In “Color Them Black”, Adilfu Nama works his way through the history of race and racial identity as explored in comic book superheroes. After explaining the danger of exclusively white superheroes (as well as the dangers of comic books as touted by Frederic Wertham), Nama goes on to explore the popular repackaging of superheroes in the 1960s and 1970s in both Marvel and DC Comics. He writes, “The paradigmatic “perfect” superhero was recreated as emotionally flawed and conflicted, a sensibility that mirrored the adolescent angst and ideological identity crisis that had taken hold throughout America as the turbulent 1960s gave way to the early 1970s” (Nama 255). While mentioning superheroes such as Spider-Man, he focuses on the heroes of our reading for the week: Green Lantern and Green Arrow.
This repackaging of Green Lantern and Green Arrow includes an effort by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams to have the characters “grapple with some of the most toxic real world social issues that America had to offer” such as racism, drug abuse, pollution, and Native rights to name a few (Nama 255). While Nama points out the numerous issues with O’Neil and Adams’s stories, he does conclude that this repackaging of superhero narratives and their attention to social issues allowed for “a more complex and messy morality for readers to consider without totally abandoning the ethical high ground usually associated with the American superhero” (Nama 263).
Some of the most interesting moments in considering the first topics Nama explores in his article are the moments that O’Neil and Adams explore the identity crises that Green Lantern, Green Arrow, and even Black Canary, all have in the course of Green Lantern/ Green Arrow: Hard Travelin’ Heroes. (Note: I have a different collection of the issues that Trade Paperback contains, so my pagination may be off — when possible I’ll mention the issue numbers).
Most notably, for me, was the issue Green Lantern begins to have with upholding his oath to the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians. Nama claims that Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) is meant to represent “President Richard Nixon’s no-nonsense dictum of “law and order” in the face of race riots and student protests” (Nama 255). We see this from the very first issue, when Green Lantern (GL) decides to stop a mob of people from assaulting the seemingly innocent victim landlord. Once GL realizes his mistake, he works to correct it, but the remaining issues explore similar moments in which GL struggles with his oath to uphold law and order and reconsidering his ideas behind what is right and wrong or what is good and evil. After GL recites his infamous oath, he begins to doubt the very words he exclaims on the page: “I used to speak that oath with pride…with conviction! But now…I’m not convinced of anything! The world isn’t the black-and-white place I thought it to be — once, I might have fought for Soames! But Green Arrow has made me think that maybe authority isn’t always right — and I don’t know what is just!” (O’Neil 42). (Pages attached below)
Yes, there are several notable moments when GL adheres to a Nixon-esque approach to law and order, but the moments in which he doubts his oath — a source of his own power, also reveals that O’Neil wanted GL (and readers) to reconsider any notions they had on law, order, justice, authority, etc. That being said, it’s hard to ignore just how different GL and Green Arrow’s reactions are to the Native Americans attempting to defend their land rights. GL says, rather bluntly, “If you want to break the law — go ahead! But count me out!” when Green Arrow wants to help the Natives defend against Theodore Pudd and Pierre O’Rourke (O’Neil 85).
In the very first issue, we see GL flying above the city, physically above its citizens, but in an interesting decision from O’Neil and Adams, GL remains hovering above the ground up until the crowd begins to attack him for defending Soames, the corrupt landlord. What I found interesting in the composition of these panels is the positioning of GL as above everyone, until he is finally attacked directly by the (rightfully) angry mob.
Nama goes on to conclude, in this part of the article, that “Ultimately the comic suggested that the most viable solution for ending racism in America was for its white citizenry to become introspective and mindful of their racial prejudices, a solution that did not require one to possess superhuman powers” (Nama 258). In this instance he goes on to consider John Stewart, the Black Green Lantern, and his staying power beyond the 1960s/70s well into the early 2000s Justice League animated shows.
The way I see it, Nama both provides contextual information for this week’s reading, and also tackles the issues of Black heroes in the 1960s/1970s, but tracking their staying power into today’s comic book culture. Here are some questions to get us started in this conversation:
1. How successful were O’Neil and Adams in addressing the issues they present within Hard Travelin’ Heroes. Should we, as readers, overlook (as Nama points out) issues of racial histrionics and stereotypes? What about the obvious sensationalism of particular issue covers and interior art? The drama-heavy revelation behind Speedy’s drug use?
2. If O’Neil and Adams indeed wanted to explore “the adolescent angst and ideological identity crisis that had taken hold throughout America” in the 1960s/70s, then why are there adventures that take the titular heroes to planets beyond Earth or pit them against more traditional comic book foes? How are they perhaps still accomplishing their task, or are they simply avoiding tackling an issue directly? (I’m thinking here of issues 80 – 83) Aren’t the issues they tackle issues that could have been set on Earth, like the earlier stories?
3. Is the Green Lantern Corps really a the “utopian diversity” paragon Nama describes it as — a mixture of aliens all from different cultures and planets — or does it also have its drawbacks? While we’re on the subject of aliens, what are we to make of the fact that the Guardian, when he disguises himself, becomes a white man, or that the Maltutans (issue 81) are seemingly human (and almost all white)?
4. How are we, as readers, meant to react to John Stewart’s introduction as Green Lantern in issue 87? Nama claims, “In his [John Stewart’s] debut…his character was buried under a mound of racial rhetoric and anxiety concerning this type of Black Power politics John Stewart symbolized in the beginning of the story” (Nama 259). Are there other ways to interpret John Stewart’s origin? Are there hints of civil rights leaders besides Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.?
Green Lantern Issue #76, page 1
Green Lantern Issue #76, page 2
Green Lantern Issue #76, page 3
Green Lantern Issue #76, page 4