If there is anything that the past few weeks have taught us about our country, it’s that there is no individual, entity, or organization that shouldn’t be taking a long, hard look in the mirror at their past (and present) to determine what biases did and do exist. Everything from governmental departments, the military, companies, nonprofits, universities, and countless other aspects of our daily lives are under the microscope as they are finally reckoning with their past actions and current reactions.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the comic book industry is not immune to this self-examination. Let’s explore some comics with seemingly racist overtones and discuss what should be done with them.
More recently than any of us probably care to admit, comics were a breeding ground for stereotyping, whitewashing, and generally stomping out the idea that people are equals – even as some of them have powers beyond our imaginations. For an industry that has existed in this country for more than 100 years, you can only imagine what types of content exist.
How Should Comic Collectors Respond to Racist Comics?
As responsible comic book collectors, investors, and speculators, it should be up to us to help repair (not erase) that part of this hobby and make it clear that we don’t stand for that type of treatment of characters within the pages of our favorite books.
With that in mind, I want to point out some of the more egregious and prevalent comics from our past with an eye towards removing these symbols of ass-backward thinking from current and future comic book lovers. Many of these are going for a decent amount, although I would not consider any of these books as major keys.
I am decidedly not a book-burning advocate. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and I understand the dangers of censorship. But I personally feel strongly that we should be removing these symbols of racist comics from our collections. Do they represent a different time, a part of our past that was culturally different? Yes. But in 2020, they likely belong in the trash, not praised.
Racist Comics From the Past
While some of these offenses show up in single issues, several also span the entire series. The following are merely a sample of the comics that fit this description.
The Depiction of Black Sidekicks in Young Allies and Captain Marvel
It won’t surprise you to learn the 1940s and 1950 were not a time that was generally kind to African-Americans in print. Exhibits 1A and 1B would be the Bucky Barnes’ led group Young Allies and Captain Marvel’s run, both published at the height of World War II. I suppose the publishers at the time thought these were redeemable and acceptable characters because they were fighting the evil Nazis, but in hindsight, they ended up being racist caricatures that were all too common in those years.
Bucky’s ally, Whitewash Jones, not only had a superficially racist name but was drawn in a way that made him look more creature than an animal. He was sloppily dressed and had a protruding mouth and lips, he spoke broken English and was generally represented as a simpleton. Whitewash was often a device that forced Bucky to have to overcome additional obstacles instead of just assisting in the fight against the Germans. Marvel would later denounce the whole series, but it doesn’t wash the pages clean of this ugly representation.
Elsewhere in the industry, the early Captain Marvel had a sidekick named Steamboat. “Sidekick” may be too generous of a term because he essentially served as Captain Marvel’s de facto servant until 1945 when, on appeal from school children, the character was no longer used. Whatever awful features were used to depict Whitewash Jones were amplified with Steamboat, and he carried himself with the same poor English and bumbling persona as his Young Allies counterpart. To say these depictions of black characters were uncommon at this time would be a lie, and it is useful to understand that while we were fighting injustice and oppression on one side of the world, we were buying it up left and right on our own soil.
I use these two examples as representative of a larger problem that existed in that timeframe. Whether it was these two derogatory sidekicks, Batman frequently calling Asian foes “Chinamen”, Captain America battling “yellow” Asian foes,, Green Lantern’s Eskimo pal “Pieface”, or Superman and Jimmy Olsen working alongside red-skinned Native Americans, this period of comic history has more than its share of repulsive images.
Black Goliath – Power Man #24
The comic industry, unfortunately, has a long history of labeling African-American superheroes as “Black” Something. Familiar names such as Black Panther, Black Lightning, and Black Racer come to mind immediately, but Black Goliath, introduced by Marvel in 1975, is a particularly interesting case study.
William Foster was born and raised in the ghetto of Watts in Los Angeles (stop me if you’ve heard this stereotype before). Marvel deserves credit for giving Foster unbelievable intelligence which allowed him to attend the California Institute of Technology and become a lab assistant for Hank Pym. After years of working with Pym, Foster decided to try the Pym Particles on himself, enlarging his stature to 10 feet. With Pym’s blessing, Foster takes on the moniker of Black Goliath and works his way to a life of crime-fighting. Before this happens, however, he does end up as a circus sideshow for the Circus of Crime for a period of time. Why? I don’t have a clue.
It’s interesting why Marvel and Hank Pym – who had given up the Giant-Man/Goliath moniker – didn’t just give Foster the Goliath name outright. That didn’t happen until four years later in 1979 when he would change to Giant-Man in Marvel Two-In-One #55. So for as much credit as organizations like Marvel and DC should receive for introducing strong black characters like Falcon and John Stewart’s Green Lantern, we shouldn’t forget that these publishing houses still found it necessary to give these characters the “Black” description, a label never given to any white heroes, as far as I can tell.
Sam Wilson as a Mobster – Captain America #186
Unfortunately, Falcon’s story across the 1970s wasn’t all that Stan Lee originally planned for it to be. In Captain America #186, Marvel essentially rewrote Wilson’s backstory, giving it a much darker influence. Wilson was originally described as a hard-working social worker from Harlem whose parents had been murdered and who had turned to birds as a passion and a hobby. His original backstory had his crash on a remote island while on a work assignment, where he was subsequently trapped by Red Skull. Eventually, with the help of Captain America and Black Panther, Wilson was able to escape and adopt the mantle of Falcon (and eventually Captain America).
But in the mid-1970s Marvel decided to redo that story and make Wilson a mobster who moved to Los Angeles from Harlem. Giving him stereotypical pimp outfits, this issue tried to recreate a character’s whole story, but a combination of backlash and common sense led to a retcon of this story as merely something Red Skull planted in Wilson’s brain to try and manipulate him.
It’s difficult for me in 2020 to try and justify a reason why this would be necessary for a popular character, especially one who helped usher in a strong decade of black heroes, but sometimes implicit biases and stereotypes creep in – no matter how hard we try – and we get stories where an upstanding black hero is reduced to a criminal.
Lois Lane is Black For a Day – Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane #106
As you can probably tell, the 1970s were not a kind decade to the idea of progress in the comic industry. For every step forward there seemed to be two steps back. But sometimes those were leaps back instead of steps, as in the story-line in this issue where Lois Lane – with Superman’s help – changes from white to black for a day to write a story where she can better understand what it meant to be black in the “Little Africa” part of Metropolis.
As a black woman, Lois encounters many hardships. She can’t catch a cab, for example, and is taught what she feels are valuable lessons about the differences between people of different races.
Where the story falls flat and proved so controversial is that it grossly underestimates what it means to live a life as black. Lois Lane can’t come close to comprehending what it is like after only a day or two, so while the creators meant well, it came off as lacking empathy and trying to whitewash a problem.
What Should We Do With Racist Comics Now?
For starters, we could all go full Michael Corleone and renounce these comics and images for what they are: racism. While it is helpful to understand how far we have come, we must not forget how far there still is to go. Your money is better spent on stronger, more well-rounded minority characters than these depictions of past stereotypes.
Here’s hoping you will join me in purging our collections of a dark part of our country’s past. What are you doing with these and other similar comics? Let me know in the comments.
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