Deck Log Entry # 182 Mysteries of the Silver Age (Part Two)

Welcome back!  We’ve been talking about unusual deviations that appeared in Silver-Age comics without an explanation---at least, not from an authoritative source.  Last time out, we discussed the curious case of the adult Robin’s first costume, which changed between consecutive JLA issues with nary a reason given, in or out of the story.  And then there was the matter of the Elongated Man’s second costume, which underwent a colour change that went equally unexplained.  In fact, no-one seemed to even notice.

 

Cannily, Philip Portelli was able to suggest a possible motivation for the altered hue of the E-Man’s duds, one that makes sense.  That’s one of the reasons I broached this subject as a Deck Log Entry; hoping you guys might have some information I missed.  Or at least, a good idea, like Philip did.  Now I have two final mysteries to percolate your brain cells.  One is another costume alteration; the second is something to which the expression “right in front of one’s face” applies literally.

 

 

3.  The Mystery of the Half-Masked Panther.

 

In Fantastic Four # 52 (Jul., 1966), we are introduced to the Black Panther, the ceremonial guise of Prince T’Challa, leader of the African nation of Wakanda.  At T'Challa's invitation, the Fantastic Four travel to Wakanda, where they are separated and attacked individually by the Panther.  Despite the hostile introductions, the Black Panther is one of the good guys.  He needs the FF’s help, if the foursome lives up to their reputations.  They do.

 

Beneath the full-face mask, T’Challa is a native African male and the first black super-hero not just at Marvel, but in mainstream American comics.  Comic-book fans who came along after the 1960’s have no idea what such a distinction wrought.

 

Following the next-issue conclusion of his inaugural adventure, the Black Panther became a recurring member of the Fantastic Four’s rapidly expanding cast.  His status as a head of state and the sophisticated technology at his disposal made him an invaluable ally to the F.F.  On our side of the four-colour pages, the readers’ reactions were heavily positive, so the only tweaking to be done was minor:  the military-style half-cape the Panther wore in his first couple of appearances was dropped, giving him a sleeker image in the black bodysuit which covered him from head to toe.

 

Over the rest of 1966 and into the next year, the Black Panther participated in four more issues of Fantastic Four, including 1967’s King-Size Special.  But there were plans afoot to promote the Panther from supporting character to regular star.  First, though, the groundwork had to be laid---by teaming the Prince of the Wakandas with Captain America in a four-part epic that began in Tales of Suspense # 97 (Jan., 1968) and ended in Captain America (ToS, after a title-change) # 100 (Apr., 1968).  This made it logical for Cap---whom Roy Thomas was moving out of the Avengers—to recommend the Panther as his replacement, in The Avengers # 51.

 

A nomination by the Living Legend of World War II is a golden ticket.  T’Challa joins the Assemblers in issue # 52 (May, 1968).  And here is where the mystery begins.  Don’t get ahead of me, though.  As I discovered, it’s a twisted skein, indeed.

 

Marvel mavens must have been puzzled by the appearance of the Black Panther on the cover of issue #52.  Or, rather, by the change in his ceremonial costume.  Instead of a full-faced cowl, the Panther wore the half-mask type that had been a fashion statement for super-heroes since the Batman swung across the cover of Detective Comics # 27.

 

And it wasn’t just a goof on the cover.  Inside, the Panther wore the half-mask on the splash page and throughout the rest of the book.  Despite the story's expositional material detailing T’Challa’s history, no mention was made of the new mask.  Marvel fans, accustomed to the company’s continued stories and eventual loose-end tying, probably figured, O.K., they’ll explain the half-mask next issue.

 

The abbreviated mask returned in The Avengers # 53 (Jun., 1968), and still no in-story reason provided.  Nor was it explained in issues # 54 or # 55.  The interesting part was that Stan Lee wasn’t telling us why the Panther’s mask was changed, either.  That was unusual for Lee, who was generally responsive to readers’ questions.

