The Racial Justice Experience
Diversity In The DC Universe: 1961-1979
By John Wells
The revolution began quietly. In the pages of Our Army At War # 113, writer Bob Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert pushed Sgt. Rock to the background (and off the cover) for a character episode entitled "Eyes of a Blind Gunner."
The thirteen page story related the friendship of easy Company soldiers Jackie and Wildman, the latter an expert with a bazooka. In the climax of the story, the two men are separated from Easy, with Jackie blinded by the flash of an explosion and Wildman's hands burnt. With only a machine gun between them and advancing Nazi troops, Jackie tells his comrade that, "I'll be your hands -- if you'll be my eyes."
Between the two of them, the enemy is held off until Rock and Easy rescue them at dawn. "Bet you'll be glad to get back to your bazooka again," the Sarge joked to Wildman.
"Bazookas are only for wild men, Rock," he replied.
Jackie added, "We'll stick with something nice and peaceful like this machine gun, Sarge!"
It was, as noted, a simple character piece, but one that was remarkable for a story published in 1961: Wildman was white and Jackie was black. The landmark story was made all the more effective by its refusal to portray the friendship of men of different color as anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, the fact that Jackie was African-American went virtually without comment, powerfully expressing the message of brotherhood in that turbulent era without any of the heavy-handedness that was to come in the comics of the 1970s. (And one can overlook the fact that, in the real world, blacks and whites were segregated in the military.)
Such a portrayal was, of course, a radical departure from the earliest black characters in DC's history, figures who were almost universally presented as broad comic stereotypes with bulging eyes, big lips and little intelligence. Some were actually presented in their own strips, such as Sam the Porter (1936's New Comics # 5 to 1940's Adventure Comics # 53) and Pincus (beginning in 1935's New Fun # 3), while others played comic relief to their male leads, notably Jonah in "Bulldog Martin" (1939-1940's More Fun # 47-52) and Gargantua T. Potts in "Tex Thomson" (1939-1940's Action Comics # 15-25). The youngster Pincus, incidentally, actually crossed over into kid adventure strip "Spike Spalding" and remained there for the duration of its run.
Perhaps the best known of these stereotypes was Steamboat, seen in Fawcett's Captain Marvel series. He was a food vendor named Bill who'd saved a policeman from being killed in 1942's America's Greatest Comics # 2 but wound up having his vending wagon destroyed in the process. A grateful Billy Batson offered to fix him up with a job at Station WHIZ. Steamboat spent the next couple years as Billy's servant before good sense prevailed and he was eliminated from the strip.
In the face of such stereotyping, the 1944-1947 Johnny Everyman series (Comic Cavalcade # 8-14 and World's Finest # 15-26, 28, 30) was a refreshing contrast. Produced "in cooperation with the East and West Association," the series was designed to promote brotherhood, often dispelling myths about cultures around the world. The Association's principal mission was to create understanding of the people of Asia but, as seen here, "Johnny Everyman" went beyond that.
Particularly of note were the episodes that zeroed in on racism in the United States. Writer Jack Schiff and artist John Daly's story of Ralph Jackson (1945's World's Finest # 17), for instance, explicitly addressed the hypocrisy of fighting bigotry overseas while practicing it on the homefront:
In France, Sgt. Ralph Jackson leads his battalion of African-American soldiers in a furious attack on Nazi troops. As messerschmitts strafe their truck column, Jackson is hit in the right shoulder but nonetheless manage to shoot one of the planes out of the sky.
Months later, in the U.S., Jackson, having been awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, meets his friend George. They are turned away at one restaurant. Informed at a second cafe, that all seats are reserved, their old friend Johnny Everyman spots them and invites the men to his table.
"Sure, I'm a 'hero,'" says Jackson. "I almost gave my life to wipe out fascism. So what ? I come back here, and I can't even eat a meal where I want to...what's the use ?"
Johnny recalls how, in their college days, his white football team wanted to play Ralph's black team but officials refused. Early one morning, Johnny and Ralph organized their teams on the football field in defiance. The game ended in a tie but all the men on the field had greater respect for one another at its conclusion.
Today as then, Johnny continues, there are non-prejudiced people in the world and a growing number of organizations are helping to fight bigotry.
"You're right," Ralph replies. "Rome wasn't built in a day. But I wish there were more people like you."
Comic Cavalcade # 12's installment ("Meet Charley Wing") found Johnny trying to change the viewpoint of a group of kids well indoctrinated by their culture to view any Asian citizen as untrustworthy.
"All ya have ta do is see some o' them nifty serials at the movies every week," one boy insisted. "Tells ya what goes on in the mysterious underground passages of Chinatown. And lots and lots of books show how Chinamen villains do their dirty work. Always very sneaky ... they work underground ..."
Johnny makes a number of different arguments to prove them wrong, including a lengthy account of his work with the Chinese during the war. Ultimately, the detail that convinces the boys that young Charley Wing is no different from them is the fact that his father admonishes him to eat his vegetables ("Ha! Ha! That sounds just like my pop.").
And lastly, there was "George Tanaka, American" (World's Finest # 20), published shortly after the end of the war.
In China, an army captain has asked Johnny to find volunteers for a mission behind Japanese lines, noting that, as a civilian engineer, Johnny would be treated as a spy if captured. Johnny acknowledges the risks and presents his list of volunteers: Sgt. George Tanaka and Privates John Sato and Milton Hayashi. "Why, they're Japanese!" exclaims the captain.
"Beg pardon, captain -- they're Americans whose parents or grandparents are Japanese! You know how well they've served in this campaign!"
Having completed their mission of planting explosives on the Han-See Bridge, the men are confronted by Japanese soldiers as they leave. A furious Hayashi refuses to surrender ("My father fled to America from the oppression of warmongers. Why should I surrender to them now ?") and is gunned down by the soldiers, who declare him "a traitor to his race."
The remaining men surrender when they realize the enemy is unaware that the bridge has been mined. If even one can escape, the explosives can be detonated.
While searching Tanaka, the Japanese find a personal letter in his uniform. George's sister wrote that, while at a concert hall with their mother, people wondered aloud why "they aren't in concentration camps." As an American citizen nearly all of her life, George's mother was devastated by the comments. "Your father loved America!" she wept to her daughter. "Your brother is willing to die for it! Why should such a thing happen to us ? And those hoodlum attacks we've heard against other Japanese-Americans. Why -- why -- ?"
The Japanese ask Tanaka and Sato to join them rather than fight for "a nation that insults your mothers and sisters -- and will never accept you as equals." Sato refuses but Tanaka accepts the offer and is escorted to general headquarters. Sato and Johnny are ordered shot immediately only to have the execution disrupted when Tanaka throws a metal paperweight into a generator and causes an explosion.
"Do you think I'm a child, to surrender a birthright of freedom for your lying promises?"
The trio escape in a staff car, fleeing across the bridge, which they blow up once they're on the other side. Soon after, an American flag is flying over the camp where Johnny, Tanaka, and Sato had been held.
Later, Johnny confesses "you fooled even me, George! You seemed so angry -- and in a way, you had a right to be!"
"I know too well what I've lived and fought for -- and would die for -- to entrust it into the hands of the Japanese military caste. There are blind and thoughtless people in America, as elsewhere. But the seed of tolerance and fellowship has spread to many nations, and is growing."
And that brings us back to Jackie Johnson. Although Kanigher and Kubert soon revived Wildman as a regular in the Sgt. Rock series (beginning with 1962's OAAW # 120, which provided his origin), they waited a bit longer for Jackie. He finally returned in 1965's OAAW # 159 and took center stage in # 160 for "What's the Color of Your Blood ?"
