Marvel Five-in-One: Prominent, Notorious and Invisible Black Lives of the Marvel Universe

n.b. This post has a funny history to it. Part of that story is explained below. However, soon after I started writing this post (back in the fall) I decided to submit a proposal based on this for a presentation at the International Comics Art Forum conference (you can read about the conference here). I stopped working on it while I waited to hear back if my abstract was accepted. It was accepted, but what I wrote for the conference was less than half as long as this (given the time limit), so after the conference I got back to it and finally you have what is published here, which is a lot longer than the typical blog post, but I want this to be a place where long-form work is also available.

MTiO37-41When I was doing my reading and research for my post on Brother Voodoo last year, I made it my business to get all of his appearances in comics from his introduction through the 1980s. Among these was a 1978 issue of Marvel Two-in-One that turned out to be part two of a two-part arc—Black Panther was the guest superhero in part one.

For those unfamiliar with it, Marvel Two-in-One (MTiO for short) was a series that ran from 1974 to 1983, featuring the Fantastic Four’s the Thing (aka Ben Grimm) teamed up with a different hero every issue. It was one of my favorite series as a kid.

When I realized the plot of this two-issue arc involved the investigation of the disappearance of the Marvel Universe’s “prominent Blacks” (to quote Ben Grimm), I knew that I had to get my hands on Marvel Two- In-One #40 and read the whole story.

But then a funny thing happened. When I finally got my hands on MTiO #40, I noticed that it opened with a call back to the previous three-issue arc, in which a young African-American character named Eugene Everett was introduced. My research told me that he only ever appeared in those four issues of Marvel Two-in-One, so once again I had to hunt down some even earlier issues and ended up getting MTiO #37, 38 and 39 as well. The little I saw of Eugene Everett in issue #40 didn’t fill me with a lot of confidence about the character, but given my interest in the subject of characters of color in superhero comic books, and the particular lack of young black characters, I had to see the details.

MTiO39-MT3

I had something of a gut reaction myself when it came to my discovery of these issues (The Thing, Vision, the Mad Thinker and Eugene Everett in MTiO #39)

So, like the comic I am examining here, this post will be a two-in-one, bringing two arcs together in one essay to explore a range of Black representation in these superhero comics.

The more I thought about it, the more I found the opportunities appearing in these issues of MTiO to be fortuitous. It’d be easy to ignore a kind of second-tier Marvel book like this title, so I felt lucky to stumble upon them. Examinations of Black characters in superhero comics have tended to focus on the most obvious and popular, like Luke Cage, but for whatever reason these issues made me realize the absence of attention to representations of non-superpowered Black life in superhero worlds. While Adilfu Nama’s Super Black (2011) is probably the most comprehensive examination of Black superheroes of varying degrees of popularity and company support, even his book does not spend much time with the Black characters that inhabit superhero comic universes, but are not superheroes themselves.  Many scholars have written about stories involving the relationship of superheroes (both black and white) to the Black communities of their settings—the Green Lantern/Green Arrow run of the early 1970s comes to mind, and also the short-lived Black Lightning series I wrote about in 2013—but there’s been little sustained examination of the “normal” lives of Black characters in superhero comics when the stories are not what Ramzi Fawaz calls “the urban folktale”—superhero stories that “explicitly identified and critiqued the socio-political concerns of the post-Vietnam era” (165).  In order to begin considering the possibility for identifying a framework for thinking through this representation outside of the typical “very special issue,” rather than examine the well-known or well-regarded stories of superhero comics, that it might make more sense to examine stories of the late Bronze Age, an era significantly after the introduction of Black superheroes and racial themes to the genre in order to get a sense of a quotidian reflection on racial politics. What strikes me about these comics is how they allow us a site to explore the paradoxical representations of Black characters, representations that manage to simultaneously exploit the spectacle of race, while enacting an erasure of idiosyncratic Black humanity. This erasure functions through a hypervisibility made possible by the visuality of the comics medium and virtual surveillance in the form of overvaluing comics continuity. Regardless of their social status—whether “prominent” (like the African-American victims of a kidnap plot in MTiO #40), “notorious” (like the Ugandan dictator in #41), or overlooked (like young Eugene Everett in MTiO #37 to #39)—the reduction to the visual signifier of blackness and adherence to a canon delimits the possibilities of representation for these characters.

