Wednesday, February 6, 2019

The New Black Gods of 1971

Jack Kirby shocked the comics industry in 1970 when he left Marvel for DC. After a decade as co-architect of the Marvel Universe, he took his infinite imagination to the competitor.

The project that he launched his stay at DC with was Larter dubbed Kirby's Fourth World.  The concept was an epic told across the span of 4 books, and could be seen as an evolution of his work on Thor and Fantastic Four. He envisioned 4 intertwined narratives that could one day be published in larger volumes to showcase a novelesque approach that would redefine comics forever.

Naturally, such an endeavor could only begin in the pages of Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen.

Jimmy Olsen 133 - October 1970 - Flippa Dippa

While the other books in 4th World launched with first issues, Kirby had to do something while room was being made in the schedule. That something was to take over one of DC's lowest selling books. Unlike Marvel, most DC comics of the time had a very thin continuity, and a very short, seldom changing group of secondary characters. Himself a secondary character, most of Jimmy's adventures involved looking like an idiot win front of his best pal Superman.


Kirby brought in over a dozen characters in his first issue on the title, fully transforming it into a wild introductory chapter of wilder things to come. Kirby had worked at DC before, and he, along with Joe Simon, did book back in the Golden Age of comics called the Newsboy Legion. Kirby revived this concept, and introducing the adult iterations of his forgotten characters. With the adults were young clones of themselves, perfect replicas of the adventurers of the 40s. New among them was Flippa Dippa, a young black clone who spoke jive and wore a frog suit. The Newsboy kids were full of moxie and heart, but were also played for comedic effect. There wasn't;t much more to any of it, but things soon got better.

Forever People 1 - March 1971 - Vykin the Black

The Forever People was where Kirby introduced the core concepts of his epic. They were a team of young gods bound together by a force called the Infinity Man. The team included Beautiful Dreamer, Big Bear, Seraphin, Mark Moonrider, and Vykin the Black.

Vykin was not the god of black. He just was. Black. His dry intellect essentially made him the team's Spock. He wielded the FP's sentient computer, Mother Box. It was Kirby predicting the iPhone.

Forever People lasted 11 issues, with Vykin in all. There was never a solo tale, but he was a member of the family of space-hippie-godlings for all of the issues. He was the first black character at DC in the core cast. Yes, Mal Duncan popped up in Teen Titans, but he was essentially their go-to hostage friend.



New Gods 3 - July 1971 - The Black Racer

New Gods was where the main story was happening in the epic, and some of the most complex and personal stories happened here. Tales like "The Pact", the antagonist Darkseid, and ideas like The Source were huge influences on George Lucas and Star Wars. When people discuss the Fourth World with reverence, they mostly mean the 11 issues of the New Gods series. Kirby was on fire here.

The third black character to debut in the 4th World saga was an effort to capture the grandeur and mystique that Kirby intended with the Silver Surfer. The story goes that Kirby had an idea for the 3rd issue, discussed it with his assistant, Mark Evanier, and then a few days later had written and drawn a totally different book featuring a new concept, The Black Racer.

The Black Racer was the New God's avatar of Death. He manifested on our Earth through a paraplegic Vietnam vet. He was a being intended to evoke awe and wonder, the answer to the cosmic question "what can kill a god?"

A black man on skis was the answer. This was a case of Kirby's brilliance misfiring in a way that really should have hit the mark. Why did a surfboard work with one character, but skis just look dumb on another? I have often defended Kirby's writing and concepts as a solo creator, but must admit that an editor might have at least suggested a skateboard.


Many, many years later in the late 1990s, Grant Morrison would use Black Racer to great effect as the dark avatar of a dying world of gods. If not for that brief revival in Morrison's JLA run, Black Racer would be a weird one-off of missed potential.







Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sugar and Spike Meet Raymond - February 1971

Raymond is the final of only 3 black character to debut in American comics in 1970. Although cover-dated March, 1971, Sugar and Spike 94 was actually released in December 1970. The dating convention of periodical comic books for newsstands are a weird and arcane thing, but trust me on this one.