Kanigher had provided his hero with the last name of Johnson, a nod to Jack Johnson, who'd become the first black heavyweight champion of the world in 1908. Like his namesake, Jackie Johnson had also been a prizefighter and a successful one at that. One off night left him open to defeat by a German boxer named Uhlan and Jackie was still spoiling for a rematch when World War Two began.
In OAAW # 160, Johnson and Easy Company crossed paths with "Stormtrooper" Uhlan's paratroopers and the Nazi couldn't resist defending his title. Aware that the enemy would execute his friends if he defeated Uhlan, Jackie refused to fight back, enduring vicious blows and taunts that his blood was black.
Urged on by Sgt. Rock, Jackie finally started pounding Uhlan. As expected, the Nazis opened fire the moment that Stormtrooper was kayoed but, ironically, it was Uhlan who sustained potentially fatal wounds. Apprised of the fact that Uhlan would die without a transfusion of Type B blood, a battered Jackie held out his arm. Watching the blood flow through the tube from Jackie's arm to his, Uhlan was forced to admit that "I was wrong. Wrong! The color of your blood -- is red!"
Having faced Nazi racism, Jackie went on to be subjected to the bigotry of his fellow soldiers in the form of a replacement named Sharkey (1967's "A Penny For Jackie Johnson" in OAAW # 179). He derisively referred to Johnson as "boy" and tossed a penny in his hand when Jackie extended a palm in friendship. "Where I come from," he sneered, "we don't shake hands with the likes of you! We just drop a coin in it."
Though Rock feared that "Sharkey's like a time bomb," Jackie refused to respond in kind. "The man is entitled to his opinion, sarge. And he can keep it -- until I can change it for him." Inevitably, after multiple insults and conflicts, Sharkey was gravely wounded and, Jackie, seriously injured himself, dragged him to safety. Apologizing, Sharkey asked, "Can I -- can I have my penny back ?"
"I've been savin' it for you, soldier," Jackie responded. He and Sharkey finally shook hands as the story closed.
Later in 1967, Gardner Fox checked in with a consciousness-raising story of his own in Justice League of America # 57's "Man, Thy Name Is -- Brother." Under the direction of Snapper Carr, three members of the League set out to meet with a variety of people to gather information for Carr's college paper on Brotherhood Week.
The Flash crossed paths with Joel Harper, a young African-American who, when praised for saving the life of a clothing manufacturer, asked for a job as a reward. As the Scarlet Speedster arrived, Joel was in the process of stopping another crime by shoving a rack of clothes towards fleeing bank robbers. Temporarily blinded, the Flash was forced to rely on Joel's directions to oppose the thieves.
Infuriated that Harper had gotten involved and ruined the garments on the rack, the manufacturer fired his new employee. Joel angrily told the Flash, "Colored boys never get a break! Would you believe I've been studyin' up on men's clothes and fashions -- dreamin' that some day I might own my own business ? What a laugh -- dreams like that don't come true -- not for me ..."
The Scarlet Speedster disputed him, using Joel's observation skills to identify the clothing that the thieves wore and make an arrest. Afterwards, he urged Joel to contact Barry Allen in Central City about a job on the police force. "I'm confident that some day you'll be a top-grade policeman -- if you have the confidence and ambition to make a go of it."
Although the Flash's offer of a law enforcement job to a man interested in the clothing industry was curious, one can't help but speculate where a rookie cop named Harper might have gone. An African-American version of Simon & Kirby's Guardian ? Stay tuned.
Elsewhere, editor George Kashdan had introduced an African young man named Molo among the International Sea Devils in Sea Devils # 23, 25, 27 and 30 (1965-1966) and, in a more significant role, Rupert Kenboya, in the pages of 1967's Showcase # 66-67.
The latter was the son of an African tribal leader who spent the late 1950s and early 1960s being educated at an American university and wound up with a friend for life in the form on Mike Maxwell. At Rupert's insistence, Mike agreed to accompany him back to Africa and, thanks to his friend's influence, ended up as the coordinator of a new wildlife preserve.
A mishap resulted in Maxwell acquiring strange powers (and an even stranger costume) and the alternate identity of B'wana Beast. "You've got something big," Rupert told him. "Something that could be a great help out here ... helping make a new country -- a new way of life for my people." Ultimately, Kenboya found himself as police commissioner of his new government, ordered to arrest the vigilante whom Rupert regarded as "my greatest help in fighting criminals." The series proved to be one of Showcase's great failures and the conflict went unresolved.
The debut of another black hero was heralded in the letter column of 1967's Adventure Comics # 363, then featuring the Legion of Super-Heroes. A reader asked, "Where are the Negroes in the 30th century ? Surely there must be some of the race around. Certainly they are not represented in the Legion, for only two of the members have non-white faces. The rest are Caucasians."
Obliquely referring to the forthcoming blue-skinned Shadow Lass, assistant editor E. Nelson Bridwell responded, "We guarantee our next new Legionnaire will surprise you. Meanwhile, catch the February-March issue of Unexpected for a new and different Negro hero, in the debut of the Secret Six."
Although intended as the lead feature for Unexpected, the Secret Six (created by Bridwell and incoming Editorial Director Carmine Infantino and illustrated by Frank Springer) was instead launched as its own title in early 1968 and ran for seven issues. The premise was that six individuals owed their lives or reputations to a mysterious individual known as Mockingbird who blackmailed them into performing heroic missions. The twist: one of the sextet was really Mockingbird!
Among them was a middle-aged, bespectacled African-American government scientist named August Durant. Years earlier, the nuclear physicist had been infected with a lethal disease by Soviet agents (described in detail in Secret Six # 2) and now survived only thanks to the medication that Mockingbird provided. Or so he claimed.
Bridwell never revealed the truth but many believed that the brilliant Durant was the most likely mastermind of the team. Eventually, in the Martin Pasko-scripted Secret Six series in 1988's Action Comics Weekly, Durant was finally confirmed to have been Mockingbird -- after he'd been killed in a plane crash!
1968 had been a profoundly turbulent year in United States history, one that saw the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Some of the anger over those murders seemed to spill over into a script that young writers Marv Wolfman and Len Wein had prepared for Teen Titans # 20, slated for publication in January of 1969.
As described by Wolfman in 1998's Comic Book Artist # 1, "the story was about the Mob taking advantage of black anger by using and manipulating a teen gang. Somebody goes against the gang and tries to stop them. He preaches the Martin Luther King line hat people can't resort to guns and violence. At the end it turned out the masked super-hero is the brother of one of the gang kids."
Clad in a white costume with a full-face mask, Jericho was a guy named Ben, who explained to his brother Mark on the last page that "I had to prove to you that belonging to a race does not mean that you have to be against the others! Man, there's no blanket statement that can be made for any race. There's good and bad on all sides and the only way to find it is to believe in equal justice and work for it, Mark. But you wouldn't believe your 'coward' brother -- you had to have a faceless, raceless hero to show you where the real evil was. I had to become Jericho."
All involved, from Wolfman to editor Dick Giordano to Neal Adams, acknowledge that the story was heavy-handed but DC's outgoing Vice President Irwin Donenfeld is said to have given the plot his stamp of approval and it had been essentially completed when the roof caved in.
