Abstract and Keywords
Steamboat, Billy Batson’s friend and valet, was a stereotypical African American character who appeared in Fawcett’s comic books until 1945, when a group of New York City middle school students visited Captain Marvel editor Will Lieberson. Those students, all part of a program called Youthbuilders, Inc., successfully argued for the character’s removal. Drawing on the work of Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and George Yancy, this chapter studies the character and his similarities to other racial caricatures in U. S. popular culture of the era. It also provides a short history of the Youthbuilders, an organization created by social worker Sabra Holbrook. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Alan Moore’s Evelyn Cream, a black character who appears in the 1980s series Miracleman. Although not directly based on Steamboat, Moore’s character was an attempt to address racial stereotypes in superhero comic books, figures that have their origins in the narratives of the 1930s and 1940s.
Tied to a burning candle, Captain Marvel is standing on a birthday cake, his yellow boots covered in white frosting. Sivana, holding another pale blue candle, threatens him, and Billy’s alter ego, the brave soul who faced Hitler and Goebbels and Satan himself, looks terrified. Sivana grins. This time, the mad scientist must be thinking, I’ve got him. But can any of this be real? The title gives it away. “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!”—published in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 48 (Aug.–Sept. 1945)1—gives the reader a look at Captain Marvel’s nightmares. Although he’s the World’s Mightiest Mortal, even he has bad dreams sometimes. It’s not his birthday either. In the inset panel to the right, Billy and other WHIZ employees sing to Sterling Morris, their boss. To Billy’s left is a character who first appeared in a Captain Marvel adventure in 1942, just two years after Billy’s debut in Whiz Comics (fig. 4.1).
This strange but otherwise unremarkable story is notable because it marks the final appearance of Steamboat, a regular cast member until 1945. As Billy and the other two men sing to Mr. Morris, Steamboat joins in, but he is the only character in the panel staring directly at the reader. Billy’s friend and servant, he is what Frantz Fanon might have called “an object among other objects”(Fanon 89; see also Gilroy 8), the embodiment of an illusion, a cruel fantasy—in other words, a kind of dream, but one far more destructive than the nightmare which startles Captain Marvel from his sleep. Like the images of blackness in advertising that Fanon responded to in his work, Steamboat, to borrow a phrase from theorist Paul Gilroy, represents an “abbreviated (Fanon’s term for this would be ‘amputated’) conception of human subjectivity,” like the other stereotypical figures that populated a “twentieth-century dreamworld” in which blackness “began to acquire commercial value”(Gilroy 8–9; Fanon 89). That inset panel on the first page of “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!” tells the story of that “dreamworld,” an ideal, (p.99)
comfortable existence filled with the markers of material success and prestige: the table, the birthday cake, the men in suits, the painting, and, in the center, Billy’s “valet”(Lupoff, “Big Red” 70).
Steamboat only appears in the first five panels of the story. After Morris’s party, he and Billy head home to their apartment. Having eaten too much cake, Billy worries that he might have a “nightmare,” but Steamboat has more pressing concerns: “Ah’s got a nightmare right now!” he says. “Ah’s got de feelin’ dat somebody is shadowin’ us!”2 Looking wary and frightened, he turns his head to see if anyone is following them, but Billy replies, “Nonsense, Steamboat! It’s your imagination!” In the next panel, the reader learns that Billy’s friend has been right all along. As they enter the door to the apartment building, Sivana—the madman himself, not the dream figure holding the glowing candle—emerges from an alley and, in a thought bubble, reveals his grisly plan. As soon as Billy falls “asleep,” Sivana will go to work with his “little hatchet!” Steamboat can do nothing to stop him (fig. 4.2). (p.100)
After the first panel on the story’s second page, Steamboat disappears, but not before turning out the light. “G’night, Mistah Billy! How does yo-all feel now?” The room is bright and comfortable, with red, patterned curtains, matching lamps, nightstands, and a bed with a headboard. More dream images fill the next several pages—a talking birthday cake, for example, a giant bird’s nest, and trees with eyes and mouths. At the end of the nightmare, Sivana, seated on the cake, like a demon from a fairy tale, appears again with his hatchet, eager to murder Billy. “I’m going to chop off your head!” the scientist says with a laugh. The nightmare, it appears, was a premonition, as the real Sivana lurks in the darkness. But Billy’s magic word works just as well at night as it does during the day: “Once more, both in the dream and in real life,” reads a caption, “the magic lightning comes!” Captain Marvel’s head is so thick and invulnerable that the blow fails to wake him up at first. Then, in the final three panels of the story—printed almost entirely in blue to suggest the darkness that fills Billy’s room—Captain Marvel springs out of bed. “Gosh, what a horrible nightmare Billy and I had!” he remarks, until he finds Sivana’s hatchet, and a broken lamp, on the floor.
That Steamboat’s final appearance should introduce a story about paranoia, hallucinations, and nightmares is fitting, given that he is a creature of illusion, one shaped by discourses of white supremacy that permeated the popular culture of the United States in the 1940s. The character, a version of the “coon” figure that Donald Bogle describes in his history of African American stereotypes in Hollywood cinema (Bogle 7–8), suggests a significant flaw in the dream logic of Beck’s theories. If Billy exists in a land of pure fantasy, one in which he can will himself into an ideal state of being, why is he unable to imagine his friend Steamboat as anything other than a “coon,” a servant, a sidekick? Novelist and cartoonist Charles Johnson refers to the “Ur-images of (p.101) blacks” that appeared in animated films, comic strips, and comic books in the early twentieth century as “a testament to the failure of the imagination (and often of empathy, too),” figures that “tell us nothing about black people but everything about what white audiences approved and felt comfortable with in pop culture until the 1950s,” when the Civil Rights Movement began to usher in significant political and cultural advances (Johnson 13). While Steamboat’s presence represents that “failure of the imagination” on the part of Fawcett’s writers and artists, the character’s removal provides an example of how action on the part of readers can bring about small but significant social change. The real heroes of Steamboat’s story aren’t Billy, Captain Marvel, and Shazam, but a group of New York City junior high school students who, as part of a program called Youthbuilders, visited Executive Editor Will Lieberson in 1945 and argued for Steamboat’s removal.
This chapter, then, tells Steamboat’s story, and the significant role he played in Billy’s early adventures. As an “object” in Billy’s world, Steamboat provided evidence that the newsboy, after that first meeting with Shazam, had mastered the strange, sometimes ominous world in which he lived. After receiving his magic word and securing a position at WHIZ, the character, as Richard Lupoff points out in “The Big Red Cheese,” “lived in a comfortable apartment, alone save for his Negro valet,” a character who “was the exemplification of the racial stereotype of the era,” one found in “pulp magazine stories, radio dramas,” and “motion pictures,” as well as “other popular media”(70). Steamboat, along with Billy’s job and that “comfortable apartment,” served as markers of the boy’s remarkable transformation from homeless orphan to popular celebrity. Billy was never wealthy, but he possessed a measure of power and social capital, on display in his relationship with Steamboat, who, Lupoff writes, is “obviously a grown man in the employ of a half-grown boy,” an adult who “always addressed his employer as ‘Mist’ Billy’”(“Big Red” 70). While, as Lupoff points out, the comic books, comic strips, and pulp magazines of the era are filled with characters like Steamboat, there are what Erika Frensley calls “notable exceptions”(Frensley 6-7), including The Shadow’s Jericho Druke and The Avenger’s Josh and Rosabel Newton, African American characters who use these stereotypes to their advantage as they assist in solving various crimes.3 These three pulp heroes are unusual in the popular media of the late 1930s and early 1940s, but their presence, like Oscar Micheaux’s films and detective novels or the Youthbuilders’ response to Steamboat, serve as reminders of the progressive voices that critiqued these images at the height of World War II.4
While it is not possible to tell Billy’s story without Steamboat and his role in the hero’s transformation, there is also a danger in reading Billy’s valet as a relic of racism in the United States in the 1940s, an era we might dismiss as less enlightened than the one in which we live. In doing so, we run the (p.102) risk of ignoring these images, or ones descended from them, in the popular culture that surrounds us. A note in the Table of Contents for volume 4 of The Shazam! Archives, published by DC Comics in 2003, for example, cautions readers that the stories included in the collection “were produced in a time when racism was more overt in society and popular culture both consciously and unconsciously”(4). The note also assures readers that these comics, including Steamboat’s debut in America’s Greatest Comics no. 2 from 1942, “are reprinted without alteration for historical reference”(4). In writing about Steamboat, I take as my example the Youthbuilders and their resistance to the discourses of racism and white supremacy. Not merely a figure of “historical” interest, Steamboat represents a pernicious ideology that persists in the cultural and political landscape of the United States. The students who visited the Fawcett offices in 1945 imagined a world very different than the one on display in the pages of these comics. If Billy’s story is about the unlimited potential of the imagination, why should readers settle for a character so ugly and limited as Steamboat? The students took these comic books seriously, and asked that their creators do the same.
