Sunday, February 27, 2011

Diversity in Comics: Adventure Comics 411 - "The Alien Among Us"

From the era of the misleading cover, the scene depicted here on Adventure Comics 411 (October 1971) doesn't occur in the actual story inside. Nevertheless it does accurately hint at the inclusion of an African American character, in this case a little boy. The story begins with Linda Danvers working at her TV station job, where she has an evil co-worker bent on exposing her secret identity of Supergirl. When Linda makes excuses to leave and investigate reports of an alien sighting, her enemy plans to follow her, but someone else delays the party-pooper on purpose - looks like a couple of people in the office know Linda is Supergirl.

The first African American character encountered in the story is, however, not the little boy, but a stereotypical street thug. At least he's part of a mixed race gang. When the police end up having difficulty dealing with the situation, Supergirl has to intervene.

The alien escapes, and Supergirl ends up being blamed by a group of influential local old geezers who haven't subscribed to the Feminist Movement. Talk about male chauvinists!

The next page tries to illustrate the inhumanity of humanity, by referring to persecution of people of difference from a variety of categories. The mob seizes upon anything who violates mainstream norms, accusing anyone different of being the alien.

The alien, meanwhile, is hiding in someone's basement, and he's starving. The little African American boy from the cover encounters him, and provides him with food. In return, when the alien notices the boy has a crippled arm, he heals the boy so that he has full use of his appendage - a miracle to Earth people with their current level of medical knowledge and technology. the boy's father, however, doesn't see the full exchange. he's only concerned about the alien, because of the panic the whole community is in, assuming that he's dangerous. Unknown to his son, the father alerts the authorities as to the alien's whereabouts.

The armed police surround the building, and the alien is told to give himself up and he'll not be harmed. When he does, however, the leading chauvinist from the group of male coordinators of the response orders the tank to open fire and the alien is hit.

Instead of a dangerous monster, the alien was a potential savior. The little boy who knew him for who he really was rushes forward in grief and lamentation. The fallacy of the mindless shoot first ask questions later approach is exposed.

I think the story, written by John Albano, is loosely analogous to the tragic demise of Jesus - the mindless, violent, unthinking rabble seeing difference only in negative terms, seeking to destroy that which steps outside the boundaries of their self-defined normality, even if it is something that not only bears no ill will but instead desires the well-being of its detractors. In that way the story also condemns the majority's tendency to commit violence on people of difference, to almost purposely misunderstand and label difference in negative ways that foster fear, hatred, and aggression. The story also highlights the uncontaminated nature of little children, and by extension, the corruption that society subjects them to as they grow up, perhaps to become one of the mass of bigoted, prejudiced, unfeeling adults that hold sway over the collective world view. It's a story that's been told before in comics, and probably one that's been borrowed from a 1950s sci-fi movie and given a fresh coat of paint. It's a story that suggests a society that does contain a portion of people who do care, who want things to be different, otherwise how come we have this story? I'd be asking whether we still have much of that in us today.

Nice art by Bob Oksner, whose work tended not to be on superhero books (see Binky, Buzzy, Bob Hope, Jerry Lewis, Angel and the Ape, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Miss Beverly Hills, etc. for DC, Terry Vance in Marvel Mystery Comics for Timely in the 1940s - heck, Bob's portfolio goes on and on - he's a major, major comic book artist!). Bob's very bare-legged version of Supergirl would have an unannounced costume change in the next issue, with those shapely gams covered over completely - from one extreme to the other!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Early Black Comic Book Heroes: Mal Duncan (4/4)

Teen Titans (1st series) resumed publication in November 1976 with issue 44 (cover by Ernie Chan & Vince Colletta), the revival lasting only 10 issues, with cancellation coming after issue 53. The greater struggle of these issues to re-establish the title is reflected in Mal Duncan's equally tortuous battle to carve out a super hero identity. Teen Titans 44 ("The Man Who Toppled the Titans" by Paul Levitz & Bob Rozakis, art by Pablo Marcos) begins with the Titans summoned by Mal Duncan in response to an emergency message. There's some bitterness on Mal's part, as the Titans haven't bothered to keep in touch with him while their team activities were suspended. Mr. Jupiter is no longer part of the picture. As the Titans realize they've all been lured into a trap, the architect of that trap, Dr. Light, appears on the scene.

Dr. Light kidnaps the Titans one by one, until only Mal is left. He doesn't bother to capture Mal, thinking him beneath concern.

