Monday, May 22, 2017

It's 1970--Can You Dig It?

Avengers #74 capped a two-issue story that saw the return of the Sons of the Serpent to the book, the insidious group of zealots whose mission is to purify the nation by purging it of "the unfit... the foreign-born... the inferior," while carving out a power base for itself (or, more to the point, for its leaders). How the Sons of the Serpent ever gained credibility for the supremacist message that they were pushing is one of the all-time head-shakers in comics lore, as violent as their operations are and as transparent as the group seems to be as a hate group. Dressing and accessorizing your group members in the motif of snakes practically screams "ploy," given that the term "serpent" is often associated with someone who gains your trust only to betray it; and openly basing your name and your mission on the biblical story of Adam and Eve being driven from Eden by "the first serpent" (thus making you the sons of the serpent) seems counter-productive, since there probably aren't many of us who are cheering that serpent for driving us all from paradise.

That said, these were the late '60s/early '70s--and with racism still rearing its ugly head, incredibly, nearly fifty years later, you can imagine how rampant it was when this story was published, and how much it remained a hot-button issue for the Sons of the Serpent to exploit.

The Avengers story gets its momentum from two developments. One is in the form of the inflammatory national broadcasts of rival late-night talk show hosts Montague Hale and Dan Dunn--"rival" in the sense that both have strong but opposing views of equality and civil rights. Hale, having recently lost his sponsors and then his show after having called for an investigation of the Sons of the Serpent and subsequently fallen victim to them in a street attack, begins to appear on Dunn's show to debate the issues. Dunn, for his part, is a known bigot--and so the broadcasts are often fiery with no meeting of the minds, rife with innuendo and barely restrained hostilities.

The other development takes its leaf from the prior clash between the Sons of the Serpent, where Captain America was taken captive and a double took his place and appeared to support their cause. In this new story, it's the Black Panther who's captured while trying to infiltrate the group--and his double begins pulling criminal jobs and appears to have turned militant, forcing the Avengers to step in. Eventually, the Sons will unmask their "double" of the Panther on live television--and his well-rehearsed open support of the Sons, as well as being revealed as both black and guilty of his crimes, is designed to inflame the minds of those in the country who are riveted to these broadcasts.

There's one final similarity which this story shares with the Sons' prior appearance. In that earlier story, the so-called Supreme Serpent was revealed to be a foreign enemy named General Chen, whose goal was to turn Americans against each other; while here, the culprits are unmasked and shockingly revealed to be both Dunn and Hale, who shared the identity of the Supreme Serpent and schemed for power together. Both stories clearly offer words of warning on the dangers of being misled by those who appear to have your best interests at heart but who are only using you as a means to an end--a practice which clearly has survived to this day.

It's a fine sequel by writer Roy Thomas, though it would lead to an unusual addendum a few issues later: a single letter, set aside by Thomas and given the entire space of the letters page which would normally feature a selection of letters submitted by readers on the issue in question.  The letter contains observations on the Sons of the Serpent story by "black writer" Philip Jones (who identifies himself thus) and which you'll find appearing in this post. But in addition, the next issue's letters page was reserved for Thomas's rebuttal to the points Jones raises. To my knowledge, it's the first and only instance of such an occurrence. (Though do fact-check me on that--I seem to recall a letters column being used for a single letter once or twice, though never continued to the next issue's column, reportedly due to the late arrival of Mr. Jones's letter.)

I interject some very brief comments following the points raised by Jones and preceding those of Thomas, who can certainly address Mr. Jones's points without my 2¢ getting in the way. As for the letter itself, it seemed appropriate here to expand on a prior post on the subject and convey Jones's words in the same format that a reader in August of 1970 was presented with them, only with a little digital help from 2017 that first presents the panel(s) that Jones is referring to, with each panel followed by Jones's comments. It would probably be helpful to read the issue in its entirety first, since you'd be getting the whole story rather than carefully selected excerpts that are given their own context courtesy of Jones--but regardless, hopefully you'll find it an interesting glimpse back at this period of time where such thoughts often found their way into the national conversation.

Dear Mr. Lee and Mr. Thomas:
I am a black writer and a long-time reader of your often very sophisticated magazines. The following is a brief criticism of AVENGERS #74:

That's very white of you. This implies that this champion of justice etc. could not be considered as a man if it were known that he was black--that in fact, only if there is a chance that he is white can he be judged as a man. This is to say nothing of the aberration of revolutionary nationalist or cultural nationalist (if there is a distinction) doctrine.

True. But assumes that the judicial system is legitimate, and that an extra-legal element is pulling a fast one on blind justice--utter garbage. The recent conviction of the Chicago Seven and Bobby Seale, not to mention the national repression of the Black Panther Party and the murders of Hampton and Clark, point a damning finger at the system itself, to say the least.

Animalistic poses reminiscent of a Bigger Thomas figure.

They are invisible, in effect, and could be anywhere or anyone, as the climax establishes. They are assumed to be an identifiable minority, which can be rooted out and purged from the national fabric, returning it to its pure whiteness.

Romantic studies of chained black man in the face of a distant, powerful, and hostile technology. A latter-day noble savage.

Implies blackness is criminal. Then what is not criminal--whiteness? But this is what the Supreme Serpent is allegorically guilty of. The remaining alternative is a colorless state--everyone the same drab grey. That's not the human condition, either physically or metaphysically.

Managed media? Are the controllers of information part of the Serpent Conspiracy? Be careful what you say--Julius Hoffman is still on his witch hunt!


Heavy, heavy. One of the best lines in the piece.

Assumes that white America is sitting in patient judgement, waiting to be convinced that black is not what they see it as--criminal violence.