In her 1943 book Children Object, social worker and Youthbuilders founder Sabra Holbrook explains that the program encouraged students to engage with various social and cultural issues in a three-step process, one that begins with “free discussion,” continues with “exciting investigation,” and ideally ends with “concerted action”(Holbrook 167; italics in the original). Forty years later, in the early issues of Miracleman, Alan Moore would also address the historical, cultural, and psychological impact of the ideology of white supremacy in comic books. While Moore’s Evelyn Cream, a black spy who guides and defends Mike Moran, Miracleman’s alter ego (and a variation on both Parker and Beck’s Captain Marvel and Mick Anglo’s Marvelman), is not a direct response to Steamboat, the writer introduced the character as a critique of the images of blackness that had filled superhero comics for decades. If Steamboat had dreams, they might look something like those that haunt Evelyn Cream, who reflects on the stereotypes and discourses that have shaped him and his relationship with the book’s hero. In the first half of this chapter, I discuss Steamboat’s role in two of Billy’s adventures from the 1940s before turning my attention to Holbrook, the Youthbuilders, and Moore, each of whom offers a glimpse of an alternate future, one in which there is no place for Steamboat and all he represents.
The stories featuring Steamboat reflect the petty hatreds, unexamined hostility, and dangerous ignorance that, as Charles Johnson has suggested, represent a “failure of the imagination”(13), one that mirrors the flaws in the wartime stories I discussed in the last chapter. But Steamboat’s America is much closer to us than we might care to admit. Only by engaging with it, and (p.103) by critically assessing these images, can we identify the contradiction that, as Ralph Ellison once noted, lies at the heart of these racial stereotypes. In a 1953 essay, Ellison argues that
whatever else the Negro stereotype might be as a social instrumentality, it is also a key figure in a magic rite by which the white American seeks to resolve the dilemma arising between his democratic beliefs and certain antidemocratic practices, between his acceptance of the sacred democratic belief that all men are created equal and his treatment of every tenth man as though he were not.
In examining these stereotypes and their place in the history of American racism, I also hope to introduce a set of reading strategies that might be applied to other works of comic art. As Ellison implies, that “dilemma” at the heart of American democracy cannot be resolved, based as it is on falsehood and denial. By examining this “magic rite” more closely, however, especially as manifested in these comic books, we might begin to dismantle a power structure that thrives on illusion.
To build the kind of society Holbrook and her teachers and students once imagined, we must contend with these existing structures, especially those we have inherited. Comics scholarship has the potential to provide insight into how we might continue to challenge and resist the “antidemocratic practices” embodied by cartoon figures like Steamboat. In a recent essay, scholar Qiana Whitted, for example, addresses Will Eisner’s discussion of “stereotypical images” in Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative (Eisner 17–20):
Conventional wisdom states that comics are made up of stereotypes of human behavior, due in no small part to the material demands for economy and efficiency on the page. Too often, however, this line of thinking is extended to include cultural stereotypes in which the comics industry is said to be as irrevocably bound to the status quo as it is to the spatial dimensions of a panel grid.
If the form is as flexible and promising as both Eisner and Beck argue in their critical work, then it offers the means and the opportunity to subvert these “cultural stereotypes,” which, when present, serve as reminders of that “real world” that Beck so often dismissed. In other words, if Billy’s stories should enable us, for a few moments, to leave those “dull and stupid things” behind us (Beck, “Real Facts”), Steamboat’s presence prevents us from doing so. In an interview with Tom Heintjes, Beck, like Eisner, admitted that he used these visual shortcuts as a way to simplify these narratives: “To keep readers from (p.104) having their attention drawn away from stories,” he explained, “I deliberately used characters, settings and props that would be instantly recognized by everyone everywhere … in other words, stereotypes”(Beck qtd. in Heintjes). This strategy, at least for the students who spoke with Lieberson in 1945, did not work, as Steamboat’s role in these stories proved to be a distraction, a reminder of the ignorance and intolerance of the adult world.
In order to, as Whitted writes, “repurpose hegemonic racial discourse,” to imagine the medium as a site of “cultural intervention”(97), we must first identify the nature and origin of these stereotypes. My analysis of the Steamboat stories I discuss in this chapter is, like Whitted’s work, based in part on Toni Morrison’s discussion of an “Africanist presence” in American literature (Morrison 6–7; Whitted 80). In Playing in the Dark, Morrison introduces the phrase “American Africanism,” which she defines “as a term for the denotative and connotative blackness that African people have come to signify, as well as the entire range of views, assumptions, readings, and misreadings that accompany Eurocentric learning about these people”(6–7). Later in the book, after providing examples of this presence in the works of authors ranging from Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville to Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Morrison offers a list of “common linguistic strategies employed in fiction to engage the serious consequences of blacks”(67). The first of these, what she calls the “[e]conomy of stereotype,” is especially relevant when writing about characters like Steamboat, as its use “allows the writer a quick and easy image without the responsibility of specificity, accuracy, or even narratively useful description”(67). This “quick and easy image,” as Charles Johnson has also suggested, has nothing to do with African American culture or history. Rather, as Morrison points out, it is a projection, a fantasy, one whose only purpose is to enhance the heroic characteristics of a story’s white protagonist.
Consider again the final panel in which Steamboat appears: the doors, the nightstands, the shades, the curtains, the windowsill, the bed. Each of these “objects”(to borrow Fanon’s word again) tells part of Billy’s story (fig. 4.3).5 Steamboat has no agency, no subjectivity. Once Billy lies down and falls asleep, Steamboat is gone. Imagine, however, a different ending to “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!” As Captain Marvel picks up Sivana’s hatchet, the door to Billy’s room opens. Steamboat turns on the light, but his grotesque features have disappeared. Such a transformation might have been possible. After all, just a few years later, Captain Marvel, as John G. Pierce has pointed out, would confront a group of villains dressed like members of the Ku Klux Klan in one of Mr. Tawny’s early appearances (Pierce, “Levity” 77).6 But what if Steamboat, and not Tawny, had rented that house in the suburbs and, with Captain Marvel at his side, then faced the hatred and violence of those hooded figures? This question might appear to be nothing more than (p.105)
idle speculation, or theory without the “doing” that Holbrook called for in her work with teachers and with students (161). That last page of “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!” remains troubling, not because of its predictable twist ending—was it all just a dream?—but because of its inability to answer any of the questions that it raises. What happened to Steamboat? The answer to that question, of course, is simple: Lieberson agreed with the students, and called for his immediate removal (Lieberson 94). With all of Captain Marvel’s Fawcett adventures easily accessible online, however, the character, like Billy’s persistent nightmare, remains with us, a reminder not just of the 1940s but a warning about the consequences of what Ellison calls that “antidemocratic” impulse.
“Much like a thought Bubble”
Steamboat, from his first appearance in 1942 to his sudden disappearance in 1945, embodies many of the qualities of what Donald Bogle describes as an “uncle remus,” a variation on the “coon” figure that made its debut in blackface minstrel performances of the nineteenth century (Hamm 124).7 The uncle remus, whose name Bogle borrows from the storyteller in Joel Chandler Harris’s popular series of local color tales, “distinguishes himself by his quaint, naïve, and comic philosophizing”(Bogle 8). These stereotypes, Bogle notes, were in “full flower” in “the 1930s and 1940s with films such as The Green Pastures (1936) and Song of the South (1946)”(8). Like the “coon” figure that preceded it, the “uncle remus,” Bogle writes, “has always been used to indicate the black (p.106) man’s satisfaction with the system and his place in it”(8). Steamboat bears the hallmarks of this “crazy, lazy, subhuman” figure (8). Like Billy, his origin story from 1942 involves his search for a new job. In Whiz Comics no. 2, however, Billy, despite the challenges he faces, appears eager and ready for a change. Steamboat, on the other hand, with his horse and wagon, appears ill at ease in the urban spaces that Billy has mastered.