Mal laments his lack of super powers. Going through stuff stashed at the Titans' HQ, he comes across the costume of The Guardian, and a captured exoskeleton. Combining the two, he gives himself a superhero identity - the new Guardian, with enhanced strength. He then uses a rocket ship to get to the JLA satellite in orbit above Earth, where he hopes to get some help.

It just so happens that Dr. Light's plan includes taking over the JLA satellite. He's there ahead of Mal, and subdues the Flash. Light then brings the captive Titans to the satellite. This is the situation Mal (now The Guardian) finds when he docks with the satellite. Dr. Light ends up ruing his earlier decision to ignore Mal.

Teen Titans 45 (by Bob Rozakis, art by Irv Novick & Vince Colletta) begins where 44 left off, only Mal is quickly unsettled by Speedy's dig at his lack of super powers. Strange, because both Robin and Speedy don't really possess super powers either, although they do have established costumes and superhero identities that are their own. This is a sensitive issue for Mal, as it has been ever since his introduction into the series. As a results of the jibes, Mal seems to abandon the Guardian identity he adopted in the battle with Dr. Light.

The story in issue 45, "You Can't Say No to the Angel of Death (Or Can You?)" features a Gotham street gang from the past, bent on thwarting developers intent on bulldozing their home turf. Mal now has a girlfriend, Karen Beecher, who tries to calm Mal when he vents his frustrations over the phone. Mal leaves the phone booth still fuming, and blunders into a bomb explosion caused by the street gang. This seems to be Mal's moment of death, and Azrael, the Angel of Death, appears, ready to take him to the beyond. Mal's determination to remain in his Earthly existence results in Azrael offering him the opportunity to fight him for his life.

Mal goes the round with Azrael and wins the bout. Azrael doesn't like that Mal beat him, so he adds a condition to Mal's continued life on Earth - if he's defeated in a single battle, he's dead. The referee of the bout, the angel Gabriel, balances things by giving Mal his mystic ram's horn, which when blown will even the odds if Mal's in a fight.

It turns out that this horn will summon the Titans to Mal's aid. Mal explains what he's learned about the gang that's bent on destruction.

One group of Titans exits to the Wayne Foundation to prevent an explosion there, while Mal's group seeks the street gang's base in Clemont street.

So Gabriel's Horn seems to have taken Mal's identity off in another direction. By issue 49 ("Raid of the Rocket Rollers", Aug 1977, by Bob Rozakis, with art by Jose Delbo & Vince Colletta), we find that Karen Beecher has made herself into Bumblebee, a new African American DC heroine. Mal gets a new costume designed by a reader, and becomes Hornblower.

By the end of the issue, Mal has resumed his Guardian identity, partly because his horn is now missing, taken by somebody he knows not who. For now he keeps that bit of info to himself, and rationalizes his decision to the Titans by explaining that the public knows that Mal Duncan is Hornblower, and so he'll have to retire that identity.

Issue 50, "The Coast to Coast Calamities" (Oct 1977, script by Bob Rozakis, art by Don Heck with Joe Giella inks) picks up where 49 left off, but we don't get to find out what happened to the Horn. Guardian and Bumblebee work together as partners within the Titans team, as they go to face Captain Calamity.

Issue 51 concludes the battle with Captain Calamity, in which the shield-slinging Guardian and the buzzing Bumblebee play their part. By now Bob Rozakis seems to have gone as far as he is able with the characters of Guardian and Bumblebee (art is again by Don Heck, this time with Frank Chiaramonte inks).

The character of Mal Duncan started with some potential, but this seemed to fizzle out with the change of writers working on the Teen Titans series following his introduction. What happened to his kid sister? What about his parents? What do we know, after 25 issues, about this hero?

We know he grew up in a lower-socioeconomic, deprived inner city environment. He's grown up subjected to racial harassment, and sometimes, as a result, expects discrimination even where none exists. He's had to do a lot of fending for himself. He feels inadequate as a Titan because he possesses no super powers. This constant theme of feeling like he has to prove himself perhaps reflects a real societal phenomenon, of African Americans sometimes (as a result of institutional and individual racism) being obliged to prove themselves in situations in which, if they were white, their competence might be assumed. And maybe even then not be accepted on equal terms. If Bob Kanigher, who created the character, had continued to write Teen Titans, then it might be possible to say for sure that this is the message here. While Bob Haney was writing the Titans, the character did develop. After the cancellation, the revival issues had more superficial plots, and I'm not at all surprised that the series was canceled again, with Mal Duncan going round in circles in an identity crisis, nowhere at all really. The original Teen Titans concept had been exhausted of potential overall, and it would take George Perez to breathe new life into it a few years later.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Early Black Comic Book Heroes: Mal Duncan (3/4)

