By Toussaint Egan
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Content warning: the images in this article are taken from the original comic and have not been censored.
Nowadays, the Comics Code of 1954 is all but unanimously reviled by comics creators, readers, and critics as one of the most odorous footnotes in the history of the medium. Adopted by the Comics Magazine Association of America in September of that year, the Comics Code was an attempt to preempt censorship by the federal government, which by that time was gripped in a stranglehold of reactionary conservatism and paranoia brought on by McCarthyism.
While ostensibly written to censure depictions of explicit violence, sexuality, and muddled distinction between the concepts of “good” and “evil”; the code effectively gave publishers, bookstores, and newsstands carte blanche excuse to suppress any form of content deemed incompatible or aberrant from the broadly defined status quo of “moral uprightness.” As can undoubtedly be inferred from the historical context of the era, blacks did not fit that status quo, nor was their existence particularly sought out or welcomed in the medium of comics.
All of which is to adequately preface and hopefully emphasize just how brazenly Super Soul Comix #1, Richard “Grass” Green’s seminal— and controversial— underground comix, stares down the barrel of the Comics Code’s paternalistic sensibilities and flips them the bird.
Green was a trailblazer for his generation, the first and most prominent Black participant of the ‘underground comix’ who cut his teeth as an equally significant fanzine artist for publications such as Alter Ego, The Buyer’s Guide to Comics Fandom, and Star-Studded Comics, where he first published his most popular fan-creation “Xal-Kor the Human Cat” – an afrofuturist twist on Golden Age superhero serials.
Super Soul Comix #1 is, to put it bluntly, a fucking wild read in the year 2020, let alone for when it was first published in 1972 by Kitchen Sink Press. Combining Green’s affinity for the works of Jack Kirby and his Harvey Kurtzman-esque brand of outlandish meta-humor, Super Soul Comix #1 was a searing, violent, sexually-charged and, well, soulful recontextualization of superhero and pulp genre tropes through the lens of black masculinity.
The first and largest story of the issue, “Soul-Brother American V.S. Bigots, Inc.,” stars Marty Meathead, a decorated former G.I. who returns home after a five-and-a-half tour in Vietnam. While walking to his mother’s house, Marty is jumped by three men in his neighborhood, all of which he deftly subdues with a display of exaggerated karate. Marty chastises the men, admonishing them as “the kinda ignorant motherfuckers givin’ our race a bad name!” before storming off in a huff. It’s in this confrontation that we are first introduced to this complicated strain of frustration and latent internalized racism which courses throughout the entire issue while at once exalting a new type of superhero born out of the image of Blackness.
In his 2002 obituary for Green in The Comics Journal, Denis Kitchen remarked, “I sometimes wondered whether his raunchy humor disguised experiences too painful to relate or whether he felt his own experiences weren’t interesting enough to tell. But he made it clear he had no interest whatever in creating serious comics.” That pain is wholly apparent as Marty’s ordeals multiply with the abandonment and theft perpetrated by his mother, the physical and emotional estrangement from his former sweetheart Mary Belle, and his inability to secure a decent job despite his education and military service. Marty is subjugated to a crash course in institutionalized racism, capped off by a beating at the hands of a trio of police officers who relish in the opportunity to inflict violence on him for little more than being in the general vicinity of a small rally decrying the systematic dismantling of the welfare state.
Let off with a warning, Marty walks home, dejected by his dwindling prospects and fearful of his chances of surviving in the city. That soon changes though through a chance encounter with a mysterious stranger named Dr. Larwill who informs him of an insidious conspiracy perpetrated by a cabal of avowed racists who call themselves “Bigots Inc.” To thwart these conspirators, Lawrill enlists Marty to become his test subject, transforming him into Soul Brother American, “an honest smart black superhero for the niggers […] who may be the world’s first super-hero sex maniac.” While the premise of the former is questionable, the latter is far more convincing, as Marty’s first act as Soul Brother soon enough proves.
Working undercover as a janitor, Marty’s newly-enhanced super hearing catches the hushed details of Bigots Inc.’s plot to disenfranchise and push Blacks out of America. Springing into action, Marty dons his Soul Brother uniform and bursts through a door where he is greeted not by a horde of Klansmen, but a white woman in a bath towel. Apologizing for his mistake, Soul Brother attempts to leave, though not before the woman’s curiosity at his “superior” physical abilities prompts her to invite him to an impromptu tryst.
That Soul Brother’s first act as a costumed vigilante constitutes one if not the ultimate taboo and severest transgression against a white supremacist state, sexual intercourse between the races, is nothing short of radical. The very suggestion alone would have incurred the full brunt of the Comics Code’s censure if it were published by a mainstream outlet, to say nothing of its full-page depiction in a three-by-four panel spread where, from behind a closed door, Soul Brother and his female companion narrate their liaison with a play-by-play commentary of gratuitous moans and onomatopoeias. This occurs again in the third story of the issue, “The Castle at the Top of the Hill,” where Eric “The Black Eye” Private is propositioned by Kathy Stroe, his client and the daughter of the story’s antagonist Baron von Stroe, albeit confined to the space of three panels.
Super Soul Comix #1’s brash depictions of unbridled black sexuality are rivalled only by its equally graphic depictions of violence inflicted at the hands of white ethno-nationalists. Following his tryst, Soul-Brother catches wind of Bigots Inc.’s plot to attack the Helping Hand Humane Center, a soup kitchen located in the city’s slum district. The next panel cuts away to the attack in progress, as the center’s black patrons are mercilessly stomped, beaten, castrated, blinded, hobbled, and even raped by the masked assailants of Bigots Inc. It’s bracing and gut-churning for sure, the type of cartoonish caricaturization of intimate racial violence that flirts at the limits of good taste.
The Humane Center attack quickly cuts away to Soul Brother, distracted, watching a nearby television outside a shop window as the results of California’s general election play out in real-time. Soul Brother’s aggravation at the loss of his favored candidate, Huford Humprey, at the hands of the establishment pick McGovern feels only a few degrees removed from the political climate of the past four years. “What kinda goddam(sic) shit is going on down there in Florida?,” Soul Brother fumes. “Ain’ no way in the whole fuck’n world Mac could-a honestly beat out good ol’ Humphrey! So that means a sell-out! Humprey’s been undermined!! And just who would have the means for swaying people with such a mean, underhanded method?” Snapping back into action from this bit of fourth wall-breaking, conspiratorial political commentary, Soul Brother races to the Humane Center with just enough time to confront Bigots Inc. in a climactic showdown rendered in a series of three panels bursting with over dramatic poses and oversized onomatopoeia.
Super Soul Comix #1 is a landmark issue in underground comix with a complicated legacy, as complicated as the racial history of the comix subculture itself. While the underground comix scene was radically experimental movement that afforded a wealth of talented artists and writers to jumpstart their careers, the work of number of said artists— most notably Robert Crumb— trafficked in racial imagery that both by the standards of now and of its time are considered insensitively stereotypical at best and outright racist at worst. Super Soul Comix #1 doesn’t fall anywhere in the category of the latter, but where it skirts precariously with the former is in its questionable depiction of African-American women.
There’s Marty’s mother, who betrays his trust by stealing his money to skip town, but not before leaving a note warning him to the effect that if he comes after her, she will kill him. There’s Marty’s former sweetheart Mary Belle, who has turned to sex work in time since he left to serve in the military. And finally, there’s the character of Martha from the issue’s second story, “A Quiet Evening At Home,” an “only slightly exaggerated” of a shrill and overexcited housewife who’s deathly fear of spiders at one point prompts her husband to demeaningly shout at her. Considering the generous tonal elasticity the issue affords to its depictions of black men, its one-dimensional portrayal of black women is particularly jarring, to say nothing of the sort of language used throughout to describe their fertility and sexual promiscuity.
Be that as it may, Super Soul Comix #1 nonetheless stands as a touchstone pillar of Black authorship in the history of underground comix. Having sold over 200,000 copies during its initial run in 1972 and having been inducted into the National Museum of African American History & Culture, it’s safe to say that Green’s legacy as a pioneering Black comix artist is well and secured.
Super Soul Comix #1
By Richard “Grass” Green
Published in 1972 by Kitchen Sink Enterprises
You can find Super Soul Comix #1 on Ebay, and sold at various other places online. IndyPlanet is one of the many places you can buy the comic as a digital PDF.
Toussaint Egan has written for publications including Paste, The AV Club, Polygon and Complex. To find more of his work, you can follow him on Twitter here!