In an interview with Matt Lage, Otto Binder recalled Steamboat’s introduction to Billy’s supporting cast: “We were always creating new side characters, most of which became just one-shots if they turned out to have no appeal”(60). According to Binder, “Steamboat was the creation of Ed Herron,” in his opinion “the greatest early Captain Marvel editor”(Binder qtd. in Lage, “We Were” 60). In later interviews, Binder and Beck discussed Steamboat and the decision to remove him from the pages of Fawcett’s comics. In his conversation with Lage, Binder places that decision in a larger context.
The character, he explains, “was dropped during a wave of criticism of any anti-minority leanings that came up in that period,” not only in comic books but also in “newspapers, movies, and all the media”(60). Although he supported these changes, Binder admits that he had some reservations. From his perspective, Steamboat was comparable to other “dialect” characters in the series. Here, Binder alludes to Steamboat’s speech patterns but not to the character’s physical appearance. In reference to the decision to eliminate Steamboat from the comics, Binder explains, “I was all in favor, actually, of anti-discrimination so it didn’t bother me, except that we did sigh once in awhile because it was fun to depict such dialect groups. We never meant to degrade them, merely play them for humor”(60). Beck echoes Binder in his interview with Tom Heintjes for Hogan’s Alley.
The cartoonist explains that “Steamboat was created to capture the affection of [N]egro readers”(Beck qtd. in Heintjes). After a reference to the Youthbuilders and their meeting with Lieberson, he insists that Steamboat “was always a cartoon character, not intended to be realistic at all,” although “he was taken seriously by some, sadly enough”(Beck qtd. in Heintjes).8 In his meeting with the students who participated in the Youthbuilders program, Lieberson, according to an article written by the Associated Negro Press and published in several newspapers in the spring of 1945, at first argued that “white characters too were depicted in all sorts of ways for the sake of humor […]”(“Negro Villain”). The students, however, “retorted that white characters were both heroes and villains while ‘Steamboat,’ a buffoon, was the only Negro in the strip.” The final paragraph of that news report not only anticipates Morrison’s discussion of the “economy of stereotype,” but also serves as a response to Binder and Beck’s reflections on the character. According to the article, a young man, while speaking with Lieberson, “produced an enlarged (p.107) portrait of ‘Steamboat’ and said, ‘This is not the Negro race, but your one-and-a half million readers will think it so’”(“Negro Villain”). Even a comic book character like Billy, to use Morrison’s phrase, possessed a “specificity” that Steamboat lacked. Billy is capable of great heroism, but he and his alter ego often make silly mistakes. While he is still a “cartoon” character, he has a more complex personality than Steamboat, who does not possess the “human interest” that Binder, in his introduction to “The Teacher from Mars,” identified as the secret to good writing (Binder, “Teacher” 18–19). What Binder and Beck failed to understand is that Steamboat embodied a form of realism.9 As the embodiment of what Whitted would describe as a deadly set of “cultural stereotypes,” Steamboat proved to be a distraction from that “fabric of illusion” which Beck sought to create in his work. If Billy’s potential is so unlimited, why should one of his closest friends be so limited in his range of emotion and behavior?
Steamboat first appears in America’s Greatest Comics no. 2, dated February 11–May 13, 1942. Volume 4 of DC’s Shazam Archives does not identify the story’s writer but attributes the art to Beck, Dave Berg (best known for his later work on Mad), and “The Fawcett Captain Marvel Art Staff”(4).10 The urban landscape of Captain Marvel’s first appearance in Whiz Comics no. 2 and “The Park Robberies” are remarkably similar, but the opening page of Steamboat’s first appearance is much more atmospheric.11 As the large figure of Captain Marvel stands guard over the city, “an elderly man,” the caption at the bottom of the page tells us, moves “warily” beneath “the shadow of a bridge”(3).12 The page does not begin with the simple, rectangular panel that opens Billy’s first adventure. Rather, the artists have created a complex portrait of an urban landscape, one with Captain Marvel at the top of the page and the old man, and that mysterious tunnel, at the bottom (fig. 4.4).
While the streets in Whiz no. 2 are curiously empty, except for the men who pass Billy in the rain, the park in America’s Greatest Comics is a fully realized setting, complete with narration that might have appeared in one of Walter B. Gibson’s Shadow novels of the 1930s: “Here, in the very midst of civilization, young savages lurk in the darkness to pounce upon unsuspecting prey—and an occasional scream is the only evidence of their murderous deeds”(3).13 In the next panel, a figure shouts, “Git his dough!” as a group of young men beat the old man with clubs. The narrator has given us some assurance—we can expect that our hero will soon appear “on another of his mercy errands!”(3)—but even Captain Marvel can’t save the man from the terrors of this “jungle,” one inhabited by these “savages” who “lurk in the darkness” and threaten innocent bystanders (3).
Irish accent so that no one suspects his true identity: “Top o’ the marnin’ to ye, gents,” he says to two men sitting on a park bench in what the narrator tells us is “the most dangerous part of the park!”(13). Captain Marvel goes on patrol in the hope of capturing some of the young men he calls “kid gangsters”(13), the hooligans who have been beating, mugging, and otherwise terrorizing honest, law-abiding citizens.
One of these citizens, we learn on the next page of the story, is Steamboat Bill. He first appears in the second panel of page fourteen (fig. 4.5). Napoleon, his horse, draws a carriage covered in advertisements for “Hamburgers” and “Pop.” Although the horse and carriage dominate the frame, we can see the (p.109)
white circle of Steamboat’s lips. Gray silhouettes of buildings line the horizon. Aside from his features, Steamboat’s accent marks him as different from the other characters that surround him. Just as Captain Marvel spoke in an Irish accent, Steamboat speaks in the dialect of the minstrel stage: “F’hevvins sakes!” he exclaims (14). One young man screams, “Yaaah! Ice cream! An’ hamboigers!” while another shouts, “Grab ’em, gang!” In the next two panels, the boys try to hold Steamboat’s horse, but they fail, and the animal breaks loose from his harness and dramatically gallops away, even jumping over a baby carriage. Steamboat pursues him, but only Captain Marvel has the strength to stop the old and frightened animal: “Getting winded eh, old fellow? You should know better than to dash around like that at your age!”(15). Steamboat returns again a few pages later, as he and Napoleon save one of the police officers from certain death at the hands of an adult gangster. Just as a man in a trench coat is about to murder the officer by “pumpin’” him “fulla lead!”(21), Steamboat and Napoleon knock the villain into a small pond. Steamboat, barely in control of the horse and carriage, shouts, “Heah’s me ag’in, folks! Gangway!” As he falls, the gangster expresses his anger and frustration: “The blankety blank!” he exclaims (21).
At the end of the story, the former gang members, once the victims of those adult gangsters, join the Captain Marvel Club, an organization that will enable them, as Billy puts it, to assist in the hero’s “fight against crime!”(22).14 In the story’s final panel, Steamboat asks Billy for help. Their conversation (p.110)
echoes Billy’s first meeting with Sterling Morris. Having assisted in the arrest of the gangsters who’d caused all the trouble in the park, Steamboat now faces troubles of his own: “Mistuh Billy,” he says, “I done cracked up my wagon com-plete when I busted up dem gangstuhs!” Billy offers to help, and invites Steamboat to “come down to the broadcasting studios in the morning” for “a new job!” That “new job,” however, will look a lot like his old one (22).
