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NUM-INOUS COMICS PT. 2

This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

NULL-MYTHS: SUPER GREEN BERET #1 (1967)

In this week's analysis of a BLACKHAWK myth-comic, I admitted that there wasn't much doubt that it included racial symbolism. Ideological critics would automatically condemn the story as irredeemably racist, because the stigmatization of the villains-- who are small and dark-skinned-- is an automatic taboo. In contrast, I find that any racist content exists only *in esse,* as defined in this essay.

That essay, POSSE COMIC-TATUS, was devoted to showing that despite the ideological critic's tendency to cry "fascism" at the drop of a cowl, there may be some situations where the cry of fascism is justified. The same holds true for racism, and so this essay concerns a comic book that represents one of the worst *in posse* examples of both fascism and racism.



TOD HOLTON, SUPER GREEN BERET appeared in two 25-cent comics in 1967, from a short-lived publisher, Lightning Comics. Although the Beret's creators included two illustrious comics-figures-- writer Otto Binder and artist Carl Pfeufer-- neither man is well-served through association with this jingoistic enterprise. There are no deeper symbols underlying the first issue's cover image: it really is all about a big, strong Caucasian guy slamming around goony-looking Asian opponents. (I'm not sure their strange orange skin-hue is much of an improvement over the "canary-yellow" more frequently used to depict Asians.)

Clearly the publishers wanted to capitalize on the popularization of the Green Berets as a specialized fighting-force in the Vietnamese conflict. The popular 1966 song "Ballad of the Green Berets" could have easily inspired Tod Holton's genesis, although the greatest structural influence is clearly the origin-story of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL, to which feature Binder frequently contributed.

Following the lead of Billy Batson in CAPTAIN MARVEL, BERET's protagonist Tod Holton is a boy of high-school age who can magically transform into a super-powerful adult. However, since the creators had no half-reasonable way to place Tod himself in Vietnam, the vehicle through which Tod gains his method of transformation-- a magical green beret-- is his uncle, currently serving in the field.




The uncle-- whom Tod clearly idolizes-- returns to the U.S, on furlough and tells Tod a story of how he saved a South Vietnamese monk from the depredations of the "Vietcong." The monk then placed a supernatural blessing on the uncle's beret, telling him that it would imbue its wearer with great power if the wearer was "young and noble by nature." The uncle doesn't believe in the monk's hoodoo, but as soon as juvenile Tod dons the beret, both he and his uncle behold that it gives Tod fantastic powers, whenever he touches his hand to the beret in a salute.  The uncle thinks this is a great opportunity for Tod to become a military-themed superhero. The uncle promptly disappears from the remainder of the story and never appears in the rest of the stories.

None of the charm of the Fawcett CAPTAIN MARVEL is evident in this rinky-dink imitation. The Vietnamese wizard, who does occasionally tune in to Tod's heroic adventures, is never called anything but "the Jungle Wizard," and it's interesting that he's colored with pink, rather than orange, skin. Perhaps this signaled his true sympathies, since on reading the origin one is likely to wonder, "What, the Wizard couldn't find anyone in all of Vietnam who was both 'young and noble by nature?''"

The idea of Tod activating his near-infinite powers by performing a military salute was meant to imbue the gesture with heroic stature; instead, it just looks stupid. Super Green Beret can perform any number of genie-like tricks-- making himself super-strong and bulletproof, or changing grenades into real pineapples. However, he has to be concentrating to make anything supernatural happen, so he can be knocked out from behind, and if the superhero loses his beret, he reverts to plain Tod Holton.

Apparently the publishers weren't engaged in a particular political agenda, for Super Green Beret doesn't spend much time in Vietnam, but also squashes a rebellion in South America and forces the tyrannical ruler of an African country to give power to his people. To add variety, the hero also travels in time, fighting German soldiers during WWII and English soldiers during the Revolutionary War. Still, the book's very simplicity-- lacking even the florid, one-sided rhetoric of Marvel's contemporary anti-Commie comics-- makes it even more of a fascist comic *in posse.*

As for racism, aside from the visual depiction of Asians, there aren't any overt racial tropes. However, Binder comes close in the Beret's first adventure. In WWII it wouldn't have been unusual to see Japanese soldiers mocked as being "sawed-off monkeys," thus derogating both their stature and their supposed resemblance to apes. But in one scene, the Beret sees a few Vietcong snipers climbing up a tree to take pot-shots at American soldiers. His solution? He manifests a giant saw, saws through the tree-branches, and sends the snipers plunging to the ground-- after which he adds the quip, "Seems your limbs are being sawed off, you sawed off monkeys!"  The cleverness with which Binder manages to re-work a racist trope is almost admirable. Were he called upon to defend it, he could have said, "Well, they're climbing trees like monkeys, and they've been literally 'sawed off' because the hero cut through the tree's limbs!" I doubt that anyone would have credited such a defense. But even ingenuity used for a bad end is still ingenuity.



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