Thursday, March 17, 2011

Early Black Comic Book Heroes: Butterfly (I)

Hell-Rider was a black and white magazine published by Skywald (Sol Brodsky and Herschel Waldman) in the early 1970s, and it ran for just two issues, thanks to brutal competition from Marvel. Issue #1 features the origin of Hell-Rider, by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito, and the way the book is put together is interesting as a concept. There are two other features in the book - The Butterfly, and The Wild Bunch - but rather than be separate entities, their stories are part of the bigger Hell-Rider story.The book has a painted cover by Harry Rosenbaum.

We're going to pick up the story at the Butterfly chapter, because she happens to be the first African American female superhero in comics, that little piece of important comic book historical knowledge courtesy of fellow blogger Britt Reid. So far in the story we've been treated to Hell-Rider's origin, and introduced to the bad guys, a bunch of heroin smugglers dressed up as cats. Gary Friedrich's involvement in this script, and subsequently in the creation of Ghost Rider at Marvel, is no coincidence - there are a lot of similarities. Anyway, the story so far is that Brick Reese, upon graduating Harvard Law School, doesn't want to follow his dad's footsteps into his law firm. Instead he goes out to the West Coast, and starts riding with a gang of Hell's Angels known as The Wild Bunch, living a debauched lifestyle. Then he gets called up, and ships out to Vietnam. His tour of duty is just about over when he's caught in an ambush and badly wounded. He recovers after surgery, but still has a bullet lodged near his brain. He agrees to be a guinea pig for a new shot that it is hoped will dissolve the bullet, and it's working, only the side effects are similar to the super-soldier serum used on Steve Rogers to turn him into Captain America. Brick has superhuman strength. Back in the States he gets a call from his Uncle Richard, telling him he's inherited some dough from his grandfather. Brick buys himself a nice home and throws a lot of parties. He also gets himself a cool Harley chopper. But boredom, and dwindling financial resources, prompt Brick to get a job with his uncle's law firm. He's just started when this happens:

Brick goes to the party, wary of Julie Storm's previous addiction to hard drugs. He keeps an eye on her, and notices her being bundled away by a guy dressed in a cat suit. It turns out that the boss of the cat gang, The Claw, wants to see her. He was the one who pushed the heavy drugs onto her in the first place, but although he's not pleased that she's managed to kick her smack habit, what he really wants are the boots she wears on her performances. For some reason he's hidden lots of heroin in those boots, and he wants it back!! Julie's happy to give him the boots, except she already gave them away to a singer friend of hers, Marian Michaels, who works in Las Vegas, which is where The Butterfly comes in. You'll note that she combines the use of an Adam Strange-style jet pack with sucker-tipped fingers like the Beetle, as well as the power to use blinding light that preempts the eventual appearance of the Dazzler in the X-Men years later:

So this leads the reader into The Wild Bunch chapter of the story. The Wild Bunch has an African American member, Deke:

Without really asking any questions, The Wild Bunch accept the task of taking the boots to Brick Reese in LA, but on the road they begin to have doubts.

The Wild Bunch stop to talk, and right then The Claw and his goons speed past in a limo. The Claw spots the boots on the back of a bike, pulls up, and sets his men loose to recover the drugs. The Wild Bunch win the fight, but while they're engaged in the melee, the Claw swipes the boots and escapes, leaving his men behind. Cut to Vegas and Marian, alias Butterfly, along with Ruby of The Wild Bunch:

Meanwhile the Wild Bunch catch up with The Claw and retrieve the boots, but are then outnumbered by The Claw's reinforcements, parachuting in from choppers. Slink, however, escapes with the boots, and makes it to Vegas and to Marian and Ruby's room. The rest of the Wild Bunch are tied to stakes in the desert and left to die. In Vegas Ruby examines the boots, discovers the heroin, and they put in a call to Brick:

It turns out, meanwhile, that The Claw and his men have some kind of fascist commune out in the desert, and they're funding the build up of a private army by selling drugs. The Wild Bunch manage to escape to freedom, jumping a chasm on their bikes (this was in the age of Evel Knievel!). Claw, however, had already flown off in his chopper to get the boots from Slink and the girls in Vegas. He gets there, but Ruby and the others stall him, in the hope that Brick will arrive in time to help. Brick is on his way okay, as Hell-Rider. The story actually started with this great double-paged splash...

...which is reprised by another spectacular entrance from Hell-Rider:

And so it's all over, for now, until the next, and what turns out to be the last issue. Here's some background on the book that was printed at the beginning of the magazine, and also some biographic info on Andru & Esposito.

In the next Out Of This World post, we'll take a look at the second issue of Hell-Rider, and The Butterfly's part in that. We'll also attempt to analyze the image presented by Marian Michaels, alias The Butterfly, the first female African American super-heroine. Thanks to Jodyanimator for the scans.


  1. BTW, note Marian (not in her Butterfly costume) and the Wild Bunch's Ruby in the background on the cover! ;-)
    When you do the second Butterfly story, you might want to link to where artist Rich Buckler talks about the problems doing a strip featuring Black characters...

  2. Thanks again for this info. That interview is a crucial reference. Your help is much appreciated!