First Appearance: Mystic Comics #5 (March 1941).
Golden Age Appearances: Mystic Comics #5-9, All-Winners #1.
Modern Appearances: Marvels #1, Captain America #442, Slingers #1-6.
Dates Active: 1941-present (see below).
"Warning! Don't turn this page! The Black Marvel is there! Disobey this warning and he'll get you! (We mean, this newest, most sensational character in action-picture magazines will get you so interested in the first of his amazing adventures that you won't be able to stop reading until you've finished.)"
(This warning, which appeared on the first page of the Black Marvel's first appearnace, is so Stan Lee, don't you think?)
The Black Marvel's first story begins with two thugs making their way into an "electric light plant." They shoot one of the electricians and threaten the others, one of whom tries to go for a phone and gets gunned down for his troubles. The other workmen naturally put up no resistance as the thugs wreck the machinery. "The city is thrown into a wild panic as all electric current suddenly fails." (And we get a nice montage of things going wrong around the city: doctors not being able to operate without lights, car accidents, people stuck without working elevators, crashing trains, and, of course, thugs smashing windows and grabbing stuff.)
Back at the plant the boss thug is feeling smug when suddenly "a strange figure swoops suddenly out of the darkness." It's the Black Marvel, who says "Greetings! What are you apes up to? What goes on in your warped brains?" He then uses one of the criminals as a club to batter the others, who ‘fess up. The real crime is happening at the armory. Off runs the Black Marvel to stop the crime, while bystanders wonder "Who was that black-masked man?" (Okay, they don't really say that. They say "Look! A guy all dressed in black!" and "Begorra...it's me eyes that are deceivin' me! Who could he be?" Begorra...yeah.)
We don't get to see the Black Marvel racing across town, however, because the strip is brought to a screeching halt by the Black Marvel's origin story: "Who is the Black Marvel? That will question will now be answered...here is the story of the Black Marvel's origin!"
(I'm going to transcribe a lot of this, because it's, well, it's so typically Golden Age that it'll give you a good idea of what these stories are like.)
Narrator: Man-to, last of the famed Black Feet (sic) chiefs, lies on his death bed, talking with the tribe's medicine man.So Dan Lyons enters the lists, and, of course, he is successful. He easily outruns a deer, hits four bullseyes (while blindfolded, no less) and out swims the salmon. When Blackfeet archers shoot arrows by him, he catches the arrows in midflight. Then, for the final test, he is led to a bear's den; he wrestles it and snaps its neck.
Man-to: "I am near the end, Running Elk, and yet to find the brave who would carry on the great traditions of the Black Feet (sic) chiefs!"
Running Elk: "A hundred of the finest braves in the country have tried, and all but three have failed. The tests have proved too severe...if these three fail, I know not where new recruits may be found!"
Man-to (who is prone, in bed, looking very old and, really, near-death): "May the great Sun God shine brightly on one. Bring me news as soon as you can."
Narrator: The final three contestants for the Blackfeet chieftains' honored mantle prepare to pass the most severe tests ever imposed on a human being...tests of speed, stamina, and strength.
Narrator: But...in the race with the deer, the first brave falters. (And we get a panel of a deer pulling away from a winded-looking runner)
Narrator: The second fails to beat the salmon up the river. (And we get a panel of a swimmer emerging from the surf, saying "The last of the salmon passed me.")
Narrator: ...And the third fails in the test of concentration and accuracy. (And we get a panel of an older Blackfoot, standing by an archery target, measuring how close an arrow came to the center of the bullseye, and telling a younger man that "You have missed the target, Jund, by two fingers!") (Ever try coming within two fingers of a bullseye? It's bloody hard. Take it from me, folks, these are hard tests. I mean, out-running a deer? Anyone can do that. I outswim salmon on a daily basis. But hitting the exact center of a bullseye? Sheesh!)
Narrator: Then, when all hope of finding a successor seems to have failed, a white man appears on a hill overlooking the Blackfeet camp...
Dan Lyons: "So...the last one has failed. Well, Dan Lyons, this is your cue."
Narrator: The white man enters the dying chief's tent...and offers himself for the tests.....
Dan Lyons: "You were responsible for saving my father's life. Perhaps this may prove a way of repaying you!"
Man-to: "No pale face has ever before competed for the mantle, but I remember your father well, Daniel. He was a great man. If you are as great, you will be successful. You have my permission to try."
Thus having proved himself, he is given the mantle, and costume, of the Black Marvel. Before Dan Lyons can go be a hero and stuff, however, he has to undergo one more test - listening to Man-to's final speech:
Narrator: The dying chief tenders his blessings and outlines the Black Marvel's duties.And off Black Marvel goes, and back the reader goes to the present. (You'll recall that the Black Marvel was investigating sabotage at a power plant and a possible robbery at "the armory.") On the other side of town the Black Marvel finds a truck, backed up against the armory. He gets on top of the truck and watches as some thugs load guns from the armory into the truck. Before they can go, though, he swoops down and biffs them around.
