Africa.  Using a Kryptonian machine called the Plastimold, it performs a makeover, turning Lois black for 24 hours.



            Then Lois finds out her favorite taxi driver won’t pick her up, presumably because of her new look, and she learns about the rats and the leaky roofs of Little Africa.  Dave Stevens, the same guy who called her the enemy because she was Whitey, now comes on to her.  Then he’s shot when he tries to stop some (white) thugs from pushing drugs to some (black) kids.  At the hospital, Lois is the only available blood donor, and Stevens pulls through thanks to a transfusion from her to him.

            After the 24-hour transformation has ended, Lois visits Stevens in the hospital, where he learns that she was the one who provided his transfusion.  Then the guy who called her his enemy smiles, and they hold hands.  Fade out.

            Another interesting section of the story is where Lois confronts Superman with the question, would he still love her if she were black.  He responds with a logical observation, and … well, see for yourself.



            Sure, in ways this might be a cop-out -- she changes back at a convenient time -- but it’s no more a cop-out than any other story of the Silver Age -- you couldn’t make permanent changes to the set-up.  I mean they couldn’t marry.

            Think a little more about the first panel.  As somebody (probably Larry Niven) said, Superman is another species, from another planet.  What are the odds that he would want to mate with ANYTHING ON EARTH?  Surely skin color wouldn’t matter at all.

(See you next Monday with the rest of this ripped-from-the-comic-books- article.)
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© by Mark Alfred