 

However, when the mail over the Panther’s début as an Avenger began to appear in the letter columns, it appeared that Stan had nothing to respond to.  Not one fan said a word about the new half-mask.  It wasn’t until the “Avengers Assemble” letter column in issue # 55 that two missives---one from  Lee Gray, of Detroit, Michigan, and one from Tommy Floyd, of Andrews, Texas---pointed out the new mask and argued for the return of the old one.

 

In reply, the Smilin’ One pledged that the Black Panther’s full-faced cowl would return in the next issue.  He didn’t say anything, though, about why T’Challa had worn a half-mask for four issues.  The closest Stan came to suggesting anything at all about the mask alteration came in The Avengers # 56 (Sep., 1968), when, as promised, the Panther was back in his all-concealing mask---permanently.  In the lettercol, Lee stated for the record:

 

The only printed letters that addressed the change in the Panther’s mask simply asked for the old one back.  Whatever “controversy” there was about it, Stan wasn’t telling.  Nor was he telling why the change was made in the first place.

 

 

Unlike the changes in the adult Robin’s costume, or turning the Elongated Man’s outfit magenta, the half-mask business is a well-known part of the Black Panther’s history.  Every reference page or Black Panther-related blog that I’ve reviewed has made mention of the brief half-mask period.  Which makes it even more curious that no-one in authority---such as Stan Lee himself---has ever stated the reason for it.  There is a popular conjecture, though, that most folks feel makes sense.

 

The conventional consensus goes something like this:

 

Stan Lee created the first mainstream-comics black super-hero, but because of the character’s full-face mask, only dedicated Marvel fans knew it.  Casual readers, checking out the covers or flipping through the pages, wouldn’t necessarily have realised it.  Stan was strong for promoting the Marvel brand as forward-thinking and socially aware.  (Nor, to be honest, was he above patting himself on the back.)  So, Lee had the Panther’s mask changed to reveal his ebony skin.  Then, even someone just passing by the spinner rack could see that Marvel Comics had a black hero, and in one of its most popular titles, yet.

 

After enough complaints about T’Challa wearing the wrong mask, Stan acquiesced and restored the original full-face cowl.  But that was O.K.; by then, everybody knew that the Panther was a black man.

 

 

It made sense to me, too---until I started researching the history of the Black Panther, and discovered an interesting wrinkle.  One that reärranges the conventional thinking a bit.

 

The first part, you probably already know.  A well-worn behind-the-scenes story has it that, when Stan Lee asked Jack Kirby to design an African super-hero for an issue of Fantastic Four, Kirby came up with “the Coal Tiger”.  Lee found the name and the visual a bit over the top, and he told Jack to give it another go.

 

Here’s the part you might not know.  Kirby’s second stab resulted in the character of the Black Panther and the familiar ebony costume---except that Jack wanted it evident that the Panther was black.  So he provided the Panther with a Batman-type half-cowl that exposed his lower face and jaw.  That’s right, gang---the half-mask was the original version!

 

This can be seen in Kirby’s first draught for the cover of Fantastic Four # 52.  Now, I’m not sure why Stan rejected this first effort; it looks perfectly serviceable to me, although admittedly, the cover that saw print had a moodier quality.  But before the issue went to press, Lee had all of the panels displaying the Black Panther’s masked face redrawn---or, more accurately, filled in---to give him a full-face cowl, concealing all of his features, including skin colour.

 

As in the other instance, I was unable to track down an authoritative explanation for why this was done.  But also as before, there is a logical surmise.

 

In creating the first super-hero of African origin, Marvel was willing to go out on a limb---but not too far out.  Someone---either Stan Lee or publisher Martin Goodman---got cold feet over the controversy that was likely to erupt, especially from the southern distributors, over introducing a prominent black hero.  Yeah, we’ll do it, but let’s not make it so obvious that he’s black.  Hence, the redrawn full-face mask.  Sure, there were still plenty of panels showing a maskless T’Challa, prince of the Wakandas, as the Panther, but you really had to read the story to find them.  And it wasn’t the readers that Lee or Goodman or whomever was worried about; they would be on-board with the idea.  Rather, it was the southern distributor who looked at the cover and maybe flipped through a page or two that they had to slip past.