Donenfeld was gone and Carmine Infantino, citing fears of a Southern backlash, abruptly killed the story. Giordano, in CBA # 1, recalled, "The cover was already done and printed so it had to have 'Jericho' in the title and something to do with the action on the cover."
Ultimately, Neal Adams rushed out an entirely new script and pencils featuring a caucasian hero named Joshua but only after his rewrite over the original pencils had been rejected. "At that point," commented Wolfman in CBA # 1, "we all understood that it wasn't being killed because of bad writing, but because it had a black super-hero in it."
Much of the art for the original story, described as some of Nick Cardy's best work, still exists (published in CBA # 1 and 5) but DC's first black costumed hero remains in limbo. Significantly for a company whose writers love to revive obscure characters, substitute hero Joshua has never been seen again (outside of a reprint in 1981's Best of DC # 18).
Instead, Bob Kanigher got the opportunity to introduce DC's first African-American Titan, a slum kid named Mal Duncan (late 1969's Teen Titans # 26, illustrated by Cardy). Due to the events of TT # 25, the Titans were restricted to operating in generic uniforms without their powers. Impressed that Mal could hold his own beside them, the team invited him to join them. Mal successfully passed a survival training course but he felt out of place alongside the other teens.
His inferiority complex would continue through a succession of writers for the duration of the book's original run (ending with # 43 in 1972) though a solo story in # 35 finally enabled Mal to truly feel that he was a Titan when he defeated the Gargoyle.
Elsewhere, barely a month after Mal's debut, an elderly black man was speaking these words in a Star City slum:
"I been reading 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 ?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!"
His head hung down, Hal Jordan choked, "I ... can't ..."
Those three panels, written by Denny O'Neil and illustrated by Neal Adams, were destined to become some of the most famous in comic book history. They heralded the beginning of big change at DC as social revelevancy suddenly began to capture the attention of the creative community, the media and the fans (if not necessarily the public at large).
In the case of Green Lantern, it was a life-changing moment, one that forced him to ask, "So tell me ... how do I help ?"
"I'm no advice committee ... If you want to bad enough, you'll find a way. And you know," the old man said as he put his arm on Hal's shoulder, "I think you do want to."
The remainder of "No Evil Shall Escape My Sight" (Green Lantern # 76) focused on Green Lantern's attempt to expose a corrupt slumlord and found the Emerald Gladiator taken to task by the Guardians of the Universe.
Appalled by what he was hearing, Green Arrow interjected, "Listen ... forget about chasing around the galaxy ... and remember America ... it's a good country ... beautiful ... fertile ... and terribly sick! There are children dying ... honest people cowering in fear ... disillusioned kids ripping up campuses ...
As images of King and Kennedy appeared behind him, he continued, "On the streets of Memphis, a good black man died ... and in Los Angeles, a good white man fell ... Something is wrong! Something is killing us all ...! Some hideous moral cancer is rotting our very souls!"
"Green Lantern/Green Arrow" was underway and comics would never be the same again.
Nor was this the only title generating excitement at DC in 1970. By the end of the year, Jack Kirby would be gone from Marvel and producing a series of titles for their biggest competitor.
It was Kirby who would introduce DC's first black super-hero, a magnetic- powered New God in blue and green named Vykin the Black, in late 1970's Forever People # 1. Vykin even managed to outdo his four teammates in one respect, starring in a two-page solo strip one year later in New Gods # 7.
Kirby would, in fact, introduce a black character into each of his initial four titles for DC, the best known of whom is certainly the Black Racer. Neither good nor evil, he was a bizarre angel of death who seemed to be an alternative take on Jack's earlier Silver Surfer, now recast as a knight in red and blue armor on crimson skis. In 1971's New Gods # 3, he merged with paralyzed Vietnam vet Willie Walker and showed up two more times during Kirby's run on New Gods (# 8 and 11). He even made an appearance in the non-Kirby Lois Lane # 115.
First to be introduced, though, was Flipper Dipper, a new addition to the modern Newsboy Legion in 1970's Jimmy Olsen # 133. Dressed in scuba gear, Flipper Dipper was a hip-talking attempt at providing a bit of diversity to the Legion's all-white roster. Mercifully, his name was eventually abbreviated to Flip, effective with JO # 145.
Shilo Norman came on the scene relatively late in the game in 1973's Mister Miracle # 15. He was a teenager who'd witnessed his brother's murder and was now in the protective custody of Scott (Mister Miracle) Free and Big Barda while the police continued their investigation. Impressed by Shilo's attempt to capture the murderers on his own and concerned about his future, the couple offered to train him.
"Have you taken a good look at me?" Shilo asked.
"Yes," Scott replied. "I see me -- as I once was ... trying to escape to anywhere."
"And I helped him do it," Barda added. "I couldn't fail him. I won't fail you, Shilo. You see ... I once lost a friend who couldn't ... escape."
Shilo remained a part of Mister Miracle's extended family until the end of the run (# 18) before entering a long period in limbo. He briefly resurfaced in 1990-1991's Mister Miracle (second series) # 21-28 as a third-generation Mister Miracle.
And then there was Soul Love, a magazine-style title that grew out of Kirby's rejected proposal, True Divorce Cases. As Mark Evanier explained in 1997's Jack Kirby Collector # 17, "there was one story in it about a black couple, and somehow this evolved into a new comic. ... We did three more stories; the idea was we took one story out of True Divorce Cases, so we didn't do two complete books; one story was common to both books. Jack wrote most of it. We got him copies of Ebony for reference, and it was some of his best art of the period. He sent it in; the first thing he got back was negative feedback that DC didn't feel they could market it unless the book was done by black writers and artists. They were talking about putting a pseudonym on it."
Although DC continued to tinker with the material, including commissioning Vince Colletta to retouch the art, the project was ultimately abandoned. Assessing the material in Jack Kirby Collector # 23, editor John Morrow admitted that it "leaves much to be desired."
"Lacking a narrator (a device that at least gave Jack's other 'adult' publications a personality)," Morrow continued, "Soul Love's stories are generically introduced with an attempt at 'hip' dialect that comes across as horribly forced; and while the underlying, universal message of love in these romance tales should theoretically transcend all racial boundaries, Kirby just didn't seem to have enough 'soul' to pull them off convincingly. As True Divorce epitomizes Jack's finest work, Soul Love just draws more attention to his stilted dialogue, and stands as some of his worst."
By and large, though, Jack Kirby's published contributions have stood the test of time fairly well. One can nitpick about the emphasis on their color in names like the Black Racer and Vykin the Black or Flipper Dipper's nickname and speech patterns but these characteristics weren't unique to Kirby creations. To his credit, he treated their skin color as incidental to the stories he was telling.
One need only look at Lois Lane # 106's "I Am Curious -- Black" (1970) to get an indication of just how embarrassing social commentary could be. In the story (by Bob Kanigher, Werner Roth and Vince Colletta), Lois headed to Metropolis' Little Africa to get "the nitty-gritty no newspaper ever printed" and found herself virtually shut out. The attitude was exemplified by activist Dave Stevens, who pointed at Lois and warned the crowd, "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. It's okay with her if we leave these rat-infested slums. If we don't move next door to her! That's why she's our enemy!"
Determined to prove Stevens wrong, Lois asked Superman to use Kryptonian technology to transform her into a black woman. Back in Metropolis, Lois experienced racism first hand, watching as a cab driver she'd previously regarded as a friend ignored her in favor of a white passenger.