On the final page of Captain Marvel’s first appearance from 1940, Billy shakes his fists with joy (fig. 4.6). No longer a victim of his uncle’s greed, he now has friends and a promising career. “Billy Batson, radio reporter!” he shouts. “Boy, oh, boy! Here’s where we go to town!” In the last panel of “The Park Robberies,” however, Steamboat doesn’t learn what his next job will be, but his chef’s hat—worn throughout the story—suggests that, while he might have an opportunity to leave his old horse and his wagon behind him, he will remain what he already is (fig. 4.7). Whereas Billy undergoes a transformation that changes his personality and his perspective on the world, Steamboat, when he appears in “Captain Marvel and the Warrior of Wai” in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 10 (May 1, 1942), is still wearing that cap (see p. 45 of the comic).15 He remains a cook, Billy’s assistant. Although Billy lives (p.111)
in a charmed, dynamic, and often exciting universe, Steamboat remains fixed and unchanging. That static quality is one of the key features of any stereotype, especially visual ones: they imply an inability to change, to adapt to one’s circumstances.16 As Ellison and Bogle have argued, these stereotypes are projections, ones that assure the viewer that Steamboat, and the community he allegedly represents, is content “with the system” as it stands (Bogle 8). While Billy spends his origin story learning how to survive in his new environment—observing each tunnel, street, and skyscraper carefully, claiming each one as his own as he prepares to “go to town!”—Steamboat, in his first appearance, spends his time defending himself from the gang of kids or chasing after his horse. His act of heroism, as he and Napoleon prevent the gangsters from murdering the old police officer, is also a moment of slapstick comedy. While Billy has many roles to play in these stories, Steamboat has only one, that of the comic sidekick whose presence assures white readers that Billy’s valet is grateful for the life that he now leads.
In his essay “Looking at Whiteness: Finding Myself Much like a Mugger at a Boardwalk’s End,” philosopher George Yancy argues that white supremacy cannot exist without this fantasy of blackness. In a passage on his experience (p.112) of white drivers locking their car doors when he approaches on a city street, Yancy writes, “I am the ‘proof’ that they concocted to confirm their superiority”(33). In the last chapter, I noted that when Billy says his magic word, he, like a superheroic Peter Pan, is often more innocent and childlike than he is as a newsboy or radio reporter. His dream is to stay a child forever. In racial discourse in the United States, Yancy argues, “whiteness is a form of make-believe, a game played by children who refuse to grow up, though the existential stakes are high for black people”(Yancy 33). Later in his essay, Yancy employs an image borrowed from a comic strip or comic book to describe his encounters with the white drivers who are terrified of what they think he represents. As he walks past them, and as they lock their doors, he experiences a form of dissociation, a version of the “double-consciousness” that W. E. B. Du Bois defined in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903 (Du Bois 3). Suddenly, Yancy writes, he feels as though he is “floating like a phantasm in their imaginary—much like a thought bubble”(35). A phantasm is also a ghost, a dead thing, a being whose nature is already fixed and defined. While a phantasm cannot be called back from the dead, however, a thought bubble can be edited, revised, erased. A physical thing, both word and image printed on a sheet of paper, it can also be rejected, or brought into juxtaposition with other images, ones that comment upon it or redefine it. The work of the writer, artist, critic, and scholar is to question these found images, to deny their claims, to reveal the ideologies that made them possible in the first place.
Steamboat and the “Backward South”
In his nostalgic summary of Captain Marvel’s various friends and adversaries, published in a fanzine called The Rocket’s Blast Special no. 8 in the early 1970s, Gene Arnold describes Steamboat as “basically lazy” and “cowardly,” a character “with an accent you could cut with a knife”(Arnold n.p.).17 That accent, especially in stories like “Capt. Marvel and the Voodoo Showboat,” published in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 22 (dated March 26, 1943),18 implies Steamboat’s Southern origins.19 His first appearance in “The Park Robberies” marks him as an inhabitant, with his ancient horse and wagon, of another time and space, an agrarian lifestyle associated with the US South. In the story, Steamboat’s “long-lost grandma”(21) doubles as both Voodoo Annie, Sivana’s accomplice, and as Showboat Mammy, her “real self”(28). His grandmother, we learn, would love to be famous as a jazz singer. First, however, she must escape Sivana’s clutches.
“slaves”(30), and plantations, the narrative introduces a territory still haunted by the ghosts of the Civil War, a world apart from Billy’s city, that cross between Chicago and New York. In the introduction to her 2006 book The Nation’s Region, Leigh Anne Duck refers to Edward Said’s Orientalism as she provides an overview of discourses about the South and its role in US history. After referencing Said’s discussion of “imaginative geography”(Said 55), Duck argues that “when national discourse has acknowledged the conflict between southern conservatism and national democracy, it has typically done so in ways that localize this conflict,” pitting “a ‘backward South’” against “a modern or ‘enlightened nation,’” an ideological conflict with race at its center (Duck 2–3). Duck points out that “this pattern” is especially “apparent and destructive” when it appears “in political and legal representations of southern racial segregation,” which often “disavowed both the contemporaneity of the South with the larger nation and the presence of apartheid in other areas of the country”(Duck 3). This notion of the South as “backward”(3) is evident on the first page of “Capt. Marvel and the Voodoo Showboat,” in which Billy sits listening to Axis broadcasts on his shortwave radio. It’s a babel of voices, from “Achtung!” and “Capish!” to “blabber” and “blah”(20). Steamboat, reading a book, sits to Billy’s right. “Just the usual Axis malarkey from all over!” Billy remarks, before the reader turns the page and Steamboat offers a lesson on the living dead (figure 4.8).
That “hair-raising book” is filled with information about zombies and “voodoo,” which Steamboat warns is “turrible stuff!”(21). His hair standing on end, Steamboat, eyes wide, sweats as he reads this account of what the caption on the previous page refers to as “bad magic.” “You don’t believe in it, do you??” (p.114)
Billy asks. The image in the second panel answers that question before Steamboat has a chance to respond. His posture communicates his distress. Pointing at the cover of the book, he leans forward (fig. 4.8). Although he derives his abilities from “good magic”(as he explains in the story’s introduction on page twenty), Billy is also at ease with modern technology. As Steamboat tells the tale of Showboat Mammy, Billy, sitting at the radio, wears a set of headphones and continues to listen to the Axis chatter (21). For now, at least, he doesn’t have time to spare on his valet’s fears and superstitions.
By the next page, Voodoo Annie’s broadcasts have transformed Billy (and therefore Captain Marvel) into a zombie. Meanwhile, Sivana reveals that, in his never-ending quest “to become the rightful ruler of the universe,” he plans to throw a “showboat party”(26), one that will give him the opportunity to hypnotize white Southern land owners. “All will become my slaves!” he exclaims. “I’ll own all their land! My new empire will be launched!”(28). The first of two horizontal panels on page twenty-seven includes a drawing of a “Kunnel” on horseback. In the distance is Sivana’s newly refurbished showboat, which, a caption explains, “blazes forth as in its day of glory!”(27). A white-haired man wearing a straw hat and suspenders asks the mounted “Kunnel” if he will be “goin’ to th’ showboat pahty too?” to which the old soldier responds, “Yeh man! Ah ain’t had no fun a-tall since it closed down, fohty yeahs ago!”(27). These characters, like the showboat Sivana has brought into the present, are markers of the past and of that long-lost (and fanciful) “day of glory.” In the next panel, we see “the lavish showboat party” as it “goes into full swing, attended by the plantation-owners and Southern aristocracy of the region!”(fig. 4.9). (p.115)
After Sivana reveals his plan, Steamboat learns that Voodoo Annie, Sivana’s accomplice, is none other than his grandmother, Showboat Mammy (29). As her name suggests, she is another stereotype common in the popular culture of the era, the “mammy,” a figure “closely related to the comic coons” but notable for “her fierce independence” and “cantankerous” behavior (Bogle 9). As the story progresses, we understand that she is performing a masquerade, one in which “Voodoo Annie,” as she explains, is “a sideline” or “a hypnotist act!”(28). She reveals her other self by removing the knotted green handkerchief that has covered her head since her first appearance on page twenty-one. This doubling echoes Billy’s own transformation, but unlike our hero, Showboat Mammy/Voodoo Annie closely resemble each other (fig. 4.10). Although she now wears make-up, pearls, and bracelets, as her name suggests, she remains a “mammy” figure like the ones described by Bogle. (p.116)
Steamboat plays a role in defeating the evil scientist, but in his capacity as the story’s coon figure, he is not an active agent in the villain’s defeat. After his reunion with his grandmother, she leads him to Sivana’s quarters, where, she says, “He got all dis radio junk heah—!”(24). The fourth panel on page twenty-four echoes the earlier scene in which Steamboat explains the nature of “bad magic” or “voodoo” to a skeptical Billy. Worried about his friend, he is unable to understand the purpose of the machines arrayed before him, with one important exception. “Waal, anyways,” he says, “let’s have some music out of dis radio-phonograph! Music allus soothes me!” The record, a Cab Calloway-like scat number, does the job, not just for him but also for the aristocrats under Sivana’s control. On the next page, as Sivana cracks a whip and commands his “slaves” to “bow down” before him, the music has the same effect on the Southern aristocrats as it did on Steamboat. Suddenly, they are free of Voodoo Annie’s spell (30). No longer zombies, they “joyously go into a jam session!” Musical notes over their heads, they dance in silhouette (fig. 4.11), oblivious to Captain Marvel’s nemesis and his commands. Just as Sivana is about to whip Steamboat and Showboat Mammy for ruining his plans, Captain Marvel, also set free by the music, returns and, predictably, punches the villain in the jaw (31). As in many of the other stories in which (p.117)
he appears, Steamboat plays an important role in the story’s resolution, but he does so only by happenstance. Driven by narcissistic urges—in this case, his desire to calm his nerves after losing track of his friend and unexpectedly rediscovering his grandmother—he lacks Billy’s wits as well as Captain Marvel’s brute strength and authority.
