In my Literature and Composition Graphic Memoirs class, I taught Eando Binder’s “The Teacher from Mars” along with the graphic adaptation written by Otto Binder and Al Feldstein and drawn by Joe Orlando. Today, I want to talk about the story, and in the next post, I want to look at the some of the elements of the adaptation along with Feldstein and Orlando’s “Judgement Day.”
Eando Binder (a pseudonym for brothers Earl and Otto Binder) originally published “The Teacher from Mars” in 1941, and it reappeared in the 1954 anthology My Best Science Fiction Story. In the introduction for the story in the anthology, Binder notes that “the idea of presenting a story in the first person, as told by a Martian, helped to make it unique” because most stories of encounters with aliens focused on humans and their perspective. This is an aspect of the story I will talk about more in the next post.
For this post, I want to focus on Binder’s second assertion about the story. Binder writes, “the story was a good medium for showing the evils of discrimination and intolerance” and that “[t]he Martian in this story is a symbol of all such reasonless antagonism between ‘races.'” Unlike tales such as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” “The Teacher from Mars” directly forefronts racism, discrimination, and intolerance. Binder calls upon us to read the story in relation to racism in America.
Within the story, we need to read Professor Mun Zeerohs as a Black migrant to the region, even though he is from another planet. Zeerohs comes to Elkhart, Indiana, to teach at Calson Preparatory School for Boys. This setting is important for a few reasons. First and foremost, Elkhart is about fifteen miles from South Bend, Indiana, and it was a place where individuals moved to during the Great Migration. As well, the Ku Klux Klan has had a presence in Indiana, and the counties surrounding Elkhart since the early twentieth century. Finally, the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith occurred in 1930 in Marion, about 90 miles southeast of Elkhart.
Along with the setting, we need to consider Zeerohs’ reason for leaving Mars. Zerrohs tells us,
Times had been hard on Mars lately, with so many dust storms raging up and down the canal regions, withering the crops. This post on Earth, thought at a meager salary, was better than utter poverty. I was old and could live cheaply. Quite a few Martians had been drifting to Earth, since the War. By nature, we are docile, industrious, intelligent, and make dependable teachers, engineers, chemists, artists.
Coming at the tail end of the Great Depression and during the lead up to America’s involvement in World War II, Zeerohs’ comments about leaving Mars for Earth correlate to Blacks who left the South for more industrial areas throughout the country hoping for better wages and better lives.
As well, Zeerohs’ comments at the end of the paragraph above counter the ways that the humans, specifically Tom Blaine and the others students. Upon first seeing Zeerohs, Tom and some of the boys scare him by acting like snakes, then they say,
“It talks, fellows.”
“Up from the canals!”
“Is that thing alive?”
Here, if we think about Zeerohs as a Black man, the boys dehumanize him, stripping him of his identity by calling him “it” and a “thing.” They also picture him as a coward and lazy, ideas that they imbibed from Tom and his father. These thoughts, of course, relate to the ways that Blacks were depicted in media and elsewhere, dehumanized and labeled based on unsubstantiated stereotypes.
The most obvious parallel between Zeerohs and the treatment of Blacks during Jim Crow occurs at the end of the story. News spreads that a murder has occurred in town, and the victim has either rope marks or tentacle marks on his neck. Tom believes that Zeerohs committed the murder, and he works the other students up into a frenzy, turning them into a lynch mob bent on killing Zeerohs. They attack him, and Zeerohs describes the attack by saying that he would soon lose the will to resist.
As the boys attack Zeerohs, another student enters and tells them, “Just heard the news-the police caught the killer-a maniac with a rope.” The boy then looks at the scene in shock and asks, “What did you do, fellows? He’s innocent.” Tom and the boys immediately leave Zeerohs on the ground, beaten and broken. Their rash indictment of Zeerohs mirrors lynch mobs and their desire to find someone to blame for the crime. Innocent people died at the hands of these mobs, and the hate that bubbled forth arose from fear.
The students’ actions, like those of lynch mobs, stems from their ignorance of Zeerohs. They have imbibed certain ideas about him because of his identity. They do not fear him, but they feel superior to him in every way, and they repeat that fact continuously throughout the story. This belief in their superiority leads them treat Zeerohs in the manner that they do. As well, it leads them, when the murder occurs, to immediately blame him because they see him as different than themselves, as an individual who could commit such a crime because someone like them could never do such a thing.
There are issues with “The Teacher from Mars,” and one that sticks out is the ending. During the story, Tom’s father, a captain in the Space Patrol, has taken a mission to Mars. Accompanying him is Zeerohs’ son, Kol. At the end of the story, the whole school is called to a meeting where Major Dawson addresses the students and faculty and says that he will award the Cross of Space to someone there. The school turns to Tom, but Dawson passes right by him and pins the medal on Zeerohs. Kol jumped in front of Captain Blaine and got shot, dying to protect Captain Blaine.
When this knowledge comes out, the story ends with Tom saying, “Every one of us here . . . is your son now-if that will help a little” as Zeerohs and Tom smile at one another and shake hands. This ending feels too neat, too tidy, for such a story. Tom has years and years of indoctrinated prejudice within his mind and soul, and all of that immediately melts away with the knowledge that Kol sacrificed himself to save Tom’s father.
While I do not discredit Tom’s acknowledgement of Kol’s actions and his gratitude to Zeerohs, I question whether or not Tom will continue to harbor the same thoughts that he has espoused throughout the story. Tom does not, at least in the story, reflect upon what he has done and the thoughts her harbors within him. In order to move forward, even after such an event, he must reflect upon himself and his own being. We do not know if this occurs. The ending suggests that harmony has been reached. But, has it? That is the question that remains.
Stay tuned in the next post where I look at the adaptation of “The Teacher from Mars” and at “Judgement Day.” Until then, what are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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