Lois befriended Stevens, who was soon gunned down when he intervened in a drug transaction. As in Kanigher's earlier Jackie Johnson story, Lois conveniently had the same type of blood as Dave and offered to make a donation to save his life. In a wordless final page, an astonished Stevens smiled and clasped Lois's hand in friendship as he realized that a white woman had saved his life.
Much has been made of the fact that Kanigher's title for the story was inspired by a then-current x-rated film, "I Am Curious (Yellow" (which he had -- and has -- never seen), but his real inspiration was another movie, 1964's "Black Like Me." That film had been an adaptation of white journalist JohnHoward Griffin's book about posing as a black man in the South during 1959.
Though heavy-handed and simplistic (as in the implication that all African- Americans in Metropolis existed at poverty-level in a slum), the story was well-received at the time, with editor E. Nelson Bridwell reporting in Lois Lane # 109 that "we got some nice responses in other media ... including a mention on the Dick Cavett show."
Bridwell, Kanigher and company followed with a sequel in 1971's Lois Lane # 114 that included a two-page spread featuring historical black figures. Less shrill than the earlier story, the issue concluded with Dave Stevens being hired as "the first black columnist on the (Daily) Planet."
Along with his girl friend Tina Ames, Stevens would return in LL # 116 and 119 and continued to make recurring appearances throughout the decade, ending with non-speaking roles in 1979's Superman # 337 and 338.
Later in 1970, Mike Sekowsky featured an African-American college football player at the center of "Johnny Dee -- Hero-Bum," a Supergirl story in which the character's race was irrelevant to the plot (Adventure # 399). Here, gamblers tried to coerce Johnny into throwing the big game by threatening his girl friend. In a harrowing sequence early in the story, Johnny and Roxie were jumped by strangers in Klan-like hoods who whipped the young woman to make their point.
Although Johnny proved to be a one-shot, DC was striving mightily to establish a bit of racial diversity in its Superman stories. With the notable exception of the Lois Lane episodes, they generally managed to pull it off without overtly calling attention to the characters' skin color.
Only a few months after Dave Stevens met Lois Lane, a "World of Krypton" story in late 1970's Superman # 234 casually revealed that blacks existed on the seemingly all-white world of Kal-El's birth. A map of Krypton in issue # 239 formally established the existence of "Vathlo Island -- home of highly developed black race." When asked why they hadn't been seen previously, E. Nelson Bridwell explained (in # 238), "Remember -- you see blacks in the U.S. because their ancestors were brought here as slaves. That never happened on Krypton."
Regrettably, DC never developed Vathlo Island beyond that. It was, therefore, a bit surprising to see a black Kryptonian (the interestingly-named "Iph-Ro of Vathlo") surface in the very recent "Return To Krypton" arc (Superman: The Man of Steel # 111).
In 1971's Superman # 246, Len Wein decided to flesh out Clark Kent's supporting cast by introducing several of neighbors at 344 Clinton Street. Among them were two African-American men, Jonathan Slaughter (revealed in Action # 430 to be a karate expert) and doorman Frank Jackson.
Slaughter made only infrequent visits to the series, the last in 1984's Superman # 393, but Frank logged exactly two dozen appearances, concluding with 1985's Superman # 413. One of the most memorable was in a Bob Rozakis tale in 1981's Superman Family # 215, which revealed that Jackson had been a groundbreaking black baseball player in the 1940s.
In the post-Jack Kirby Jimmy Olsen, writer John Albano and editor Joe Orlando introduced an African-American policeman named Corrigan who appeared in # 149, 150 and 152 (1972) before being promoted to detective in # 163 (1973). His final team-up with Jimmy was in 1974's Superman Family # 167.
Initial reports in the fan press gave the police officer an unusual heritage, with The Comic Reader # 80 (1971) and 82 (1972) asserting that he was to be the son of the Earth-One Jim and Clarice (misidentified as "Claire") Corrigan. Whether this was truly Albano and Orlando's intention or not, the parentage was never referred to in the comic book. Nonetheless, it fueled rumors that the young Corrigan was going to be killed and become a second-generation Spectre.
That turn of events never occurred but Tony Isabella made a nod to it by giving him the first name of Jim when he revived the officer in 1977's Black Lightning # 4. Corrigan made a few more appearances in Lightning (# 7-9) and showed up for the last time in 1979's World's Finest # 260.
Over in the Cary Bates-scripted Lois Lane # 121 (1971), the reporter was grieving the loss of her sister when she was befriended by an African-American woman named Julie Spence. After helping Julie locate her missing parents, Lois decided to share an apartment with her. Julie managed to be a fairly resourceful person, schooled in the martial arts and capable of defending herself. By contrast, Lois and Julie's other roommates were pure cliche -- the fat girl (with the unfortunate name of Marsha Mallow) and the girl with a secret (Kristin Cutler). After an active role in her first two appearances, Julie was reduced to cameos for # 123-130.
The dorm neighbors cast as Linda Danvers' neighbors in 1972's Supergirl # 1, African-American Terry Blake (seen in # 1-5) and Asian student Sheila Wong were pure tokens, though. Still, they at least managed to get names, unlike Diana Prince's Asian and black roommates in Wonder Woman # 204-206.
Even Lois Lane's back-up strip, "Rose and The Thorn," included a story on African-American Congresswoman Sylvia Charlton (based on Shirley Chisholm) in issue # 126's episode (by Kanigher and Don Heck).
The last of the new blood was another Kanigher creation, WGBS newscaster Melba Manton. She made her debut in a four-page solo story (illustrated by Art Saaf and Vince Colletta) wherein she risked her life to save an innocent fugitive from being shot by the police. The series was intended to replace "Rose and the Thorn" beginning with Lois Lane # 131 (1973) but plans for the back-up were scuttled and the only two episodes prepared ended up in LL # 132 and Supergirl # 6.
Melba still managed to debut in Lois Lane # 131, albeit as part of the supporting cast in the lead story. She went on to join Lois in # 133 and 135-137, making sporadic appearances in Superman-related titles through 1977's Superman Family # 188.
By comparison, the Batman titles offered little in the way of racial diversity although, to be fair, few supporting characters were added to the series in general during that period. Still the introduction of African-American scientist Harris Blaine in 1972's momentous final Ra's al Ghul trilogy (Batman # 242-244) is well worth noting. Denny O'Neil revived Blaine at the end of the year in issue # 247 but the doctor didn't appear again until he was murdered in Mike W. Barr and Jerry Bingham's 1987 graphic novel, Batman: Son of The Demon.
Denny O'Neil, Neal Adams and Dick Giordano's Green Lantern # 87 (1971) offered a somewhat more sophisticated spin on race relations than "I Am Curious" had done. Herein, Hal Jordan was instructed to find an alternate Green Lantern when his previous back-up, Guy Gardner, was injured. The new recruit was an unemployed architect named John Stewart who, in Hal's opinion, "has a chip on his shoulder the size of the Rock of Gilbraltar." To test Stewart's mettle, Hal deliberately assigned him to protect a racist Presidential candidate who, in the end, was exposed in his attempt to stage an assassination attempt and blame it on blacks.
In an interview in 1996's Comic Book Marketplace # 40, Neal Adams took credit for John Stewart's skin color. The suggestion was said to have come about after learning from editor Julius Schwartz that an alternate Green Lantern episode was in the works. Given the population of the world, he argued that "we ought to have a black Green Lantern, not because we're liberals, but because it just makes sense."
"But then the script came in," Adams continued, "and I found the guy's name was Hannibal Lincoln, or Lincoln Washington, or something like that. I thought how 'comic book' of us. Why don't we give him a regular name ? How about John Stewart ? He's an architect who's out of work. That was a change I never heard Denny object to."
