n.b. This post is based in part on “Black Communities of the 30th Century: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics,” an essay I wrote for Apex Magazine back in 2014. It develops ideas referenced there and is a deeper dive into DC Comics’ infamously problematic Legionnaire, Tyroc.
A past’s vision of the future can teach us something about its present, and in the case of mainstream superhero comic books, that vision provides a lens for examining how their white-dominated storyworlds imagine the trajectory of racial progress in society. Furthermore, this future-vision yields insight into how these comics’ predominantly white creators and editors’ well-intentioned, but nevertheless limited vision, recycles equivocating ideas about race. DC Comics’ Superboy, Starring the Legion of Superheroes #216 (April 1976) is exemplary of this racial trajectory, enlightening readers not only on the state of race relations in an idealized 30th century of the DC Universe, but in one issue it more or less captures the problematic arc of many (if not all) black superheroes of comic book worlds. I will examine the issue that introduced Tyroc in this post, along with a couple of his appearances (by the same creative team) that followed. In next week’s second part, I will be looking at the end of Tyroc’s brief stint in the Legion, examining an even clearer example of how these origins color the story involving the character and how even trying to address those problems often compounds them.
In “The Hero That Hated the Legion”—written by Cary Bates, with art by Mike Grell—readers are introduced to Marzal, an island city populated by “a Black race that wants nothing to do with the outside world” and their bare-chested champion, Tyroc, whose various cries and grunts grant him a strange collection of superpowers. Superboy and the Legion enter Marzal in order to seek out stolen goods that have crashed to Earth from where they were hidden in a satellite (and that some bad guys are also after) and immediately find themselves unwelcome. Up to this point, no Black characters had appeared in this future of the DC universe. All of the Legion are white—even when they are green (like Brainiac 5) or blue (like Shadowlass), they are coded as white, given their dominant role in the society of the 30th century, and being subsumed in the incoherent amalgam of white identity and its invisibility. Karate Kid is the exception. He is biracial but fills the role of the model minority whose ethnicity provides essential skills (in both senses of the word, “essential”)—in this case, martial arts—in the service of racial hegemony. Plus, he is drawn to look white and is missing the equally horrid visual markers reserved for “oriental” characters as late as 1976. The visual nature of the comics medium, not only marks blackness as different, but that difference resonates with W.E.B. DeBois’s seminal question on blackness in America—“How does it feel to be a problem?”—because Tyroc and the people of Marzal are framed in this comic book as a problem to be solved by the Legion. When, for example, the Legionnaires discover that Tyroc is trying to capture the same bad guys as they are, Superboy declares, “He’d better not get in our way!” putting his authority over the authority of the local people and their champion and framing their sovereignty as an obstacle to “justice.”
At the behest of Tyroc (whose afro’d visage appears on huge tele-screens around the city), the people of Marzal avoid the “Legionnaire intruders,” refusing to talk to them and ducking into their homes. As they arrive, Tyroc’s fiery rhetoric accuses the Legion and thus the outside (white) world of purposefully ignoring Marzal in its times of need. He gives a litany of times that the people of Marzal needed help, but the Legion never offered any. But the neglect these Black people have experienced is not meant to remotely challenge the rightness of whiteness, which the narrative presents as self-evident but to indicate Tyroc’s unreasonableness. When Tyroc mentions how the Legion failed to provide aid during the “terrible ion storm of last spring,” he comes off like Kanye West did in the eyes of Mike Meyers and white America when he admonished George Bush on live TV during a 2005 Hurricane Katrina fundraiser—Superboy doesn’t care about black people, either. One of Tyroc’s recordings asks, “Is it the color of our skin that doesn’t make us important enough?” and despite the efforts of the story to suggest otherwise, the answer is fairly clear: Yes. Not important enough to aid when in need and not important enough to respect when they try to set boundaries. The logic of time-displaced young Kal-El and the rest of white society has declared that “racial prejudice died out centuries ago,” thus any resentment that Tyroc and his people feel must be “unreasonable.” Shadowlass and Superboy even remark on just how “bitter” Tyroc sounds. How dare Tyroc assume that anything but the ill-fortune of choosing to live in this city led to their situation? How dare he impugn the values of their self-evident ideal society? An ideal society, it bears mentioning, where protecting luxury property (diamonds) requires Legionnaire intervention where they are not wanted, while humanitarian aid apparently does not.
