The Avengers battled racism back in 1966!
Comic book readers buy comics for the escapism they provide. Who wouldn’t want to put aside their real-world concerns and fly through the air or swing building to building battling bad guys? But the best creators have the ability to reflect the real world into their fantasy world. These creators can use the comic book medium as a platform to tackle real social issues. Stan Lee created the Sons of the Serpent to bring the battle against racial injustice into the Marvel Universe.
Social Issues in Comic Books
Spider-Man #96, #97 and #98 defied the comics code to publish stories about the dangers of drug abuse. Later that year DC addressed addiction by having Green Arrow’s sidekick, Speedy, battle an addiction problem in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #85 and #86. For years the X-Men was Marvel’s vehicle to deal with racism and bigotry without having to specifically use a character’s race as the issue. Most of the best comic stories through the years have had tie-ins to real-world concerns.
Stan Lee is the undisputed champion of taking on social issues within his comic books. Stan wrote the famous Spider-Man drug abuse stories mentioned above in 1971. However, five years earlier he tackled another big issue in the pages of the Avengers.
The Groundbreaking Bill Foster
Avengers #32 (published in September 1966) saw the first appearance of the Sons of the Serpent. This racist paramilitary group is shown beating up minorities and “foreigners”. With no minorities on the Avengers’ roster, Stan Lee brought in biochemist Bill Foster to assist Hank Pym. Pym and Foster searched for a cure to Pym’s permanent size change to the ten-foot-tall Goliath. Foster became one of the first recurring black characters in comics. Later that issue he is attacked by the Sons of the Serpent simply for being in a neighborhood he was told he did not belong in on his way to the Avengers’ Mansion.
Bill Foster would eventually go on to become Black Goliath in his own series in the 1970s. He quickly changed his name to Giant-Man. This historic character deserved a better fate than the one given to him during the Civil War storyline where he was killed by a clone of Thor.
In 1968 the first black superhero, Black Panther, joined the Avengers in issue #52. He had been introduced two years earlier in Fantastic Four #52. In Avengers #73 the Sons of the Serpent reappeared to target the Panther.
The Sons of the Serpent
While the Sons of the Serpent had access to special weapons and vehicles, it was obvious that this group of normal humans was no match power-wise for the Avengers. I believe that was the point the writers were trying to make. These weren’t genius scientists like those in AIM. They weren’t the fanatical followers seeking world domination that made up Hydra. The Sons of the Serpent were racists. These people could be any of our neighbors or uncles. Their bigoted and racist actions were meant to reflect the civil rights issues our country was facing at that time.
The most disturbing thing about the Sons of the Serpent is the fact that this story appeared in 1966. In comics, everything that happened that long ago requires significant retconning (altering the old story with new information to bring it up to date with current times). The racist Sons of the Serpent stories require no retcon. These groundbreaking comic stories from 54 years ago are sadly as relevant today as they were then. Here, it is not the story that has to change. Our society has to change to make sure that the Sons of the Serpent, and more importantly the people they represent in the real world, become insignificant and can be relegated to Almost Infamous status.