The final caption of the narrative assures readers that Steamboat and Billy, having once again thwarted Dr. Sivana’s plot to rule the universe, will now return home: “Back to the city and his job once more goes Billy Batson. Where—who knows?—perhaps an even greater adventure may be waiting for him!”(31) That final panel neatly summarizes Steamboat’s role in this and in other Captain Marvel stories. Caught between that “imaginative geography” of the South and Billy’s “city,” Steamboat, the image suggests, exists in both worlds but belongs in neither. As he walks across the plank leading to shore, his grandmother sits in a rocking chair (fig. 4.12). Although the record managed to rescue the planters and Captain Marvel, that music, and her ambitions, cannot save her. According to the logic of the story, she must remain where she is, unable to follow her grandson to the city and, by implication, into the future. When Steamboat asks if she’d like to accompany him, she replies, “No, ah’s gwine lib an’ die here on dis yere old showboat!”(31). No longer in her hat (p.118) and pearls, she once again wears a yellow, polka-dot blouse, an ankle-length black dress, and the knotted handkerchief that covers her white hair. She remains in the chair while Steamboat waves goodbye. As she explained to her grandson a few pages earlier, she has been on the boat all these years because she “couldn’t bear leavin’ it!”(29).
These closing images, and Showboat Mammy’s masquerade, all suggest the relationship between images of stereotype and a sense of place. Just as characters such as Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel are defined by their relationship to the city, Steamboat and his grandmother remain tethered to fantastic images of the South and its history. Billy Batson and his alter ego represent a modernity characterized by urban spaces, a territory of steel and glass filled with automobiles, skyscrapers, record players, radio broadcasts, and magical subway trains. Billy is a master of that domain because, as the opening panels of this story suggest, he is comfortable with technology and with various forms of discourse, no matter how nonsensical, like the Axis voices he listens to on his shortwave radio. Unlike Steamboat Mammy, he is also in control of his “real self.” While she is unable to inhabit that second, somewhat secret identity, her voodoo, though powerful enough to ensnare even Captain Marvel, is, like the voices on that radio, chaotic and ill-suited to the modern world. Easily manipulated, she must give up her Voodoo Annie persona so that the story reaches a neat, orderly conclusion. After she promises no longer to work her magic, Billy—standing on shore and ready to head home—remarks, “Good for you, Mammy! No harm done—but it might have hurt a lot of people!”(31).
The various forms of masquerade in this story are also worth noting, as even Sivana disguises himself as a member of that nearly vanished “Southern aristocracy.” As Marc Singer has argued, over the last seventy years, “the generic ideology of the superhero” demands that “exotic outsiders” often “work to preserve America’s status quo”(Singer 110). As a result, he continues, an “examination of race in superhero comics must consider these innate tensions,” ones that reveal “the genre’s most radical impulses and its most conservative ones”(110). In this story, only Billy’s double identity allows for real freedom because of its links to modernity and to whiteness. His ability to move with ease from one shape to the next—from an innocent boy to a hero and back again—would not have been possible without his access to the subway tunnel and to Shazam. Voodoo Annie is just as powerful—perhaps even more capable than he is—but, unable to harness those forces effectively, and unwilling to leave that wreck of a ship (and the region it represents), she will remain where she is, locked in place, the subject of what Singer, in a reference to Fanon’s writing about black stereotypes, describes as “a psychological, existential sentence rather than a social one”(Singer 108; see also Fanon 18).
(p.119) In placing limits on these characters, Fawcett’s editors, writers, and artists also also underestimated their readers. “The artist is no freer than the society in which he lives,” concludes Ralph Ellison in “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” “and in the United States the writers who stereotype or ignore the Negro and other minorities in the final analysis stereotype and distort their own humanity”(60). By dismissing Steamboat, or by ignoring the ugliness and “distortion” in these stories, we also run the risk of forgetting those who responded to these narratives in the first place. These images did not exist in a vacuum; to suggest otherwise would be to deny the imaginative power of that group of students who visited the Fawcett offices in 1945. By saying “no” to Steamboat and what he represented, they offered a model for the future, a way of being in the world, and an example of the compassion and curiosity lacking in these comic book narratives.
“The World we want to Live in”: Sabra Holbrook and the Youthbuilders
In the spring of 1945, just a few months before Steamboat’s final appearance in Captain Marvel Adventures, Youthbuilders founder Sabra Holbrook visited the PTA at Newton Bateman Elementary School on the north side of Chicago. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune for March 18, she was there to deliver a lecture titled “The World We Want to Live In,” a presentation that would be followed by a “film on the same subject” courtesy of “the Chicago Round Table of Christians and Jews.”20 At the end of the evening, the school’s band, conducted by Helen Gedelman, was also set to perform. A couple of years earlier, Viking had published Holbrook’s Children Object, a book that offered advice and suggestions to other teachers and school districts interested in the Youthbuilders program. The title of Holbrook’s lecture at Bateman provides a concise summary of her philosophy of education, one that set out to imagine and then build a more functional world than the one she and her students faced in the early 1940s.
An article in the Nassau Daily News, published just a few days after her visit to Chicago in March 1945, explains that while Holbrook did not train to be a teacher, “her major interest in life lies in the field of American education, specifically the education of young people for responsible citizenship in a democracy.”21 Holbrook was a native of Massachusetts, where her father, Robert W. Rollins, was the president and general manager of the Worcester Electric Light Company (Kerr 13).22 After undergraduate work at Vassar, she served as a social worker for the Judge Baker Foundation in Boston where, according to an article published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1947, she worked “with (p.120) delinquent children”(Kerr 13). Working closely with Byrnes MacDonald, Holbrook developed the idea for Youthbuilders after a meeting with William Jansen, New York’s assistant superintendent of schools, who “sent her into a junior high school to visit with the youngsters and find out what interested them”(Kerr 13; see also “Youthbuilders, Inc.”). In contemporary terms, Youth-builders appears to have functioned like a club or an after-school program, an extracurricular activity designed to engage students and build a sense of community.