It should be noted that the question above regarding why the Legion neglected Marzal in its time of need is never addressed. The story takes it as given that the reader will not question why Marzal has been ignored. As I have often cited, back in 2011 Marvel editor Tom Brevoort, declared that “99% of all superheroes are white” in order to explain editorial choices regarding diversity (and lack thereof) in superhero teams rosters, mind-bogglingly disconnecting the preponderance of white characters in the Marvel storyworld from the choices of the people who make comics. It seems as if DC editorial of 1976 was counting on a similar disconnection from its readers.
Rather than question this absence, Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes #216 conjures a Black community in order for its readers to understand just how ungrateful black people are for the help they do get. When a couple of Marzal’s citizens are saved from a bridge collapse by Superboy and Karate Kid, the narration asks “But do the survivors express gratitude?”—the panel depicts the saved people yelling, “Get out of Marzal!” and “We didn’t ask you to save us!” Karate Kid characterizes this as Tyroc “brain-washing them with hatred.” But if we take the people of Marzal at their word, they have reason to distrust the Legion and their motives. You might ask why the people of Marzal wouldn’t be grateful for being saved, but I want to pose a different question: Why should the people of Marzal be won over by an isolated benevolent act given a history of neglect? The story’s call for “gratitude” is one that resonates with the hegemonic discourse regarding the history of racial politics in America, in which the dominant culture wants credit for “ending segregation” or “abolishing slavery,” without the responsibility for instituting Jim Crow laws or exploiting slave labor in the first place. All the while, this narrative conveniently erases the effort that Black people themselves made towards the goal of getting white America to acquiesce even a bit of its racial power. The Legion never even considers Tyroc’s accusations as having any merit, and clearly neither does Bates, given the narration’s attitude and the story’s resolution. The conflict was just a misunderstanding but only on the part of Tyroc and his people who are confused by racial hatred.
This confusion is explicitly depicted after Superboy and the Legion defeat the bad guys and rescue Tyroc and his city. Marzal’s champion declares, “You went out of your way to save my life…even though we’ve shown you nothing but hatred and contempt!” Superboy explains, “When it comes to race, we’re color-blind!” Shadowlass and Karate Kid add, “Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin…we’re brothers and sisters…” Tyroc is convinced! Realizing he’s been “wrong about a lot of things,” he agrees to return to Metropolis with the heroes to see if he qualifies to become a Legionnaire. “Long live the Legion!”
As written, “The Hero that Hated the Legion” presents a self-segregated Tyroc and Marzal—a result of their own hatred and ungratefulness—until the magnanimity of the Legion of Super-Heroes shows Tyroc the error of his ways. The question of why Marzal has been ignored by the Legion (or never appeared in a comic before) may not be addressed, but it is obvious why. The reason lies not in the narrative within this issue or even in the continuity of issues of Superboy Starring the Legion of Superheroes, but rather in the narrative of white supremacy that is implicitly part of the superhero genre. The reason why Marzal has been ignored is because writers, artists, and editors in our world could afford to ignore it—to not even conceive of it until it became too conspicuous to not have black people in the future. When it became too difficult to continue that neglect, readers are given a story where the reason for it has to be not the fault of the Legion who are implicitly idealized heroes, but in those being neglected, out of their prejudice. In his critique of Tyroc, (former writer and editor for both Marvel and DC) Jim Shooter, who had wanted to introduce a Black character to LoSH years before, suggests that the best way to introduce such a character is to not even bring up race at all (Cadigan 61). But this “just happens to be Black” approach actually just reinforces the idea that the racial make-up of these teams is coincidental, rather than the result of choices. There is of course another option to introducing such characters without the story having to address the previous absence in a way that lets white creators and editors off the hook—a paratextual one. Creators and editors can admit their complicity in keeping superhero comics white on letters pages, editorial backmatter, and interviews.
