Superheroes solve problems by hitting them very hard. This strategy works will enough when they’re fighting mad scientists, robots, or radioactive dinosaurs, but it doesn’t seem particularly well-suited for persistent social ills like racism. How are superheroes supposed to deal with a problem that has no specific face to punch? The answer, of course, is to give racism a face.
By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement had gained a great deal of political and social influence, but racism was still widespread. With so much national attention focused on race relations, it was only a matter of time before Marvel attempted to address the issue within the pages of its superhero books. Marvel had prided itself on publishing the superhero stories of “our” universe, completely unlike the silly, fantastical universe of DC Comics. And since many of the staffers and creators at Marvel were Jewish guys from New York City, it’s not surprising that they were firmly in favor of racial equality.
The first Marvel comic that specifically dealt with racism was Fantastic Four #21 (1963). Co-written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, this story pitted the FF against the ruthless Hate-Monger!
It’s not a bad costume for a racist: there’s the KKK pointed hood, some chain-mail (racists love references to the Teutonic Knights), a torch for lighting crosses, and a gun for shooting minorities. All set! The story begins with the FF up to their usual hijinks, but their fun is interrupted by the Thing who’s pissed that a mysterious figure known as the Hate-Monger is stirring up racial tension in New York City. Invisible Girl doesn’t think the FF should get involved because she’s a selfish jerk who’s never heard of Martin Niemöller. But she gets overruled by the boys and off they go to confront the Hate-Monger, currently mongering hate in Manhattan.
Marvel dealt with the issue of race relations again in Avengers #32-33 (1966), by Stan Lee and Don Heck. The story begins with a hate group called the Sons of the Serpent, an obvious send-up of the KKK, viciously attacking a foreigner in a dark alley. And because I read Fantastic Four #21 first, I know that this man is a foreigner because he wears a tacky suit.
After sending Bill Foster home, Goliath meets up with the Avengers and they decide to investigate the Sons. At the same time, the sinister General Chen from an unnamed country that’s clearly China is arriving in New York, where he plans to give a speech at the United Nations. Issue 32 wraps up with Captain America captured by the Sons of the Serpent.
On a side note, some of you may have heard of a certain comics blogger, who shall go unnamed, with this crazy notion that old superhero comics were kinda queer. But I dare him to find anything homoerotic about the opening splash page of Avengers #33!
Okay, so maybe Captain America is pinned spread-eagle against a wall while a serpent-themed villain gloats with orgasmic glee while holding a phallic-shaped object. But other than that, where’s the gay?
With Cap as a hostage, the Sons of the Serpent plan to force the Avengers to speak out in their favor, knowing that the fickle public will immediately do whatever C-list heroes tell them to do. Meanwhile, the inscrutable General Chen plans to use the activities of the Sons to discredit the United States at the UN.
Note that the American diplomats are not so much concerned with the actual crimes of the Sons as they are with the fact that the crimes make the U.S. look bad to the rest of the world (over a decade earlier, the Justice Department expressed similar worries when it submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court when it was considering Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka. The brief cited a statement by then Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who asserted that racial discrimination “gives unfriendly governments the most effective kind of ammunition for their propaganda warfare, … and jeopardizes the effective maintenance of our moral leadership of the free and democratic nations of the world.)” (The full amicus brief can be found here).
Getting back to the story, Goliath and the Wasp arrive at the big press conference where they’re supposed to offer allegiance to the Sons, but they stall for time while fellow Avenger Hawkeye goes to rescue Captain America. The story gets a bit wonky for a bit, but it eventually ends with the Avengers beating the crap out of the Sons and capturing their leader. And who is the leader of America’s worst hate group? It’s the nefarious General Chen!
After reading these two stories back-to-back, I noticed three common factors in how they approached racial conflict. The first is that they are exclusively concerned with how progressive white men respond to violent racism. After all, both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers are composed entirely of white guys with one token girl apiece. The only notable minority character is Bill Foster, but he’s little more than a Noble Black Men who gets assaulted, thus providing a motive for the Avengers to get involved. The comics also draw an unambiguous distinction between the law-abiding, racially tolerant (white) heroes and the racist villains.
Both stories also portray the source of American racism as foreign. In Fantastic Four, racist violence is sparked by none other than Adolph freakin’ Hitler. In Avengers, a general from Red China foments racism to make America look bad. This leads naturally to the conclusion that racism itself is foreign to America. Now I’m sure that Stan Lee and friends were well aware that racism existed in the U.S. long before Hitler or Red China came along. But it’s not a part of what they portray as the “real” America. To put it differently, as a rule America is tolerant and equal; racism must be an exception to this rule because it’s inherently un-American.
Another factor in both stories is that crowds display racist behavior only after they’ve been influenced by external forces. In Avengers, the Sons of the Serpent attempt to sway the public through a popular superhero team. In Fantastic Four, the external manipulation is technological. There’s an implicit rejection of the argument that racism can arise from ideas held by the majority. Instead, the public in Marvel America is fairly tolerant unless a foreign group manipulates them. This reinforces the idea that racism is alien to American society.
To sum up, these comics create a dichotomy between the majority of white Americans, who are tolerant and law-abiding under normal circumstances, and a minority of violent racists. The white superheroes, in particular, embody the highest values of America. The racists are fringe extremists, linked with hostile nations and totalitarian ideologies.
I think most people would agree that this treatment of racism is simplistic, at best. But the target audience for these books is children, and an argument can certainly be made that concrete examples of heroes beating the crap out of racist villains discourages racism in young, impressionable readers. And if racism really was limited to violent loudmouths, then there would be nothing wrong with these comics at all.
But these comics are problematic exactly because racism is a far more ubiquitous than mob violence and secret societies. Racism is a system that permeates numerous institutions and social structures, and an individual doesn’t necessarily need to have racist attitudes in order to perpetuate racial inequality. Take housing segregation as an example. American neighborhoods remain deeply segregated along racial lines. Yet most white homeowners (and realtors) are not card-carrying members of the KKK. They participate in a system that excludes blacks from white neighborhoods due to indifference rather than hate. And because many whites rarely come into contact with blacks on a regular basis, they aren’t even aware of any racial injustice (check out Noah’s review of “Sundown Towns” for more on this).*
Comics that associates racism exclusively with Nazis or similar extremists while ignoring the far more significant impact of systemic racism are not providing a valuable moral lesson. Rather, they encourage readers to pat their own progressive backs while doing nothing to actually challenge a system that sustains racial inequality. According to these comics, if you condemn hate groups and don’t go around assaulting immigrants, then you’re not a racist. And if you’re not a racist, then somebody else is to blame for the pervasive effects of racism. And when the vast majority of Americans refuse to assume any responsibility for problems like segregated neighborhoods, these problems never get addressed.
Superheroes solve problems by hitting them very hard. But when it comes to racism, Captain America might have to smack around a lot more people than usual. It’s much more comforting to just blame it all on Hitler.
*Thanks to Noah for the links
Update by Noah: You can read the whole roundtable here.