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.