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June 04, 2012

Marvel in the Civil Rights era: A noble Panther, a gritty Cage

Posted in: Comics

In South Central Los Angeles of the 1960s, Marvel was king -- and that was even more true after the 1972 arrival of inner-city hero Luke Cage, shown above in a 2009 issue. (Marvel Comics)

Mystery writer Gary Phillips grew up on Flower Street in South Central Los Angeles and comic books -- especially Marvel Comics -- seized his imagination as a youngster. (Bob Carey/ Los Angeles Times)

The early Jack Kirby concept for the Black Panther's costume was scrapped before his 1966 debut but it was published in a 1974 issue of "Jungle Action." (Marvel)

Black Panther got his own comic book in 1976 with Jack Kirby handling the pencils. (Marvel Comics)

In 1976, the Black Panther appeared in a story titled "A Cross Burning Darkly Blackening the Night!" that put him at odds with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. (Marvel)

A native of Harlem, the Falcon Marvel's first African-American superhero -- the Black Panther was born on foreign soil. (Marvel)

The Falcon was the first black super-hero from Marvel or DC who didn't have the world "Black" in his moniker. In this March 1974 issue, Black Panther joins crime-fighting partners Captain America and Falcon. (Marvel)

Sam Wilson, a.k.a. the Falcon, is asked to join the Avengers in 1979 but only because the team's new government masters need to fill a diversity quota. Insulted, the winged hero leaves 10 issues later. (Marvel)

The May 1971 premiere issue of "Savage Tales," a Marvel magazine aimed at older readers, presented the first (and last) appearance of Black Brother; instead of a superhero he's a politician in African nation of Orbia dealing with rivals and corruption. (Marvel)

Richard Roundtree as the title hero "Shaft" in the 1971 Blaxploitation film. The cinema scene was a clear influence on Marvel's "Luke Cage, Power Man" No. 1 (Shaft Productions, Ltd./MGM)

Luke Cage, a hero for the streets, shown in 2011 issue that revisits his origin tale, which began with a prison stint he didn't deserve. (Marvel Comics)

Ororo Munroe, the weather-manipulating mutant known as Storm, was introduced in 1975 in the landmark revamping of the X-Men. She was portrayed by Halle Berry in three of Fox's "X-Men" films. (Marvel)

In early 1975, Marvel readers met Misty Knight, another character clearly informed by the Blaxploitation film scene. Her back story evolved over time: she's an NYPD cop who lost an arm in the line of duty but got a bionic one from Tony Stark and became a streetwise presence in Marvel Universe. Above, Knight as she looked in the 1970s and, right, a modern modern visage. (Marvel )

John Stewart, an architect and firebrand former marine, became DC's first African-American super-hero when he was made a Green Lantern in late 1971 despite his anti-authority viewpoints. (DC Comics)

A schoolteacher with energy powers, Black Lightning alter his appearance by donning a mask with attached Afro wig. (DC Comics)

In the early decades of comics, extreme stereotypes were seen as acceptable farce. Will Eisner's "The Spirit," for instance, featured the sidekick Ebony White, a gratuitous pickaninny caricature. (Quality Comics)

In 1972, Will Eisner used the backlash against his old Ebony White character as story material. (Kitchen Sink)

Lobo wasn't a superhero but in December 1965 he became the first fictional African-American character with his own comic book series. He was an Old West man of action in the mold of the Lone Ranger but some aghast distributors refused to handle "Lobo," which was buried in Boot Hill after two issues. (Dell Comics)

Gary Phillips on Luke Cage: "'Sweet Christmas!' — that was his trademark substitute for all the cuss words that couldn't be printed. If that wasn't enough to make Dolemite cringe, there was always Cage's work wardrobe — a yellow silk shirt open to his naval, a headband made of chrome and a belt from a giant chain...(Ken Lubas/For The Times)

In crime novels such as “The Jook,” “Bangers” and “The Underbelly,” Gary Phillips draws some scary chalk outlines around the City of Angels but in real life the author has nothing but love for his native Southern California. Born in 1955, he grew up amid the tumult of the Civil Rights era, Watts ’65  and the Vietnam War — and he also was in prime position to take in the Marvel Comics revolution. Phillips has gone from comics fan to comics creator (“The Rinse,”about a money laundryman in San Francisco, is now in trade paperback from Boom! Studios), but in the following guest essay he reflects on the Marvel Universe of his youth and one of its major Marvel innovations: The black superhero.


