Wednesday, January 9, 2013

BAB Classic: Every Color But Black: Legion of Super-Heroes 216

Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #216 (April 1976)
"The Hero Who Hated The Legion"
Cary Bates-Mike Grell

Note: This post was originally run on January 6, 2010.

Karen: Doug and I are both big Legion fans, and we've discussed a number of Legion stories we'd like to review. We have reviewed a few stories over in our old blog (Two Girls, A Guy, And Some Comics), but we only looked at Silver Age stories, not Bronze Age. And for us, Bronze Age is really our favorite era. Legion was the first DC comic I began reading regularly, shattering my former Marvel zombie existence. I loved the Legion and its fantastic, futuristic adventures. So it might seem odd that I'm inaugurating our Bronze Age Legion reviews with a comic I can't stand.

Doug: I'd echo your sentiments, Karen. Legion was probably the DC I was most committed to; I did pick up Teen Titans, Batman and Detective, and Secret Society of Super-Villains, but Superboy and the Legion was always the book I'd take over the others if and when I had to choose.

Karen: Legion #216 introduces us to Tyroc, the first black Legionnaire. Ordinarily, such integration is something I would applaud. But this issue is so incredibly myopic and insensitive, that it's all I can do to keep myself from throwing it across the room. Even when I first read it at the age of twelve, I knew something didn't smell right, even if I couldn't exactly explain why.

Doug: Being MUCH younger than you, Karen (I was only 10 when I read this), I also recall thinking this was a bit strange. I'd been brought up in the era of busing and instructed by my parents that a person was to be valued regardless of skin color, religious persuasion, etc. So this separatism was strange to me.

Karen: You see, dear readers, in the wonderful Earth of the 30th century, it seems that all black people have segregated themselves to an island, so they can avoid everyone else -whom they apparently hate. As a tour shuttle driver says, "Below is the island-city of Marzal, an independent, totally self-sufficient community...populated by a black race that wants nothing to do with the outside world!" Ooh, a black race! Wow! It makes them sound as if they aren't even human.

Doug: Say what you will about the Legion reboot in the 1990's, but they created Legionnaires who weren't humanoid. It seemed like back in the Silver Age the only thing they could do to differentiate sentient "races" was to alter skin color -- green, blue, orange, etc. This "effort", and it comes off that way, to "diversify" the Legion was so forced and flagrant... and it continued just several months later with the introduction of Dawnstar. So I guess then they had "red" skin, too. Bro--ther...
Karen: The Legionnaires
-Superboy, Karate Kid, Brainiac 5, and Shadow Lass - head to Marzal to recover a downed satellite, which actually contains stolen jewels. A group of thieves is also after the jewels. On the island the Legionnaires encounter only hostility from the residents. A native hero, Tyroc, who has strange (poorly defined) sound powers, crosses paths with both the Legion and the thieves. He makes it clear he wants nothing to do with the Legion, and feels the Legion has ignored the people of Marzal when they were in need, possibly because they are black.

Doug: I thought it was hilarious when Brainy interupted Cosmic Boy and offered "the plan", only to be shot down with a rebuke of "Not so simple, Brainy!" How often do you suppose that ever happened?? And Tyroc... I agree. We don't understand his powers and are given no background. He states that he is Marzal's champion, but do others among his "people" have similar powers? Is he a mutant? Does his costume somehow give him his voice abilities?

Doug: Additionally, I just really think that scribe Bates was pinning responsibility for the problems of blacks in America squarely on the blacks. The separatism, while at the same time blaming the Legion of all of Marzal's ills, seemed to fly in the face of LBJ's Great Society. I realize we were almost a decade removed from that by the time this saw the spinner racks, but still.

Karen: Tyroc infiltrates the thieves. They find the sat
ellite only to discover it has become lethally radioactive. Exposed to the deadly radiation, a struggling Tyroc signals Superboy with an ultrasonic whistle. He seems surprised that the Legion would help him. We then get an unbelievably lame statement from Superboy about how the Legion is "color blind! Blue skin, yellow skin, green skin [pointing to Shadow Lass, Karate Kid(!), Brainiac 5]...we're brothers and sisters...united in the name of justice everywhere!" Tyroc decides he's been wrong about the Legion and will take them up on their offer to try-out for the team.

