BY Will Emmons
Justice League: New Frontier, the cartoon adaption of Darwyn Cooke’s instant classic about the dawn of the Silver Age of DC Comics, came out on DVD last week. When I was watching it, I was somewhat disappointed. My friends who hadn’t read the miniseries thought it was sweet, but I guess the actual comics ruined me. The movie didn’t capture those iconic moments like Hal Jordan kissing Carol Ferris before he takes off to fight the Center and J’onn J’onnz going apeshit and transforming into the Martian Manhunter we know and love when King Faraday died. That being said, I want to talk about something a little more substantive than fanboy concerns.
I want to talk about the political overtones of the story. That period in the late ’50s was an exciting (and scary) time to be alive for far greater reasons than the dawn of the Silver Age of comics. Americans were suffering silently under conformity, lynchings raged across the South, McCarthyism destroyed people’s lives, and we all feared that nuclear annihilation was around the bend. But the Global South was on fire with social revolution — A lot of folks believed a real change was a-coming. Among them was Martin Luther King, Jr. (after the jump):
“Now I am aware of the fact that there are those who would contend that we live in the most ghastly period in human history. They would argue that the rhythmic beat of deep rumblings of discontent from Asia, the uprisings in Africa, the nationalistic longings in Egypt, the roaring cannons from Hungary, and the racial tensions of America are all indicative of the deep and tragic midnight which encompasses our civilization. They would argue that we are retrogressing instead of progressing. But far from representing retrogression and tragic meaninglessness, the present tensions represent the necessary pains that accompany the birth of anything new. Long ago the Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that justice emerges from the strife of opposites, and Hegel, in modern philosophy, preached a doctrine of growth through struggle. It is both historically and biologically true that there can be no birth and growth without birth and growing pains. Whenever there is the emergence of the new we confront the recalcitrance of the old. So the tensions which we witness in the world today are indicative of the fact that a new world order is being born and an old order is passing away.”
A bit more dialectical than JFK’s speech for which the story is named, but I’ve never been one for presidential speeches. Imperialism was suffering a massive crisis and it is this context that we can situate the Montgomery bus boycott and Darwyn Cooke’s retroactive addition to the Silver Age pantheon of heroes:
According to commentary by Cooke in the DVD’s special features, John Henry was a black man who the Klan failed at lynching and became masked defender of his generic Southern rural black community against violent incursions. The story casts him as a media darling. Though he is not an actual character in the story so much as a plot point, his violent death broadcast by national media signifies a blow to a man’s right to wear tights and a mask. The Flash mourns his passing before announcing his retirement. J’onn J’onnz curses bitter human racism and decides to runaway home to Mars. It signifies the spiritual nadir in the story before the story’s villain the Center, a flying dinosaur island that is supposed to symbolize Communism, unites the masks and the government folk to save humanity and democracy. I’m not going to deal with how problematic it is that the story’s only black (non)character’s sole purpose was to die and give all the white characters something to react to, though someone in the blogosphere or academy ought to.
Rather, I want to point out how ahistorical the treatment of John Henry by the media in New Frontier is. Something Cooke doesn’t touch on is that in the 1950s there actually was a black man who armed himself (and his community) to fight racist violence. The initial response was a media blackout followed by his being labeled a criminal and radical terrorist and being forced to flee to Cuba.
The real black superhero of the 1950s was a man named Robert F. Williams. You may have heard of his book or the like named documentary NEGROES WITH GUNS. After serving in the armed forces (like Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan) Williams returned home to Monroe, NC, where he became the driving force behind the only integrated, predominantly working class NAACP chapter in the South. They drew ire and gunfire during their peaceful campaign to integrate local swimming pools. After a local case in which a white man who brutally beat and attempted to rape a pregnant black woman was acquitted, it became apparent that complacent law enforcement and racist dominated legal system would not defend Monroe’s black residents. Williams began publicly advocating armed self-defense.
He and his comrades filed a charter with the NRA and began a self-defense militia. In the real world hammers don’t cut it. When the militia fired on a group of armed Klansmen (killing nor injuring no one) who were attacking the black community in Monroe, Williams did not, in fact, become a media darling. There was more-or-less a media blackout, despite the fact that earlier that year there had been a widely celebrated incident where Native Americans had repelled the Klan with gunfire. Meanwhile, the national NAACP suspended Williams’ role as president of his local chapter and was running his name through the mud in the press as an advocate of violence.
Things reached a crisis point when a team of young, non-violent freedom riders rolled into town at Williams’ behest. He pledged that if they could demonstrate non-violence worked, he would become a pacifist. Days of picketing agitated the racists to a fever pitch. Protesters were beaten and bruised. One evening around 6, a car with a white couple by the named of Stegall rolled through the black part of town. Locals recognized the car as having been the one that had earlier rolled through with the banner “Open Season On Coons.” Angry locals stopped the car at gunpoint less than a block from Williams’ yard. Mrs. Stegall asked Williams if they were being kidnapped. He informed her that they were not being kidnapped and that they could go. However, the angry crowd was calling for their blood. After calling for state troopers to escort the Stegalls out, but then escorted them out himself, because he realized he was trying to be framed as a kidnapper.
Williams was forced to flee to Cuba (remember, this was before Castro’s regime was in Soviet orbit) as charges came down on him and his name was dragged through the mud as a reserve racist and a terrorist. In the real world, John Henry would have suffered the same fate. While Darwyn Cooke’s attempt to create a sort of black Silver Age superhero is laudable, having him mourned as a hero in the national media at the point of his death demonstrates the myopic view of the history of race relations in this country: Only the South was racist. Not the North. Never the North. But then Martin Luther King came down from Heaven and he and Lyndon Johnson fixed all of this country’s race problems. The end.
The media would have been horrified of John Henry. He was a black man in the ’50s who wore a grotesque mask and beat up white people with a hammer. Everyone from the NAACP to the federal government would have been denouncing him constantly. And there is no doubt in my mind that the government anti-vigilante crowd would have been a lot more scared of him than, say, a whitey like the Flash.
There’s a longstanding tendency to pretend that racism doesn’t exist. This tendency’s effects are exacerbated when folks “retcon” what racism was like in the past, minimizing its nationwide scope and other effects. Darwyn Cooke could have done better by having federal law enforcement kill John Henry the way Coast City cops accidentally did in Hourman. Anyway, that’s my two cents.
What do you think?
*I contend that white privilege applies to J’onn J’onnz no matter how angsty he wants to be about his otherness.