Sunday, May 09, 2010

Remembering Tyroc

Last week, I was reading an article on called "The Five Most Unintentionally Offensive Comic Book Characters" and was amused to find that number 3 was Tyroc, the first black member of the Legion of Super-Heroes.

I remember my initial reaction to this story when I first read it back in 1976. At the time I thought it was a simple story with a nice lesson about racial harmony. In my defense, I was ten years old.

However, when I looked back on that story as an adult, there were a lot of elements in this story that, quite frankly, made me cringe.

One of those elements was Tyroc's power set. It involved his voice. But he didn't have a sonic scream like, say, Banshee or Black Canary, nor did he create solid sound constructs ala Klaw or the Thunderbolts' Songbird. The actual description of his power in the story, I am not making this up... "a voice that can cause miracles".

What did that mean? Well, here's how it worked in the story. Every time Tyroc yelled something, a different effect would occur. He would yell "Aiiiiyyaaahh!" and a force field appeared. Then he would yell "Oooyyyuuu!" and teleport. He had the kind of powers that screamed "Mary Sue" or "deus ex machina":

RANDOM LEGIONNAIRE: "Tyroc, that giant asteroid is going to collide with the Legion Clubhouse in 60 seconds!"

TYROC: "EYYYYEEEEHHHH!" (Giant asteroid vanishes in a puff of smoke.)

RANDOM LEGIONNAIRE: "We're saved!!!"

He was essentially Zatanna - the boring version.

But that wasn't the worst part. That would be the racial separatist origin with which writer Cary Bates and editor Murray Boltinoff saddled him and his home island Mazral. Apparently, Tyroc and his people were descended from a race of escaped slaves settled on Marzal and formed an isolationist colony that spurned strangers, particularly white ones. And, as was the case with most of DC's 70's race stories that didn't involve Hal Jordan, the onus for achieving racial harmony was placed primarily on the black character(s). ("Gee, we could all work together in perfect racial harmony if only you STOPPED BEING SO ANGRY.") And while it's possible that the Legion could indeed be above racial disagreements, Bates had Superboy convey this in the most ham-fisted manner possible:

Superboy: (Points to Brainiac 5) "...He has green skin!" (Points to Shadow Lass) "... and she has blue skin!"


And apparently many of the Legion's creative teams found Tyroc even more off-putting than the readers did, according to Tyroc's Wikipedia entry:

Jim Shooter, who had been prevented from introducing black characters into the Legion in the 1960s, objected to the characterization of Tyroc: "...I always wanted to have a character who was African-American, and years later, when they did that, they did it in the worst way possible....instead of just incidentally having a character who happens to be black...they made a big fuss about it. He's a racial separatist....I just found it pathetic and appalling."

According to Glen Cadigan, in the The Legion Companion from TwoMorrows Publishing, the character of Tyroc was "sort of a sore spot" with several writers and artists at DC.

Mike Grell, who co-created Tyroc with Cary Bates, had also previously tried to introduce black Legionnaires, but had been prevented by then-editor Murray Boltinoff. "I kept getting stalled off...and finally comes Tyroc. They might as well have named him Tyrone. Their explanation for why there were no black people [in the Legion] was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. It's possibly the most racist concept I've ever heard in my life...I mean, it's a segregationist's dream, right? So they named him Tyroc, and gave him the world's stupidest super-power."

What cracked me up the most was this Wiki paragraph on Grell's inspiration for Tyroc's costume:

Grell's dislike of Tyroc was strong enough that he deliberately made him look ridiculous. "I gave him a silly costume. It was somewhere between Elvis' Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing."

"I modeled him somewhat on Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who was a movie star at the time...and gave him this "Elvis Presley goes to Las Vegas" kind of a costume, and that's pretty much it. That was the extent of my contribution to Tyroc."

This was the result:

So, apparently Grell was so disgusted with the character that he gave him a silly costume in protest. I applaud this statement on Iron Mike's part, but it would have stood out more if, in the issue immediately preceding the Tyroc story, he hadn't also designed this:

This is Cosmic Boy. One of the founding legion members. A Legion VIP, if you will. But that didn't stop Grell from giving him a new costume that was clearly inspired by "The Rocky Horror Show".

Now let's look at some more of Mr. Grell's "serious" costumes.

Meet Charma and Grimbor the Chainsman.

And this is Pulsar Stargrave.

Also known as "Disco Brainiac."

So, as you can see, Grell wasn't exactly designing stuff like the Kid Flash costume or the Green Lantern uniform before he designed Tyroc.

Here's a lesson for you artists out there. If you want to protest a character by making his costume ridiculous, you might want to make sure your other designs...aren't.


At 12:52 PM , Blogger Saranga said...

a racial seperatist with a miracle voice?

gee, someone didn't like black people. I haven't come across tyroc before, thanks for the intro. I shall put him on my list of comics not to introduce people to. or read, ever.

"Gee, we could all work together in perfect racial harmony if only you STOPPED BEING SO ANGRY."

and yet, we still haven't moved on from this attitude.

At 5:49 PM , Blogger notintheface said...

"gee, someone didn't like black people."

That would be Murray Boltinoff.

"I shall put him on my list of comics not to introduce people to. or read, ever."

Yeah, like he was ever popular enough to get his own mini. Even the other Legion writers hated him. Jim Shooter never used him, and Gerry Conway used him once in a storyline designed specifically to get rid of him. Paul Levitz, who's probably written more Legion stories than anyone, only used him once, and that was in a story featuring alternate futures, and even there he got killed.

"and yet, we still haven't moved on from this attitude."

You're young. Trust me, it was WORSE.

At 12:22 AM , Blogger Saranga said...

yeah ok good point. sometimes it feels like no one's improved, but that's me taking everything for granted.

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