Doug: Pretty quick change of heart, don't you think? Didn't it seem to say that no matter how screwed up you think we've made you, we can still make you better -- hey, you need us! It was almost like the Legion was the ticket out of the ghetto.

Karen: I guess T
yroc could be "validated" by joining the right-thinking Legion! Just how in the world did anybody at DC think this was a good story? It's interesting to note the comments of artist Grell in a recent issue of Back Issue magazine (#33), where he says of this story, "Every couple of months I would pester them: when are we going to do this black Legionnaire? Finally they came up with one of the sillier powers I ever saw: Tyroc's. I'm surprised they didn't name him Tyrone, because the ultimate explanation for why there were no black people ever in the Legion of Super-Heroes...all the black people had gone to live on an island. I wonder what Martin Luther King would have to say about this? Weren't these people alive in the 1960s? Were they completely unaware of the civil rights movement?"

Doug: Grell tells similar stories in The Legion Companion from TwoMorrows, as well as Back Issue #14. He does contradict himself as to his original intent, which was to have a guy-gone-bad who happened to be black. In BI #14, Grell suggests that it was in Superboy #207; in The Legion Companion, he says it was in #210 ("Soljer's Private War"). Whichever it was, he was told by Murray Boltinoff that if they had a black character who was bad, they'd catch a ton of grief from their black readers. Grell contends that he protested, left the art the same, and the figure was merely colored pink instead of brown. According to Grell, anyone who looked closely could have told what was going on. Grell was assured that a black hero was in the works, and that he would be in the Legion. According to Grell, he was basically handed Tyroc and told to design the costume.

Karen: As you mention, there's this bizarre implication that the problem resides with the black people of Marzal alone - that they are the ones who are prejudiced and overly-sensitive. It sounds like the kind of argument you often hear from people who say racism and prejudice are over-exaggerated problems. You know, the same sort of people who claim they aren't racist by saying, "Some of my best friends are black (or Asian, or Hispanic, etc)". Or the Louisiana judge recently in the news who refused to marry inter-racial couples but said he wasn't a racist, that he even let black people use his bathroom! Gee, how open-minded of him.

Doug: But the thing about stereotypes is that at some point they're true -- do you think that's what Bates was after? But that should never be the focus -- labeling, classifying... And that's exactly what this book did. You and I have both stated that even as youngsters we felt something wasn't right. But how many other impressionable young minds didn't catch on? Did this book do damage in the era of busing and integration? Hey, the race riots in America's high schools (I recall my aunt being released early from school several days because it wasn't safe to be there) were only a couple of years old at this time.

Karen: I honestly don't know what Bates was going for here. I've never read much of his work, so I don't know if this is unusual for him or what. It just comes across as idiotic.

Karen: Grell's costume for Tyroc is a hoot, looking like nothing less than a odd mish-mash of Vegas Elvis and Isaac Hayes (with cute little elf booties thrown in for no apparent reason).

Doug: Yep, in one of the sources I read Grell likened it to a cross between a Vegas Elvis suit, a pimp, and Fred "the Hammer" Williamson!

Karen: Hey, I think we have another candidate for Fashion Disaster!


Karen: The back-up story in this ish involves former Legionnaires Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel, and more than anything, it made me feel uncomfortable, as it sort of hints about what married life is like for a couple that can instantly become a threesome. I guess now I know why Duo Damsel was always showing up, despite her incredibly useless -for combat anyway -power. I heard that now she can make tons of duplicates. I don't even want to think where they could go with that idea.

Doug: Duo Damsel and Jamie Madrox -- there's a party! Ahem. Just kidding! But hey, despite my claim of enlightenment on racial separation, I have to admit that this one went right over my head. I just thought Chuck Taine was a big pansy! But, now that you mention it...


Michael said...

Nice article! I was about 10 or 11 when that issue came out too, and I've been a Legion fan this whole time as well. At San Diego in 2008, they had a 50th anniversary panel about the Legion in addition to a Mike Grell spotlight panel.