In the second chapter of Children Object, Holbrook describes the students who took part in these forums, which reflected the racial and ethnic make-up of New York City in the late 1930s and 1940s. One group of children, students at “a co-educational junior high school in which thirteen different nationalities were represented,” addressed the issue of prejudice in one of their discussions. As they debated and researched the problem, Holbrook writes, they realized “that their prejudices were handed down to them at home by their parents”(27-28). Their solution? The students called for the school’s PTA “to put on a forum, for the parents’ entertainment, on the subject ‘Are All Men Brothers?’”(Holbrook 29). Holbrook admits that, despite the best efforts of the students and their families, they were unable to solve the problem completely, but they did succeed in opening a dialogue that eased some of the tension at the school. “I can’t say the situation in that community today is Utopian,” Holbrook writes, “but I can say it is a lot healthier than it was before the children went to work on themselves and their parents!”(30). Idealistic but pragmatic, Holbrook’s discussion of her educational philosophy is remarkably contemporary, especially in her emphasis on student engagement, inquiry, and debate. In an ideal learning environment, Holbrook argues, students must take ownership of their education and of their community, both at school and back home. Best of all, in the “Utopian” space she describes, group discussions would take the place of pedantic speeches: “That’s one of our rules and perhaps it would be a good rule to use with adults, too—‘no lectures’”(Holbrook 159).
One of the challenges instructors faced was finding topics that would interest students. Some of the children participating in forums across the city lived in neighborhoods plagued by gang violence. In her description of a Youthbuilders meeting at a school in the Bronx, Mary Jean Kempner, in a profile published in Vogue in 1946, writes, “I had been told that this was a neighborhood where extortion gangs of fifteen-year-olds preyed on other children and fought gang battles” and “twenty-two children had been killed by other children in about two years”(Kempner 181). At the meeting, Kempner discovered “thirty-odd tough boys and girls” who “were talking about a settlement house. How to raise money to build one. How much money had already been (p.121) banked”(181). Teachers in the New York City schools had to contend with the violence and poverty students experienced at home. That lack of structure and stability, and the fear it produced, often made its way into the classroom. Teachers also had to deal with other distractions, notably ones from the popular culture of the period. In a 1948 article published in the New York Post, Fern Marja points out that instructors aimed “to transfer the excitement and stimulation youngsters usually find in the unreality of comic strips and radio serials to the reality of the world they live in”(Marja, “Youthbuilders Units”). While students, as Marja notes, developed a number of initiatives in the New York schools, ranging from “a rat extermination drive” to “the establishment of veterans’ recreation centers”(“Youthbuilders Units”), one of the most common issues the program and its various forums addressed was that of racial prejudice.
In the appendix of Children Object, Holbrook advises that “in handling discussions of intercultural relationships it is necessary to be exceedingly cautious in the way in which you deal with ‘differences’”(186). She argues in favor of a form of assimilation in which students of various ethnic and racial backgrounds define themselves first as “American,” but also recognize “that the American heritage” includes “many different strains and ideas”(186). In a piece of advice that anticipates the Youthbuilders’ conversation with Lieberson in 1945, Holbrook cautions against objectifying students of color. A teacher, for example, asked Holbrook to “send some Negro members of Youthbuilders out to discuss ‘Negro Culture’ with her students.” Holbrook “refused,” she explains, because,
“[t]hat would be putting glass cases over their heads, setting them off as specimens and labeling them as ‘different,’” I said. “It would be exceptionally bad for the Negro children, and almost as bad for the white.”
The students at Junior High School 120 would have been trained by their teacher to be cautious and skeptical of false “specimens” of “difference” like Steamboat. In a conversation with Marja for the New York Post, Holbrook called Youthbuilders an example of “aggressive education instead of progressive education,” one designed “for the complete translation of learning into living”(Holbrook qtd. in Marja, “Youthbuilders Teach”). The Associated Negro Press article from the spring of 1945 picks up on Holbrook’s insistence that adults have a lot to learn from children. For the Youthbuilders, youthful enthusiasm and childhood play were potential starting points for activism.
The first line of the Associated Negro Press story from the spring of 1945 suggests that “[o]ldsters” could learn something “in their fight against racial (p.122) prejudice” from the students who visited Will Lieberson. They liked Captain Marvel comics just “fine,” but were certain that Steamboat would “go far to break down all that anti-bias groups are trying to establish”(“Negro Villain”). The article makes clear that those students wanted to do far more than eliminate the character from Billy’s supporting cast. They wanted Lieberson to understand the impact Steamboat might have on black and white readers. Like Holbrook, those students, with the guidance of their teacher, imagined a “world they wanted to live in,” one with comic books free of racial caricatures.
The students proved themselves to be more forward-thinking and imaginative than some of the adults at Fawcett. For his part, Lieberson, in his interview with Matt Lage, also expressed his distaste for Steamboat: “I always found the character objectionable and when I took over Rod Reed’s position I exercised my prerogative as executive editor and ordered him out of all future scripts”(Lieberson 94). While Steamboat’s removal proved to be an important victory for Youthbuilders—a 1948 article edited by Elsie S. Parker in the National Municipal Review, for example, lists it as one of their achievements (Parker 391)—its significance has yet to be fully understood or appreciated. In entering into a dialogue with Lieberson, the Youthbuilders provided an example of how discussion, informed by research and debate, might bring about positive change. In Kempner’s Vogue article, her sense of enthusiasm for the program and its potential still resonates. At its best, she writes, Youthbuilders offered “tangible proof that almost any group confronted with objective facts and the time to consider them will, as a group, hand down an unprejudiced and just decision”(Kempner n.p.). In the conclusion of her book, Holbrook seeks to inspire her readers, but she reminds teachers that change is only possible as a result of hard work and compromise (188). In other words, there’s no magic to it, no inevitable neat and happy ending as there would be, say, in a comic book (Beck, “Good Taste”).
Imagine, then, yet another possible ending to “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!” and it might look something like this: when Steamboat switches off the light, and leaves Billy’s room, he finds himself in Lieberson’s office, surrounded by a group of boys and girls, comic book fans. The young man still holds that “enlarged portrait” of the character (“Negro Villain”). Like the Devil who encounters the French kids at the end of “Capt. Marvel and the Mark of the Black Swastika,” Steamboat is no match for them. Standing before a mirror-like image that reflects all of the cruelty and ignorance that he represents, he slowly fades from view, leaving behind copies of the now old and brittle comics in which he appeared. In asking their questions, in challenging Fawcett, the students followed Holbrook’s example, but they were also walking, at least indirectly, in Billy’s footsteps. He gains his power, after all, not by right of birth or through violent struggle, but because (p.123) of his curiosity, his willingness to ask questions, like the one he asks Shazam when they first meet in the subway tunnel: “H-how do you know my name?” If he’d been a real kid and not an imaginary one, Billy would have made a great student leader in the Youthbuilders program. Maybe he didn’t need that magic word in the first place. As Holbrook argued, children bring a point of view, and a desire for change, that is too often dismissed by adults. Her advice? “So keep your mind open and approach the children with as much of a desire to learn as a desire to teach”(188). Shazam himself, who had faith in Billy, Mary, and their friend Freddy, couldn’t have said it any better.
Steamboat and Evelyn Cream
What if Steamboat, upon leaving Billy’s room, found himself traveling through time, forty years into the future, suddenly inhabiting the body of a comic book character who’d become friends with another Captain Marvel-like superhero? In the early installments of Alan Moore’s Miracleman, first serialized under its original title Marvelman in Dez Skinn’s Warrior magazine in England and then published in color by California-based company Eclipse Comics beginning in 1985, Evelyn Cream befriends Mike Moran, a character based on Parker and Beck’s Billy Batson.23 Created by Mick Anglo for a British audience in the 1950s, after Fawcett canceled all of its Marvel Family titles, Moran and Marvelman, his alter ego, filled the vacuum left by Captain Marvel’s sudden disappearance. In his proposal for Warrior, Moore explained that, by reviving this character from his childhood, he wanted to create “something quite innovative and breathtaking”(Moore, “Proposal” 24). His goal was to write “the definitive Marvelman” and “the definitive super-hero strip as well”(24). In order to do so, he noted, he would have no choice but to engage with “nostalgia” for the character (his own and that of his readers) by retaining “the naïve and simplistic Marvelman concept of the Fifties” but moving it forward in time to “a cruel and cynical Eighties. The resultant tension will hopefully provide a real charge and poignance”(24). His inspiration, he explained in a later interview with George Khoury, was Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood’s “Superduperman,” a parody of Superman and Captain Marvel first published in Mad in 1953. As a young man, years before he began his career in comics, Moore imagined what might happen were Moran to forget his magic word—Kimota! which is atomic reversed and spelled with a k (see Khoury 11 and Moore, “M*****man” 31). In the first issue of Miracleman, Moran, struggling to recall his past, cannot escape the dreams and nightmares of a childhood that still haunts him.24 Following Kurtzman’s example, Moore’s ambition was to “apply sort of real world logic to a kind of inherently absurd super-hero (p.124) situation,” to create a narrative both “startling” and “dramatic”(Moore qtd. in Khoury 11–12).
