Sunday, February 20, 2011

Early Black Comic Book Heroes: Mal Duncan (1/4)

Mal Duncan (aka the New Guardian, Hornblower) is actually one of DC's earliest black superheroes. Appearing first in Teen Titans (series 1), he joined the group at a point where they had sworn off use of their super powers, after accidentally causing the death of a great social reformer (issue 25). The group takes on secret work under the guidance of the world's richest man, Mr. Jupiter, having to first prove themselves in some tests, which is where the story, "A Penny For a Black Star" (Mar-Apr 1970), in Teen Titans 26, picks up (story by Bob Kanigher, art Nick Cardy). First, a quick summary from issue 27:

The Titans pass the physical, and are then sent to Hell's Corner, a tough inner-city environment, to fend for themselves with just a penny. They use their pennies to buy drinks from a little girl, and in doing so attract the attention of a local street gang, Hell's Hawks, whose turf they have unknowingly blundered into.

The gang starts to rough up the little girl, who happens to be Mal Duncan's younger sister. The Titans, reluctant to break their oath of non-super power use, don't look like they're going to be any help.

Just as well that Mal happens along and jumps in to defend his sister. Seeing him vastly outnumbered, the Titans act, but without going 'super'.

The gang is seen off for now, but Mal is under no illusion that they're finished. He also notices that the Titans don't really have a clue regarding the environment they've wandered into.

Wonder Girl and Lilith do as they've been instructed by Jupiter, and go looking for work, which they find in a local clothing store. The boys end up taking on some youth work.

This brings the Titans back into contact with Mal, who is entered for a boxing match. The Titans first, however, start getting anonymous threats.

In the ring Mal is facing the leader of the evil Hawks gang - it's a real grudge match, which Mal eventually wins. In the changing rooms, after the contest, the gang seeks revenge and has Mal trapped. Now it's the Titans' turn to come to Mal's rescue.

Mal points the Titans in the direction of some evening relaxation, and they insist he accompanies them. Mal is expecting inferior treatment of the kind he's used to receiving from racist whites in his area, and is pleasantly surprised when he is not only accepted as part of the group, but also attracts interest from Lilith. The Titans ask Mal if he'd like to join their secret project, and upon their recommendation, Jupiter puts him through the necessary test.

Mal feels inadequate, like he doesn't deserve to be part of the group, especially since he has no super powers. Although seemingly rather illogical to the reader, Mal figures he can prove his worth by sneaking aboard a one-way rocket trip to Venus, because a live astronaut would be able to increase the scientific results reaped by the mission.

The Titans and Mr. Jupiter are, of course, not going to let Mal sacrifice his life for some data, and so enact a scheme to retrieve him, in issue 27, "Nightmare in Space" (May-June 1970).

The Titans set off on the rescue mission, leaving part of their crew on the Moon, where a whole other adventure, involving some friendly aliens, occurs. Those still in space rendezvous with Mal's Venus probe.

One tricky rescue later, and the command module must now reunite with the group from the lunar surface. All back together, the Titans head for home and more adventures.

Mal became a regular member of the Teen Titans for the remainder of the first series, with some stories featuring him in a minor way, and others focusing wholly or partly on him. The remaining three Out Of This World posts on Mal will cover the main details of his introduction into the DC universe in the early to mid-1970s, with an analysis of the character as he had developed by the final cancellation of the original Teen Titans comic.

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