From his spotlight panel, I wrote:
Omnicom reader Exnihil asked about how Grell was so good at designing costumes, what was up with Tyroc's outfit? Grell lived in the midwest in the 1960s and followed the Civil Rights movement, and thought that the way it was explained why there were no blacks in the 31st century - they all moved to an island which then disappeared. He thought that was so incredibly racist that he protested by giving Tyroc a bad costume. Nobody at DC apparently understood the subtle protest.

This was touched on again at the Legion panel:
Q: How did the lack of minorities in the Legion affect fandom?
A: Levitz and Grell both said that you had to consider what the industry was like at the time, looking at it in broader context as to why there were no minorities. Grell said that there was a nervousness in the industry, they were worried that they wouldn't do it right. He gave as an example, "The Rookie Who Betrayed the Legion" (Superboy 207), in which a Science Police rookie makes some bad choices but does good in the end. Dvron was originally going to be a black man, but editor Murray Boltinoff said that they couldn't do that because the story would show a black man in a negative light. He told Grell that they were planning a black Legionnaire to debut shortly anyway. Boltinoff told Grell to redraw all the faces to be white, but Grell deliberately left some black features. He still got hate mail, stuff like "that's a brother painted pink". He repeated the story he had given at his other panel about Tyroc's origin and costume and why there were no blacks in the 30th century, that he felt it was very racist and that it was like the old "send them back to Africa, keep America white" mentality. He designed Tyroc's outfit purposely like that in protest.

Michael said...

Oops, forgot to put the link for the second quote.

Andrew Wahl said...

Great discussion/review of this issue. I was only six when it came out, so it was just another Legion adventure to me. It wasn't until I revisited during my teen years that it made me go "Hmm?"

I was a HUGE Legion fan as a kid. I loved the concept and the back story. It wasn't until I became more aware of specific creators that I realized what an amazing line-up of Bronze Age talent this book featured over the years. I'm just starting to re-read the Cockrum and Grell issues to review for my site, beginning with #197 (the first batch of reviews is scheduled for next week). I'll only be doing five reviews at a time, so it'll be a few months before I get to #216 myself!


Doug said...

Thanks for sharing those stories, Michael!

Are you, like Karen and I, amazed at the lack of memory on the parts of creators in terms of chains of events? I've seen in multiple resources two different stories for the "first black in the Legion" tale. But, I guess if you asked me about something I said or wrote a few years ago, I might not remember, either.

Thanks for your comments! We'll be back to the Legion again sometime in the not-too-distant future.


Michael said...

One other comment. On the Comic Book Legends Revealed site, they covered this issue last summer. You can find scans of both the Soljer and Dvron stories, plus down in the comments are some quotes from "The Legion Companion" that show Grell mis-remembered that the Dvron story (which he recalled the plot to) featured a character named Soljer.

It was "Soljer," or something like that. ("Soljer's Story," SLSH #210. --Ed.) It was about a young man who's one of the Space Troopers who comes into a conflicting situation. He has to make a choice. Like a lot of us, he makes a couple of mistakes, but then he turns out all right. He does the right thing in the end. I saw that as a very positive thing. That's the Dvron story, not the Soljer story.

Doug said...

Anyone want to steer this toward a general discussion of race issues as portrayed at Marvel and DC?

Marvel, in my opinion, scored better with the Sons of the Serpent stories, as well as FF #119 (the Black Panther/"Coal Tiger" story).

Of course, both sides were guilty of using names like Black Lightning, Black Goliath, Brother Voodoo...

Sphinx Magoo said...

Man... Tyroc is in serious need of a reboot. He made a brief appearance in the animated Legion of Super-Heroes series and his costume was mighty cool.

Anonymous said...

Grell's experience shows the catch-22 with ethnic characters. If any of them have any flaws, the portrayal is denounced as racist. So they tend to be portrayed as saints. Then the portrayal is criticized for Uncle Tom stereotyping.

humanbelly said...