Man-to: "Your new title carries with it the gravest responsibility. The traditions of loyalty, honesty, and clean living, which have been our tribe's credo, you must maintain. In addition, it will be your duty to right wrongs wherever you may find them, and to destroy those enemies of mankind who would prey upon the helpless. Go forth, son...with the long bow. Each time you have performed a deed, notch the bow. When it shall have one hundred notches, you will have proved yourself worthy of the name of THE BLACK MARVEL!"
He starts to interrogate them, but another draws a gun and shoots at him. The shot hits the thug the Black Marvel is interrogating (of course), but the sound of the shot brings the police running, and the gangsters are rounded up. Power goes on in the city "with the borrowed juice from a neighboring city" ("Lights! Thank heaven!" "Ah ha! We never realize how lucky we are until we are deprived of something!") and the Black Marvel gets, from the dying gunman, the point of the plot: "We was gonna get all the guns we could. There's a combine of crooks bein' formed. Just like a big corporation! And we was gonna operate along the same lines. The head...head of this...this...is...a..a..a..arrr."
The Black Marvel's reaction to the crook dying is this: "Well...too bad he died before I got the whole story. But...here's the first notch in my bow. And there'll be many more before I'm finished."
That was his first adventure. In his second appearance (Mystic #6) he helps protect a refugee from Nazi Germany from being killed by hypnotized Nazis. In his third appearance (Mystic #7) he stops a scientist who was taking a potion that turned him into a killing brute. In his fourth appearance (Mystic #8) he captures a villainous diamond mine owner who is using gullible "native mine-workers" to attack the miners. In his fifth appearance (Mystic #9) he helps an ex-con stay straight. He also had an appearance in All-Winners #1 (which I don't own), which was, as far as I know, his last appearance in a Timely comic.
As with so many of the other Timely heroes, the Black Marvel puts me in mind of a few things.
During my look at the American Avenger I mentioned how the Avenger fit into a certain American cultural archetype, best explained by the historian Richard Slotkin: the white man who is born or goes into a non-white culture or environment and becomes a better exemplar of that culture than the natives of that culture. The Black Marvel is a perfect example of this archetype (known as the "Man Who Knows Indians;" thanks to whoever that was who reminded of of Slotkin's name for it!). The Black Marvel is hardly alone in this, of course; as I pointed out before, there are many examples of this cultural archetype, both in comics and in more seriously regarded genres. (I note that the Internet Movie Database has an entire category of film called "Indians-Adopt-Whiteman," and even if they've are only put three films there, it's still interesting that they felt it was notable enough to make a separate category for.) But the Black Marvel meets nearly every category that Slotkin laid out, and really is the quintessential Man Without A Cross (another of Slotkin's names for this sort of character). (Slotkin's explanation for this phrase would take too long to summarize, so I'm just going to use it and trust you'll go along with me.)
One difference between the Black Marvel's origin, and the origin of so many characters of this type, is that the creator of the Black Marvel (more on whom below) actually used a real tribe for his character. This isn't exactly a rarity; Dustin Hoffman, in Little Big Man, used (IIRC) a real tribe of the Sioux, and Cooper used the "Mohicans" in the Leatherstocking stories. But much more often the tribe of natives is the creation of the writers/artists, as with Tarzan and his many copies. This might be done in deference to the sensibilities of those who the Man Who Knows Indians is supposedly from, which I take to be the same reason that comic book writers use made-up countries ("Costa Verde," etc) in comic books, or it might be because the writers are too lazy to do real research. Which is why the use of the "Black Feet" tribe stands out; they actually exist. (I'm pretty sure that "Black Feet" was just a typo on the writer's part; even though their agency in Montana is called the "Blackfeet Agency," so far as I can tell they've always been called the "Blackfoot") (Of course, the Blackfoot was actually a confederacy of the Siksika, the Blood, the Piegan, the Atsina/Gros Ventre, and the Sarsi peoples.) (Yes, ‘Sarsi' - presumably the real world source on which was based the "Sarcee" from which Alpha Flight's Talisman & Shaman come.)
On the other hand, the "Black Feet" presented in the Black Marvel's first adventure bear little resemblance to the historical Blackfoot. They were warlike, yes, but the treatment of the tribe in this script is a riff on the Noble Savage stereotype, and not much more. The artist in the Marvel's origin put the "Blackfeet" camp somewhere in the Rockies, while the Blackfoot were and are more in the northern Plains states.
Of course, after the Marvel's first adventure, no reference is made to the Black Marvel's origin and background; it's almost as if a new writer or writers came aboard, hadn't read the first story, and just decided to use the Black Marvel as if he were just another hero, which is what he became in his later adventures. (Again, I haven't read All-Winners #1, so maybe he was portrayed differently there.) This is unfortunate, I think. Despite the stereotypes in the Black Marvel's first appearance, he was still different; there weren't any other heroes quite like him at that time. In his later appearances there's little difference between him and, say, the Moon Man or the Dan Richards Manhunter or Mr. Scarlet; the Black Marvel is just another square-jawed one-dimensional Golden Age hero. His background, as given in #5, had the potential to make the Marvel something truly different and unique, and it's a shame that the writers for the Black Marvel didn't take advantage of this.