The story is dated today, with its central character the soon-to-be-cliched jive-talking angry young black man. Still, O'Neil provided a bit more balance than the Lois Lane episode, refusing to allow John Stewart's insults and opinions to go entirely unchallenged. Hal Jordan granted him his points but refused to be addressed as "Whitey," observing "something in that reminds me of that bit about 'He who is without sin' casting 'the first stone.'"
Stewart returned for Christmas 1973 in Justice League of America # 110. Well-known fan Duffy Vohland had suggested to JLA writer Len Wein that using John might make a nice change of pace and Len agreed, incapitating Hal Jordan on page four and requiring his alternate to take charge of the ring.
In a clever bit at the conclusion of the story, Stewart used his emerald power to reconstruct a housing project after it's destroyed. "It's against the Green Lantern's code to use the power ring to give these folks new housing -- so I just used it to reconstruct the old buildings the instant they were destroyed -- minus the roaches, rats, collapsing ceilings and such ..."
Stewart made infrequent guest appearances in the 1970s and early 1980s (notably Green Lantern # 94-95 & 164-165 and JLA Annual # 1) before Wein made him a major player as Hal Jordan's successor in 1984's GL # 182. After a career peak with starring roles in Green Lantern: Mosaic (1992-1993) and Darkstars (1994-1995), Stewart has settled into the role of supporting player in the current GL series.
More subtle than either the Dave Stevens or John Stewart episodes was an eight-page piece by Bob Haney and Neal Adams from Our Army At War # 240 entitled "Another Time, Another Place." Published one month after GL # 87, it featured a racially diverse trio of soldiers (one black, one white, one Asian) in the future who were retaliating against an unseen alien foe who'd killed one of their patrols.
As the story concluded, an alien representative prevented the soldiers from unleashing a super-weapon and revealed that the earlier killings were an error ("We believed they were alien monsters."). Striding from his spacecraft, the extraterrestrial was revealed as a humanoid black man, "an alien adversary with the capabilities of destroying himself ... and -- the universe. Just like us!"
That same month, Bob Kanigher added a radical twist to the origin of Wonder Woman in issue # 204 of her title (illustrated by Don Heck). Swiftly undoing the plainclothes Diana Prince take on the series, Kanigher restored the Amazing Amazon's long lost powers only to have her claim to the Wonder Woman title opposed by a mysterious armored woman. Once Princess Diana had defeated her rival, the stranger unmasked as a black woman named Nubia, "Wonder Woman of the Floating Island" and leader of a tribe of apparently all-male warriors.
Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta, seemed to suspect the secret of the mysterious warrior and felt compelled to give her a personal goodbye in WW # 205's Nubia back-up. At the story's end, Nubia privately admitted, "I feel as if I've been lonely since the day I was born ... so long ago ... I can remember no mother ... no father -- Did Queen Hippolyte sense that ? Is that why she embraced me ? Because she took pity on an orphan ... lonely as a star ?"
The answer came in issue # 206's "War of the Wonder Women," which revealed that Diana and Nubia were sisters, both molded from clay at the same time by Hippolyte. Nubia, however, had kidnapped at birth by the war god Mars, who intended to make her his "instrument of vengeance against the Amazons." In a final conflict with her new-found sister, Diana realized that Nubia was being controlled by a ring that Mars had placed on her finger. Once it was removed, his control evaporated.
Nubia made a return visit to the Amazons in the Kanigher-edited Supergirl # 9 (1973) but spent most of the issue unconscious while Supergirl struggled to save her life from a deadly poison. After Kanigher's departure, DC opted to ignore the origin revision and, aside from a guest-spot in 1979's Super Friends # 25, she never appeared again.
Only recently, however, the character made a return as Nu'bia, the isolated Amazon guardian of the Tartarus Gate (1999's WW Annual # 8 and 2000's WW # 154-155). This time, of course, there were no sisterly ties to bind her to Diana.
Meanwhile, change had also quietly made its way into DC's romance and humor books. Although recurring characters were largely gone from the romance titles by that point, African-Americans now frequently appeared in the episodic stories. Some tales, in fact, were reprints from the 1950s and 1960s, with the characters redrawn to create a black cast.
Late in 1970, Sheldon Mayer introduced Raymond Smith, an African-American infant, into Sugar and Spike with # 94. As indicated by the cover, in which Spike and Raymond had swapped strollers to fool their respective mother and aunt, the story revolved around mistaken identity. The two boys began trading clothes in a performance of oneupsmanship that soon escalated into a confusing state of affairs that had Sugar and Spike's parents and Raymond's aunt (neighbor Mrs. Schofield) thoroughly confused. Raymond returned in a solo story in # 97 that involved him helping an angel find his place in Heaven.
1971 also found three African-Americans introduced into DC's teen triumverate, Binky, Date With Debbi and Swing With Scooter. Teenagers Big Sonny and Ossie appeared in a variety of one-page gags as did youngster Li'l Leroy. The final issue of Binky (# 81) featured a five-page Leroy episode plus a lead story in which Binky acquired a pint-size black guardian angel with the serial number of P66.
Sonny (minus the "Big" prefix) reappeared in a one-pager in 1977's Binky # 82 and made a final hilarious bow in 1985's "Whatever Happened to Binky?" page in Ambush Bug # 3. There, he snarled "Don't hassle me, man. I was just a token in that book. I took the money an' I walked through a coupla panels."
The DC war titles had seen black recurring characters of their own introduced in 1970. Healer Randolph (first referred to in the letter column of 1965's Tomahawk # 97) was belatedly written into the book as a Revolutionary War-era freed slave in early 1970's Tomahawk # 128 (by Bob Kanigher and Frank Thorne). Having proven his worth to his former owner, Doctor Randolph, Healer was placed with Tomahawk's Rangers when locals refused to accept treatment from a so-called "witch doctor." After the usual series of trials, Healer saved the life of an Indian chief's son and won over Wildcat, his harshest critic among the Rangers.
Healer remained in the series through # 130, after which it leaped forward in time to chronicle the adventures of Tomahawk's son. Randolph appeared for the last time in a one-panel flashback in # 134.
Joe Kubert's Unknown Soldier series debuted in Star-Spangled War Stories # 151 one month after Tomahawk # 128 and included a French resistance leader codenamed Chat Noir (Black Cat) among its cast. The black freedom fighter (alias Steve Robinson) remained a recurring figure in the strip for virtually its entire run, becoming a particular favorite of writer Bob Haney. In the last episode of the series (1982's Unknown Soldier # 268), Chat Noir was shown being killed by Nazis on April 29, 1945. Outside of a brief wartime flashback in 1989's Unknown Soldier # 6, he hasn't appeared since.
In early 1973, Archie Goodwin and Sam Glanzman embarked on an ambitious four-part adventure in G.I. Combat # 159-162 in which the savage spirit of Alaric the Goth would imperil the crew of the Haunted Tank and its ghostly guardian, General J.E.B. Stuart. Tossed into the mix was an African-American P.O.W. named Gus Gray.
Gray, we'd learn in his debut in # 160, had been a celebrated athlete in the 1936 Olympics alongside Jesse Owens but lost his medals in a scandal. The so-called "Gray Ghost" had allegedly "made some deal with a sports equipment manufacturer while the games were still on." Then, as now, Gray refused to comment.
