Monday, February 13, 2017

Black Superheroes: Mal Duncan

I think this is "Herald" but I CANNOT  keep these names straight
Name: Malcolm Duncan

First Appearance: Teen Titans #26 (1970)

History: Born in raised in the inner city, Mal Duncan had a chance encounter with the Teen Titans where he saved their lives. Impressed with Mal's fighting skills the team offered him the chance to join their ranks despite his lack of superpowers. While Mal often felt out of place due to not having super human abilities (and occasionally because of his race) he proved to be a vital member of the team for years. During his tenure as a superhero Mal adopted several identities including Guardian (after donning an exoskeleton granting him enhanced physical stats), Hornblower (after earning a magic horn that, when blown, evens the odds of any fight he is in), the Herald (where he had a technological horn rather than a magic one) and more recently Vox (gaining sonic powers due to cybernetic enhancements). In addition to being a Teen Titan Mal has been a member of Doom Patrol and is in a long time relationship with fellow hero Bumblebee .

Beta Says: Well friends, it's time for me to eat a little crow as I was a bit short with Mal in my write-up for Bumblebee a few years ago. The fact is that Mal Duncan is not only a very important figure in Teen Titans lore he is, historically speaking, one of the most important black characters in superhero comics. While I can’t find specific confirmation for this, Mal might be DC's first successful African-American superhero creation, predating both John Stewart and Black Lightning! Despite this Mal doesn't get anywhere near the recognition he deserves (i.e., no recognition). Even if you discount his historical significance you can there is still at least one reason you need to respect this dude: one time, fairly early in his existence, he is killed but then subsequently challenges Azrael, the Angel of Death, to a fist fight for the right to come back to life...and wins! Mal may be greatest comic book creation in history!

So why then has Mal Duncan drifted so far in though the background when he should be considered on the same level of importance as the likes of Storm, Black Lightning and Black Panther? I'm sure there were all sorts of factors but politics and racism seem to be at play. What a refreshing change of pace for 1970s comics.

More on Guardian/Hornblower/Herald/Vox/Mal after the jump.



Guardian, punching Dr. Light in his stupid, stupid punchable face!
DC Comics had a piss poor history when it came to trying to churn out African-American heroes in the 60s and 70s. I've previously mentioned the Black Bomber, a white bigot who unknowingly changes into a black hero (thankfully this never saw print), and there's also Tyroc, a racial separatist whose existence seemed to just be DC trying to rationalize why there weren't any black people on 30th Century Earth where Legion of Super-Heroes took place on. Teen Titans wasn't immune to this incompetence. In 1969 Len Wein and Marv Wolfman wrote a story that would have introduced DC's first black hero, a character named "Jericho." However the publisher at the time, Carmine Infantino, rejected the story and brought in Neal Adams to re-write it and remove any hint of blackness. DC would be having none of this black superhero malarkey! A year later Teen Titans introduced Mal to join the team, showing that the stance had softened but there were still two problems:

1) Mal joined the team without a codename or even a proper costume. Now this is partially because at the time DC was experimenting with the Titans as being jumpsuit wearing adventurers who didn't use their powers and Mal just sort of joined in on that. However this was stupid and no one liked it so it was pretty short lived and they went back to being costumed crime fighters shortly afterward...except for Mal who continued being costumes-less and without a moniker for the next six years or so leaving the black teen as just a guy among, for lack of a better term, titans (though fellow newcomer Lilith Clay similarly didn't have a proper hero identity either, though she has her own problematic issues).

2) Mal typically was not featured on the covers of those early Teen Titans comic, even in stories where he was the main focus. It takes twelve issues of Mal being a full member of the team before he finally appears on a cover. Apparently the idea of having a black character blatantly represented on the comic stands was too much for the white publishers at the time. Obviously I can't know with any certainty but I can just picture their mindset: "Look, I'm not racist. But the fact is that white kids are the ones who buy our books and we can't risk isolating them by putting a [Insert Outdated 1970s jargon for African Americans Here] on our covers." Solid logic...I mean, for a racist piece of shit.


It only took six years for Mal to be the focus of a cover
(Also he's the Hornblower now, I guess)
Anyway while we can't really know what went on in the DC offices at the time circumstantial evidence points to the comic company, or at least the publisher, perhaps being a little timid about having a full-on black superhero in their books and Mal, who both lacked powers and a costume, may have been the compromise. Mal was a full member of the team but in advertisements and merchandising he was probably nowhere to be seen and those who were causally knowledgeable about the series may have thought of him as their black supporting character rather than a star of the book. I think this may have have also had the side effect of keeping Mal out of the historical perspective because he never truly seemed like a true Teen Titan when you look back unless you're doing so with careful intent. Yes, eventually he starts being featured and, yes, by the book’s first relaunch in 1976 he’s finally on even terms with his teammates. But if he had been portrayed as such back in 1970, like he should have been, his place in history would have likely been different.

Another problem with Mal has been this weird ongoing issue DC has with his superhero moniker, implying inconsistencies in the office over how he should be written. Eventually Mal took the name “Guardian” (after he personally reformed the Titans following the book's relaunch in 1976) but soon gives it up for the name "Hornblower" after he is gifted a magic horn after he beats up the Angel of Death. Then later he reverts back to the Guardian after he loses his horn. When the book is canceled again for a second time he and fellow Titan and girlfriend Bumblebee do not return to the roster when the team is relaunched as The New Teen Titans in 1980. I suspect that, with the creation of Cyborg, the "black teammate" quota may have been filled (even today’s comics rarely feature more than one black character in an ensemble cast, especially of the same gender).


Does Vox look weirdly similar to Marvel Comic's Cloak? Or am I just racist?
Following Crisis on Infinite Earths Mal's history is slightly altered as his fight with Azrael is retconed to have never happened (lame!) and his superhero identity is changed to that of "Herald". Okay, fine. Sure. He was never a full member of the main Teen Titans again though and I think in general his stock ended up falling through the floor. Eventually he also takes on the identity of Vox when he is left with cybernetic vocal chords that give him sonic powers. He and Bumblebee joined Doom Patrol briefly and in general he has been a D-list hero for the last forty years, never being mentioned along the likes of other, more prominent black heroes of his era.

Mal is still around. He has appeared in the New 52 rebooted DC continuity and even his status as a Teen Titan has been restored (initially the Teen Titans history had been erased in the original 2011 reboot). He is not, however, a member of the revived Titans team that formed around the returning Wally West (whom, as we all know, is the greatest Flash of all time) but the door is wide open for his rejoining the roster. I suppose the question is whether or not Mal has a place in modern comics. Honestly, I'm not sure he would do well as a solo hero unless he was being written by a skilled writer with a good vision (the same can be said of any character in any medium, really) but he absolutely should come back to the current run on the Titans and reclaim his rightful spot. Lilith Clay (aka Omen) and Bumblebee have made their grand returns to the series and, in my opinion, he is long overdue to be back with his old friends. Just pick a codename and stick with it. But do me a favor, DC, and restore his fight with Azrael because Mal beating up the literal angel of death is basically the coolest thing ever.


See? Was putting Mal on a cover really that hard?
(Of course, I'm not seeing Bumblebee...)
For more on Mal Duncan click here. Also, special shout-out to the podcast Titan Up the Defense (formerly Teen Titans Wasteland) for inspiring this post and helping me look at Mal in a new light. Next time we’ll be looking at a relatively new character who was retroactively added to Marvel Comics' history. No, not the Sentry; that guy sucks.

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