Early in the series, after Moran accidentally rediscovers his powers, the British government contacts Evelyn Cream, an agent for the “Spookshow,” to neutralize the hero before he becomes a threat to national security (the government also wants to keep Miracleman’s true origin as a botched military experiment a secret).25 Cream, who soon joins forces with Miracleman, at times serves as a stand-in for the reader, especially in his first encounter with the hero in issue no. 3 (November 1985). On page six of that story, drawn by Alan Davis, Cream describes the hero: “Out of the dark, the dark of legend, into the harsh lamplight of modern reality …” He trails off, until another caption completes this thought: “and he is still unbelievable.”26 Soon after this meeting, Cream begins having nightmares that he attempts to understand. In order to do so, he confronts the bloody images that begin to haunt those dreams. As the story progresses, Cream, especially in his role as narrator, explores his relationship to the caricatures and stereotypes that have shaped his existence.
Until his death in issue no. 6 (February 1986), Cream acts as both an assistant to Miracleman and as a mentor for the often hapless Mike Moran. For American readers, this relationship would have been a familiar one. Donald Bogle lists the many “buddy” movies that proved popular at the box office in the late 1970s and early 1980s, including Rocky II with Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers (1979), Stir Crazy with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (1980), and 48 Hrs. with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte (1982) (Bogle 272, 277, 281–82). Bogle argues that, from “Will Rogers and Stepin Fetchit” to “Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.,” “buddy” films “have been wish fulfillment fantasies for a nation that has repeatedly hoped to simplify its racial tensions”(Bogle 271–72). As a writer working with a fantasy narrative based on American popular sources, Moore had to address these patterns in order to create “the definitive super-hero” story. Like the history of American film in the twentieth century, superhero comic books are also filled with these “buddy” narratives, from Billy and Steamboat to the more progressive but no less complex relationships between heroes such as Captain America and the Falcon.27
Although he “wasn’t even aware of the ‘Steamboat’ character,” Moore developed Cream as a direct response to other racial stereotypes that remained commonplace in superhero comics in the early 1980s. Moore explains, “I wanted to create a complex black character who was also a villain, to avoid the covert racism behind the smattering of condescendingly noble and heroic black characters featured in conventional comics at the time.”28 Until his death in issue no. 6, Cream functions more like Dr. Watson in a Sherlock Holmes mystery. Without his narrative presence, Miracleman would be too (p.125)
alien, too powerful. Meanwhile, Cream’s internal monologues call attention to the stereotypes embedded but too often ignored in the superhero genre.
In issue no. 5 (January 1986), “The Approaching Light,” Moore and Davis begin with a five-panel sequence (fig. 4.13).29 The first establishes the title of the story. Over the next four panels—each one long and rectangular—Cream, in a series of captions, describes his dreams, which, in the next issue, are revealed as premonitions of his violent death while assisting Miracleman in (p.126)
rescuing Liz, Moran’s wife, from the clutches of Dr. Gargunza, the strip’s version of Dr. Sivana. Cream, cleaning a gun, sits in a pool of light at the bottom of the first of these four panels. “I dreamed of death and jungle,” he explains. Then: “It is laughable. I am laughable. Can we never rise above our stereotypes?” he wonders. There is another break before the next caption. A pause. “Perhaps tonight I shall dream of cotton balls and water melon and awaken to find myself singing ‘Mammy.’” These captions lead the reader to a small image of Cream, muscular and stone-faced. “This mysticism,” he concludes. “This weak and hysterical mysticism. It will destroy me.” In the next panel, in which Davis includes a close-up of the right side of Cream’s face, the character realizes that his death, when it comes, will have nothing to do with “mysticism”: “He will destroy me,” he thinks. Right now, Gargunza is the least of his worries. More terrifying is Miracleman and what he represents.
“The Approaching Light”—like “Captain Marvel and the World’s Mightiest Dream!”—includes a scene, just four pages after this opening sequence, in which Cream and Miracleman, bathed in blue and purple light, try to sleep (fig. 4.14). Miracleman has no problem, but the spy, anticipating the encounter with Gargunza, is restless. He stands over the hero’s bed before lying down. Slowly, he dreams again, this time in a four-panel sequence that echoes the first page. As he tries to sleep, Cream remarks again on “the superstition, the mysticism.” In the next caption, he remembers another image from the minstrel stage, or from the advertisements Fanon describes, or from Hollywood: “Why not sit and roll your eyes in the dark, Mr. Cream? Why not shiver and (p.127) say, ‘Lawsy! I’se spooked!’” In the final two triangular panels at the bottom of the page, Davis includes images that artist Chuck Beckum will repeat in issue no. 6, just before Cream’s death: lynched black men hanging from tree trunks, then a skeleton in a white top hat and tails—a ghastly, Zip Coon-like figure. Cream understands the role he must play in this narrative, but he is unable to extricate himself from it. In other words, he can identify the frame, trace its edges, but, unlike Captain Marvel or Miracleman, he cannot break it.
Whose dream is it anyway? In issue no. 6 (February 1986), just before his death, Cream offers readers a confession. Staring at the nightmare image of the lynchings and of the top-hatted ghoul, he explains, “I wanted the white miracle”(5).30 A few captions later, he concludes that this “whiteness” is not that “of hot steel” and “sanctity” but of “death.” With growing terror, Cream finds himself trapped not in his dream but in someone else’s. It could be that of the editor, the writer, the artist, or the reader (fig. 4.15). What does the white reader want from this black figure? If Cream is part of that “magic rite” Ellison described (45–46), his fate is certain. The hero, and therefore the story, will continue without him, just as Billy and Captain Marvel continued for almost a decade after Steamboat’s departure.
Moore, like the Youthbuilders, sets out to reveal all that whiteness has eclipsed, both in the present and in the past. In Mary Jean Kempner’s Vogue article, she concludes with a description of her visit to a school on New York’s Lower East Side where students debated “the Negro question.” Kempner writes that a thirteen-year-old named John, “blond and matter of fact,” summarized the “violence” that filled the conversation. During the forum, John said, “Wait till my brother gets home from war, he’ll put them in their place.” John’s teacher then asked the class if any of them could offer any “personal experience” that provided evidence “that all Negroes were bad,” to which they replied, “No, but we know all right”(Kempner n.p.).31 But what did these children “know”? What had made them so certain of their role and of their place in society? And why did any form of difference provoke feelings of aggression and anger? “No, but we know all right”: In that moment, whiteness reveals itself not only as a form of play, like the one that Yancy described, but as a void, one whose lack of shape and form makes it both unpredictable and deadly.
◊ ◊ ◊
Look again: the scene has changed. The curtains, now blue, are covered in circular patterns. The green windowshade obscures the glass of the window, the frame. One lamp lies shattered on the dresser, but the other one remains intact. The carpet, like the headboard, is a shade of purple. Our hero, leaning forward, touches the hatchet that lies on the carpet (fig. 4.16).
He is alone. Where’s Steamboat? After Captain Marvel Adventures no. 48, Gene Arnold writes, Fawcett provided “no explanation of what happened to him. He was just conveniently written out of future scripts and there was no reference made to him again. It was as if he had never existed”(Arnold n.p.). In this chapter, I’ve attempted to make Steamboat visible again, to imagine, for a few moments, what might have happened after he switched off the light in Billy’s room and closed the door. When the Youthbuilders visited the Fawcett offices, they took control of Steamboat’s story, revealed him for what he’d been all along, a being more cruel, and therefore more powerful, than Billy or Shazam and all the rest. Leave Billy’s room. Close the book. Then, consider again the young men and women holding that “enlarged portrait of ‘Steamboat.’” Seven decades later, they ask the same question they first posed in Fawcett’s New York offices in the spring of 1945: What do you see?
(p.168) (1.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1945 lists August 1 as the copyright date for CMA no. 48.