Black-on-Black (Super) Crime

Marvel Two-In-One #40 follows the efforts of the Thing and Black Panther to solve the mystery of a rash of kidnappings of “prominent Blacks” in New York City. The identifier of “prominent Black” is used repeatedly to the point of absurdity.  The victims, whose names we see in one panel on a partial list, identify the “prominent” figures in the Black community as a sculptor, a financier, an artist, a musician, and an engineer, but remain invisible in their indistinguishability, save as empty signifiers of success.

The Thing and Black Panther join forces after the former returns young Eugene Everett to his school, where (unbeknownst to him) the Black Panther is his teacher. At this time in his career the Panther was living as Luke Charles in Harlem and teaching in one of its public schools—P.S. 260. I’m not really familiar with this portion of Black Panther’s career, but I think it was during his tenure with the Avengers, and as such he has a secret identity in order to live a “normal” life in New York City.  (It is these frequent and prolonged absences from Wakanda that Ta-nehisi Coates is leveraging in depicting an unstable Wakanda in his current run).

There is an actual P.S. 260 in Brooklyn, though it was closed in 2014 for its history of poor achievement. I think it is a safe bet that the version in the comics isn’t meant to represent the real school, but regardless, its closure and racial demographics (it had about 78% black students and 18% Latino, meaning less than 4% were white or Asian) reinforces an attitude regarding dangerous and failing New York City public schools as prevalent now as it was in the 1970s. How does it help the students to close down their school and relocate them? Those Black and brown kids are dispensable within the framework of juked stats meant to make a failing school disappear. This dysfunction (and thus disposability) is common to representations of predominantly Black urban public schools.  All you need do is consider the narrative used to defend their over-policing to understand that skewed perspective of schools as a dangerous place because of students not for them. Thus you get cases like the resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, SC, who beat down a girl who refused to leave class, rather than counsel her. Despite his rocky exterior and super-strength, the Thing expresses anxiety along these lines about being a guest at the school, thinking he’d “never survive in a New York public school.” Black youth chills the heart of a hero who regularly faces down Dr. Doom. Sure, the scene is played for laughs, but at the expense of reinforcing a stereotype of dangerous Black kids, potential super-predators.

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Black Panther’s classroom at P.S. 260 (from MTiO #40)

The representation of these young Black students is all the more striking considering the ultimate shape of the two-issue story of kidnapped “prominent blacks.” The issue’s story is not about the school, but the setting represents in microcosm the incoherence of well-meaning white liberal depiction of Black people and Black spaces that plagues the issues. Clearly, T’Challa’s choice in teaching these kids is meant to show their need and his charitable nature, but the children’s behavior along with the fact that he is teaching them a lesson about the African origins of voodoo demonstrates a reliance on lazy stereotypes and an obvious unfamiliarity on the part of the issue’s writers, Roger Silfer and Tom DeFalco, with Black experience beyond a very narrow band of possibility. Sure, the voodoo lesson is a foreshadowing of the plot of the two-issue arc, the zombie monster (or in Marvel’s comics code parlance, “zuvembie“) that is kidnapping “prominent blacks” and the arrival of Brother Voodoo in the next issue, but it still represents a failure of imagination that seems to unerringly zero in on the abjection of black characters and black communities in superhero comics despite attempts to depict the conditions of Black American life with sympathy.