Again you traffic on the myth of America Frontier Justice. HALE=UNCLE TOM (because he is engaged in this ridiculous rhetoric of debate)=AMERICA'S MYTHIC NEGRO (clean, speaks grammarian English, thinks like a white man would imagine he would think if he were black).

Outasight because it is painfully obvious.

Avengers=Platonic Justice. Who watches the watchers?

A necessary question, but implies that the battle will be black vs. white. A narrow analysis of the situation, which is insidious in that it conforms to the power establishment's program for maintaining its white supremacy regime throughout the world by genocide. (Note the "war in Laos.")

Redundant dialog which only duplicates the image, and adds nothing to it. An obligatory statement.

Better, establishes his alienation (Can you dig it?).


Some people haven't partied for a long time as it is. And at the rate people are dying, here and overseas, less people have something to party about every day.

White America's projection of its own value system. The Black Panther is bad. Why? Because he violates property.

True. Also a cringing black man in the face of white virginity (you have a load of material in this issue and in your heads, I'm sure, that could be presented in a powerful way). The woman's image, as with all Marvel women, shows definite symptoms of Vargas Syndrome rampant among the artists.

Good graphic.

Graphic creates an Eastern effect--Yellow Peril.

Misguided rank and file membership. How many defendants at the Nuremberg trials claimed the same out? How many murderers of Vietnamese and Laosian civilians are saying the same thing?


Neatly done. Gives everybody room for comfortable interpretation.


For a professed writer, there's little thought given to this letter by Mr. Jones other than to cherry-pick certain scenes and comment on their relevance to current or past events and ideologies while all but neglecting the context they're given in the story. (What did you think of the story, Mr. Jones?) Whether or not Jones has an axe to grind here is something of a matter of opinion; from my own perspective, he appears to simply play the part of both unsolicited educator and enlightener for Thomas's benefit, as his closing paragraph would indicate:

"Gentlemen, I find your magazines graphically excellent and generally insightful into the human condition. I would like to see you (help you) bust out of your Middle American Myth bag. Explore divergent ideologies and life styles from their perspective. You have the vehicle, and if it is done honestly I don't see how it can do anything but make your readership better informed and conscientious citizens of the Republic."

Jones would go on in his life to amass an extensive résumé in academia, focusing on cinema and video design and communications; but in 1970, he was a young man of 23 who, like some of us, was eager to give his take on the world as he saw it and throw a harsh spotlight on anyone and anything that he felt needed one. In his letter, he's perhaps been too quick to evaluate and form snap judgments, while rejecting the tact and deliberation that would have distinguished his points and might have led to a thoughtful exchange of ideas with not only those he'd written to but other letter writers who might have wanted to offer comment.

As for (at the time) 30-year-old Thomas, this seems a great deal of attention to lavish on a letter which, for the most part, amounts to a reader thinking out loud and sending the resulting talking points to the "Avengers Assemble!" letters page. (Mr. Jones doesn't preface his critique, but simply dives right in.)  It's possible that Thomas has taken exception to Jones's points because of the way Jones used this Avengers story to expose a good deal of hidden subtext he feels is favorable to white America; or perhaps Thomas felt that Jones was simply drawing knee-jerk conclusions to the scenes he cites. We'll hopefully find out more on Thomas's thoughts next, when we take a look at his (nearly) full-page response to Mr. Jones.


George Chambers said...

That cover has zero suspense. "Oh noes! Yellowjacket's going to fall to his death!"

Uhm, Yellowjacket can fly.

Even if YJ's unconscious, Goliath is right there to catch him.

Not one of Marvel's best-ever covers.

Comicsfan said...

I hear you, George--except I was thinking more along the lines of "Great cover--terrible captions!"

"Help! Police! Police!! No... never mind! It's--too late!" Yeah, it's too late, because that long arm of Goliath's could have already grabbed him! What else is he going to do--just gasp while YJ plummets? (And what's our panicked civilian doing, yelling into his phone for the police? Doesn't he already have them on the line?)

Anonymous said...

I'll admit, I guess I'd be wondering why they finally introduce a black superhero and then keep his face covered up, but I don't think it was necessarily for any nefarious reasons. I would hope not. In the Panther's first appearance, he was depicted as a bit of a scary character, a hunter in the shadows. The readers weren't sure whether he would be a hero or a villain until they got to a certain point in the story. So a dark, eerie costume with a full mask makes some sense from that perspective, anyway. I think Roy Thomas was aware of a problem and did address it here, or tried to anyway.
I'm glad though, that neither the Falcon or Luke Cage had full masks or the word "black" in their names.


Comicsfan said...

M.P., you make some good observations. I think that Lee and Kirby might have covered the Panther from head to toe so that he would be more provocative to readers as a mysterious and possibly menacing new character (their original concept for him as "the Coal Tiger," which had him dressed in bright colors and revealed his face, apparently rejected). Only when his identity was established did they decide to bring him full circle, unmasking him and providing him with an extensive introduction that established his wealth and intellect. Thomas appeared to want to give T'challa more exposure in a literal sense by only having him only partially masked when he first joined the Avengers, though later doing an about-face (so to speak) with the look only lasting a few issues. The same brevity was applied to "the Black Leopard," a change of name to avoid political connotations with the Black Panther group but which, in hindsight, makes you wonder if Thomas might have had Jones's points on his mind from two years prior.

Anonymous said...

I only own two pieces of original comic art. One is a Conan page by Gil Kane and Neal Adams and the other is that page with Black Panther shouting "I Shall Be Free!" I always loved that Black Panther improved on Batman's mask by covering his entire face. He's still the only great black superhero.