The Marvel Family #1
“The Mighty Marvels Join Forces!”
Writer – Otto Binder
Art – C.C. Beck
The DC Universe in which Superman inhabits has a system for who and who doesn’t get to have moral authority. At times this system hides an ethnic or national hubris. Earth, for example, is monitored by meta-humans reassuringly affiliated with the United States and Western allies. Green Lantern, a cosmic ‘representative’ of Earth, is American. Superman is the most powerful being on the planet and he grew up in America. Lex Luthor would have been the Greatest Man Alive if it weren’t for Supes, and he’s American.
Usually this representation is nothing more than a passive ethnocentricity of which all cultures are guilty. But when DC tosses in Middle Eastern representatives, specifically an Arab character notoriously depicted as morally depraved and emotionally inferior to American peers, then caution must to be taken.
The character I’m specifically interested in critiquing is the Arab anti-villain known as Black Adam. He’s a character who has decidable presence in comics, rating #16 on IGN’s Top 100 Comic Book Villains of All Time. Having simmered through decades of Captain Marvel beat-downs, the character was finally brought to boil in the 2006-7 DC limited series 52. Time and time again DC stories have hinted that Black Adam could be a hero if not for his near-sighted justice, anger issues, and God complex. However, as a major Arab spokesperson, these ‘character traits’ appear to be racist stereotypes.
In my opinion, Black Adam is a critique on a medieval sense of justice attributed unfairly to the Middle East. On an individual level, Black Adam’s heroic intentions are subverted by the violent extremity in which he enacts his justice. On a contextual level, where we review the character as an American creation, Black Adam’s moral shortcomings are carefully constructed to display the superior idea of the United States through the misrepresentation of Arabic ideals.
I must mention that Black Adam was not originally an Arab. The character was originally an ancient Egyptian, or Hamite. In another interpretation, he might be an Israelite slave. JSA #43 (February 2003) revised Adam’s backstory, making him a nomad from Kahndaq, described as “an Arab country on the continent of Africa” (DC Database). Since the switch, Black Adam has come to be one of the few Arab voices in the DCU.
But before we can examine Black Adam, we should look at the popularity of his analogue, Captain Marvel, and how American identification with superheroes led to the creation of Black Adam’s early caricature.
Studies have shown that the popularity of a superhero series is closely tied to a reader’s self-identification (and even self-inflation) with a respective hero or heroine (Griffis). In the Golden Age, usually determined to be the late 30s to the early 50s, the majority of comic book sales were attributed to young white males and females, with the exception of a surge in more mature titles targeted at soldiers overseas (Sexton). Therefore it made perfect sense for a publishing company operating in the superhero genre to overload young readers with costumed wish-fulfillment scenarios.
A major part of Batman and Superman’s success was due to how the properties combined wish-fulfillment with the reader’s disempowered and mundane reality. The true ingenuity was the ‘secret identity,’ or alter ego, which offered a relatability to the underlying psychological framework of the heroes through their ‘ordinariness.’ Superman was both the Man of Steel and a bumbling immigrant. Batman would don the cowl and become a detective crime-fighter, but he also had very human feelings of pain and loss, would don street clothes to join society from time to time, and had a fatherly relationship to Robin.
Another example of youth-based marketing was the creation of Captain Marvel and his ‘marvelous’ siblings. Conceived in 1939 by Bill Parker and C.C. Beck, Captain Marvel was supposed to be “Superman, only with an identity of a boy aged 10 to 12” (Smith). In fact, the cover art of Captain Marvel’s debut in Whiz Comics #2 (February 1940) had an uncanny likeness to Superman’s debut in Action Comics #1 (June 1938). The resemblance eventually led to Fawcett Publications being “sued and forced out of business by litigious competitor” National Periodical Publications, now DC Comics (Comic Vine).
Before the company’s dissolution, Captain Marvel outsold competitors, including Superman. By the mid-1940s Captain Marvel Adventures was selling “1.8 million copies, more than the top 10 books in today’s direct market combined, twice a month” (Smith). A likely attribute to his success was his relatabilty. Billy Battson only needed to say a magic word to retrieve his powers (and his alternate identity). But Billy wasn’t a Kryptonian or highly-trained martial artist — he was the everykid, accessible to the industry’s highest-grossing demographic.
Captain Marvel would go on to become the prototype for multiple Fawcett spin-offs. Each of these side-series would introduce more members of the ‘Marvel Family,’ representing the exact demographics they targeted.
Billy Batson was created to attract adolescent male readers; for the girls, there was Mary Marvel. For the younger or possibly handicapped reader there was Freddy Freeman, construed so as to “compete with Batman’s Robin and other junior supercharacters” (Heintjes). Meanwhile, the adult male reader might find representation in the goofball Uncle Marvel, a relatable blend of ‘fun,’ moral authority, and enough wit to outsmart Oriental demi-gods.
Oddly enough, there was even a big-lipped, kinky-haired African American character named Steamboat, intended “to capture the affection of negro readers” as C.C. Beck so eloquently put it in an interview conducted in the 1980s. According to Beck, Steamboat was “unceremoniously killed off after a delegation of blacks visited the editor’s office” in protest (Heintjes). Obviously, the studio was no stranger to blatant racial stereotypes.
Heroes need villains to defeat, whether they are super-powered fiends, an evil society of monsters, or telepathic caterpillars. Black Adam made his debut inThe Marvel Family #1 (1945) with the intention of being a powerful one-timer.