It is probably at this point that I should mention, however, that Ron Wilson, the comic’s penciller, is African-American. I love Ron Wilson. He was a journeyman Marvel guy in my comics reading heyday. His work is very much what I’d imagine as the generic Marvel style of the era. I don’t say that to put it down, just the opposite. He crystallized some quintessential quality of the Marvel Universe that I can’t quite name. His art oozed Marvel duende. In these issues (he draws all five, even if both arcs have different writing/plotting teams), his art is fine, and he certainly doesn’t rely on racial caricature, but regardless of his diverse depictions of Black characters their existence within the frame of the superhero genre nevertheless reinforces narrow types. I haven’t been able to discover the method Wilson and Silfer (credited as plotter) used to move from plotting to panels. If they used the traditional Marvel Method, that means Wilson made a lot of choices about how the various story beats manifest. But even then, it also means his creative work is literally framed by Silfer’s story on one side and DeFalco’s dialog and narration, on the other. The fact that the writing credits shift through the five issues—from Marv Wolfman to DeFalco and Silfer to Silfer himself, back to the two of them and finally Silfer with David Kraft—probably explains the inconsistencies and incoherence. Wilson’s art is really what grants the title its sense of continuity.

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The partial list of “Prominent Blacks” (MTiO #40)

The mystery of Wilson’s contribution is probably more fascinating than the mystery in MTiO #40. All the kidnapped citizens are from a list J. Jonah Jameson published in the Daily Bugle a few years before—“The Ten Most Successful Blacks of the City.” There is a strange tension here because despite their “prominence” these black characters are also apparently forgettable—operating under a form of erasure except for when their very exceptionalism calls on them to be noted for a moment in time, used as an example of some kind of uplift narrative, before disappearing back into obscurity. I write this because despite their prominence, the only reason the Black Panther and Ben Grimm can get a (partial) list of them is because the archivist at the Daily Bugle has a memory for “trivia.” It is a strange detail of the plot, but it does indicate that both the success and historical victimization of Black people in America occupies the space of trivia—the obscure, the inconsequential, the notable for its peculiarity. This triviality is exemplified at the very end of issue #40 when after having learned that some zombie-vampire has been responsible for the kidnappings, the Thing decides that he’s “had enough for one night.” Despite the fact that a good number of these “prominent Blacks” are still missing he decides to take the case back up in the morning, forgoing his role as hero and any sense of urgency. This story functions on an embedded assumption that this case is the Black Panther’s natural purview. The disappearances are already on his radar of things to investigate when he happens upon the Thing, who apparently has read about it in the paper, but has no plans to look into it until asked by Black Panther. Grimm’s leaving reinforces the secondary priority this case occupies for a representative of the dominant white superhero culture. Grimm’s leaving also allows for T’Challa himself to become the next “prominent Black” to be kidnapped by the undead creature behind the crimes. Grimm’s discovery of this is where MTiO #41 opens.

Immediately upon the Thing’s discovery of Black Panther’s absence, Brother Voodoo arrives from New Orleans to investigate the disappearance of what Grimm now calls “the most important Blacks.” Is it possible to read from this comic a sense that in order to count on help investigating crimes against the Black community, Black Panther had to seek help from one of the few other Black superheroes around? The comic does not make clear if T’Challa contacted Brother Voodoo for help—Jericho Drumm only explains that he “heard about the strange kidnappings of several prominent members of the Black community,” but not from who—but even if the mystical hero had arrived as part of an independent investigation, the first thing he did was seek out the Black Panther, cementing the sense of a special fraternity between Black superheroes. I am of two minds on this. On the one hand, the presumed sense among the white writers that the Black superheroes would just happen to know each other or are the ones who’d of course be most invested in saving Black people is troubling, inadvertently making abundantly clear the relative value of Black lives in the Marvel Universe even as they write a story ostensibly about their potential. On the other hand, I am warmed by the thought of Black Panther and Brother Voodoo and Black Goliath and whoever else hanging out and talking through the white supremacy of the superhero world, much like that story of Black comics creators at the Big Two discussing the racist working conditions in their bullpens. Maybe something like Reginald Hudlin’s camaraderie among Black superheroes teaming up to rescue people in a Katrina-ravaged New Orleans in Black Panther: Bad Mutha (2006), but written with some more nuance. Unfortunately, however, even such a scene would most likely be written by a white writer given the realities of the comics industry, thus undermining the symbolic power of that possibility with the material results of racist work environments.