Sugar and Spike was a delightful, funny, and charming comic created by Sheldon Mayer at DC for a little short of 20 years. It followed the adventures of 2 babies, Sugar and her neighbor Spike. The children communicated in baby talk, a language universal to all infants in all cultures regardless of what the regional adult language is. You could be a baby from any country or even any planet, and still speak it. Baby lobsters know it. Santa Claus knows it, and so do men old enough to experience a second childhood. Adults only hear gibberish "GLX! SPTZL! GLAH!" and never believe the duo can actually communicate with one another.

Many of the pair's adventures broke down into 3 types of plots. 1) The kids get in trouble due to a misunderstanding of how the grown-up world worked. Misunderstandings about the telephone, Christmas presents, photographs, hoses, and TV are all fodder for these tales. 2) They want something, and the means they use to get it results in them siting the corner at story's end. This includes cookies, ice cream, gold fish, broken dishes, etc. 3) The kids have fun adventures with other characters that also know baby talk. This is often how new characters debut. Alien visitor Space Sprout, kid genius Bernie the Brain, bully Little Arthur, and even Santa fall in this category. Raymond was a part of that tradition.

The Original New Kid On The Block!

As the cover suggests, Spike and Raymond meet and decide to swap clothes to fool their parents. Mayer's premise of "babies don't see race" was a smart approach to take. It allowed the children and their parents to all act with dignity. The humor was more about their antics, and taught a lesson without being preachy. Mayer was an expert cartoonist, and found just the right tone to deliver the idea without ever overtly discussing race.


Raymond, unfortunately, didn't make it back for any additional playdates. Sugar and Spike ended just a few months later with issue 98 due to health issues. Typically, once a character showed up in this book they ended up in rotation. Bernie the Brain, Little Arther, Uncle Charlie, and even their lobster friend were semi-regulars at different points in the comic's history.

I feel strongly that, if not for declining eyesight, Mayer would have brought Raymond back at least once. DC's arrangement with Mayer was unusual for the industry I that his rights as the creator were respected. The agreement prevented other cartoonists from reviving the book. As a result, Raymond was never seen again.


Monday, February 4, 2019

Black Like She - Lois Lane Goes Very Undercover - September 1970

Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane 106 by Robert Kanigher and Werner Roth 




Superman's Girlfriend Lois Lane was a series that, for a decade, had mostly concerned itself with the title character scheming to trick Superman into matrimony. Issue 106, titled I Am Curious (Black) asked the eternal question "If you won't marry me at by whitest, will you marry me at my blackest?” This tale is often looked at as a source of humor and ridicule based on the premise, but it was an earnest attempt at writing a socially relevant tale. Kanigher was known for doing high quality relevance in DC’s war titles, so it was odd to see him writing Superman’s GF. He was absolutely the best choice for the time fir this kind of story. 

The story begins with titular Girlfriend and Reporter Lois Lane trying to get the real story of a Metropolis’ heretofore unseen black neighborhood called Little Africa.  She is met with suspicion and caution. The black community closes ranks, and bristles at being treated like a news story. Encountering activist Dave Stevens, Lois learns that whitey isn’t wanted here. Unstoppable, Lois develops a scheme to get her way.

Did you know that Superman keeps a machine in the Fortress of Solitude that can turn white ladies black? Well, he does. Shockingly, this is not the first time the machine had appeared. It does some other stuff too, but this is the first time we see the “blackify” setting used. Lois seems to know all about the device and its hidden features, and asks to give it a whirl. Supes begrudgingly agrees, flying her up to the North Pole to transformation his girlfriend. Look, at least she didn’t go full blackface like the Black Like Me reporter. 

Where white Lois was greeted with suspicion as a reporter trying to get a handle on the black experience, black Lois fits right in. She spends time getting to know Dave Stevens. She is with him when a drug dealer tries to murder him. Miraculously, Lois has the same blood type as Stevens. Even though she is white on the inside, their blood is the same. Or judge not the snoopy reporter by the content of her character, but by the Super-blackface she wears.


The experience as a black woman changes her perspective, leading to this heated exchange. 


Superman replies “Why do you think I wouldn’t marry you before, and jumped at the chance to turn you black? YES!!!”

OK, that didn’t happen. He replied with how he was an outsider or some non-committal claptrap. Kal-El Last cracker from Krypton absolutely didn’t say "Yes". As much as this story wanted to be relevant, it still had to keep the status quo for their relationship. That's too bad, because it would have demonstrated that not only Lois had changed, but that she could influence Superman to change as well. Superman would have been a stand in for the readers of the final Daily Planet story about the experience. 

Honestly, they did their best. This is no better or worse than any TV of the time that attempted to create a sense of empathy and understanding from a presumed white audience. That may be the biggest fault, actually. Assuming that the audience was white. I'm not sure what feelings or thoughts a black 10 year old girl would have had reading this tale. Would it be empowering, uncomfortable, comical? Would seeing representation for 7 pages be enough to make up for the other 6000 pages a year of DC comics that were entirely white? 

In 1970 I assume you would take whatever you could get, anywhere you could get it. 


Sunday, February 3, 2019

Mal Duncan - April, 1970 Debut

DC Comics was slow to include ongoing black characters into their series. Marvel was aggressively hip, catering their books to an older audience. DC was viewed as conservative and predictable. Rock versus Easy Listening. Plenty of merit on its own, and some wonderful artistry, but missing out on the new ideas of the day.

DC's efforts towards introducing diversity started slowly. Marvel was already using Falcon regularly in Captain America, and Black Panther was an Avenger. DC was testing the waters, but it would take the company until 1976 to feature a non-token black character regularly in one of their series. They made 3 efforts at inclusion in 1970. This is the first.

Teen Titans 26 - April 1970 by Robert Kanigher and Nick Cardy

Teen Titans was a fun, light book portraying the adventures of several younger heroes. Robin, Kid Flash, Speedy, Aqua Lad, and Wonder Girl made up the core group. This issue debuted Mal Duncan, and I honestly don't know what the hell is going on here. I've read the earliest Titans stories, and the 1980s run, so figured I would be able to pick up what was happening from context clues. I could not.

A Professor X like character puts the team through their paces in a Danger Room test lead by a Robot called Angel. Did I pick up an issue of X-Men by mistake? Mr. Jupiter (The Prof X guy) gives the Titans a penny each and tells them to go to the rough side of town. Lilith (Dracula's teen sidekick? I have no idea) picks up a psychic impression directing them to find a Black Star with the penny.

The Titans meet Mal on the mean streets of Generic Urban Environment, as they witness him fight a white gang that is messing with his sister's lemonade stand. There's a boxing match later, where Mal beats up the gang leader. Disco dancing happens. Mal is offered a slot in the Titans line-up. It turns out that Mr. Jupiter has a rocket probe laying around that he's going to send to Venus in the morning. The narration informs the reader that it will be unmanned as it is a one way trip. Mal sneaks out and flies the rocket towards its terminal destination, doing his best Major Tom impression. The end.


Muhammad Ali Swipe? Check!


This being comics, Mal was apparently popular enough to warrant making it back from Venus. He joins the team in Teen Titans 44 (1976) which was the first issue of a revival after the book had been defunct a few years.

Mal adopts the role of the Guardian, an old Simon and Kirby character from the 1940s. That iteration of Titans ended with issue 53. The 1980 New Teen Titans series was a huge hit, but very forward looking. Mal would appear once in this groundbreaking version of the character's exploits. In issue 50 he is a guest at Wonder Girls wedding, overweight, retired from the super hero game, and married to Bumblebee.

Ultimately, Mal is a weird blip and a tentative step towards integrating the DC Universe. Not exactly ahead of his time, but he was the company's first recurring black character. Even if they were scared to put him on the cover.




