Superman in the Cotton Fields: Comics in Black and White, Mostly White

The tiny ship hurtles through lonely space, carrying in its hold the last son of a doomed world. The child inside represents the last gasp of a dying civilization. Landing by chance on earth, the ship bearing the small boy crash lands in rural America. Kindly rural folk adopt the young alien and raise him as a human being, inculcating values of service and citizenship.

Sound familiar? It should. But we’re not in Kansas anymore. The above does not describe the nativity of Superman, the last son of Krypton and one of DC comic’s flagship characters. Instead, its the origin story of the African American superhero Icon, one of the creations of the “Milestone revolution”. Milestone comics appeared in the early 1990s, with black-owned and black created titles but dependant on industry giant DC comics as its distributor. The creators of this new line hoped to take advantage of that era’s boom in comics sales while also shaping a new reading of African American characters. Black superheroes like Icon, Static, and Hardware would avoid the unremitting political and social messages that previous indie black owned companies had attempted. Meanwhile, Milestone tried to add complexity to the one-dimensional stereotypes of black characters that made occasional appearances in the books produced by Marvel and DC.

The story of Icon, clearly borrowing heavily from the Superman mythos, provides an example of Milestone’s work. The galactic refugee’s spaceship crashed not in Kansas in the 20th century but in the cotton fields of the American South in the 1830s. A slave woman (named, with a shout out to the Exodus story, Miriam) finds the child whose ship alters his appearance to look exactly like the first life form encountered. The future Icon receives the name Augustus Freeman and what he learns in the cotton fields is indeed “values of service and citizenship.” Freeman does not use his powers to lead a slave revolt. Instead he becomes a kind of superpowered Uncle Tom. Immortal, he lives into the 20th century to become a corporate lawyer in “Dakota City”. He uses his superpowers for the very first time to defend his condominium against some African American teenagers who break into his building. One of these teens, after “reforming”, a young woman named Raquel Ervin, convinces him to use his powers for good and together they form an uneasy alliance, a W.E.B Du Bois and a superpowered Booker T. Washington.

Milestone folded in 1996. Jeffrey Brown, the historian and best interpreter of Milestone, attributes at least part of the company’s failure to the way that white readers, distributors, and retailers had been culturally conditioned to understand Milestone’s black heroes. Brown notes that Milestone comics always sold well . . . when they made it to the stands. Individual comic stores owners, however, ordered very few copies. One Toronto store owner simply explained that he didn’t “have a lot of black customers,” thus assuming that only black people have an interest in black people while simultaneously failing to ask the question why he had so few African American patrons [Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and Their Fans, by Jeffrey A. Brown (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)].

White supremacy structures cultural production and distribution in the United States. In the previous instalment of Catfish Row I looked at how the portrayal, and frequent failure to portray, the American South in comics grows from an unwillingness by writers, artists, editors and the corporations who own their work to deal with the problem of race. Indeed, as I noted, even when African American characters appear in connection with the southern experience, they are introduced into alternative universes where the central social question of the American 20th century could easily be “white-washed”.

The tendency to integrate the black experience into larger white narratives appears in some of the earliest efforts to introduce black characters into the comics world. In the 1940s, the only black character to appear in Marvel’s line was literally named “White-Wash” and looked more like a young white boy in black face rather than an actual African American character. Appearing in Marvel’s Young Allies title, White-Wash provided comic relief; a white supremacist minstrel fantasy in, ironically, a book about young heroes who used their powers to battle the Nazi menace. By the 1970s, of course, black characters in comics had achieved some personality beyond the “plantation darkey” model. In DC comics Black Lightening and Marvel’s Luke Cage, there was at least no bowing and scrapping. There was, however, the heavy burden of “ghetto” stereotype. In one infamous story arc in the Captain America series, the red, white and blue-bedecked superhero’s black “sidekick”, the Falcon, is portrayed as a pimped-out street hustler before being “rescued” by super-liberal Captain America.

Despite some important narrative differences Black Panther, the creation of comics genius and white liberal Jack Kirby, shows similar tendencies. The Black Panther is both a superhero and the King of an advanced African nation called Wakanda. T’Challa, Black Panther’s princely identity, uses his physical skills, technological prowess and powers granted him by sacred African traditions to fight evil. The Panther, significantly, first appeared in 1966 in a “team-up” with the lily white Fantastic Four, the Brady Bunch of the comics genre. Two years later, he became a supporting character to yet another all-white team, in Avengers number 52.

While the name “Black Panther” certainly came with politically loaded connotations in the late 1960s, the character in the pages of Marvel comics had little to no ideological content. In fact, the villainy fought by the Panther often had a supernatural edge, echoing numerous white representations of African people in the “jungle adventure” genre. In fact, the character did not receive a solo title until 1973 when he began appearing in a series known as “Jungle Adventures”, where he fought various stone age monsters, gods, aliens and robots among vine-covered ruins of ancient African civilizations. When Jack Kirby again drew the Black Panther for another solo title in 1977, the trend of a depoliticizing Marvel’s only “major” black character continued. In the first story arc, T’Challa fought otherworldly enemies, and am African princess, for possession of a mystical brass frog. This is hardly biting political satire.

