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.

1 comment:

E. Van Meter said...

I have these issues tucked away in my shed somewhere and have thought about them often over the years, including in recent months.

I was 13, growing up in a conservative family with low education in a rural part of the county. I had no understanding of colonialism, had not sense of "South Africa" as a distinct political region, had certainly never heard the word "apartheid."

I look back on these comics now as one of my first introductions to the concept of social justice, though I wouldn't have that phrase for many years to come.

About the same time that Jane Eyre was giving me my first exploration of feminism and questioning social distinctions rooted in wealth and lineage, the Teen Titans were making me think about racism, homelessness, mass religion, drug addiction and so much more.

It's easy to be cynical about comic books of the 80s (or in general), easy to poke fun at the idea of learning about apartheid from a ridiculously stacked alien princess with perma-tan, eyes so green they lack whites and hair that would make Dolly Parton jealous (plenty of problematics to unpack in the character of Starfire).

But personally, I'm grateful to the writers and artists who even then were using that platform to awaken young readers to some of the grim realities of the world -- whether in their own back yard or on the other side of the planet.

Thanks for posting this and for the trip down memory lane. Think I'll finally dig out those comic book boxes when I clean out the shed this fall = )