Skywald's Butterfly

By | Thursday, February 06, 2020 4 comments
When someone is asked about Black female superheroes, it's usually a safe bet that Storm will come up quickly. She's got greater longevity than pretty much anyone else, and her appearances in the various X-Men movies and TV shows gave her a visibility that most heroes simply don't get. But she was hardly the first Black female superhero.

No, credit for the first Black superheroine goes to Butterfly. She was created by Gary Friedrich and John Celardo. (Maybe. Some sources credit Rich Buckler or Syd Shores.) She debuted in the first issue of Hell-Rider from Skywald Publishing in 1971... four years before Storm's first appearance.

Butterfly was Marian Michaels, a lounge singer looking for her big break. As you can see from the image here, her costume is pretty obviously butterfly-themed, and all her powers seem to emanate from the costume itself. She could fly (via a small jet-pack on her back), she had suction cup fingertips, and her wings had the ability to blind/dazzle her opponents. (She didn't seem affected by the light display at all, so it's possible her mask had some filters over the eyes as well. However, this is never expressly stated.) In the two stories we have featuring her, we don't get even a hint of an origin, and she seems to be a pretty competent and even experienced fighter in her debut. In Hell-Rider #2, she also makes reference to being named Butterfly by the papers, but an FBI agent had never seen/heard of her before, so she's apparently made a few headlines, but not too many just yet. She's calm and confident, and would make for an excellent role model.

Hell-Rider #1 is interesting in that it features four stories to debut the titular Hell-Rider, the aforementioned Butterfly, and a motorcycle gang called The Wild Bunch. Although each of the first three stories focus on a single character, the stories are all connected into a larger narrative about heroine dealers, and that is told in the fourth story which features all of these new characters. The second issue of Hell-Rider isn't so grandiose in its ambitions and features stand-alone stories for each of the protagonists. With a Black female lead in 1971, it should be hardly surprising that her antagonists for both issues are basically hooded white nationalists, one group even overtly being directly compared to the Ku Klux Klan.

Hell-Rider only lasted two issues. It's a little unclear why more issues weren't produced, although Skywald began leaning heavily into the horror genre at the direction of Al Hewetson, who began not long after issue #2 came out. So it's possible that he just didn't care to move further into the direction of superheroes.

Skywald itself only survived a few years. Marvel and DC began producing a number of black-and-white comic magazines themselves and basically got their distributor to push Skywald's titles off the stands just from the sheer volume Marvel and DC were publishing. The last issue of anything that Skywald published came out in early 1975.

Despite not being the household name that Storm has become and coming from a publisher few have even heard of, the Butterfly stories are worth checking out. Friedrich, of course, is no slouch in the writing department -- having written the likes of the Hulk, Captain America, and the X-Men as well as co-creating the Johnny Blaze Ghost Rider and Daimon Hellstrom, the Son of Satan. John Celardo, while not having the name recognition of Rich Buckler or Syd Shores, has a long history as well, drawing the Tarzan comic strip from 1954 until 1968, when he started working on a Lassie comic strip.

Fortunately for you, it seems that all of the Skywald books have become public domain. (I can't seem to ascertain how/when/why however. As they came out in the 1970s, this strikes me as highly unusual.) But many of them, including the two issues of Hell-Rider can be found at the Internet Archive here. The stories are solid, as I said, and go pretty quick, so it's definitely worth your checking out.
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Britt Reid said...

"it seems that all of the Skywald books have become public domain. (I can't seem to ascertain how/when/why however.)"
I believe there are two reasons...
1) The Skywald comics and magazines were all work-for-hire material copyrighted to Skywald Publishing Corporation, which went out of business without a successor company (which would've had to assume the debts of Skywald).
Since the company no longer exists, any copyrights are now "orphans".
2) Pre-1976 (when the first major copyright revision in decades was passed) copyrights had to be renewed during the 28-year period to gain extended protection.
That's why so many 1960s-70s movies and tv shows are available on cheap PD media (VHS/DVD/Blu-Ray)!
Their copyrights expired and weren't renewed.
Skywald's final books were published before the copyright law revision took effect.

Thanks, Britt! It still seems weird to me, though, that no one would've thought to try to hold on to/renew the copyrights.

Britt Reid said...

"It still seems weird to me, though, that no one would've thought to try to hold on to/renew the copyrights."

1) It cost money to register and/or renew copyrights back then.
Who was going to pay for it if there was no successor company?
2) Nobody in the early 1970s thought there was any future value to non-DC/Marvel/Archie/Harvey comics.
Look at all the Avon/Fox/Standard/FIction House/Ziff-Davis/etc stuff that fell into the Public Domain because the actual holders didn't think they'd be worth anything!
Ironically, Skywald reprinted some of that 1940s-50s PD stuff in their color comics!
And Skywald's predecessor, IW-Super Comics, specialized in reprinting complete issues of defunct companies' stuff, usually with new covers!
Heck, they even had Plastic Man and The Spirit comics at the same time DC and Harvey were relaunching those characters in 1966-67!

Wow -- I'd never heard of Super Comics before! I had to look them up! That's a story I'm definitely going to have to read a lot more about!