The Haunted Tank's crew discovered Gus and another escaped prisoner within Nazi-occupied territory and were soon informed that Gray had collaborated with his captors. In truth, it was Gus' fellow prisoner who was the Nazi spy and, unrepentant, he confessed everything even as he died from machine gun wounds.
After repairing the Tank in a crisis situation, Gus came to be regarded as "a mechanical wizard" and admitted that he'd fallen back on his passion for automobiles after the Olympic scandal (# 161). Gus' arrival was soon overshadowed by tragedy when the crew's veteran loader Arch Asher was killed (# 162).
Gus remained a part of the series from that point on, even appearing in a single solo story in 1978's G.I. Combat # 207. Since the series concluded in late 1986 (GIC # 288), Gus has been unseen, with the handful of stories dealing with the Tank preferring to focus on the original crew.
Archie Goodwin also contributed another black character to DC before his departure for Warren Publishing. Kolu Mbeya, a Nairobi-based arms manufacturer, supplied Paul Kirk with his weapons in Goodwin and Walt Simonson's celebrated "Manhunter" series (as seen in 1974's Detective # 440) and returned for the climactic battle with the Council in issue # 443.
Up to that point, DC's black characters had been almost exclusively positive, admirable figures. Even African-American mutant-turned-activist Johnny Dune in the Mike Friedrich-scripted JLA # 95 (1971) had simply been misguided and resolved to direct his resources in a non-violent direction after his powers evaporated. Young writer-artist Howard Chaykin changed that in 1973's futuristic Ironwolf series.
In Weird Worlds # 8 and 9 (scripted by Denny O'Neil), he introduced the vampiric Omikel, a black man who was the leader of the Blood Legion and a highly-regarded confidante of the series villainess Empress Erika Klein- Hernandez. Omikel and Ironwolf's first battle, a sword duel in # 9, ended in a stalemate and the series was discontinued before a rematch could occur. The vampire eventually returned in 1992's Ironwolf: Fires of the Revolution, now a purple-skinned being whose origins as a black man were no longer obvious.
In the spring of 1974, Len Wein added an African-American named Jefferson Bolt to the cast of Swamp Thing with issue # 11 (illustrated by Nestor Redondo). In a hidden sanctuary called New Eden, Bolt crossed paths with Swamp Thing's pursuers Matt Cable and Abby Arcane and suffered a personal tragedy when his girl friend was murdered by Professor Zachary Nail. Swamp Thing prevented Bolt from avenging himself on the killer and the grieving man spent the next two issues hunting the creature to settle the score. The subplot was resolved in Wein's final issue (# 13), wherein Bolt, Cable and Arcane came to terms with their anger upon learning that Swamp Thing was really the supposedly-slain Alec Holland.
Bolt continued to appear in David Michelinie's tenure on the book (# 15-18), almost exclusively playing the role of hostage. In his final appearance (the Gerry Conway-scripted ST # 19-20), he was having misgivings about continuing to track Swamp Thing and wondered if it would be more merciful to kill the tragic creature. Today, Jefferson Bolt is virtually forgotten, a state of affairs that would likely have been different had he debuted during the oft- reprinted run (ST # 1-10) that was drawn by Berni Wrightson.
Also in early 1974, Michael Fleisher introduced perhaps the most persistent adversary of Jonah Hex's life in the form of Quentin Turnbull (Weird Western Tales # 22). He was a rich plantation owner who was convinced that Hex had murdered his son during the Civil War. Much of Turnbull's surveillance of Hex was coordinated by his black servant Solomon, as much a slave in the post-war era as he had been previously.
The story culminated in a two-parter in 1975's WWT # 29-30 that flashed back to the Civil War and painted an ugly picture of the treatment of African-Americans, in word and deed, during that shameful era. Solomon, however, remained loyal to Turnbull, holding a gun on Hex and insisting that "at heart, he be a good man." The first direct confrontation between the two adversaries ended with Turnbull grievously injured but he and Solomon would return again and again. Despite his own misgivings over Hex's guilt in the matter, Solomon remained loyal to the end. His final appearance in the series was in Jonah Hex # 76 (1983).
The subject of slavery also figured into Hex's companion series, "Scalphunter," including a sequence with a Klan-like group in Weird Western # 40 (1977). A black shaman named Wakame befriended Scalphunter in # 41 and returned during a second anti-slavery sequence in # 47-48.
In a far lighter vein, Joe Simon and Jerry Grandenetti's tongue-in-cheek Green Team (1975's 1st Issue Special # 2) told the story of how the group of boy millionaires got its first African-American member, shoe shine boy Abdul Smith. After being rejected for membership by the Millionaire's Club, Smith approached the Green Team, who told him to come back "when you get a million." A clerical error accidentally put $500,000 dollars in Abdul's bank account and he made a killing on the stock exhange with the money before the screw-up was corrected.
If not for the tone of the story, one might well be insulted by the implication that an African-American could only be a millionaire because of a computer glitch. As it is, the plot development worked as a neat bit of wish-fulfillment for any kid and the description of the adult Millionaire's Club ("a minority group, considered by many to be shiftless and non-productive") was worth a chuckle.
A more substantial African-American had been introduced one month earlier in Denny O'Neil's Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter # 1. The story recounted the transformation of thief Richard Dragon into a benevolent master of the martial arts following an encounter with the O-Sensei and his black student Benjamin Turner.
Ben was a master in his own right and seemed fated to become Richard's co-star in the series. Instead, he seemed to have become a symbol of bad luck. A bullet in the leg sidelined him after # 3, leaving the door open for the ascendance of Lady Shiva in # 5-8. Further tragedy came with the murders of Ben's sister (# 10) and girl friend (# 15) and a near-death experience when he was poisoned (# 13-14). In the last issue, Ben was brainwashed into becoming a costumed fighter known as the Bronze Tiger (# 18 in 1977).
It was as the Bronze Tiger that Ben would achieve lasting fame but only after a stint as a villain against both Batman (Detective Comics # 485, 489) and Richard himself (DC Comics Presents# 39). The Bronze Tiger was revived in 1986's Legends # 2-6 as part of the new Suicide Squad and has continued to make sporadic appearances since its cancellation.
Late in 1975, Mike Grell introduced a black warrior named Machiste in the second issue of his new Warlord series and quickly cemented him as Travis Morgan's best friend in Skartaris. They parted company at the beginning of # 5 but were reunited in # 7, by which point Morgan had been joined by Russian archeologist Mariah Romanova.
They discovered that Machiste was now in the thrall of a demonic axe that had enabled him to subjugate his native kingdom of Kiro. Unable to find any other way to separate Machiste from the blade, Morgan was forced to sever his friend's right hand. The spell was broken -- but at a terrible cost. In Warlord # 8, Machiste had his armorers place a spiked mace where his hand had been.
Mariah's hopes of a romantic relationship with Travis Morgan were dashed in # 15 (1978) when he was reunited with his wife, Tara. Machiste agonized for Mariah as well but wasn't ready to act on his unrequited love for her. That development would come in issue # 28, when Machiste followed the mystically-abducted Mariah into the distant past, first admitting to Tara that "I love her."
As a delighted Mariah confessed, "I'm so glad you came," Machiste kissed her, vowing, "I don't intend to ever let you out of my sight again!"
Machiste, usually with Mariah, remained a recurring player in Warlord right up to its final issue (# 133) in 1988. The couple was last seen in Grell's six-issue 1992 Warlord mini-series.
