Just Kickin’ It On Vathlo Island.

Nai and Ta-Nehisi have both smartly weighed in on the racial politics of the new X-men movie, so bear with me if your all race-and-comics’d out.

The comics book industry has always been dominated by white male artists and scribes, which makes it sorta unsurprising that the avatars for their power fantasies have historically been fictional white dudes. I wrote about this in a recent piece over at The American Prospect about how superhero comics have handled race, in regards to the the new Green Lantern movie (which opened today to generally terrible reviews) and the forthcoming Captain America.* The creation of Green Lantern is emblematic of the institutional racial myopia of the big comics companies. The Green Lantern ring picks its next wielder — who must be the most courageous person on the planet — and it passes over a bunch of white American dudes (Superman and Batman, who are already otherwise superheroically engaged) before deciding on …a white American dude, a test pilot named Hal Jordan.

But [Neal] Adams drew and submitted an installment of a syndicated comic strip featuring a black doctor and a white ambulance driver in one panel. When he later saw proofs of the strip, he realized that higher-ups had switched the characters’ heads. The higher-ups told him audiences would be confused by a black doctor.

When Adams got to DC Comics, where he worked on the Green Lantern in the early 1970s, he started to push back. “I asked [my editor] what happens if Hal Jordan gets killed,” Adams says. “They tell me they have a backup.” That backup turned out to be a blond gym teacher from the Midwest.

Adams, however, thought that the secondary Green Lantern should be black. So, with his editor’s approval, he and writer Dennis O’Neil created John Stewart, a black architect who would later become the main Green Lantern. (In the early drafts, Adams says, an editor wanted to name the character Lincoln Washington; Adams talked him out of it.) “I’m very proud of that,” he says. “I’m glad that [my editor] was open to it and malleable. But it did have to be explained to him.”

Of course, whiteness isn’t just the default on Earth. The Kryptonian Kal-El rockets across the cosmos in a ship to crash land in Kansas, and just happens to look just like a blue-eyed white toddler. Serendipity! (Luckily for black folks, Dwayne Wayne checked him on his privilege.) I jokingly asked David Brothers of the popular comics blog, the4thletter, whether there were any Negroes on Superman’s doomed home planet. It turns out that there were; DC tried to address  the issue of race on Krypton — and implicitly, Superman’s whiteness — by coming up with “Vathlo Island.”

“Way back in the ‘70s, Vathlo Island was introduced to Superman’s history,” says David Brothers, who runs the popular comics blog 4thletter. That storyline referenced an island that was home to “a highly advanced black race”—who presumably chose to self-segregate. “I’m sure ’they were really smart and a credit to their race,’” says Brothers, “but you know, hindsight makes even well-meaning attempts look pretty bad.”

It’s worth noting that the late, great Dwayne McDuffie‘s comic imprint, Milestone, which focused largely on superheroes of color, had its own Superman-like chararacter, Icon. That character belonged to a race of aliens whose appearance defaulted to mimic those of the inhabitants they first encounter on a planet. For Icon, that was a black slave woman in the American South, which is how he became black. That’s much better than having him be from a race of cosmic Negroes, for sure. (But that doesn’t quite explain why Icon was a dude. Or be heterosexual. Or…)

*A lot of the piece deals with the depressing miniseries, The Truth, which posits that the government’s attempts to recreate the super soldier serum that gave Captain America his abilities played out on some Tuskegee Experiment steez: during World War II, unwitting black soldiers were used as guinea pigs for macabre experimentation; only five of the hundreds of test subjects survive. Robert Morales, the series’s writer, recently shared his original scripts with BlackSuperheroDoc.com.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • I am outing myself as a former Arabfro-rocking glasses-wearing-comic nerd here but…ahem:

    Vathlo wasn’t the only Island of highly advanced self-segregating black folks in the 70’s DC universe. Tyroc–the first black member of the Legion of Superheroes (which takes place in the 30th century) came from Marzal, an island off the coast of Africa that existed in a different dimension–that lined up with “our” reality every so often, like Brigadoon. I think they were supposed to be descended from slaves (?) who developed an advanced civilization in the absence of Europeans… and a massive distrust of white people.

    I don’t know which came first but (like Vathlo) Marzal was introduced to “explain” the absence of super-Black people in a comic universe that was created to be lily-white… Although it is worth mentioning that Jim Shooter, who wrote the Legion comics in the 60s wanted to introduce Black characters then but was prevented from doing so by the company.

    • That’s bananas. I wish I knew about this when I was reporting on this.

      Are there any characters in the current continuity who harken from Marzal?

  • @G.D.
    I have no idea, my Legion of Superheroes days are long behind me–anyone?

    According to Wikipedia “Mal Duncan” was introduced in 1970 as a friend to the Teen Titans but he didn’t get superpowers until ’76. “John Stewart” was introduced in 1971 but he only appeared sporadically in Green Lantern until the early 80’s. And “Black Lightning” wasn’t introduced until 1977.
    … That’s a pretty long time after the Civil Rights movement to deal so awkwardly with race, no?

    Not for nothing but I’d love to read a comprehensive history of PoC heroes at DC, whose comics I loved as a kid but which were whiter than pancakes for dinner.

  • Ike Moses

    I want to name my first born, son or daughter, Lincoln Washington.

  • cocolamala

    What are the odds that African-American Angel is going to join hands with a former Nazi and be persuaded by his arguments against humans oppressing the mutant population. I think she would hesitate given the knowledge that as a Nazi he would have killed her and her entire family without a second thought during WWII. Secondly, although it makes sense that Shaw would pick the blonde-blue eyed Frost to be his girlfriend, but what made the ex-Nazi would appeal to visibly non-white Angel as his future Queen? that sounds really unlikely coming from the mouth of a character who killed people in pursuit of an Aryan racial standard.

  • cocolamala

    I mean, Magneto isn’t the only X-Man who would have hated Shaw for practicing racial genocide.