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.
Basil Rathbone was an African-American.
Lee Semmens said:
I think it was on one of Nelson Mandela's visits to the U.S. that a journalist made some comment to Mandela about him being an "African-American"!
Cringingly, mind-numbingly awful!
Clearly, we're dealing with people who are making the mistake of thinking "African-American" is a synomym for and is interchangeable with "Black," which it is not.
First of all, I want to congratulate the Commander on his powers of observation. After decades of reading Superman comics, I never noticed the curl switch.
I really doubt that the change was an editorial decision to update the character. It is just too small and subtle. Look how long it took for any of us to notice it. I suspect it was a personal decision of Curt Swan. I like Mr. Blanchard's theory that the curl forms an "S".
Or maybe Curt just wanted to switch Superman from right-handed to left-handed. Was Curt a lefty himself? I haven't been able to find a picture of him drawing.