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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...

Friday, February 12, 2016

MYTHCOMICS: "THE CASE OF THE BLACK TALON" (CAPT. AMERICA #9, 1941)

Though the Golden Age Captain America was conceived as a protest against the advance of the Axis Powers, creators Simon and Kirby never confined the hero's adventures to wartime struggles. In part they might have been reluctant to deal with the war in more than vague generalities, given that real-life events might outstrip any imaginary exploits. Yet the same rules applied to most superheroes of the period, and many of the other masked adventurers contented themselves with simply fighting mundane crooks and Fifth Columnists.

The Golden Age CAPTAIN AMERICA, though, was full of a love of the grotesque, pitting the Captain and his young partner Bucky against mummies, vampires, artificial monsters, and almost every other horrific figure who'd ever been the subject of an American fright-flick. Most of these encounters with weirdness were thoroughly derivative, though still enjoyable on those terms. But one of the few that actually shows a touch of original thought-- written by Otto Binder and drawn by the Captain's co-creator Kirby-- is also strongly implicated in the racial myths of the time.

The adventure begins with an artistic foreshadowing of the thrills to come. The heroes, in their military attire as Private Steve Rogers and camp mascot Bucky Barnes, attend an art gallery and see a portrait of a "black hand," and Bucky observes that "it's a weird subject, but fine artwork." One panel later, as the two return to their barracks, Steve apparently help repeating the same opposition of "goodness" and "weirdness," with the statement, "A black hand! What a subject for a good painter!"

The two then hear a real murder being committed, so they change into their crimefighting outfits and ascend to an apartment. They find a strangled artist, and while they search the area, Bucky is attacked and almost strangled by an extraordinarily strong black hand. When the Captain rushes to his partner's aid, the strangler flees and escapes. The heroes then realize that the murdered man is an artist of some fame, and that the killer also slashed the artist's paintings as well as killing the man.



After a bit of comic byplay, the reader is introduced to a mad-looking Caucsian painter with one black hand and one white hand, who is now painting the agonies of his victim. With the help of two hired thugs, the unnamed villain ambushes yet another artist in his gallery and takes sadistic pleasure in personally knifing the man to death.



Captain America and Bucky once more manage to show up, but though they defeat the thugs, both heroes are defeated when the man uses his black hand to strangle them into unconsciousness. Only the arrival of the police keeps the two crusaders from being killed. The heroes then resign themselves to tedious "detective work," and it leads them to the studio of an artist named Pascal Horta-- whom the reader knows to be the murderous painter. Again the so-called "Black Talon" manages to knock out the crusaders, and while preparing to kill them he reveals how he came to possess one black hand and why he's been killing other artists and painting their agonies.






However, in the tradition of heroes over the ages, Captain America manages to free himself while the evildoer runs his mouth. Again hero and villain clash, and this time the Talon is hurled from a high window. However, the story ends atypically by showing that the Talon has not only survived, he begins making plans for his next vengeful plot-- which, as the final panel helpfully tells us, will appear in an upcoming issue of the YOUNG ALLIES comic book.

I return now to my distinction of "racial" and "racist" myths. Within my critical system, not every negative portrait of a member of a particular race is automatically racist. If there is some tenable logic in attributing negative elements to a character, then this is no more racist than attributing positive elements to another character of the same race.

Now, in the case of the donor of Horta's super-powerful hand, the reader sees little that would render "Strangler Burns" as even a two-dimensional character. One caption that calls him an "African," but if he is such then he's apparently taken an English-language name. He never speaks and the reader doesn't know why he committed whatever murders he committed. The doctor who proposes the operation claims that Burns volunteered the use of his hand claims that he's done so "as a final decent gesture," but this probably isn't anything more than a nod to American jurisprudence, whose legalities would make such consent necessary.

Now, let us consider Horta (whose surname bears an interesting relationship to the titular monster of Guy de Maupassant's short story "The Horla," also a story about an insidious influence possessing a formerly sane man). Horta is, to say the least, rather intense about his desire to paint no matter what, and though he's initially horrified at the thought of sporting a black man's hand, his passion to paint overcomes all resistance. "Black hand-- white hand-- what does it matter? I can paint again!" However, as soon as Horta tries to use his transplant-hand for painting, he finds himself rendering only portraits of horror. Further, he's inspired to become a strangler himself by killing off his rivals in the art-world, the better to render their deaths in oils.

Is there a possibility that Horta is merely imagining that the hand is forcing him to paint horror? The original 1920 novel about a deadly transplant-hand, Renard's LES MAINS D'ORLAC, was ambiguous as to whether any spirit-possession took place, as was the earlier De Maupassant story. The same was the case with the 1924 Austrian adaptation and 1935's MAD LOVE, the last being the most likely influence on collaborators Otto Binder and Jack Kirby. In contrast, "Black Talon" doesn't spend any time weighing the psychological considerations of Horta's plight.

Given that only Horta's artistic intensity might seem in any way unbalanced, it seems likely that Binder and Kirby meant the reader to accept the pseudo-science explanation for the hand's effects. One might question Horta's scientific acumen when he claims that "the corpuscles from the dead killer's hand invaded my bloodstream," but even the surgeon who performs the transplant tells Horta that "there is wild, new blood coursing through your veins." The doctor doesn't make a strict equivalence between this "wild blood" and Strangler's race, but it's likely that most readers of the period would have made that mental leap.

At the same time, toward the story's end Horta boasts to the heroes that "my black, taloned hand will have made me the world's greatest living artist," implicitly because all of his rivals will be dead. So though the murderer's corpuscles are pushing Horta to madness, the specific method of his madness has to do with becoming a great artist-- something one imagines that the Strangler cared nothing about. And the way that he accomplishes this mad aim is by becoming a hybrid between a white man, with his supposed propensity for "fine art," and a black man, whose brutish influence drives Horta to create horror instead of beauty-- though some of the sadism may be Horta's own. It's amusing to imagine that Kirby, a civilized commercial artist who apparently enjoyed drawing grotesquerie to some extent, may have taken some pleasure in humiliating a "fine artist" by subjecting him to sadism and madness.

So is "Black Talon" a racial or racist myth? I find that it recapitulates elements from both "benign chauvinism" and "malign chauvinism," much as I found when considering the Spirit's character Ebony, who was "racist" in his physical appearance but merely "racial" in other elements, such as his distinctive patois. The idea of a Negro having "wild blood" because he's a savage at heart qualifies as a "racist myth." However, there's a compensatory, merely racial fantasy in which a white artist attains superior strength by obtaining the the hand of a Hulking Black Guy. While early comics most often depicted black men as minstrel-show goofballs, one also comes across depictions of black men as hulking muscle-men. I deem such depictions to be racial myths because they are rooted in the observation of certain real racial body-types, as opposed to made-up caricatures like bulging eyes and liver-lips. Not that Strangler Burns is on the same level of formidability as MANDRAKE's Lothar-- but I'd speculate that the former is drawn from the same archetypal well as the latter.





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