 

It’s also likely that, in the Panther’s subsequent appearances in Fantastic Four and Tales of Suspense, Jack Kirby persisted in giving T’Challa the half-mask, forcing Stan to keep having the inkers turn it into an all-concealing one.  At least one instance of a Kirby-drawn half-mask slipped by Lee’s watchful eye, in a panel from Fantastic Four # 60 (Mar., 1967):

 

That changes the circumstances behind the Black Panther’s half-mask in his first few Avengers appearances.  It wasn’t a new modification; rather, it was a return to the mask that Kirby had originally envisioned for the character.  Why penciller John Buscema, the first artist after Kirby to draw the Panther, used the half-mask, we can only guess.  Maybe he got a model sheet for the Panther from Jack. 

 

Nor do we know why Stan Lee allowed Buscema’s half-mask to stand.  Perhaps, at that point, Stan figured the social climate in America had shifted enough that it was safe to ballyhoo the Panther’s race.  If so, then there’s a certain irony in the fact reader demand forced him to restore T’Challa’s “original” mask.

 

 

 

4.  The Mystery of the Turnabout Hair.

 

Silver-Age DC fans might not have known his name, but to them, Curt Swan was “the good Superman artist”.

 

For over a quarter of a century, Swan’s rendition of the Man of Steel stood as the definitive model, the one everybody thought of when they thought of Superman.  Like any skilled illustrator, Swan refined the quality of his output over the years, but his Superman---while his hair might get slightly thicker or his waist a tad slimmer, to reflect the times---remained virtually unchanged.

 

Not surprisingly, when editor Mort Weisinger, or his successor, Julius Schwartz, had a couple of pages to fill, Swan’s model sheets were often employed as a “How to Draw Superman” feature.  One of the earliest ones, seen below, was published in Action Comics # 333 (Feb., 1966).

 

Recently, in one of Brian Cronin’s columns, over at the Comics Should Be Good site, he posted the original art for that “Many Faces of Superman” piece from Action Comics # 333, along with a similar design sheet that I recognised as coming from one of the 100-Page Super-Spectaculars---Superman # 245 (Dec., 1971-Jan., 1972), to be precise.

That’s when I noticed something.  Something that I had missed noticing for decades.

 

Curt Swan’s Superman had not remained unchanged all those years.  He had made one significant alteration in his rendition of DC’s most famous star.

 

Did you catch it?  Probably.  It’s a lot easier to spot when the model sheets are so close together.  But I’ll bet you never noticed the difference when you were reading the issues of Superman or Action Comics drawn by Swan.  In the 1960’s-vintage sheet, Superman’s hair is parted on his right, with the famous “S” forecurl falling to the left.  But in the later version, from late 1971, the Man of Steel’s hair is parted on his left, and the forecurl falls to his right.

 

And, in case you’re thinking that, perhaps, one of the two model sheets was an aberration, well, no---I checked.  Looking though my stacks of Superman and Action Comics from the late ‘50’s, where Swan primarily did the covers, and the ‘60’s, after he started doing the interiors, in every case---regardless of inker---Superman’s hair was parted on the right, forecurl falling to the left.

 

Then I examined my boxes of Superman and Action Comics from the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s, and here the opposite version---hair parted on left, forecurl to right---was consistent.

 

 

So then it became a matter of determining when the change occurred.  My initial assumption was that it took place in conjunction with some significant development, such as Julius Schwartz’s early attempt to revitalise the Man of Steel, after he replaced Weisinger as editor.  Something like this would make sense.

 

But as it turned out, I was dead wrong. 

 

It took some time, sifting through a few dozen issues of Superman and Action Comics.  I even had to plug a gap of one missing issue, which I was able to do at the Heroes Convention.  But I finally pinpointed when Swan began reversing Superman’s hair.  And it was well before Schwartz took over or any efforts were made to give the Man of Steel and his alter ego a more contemporary look.