You'll note that I said that the intro to the Black Marvel's first appearance was very Stan Lee-esque. It is. Trouble is, it may not have been written by Stan Lee. See, Jim Steranko credits the Black Marvel to Stan Lee and Bob Hughes, but Greg Theakston says that Lee's first comic book story was in Captain America Comics #3, cover-dated May 1941. The cover date for Mystic Comics #5, the first appearance of the Black Marvel, was March 1941.
Steranko is partially wrong here; Tom Brevoort said that the folks Steranko talked to while compiling his book misremembered things, and this would seem to be one of them. While it's possible that Lee wrote the text page that introduced the Black Marvel - the "Warning! Don't turn this page!" - the rest wasn't him. The Marvel's firrst appearance was a back-logged story from Funnies, Incorporated, and--
I guess I should explain about Funnies Incorporated. Back in 1939, Lloyd Jacquet, the editor of Centaur Publishing (who produced Amazing-Man Comics), decided to form his own comic company. He left Centaur and took some people with him: Bill Everett, Carl Burgos, Paul Gustavson, and Bill Thompson among them. They formed Funnies Incorporated, which was originally supposed to be a comic book publisher, but due to lack of funds became an art packaging studio, creating material for other publishers. The stories in Marvel Comics #1 were created by the Funnies, Inc., stable of talent.
The Black Marvel was one of those characters created by the Funnies, Inc., stable. I say it was "back-logged" because after Marvel Mystery Comics became a success, Martin Goodman hired an in-house staff of his own and began squeezing out the Funnies, Inc staff in favor of his own. The Black Marvel's first story, as best I can figure, is one of those stories Timely had already purchased.
There was an eight-month gap between issues #5 and #6 of Mystic, and Lee started writing the Black Marvel on issue #6. That gap probably also explains the seeming abandonment of the Marvel's origin.
The Black Marvel's costume is sorta notable. It's all black, with a red cape and yellow gloves, belt, and boots - not a particularly pleasing look, but not ugly, either. It's just kind of there. What catches my eye, though, is the way Bob Hughes drew him. He lightened some parts of the costume, to show the light reflecting off it, and did some cross-hatching, and made the costume skin-tight (not as common in the Golden Age as it is these days). The net effect is to make the Black Marvel sometimes look like a sketch of the human body's musculature (you've seen them - you can find them in any book of anatomy) rather than a real human being. It's distracting.
Hughes is otherwise a good artist, though. He goes away from the four/six-panel grid and has some interesting layouts, with the occasional helpful arrows directing the reader from panel to panel. Comic pages should be easily read, with panels logically flowing from one to another without the artist having to direct the reader - but I think it's better still to invest some variety in the layout of pages. Hughes uses panels with rounded borders, he uses circular panels, he uses triangular panels, and he uses irregularly-shaped panels. Like Kirby, and Lou Fine before him, Hughes has characters, word balloons and captions overlapping the borders of panels.
Hughes actually reminds me of Fine in a couple of ways. Hughes' figures, like Fine's, are flexible and graceful, Hughes does the human body very well, and Hughes' faces and expressions are very good. Hughes' action sequences flow well, and his work has an almost cinematic feel to them. After giving Hughes' work a closer examination, I really have to wonder why he didn't do more work; he's really quite talented.
George Mandel did the art for the Black Marvel in Mystic #6. Later stories were done by Al Gabrielle and George Klein and someone who may have been Jack Kirby (not one of Kirby's better efforts, if indeed it was him). Mandel, Gabrielle and Klein, though not without their charms, suffer badly in comparison with Bob Hughes.
The Black Marvel has appeared a few times in the modern era. In Marvels #1 the Marvel is shown in action, during World War Two, with several other heroes, parachuting into a German castle in what is a very nice Alex Schomburg homage. In Captain America #442 the Black Marvel appears as an old man at a reunion of Golden Age heroes. In Slingers it has been implied that the Black Marvel failed to save a hotel full of burning people, and so retired in shame (though still strong) to eventually become the bitter and insane old mentor of one of the Slingers; his Native American-influenced origin seems to have been retconned away. It was later revealed in Slingers that the Marvel (it sounds too much like a bad Jack Benny joke to refer to him as "B.M.") struck a deal with Mephisto in exchange for...well, I was never quite sure what Black Marvel got from it.
Note: In a text piece in Mystic Comics #5 the story of the first Black Marvel is related. In 1849 or 1850 a man named Malcolm Lyons went with his unnamed wife and their one-year-old son James to California in search of gold. Their wagon train was attacked by Comanche Indians until "another Indian--his face painted with a black dye, and riding a black pony" attacked the Comanche and helped drive them away, the Comanche being notably frightened of him. He was a "Blackfeet," and although he never identified himself beyond that, he is called "A Marvel! A Black Marvel!" by Malcolm Lyons. This easily makes the first Black Marvel the first non-white hero of Marvel Comics.