A particularly noteworthy aspect of the choices made in Tyroc’s creation is that artist and co-creator Mike Grell—despite being vocally embarrassed about Tyroc and claiming to have wanted to introduce a Black character to Legion of Super-Heroes months before—did worse than nothing to try to mitigate the angry black yelling self-segregationist superhero he was made to draw. While in a 2002 interview published in Glen Cadigan’s The Legion Companion, Grell claimed to be “dumfounded” at the “racist concept,” he nevertheless chose to give Tyroc a mix between a Las Vegas-era Elvis jumpsuit and “something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing” (Cadigan 89). It is hard to judge if Grell’s sartorial choices were meant to be a poke in the eye for the problematic character or payback for not being allowed to introduce a Black character of his own, but either way, what does this choice do for the character and the people he represents? It just serves to further ridicule him and makes sure that DC Comics’ limited roster of Black characters are as absurd as possible. To even use the phrase “like a pimp on the street corner” is to admit to using a Black stereotype in Tyroc’s creation. And while it is possible to fight Black stereotypes by putting them to use in different contexts—as Rebecca Wanzo explores in her excellent book, The Content of Our Caricature)— Grell is not doing that, especially given the narrative framework Bates provided.
This overly-didactic problematic comic could be easy to dismiss as a hackneyed exception from over 40 years ago. There are certainly other better-known examples of Black superheroes, some of which even predate Tyroc. If someone were looking for evidence of an even marginally better contemporaneous approach to Black superheroes, DC’s radical-in-comparison introduction of John Stewart, their code-switching Black Lightning, Marvel’s afrofuturist Black Panther, or X-Men’s imperious Storm would serve—but all these comics and characters, sooner or later, fall into the pattern laid out in this one issue of Superboy: moving from a caricature on the periphery of superheroic society towards inclusion through either implicit or explicit rejection of race-based concerns about the treatment of marginalized communities in those storyworlds. This trajectory is usually most notable either in a (so-called) “race blind” approach to a character that seems to nevertheless single them out for disparate treatment and/or race as a motif that makes some stories accessible to mainstream superhero comics without considering the connotations of those stories’ attitudes about race.
Legion of Shibboleths
The Legion of Superheroes is a teen team comic book built partially on the possibility of young readerly engagement imagining oneself as a potential member. The kid’s clubhouse feel of their adventures plus the reinforcement of meritocratic ideals through their enrollment ritual of evaluating any superpowered teen for membership encourages that kind of wish fulfillment reading. However, what that Legion evaluation consists of depends on the creative team, the era, and the narrative demands of the particular story. Nevertheless, when the Legion is faced with a foe beyond their power to defeat in Superboy, Starring the Legion of Superheroes #218 (July 1976) and Tyroc is their only hope to defeat it, the scenario turns out to be an elaborate hoax to test the only Black would-be member.
The issue, which is the first involving Tyroc as a potential member after their contentious first meeting, begins with his arrival in Metropolis to join the Legion, as a handful of rejected candidates are dejectedly leaving Legion HQ. Meanwhile, Brainiac 5 is giving a briefing on Tyroc to his teammates, which serves to recap the events of issue #216, echoing its awkward phrasing of “his Black race” to refer to Marzal’s people. There is a slight revision in this telling, however. It tries to make Tyroc’s behavior in that issue seem even worse than how it was framed in the original comic, by having his “contempt” come after “he agreed to help [the Legion] complete” their mission. There was never any kind of agreement to cooperate in that story! The Legion takes it upon themselves to trespass on Marzal and disregard Tyroc’s wishes. It is a minor difference that many readers may not catch, but Bates’s re-writing the story to make Tyroc seem even more rude and militant seems like an after-the-fact defense of how Tyroc and Marzal are treated. In this way, the heroes can seem only reasonable in their attitudes and behavior, while Tyroc provides justification for his treatment.