In his genesis, Black Adam is presented as the anti-thesis of Captain Marvel: ruthless, power-hungry, without any rationale for world conquest save that he has the trans-human means to do it. Despite possessing the ‘wisdom of Zehuti,’ Black Adam is easily duped by children and by Uncle Marvel. He is eventually defeated not in a test of strength but a shrewd manipulation reminiscent of ‘The Fisherman and Jinni’ from One Thousand and One Nights. All in all, it’s an easy binary for the young ‘40s reader. The Self is Captain Marvel, an American child entrusted with amazing power and responsibility. The Other, or Black Adam, is an easily-cheated foreigner corrupted by greed.
In-story, Black Adam was once an ancient Egyptian called Teth-Adam granted the same magical abilities as Billy Battson. The time frame is 5,000 years ago, placing the setting in the Early Dynastic Period around the rise of Egyptian urbanism. Teth-Adam is a “worthy man” corrupted by evil. How he’s corrupted exactly isn’t explained, although the results are fairly conspicuous. “Get off that throne, Pharaoh! I want it!” Teth-Adam shouts, even though there won’t be a Pharaoh historically for another thousand years. Teth-Adam snaps the poor man’s neck and takes his funny hat. “Now I am ruler of Egypt and all its dominions!” he gleefully shouts to the one guard in the room. “I will send armies to sweep out and conquer all the world!” (The Marvel Family #1). When the wizard who created Black Adam finds out about this, he immediately banishes Black Adam to the furthest star in the universe.
True history, it seems, isn’t the comic’s intention, as pyramids and pharaohs are anachronistically depicted. The emphasis is instead on the spiritual connection between Black Adam as a precursor to modern thought and as the failed moral guardian of the cosmos.
This ties into my interpretation of the character’s intended ethnicity. The Marvel Family’s Black Adam might be intended to be Hamitic (supposed caucasian settlers descended from Noah’s son, Ham, whom early 20th century scholars incorrectly theorized had populated ancient Egypt). Black Adam is certainly not Nubian. In my opinion, however, the early incarnation of Black Adam is intended to be an ancient Jew. Although this isn’t supported by the timeline of events (shown to be out of sync) or textual evidence, I draw my conclusion from Black Adam’s physical composition and behavior, similarities between his origins and ‘historical’ Bible stories, and the pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes of the time period.
Black Adam’s physical features certainly enhance an anti-Semitic reading, combining the habiliments of a supervillain with derogatory racial profiling. Although studies have shown there is not any significant difference between the Jewish phenotype and the populations in which they have co-existed for the past several centuries, there were created certain artificial signifiers for Jewishness in nineteenth and twentieth-century American cultural consciousness (Yarden). Unfortunately, the Black Adam of 1945 features many of the same signifiers. He has a prominent hooked nose, a knobbed chin, extended eyebrows, dark eye and hair color (Gilman; Pearl).
Another pop culture phenomenon was to depict Jews with the same observable characteristics as depictions of Satan (Gilman). In that regard, Black Adam sports a widow’s peak, elf ears, and a diabolically-pointed look. United with these grotesque exaggerations is a black variant of Captain Marvel’s lightning-bolted strongman suit, sans a hero’s cape. A bodybuilder’s physique and clean-shaven chin puts Black Adam on par with Captain Marvel physically, adding to his threatening demeanor.
The behavior of Black Adam is equally aligned to anti-Semitic sentiments already an American tradition by 1945. The time period in which The Marvel Family #1 was printed was witnessing increased Jewish immigration in response to World War II (already exacerbated by turn-of-the-century Russian pogroms). It was a time of mass social anxiety, having just survived an economic depression and another world war. There was a growing paranoia, supported by Christian authorities, of a Jewish conspiracy in government (Weir). Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company, echoed these fears when he declared that the Jews were “the world’s foremost problem” (Ford).
According to Hasia Diner, a Professor of American Jewish History at NYU, Americans began to perceive the “Jew as defective. Not Judaism… but the Jew as a particular social type who had defective mental and moral abilities” (American Experience). Black Adam’s desire to take over the world echoed a fear that the ‘modern’ Jew of the 1940s was aiming to do the same.
There is also a certain amount of Biblical Orientalism involved. In the early 20th century, Christian theologians depicted their religion as an improved Judaism (or, retroactively, Judaism as preparation for Christianity). Eventually this manifested into the idea that the West had “risen from, and above, it’s Oriental roots” in the same way Christ rose above his Jewishness (Penslar).
Furthermore, there is precedence in the Old Testament for individual Israelites to rise to administrative positions in ancient Egypt. Moses would be the the most famous example, although Joseph (of dream coat fame) pre-dated him. Now, we’ve already established that there are chronological inconsistencies with the backstory’s time frame and Egyptian props (i.e. the pyramids, Pharaoh). How difficult is it to imagine that the writers intended the Israelites to be enslaved already?
And then there’s the suspicious nature of Teth-Adam’s name, which is partially a Hebrew name, and a famous Hebrew name at that. The Biblical story is well-known so I’ll sum it up quickly: Adam was the first Created Man. He was made regent over the earth until an act of disobedience led to his banishment. A few millennia later, a new regent was chosen — one whom would not fall to the same temptations (ESV). Sound familiar?
Later runs would expand both Captain Marvel and Black Adam’s origins, usually in reaction to questions posed by readership or as a way of ‘modernizing’ outdated material. However, half-a-century later, mass social anxiety had long since shifted away from anti-Semitism. Israel had been a national ally for several decades and progress had been made in developing sympathy for the Jewish people. To continue to incorporate Black Adam into a metaphorical reading of Jewishness would be obsolete, inflammatory, and inappropriate; writers wanted to include Black Adam but sought to update his origins to a more relevant caricature of contrary logic.
Which is when the Middle East came into the picture (or, in this case, sequence of pictures). But as I feel this essay has run long enough, I will leave the shift from anti-Semitism to anti-Arabism for a future article.
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