In this column, I will spotlight plotlines by writers that probably weren’t a good idea at the time and have only become more problematic in retrospect. I’ll try to stick with stuff that’s more ill-conceived than flat-out offensive (like racist stereotypes of characters during the 1940s).
Today we look at the introduction of the first black member of the Legion of Super-Heroes…
As I detailed in an old Comic Book Legends Revealed, the introduction of Tyroc in Superboy #216 (by Cary Bates and Mike Grell) at the end of 1975 came after some behind-the-scenes debate. Legion artist Mike Grell thought it was weird that there never seemed to be any black people in the future, so he tried to make a one-off character black. The editor of the book, though, Murray Boltinoff, told him not to do it, as Boltinoff was already planning on introducing a black character to the book as well as addressing the absence of black people in the title. So Boltinoff literally had Grell’s pencils “whitewashed,” as a character Grell drew as a black man was colored white.
When Grell learned who Boltinoff had settled on for the new black character in the title, Grell was angered. As quoted in Glen Cadigan’s The Legion Companion, Grell noted “I kept getting stalled off…and finally comes Tyroc. They might as well have named him Tyrone. Their explanation for why there were no black people [in the Legion] was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. It’s possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life…I mean, it’s a segregationist’s dream, right? So they named him Tyroc, and gave him the world’s stupidest super-power.”
As a protest, Grell decided to give him an intentionally goofy costume…
“I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis’ Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing.”
Here is the costume on the cover…
The issue revolves around some jewels stolen years earlier and stashed in a satellite crashing down on to Manzal, the aforementioned “black” island. The Legion head to the island to get to the jewels before criminals find them…
We then meet the hero of Marzal, Tyroc…
Those are some pretty bold charges against the Legion, no?
In the end, they stop the bad guys and save Tyroc (who had gone undercover among the bad guys)…
It is weird how they never really address his complaints, right?
Tyroc appeared a few times over the next couple of years but he was eventually written out of the title roughly 50 issues later, as Marzal fades out of this dimension and Tyroc decides to go with his people.
Clearly, Boltinoff didn’t mean anything negative by the idea behind Tyroc and assuredly just thought that he was coming up with a good explanation for why we never saw any black people in the Legion’s comics (in fact, another DC Comics series used almost the exact same explanation for why another title didn’t have black people in it – I’ll likely get to that one in the future, so don’t write into the comments about it. Rest assured that I know that you know it) but it reads really oddly. Jim Shooter also hated the idea, noting to Cadigan, “.instead of just incidentally having a character who happens to be black…they made a big fuss about it. He’s a racial separatist….I just found it pathetic and appalling”
Keith Giffen, who also did not like the character (but more for visual reasons – he thought it was hard to draw a guy whose powers were based on sounds), eventually redeemed Tyroc a bit when he made him a prominent member of the Earth rebellion against the Dominators (and later the President of New Earth) during Giffen’s Five Year Later Legion. Giffen and Paul Levitz, by the way, introduced a prominent black member of the Legion during their run on the book, the second Invisible Kid.
If you can think of a good example for this column, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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