And of course, the recap makes sure to clearly present Tyroc’s worst crime of all: suggesting there might be racial motivations to the Legion’s actions. But thankfully, from the Legion’s point of view, he learned the truth by working “side-by-side!” with them. This harmonious ethic always calls on marginalized people to accept and work within white-dominant institutions (as we’ll see in issue #222) and casts them as rude and anti-social when they don’t want to accept the terms established by white supremacy. Brainiac 5’s narration goes on to explain that Tyroc has been going back and forth between the Legion HQ and Marzal to “pass the qualification tests” and having succeeded, all that remains is the induction ceremony.
But that is not really all that remains, both the reader and Tyroc are kept in the dark about a final test, involving a villain named Zoraz. The story the Legion gives Tyroc is that Zoraz managed to steal the genetic samples of all the Legion members that the team had locked away out of the hope of one day “cloning Legionnaire replacements,” and thus the villain was able to use his “undisputed scientific knowledge to analyze [their] cells…providing him with the vital data he needs to turn [their] own power against” them. Tyroc is told that since he was not yet a member when this theft happened, he is the group’s best defense, as his genetic code was not among those Zoraz could use against them. Tyroc’s exclusion from the Legion’s genetic project is not only framed as making that exclusion a benefit for the Legion but is painted as giving him the opportunity to prove his heroism by coming to the Legion’s aid. This story’s attempt to use Tyroc’s previous lack of inclusion as a benefit to the Legion and making that benefit a genetic one, doubles-down on justifying his exclusion and moves to exculpate the Legion for any complicity in the 30th century’s apparent segregation. The scenario’s logic essentially contends that if Tyroc had been included earlier, they would have no defense against Zoraz.
But the entire scenario, and thus Tyroc’s call to heroism, is a charade. The entire premise of Legion membership and their definition of heroism are ones the white teens themselves determine, apparently at their whim. Different creative teams and expectations may explain why Legion candidacy is different from issue to issue but that in some previous stories other applicants simply had to explicate their powers to be invited to join makes Tyroc’s treatment stand out as racialized (especially since his introduction and original exclusion were introduced in racial terms). Like Black Lightning being tested by the JLA in Justice League of America #173, the form of Tyroc’s testing is anomalous and discussed by the white majority in racial terms.
Perhaps we are meant to learn something by how the test goes wrong in the end. It turns out that one of the rejected would-be Legionnaires we see leaving at the beginning of the story because his “special power is too limited” sneaks back into the HQ and manages to steal the costume Superboy and Sunboy were alternately using to play the role of Zoraz. The reject—Absorbency Boy—has been hiding in the ventilation shaft waiting to figure out Tyroc’s weakness so he could avenge himself on the Black teen as payback for his rejection and prove he should have been chosen over the kid from Marzal. The reject’s “limited” power is to absorb any residual energy left behind by superpowers, so by wearing the Zoraz costume he temporarily has the powers of the last two people to use it: Superboy and Sunboy! He quickly radiates red sun energy to defeat Superboy with a backhand slap. Fortunately, Tyroc deduces that Absorbency Boy is not used to the powers he has absorbed and uses an “ultra-high frequency” yell to take advantage of the super-hearing the reject does not have full control over. The high-pitched yell is so painful Absorbency Boy lets his guard down and a quick karate-chop to the throat takes him out. While it is possible for a reader to see this outcome and conclude that the Legion needed to learn a lesson about testing and rejecting applicants, the actual story does nothing to bring the Legionnaire’s actions into doubt. All that’s left is for Tyroc’s membership to become official with a swearing in ceremony.
Absorbency Boy’s resentment regarding Tyroc being chosen over him also provides an opportunity to see Legion recruitment through the lens of affirmative action. While the term is not used in the story and there is nothing to suggest that Tyroc gets any special consideration (just the opposite actually), the way Absorbency Boy goes on about Tyroc being chosen over him reminds me of Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit complaining that minority applicants to the University of Texas were chosen over her. The Legion of Super-Heroes reject may never explicitly suggest that race was the deciding factor in his being passed over, but the fact is that Fisher’s lawyers hardly tried to make that argument themselves because it wasn’t true. Instead the case relied on a public perception of this being a referendum on affirmative action and the assumptions that it must mean that Black candidates are getting special treatment over more qualified white applicants.