Perhaps Marvel should receive some credit for making T’Challa an African monarch of a African nation. Wakanda, at first glance, might seem to represent the ultimate fantasy of the black power movement, the hopes of black nationalist thinkers like Henry McNeal Turner and Marcus Garvey come to life on the comics page. Unfortunately, it may have acted as a way to diffuse the political content of the character. By placing the most well-known black character in the Marvel Universe in Africa, and in an imaginary Africa at that, the books lost even the ability to comment on race relations in the United States and the powers that structured those relations. Though certainly viewed by some as evidence of the liberalism of his creators, Black Panther through the 1970s simply represented how racism shapes creative production in American society.

Describing a society as a racist society does not describe a collectivity of individually prejudiced people. It does not mean a social order where individuals with various prejudices against black people or any other group predominate. A racist society is one in which significant political and social capital rests in white hands, even if that society gives lip service and official tribute to the ideals of “tolerance” and “diversity”.

Racist societies have their own internal logic that often coincides with the logic of capital. The loan officers who decides against the small business loan to a black entrepreneur not, in his mind, because she is black but because of the “risk” involved in investing in that neighborhood. The real estate brokers and buyers who advertise and seek out “desirable neighborhoods”; code for lily white neighborhoods. Hollywood’s envious look at the money made by Melvin Van Peebles Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasss Song and the decision to create the “blaxploitation” genre (after handing Peeble’s work an absurd X rating for its gritty depiction of life in a community destroyed by economic injustice and police brutality). These action films, that did appeal to African American people because of their strong black characters and villainous whites, ironically also traded in stereotype, and became the new minstrel shows for some whites who enjoyed the genre. These films disappeared once attendance dropped off in black communities tired of the same old formulae. Who could gainsay the logic of profit and loss?

In an earlier Catfish Row reflecting on African Americans in NASCAR, I described green, rather than black and white, as the real reason why there are no prominent African American drivers, why corporate sponsors at a certain point in the sport’s history actually helped to push talented black drivers off the oval tracks. Melvin Vann Pebbles put the experience of black people in popular culture in a much more sophisticated fashion. In the documentary film Classified X, Pebbles says that Americans might be primarily concerned about the color of money but, he reminds us, when green money is held by white hands guided by white minds twisted by centuries of racial fantasy and anxiety, the distribution of capital, economic and social, will run along channels dug by white supremacy. White dominated corporations will hold “diversity day” while closing off advancement to more than a handful of black workers. Comics will include black characters while subsuming them in white-dominated narratives.

There are, however, perhaps reasons to be hopeful. In fact, more recent incarnations of the Black Panther certainly give reason for optimism. The Black Panther reappeared with his own title in 2000. Written by Christopher Priest, the tone of irony that had thankfully made its way into comics by the late ’80s finally appeared in story arcs involving black characters. In Priest’s classic “Enemy of the State” storyline (Black Panther, Vol. 2 #6-12), the Panther becomes a symbol of a larger African American community besieged by racism, both in the form of white supremacist violence and the patronizing concern of the alleged “good guys”. Priest even spoofs the old comics convention of bringing in black characters as exotic supporting cast for white heroes. The Avengers, instead, make a guest appearance in the Panther’s world where their strong-arm do-goodism makes them appear, in Priest’s words, as “borderline fascists”.

The newest incarnation of the Black Panther seems even more promising, in part because the focus is not on T’Challa but on the African nation he leads and symbolizes. Although too early to tell if it has any enduring value, the new Panther series has been heavily publicized by Marvel and yet contains much more political content than most of their line. US foreign policy, and the imperialist policies of the white world more generally, receive plenty of attention, partially as seen through the eyes of the United States’ first African American Secretary of State. If you believe comics are escapist, this new series certainly will change your mind.

Certainly the creations of the world of comics enjoy worldwide recognition with the successful X-Men franchise, the hugely popular Spider-Man series, and the next planned “summer blockbuster”, the Fantastic Four. The genre has even had its failures in the last year, the Punisher and Elektra, and yet Hollywood shows no sign of giving up on the operatic, special effects drenched superhero epic.

Yet these are lily-white celebrations of superpower and heroism. I doubt we can expect a film about the Black Panther anytime soon and, if he gets his own flick, I fear he’ll be sent on a “jungle adventure” fighting aliens and maybe a giant spider or two. In the marginal art form of comics, African American representations are changing. In the world of mass entertainment, where the heroes born on the comics page become gargantuan licensing franchises, little has changed. At the local Cineplex, white America can still enjoy its fantasies in a safe place where no panther’s stalk them . . .