Saturday, February 2, 2019

Falcon - September 1969 Debut

My first encounter with Falcon was in Captain America 188, cover dated August 1975. I had been reading comic books for three months, and this was my fifth one. I was almost 5, and was struggling to piece together why Spider-Man wasn't in the Super Friends. Captain America brought something new to the emergent cosmology. A black hero!

I was barely becoming cognizant of skin color. I knew it was a thing, and somewhere I had picked up the verbal trend of referring to black versions of things very specifically. As a result, I thought the character was Black Falcon for a couple of years. Compounding the confusion. a cartoon called Blue Falcon and Dynomutt hit the airwaves in 1977. That undoubtedly solidified my mistake about the name.

The character seemed very cool. Red wings, bare arms, no cape. Trained pet falcon sidekick named Redwing. The design was dynamic and interesting. It was really hard to draw, so I knew it must be high quality. Harder to draw than Iron Man, not as difficult as Dr. Strange.

He made his first appearance in Captain America 117 right around the time of the Moon landing. Sam Wilson was Marvel's second  black character, and become a regular cast member in Cap's comic pretty soon. The initial costume wasn't very falcony. Wilson's Falcon outfit was a wingless green disco leotard with orange detailing and a red falcon medallion. Falcon looked just as ready to go on Soul Train as he did to fight crime and kick whitey's Nazi ass with his best friend Captain America. Gene Colon was an amazing artist, but that design was not his best. Stan Lee wrote a solid intro, and later writers really ran with the character, giving him a lot of depth.

The Captain America comic was renamed Captain America and the Falcon for several years. When Kirby came back to Marvel in 1976 he kept the configuration. This was one of the few times Kirby wrote a character he didn't create. He took on Black Panther at the same time, so for about a year, two of Marvel's three black-lead books were written and drawn by the same 50 year old New York Jew.

Falcon came and went in the comics. A one shot in Marvel Premiere around 1979 was done by a totally different Jewish writer that, coincidentally, was once Kirby's assistant. A Limited Series in the 80s was actually written and drawn by 2 black creators! Falcon didn't turn up much, but when he did he was typically treated with love and respect by the creative teams.

Falcon's origin was in 3 parts, which was fairly unusual for a story of that era. While working out my rules for buying the first appearances of black characters, I had to create a special set of rules for Falcon. He changed a lot in his early years, so there were several firsts as he evolved. I picked up not only the 3 part origin tale, but the debut of his red and white costume with the non-functional wings, the issue where Black Panther makes the wings functional for flight, the first time Kirby wrote and drew him, the first time he starred in a solo story, and his solo Limited Series. OK, all of those "rules" were just excuses to enjoy more stories with the Black Falcon. I mean Falcon. Old habits.




Friday, February 1, 2019

Black Panther - July 1966 Debut

My first experience with Black Panther was probably in the late Summer days of 1976. I know exactly where it was, even if the date is elusive. I was in the back of Buzzy's car while his Mom drove us back home from a trip to a water park in Indiana. I don't recall much about the day except that it seemed like a really long ride up, but a much shorter one back. It was probably the first time I ever noticed that phenomena of travel. The other thing I remember is the comic book my host had brought along.

Buzzy had a copy of Jungle Action 23, and it looked pretty cool. The Black Panther was on the front cover in a bold, prowling stance, ready for action. I don't remember anything about the story but the book had a compelling energy. He lived near a Convenient Food Mart location that often had exotica like this or Silver Surfer reprints, or the Captain America Bicentennial Battles Treasury. Buzzy probably felt the same about my access to Wobbe's Drugs and their selection of books.

Black Panther was not the first black hero I knew of. He was the first one I saw leading his own comic though. He wasn't anyone's sidekick or best friend. T'Challa was clearly his own man, operating independently of other Marvel heroes. You wouldn't believe it now, but there was a time that Black Panther was barely a cult favorite. Between Summer of 1976 and 1980, fewer than 20 Black Panther comics were published. From there, he went 8 years before showing up as a lead again.     Now the character is everywhere in culture, and globally at that. It's pretty satisfying to see.

