From Comics' First Interracial Kiss

By | Monday, August 16, 2021 2 comments
Qiana Whitted pointed me some time back to this interview with Don McGregor by Cliff Galbraith. McGregor is perhaps best known for his work on Jungle Action and Killraven, both featuring well-written, decidedly non-stereotypical Black characters pretty heavily. He also penned Sabre, which has been argued to be the first modern graphic novel, featuring a Black lead character. Part One of Galbraith's interview focuses on Amazing Adventures #31, which featured Marvel's (and, for that matter, mainstream comics') first interracial kiss.

This was in 1973, five years after Captain Kirk and Lieutenant Uhura kissed on Star Trek. But, while race relations weren't entirely taboo, 1973 was still only six years after Loving v. Virginia in which the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The closest modern parallel I can think of is that the first male gay kiss of primetime television was in 2001, although comics' preceded that by about five years. Here, though, the law lagged (and continues to lag) considerably behind as same-sex marriage was only ruled by the Supreme Court as constitutional -- though still at the discretion of individual states -- in 2006.

So the analogy is far from perfect, but think back to how homosexuality was perceived in the U.S. about 15-20 years ago, and you've got a reasonable approximation of how interracial couples were viewed in 1973. So it's not surprising that publisher Stan Lee was hesitant to print the thing. While he certainly wanted Marvel to be perceived as a progressive company, he also didn't want to upset more conservative readers. Or, more accurately, conservative guardians of younger readers.

And I think that's a key element here. Not that they would have offended readers, or even distributors, but a (potentially) vocal minority in a sub-section of the United States that don't actually read the comics themselves. And, it should be noted, that even when the book went to press, there was no reaction.

Kind of like how there was no reaction when DC showed two men in a post-intercourse embrace in Enigma in the early 1990s. But in both cases, the books in question weren't really "mainstream" in that their audiences were almost exclusively 20-somethings with fairly progressive leanings anyway.

Contrast that to the death threats Lynn Johnston received for having a character come out of the closet in a 1993 For Better or Worse strip. The difference here was the audience was made up of a decidedly older, more broadly conservative population with out-dated notions of who was reading the comics page. So Lee, as Marvel's publisher, was largely concerned because he was misreading his audience. Amazing Adventures wasn't a book for 10-year-olds, it was for those college students Lee had been providing graduation speeches to for the previous decade or so.

Now here's another interesting comparison. When the verdict on Loving v. Virginia was rendered, only about 20% of Americans approved of interracial marriages. That climbed to 29% by 1972, but disapproval remained stronger than approval until 1991, over two decades later. In 2010, public support for gay marriage stood at around 45% (give or take, depending on the poll), and we hit the flipping point there in late 2011; today a clear majority approve of gay marriages.

Let me lay out the direct comparison here. Four years after the Supreme Court said interracial marriages were okay, public opinion polls said 29% of Americans approved. Four years after the Supreme Court said gay marriages were okay, public opinion polls said 45% of Americans approved.

It took a quarter century for a majority of Americans to approve of interracial marriage after the Supreme Court ruling. It took six years to for a majority of Americans to approve of gay marriage after the Supreme Court ruling.

Where I'm going with this is: popular opinion is increasingly moving faster than large organizations, like publishers and the government. With the increase of speed in communications, and the ongoing de-Caucasianing of the United States, those large organizations that aren't able to keep up are going to fail their audiences. If they continue acting as if society hasn't changed in the past 10, 20, 30, 40 years, they're going to fall increasingly out of step and eventually become irrelevant as new, more agile, organizations come in to fill the holes.

Mixed race marriages -- not just couples, but marriages -- numbered over 11 million in 2015. Seventeen percent -- nearly one-fifth! -- of newlyweds are part of an interracial marriage. So where, then, are the mixed race couples in comics? Where are the gay couples? Not only are there way too few "minorities" fairly represented in comics, but there are even fewer minority couplings.

For as much progress as we've made as society in the past few decades, it would seem as if mainstream comics are falling farther and farther behind.
Newer Post Older Post Home


Matt K said...

I'm admittedly not the best person to evaluate this, but it seems like (my impression of what is) mainstream American comics have become nearly as much an anachronism as the newspaper comics page. So much still seems dominated by ideas from either c. 1940, or the early 1960s.

I wouldn't go so far as to say "dominated" but there's definitely a very long shadow cast by those previous eras. Which makes sense given that DC's most popular characters were created in the late '30s and early '40s, and Marvel's most popular characters were created in the 1960s. So not only do those characters have their respective eras baked into their DNA, but every character that has imitated them (or tried to) is going to copy much of that same DNA.

There's obviously been multiple attempts to update the characters for more contemporary audiences, and there have been wholly new characters that don't carry that albatross. Not to mention basic storytelling conventions have been changed and, hell, even the basic technology used to create the comics in the first place is different! I think that's all diluted the anachronistic elements enough that, while they're still noticeably and even obviously present, they don't quite dominate the landscape either.