MTiO41-Amin

His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular. (Yes, his actual title) (MTiO #41)

Unfortunately, the comic book’s story works at every turn to enervate any of the possibilities of a generous and generative reading. Now that the Black Panther is among those kidnapped, the comic quickly informs us as to the details of the nefarious minds behind the disappearances. Is it the Red Skull teamed up with HYDRA to enact some plan of overt racial domination? No. It turns out that the zombie-vampire kidnapping the “prominent Blacks” is controlled by Dr. Obatu with the help of his witch-doctor ally W’Sulli (a character that appeared in a Marvel Preview #12 back-up story from 1977). Dr. Obatu is trying to win back the favor of his former boss, the notorious Idi Amin. In the comic’s fictional Uganda, Obatu was not only Amin’s former Minister of Economics, but was also the supervillain Dr. Spectrum, a member of the Squadron Sinister which once battled the Avengers. When, after a run-in with Iron Man, he was arrested and deported back to Uganda. Amin decided to have him executed, but Obatu managed to escape.

An extended flashback scene explains how Obatu met W’Sulli and they hatched the plan to use the latter’s voodoo power and zuvembie-vampire to kidnap “prominent Blacks” and use a “govi”—a magical earthen vase—to trap their souls and intellects, leaving their bodies empty husks to be done away with. In this way the collected knowledge of what the narrator now calls “ten of the most brilliant Black intellects of the world” could be offered to Idi Amin, so that he might use them to expand his power and forgive Obatu his past failures.

MTiO41-blacks

(from MTiO #41)

The fact that the very premise of who is being kidnapped keeps changing—from the most prominent or successful Blacks of New York City to “the most important Blacks from America” to the “most brilliant Black intellects in the world” (all of whom happen to live in New York City)—betrays the degree to which any concern about the Black community and its civic leaders’ absence is merely instrumental in this story. That comics writers use a real world figure, Idi Amin, to serve as ultimate African villain in their story compounds this. This is no fictional analog, but a historical figure, drawn to resemble his actual likeness, and who in 1978 was still ruling Uganda. Criticism of his policies and cruelty from the West did not come from a strong ethical position, but from a willingness to leverage anti-Blackness and narratives of a backward continent against a former ally. By using the figure and likeness of an actual African leader considered a savage buffoon in the West, alongside a noble and intelligent fictional superheroic one (T’Challa, the Black Panther), Marvel reinforces the worst assumptions about real world Africa, Africans, and their politics. Furthermore, to simultaneously name and visually identify Amin—representing him as one of the worst human beings alive—while pursuing essentially unnamed, but “prominent” Blacks does more than simply collapse them into types. It connects one type to a contemporary historical context, while relegating the ostensibly positive one to fiction. The “prominent Blacks,” who are supposed to be brilliant and successful are not only fictional people, they are not even analogs for actual Americans that a comic audience might recognize and admire. Instead, the writers’ so-called progressive attempt to craft a story involving Black characters is as lazy as the worst stereotypes that they also rely on.

Furthermore, since the actual plot of the story involves the kidnapping and enslavement of American Blacks (save for T’Challa, who was nonetheless living life in NYC as a Black American) being brought to labor in Africa, the reverse trajectory from actual history is a bait and switch—a kind of false equivalence that serves to obscure the actual criminal history of the Middle Passage and African bondage by making one real-life villainous Black figure into the evil one, rather than a whole system that not only supported slavery, profited from it, built a nation from it, but props up violent regimes when it is convenient for their own interests, but then can point to those same corrupt regimes as evidence of African inferiority.

MTiO41-worldsblacks

W’Sulli ensorcelling the “ten of the most brilliant Black intellects in the world!” (from MTiO #41)

Eventually, the Thing and Brother Voodoo manage to fly to Uganda to save Black Panther and the other kidnap victims. Idi Amin flees. The enchanted vase is smashed and the victims’ spirits are all returned to their bodies, including the vampire-turned-zuvembie who kills W’Sulli. Obatu falls off a balcony to his death in trying to evade the creature in giant bat form as it disappears into the jungle.  The story ends with the Thing complaining that he’s going to have to “lead a safari through the sticks” to lead the freed captives back to “civilization,” but the Black Panther explains that Idi Amin would not dare try to harm them anymore and incur the wrath of both Wakanda and the United States. He summons a transport plane to bring them to safety.