Marvel’s first black superhero, the Black Panther, made his debut in 1966. (Marvel)

I grew up on Flower Street in South-Central Los Angeles in the 1960s, and in my neighborhood, if you were going to read a comic book in public you had to be sure it said “Marvel” on the cover.

Seriously, you were considered  a certified punk if you got caught reading DC. Now, you might get a pass if it was a Flash or Green Lantern comic — that had a lot to do with the respective artists on those titles, Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane. They drew cool. But you didn’t want to be seen reading about that overgrown Boy Scout from Metropolis especially if it was one of his goofball imaginary stories. You’d be humiliated. The same went for the silly shenanigans in Gotham City (and understand, it was still the masked millionaire influenced by the 1960s TV show and not the returned-to-darkness Dark Knight that would come later in the decade from Denny O’Neil, writer, and Jim Aparo and Neal Adams, artists).

This was all back before Xbox and endless TV channels, before shared interactive alien-invasion video games and tweeting — without all of that, young folks like me read comic books for entertainment. Well,  really it was mostly young guys (mainstream comics have always been more male-oriented), and their allegiance came with an expiration date; the funny books got jettisoned to the ash heap of childhood history when a boy started worrying about zits, the after-school practice field and the tricky skill of checking-out-if-the-cheerleaders-were-checking-you-out.

The first issue of “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire” arrived in 1972. (Marvel Comics)

For me, even though I was a starting defensive tackle on my Lutheran High football team (go Lions) and couldn’t wait for a slow jam record by the Delfonics (“La-La Means I Love You” or “Didn’t I Blow Your Mind This Time”) to be played at the house party as a chance to hold a girl close, I still got my inner geek on…. I kept reading and collecting comics past high school.

“Make Mine Marvel” was the tagline back then, and it rang true. Marvel had characters such as Spider-Man who handed out beat-downs like free lunch to the likes of the Rhino and the Scorpion; and Daredevil, who took it to the Stilt-Man and the Gladiator. But when he wasn’t wearing his mask, Spidey was high school student Peter Parker, who wasn’t popular with the girls and had self-doubts. Matt Murdock, D.D., was a blind lawyer who represented the downtrodden.

Their worlds reflected some of ours. It was particularly significant to us on Flower Street that Marvel was the first of the Big Two comics companies to have a black superhero in its pages. And what about that name?  No, Marvel didn’t compare notes with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense; Marvel’s Black Panther showed up before Huey and Bobby were firmly on the scene, about the same time the brothers and sisters had it going on in the Lowndes County Freedom Organization (where the logo of the political Black Panthers originated). Even as coincidence it was part of the crackle in the air.

In “Fantastic Four” No. 52, July 1966, there was  T’Challa, the warrior king of a scientifically advanced and hidden African kingdom called Wakanda. The heir to the Panther Throne, he outwits and defeats (temporarily at least) the Fantastic Four.

In this 1974 issue, Black Panther and the Falcon crossed paths. (Marvel)

The hero’s attack on the quartet was a ruse, as the Panther meant them no harm and was demonstrating his abilities for them as a tuneup to his real battle with his arch-enemy, Ulysses Klaw, the Master of Sound.

The visual I remember by artist Jack “King” Kirby in that issue (which was co-written with Stan Lee) where T’Challa removes his full-face mask revealing he’s black. Damn. Now that was different — a lord of the African jungle who wasn’t a white guy swinging from vines? The Black Panther would go on to headline several of his own titles and marry Storm, the X-Men member who controls weather and also hails from Africa.

In September of 1969, just a couple of months after a man walked on the moon, Marvel’s next black superhero takes flight in the pages of Captain America’s book: The Falcon. He became Cap’s partner in the 1970s as they channeled on the two-tone, crime-fighting buddy thing pioneered on TV’s “I Spy” and the Razoni and Jackson cop paperback series by Warren Murphy (which many cite as an inspiration for the “Lethal Weapon” film series).

But then came Cage — Luke Cage, written by Archie Goodwin and drawn by George Tuska (with subsequent issues drawn by black comics artist Billy Graham). He debuted in his own comic book, “Luke Cage, Hero for Hire,” in June 1972. Carl Lucas was a small-time Harlem hood doing hard time in Seagate Prison – framed by a rival for possession of heroin. Lucas volunteers for an experiment in cell regeneration conducted by Noah Burstein (this is comics, these kinds of experiments with futuristic-looking machinery and brilliant scientists go on all the time) to possibly reduce his sentence.

