HOW AN UNDERGROUND NEWSPAPER CHANGED MARVEL COMICS (part 1 of 4)
The following essay, by D.A. Latimer, appeared in the East Village Other in March, 1969.
Comics make a lot of money, they sell better than the Reader’s Digest, the Daily News, and Fiery Crashes Monthly put together. They have to make this kind of money, or else it wouldn’t be worthwhile publishing them at all—from the publisher’s standpoint, anyway. The trouble is, for the last fifteen years or so, they just haven’t been worth publishing from the reader’s standpoint. You see, back in the mid-fifties sometime, this very perverted cat named Dr. Frederic Wertham published one of the all-time great works of erotic fiction, under the guise of critical comment of comic books: he called it—now sit tight, fellow pedophiles—Seduction of the Innocent, larded it with carefully cropped, blown up, and retouched cartoon panels, and accompanied these with vast slobbering reams of pseudo-psychosexual case histories about sadists, arsonists, and father-rapers who had got that way from reading Little Lulu and Millie the Model. Wertham was a pornographer of the old school: he sold his thing to all these people who wouldn’t dream of jerking off like common perverts, and they became so inflamed with a sensation that they could only cool off by tromping on the comic book industry. And the industry became so uptight at the prospect of losing money that it commenced printing tripe—but tripe—and has done nothing of any account for the last decade and a half.
Lately, though, it appears that the permissiveness fostered by eight years of Democratic government has infiltrated even unto such as Stan Lee and Carmine Infantino, moguls of Marvel and DC Comics respectively. Comics over the last few years have been mincing apprehensively back into contact with the world, which is a most encouraging development for what McLuhan appropriately terms the coolest of all possible mediums. They need encouragement. And just to warn the Werthams of the world that social relevance does not necessarily entail depictions of graphic sexual activity, this week I’d like to sketch out a short history of The Token Negro In American Comic Books. For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll consider only DC and Marvel adventures comics. Archie Comics some while back dabbled uncomfortably with a brawny young hunk of black-haired beefcake called Angelo Angelino—he was Mr. Lodge’s groundskeeper for an issue or two—but they seem to have discontinued this disturbing element (which is pretty much alright, since it turns out, after their debut on television, that the Lodge family has a crackerish southern accent). And to go into an investigation, at this late date, of why the world of Mickey Mouse was kept carefully segregated from the world of Donald Duck, well, that would be disrespectful to the shade of Disney. So we’re hung with Marvel and DC, and we’ll dig Marvel first.
The only black character with anything like top billing in the Marvel lexicon is a cat named T’Challa, one of the Avengers. On a kind of sabbatical from the chieftainship of an African tribe called the Wakanda, T’Challa works with the Avengers in the guise of—now dig this—the Black Panther. No, no—while the Panthers have been around longer than T’Challa, the gentleman in no respect resembles Bobby Seale. He doesn’t even come off like Moms Mabely for Blackness, and he sure got nothing even in common with Jomo Kenyatta. You ever once hear a spade talk like this, outside of Othello: “If words were actions, rash one, I should long since have perished in my native Africa.” PVUNK! Another super-baddie bites the dust. Wakanda (not the river in Kesey’s Oregon, fool) is a super-city located in an artificial under the African veldt, and the Wakanda tribesmen are super-spades who run around in loincloths, toting stun-guns. Like I say, it’s encouraging to see comics coming back in touch with the world.