Even before his depiction of an interracial romance, Grell had been challenging the perceptions of readers. In issue # 8, for instance, Travis Morgan's belief that Kiro was "a black kingdom" was greeted with this response from Machiste:
"Why ? Because my skin is black ? We are a nation of many races -- I just happen to be king, that's all. I don't know how it is in your country, but here we judge a man by his merits, not the color of his skin. I'm not going to hold it against you that yours lacks the proper pigmentation."
Recalling his mid-1970s run on Legion of Super-Heroes in Comics Scene # 9 (1983), Grell said that "I did one particular story where the character was rather undefined. I read it over and said, 'Why not ? There must be a few surviving black people in the 30th Century.'" The episode in question was apparently "The Rookie Who Betrayed the Legion" (Superboy # 207), which involved a police officer who found himself indebted to the villain Universo.
"So, I drew this Science Police officer as a black man and turned the comic in," Grell continued. "and (editor) Murray Boltinoff almost had apoplexy. 'You can't do that, this guy is black! You're going to have to change him.' Why ? 'You can't do that because there's something negative in that character.' He was an ordinary man who could make mistakes; Murray felt that would make the character appear weak. I took the story back to ink and was angry enough to make it obvious that he was a black man colored pink."
Grell eventually added a bit of diversity to the Legion by illustrating the first three appearances of their first black member, Tyroc, in 1976's Superboy # 216, 218 and 222 (scripted by Cary Bates) and designing the character of Dawnstar, an American Indian for issue # 226. He also provided their first black villainess, Quicksand, in issues # 223-224.
Tyroc was endowed with sonic powers and wore a white costume which, like most of Grell's other character designs of the period, showed a lot of skin. The character was also billed as "The Hero Who Hated The Legion," based on the fact that they'd supposedly ignored his all-black nation of Marzal. The Legion ultimately convinced Tyroc otherwise, with the team insisting that "when it comes to race, we're color-blind. Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin ... we're brothers and sisters ... united in the name of justice everywhere."
Incoming writer Paul Levitz, who joined the series with issue # 225, found the whole premise to be appalling, something he elaborated on years later in 1982's Legion of Super-Heroes # 297.
"By the thirtieth century, I believe racial problems will be a thing of the past ... If not, I rather doubt that there ever will be a thirtieth century. For that reason, I found Tyroc's origin (as a character who came from an island of blacks who had formed a separatist state to avoid prejudice) anachronistic, as was the scene in that issue where all the Legionnaires pointed to their skin colors to show they weren't prejudiced (see -- we have green, blue and orange people)."
Levitz eventually created his own black Legionnaire, Jacques (Invisible Kid) Foccart, in LSH Annual 1982's # 1, but emphasized in issue # 297 that he "was introduced not for the sake of his color, but as a hopefully interesting character, with a French accent because of his origin on the Ivory Coast of Africa, where the French have taken great pains to help their language live on."
Gerry Conway and J.M. DeMatteis eventually addressed some of the objectionable points about Tyroc's origin by establishing Marzal as a Brigadoon-like island that only materialized on Earth for brief intervals but they wrote Tyroc out of the Legion in the same story (1980's LSH # 265). Tyroc's only substantial role after that was in the dark 2995-era, from 1991's LSH # 16 to 1994's Valor # 22.
1976 saw several other developments beyond the creation of Tyroc. Years before Mariah and Machiste, Gerry Conway and Walt Simonson began to set up a romance between the Metal Men's Doc Magnus and his African-American physical therapist, Isobel Sullivan. Her debut in Metal Men # 45 made broad hints that a relationship existed, including body language and Magnus' awkward reference to her as "my -- ah -- companion," but Conway's quick departure from the book left the situation unresolved. New writer Martin Pasko used Isobel through # 50 before abandoning the character.
Conway also created DC's first official African-American costumed villain in the form of the Black Spider, a vigilante who aspired to be a hero like Batman but was far more ruthless in his actions. Eric Needham was a former drug-addict who'd returned in the purple body suit of the Black Spider to kill Gotham's drug dealers in Detective Comics # 463 and 464 (art by Ernie Chan & Frank McLaughlin). The Black Spider seemed to perish at the end of the first two-parter but Conway revived him in 1978's Batman # 306 to complete the origin. The character was killed in 1992's Shadow of The Bat # 5 but there's evidence in Sandman # 57 & 59 and Underworld Unleashed # 1 to suggest that he may still be around.
And lastly in 1976, there was Mal Duncan, revived as part of August's revival of Teen Titans with issue # 44 (co-written by Paul Levitz and Bob Rozakis). Mal's old inferiority complex was still in evidence and he was regarded as so ineffectual that Doctor Light ignored him when he abducted the other Titans in the story.
Aware that the fate of the team now rested on his shoulders, Mal ransacked the Titans' trophy room in search of a means of becoming a super-hero. He came up with a strength-inducing exo-skeleton (from Batman # 192) and a replica of the costume of Golden Age hero, the Guardian (later revealed to belong to the hero's nephew, Roy (Speedy) Harper).
As the new Guardian, Mal managed to free his teammates and defeat Light but he reverted back to his orange jumpsuit in TT # 45. According to Rozakis, new editor Julius Schwartz "didn't like the idea of Mal running around looking like an old minor league Golden Age hero." Consequently, the Titan was killed in an explosion but (believe it or not) won a boxing match with the Angel of Death and returned to Earth with the Horn of Gabriel, a celestial artifact that would enable him to "even up the sides in any fight."
Mal eventually took the identity of the Hornblower (with a costume designed by fan Dave Elyea) for all of six pages in TT # 49 only to switch back to his Guardian duds on the final page. It seems that Gabriel's Horn had been stolen. In the Nov. 27, 2000 edition of his on-line Silver Bullet Comics column, Bob Rozakis explained that he "had plans to have Mal discover who had taken it. In fact, it was to have been Mal himself who had hidden the shofar, subconsciously wanting to give up being a superhero."
Upon seeing an armored African-American hero in the line-up of 1980's New Teen Titans, many readers jumped to the conclusion that it was Mal in yet another costumed identity. As they'd soon learn, Cyborg was a brand new hero, one destined to be far more recognized and successful than Mal ever was.
Mal returned for Donna Troy's wedding in 1984's Tales of the Teen Titans # 50 and again as the Herald in 1989's Secret Origins Annual # 3. He's continued to make periodic cameos right up to the present.
While Mal was taking the guise of the Guardian, plans were afoot to create DC's first African-American super-hero in a starring role. In 1976, Marvel had three series featuring black costumed heroes (Black Goliath, Jungle Action (with Black Panther) and Power Man) and DC wanted an African-American super-hero of their own in the worst way. They nearly got their wish.
The Black Bomber was another Bob Kanigher creation, this one slated to appear as part of editor Gerry Conway's stable of comics. Kanigher described the series in The Comics Journal # 85 (1983):
"A white Archie Bunker by day, a longshoreman with all the racial and social prejudices, with a white girlfriend; and a black super-hero at night, with a black girlfriend. A white and black Jekyll and Hyde. I took great care in a quasi-scientific explanation for the change in pigmentation. Naturally, neither side of the character was aware of the other. ... It would have been DC's first black super-hero. I wanted to call it Black and White."
Discussing the scripts in The Comics Buyer's Guide # 921 (1991) and 1093 (1994), Tony Isabella elaborated further:
"The Bomber was this racist soldier who participated in biological camouflage experiments during the Vietnam war. He was given drugs to enable him to blend in to the jungles of Southeastern Asia. However, the test yielded no discernable effects and was pronounced a failure. America lost the war, and the Bomber came home. But now, in times of stress, the soldier's body would undergo an incredible change. He would transform into a figure of super-human strength."