I might toss out a sort of tangential topic that's touched on in this thread: The fact that writers & artists really do have a tough time remembering the specifics of their work over the course of time. Fandom has long had a tendency to take them to task over this. (The general utter disbelief, for instance, that John Buscema had little memory of or regard for creating the Vision, or the stunningly iconic final panel in Avengers #58--) Mike Grell's contradicting himself and/or recounting events incorrectly is, I'm sure, attributable to the fact that it's simply REALLY HARD to remember anything with that level of specificity given the volume of day-to-day output that the job requires. And for a busy artist or writer, the product may never, ever be seen by them again once they've finished it, thus it never has a chance to even make the shift from short-term memory to long-term. It's simply immediately supplanted in the short-term by the next page or board. I feel like this is more the case with Artists than Writers. . . but hey, would No-Prizes have even existed if Stan had a better memory during his early hectic creative frenzy? "Bob" Banner, anyone?

Just bit of a side-observation, mind you. . .


humanbelly said...

Oh, as to the primary topic, though-- I'm right there with the contingent that simply can't believe this story got through the editorial process. . . or that the editors were so backward as to think that this wasn't an offensive portrayal of an imagined "black" society in the 30th century ON EARTH. I was 15 in '76, but I of course distinctly remember the civil rights era through the 60's, and honestly, even by 1976 there was already a sense (in my small, Michigan town that was comprised of a mix of black folks and white folks. . .where the cliques were so small that you couldn't afford to exclude anyone. . . and in fact, most kids had to juggle being in multiple cliques just to keep the system movin'. . . )that we'd begun to move on, and that we were kind of in the "next" era, as it were. A story depicting complete, isolated, racial self-segregation? In 1976? That's just. . . it's apalling. How old were the head honchos at DC at that point?


Edo Bosnar said...

Karen: "Even when I first read it at the age of twelve, I knew something didn't smell right, even if I couldn't exactly explain why."
This pretty much perfectly describes my reaction to Avengers #200, which I also first read at the age of 12.

dbutler16 said...

I was seven when this came out, but bought it as a back issue X number of years later, and don’t remember my impressions at that time. In re-reading all of my old Legions a few years ago, the vast majority of the run from Shooter’s Adventure stuff up through the Baxter series gave me tremendous enjoyment, but this particular issue was clearly off, and off putting.
As far as Doug’s question about Marvel vs. DC in handling minorities, I think Marvel was way ahead of DC, though not without its flaws. Marvel at least had far more minority characters by the mid-70’s than DC, and some of them were pretty good. I can understand, however, how a white write would be reluctant to write a black character, for fear of “getting it wrong”. If you make him a stereotype, that will obviously open you up to criticism, but if you make him too bland or too “white” that will be open to criticism as well. Plus, a writer who perhaps grew up in very segregated surroundings may simply not have much basis of knowledge for properly writing an African American character. Perhaps that’s even why the most successful black character of those days was African, not African American (Black Panther).

Inkstained Wretch said...

I'm struck by Grell's comment that he designed Tyroc's costume as a protest against the insensitivity of the Tyroc storyline. I'll accept that he was sincere but I think this backfired horrendously.

Tyroc has easily one of the worst costume designs of that era and it accentuates all of the problems with the character. It is simultaneously blaxpolitation outrageous AND porn-starish. Seriously, there is more exposed skin than fabric in that costume and it seems intended to characterize him as a sexualized "mandingo" type. I think the costume is worse than story, which seems like a failed attempt at Star Trek-esque symbolic drama.

The first time I heard about the character and the question of him being a racial stereotype, I assumed the costume was the main thing in that debate. Grell may have intended it as a silent protest, but I assure you this was point was lost on me and, I am guessing, most readers.

Related: Tryoc is mentioned here in this story about offensive comic book characters:

Fred W. Hill said...

I never got into the LOSH, but this whole thing comes off as bizarre & stupid beyond belief, especially in the mid-70s and indicative of a company out of touch with prevailing social mores and steeped in abject bigotry. Hell, by the late '60s Marvel had prominent black characters in 3 of its top titles -- Robbie Robertson in Spider-Man, the Black Panther in the Avengers and the Falcon in Captain America. Even in the early '60s, Kirby & Ditko drew black people among the bystanders or incidental characters in their stories.

Dr. Oyola said...

Reviving this old post to share a link to an article I wrote in part about about this issue over in the Apex Magazine June - 2014 issue:

Black Communities of the 30th Century: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics.

I also posted images from the comics I discuss in that article, here.

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