Ultimately, this two-issue arc reinforces the idea that Black people are their own worst enemy, deflecting the actual conditions of white supremacy that shape and endanger Black life globally. The dissonance of the prominence and the apparent generic Blackness betrays a confusion between desire to be socially relevant and the ability to understand and represent the profundity of that relevance.

The Ballad of Eugene Everett

In the story that precedes issues #40 and #41 the invisibility of Black characters in the Marvel Universe becomes notable in the smart alecky figure of Eugene Everett—a young Black boy who is consistently overlooked, forgotten, dismissed and who never appears in a Marvel comic again. While at the end of the arc we discover that Eugene does seem to have some kind of mutant power, there are no indications of this through all of the first two and most of the very last issue (#39). As such, like the “prominent Blacks” and the notorious Idi Amin in issues #40 and #41, he serves as a focus on non-superpower Black characters.

The introduction of Eugene Everett (MTiO #37)

The introduction of Eugene Everett (MTiO #37)

The overall plot of Marvel Two-in-One issues #37 through #39 doesn’t really matter much. It opens with the Thing tricked into going on a rampage that destroys a city block, and then letting the cops take him in when, true to form, he is wracked with guilt and worry regarding his monstrousness. It is there that we meet Eugene Everett. He’s a black kid; a pre-teen wearing a floppy green beret with a pan-African flag patch on it, an ever-present toothpick in his mouth. He refers to himself in the third-person, as “the Kid.” It is unclear what he’s doing in prison (though later we find out he’s truant), but when Matt Murdoch brings the Thing evidence that he is being set up, leading the orange-rock skinned goliath to smash out of his cell, Everett takes his chance and hightails it out of there too.

whatchu-talkin-bout-willis-o

“Whatchu talkin’ ’bout, Willis?”

Everett is always just behind, an afterthought, a source of comic relief in the vein of Gary Coleman or maybe Rudy from Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. Leaving aside the absurdity of the Mad Thinker’s plan (overly complex “genius” supervillain scheming), the worst part of the comic’s weak writing is the Kid’s use as a prop more than a character. He has no agency and makes no difference in the story.  In light of the tone-deaf use of “prominence” in the issues that follow these, Eugene’s invisibility is even starker. I would give the writers credit for what could be a clever examination of the insidious nature of white supremacy (it is the Mad Thinker’s assumption that Eugene could not be the precognitive super-being he is looking for that leads to his defeat), except that of course it goes unmentioned, the dismissal never explicitly attributed to his race.

Again, I find myself wanting to be generous, to see what the story productively reveals, but I keep coming against the limits of the blatant and patronizing assumptions that undermine Wilson’s diverse depictions of Black characters throughout all five issues. The five issues present a skewed schematic of “types” because both stories are embedded in complex and multifarious mechanisms of white supremacy, both outside the story (in the world of comics writers, artists, editors and publishers) and within the comic books in how the narrative engages with politics, journalism, education and culture.

MTiO40-tonedeaf

(from MTiO #40)