Which made the timing of the change-over perplexing.  Mort Weisinger was still in the editor's chair, and he was reluctant to tinker with DC's biggest seller.

 

The last appearance of Superman’s right-side part and the first appearance of his left-side part both took place in his own title.  The last time we see his hair parted on the right and his S-curl falling to the left in a story drawn by Swan comes in “The Case of the Collared Crime-Fighter”, from Superman # 208 (Jul., 1968). 

 

Swan parts the Metropolis Marvel’s hair on his left side for the first time in the next issue---“The Clark Kent Monster”, from Superman # 209 (Aug., 1968). 

The right-hand part makes a cameo appearance on the cover of Superman (Giant Annual) # 212 (Dec., 1968).  But other than that, Swan draws Superman with the left-hand part for the rest of his career.

 

Incidentally, Superman’s appearances in Action Comics conform to that divide.  It’s a right-side part in “The Case of the People Against Superman”, Action Comics # 359 (Feb., 1968).  Then, after a long stretch of issues in which other artists drew the Superman feature, Swan returns in “Mysteries of the Superman Awards”, Action Comics # 367 (Sep., 1968), and Our Hero is sporting a left-side part.

 

 

And that leaves us with the most unanswerable mystery of all:  why did Curt Swan change the part in Superman’s hair?

I can't even guess.

 

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...The very first-produced version of the Superman origin , remember (the version first printed in SUPERMAN #1) , specifically refers to the deaths of Superman's Earth parents as being a stimulus for him becoming Superman .

  I have thought that the Byrne-introduced idea of them still being alive was a change , certainly (If anybody else remembers this one , towards the end of the Mylar Age Superman's life Pa Kent was killed off but Ma was left alive .) ~ Not saying " Oh ! A monstrosity ! " but it certainly was a change..

This was just after Spider-Man got his own series. An attempt to say Superman learned the "with great power comes great responsibility" bit first? This should haunt him, knowing they'd still be alive if he hadn't taken them on that trip. Really would have been better to leave them old than say Superman accidentally gave them the plague.
 
Commander Benson said:

Ron M. said:

What were they doing in the Caribbean? Did Superboy kill them with a surprise vacation?

As shown in "The Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent", from Superman # 161 (May, 1963), the Kents were vacationing in the Caribbean after Superboy built a cabin cruiser for them to make the journey.  While exploring one of the islands, the Kents dug up an old pirate chest buried there some centuries before by buccaneer "Peg-leg" Morgan.  Morgan had contracted the fatal Caribbean fever plague and had been marooned there by his fellow pirates before the disease could spread.  Unfortunately, viable plague germs still contaminated the chest and the Kents became infected. 

The fever manifested the day after they returned to Smallville, and they died of it in a week's time.

 Ron M. said:

This was just after Spider-Man got his own series. An attempt to say Superman learned the "with great power comes great responsibility" bit first? This should haunt him, knowing they'd still be alive if he hadn't taken them on that trip. Really would have been better to leave them old than say Superman accidentally gave them the plague. 
 

That opinion often arises when the matter of the Kents' Silver-Age death comes up.  And  I just as often respond:  I disagree.  There is no reason for Superboy to feel guilty over his parents' deaths, nor is he culpable in their deaths.

 

It's a too much of a reach to argue that Superboy was responsible for his parents' deaths---because he suggested the idea of a Caribbean cruise and he built them a yacht to make the trip more convenient and fun.  That argument isn't valid because the outcome---the deaths of the Kents---wasn't reasonably predictable.  The result was too removed from the events that set the situation into motion.

 

Civil law and our society recognises that an action may be reasonably anticipated to be the proximate cause of a subsequent event.  For example, thirty-eight states in the Union have "Dram Shop Acts", which hold innkeepers and bartenders civilly responsible for continuing to serve alcohol to a patron who is nearing the point of intoxication.  The rationale is obvious; there is a strong possibility that an intoxicated patron, with his impaired judgement, will commit a subsequent act which will cause harm to himself and/or others.

