08 December 2013

When Starfire Attacked Apartheid

Reactions to the death of Nelson Mandela this week prompted me to look back on the first two issues of Teen Titans Spotlight from 1986, issues grandly headlined “Apartheid No More!”

That story focused on Koriand’r, or Starfire, just returned from her planet to Earth after her political marriage had broken up her relationship with Dick Grayson. Kory finds herself in South Africa. She breaks up a mob lynching an informer but then sees the white government’s security forces attacking blacks whether or not they were part of the mob.

Writer Marv Wolfman used Starfire’s lack of knowledge about Earth and her highly emotional responses to events to introduce the situation in South Africa and to propel the narrative. The story’s anti-apartheid leader is Father Nelson Mandutu, a composite of Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and perhaps Steven Biko or any of the other South African activists who died in government custody. At the end of the first issue, it appears that Starfire has killed him accidentally.

In the second issue, Kory, all the time wishing that Dick were there to tell her how to do things, solves the mystery of Mandutu’s death, stops a massacre, and exposes the real killer. When Starfire flies away from South Africa to rejoin the Titans, she hasn’t done away with apartheid, of course, but the comic book has brought more visibility to that form of oppression.

Of course, DC Comics wasn’t wading that far into controversy. Almost everyone in the world condemned apartheid at that point. The issue roiling the west was whether governments or investors should increase economic sanctions on South Africa and companies doing business there. That debate was particularly hot on American campuses (like mine) because universities had so much money to invest. Later in 1986 the US Congress would override President Ronald Reagan’s veto of a law requiring stricter sanctions. In the UK, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was standing against a similar bill.

Wolfman wrote an essay in the first issue of Teen Titans Spotlight justifying the story, in part because as writer-editor he needed to fill the pages set aside for letters until letters started to arrive. He had wanted to write a story about South Africa for years, he said, and artist Denys Cowan had actually drawn such a story for Marvel, only for the company to sit on it. The mainstream superhero publishers rarely try to get ahead of public sentiment, after all.

TOMORROW: And finally the letters arrived.

No comments: