Oct 12 2011 3:30pm

Saladin’s Sundrarium: Four of Jack Kirby’s Most Ethnically Adventurous Creations

Jack Kirby’s massive contributions to comics are common knowledge. His influential pulp-epic motifs. The revolutionary dynamism of his art. But here I’d like to talk about a more specific set of “King” Kirby’s innovations — his use of “minority” protagonists. Whether stressing the multi-ethnic makeup of America or revising racist preconceptions of Africa, Kirby’s work challenged comics’ unremarked upon WASPiness and white supremacy in quiet and not-so-quiet ways. Here are a few key figures he used to do so.

*Note: Most of these characters are of course co-creations with Stan Lee, and I don’t mean to downplay Lee’s own role as writer. I have, however, tried to focus here on characters in whose development Kirby seems to have had a dominant role.


The Thing/Benjamin Grimm

Every decent human being’s favorite member of the Fantastic Four was, by some accounts, the closest Kirby ever came to an autobiographical alter-ego. Due to the early silver age’s near-universally adhered-to moratorium on characters’ discussing religion, Ben Grimm was not canonically acknowledged as Jewish until decades after Kirby first drew The Thing. But to anyone who knew to look, the signs were there — despite the Germanic ring of ‘Grimm,’ we’re talking about a brown-haired guy named Benjamin Jacob who grew up on the Lower East Side. And it seems pretty likely that Kirby thought of his beloved creation as Jewish — witness the Kirbys’ homemade Hanukkah card from the 70s:


The Howling Commandos

Nick Fury’s crack team of anti-Nazis are practically poster boys for mid-20th-century ethnic diversity: Italian-American Dino Manelli and Jewish-American “Izzy” Cohen fight anachronistically* alongside African-American Gabriel Jones against the racist Reich. “Seven against the Nazis!” promised the cover of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1, and the seven were a pointedly diverse slice of the U.S. military.

*The US armed services weren’t, in fact, desegregated until 1948. The fact that Kirby and Lee decided to nonetheless have a black man as part of the Commandos is revisionism — but it seems to me that this revisionism was progressive in 1963, whereas it served more as a means of erasure in this summer’s Captain America film.


The Black Panther/T’Challa

When he gets the writers he deserves (see Christopher Priest’s late 90s run), T’Challa, king of the African nation of Wakanda, living embodiment of the panther spirit, is one of the most interesting superheroes in mainstream comics. He was, for all intents and purposes, the first real black superhero. But Kirby and Lee’s innovation with this character was not simply in introducing him, but in defining his powers. While the Black Panther has the physical prowess of his namesake, he is also a sophisticated genius who rules a technological wonderland in the heart of Africa. Such an imagining of “the dark continent” featuring an intelligent, independent ruler was, quite simply, unprecedented in popular culture. And, on a related, note, I love the way that Kirby’s pseudo-African prints and shields look uncannily similar to his iconic circuitry:


The Black Racer/Willie Walker

The most important artifact of Kirby’s dalliances with DC is probably his New Gods mythos. And over this mythos looms the implacable, terrifying, slightly goofy figure of the Black Racer. The racer is the avatar of death, housed in the body of wounded African American veteran Willie Walker. Yes, name-wise he’s yet another “Black [insert noun here]” hero. And yes, as with Kirby’s Silver Surfer, his mode of travel is a smidge ridiculous. But the idea that a cosmically profound, godlike avatar of inevitable life-passing would choose a black Vietnam Vet for incarnation was a radical one in 1971, and Kirby’s execution of it is just beautifully weird.


So who did I miss, folks? Anyone out there want to make the case for, say, poor, neglected Wyatt Wingfoot...?

Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. He has been a finalist for the Nebula and Campbell awards, and his short fiction has appeared in numerous magazines and podcasts. He has taught creative writing at various universities and offers online mentorhsip and critique services for writers. His debut fantasy novel Throne of the Crescent Moon is forthcoming from DAW Books.

David Goldfarb
1. David_Goldfarb
The Silver Surfer always worked for me, somehow, especially in the John Byrne version where his board was just flat with no fin, in a way that the Black Racer's skis and ski poles really really didn't.
2. darkcargo
Interesting! Helps me to look at older comics with a new eye.
will shetterly
3. willshetterly
Just to stress how remarkable including Gabe in the Commandos was, here's a bit from Wikipedia: "Although colorist Stan Goldberg knew that Jones was African American, the company that made the engraving plates for Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 thought a mistake had been made and colored him the same color as the rest of the Howling Commandos."

I'd argue that including Gabe in the movie is more easily explained than the comic: Captain America put together a special team of people who had been captured by the Nazis.

Now I need to find out whether the Nazis segregated US POWS....
will shetterly
4. willshetterly
And the quick Googling says the Nazis did segregate black POWs, so a retcon of the movie would require a bit of a backstory.
5. Josh Lukin
Yeah, as you note, Kirby gave us two of the first Black characters. Also Vykin, the Black, who IIRC the other Forever People tended to address by his name and appositive: "What's your opinion, Vykin, the Black?" (Hey, I think I'll try that with my friends: "How've you been, Ahmed, the Novelist? What's going on, Tracy, the Drunk?").

And the Fourth World also seems to have included the first superhero inspired by Cleavon Little.
Saladin Ahmed
6. saladinahmed
David, there's no denying the Black Racer's goofiness. But I always found a kind of intense gravitas to be intertwined with that goofiness.