(2.) Captain Marvel Adventures no. 48 does not include page numbers.
(3.) It is important to note here that the depiction of African Americans in the pulp fictions of the 1930s and 1940s has a long and complex history, one that requires more analysis and historical detective work. While many readers will be familiar, for example, with the racial stereotypes in narratives such as H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”(1928), there are depictions of African Americans in the pulps that might at first appear to be more forward-looking and progressive. For example, as Erika Frensley points out in her essay “Pulps—Television of the 1930s,” characters like The Shadow and The Avenger worked with agents whose performance of a stereotypical blackness proved essential to these white heroes in their mission to fight crime; see Frensley 6–7. The Avenger is also engaged in a masquerade, as, following the murder of his wife and his son, the skin of his face becomes white and paralyzed—so much so, in fact, that he can reshape and disguise himself at will. Denny O’Neil and Jack Kirby explored some of these ideas on race and identity in Justice, Inc. no. 2, which features their adaptation of “The Sky Walker,” the 1939 adventure which first introduced Josh and Rosabel Newton to The Avenger’s cast of characters (see the 1972 Warner Paperback Library Reprint of “The Sky Walker,” especially Chapter III, and DC Comics’ Justice, Inc. no. 2). Andrew Helfer and Kyle Baker also created a two-issue Justice, Inc. series for DC Comics in 1989. For a discussion of pulp fiction of the 1930s and 1940s and its audience, see Erin A. Smith’s Hard-Boiled: Working Class Readers and Pulp Magazines.
(4.) In one of the comments on Brian Cronin’s post about Steamboat at Comic Book Resources, a writer going by the name “Hoosier X” makes the important point that “[t]he existence of the Youth Builders [sic] in 1945 also pretty effectively demolishes the rationalization that everybody was just racist in olden times so we should just excuse it or ignore it”(posted April 18, 2014, at 10:02 a.m.). Micheaux’s 1945 novel The Case of Mrs. Wingate, as its jacket copy explains, tells the story of “Nazi activity inside black America,” and the heroic Sidney Wyeth’s attempts to stop it. For more on Micheaux’s novels and films, read Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence’s Writing Himself into History.
(5.) Brian Cronin includes an image from Steamboat’s final scene in his brief article on the character. See “Comic Book Legends Revealed,” installment no. 467, at Comic Book Resources for April 18, 2014. In his column, Cronin also includes sample pages from “Capt. Marvel and the Voodoo Showboat.”
(6.) See “Captain Marvel and Mr. Tawny’s New Home” from Captain Marvel Adventures no. 90 (November 1948).
(7.) In the last two decades, scholars have written extensively on minstrelsy and its impact on popular culture in the United States. Read, for example, Chapter 6 of Charles Hamm’s Yesterdays, a history of popular music in the US, for the origin of “Zip Coon.” David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness and Eric Lott’s Love and Theft are two now-classic texts on the subject. For a more recent study of minstrelsy’s persistent role in music, television, and film, read Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen’s Darkest America.
(8.) Beck also discusses the character in his autobiographical essay in Streetwise (62).
(9.) In “Mr. Mind and the Monster Society of Evil,” Beck, writing in the mid-1980s, indirectly alludes to Steamboat when he writes about the racial and cultural stereotypes that filled the comic books of the 1940s: “It is true that much of the male chauvinism, the super-patriotic (p.169) Americanism, and the degrading treatment of minorities that was displayed in the comics of nearly a half-century ago would not be acceptable today.” Those images, he argues, might “be too tame” in comparison to the “horrible things” on display “in our comics and on our television screens”(Beck, “Mr. Mind” A–93).
(10.) The Grand Comics Database entry for America’s Greatest Comics no. 2 attributes the splash page of the issue to Beck and to Mac Raboy.
(11.) The story in which Steamboat first appears does not include a title. I have followed the example of The Shazam! Archives vol. 4 in referring to it as “The Park Robberies.”
(12.) America’s Greatest Comics no. 2 includes page numbers, which I have cited here for the convenience of the reader.
(13.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1942 lists February 11 as the copyright date for America’s Greatest Comics no. 2.
(14.) Following the conclusion is a full-page announcement about the Club itself, suggesting that the entire story is an advertisement designed to attract new members. Perks of that membership included a badge and a Captain Marvel Club Card, all for only 5 cents to cover shipping and handling.
(15.) Captain Marvel Adventures no. 10 includes page numbers.
(16.) For the “existential” ramifications of these static images, especially as related to superhero comic books, see Marc Singer, “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks: Comic Books and the Secret of Race”(108).
(17.) The Rocket’s Blast Special no. 8, which also features Don Newton’s atmospheric retelling of Billy’s origin story, as well as art from Beck, does not include page numbers. An advertisement for the Special in The Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector no. 91 urges fans to pick up a copy: “Even if you’re not a Capt[.] Marvel fan, if you appreciate fine comic art, you must have this issue.”
(18.) The Catalog of Copyright Entries for 1943 lists February 26 as the copyright date for CMA no. 22.
(19.) Captain Marvel Adventures no. 22 includes page numbers. The issue also features the first installment of the popular Monster Society of Evil serial (33–44), which introduced Captain Marvel’s other great nemesis, Mr. Mind. For Binder’s comments on the serial, see “Special!”(110). For comments on the countless racial stereotypes in those stories, see part 3 of Zack Smith’s “An Oral History of Captain Marvel” online at Newsarama. In 2007, Jeff Smith wrote and drew Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil for DC Comics in 2007. Aside from its name, his book shares little in common with the original series from the 1940s, although it does remain close in spirit to Binder and Beck’s later work.
(20.) See the Chicago Sunday Tribune article “World We Want to Live In Topic at Bateman PTA,” March 18, 1945.
(21.) See “Sabra Holbrook to Direct Panel” from the Nassau Daily Review-Star, March 23, 1945. Also refer to the Works Cited section at the end of this book for information on the Youthbuilders material located in the NAACP microfilm archives.
(22.) See the Thirty-Third Annual Report of the Board of Gas and Electric Light Commissioners of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (33a) for a listing that includes Robert W. Rollins, Holbrook’s father, as one of the company’s directors.
(23.) For more about Moore’s involvement with the character, read Pádraig Ó Méalóid’s series of articles for The Beat. For a discussion of Cream’s role in Miracleman, read Julian Darius’s posts at Sequart, notably the two-part installment on “Evelyn Cream and Race in Miracleman, Chapter (p.170) 9.” George Khoury’s The Miracleman Companion provides an essential overview of Marvelman and the character’s long and complex history, as does Derek Wilson’s “From Shazam! to Kimota!: The Sensational Story of England’s Marvelman—The Hero Who Would Become Miracleman.” In my essay “Quotations from the Future: Harvey Kurtzman’s ‘Superduperman,’ Nostalgia, and Alan Moore’s Miracleman,” I provide a brief summary of that history as well as a discussion of the influence of Harvey Kurtzman and Brian Eno on Moore’s work. In 2014, Marvel Comics began reprinting Moore’s Miracleman stories. Those reprints, at Moore’s insistence, do not include his name. Moore talks about his involvement with the character and the property’s legal history in the third part of Ó Méalóid’s “The Alan Moore/Marvelman Interview: Part III” from The Beat (October 25, 2013).
(24.) In my discussion of Moore and Cream, I refer to the full-color Eclipse versions of Miracleman published in the 1980s. Because of possible legal problems with Marvel, the character’s name was changed when these stories appeared in the US. Moore discusses the name change in “M*****man: Full Story and Pics”(31).
(25.) For this sequence, read Miracleman no. 2 (October 1985): 11, 14.
(26.) See Miracleman no. 3 (November 1985), which does not include page numbers.
(29.) Miracleman no. 5 does not include page numbers.
(30.) Miracleman no. 6 includes page numbers, but they begin on the comic’s title page following an introductory sequence.
(31.) Kempner reports that after this debate these students met with Judge Hubert Delany. As they spoke with him, and after he encouraged them to “fight for justice for all human beings because it is the right thing to do,” they abandoned some of their questions in part because “what they hadn’t been prepared for was Judge Delany himself. With a newfound respect,” she continues, “John said, ‘Why, he was a Negro’”(Kempner n.p.).