Black Zombies and “VooDoo” in Comic Books
By Prof. William H. Foster October 17, 2011
Back in the beginning days of comic books, you could almost always count on a couple of things. One, the lead characters would be White guys. And two, if the terms “Black Magic” or “Voodoo” (the misspelling is intentional) were mentioned in the title or storyline, it wouldn’t be long before a Black Witch doctor or queen showed up.
And that’s not to say concerning the latter that the images or message would be positive or accurate, heavens, no. Back in the 1940s and 1950s stereotypes and negative connotations were the stock and trade. The truth was never allowed to get in the way of a “colorful adventure tale.” That last expression is just another way of saying, “I don’t have time for research – slap in some nonsensical vowel laden words and show some savages jumping around a wooden idol.”
It is the sad but true history of American storytelling, pulp fiction and comic books. The story could be based in Africa, the Caribbean, Louisiana or on any plantation in the South. There would always be some Black folks somewhere in the background – mixing up some noxious potion, or sacrificing a perfectly good chicken or threatening decent White folks with some silly hocus pocus. Anything even remotely resembling a positive portrayal of religious practices other than Christianity was dismissed as out of hand.
So, you might ask, have things improved any in contemporary comic books? I’m glad you asked that! Let’s take look at a few examples and observe.
Brother Voodoo-(Marvel Comics, 1970s). Jeremiah Drumm was originally a third tier Black character who appeared irregularly in a variety of Marvel titles and fought against evil spirits, most of them called forth by evil Black practitioners. More recently, he was appointed “Sorcerer Supreme” to replace Dr. Strange. According to comic lore, he held a powerful position in the spirit world because of his dead twin brother representing “a foot both in the world of the living and the realm of the dead.” Positive force or continuing stereotype? You make the call.
Abe Sapien-Drums of the Dead (Dark Horse Comics March, 1998). This is one of the best read: “least offensive” comic book stories about Blacks in the spirit world. It presents a tale where the tormented souls of the Africans who died horribly during the Middle Passage are harming the living and are finally freed by a current day spiritual guide.
Calypso-(Marvel Comics). Described as a “beautiful and deadly Voodoo witch,” (is there any other kind?) Calypso was the partner and lover of Spiderman foe, Kraven the Hunter. (You remember him; the White guy who got his powers from a potion he stole from an African Witch doctor?) She died (sort of) when her evil plan to destroy Spiderman backfired.
Life with Archie# 199–“Island of Fear.” (Archie Comic Publications, 1978). Even though the witch doctor character from the story is shown as a White guy on the cover, the story inside the book clearly shows him as Black. It is a classic stereotypical tale of White folks being terrorized by the island folks until the magical Black man (Laroux) comes and saves them. The Voodoo worshippers are scattered and run away in fear.
The House of Mystery #281–“Now Dying in this Corner,” by Arnold Drake (DC Comics, 1980). This great story uses a format that has been told in many different versions over the years in both pulps and comic books. Drake, a long time comic book writer and one time collaborator with Matt Baker, did a terrific job of spinning the tale of a Black boxer who has to support his family but is dying of a serious medical condition. Only with the aid of a Haitian voodoo practitioner can he complete his task before he dies.
The Spook, Eerie Magazine, (early 1970s Warren Publishing Company). I know, “The Spook” is not the best name for a Black character. But this was a rare, valiant attempt to create a Voodoo practitioner as a hero. The series ran in the early 1970s and deal with a man who used his powers as a Zombie to fight for the lives of slaves in the 1800s. One of the best features of Eerie (as well as “Creepy” and “Vampirella”), is that they often included well thought out stories that tried to counter the stereotypical Voodoo fare.
That’s it for this month’s Freehold. Please come back again next month for the next chapter in our continuing journey into the history of Blacks in Comics. Peace!