Moving on, Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #222 (December 1976) provides another example of where the Legion’s self-aggrandizing 30th century race neutral outlook actually marks Tyroc for disparate treatment and implicitly uses race as a motif that associates criminality with blackness. The issue opens with an arresting splash page: Superboy leading Tyroc through a hostile rock-throwing crowd in chains. The uncredited colorist made sure to color the primary rock-hurler as a Black person, presumably to downplay the racial context, but given Tyroc’s body language and the way Superboy pulls on the chain, the scene can’t help but evoke the image of bondage. This image is reinforced on the cover and in the actual narrative when Tyroc is arrested, put into a cell, manacled, and has a muzzle fitted over his mouth to keep his superpowered scream in check—a muzzle that calls to mind the masks used to discipline and control slaves in the Antebellum south.
Tyroc’s arrest and public humiliation at being accused of crimes turns out to be a ruse by the Legion to draw out a villain who brags about working at the police department while making a bomb threat. So Tyroc’s “rampage” was faked, an excuse for him to search for the bomb without the bomber knowing—as the Metropolis police were not in on it. But really, the details of the convoluted plot are not as important as the question of why does Tyroc have to be the one to play the criminal role? I can’t help the feeling (based on how Tyroc has been characterized) that writer Cary Bates felt he was the most “believable” in that role because of his race. That “believability” is heartbreakingly reinforced when Tyroc is drawn to say, “After the way I lost my temper, I don’t blame everyone for thinking I went on a rampage.” Furthermore, when Mon-El and Brainiac 5 discuss the “rampage” with the police they play up the expectation that Tyroc would go rogue. “Who else but Tyroc could be responsible? We shouldn’t have made him a member! I always thought he was too unstable!” and “He never really wanted to join our Legion anyway…” And while later it is clear that at least Brainiac 5 is in on the plan, the language they use leverages stereotypes about Black people, their inability to control their anger, and not making an effort to fit in with the dominant culture. Notice how one of them says “our Legion.” The story itself gives no reason why Tyroc has to be the one to play the criminal role, except for a throw away thought bubble that explains that his voice “homed in on the bomb.” There was never any suggestion Tyroc’s voice had that ability, so another member of the team could have just as easily had their powers written to work that way. Tyroc’s race is a lazy way to make the story work, relying on the implicit bias against Black folks common in our society. And, since the supposedly race neutral perspective does not allow it, the story cannot even serve as a critique of law enforcement racial expectations and corruption. Instead, after he is temporarily imprisoned, the Legion themselves perform some well-intentioned corruption by manufacturing evidence to exonerate Tyroc, allowing him to continue his rampage subterfuge.
Ultimately, Tyroc’s introduction and early adventures demonstrate a failure to imagine a future that breaks away from problematic conceptions of race relations. They build on the fantasy that it is Black embitterment that leads to self-segregation rather than the material reality of history and the ideological framework of white supremacy (the latter being the case both within the narrative and at the level of publication). The onus is placed on the Black character to prove his belonging, both by tolerating the secret tests, and being willing to play up the role of Black criminal without ever considering the context that makes those expectations troubling. Most of all, these issues of Legion of Super-Heroes highlight the unspoken but foundational assumption that the superhero genre is a white space that Black and other PoC characters must navigate by alternately performing both explicit assimilation and an implicit ethnic shuffle at their white peers’ behest.
In part two of this essay I will examine Tyroc’s final pre-Crisis appearance in Legion of Superheroes to demonstrate how the “race blind” ideal of the Bates and Grell stories give way to the problem of using race as a “motif” in trying to rehabilitate the character’s origin. I then contextualize the DC Comics character among a handful of other Black superheroes of the same era.