Will, sadly the Cap movie didn't feature an epxlicitly iconoclastic multiracial squad (which would have been cool) - rather it just skipped over the racism of the US military in the era.

Josh: ...yeah, Vykin. Comical as his 'title' is now, though, I still find it remarkable that it just seemed second nature to Kirby to so often put Black dudes in his ensembles. No one else was doing so.

That Cleavon Little bit is simply fascinating, BTW.
7. AlBrown
In one of the many comics put out to capitalize on the Captain America movie (or is that capitanize?), and fill in backstory, there was a scene where one German guard was saying to another that they put that cage full of ethnically and nationally diverse prisoners (who became the Howlers) together to try to get them to clash with each other and watch the fights that broke out. So Marvel already has offered an explanation of how that mixed bag of prisoners ended up together, just not in the movie.
When I was a kid in the 60's reading my favorite comic (Sgt Fury), I always imagined that Capt Sawyer and Nick put together a team of the best of the best, regardless of background, and told anyone in the heirarchy who would protest to get lost. I always thought having a black soldier portrayed as being on a secret commando squad was pretty cool.
On the other hand, seeing blacks and whites portrayed side by side in the propaganda films in the Cap movie was very jarring, as that would not have happened in that day and age. It SHOULD have been the way things were back then, but unfortunately, there is a lot to be ashamed of in the way the USA has treated blacks in the military in the past.
My dad was in an engineering unit in WWII that was merged with a black engineering unit during the desperate days immediately following the Battle of the Bulge because both of the units had taken heavy casualties and had lost effectiveness as stand alone entities (his unit went toe to toe with a Panzer unit, and held a critical crossroads that kept the north edge of the bulge from being even larger, but paid a pretty heavy price). He said it was touchy at first, but once everyone had worked together and started judging each other on skills rather than color, they got along pretty well.
will shetterly
8. willshetterly
My dad was in the Merchant Marines. Which, I just verified, was integrated during WW2:

The Merchant Marines are the great neglected branch of the services. During WW2, they had the highest rate of casualties of any service.

Here endeth the digression.
j p
9. sps49
Merchant mariners were housed paid much better than the Armed Forces AND had the option of quitting. Similar to the civilians crewing MSC vessels today.

And generally wouldn't be subject to the draft if they did quit (age, physical shape).

I appreciate what they did, but calling them a "service" and putting them on a pedestal does a disservice to soldiers, sailors, Marines, and all peoples whose homes were overrun by tyranny.

Sgt. Fury and the Howling Commandos? Kickass comic book.
11. AlBrown
Back to the main topic, I have to say that, growing up in a small town without a lot of diversity, the portrayal of folks of all colors and creeds in the comic books helped open my eyes to a larger world when I was young. Given the predjudices of the time, folks like Kirby and Lee have a lot to be proud of.
A few years ago at ComicCon, I got a chance to meet Joe Simon, who talked about the threats they had to face in the early days of WWII from Nazi sympathizers who were offended by the adventures of Captain America. Not all heros wear costumes, some sit at art desks and typewriters.
Saladin Ahmed
12. saladinahmed
Thanks for that, Al. Though it wasn't always perfectly executed, the sort of thing you're talking about extended even into the 'bronze age,' if a bit more quietly - I think of Claremont and Shooter's writing, for instance...
David Goldfarb
13. David_Goldfarb
Josh Lukin@5: I just read through my reprint collection of Forever People, and you do not recall correctly. When addressed directly, he's consistently called "Vykin" with only one exception. (And that exception comes on an early page of an early issue, and can be attributed to Kirby wanting to remind his readers of the character's full name.)
will shetterly
14. willshetterly
sps49, highest casualty rate is highest casualty rate. No one's asking for a pedestal, but folks shouldn't ignore their service, which the government did. Dad was too young for the other services, so he joined the Merchant Marine to do his part in WW2. Then, during the Korean War, everyone who had served in WW2 was exempt from the draft--except for those who had been in the Merchant Marine. Which is why I was born on an Army base.

Sgt. Fury was awesome, and so was Agent of SHIELD in Kirby's hands.

Now I'm wondering about the history of black supervillains. I don't associate any with Kirby offhand, but Centurius from Steranko's run on Nick Fury may qualify.
15. Ben JB
Quibble: "Such an imagining of “the dark continent” featuring an intelligent, independent ruler was, quite simply, unprecedented in popular culture."

I think you might look at some Haggard and some African-American writers like George Schuyler ("Black empire") for examples of African super-science. (with the notes that Haggard's rulers aren't black and his science might be magic; and that Schuyler's rulers are black, but mostly American.)
Saladin Ahmed
16. saladinahmed
Thanks, Ben. As you hint, I don't think Haggard is a true exception. But Schuyler certainly is. I was only recently pointed to his stuff and have yet to check it out, though it looks awesome.
17. Benjamin Blattberg
I dig Schuyler, though you'll have to get out the microfiche for his old Philadelphia Courier fictions. (Not entirely worth it, unless you love microfiche.) Black No More is really biting about the construction of race in America, though the sf element is limited to the skin-whitening process. For more sf, the two serials that make up Black Empire are probably more interesting. (But don't take Henry Louis Gates's word on Schuyler's split consciousness.) If you read it and want to talk about that (and about other fictions about black empires/countries), I'd love to talk about it.

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