As an example of the last category, I am reminded of the one would-be kidnap victim we get to spend time with in MTiO #40­—a cello player in a tuxedo playing at Carnegie Hall. I assumed he is playing classical music, but I guess he could be playing jazz. There are jazz cellists, but the narration’s description of a “a haunting heavy melody” makes me lean towards my initial assumption. Well, that and the tux.  The strangest thing about this scene, however (even stranger than the tone-deaf narration describing him as a “willing slave” to his music), is that he is performing after Carnegie Hall’s normal hours, and he is playing for an audience of a handful of unidentified, mostly white, people. They appear to be the overnight cleaning crew as they seem to be dressed in identical shirts, and in one panel we can see a mop and bucket and other cleaning supplies just below the stage. I am not sure what to make of this strange scene, and cannot imagine its narrative necessity, except perhaps saving the artist from having to draw an entire audience. The oddity of the scene strikes me as another example of the contradictory ideas at play in the story. The player’s exceptionality, his prominence, is marked by the novelty of the Black body performing the music of an elite European tradition. He is—as the old phrase has it—a credit to his race, but he is also depicted not performing for the storied crowds of New York’s elite at legendary Carnegie Hall, but for a handful of working class folks. The scene makes me wonder if Wilson drew it is as a goof, forcing DeFalco to write what narration he could to weakly explain it. Regardless, the cellist’s cultural contribution is mediated by unexplained and puzzling circumstances. At every turn these issues of Marvel Two-in-One undercut the possibilities of the narrative and its visual depictions.

MTiO39-EE

(from MTiO #39)

The case of Eugene Everett gives me a headache. When he shows up at the Mad Thinker’s secret base, the villain locks him in a cell, and the kid gives a winking complaint, “Geez! I just can’t keep outta jail!” humor undercut since 1978 by the policies of mass incarceration that would make that true of countless young Black men.  The poor kid is left with hi-tech handcuffs on even after the Thinker is defeated and the superheroes stand around debriefing. Again, maybe this was Wilson’s way of slyly noting the way the kid is slighted throughout. Maybe I’ll get a chance to ask him, someday, though I doubt out of the hundreds of comics Wilson drew he’d remember a handful of Marvel Two-in-Ones. Later, in the opening of issue #40, Matt Murdoch cheats the kid at dice as a lesson to not use his newly discovered powers to cheat people at dice, taking the poor kid’s money in the process! You see, nearly anything a white superhero does is justified by virtue of their being white superheroes. Black characters on the other hand operate in layered double-binds—successful or failures, victims or victimizers, buffoonish or humorless—they cannot escape the narrow framing that intimates that they can only be measured against the assumed supremacy of whiteness. There is, of course, no mention of Eugene’s parents or other family, and so he functions only as a type, an instrument of the story, not a person with even the suggestion of dimensions.

It may bear asking what might be reasonably expected from a supporting character in a comic book that is focused on team-ups with various characters to have broad appeal and boost sales, but I think Eugene Everett’s handling reveals what that perennial secondary status is like for countless characters of color in superhero books. He is the quintessential example of the cognitive dissonance that comes with simultaneous prominence—through his Blackness and its shaping into the sassy stereotype—and invisibility. Furthermore, as a team-up book Marvel Two-in-One has the low expectations of a second tier book. Even the very name of the series suggests economy and value for the reader, “TWO, TWO, TWO Marvel characters in just ONE book!” The stakes are such that they allow for the introduction of new characters, space to flesh out the mid-list denizens of its universe and makes room for the characters unable to support their own title—like Brother Voodoo and (at the time) the Vision—who nevertheless have fans eager to read more about them. The potential argument that you cannot make Eugene Everett the focus of such a story is undermined by the countless obscure characters who ended up featured in MTiO—from the Yancy Street Gang (in MTiO #70) to Wundarr (in issue #57) to the Living Mummy (in #95). As Saidiya V. Hartman asks in “The Position of The Unthought,” we as readers must ask “Who does the narrative enable?” In that interview Hartman is discussing the representation of the enslaved subject in narratives meant to reveal something about their condition, but nevertheless it helps to raise the question of what he calls the “obliteration” of that subject through its leveraging as positive value that is instrumental in informing or entertaining an audience. And while I may not share Hartman’s pessimism about the impossibility of such a representation, in the case of both Eugene and the “prominent Blacks” from MTiO #40 and #41, the narrative does not enable knowable Black characters, so much as it enables white characters’ ongoing supremacy.