In the two completed scripts that Isabella read, the Bomber would unwittingly rescue black people and then express disgust at his actions. In his civilian identity, "he was unaware of his Black Bomber persona and could not possibly learn anything from his experiences as a black man in our society. The Bomber was equally oblivious to his (civilian) persona. Only his girlfriends -- each had one -- knew of the transformations."
The final insult was the Bomber's costume. It looked like a basketball uniform.
Followed Conway's departure for Marvel, Isabella was approached by Paul Levitz to try and salvage the character. Horrified, Isabella suggested that an entirely new hero would be preferable. The end result was Black Lightning, created in collaboration with young artist Trevor Von Eedon, which became one of DC's major launches in early 1977.
Equipped with a force-field belt that enabled him to generate lighting bolts, Black Lightning was secretly high school teacher Jefferson Pierce. In a nice touch, he played to the era's stereotypical perception of African-Americans by affecting a hip-talking speech pattern as Black Lightning and wearing a mask/wig combination that gave him a big afro, simple devices that deflected suspicion from a well-educated school teacher.
Beyond the quality of Isabella and Von Eedon's work, notably the impressive first eight issues that comprised the character's full origin, Black Lightning also gave DC a highly visible symbol that they weren't a stodgy, white-bread company.
Whether by coincidence or design, 1977 saw a succession of new black characters introduced into the DC line on a monthly basis after the release of Black Lightning # 1 in January.
In February and April, hitman Pulsar (secretly middle-class husband and father Benjamin Day) clashed with Karate Kid in KK # 8 and 9.
In March, Mal's girl friend, Karen Beecher became the Bumblebee (the Bob Rozakis- scripted Teen Titans # 48), eventually joining the team in # 49. In an indication of the mindset of the times, Rozakis recalls that Len Wein was lobbying to name the heroine the Black Bumblebee.
In April, an Aquaman foe first seen in 1967 finally removed his helmet in Adventure Comics # 452, asking his nemesis, "Have you never wondered why I'm called -- Black Manta ?"
Manta was accompanied by several black soldiers, intent on conquering the underwater colony of the Idylists and "make the city's occupants my army."
"Not that racism is my motive -- there's no profit in prejudice -- but since blacks have been suppressed for so long on the surface, they fight well for a chance to be 'masters' below."
Both the Pulsar and Black Manta stories had been scripted by David Michelinie, who continued his string of African-American characters in May. In Men of War # 1, he introduced Gravedigger, a black soldier named Ulysses Hazard in World War Two. Racism resulted in Hazard being prohibited from combat and assigned to the graveyard detail. Realizing that the exceptional physical skills he'd developed over a lifetime were being wasted, Hazard went AWOL and made an appeal to high-ranking officials in Washington. Now a so-called "one-man commando unit," Gravedigger went on to headline the entire 26 issue run of Men of War, which ended in December of 1979. Ironically, despite his status as DC's second African-American hero to headline his own comic book, Gravedigger has made virtually no appearances in the last two decades aside from his entry in 1985's Who's Who # 9.
May also saw the debut of DC's latest African-American super-hero. Tempest was Joshua Clay, a mutant capable of generating force blasts through his hands. He was part of the new Doom Patrol, introduced in Showcase # 94 (by Paul Kupperberg and Joe Staton), and continuing in # 95 and 96 during July and September. Tempest made sporadic appearances with the Patrol into 1987 when the team finally received its own title. In 1992, having long since abandoned his alias in favor of his civilian name, Joshua Clay was shot and killed in Doom Patrol # 55.
During June, black scientist Theodore McGavin was included as part of the Star Hunters in DC Super-Stars # 16's series pilot (written by Michelinie), an atomic villainess called Dyna-Moll appeared with the one-shot Rainbow Squad in Shazam! # 31 (scripted by E. Nelson Bridwell) and detective Ed Lacy hooked up with superdog Krypto (Superman Family # 185, written by Bob Toomey), a partnership that would continue until 1978's SF # 192.
South African speedster Impala made his bow in July's Super Friends # 7 (by Bridwell) and Ben Turner became the Bronze Tiger in August's Richard Dragon # 18. A black man briefly became the villainous speedster known as Cyclone in November's Justice League of America # 151 (scripted by Gerry Conway). Neal Adams closed out the year with a little project called "Superman Vs. Muhammad Ali" in December's All-New Collectors' Edition # C-56.
Aside from Black Manta, Pulsar, the minor-league Cyclone and Dyna-Moll and the returning Black Spider, the late 1970s also saw African-American super-villains in the form of the Annihilist (1978's Black Lightning # 9, written by Isabella) and the Firebug (1979's Batman # 318, written by Wein).
Having established Black Lightning and Gravedigger as their first black leading men in 1977, DC hoped to introduce their first African-American super-heroine in 1978. The Vixen # 1 was heavily promoted in house ads during the summer and slated for an August 8 debut. Instead, the series fell victim to DC's line-wide purge of its titles in June and the completed first issue appeared only in an internally-distributed collection of xeroxes known as Cancelled Comic Cavalcade.
The first issue (written by Gerry Conway and illustrated by Bob Oksner and Vince Colletta) would have introduced model Marilyn Macabe, whose buried memories of her father's murder were revived when the killer attended a United Nations conference. Using the mystic Tantu Totem, she took the persona of the Vixen, clad in a blue costume with yellow gloves, boots and fox mask.
Conway eventually got his creation into print via a Superman story in 1981's Action Comics # 521 and the Vixen was established as a prominent second-tier DC heroine in titles such as Justice League of America (1984-1986) and Suicide Squad (1988-1991). Unfortunately, despite a long succession of black heroines in the past two decades, DC's first starring vehicle for an African-American super-woman has yet to materialize.
The late 1970s saw another black war hero get his own series (Cassius "Black Eagle" Bannister in 1979-1980's All-Out War # 1-6) but, like Gravedigger before him, the character virtually slipped off the radar when his title ended.
Arguably, the most durable African-American of the 1970s made a modest debut in October of 1978's Batman # 307 (by Len Wein, John Calnan and Dick Giordano). Lucius Fox was a Wayne Enterprises executive and trusted friend of Bruce Wayne, whose stability and devotion quickly made his an endearing member of the series' cast. The fact that Fox has gone on to make more than nine dozen comic book appearances right through to the present speaks for itself.
It seems appropriate to end this survey with Fox, a character who, like Jackie Johnson, made an impact in a subtle fashion. The 1980s and 1990s saw DC continue to make great strides in diversifying their titles, from the fad of installing ethnic characters in super-heroic identities once used by whites to the ground-breaking Milestone imprint. But it all started here, with characters like Jackie Johnson and Dave Stevens and John Stewart and Black Lightning and Lucius Fox and so many more. They were the trailblazers.
John "Mikishawm" Wells, the pride of Batavia, Iowa, is a lifelong comics fan, working his way forward from Disneys in 1969 to newspaper strips in 1973 to SHAZAM! and the rest of the DC Universe in 1974. During the 1980s, he began compiling a lists of DC character appearances, a massive database that he's tapped into when writing articles for publications such as the DC Index series, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer’s Guide, Comic Effect, Comic Book Marketplace, It’s A Fanzine, The O‘Neil Observer and, of course, Fanzing. He is Kurt Busiek's unofficial reference guide, as the keen-eyed may have noticed in Power Company #2.
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This piece is © 2001 by John Wells.
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