 

It doesn't take a genius to follow the line of correlation.  Joe the Bartender sees that Nestor is already sounding a little lightheaded.  It is reasonable for Joe to expect the real possiblity that, should he serve Nestor more alcohol, then Nestor might then get in his car and cause an accident while driving in his impaired state.  Or that Nestor might suffer injury or death from severe alcohol poisoning.  Or that a severely drunken Nestor might fall off the barstool and crack his head open.  Not that any of these events will happen, but the incidence that they might happen is high enough that it is prudent and logical for Joe the Bartender to anticipate them.  Here the line of reasonable predictability is clear and direct.

 

The case of Superboy and his parents' death doesn't come anywhere near that.  Here's a prosaic analogy to Superboy's situation:

 

Let's say that the Good Mrs. Benson's car has broken down beyond the point where it would be not cost-effective to repair.  So the following week, I surprise her with a gift of a brand-new automobile.  The next morning, I say to her, "Hey, why don't you drive over to your sister's house and show off your new car?" and she likes that idea.  So after breakfast, the GMB gets in her new car and heads for her sister's house.

 

Before she pulls out of the driveway, the GMB familiaises herself with the new knobs and buttons and then off she drives, observing all traffic laws and driving responsibly.

 

Then, as she enters an intersection in accordance with the green light for her direction of travel, a drunk driver runs the red light on the cross street, rams the GMB's car, and kills her.

 

Is it my fault that my wife died because I bought her a new car?  Is it my fault my wife died because I suggested that she go visit her sister?

 

No, of course not.  Because there would be no way to reasonably predict such a tragic outcome from those two events.  In the same vein, there was no way for Superboy to reasonably anticipate the deaths of his parents would result from giving them a pleasure cruiser and suggesting that they take their vacation in the Caribbean.

 

Even if the Boy of Steel had flown the Kents and their yacht to the Caribbean (the story is unclear on that point), there is still no way to reasonably predict the death of his parents would have happened from that.

 

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that the Kents had no say in where they took their vacation.  Superboy used no overwhelming influence or threat to make them go to the Caribbean, and it may have been a place the Kents had wanted to go to themselves.  In any event, simply agreeing with their son's suggestion doesn't place any liability on Superboy.

 

Certainly, there is little to assuage Superboy if he blames himself for not finding a cure for his parents' illness or for not thinking of the Phantom Zone sooner.  But he cannot---and as the story showed, he did not---hold himself responsible for the Kents' illness, once he learnt the true cause of their infexion.

 

 

Didn't they alter the artwork when they reprinted the story to make the Kents look younger at their time of death?

And didn't they later retcon the Kents' youth treatment wearing off before their deaths?

Philip Portelli said:

Didn't they alter the artwork when they reprinted the story to make the Kents look younger at their time of death?

And didn't they later retcon the Kents' youth treatment wearing off before their deaths?

Yep and yep.  Much as, twenty years later, with the Crisis, DC really didn't think things through when it came to "youthenising" the Kents. Several years ago, I wrote a long piece on the subject, which I posted on various fora, whenever the rejuvenation of the Kents was mentioned.  With regard to the two questions you raised, Philip:

______________________________________________________________________________

But that wasn’t the only thing bothering long-time readers. Immediately following the appearance of “The Fantastic Faces”, older fans wrote in, pointing out the significant tale “The Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent”, which had appeared ‘way back in Superman # 161 (May, 1963). This story, telling of Jonathan and Martha’s deaths and the events just prior to it, showed them as “the old Kents”. The faithful wanted to know how DC accounted for that.

Then-Superboy editor, Mort Weisinger, explained in the letter column of Superboy # 148 (Jun., 1968) that a side-effect of the Caribbean fever plague contracted by the Kents was to counteract the youth serum, returning them to their actual physical age. This was not completely convincing, however, since there were a few scenes in “The Last Days . . . ” that took place before the Kents were infected with the plague, and they were “the old Kents” in those panels, too.