ASM69

(from Amazing Spider-Man vol. 1, #69)

There have certainly been a handful of moments in the history of Marvel Comics (even ones by white writers and artists) that have provided a more nuanced glimpse into Black life in its universe. The most memorable one to me being 1969’s Amazing Spider-Man #69’s representation of Robbie and Randy Robertson generational conflict over how to deal with being Black in America. Writing about the exchange, Donovan Morgan Grant explains that “those few scenes with Joe and Randy suggest that meaningful diversity is possible in a superhero comic, however unattainable the whole of the genre appears to make it.” But in these few issues of MTiO from 10 years later I see a flaccid counter-productive diversity, whose meaningfulness is limited to the failure of diversity alone to overcome superhero comics’ historical problem with Blackness, or should I say its problem with an unexamined Whiteness that flattens Black cartoon figures into shadows. And yet the possibility of that reading against the grain, that allows Everett’s treatment to act as a productive indicator of the possibilities of the comics medium to highlight absences in a genre shot through with white supremacist assumptions makes me wonder about the degree to which a positive representation is retrievable.

Back when I started my series on X-Men’s Storm, I suggested that comics wield a “schematic authority” (to use Edward Said’s term) made powerful by the medium’s unique combination of words and pictures. This representational authority shapes a view not only of the world within the comics, but the world it is meant to represent—the world outside your window—through its claim to address the prevalent issues of the day. There is a tension between superhero comics’ utopian promises and the repeated instances of not only falling short of them, but subverting “urban folk tale” type stories—I’m thinking here of the stories of racial injustice in superhero comics that manage to redirect the cause of social upheaval or bigotry back to people of color (like Gerber’s Defenders #22 to #25)—which is then written into an overvalued continuity that serves as the basis from which any re-imagining can take place. Every representation of Blackness in these comics, then, is underwritten by that shadowy tradition, and is always in response to the problematics inscribed in a canonical history, rather than a spontaneous conception of individual characters who idiosyncratically represent their identity groups. Engaged readers—like those I describe in my post “’I Know it When I See It’ Race, Relatability, & Reading Practice”—can imagine a self beneath the poorly represented Black characters in these comics, especially those readers who know themselves to be placed in those same frames in the world outside their window, but their reading alone can’t rehabilitate them.

Looking Forward

whitewashingwhitewash

Young Allies’ Whitewash Jones in 1941 and re-imagined in 2009.

This post is just the beginning of a project whose ultimate shape is unknown to me at this point. I want to do more reading, like follow the development of Amazing Spider-Man’s Joe “Robbie” Robertson, who might be the most prominent (ugh, that word is now tainted for me) non-superpowered Black character in the Marvel Universe. I want to read about Monica Rambeau’s parents. I want to spend time examining the representations of non-superpowered Black criminals and villains. I might need to read more about Tombstone, a Black albino villain who started out as just a gangster before becoming superhuman three years after his introduction.  I want to see if I can trace the shadowy tradition I noted within the setting through my reading of these issues, and what insights defining such a framework might provide when measured against the fantastical and superhuman. I’ll have to consider this all in relation to the thread of representation through erasure that exists in a lot of comics of the 1980s, I don’t have a conclusion to make yet, just the ideas I have tried to sketch out here that emerge from my reading of Marvel Two-in-One. But stay tuned, this topic is too expansive and important to leave undeveloped.

In the meantime, I’m going to hope beyond hope that some writer will come along at Marvel to pull Eugene Everett out of obscurity and bring him back, perhaps grown up, in books like Young Avengers or Runaways or maybe teamed up with Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur (Fallen Angels revival anyone?).  I know it’s not very likely, and the ambiguity of his powers makes him difficult to write, but nevertheless, a company like Marvel has to do more than give lip service to diverse representation, they have to address the ugly history of their universes, not just the explicitly racist caricatures like Whitewash Jones, but the myriad insidious ways white supremacy colors everything they’ve ever produced.

2 thoughts on “Marvel Five-in-One: Prominent, Notorious and Invisible Black Lives of the Marvel Universe

  1. Pingback: The International Comics Art Forum 2016 | The Middle Spaces

  2. Pingback: Astro City: Shedding Light on Race in the Dark Age | The Middle Spaces

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