A couple of years ago I decided to collect the first appearances of every black character. I set a few rules, as collecting is a madman's pursuit, and can spiral out of control easily. The first rule was "start with Black Panther." So I did. Here's a look at Fantastic Four 52 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby from 1966.





Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Swamp Mart? Wal-thing?




DC and Walmart continue their partnership to draw in new readers with a pretty exciting Halloween Special. Following 3 months of serialized adventures with Batman, Superman, and other costumed heroes, DC released the first one-shot issue for Walmart, the Swamp Thing Halloween Horror Giant. At 100 pages, only 20 of them feature Swamp Thing. How did the character get to be the biggest selling point? There's some history behind putting the big green plant man in the forefront. 

Through 5 decades, Swamp Thing has been at or near the center of many of the largest publishing initiatives DC has implemented. DC leaned heavily on reprints of the original Len Wein/Bernie Wrightson run when testing out new formats in the late 70s. The first DC movie following Superman's success was Swamp Thing. The initial volume of Swamp Thing by Alan Moore, Steve Bissette, and John Totleben was the 4th entry in their graphic novel line in 1987, following Dark Knight Returns and preceding Watchmen. Later, ST was the starting point for the adult oriented Vertigo line that literally grew out of the success of Alan Moore's run. Next year, DC's streaming service is launching a Swamp Thing TV show. It's the character's second. Third, if you count the cartoon. 

Going to Swamp Thing while attempting to build a new market makes sense historically.  

Based on my own observations through various message boards and Facebook communities, this release stands to be a massive hit with middle aged readers who have been enjoying comics for 20 or more years. Can it get a $5 bill out of a teenage reader’s pocket though? That’s a tough one. 

The original story by Brian Azzarello and Greg Capullo is tough to measure. Basically, 12 pages isn’t enough to really know what is happening. It definitely felt like a try out for an ongoing series. That makes me wonder if it was produced for this special, or is a leftover from last year’s Swamp Thing Winter Special that didn’t make it in. 

The writing. I have a problem with Azzarello’s writing that I can never shake off. I always feel like he is lying to me. I don’t trust that he as an author or the characters in his work are being sincere or direct at all. I tried 100 Bullets for a couple of years, but always felt like the leads were tricking me. On the other hand, that tension worked for me in his Hellblazer and Luke Cage stories. 

The story is from the perspective of a one eyed woman with a strange connection to Swamp Thing. She seems to live in the swamps of Louisiana, and the brief tale explains her missing eye and the connection she shares with Swamp Thing. The horror threat is potent enough for such a short story, but does resolve so quickly that it feels like a set up for a longer series. Just enough story to make you curious, but not so much that you would feel ripped off if more chapters never arrived. 

How’s the art? Exquisite. Greg Capullo is in his environment here. The designs of Swamp Thing, lady one-eye, the monsters, and the victims are just the right amount of creepy. There is a wicker doll that the mysterious woman carries that is rich in detail that is both beautiful and unsettling. I don’t know if they would place such a high profile artist on Swamp Thing, but I would be all over it if they did. 

What else is in the package? As with all the 100 Page Giant books, this one has 88 pages of reprints and ads. The reprints come from 2 past DC Halloween specials and feature Zatanna and Blue Devil. I have no idea why Blue Devil was chosen to be in this, but there he is. There is also an Aquaman/Demon tale. With an Aquaman movie coming along shortly, I get that. Batman always finds his way into everything. They took the interesting step of picking a Denny O’Neil/Neal Adams classic from the early 1970s called Night of the Reaper. It’s a solid tale full of atmosphere, and is the first pre-2000 comic to make it into one of these books. 

That brings us to the final tale, the original Swamp Thing story from 1971. I was expecting something from either the Alan Moore run, the recent New 52 series, or the Tom King story from last year’s Winter Special. This was a very pleasant surprise, and proves that when DC is breaking new ground, the specter of Wein, Wrightson and their swamp monster is never far behind. 


Bonus! Enjoy the Chameleons UK track Swamp Thing, clearly influenced by Alan Moore's run on the book.