Gary Phillips grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a mechanic and a librarian. (Ken Lubas/For The Times)

But a racist guard named Rackham has a history of run-ins with the inmate and sabotages the experiment, hoping to see the convict leave the cellblock in a body bag.  But the resulting bombardment (of excited electrons and what have you) give Lucas super strength and steel-hardened skin. After taking care of Rackham, he escapes by punching through a brick wall. He returns to New York and adopts the moniker Luke Cage, a homage to his recent past.

More than any other black superhero that came along then, the lineage of Luke Cage can be traced to the zeitgeist of blaxploitation flicks such as “Shaft” (from the Ernest Tidyman novel) and “Black Gunn.” This was no proper-sounding nobleman like the Panther; Cage sounded street, except of course when he yelled “Sweet Christmas!” — that was his trademark  substitute for all the cuss words that couldn’t be printed. If that wasn’t enough to make Dolemite cringe, there was always Cage’s work wardrobe — a yellow silk shirt open to his naval, a headband made of chrome and a belt from a giant chain, the kind you might find attached to a wrecking ball or a ship’s anchor.

Like John Shaft, Cage kept an office in the rugged Times Square area (in the days before the corporate sanitizing), and among his confidants was Doc Burstein, who began operating a medical clinic for poor folks in the area. Cage was different, too, in the fact that (as the title of his book told us) he did the superhero gig for money – and several of his costumed peers would look down their noses at him for this.

In 1976, the Africa hero clashed with the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. (Marvel)

The Panther was all regal wisdom and graceful power, the Sidney Poitier of the Marvel Universe; Luke Cage was street-savvy, stubborn and built for hellacious mayhem — Jim Brown without the referees.

Several black superheroes from Marvel and DC with Black as part of their superhero name came along at in that era (Black Goliath, Black Lightning, Black Racer, etc). And African-American characters started inheriting some of the more illustrious names in the hero world (although usually not for long): John Stewart wore the Green Lantern ring,  Monica Rambeau became the new Captain Marvel and Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes wore Iron Man’s armor before going his own way with the War Machine alias. Rhodey was also in the mix in the early 2000s when Christopher Priest came up with the Crew, a hero team with four men of color, including a biracial character.  The Crew briefly had a brief but memorable run as a title.

Now there are myriad black and other characters of color to be found in comics, though it’s still unusual for them to headline their own books. Mr. Terrific and Static Shock, two recent black superhero titles, were recently canceled in the wake of the New 52 relaunch of its line from DC Comics. Static Shock was originally part of Milestone Media, a 1990s attempt by the late Dwyane McDuffie and others to create a line of multiracial superheroes who existed in an alternate universe but crossed over to the traditional DC Universe.

The Black Panther, who again got his name on a masthead, had a solid run as the replacement for a recovering Daredevil as the protector of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. But, despite decent sales and positive fan response, that title also got the ax. Why? That’s a good question. It’s hard to answer, though, because matters of black-and-white standards are almost always answered in shades of gray.

In 2006, the Black Panther married Storm of the X-Men. (Marvel)

Gone are the days when every African-American hero needed the word “Black” in their name (why limit the mandatory skin-color identification? Ladies and gentlemen, meet White Flash, Magenta Sinestro and Green Hulk). But when curious fans and frustrated creators ask why comic book titles are dominated by white characters, they get the oft-repeated industry line: Books with a person of color at the center of their mythology are seen as tailored only to readers who fall into the same race or heritage. That despite the fact that, in most superhero comics, race plays little or no factor in the stories.

Do white audiences only want white heroes? Will Smith is arguably the biggest movie star in the world,  and it’s pretty safe to say that it’s not just black folks paying good money to see him play the hero in “Hancock” or “Men in Black 3.” But he no doubt is seen by the studios as the exception to the rule. After all, Luke Cage and Black Panther film projects have been bandied about for years and but have yet to get off the ground.

Maybe superhero comics aren’t as removed from reality as we’d like to believe. There is one big difference, though. There’s usually somebody flying in to save the day when it comes to the black-and-white problems in the colorful world of comics.

— Gary Phillips

Gary Phillips’ latest book is a new edition of “Monkology: 15 Stories from the World of Private Eye Ivan Monk” (A Barnacle Book) and “The Rinse,” a graphic novel from Boom! Studios.


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