In that early 70s transition period when DC were preparing to move from a 15c to 20c cover price, there's that spell where readers were treated to giant size 25c issues that also sported covers with a new look. Teen Titans 35 is one of those, and typically for the few issues around this point in the series, contains a story about an individual Teen Titan. In this case it's Mal Duncan, in "A Titan is Born" (Sept-Oct 1971). With art by George Tuska and Nick Cardy, this 7 page short story by Bob Haney has Mal faced by the escape from limbo of Dr. Victor Heller, alias Gargoyle. As we'd learned from Mal's previous appearances in the comic, he didn't feel completely ready to take on the mantle of being a Titan, but after successfully dealing with this threat, he experiences a kind of coming of age that boosts his self-efficacy and helps him accept his membership of the group. Note the stereotypical reference to limbo dancing, an Afro-Caribbean cultural item, which Mal appears to be preserving as part of his heritage. Unless his family moved to the USA from Trinidad or one of the other Caribbean nations, this makes little sense, unless he considers it part of a much broader African expression of culture.

The next detailed coverage of Mal as a character comes in Teen Titans 38 ("Through These Doors Pass the Bravest Titans of Them All", March-April 1972, art by Tuska and Cardy, story by Bob Haney), which features Wonder Girl, Robin, Mal, and Lilith, and involves Mr. Jupiter's version of a hypnotherapy session. Disguised as a balloon seller, he induces a hallucinatory 'trip' in the minds of Donna, Dick, and Mal, in which they confront their secret fears. In Mal's case he suffers from a kind of agoraphobia, that originated in his childhood when he was chased and beaten up by a white gang in an open space in the city where buildings had been demolished. I have to say that some of these panels have a very Colanesque feel to them. It's almost as if the combination of Tuska and Cardy looks like what I imagine Gene Colan inked by Murphy Anderson would look like.

Similar stuff happens to Robin and Wonder Girl, and they all meet up back at Mr. Jupiter's lab, looking for answers.

Jupiter reveals that he was the balloon seller, and this whole thing was his way of helping the Titans overcome their fears.

Teen Titans 41 again features Mal prominently, in a ghost story, "What Lies in Litchburg Graveyard" (Sept-Oct 1972), that takes readers back to the terrible days of slavery. Art is by Art Saaf and Nick Cardy, with story again penned by Bob Haney. What Mr. Jupiter had failed to tell the Titans until now was that he had an African American aunt, who was born in slavery, escaping north with her father on the Underground Railroad. Jupiter's aunt Hattie is very old and dying, so he's taken some of the Titans with him to visit her for the last time at the family home.

I'm unable to find any academic reference to 'moojum dolls', so it may have been something concocted for this story by Bob Haney. It could be a combination of something like a voodoo doll and a Hopi kachina doll. Thanks to stereotyping in the Judeo-Christian majority world view in America, Africans have been associated with superstitious following of pagan belief systems, and those belief systems themselves have been stereotyped in a derisive manner. So there's the danger of a bit of negative stereotyping creeping into this story, unless we can give equal respect to traditional African/Native American world views, which actually seems to be the tack taken by Haney. On the other hand, there's the assumption that all slaves brought from Africa followed traditional African belief systems, but of course vast numbers of the people brought against their will from Africa were Muslims. Anyway, back to the story, and Mal being haunted by the ghost of the slave catcher who was chasing Jupiter's aunt's father, Ned Jackson, back in the day, but was killed, we discover, by the moojum doll given to Hattie by a shaman when she was a little girl. The ghost thinks Mal is Hattie's father, due to the uncanny resemblance between the two. Hattie knew that the only way to put the ghost to rest once and for all was for him to re-experience his death at the hands of the moojum. First the ghost attacks Mal in his sleep...

...but then there's a running battle in the world of the living, which ends with the moojum doll intervening and taking the slave catcher's ghost to his final demise.

The first series of Teen Titans was approaching a hiatus, with issue 43 being the last before a break of nearly 4 years. Teen Titans returned to publication in December of 1976, still with Mal Duncan, and as we shall see in the fourth and final post in this series about Mal Duncan on Out Of This World, there were efforts to make his identity a little more 'super'.


The recent and untimely passing away of African American comic writer, Dwayne McDuffie, has been covered by a couple of blogs that I follow, and you can read about him here:

Has Boobs, Reads Comics
Black Superhero Fan
The Comic Book Catacombs

And for the remains of Dwayne's own website and Facebook page: