During comics' Golden Age (1938–1954), the nascent medium of superhero comic books was overrun with cultural stereotypes, a manifestation of societal prejudices widely, and sometimes innocently, held at the time. Captain Aero's
little Chinese pal, Chop Suey; the Lone Ranger's
faithful Indian companion, Tonto; and Mandrake the Magician's obedient African aide, Lothar, were among the characters that marginalized the value of minorities.
To be fair, there was no bigoted Star Chamber orchestrating these characterizations. Comic books, like movies, novels, and radio, simply reflected America's perception of non-whites as second-class citizens—and minorities were in no position to argue at the time. Interestingly, Germans—other than Adolf Hitler, a short, comical-looking man ripe for caricature—were rarely stereotyped physically, given their physiological similarities to Anglo Americans. Yet they spoke with thick accents and were referred to by the derogatory term
Krauts. However, the Japanese—
Japs—were rendered with fangs or with buck teeth, colored with yellow skin, and sometimes represented with pointed ears. An offensive stereotype by contemporary standards, granted, but to the U.S. mindset in the early 1940s, these were the devils that bombed Pearl Harbor, so they
got what they deserved with these depictions.
got what they deserved from the superheroes. Comics covers routinely showed their stars attacking Japanese (and Germans, and on a few occasions, Italians), but perhaps no cover was more graphic in its anti-Japanese sentiment than Timely (Marvel) Comics' The Human Torch #12 (1943), presenting the flaming hero burning off the arm of a fanged Japanese torturer. Take that, you rat!
The Torch's acrimonious foe-turned-ally, Namor the Sub-Mariner, was comics' first mixed-race superhero, the offspring of a land dweller and a water breather. His multicultural heritage was often referenced in passing but never fully explored during the Golden Age. Some comics historians have theorized that Namor's patented anger stems from his crossbreeding—he never felt truly accepted by either of his races, leading him to take out his frustrations on others.
Oriental menaces, representing the
Yellow Peril fear of world conquest, were a 1930s staple of the
pulp magazines, with characters like Shiwan Khan from The Shadow and author Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu inspiring comic-book villains like the Claw. First seen in Lev Gleason's Silver Streak Comics #1 (1939), the Claw was a sharp-toothed, insidious monster, with pointy ears, razor-sharp fingernails, fiery breath, and the ability to grow to humongous proportions. World War II only worsened the Asian stereotype. Kato, the Japanese houseboy and high-kicking companion to the Green Hornet, became a Filipino after the Pearl Harbor bombing.
On the rare occasions they appeared in print, African Americans were shown as manservants or comic-relief sidekicks. Mexicans were filthy bandits, as Zorro and other Western heroes were constantly reminded. Native Americans grunted in broken English, as did Chief Skullface, nemesis of the Golden Age hero Black Owl, who routinely threatened to
scalpum his feathered foe.
Yet favorable multicultural depictions did occur during the Golden Age, most notably in Blackhawk. Premiering in Quality's Military Comics #1 (1941), the Blackhawks were a squad of international fighter pilots, crusading for the Allied forces but pledging allegiance to no single country—although their number included a buck-toothed and portly cook, Chop Chop. Chinese typecasting was nowhere to be seen, though, in
Carnival of Fiends, the Torch tale in All Winners Comics #1 (1941): Chinese are referred to as Chinese Americans, and they rally behind the Allied war effort.
After World War II and into the 1950s, superheroes evoked a more unified world viewpoint. Tonto received his own comic book from Dell (1951–1959), which appeared on the stands with Magazine Enterprises' Straight Arrow (1950–1956), starring a Native American protagonist who fought rustlers and white thieves. Superman and Batman joined England's Knight and Squire, France's Musketeer,
South America's Gaucho, and Italy's Legionary in
The Club of Heroes in World's Finest Comics #89 (1957). This trend spilled over into radio and television as well.
The most explicitly progressive [radio] series was [The Adventures of] Superman, which had its hero fighting racial and religious bigotry for several years after the war, commented author J. Fred MacDonald in Don't Touch That Dial: Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960 (1979). Wrote MacDonald:
The appearance of the non-Anglo-Saxon heroes—the Indian brave, Straight Arrow; the Latino avenger, [TV's] Cisco Kid—also guided postwar youngsters toward tolerance.
There were exceptions to this growing depiction of diversity: Blacks mostly disappeared from comics. The spread of Communism made villains of Russians and Chinese, trends that continued into the 1960s. Prize Comics' Fighting American (1954–1955) lampooned Soviets with bad guys like Poison Ivan. Marvel even devoted a short-lived series to an
Oriental villain: The Yellow Claw (1956–1957), starring a sinister mastermind who embodied every negative stereotype ever assigned to Asians: He was bald, slant-eyed, yellow-skinned, pointy-eared, and had long fingernails and a
Fu Manchu goatee. In contrast, this series introduced a positive Chinese American character: FBI agent Jimmy Woo, a highly trained and resourceful lawman dedicated to bringing the Yellow Claw to justice.
After writer/editor Stan Lee inaugurated the Marvel universe with the publication of Fantastic Four #1 (1961), he placed his superheroes in New York City instead of a fictional metropolis, and Marvel's artists started drawing people of color into the comics. At first, the multicultural inclusions were subtle, like a black pedestrian in the background, but by the mid-1960s, non-whites ascended to positions of prominence. Fantastic Four #50 (1966) introduced Native American Wyatt Wingfoot, who became a long-standing supporting-cast member of the series, and issue #52 (1966) premiered Prince T'Challa, better known as the black superhero called the Black Panther. And agent Jimmy Woo returned in Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., engaging in high-tech (for the times) espionage epics that borrowed heavily from the James Bond movies.
None of Lee's series better advocated cultural tolerance than X-Men. First seen in 1963, the X-Men were mutants—the next step on the evolutionary ladder—who fought to protect the humans who distrusted them. While a groundbreaking metaphor for racial harmony, X-Men originally played it safe, making each of its mutant characters Caucasian.
Despite the multicultural inroads paved by Lee and other Marvel writers during the 1960s, cold-war pigeonholing had yet to fade: Iron Man's origin was rooted in the Vietnam War, and the hero battled the Chinese troublemaker Mandarin and a Vietcong villain named Wong Chu. Despite occasional non-flattering portrayals, Marvel's comics depicted a world of color and diversity, even with the company's misfit heroes, the green Hulk and the orange Thing.
When ABC's live-action The Green Hornet (1966–1967) TV show debuted, its producers expected its lead—clean-cut Caucasian hunk Van Williams—to become a heartthrob, but were blindsided when Asian import Bruce Lee, playing sidekick (emphasis on the kick) Kato, stole the show with his dazzling martial arts abilities. Lee was one of the few non-white actors on television at the time, but before long people of color became more visible.
Through most of the 1960s, DC Comics' series stayed exclusively Caucasian, with the exception of a handful of aliens like the green-skinned Martian Manhunter (who became a white man in his secret identity of John Jones) and through one-page public-service announcements extolling the virtues of ethnic tolerance. DC changed its stripes in Justice League of America (JLA) #57 (1967), with
Man, Thy Name is—Brother! by scribe Gardner Fox, acknowledged among some comics historians as a selfless humanitarian.
One man is very much like another—no matter what the name of the god he worships—or the color of his skin, Fox's opening caption begins. The tale involves the intervention of three Justice Leaguers—the Flash, Green Arrow, and Hawkman, plus the JLA's
mascot Snapper Carr—into the personal lives of three non-white Americans—a young black, a Native American, and a native of India—who struggle against barriers spawned by racial prejudice. The issue's cover, by artists Carmine Infantino and Murphy Anderson, depicts the heroes and their friends of color clasping hands before the symbol of the United Nations.
DC continued to take slow but deliberate steps to portray non-Caucasians in their superhero comics, with varying results. The Brave and the Bold (B&B) #71 (1967) introduced Batman's
old friend John Whitebird, a Native American, but contains a wealth of unintentionally offensive references, including Batman's greeting of Whitebird (
Holy Peacepipes! Are you going on the warpath again?). Four issues later, B&B #75 (1967) takes place in Gotham City's Chinatown, a borough that embraces its native heritage and modern Westernisms (Chinese American teens beam
Marv!), and largely avoids the stereotypes seen in issue #71, although issue #75's villain is a Yellow Claw–like conqueror called Shahn-Zi.
In the late 1960s through the early 1970s, multiculturalism hit the American mainstream. Non-white actors appeared on TV programs as diverse as Star Trek (1966–1969) and Hawaii Five-0 (1968–1980), and in movies like Shaft (1971). Superhero comics followed suit: the African American Falcon became the partner of Captain America, Wonder Woman learned martial arts from a Chinese teacher named I-Ching, Spider-Man mediated campus unrest, Batman encountered a league of international assassins, and Green Lantern and Green Arrow hopped into a pickup truck to traverse the American landscape seeking solutions for racism and other social cancers.
Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972) was the first American comic book starring a black superhero, but numerous others followed, including Black Goliath, Black Panther, and Black Lightning. Marvel then premiered a headlining Chinese superhero, Shang-Chi (a.k.a. Master of Kung Fu) in Special Marvel Edition #15 (1973). Shang-Chi was a hero of great nobility and determination, but his father, the archetypical Fu Manchu (yes, that Fu Manchu), added yet another sinister Chinese conqueror to contemporary comics. Compelling characterization, memorable storytelling (first by Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, then by Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy), and an international film and TV kung fu craze made Shang-Chi a hit: Special Marvel Edition was renamed Master of Kung Fu (MOKF) with issue #17, and kept kicking for 125 issues.
MOKF's success spawned a fistful of martial-arts titles from a variety of publishers, some of which featured white heroes in Asian settings (Marvel's Iron Fist and DC's Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter). Marvel's The Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, a black-and-white magazine-sized comic, introduced the Sons of the Tiger, a multiethnic group of martial artists, and the White Tiger, the first Puerto Rican superhero. Also bowing during this period were Marvel's Daughters of the Dragon—fighting PIs Colleen Wing (a Chinese American) and Misty Night (an African American)—and Mantis, a Vietnamese member of Marvel's conventional superteam the Avengers (appearing in print, quite unusually, at the height of the Vietnam War). In subsequent years, Asians as martial artists (and, narrowing the trend, Japanese as ninjas) have become a staple of comics, with DC's Lady Shiva and Valiant's Rai among their number.
By the mid-1970s, superhero comic books had become fully integrated. The X-Men were reintroduced in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975) with a new, multicultural roster: Cyclops (Anglo American), Colossus (Russian), Storm (African), Banshee (Irish), Wolverine (Canadian), Sunfire (Japanese), Nightcrawler (German), and Thunderbird (Native American). The X-Men's original message of cultural tolerance became even more profound given the team's color mix, a theme that has yet to fade: Despite their differences, these mutants work together as a unit and live together as a family. Sir Ian McKellen, the distinguished British actor who portrayed the evil mutant Magneto in the live-action blockbusters X-Men (2000) and X2: X-Men United (2003), remarked favorably of the X-Men's message of harmony at the 2003 British Independent Film Awards:
X-Men and its story about mutants, about people who feel disaffected with society, and whom society is hard on, appeals most to young blacks, young Jews, and young gays.
The cultural composition of the X-Men established a template upon which the contemporary superhero team has been built. Numerous supergroups created or revived in the wake of Giant-Size X-Men #1 have contained a multicultural mix (some including extraterrestrials for good measure), such as the New Teen Titans, the Outsiders, Infinity Inc., Gen 13, WildC.A.T.S, Generation X, the Legion of Super-Heroes, the New Mutants, Ulraforce, the Suicide Squad, the New Warriors, X-Force/X-Statix, and Cyberforce.
Other teams have been built specifically around ethnicity, or a cultural connection. DC's Global Guardians are just that: superheroes assembled from around the world, like Israel's Seraph and Brazil's Green Flame (a.k.a. Fire of the Justice League). Marvel's Alpha Flight is a group of Canadian superheroes whose roster includes Marvel's first gay hero, Northstar. TV's Captain Planet and the Planeteers (1990) assembled a group of teenage environmental protectors, summoned from different regions of Earth by the goddess Gaia. A 1996 CD-Rom comic unveiled the Jewish Hero Corps, led by Menorah Man, and Mystic Comics' Tribal Force #1 (2002) introduced a little-known group of Native American superheroes.
Occasionally, non-Anglo superheroes have starred in their own comics, including, but by no means limited to, El Diablo, the Butcher, Blade, Shaloman, and Spawn. Ethnic superheroes and supporting cast members have become common: Superman's titles, for example, have included in their cast the African American hero Steel and his niece, who assumed his name in 2003, and the Hispanic hero Gangbuster. And whites and non-whites have formed teams, like Cloak (black) and Dagger (white), and Power Man (a.k.a. Luke Cage, black) and Iron Fist (white).
Prejudice and discrimination have been commonly explored through these tales of integrated heroes. For example, Amazing-Man, a black superhero retrofitted into the 1940s cast of All-Star Squadron with issue #23 (1982), stood up for racial equality at a time when Hitler preached ethnic cleansing. Despite cultural taboos, some interracial romances have occurred, including DC's (black) Bronze Tiger and (white) Gypsy and Marvel's (green, formerly white) She-Hulk and (Native American) Wyatt Wingfoot. No mixed relationship has raised more eyebrows than the marriage of the Avengers' Scarlet Witch (a white mutant) and Vision (a synthetic human)!
Through the meeting of its many cultures—and alien and artificial races—the superhero world inspires real-life humans to overcome their petty differences and live and work together as one.