Probably because of that, DC tried to re-write continuity when “The Last Days . . . ” was reprinted in Giant Superboy # 165 (Jun., 1970). In an attempt to make it look like it was “the young Kents” after all who succumbed to the fever plague, an editorial brush was taken to all the panels showing the Kents, deleting their eyeglasses and turning their white hair a light brown.

This didn’t really go over with the fans, either, since the redrawing didn’t go to the Kents’ physiques, which were still shown as portly. Thus, all the redrawing did was make the Kents of reprinted “Last Days . . . ” look like “the middle-aged Kents” of Superbaby’s time.

Throwing up its hands in frustration, DC just ignored the whole thing for a long time. Then, in Superman # 327 (Sep., 1978) editor Julius Schwartz and writer Marty Pasko came up with the solution that should have been obvious all along. 

In this story, “The Sandstorm That Swallowed Metropolis”, Superman goes up against the master criminal, Kobra. In order to hold the Man of Steel at bay, Kobra reveals that he has plucked Jonathan and Martha Kent—“the old Kents”—out of the time stream a week before their deaths and is holding them in a time-suspension bubble. On page 10, Pasko provides the answer which was right in front of DC’s face, as Superman remarks:

They died over a decade ago! And part of me has grieved ever since! It was a terrible blow—because I expected them to live much longer! They had been rejuvenated by an alien youth serum . . . but shortly before I turned 18, they began to age again—proving the effects of the serum had been only temporary!

I remember that SUPERBOY Giant. I thought it was strange that they reprinted a Superman story. Maybe I thought that Superboy had a separate reality than his adult self.

Whether it was warranted or not, I think that Superman always felt guilty about losing a second set of parents. Worse that like Jor-El and Lara, they passed away together.

But the thing that bothered me the most about this story was Luthor's cruel remarks about being glad that he COULDN'T save the Kents. I think that he was angry that he had failed so he taunted Clark to boost himself up.

Was that fact that Clark and Luthor grew up together ever a point in any story? Or Luthor and Lana?

 Philip Portelli said:

Whether it was warranted or not, I think that Superman always felt guilty about losing a second set of parents.

I agree that Superboy felt guilt over not being able to cure his foster parents.  That's what makes Jonathan Kent's deathbed scene in Action Comics # 500 (Oct., 1979) so powerful:  Superboy's anguish over his inability to prevent the two people he loves most from dying.

But about causing their deaths?  No.  And "The Last Days of Ma and Pa Kent" make it clear that he doesn't blame himself for that.

I'm not saying that Superboy thinks that he caused his parents' deaths. I understand the incredible set of circumstances involved. But I'm also sure that Clark must have been haunted by the "If only..." and the "If  I had known...". That's only natural. Guilt comes not only from action and reaction but hindsight as well.

There's an effective sequel of sorts to the Death of the Kents where Lois and Lana are infected by the same disease. So Superman has to deal with the certainty he'll lose two more people to the same plague, while searching desperately for a cure. Cary Bates did a nice job saving the women without forcing Superman to go "Oh, why didn't I think of this for Ma and Pa!"

On black super-heroes: according to Neal Adams, when Marv Wolfman and Len Wein introduced the black superhero Jericho in Teen Titans in the Silver Age, Carmine Infantino refused to approve the story (even after heavy rewriting). So Adams (and Wolfman, and Wein) concluded Infantino didn't think a black super-hero would fly (the previous publisher had been OK with it) and Adams final rewrite made the guy white.

Re: The Black Panther's mask ...

Grant Fuhr was like that.

First Black* goalkeeper in the National Hockey League (I think), and an all star, but you couldn't tell it watching him in action: clad in the usual body armor with a helmet-mask combination on his head.

(*Can't say "African-American" in this case. I guess he was African-Canadian.)

Correction, the black hero was Joshua.

I must say the Panther looks more striking with the full mask.

I recall that after the Kents were youthenized, they turned to the fourth wall to assure the suspicious reader that this wasn't a gimmick, but rather a permanent change!

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