Last post, I wrote about the ways that Eando Binder’s “The Teacher from Mars” serves as a commentary on racism and Jim Crow during the mid-twentieth century. Today, I want to look at Otto Binder, Al Feldstein, and Joe Orlando’s adaptation of the story for EC Comics’ Weird Science-Fantasy #24 and at Feldstein and Orlando’s “Judgement Day!” Specifically, I want to focus on some specific panels from each story.
Eando Binder, when introducing the story for My Best Science Fiction Story, points out that “the idea of presenting a story in the first person, as told by a Martian, helped make it unique.” This positioning, when thinking about the ways that the story comments on racism and Jim Crow, causes the reader to identify with Professor Mun Zeerohs as he experiences discrimination. Binder, Feldstein, and Orlando’s adaptation plays on this positioning as well.
From the outset of the adaptation, we notice that all of the townspeople in Elkhart, Indiana, are white. The opening panel shows Zeerohs coming into town as white children, white women, and dogs glare at him. A little girl hides behind her mother as proclaims, “Ooogh! He’s horrible! I hate him!” This panel, if one has read the story, is not unique. The story opens the same way. What is unique, though, is that the visual adaptation only contains white citizens. The story does not indicate the racial makeup of the town, but by stressing the makeup of the town’s citizens, the adaptation places Zeerohs not only as a Martian outsider but also as Black.
Throughout the adaptation, when Tom Blaine and the other school boys verbally or physically attack Zeerohs, the positioning in the panels places Zeerohs in the forefront and the boys in the background, looking out at the reader. This positioning places the reader as Zeerohs, receiving the insults and hate.
This placement becomes pronounced on the third page, a page that contains eight panels. In half of the panels, we, as the audience, look over Zerrohs’ shoulder, looking at what he sees. In one panel, we look at the chalkboard where Tom has drawn a picture depicting Martians as cowardly. When Zeerohs talks about civilization beginning on Mars before Earth, Tom counters. In this panel, we look over Zeerohs’ right shoulder as Tom raises a hand and tells his classmates was right to think that Zeerohs would rub that fact in.
The two most important panels in this regard occur at the bottom of the third page. When Zeerohs states, “You forget, Mr. Blaine, that the Earth pioneers on Mars started the rebellion against taxation and a bad Earth-government, and fought side-by-side with us . . . ” Tom Blaine, pointing his finger at Zeerohs and cutting him off, yells, “They were traitors!” Here, Zeerohs is in the foreground on the left of the panel. Tom is in the background, pointing his finger at Zeerohs, and ultimately us as the reader. This positioning places the reader as the recipient of Tom’s statement.
In the next panel, we only see Zerrohs’ and Tom’s faces. Again, Zeerohs is in the foreground on the left, but this time his face is turned more into profile and it is shaded red. Tom stands in the background on the right, glaring at Zeerohs. Zeerohs states, “Mars won its independence after a nine year struggle . . .” Again, Tom cuts him off and yells, “Not won! Earth granted independence, though it could have easily won!” Tom uses language to rewrite the past, and the placement of Zeerohs and Tom puts the reader as the recipient of Tom’s rewriting of history.
This same positioning carries over to the next page as well. One of the panels shows Zeerohs behind his desk as the boys throw erasers at hi,. Another shows him turning his back as Tom calls Zeerohs a coward. In this panel, we see Zeerohs’ face in full as he turns away from the boys and looks at the reader. In each of these panels, Orlando puts the reader in Zeerohs position, drawing the connection to the narrator even tighter than in the prose version of the story. Through this, the reader subconsciously identifies with Zeerohs on a visual level, even possibly seeing Tom point at him or herself. In the panel where Tom points his finger at Zeerohs, it appears as if Tom is pointing through the panel at the reader.
The way that Orlando places the reader in Zeerohs’ shoes makes me think of Qianna Whitted’s discussion of “Judgement Day!” Whitted points out that Feldstein and Orlando draw the reader, in this case the imagined white reader, in by not revealing Tarlton’s race until the end. She compares this to what Ralph Ellison does in Invisible Man. As Lucas E. Morel puts it when writing about Ellison,
It is no accident that as Invisible Man narrates his memoirs, he does not announce at the outset that he is black. The references to race come indirectly, dawning upon the reader as the narrator tells how others have reacted to his presence. By first engaging the minds of his readers, and not their physical eyes, Invisible Man . . . attempts to make this connection to readers who might not otherwise listen to, or be persuaded by, an unemployed but library-bred and college-educated black youth.
I would argue that while Zeerohs is not Black, Binder employs the same tool, bringing the reader in to identify with Zeerohs. If the reader picks up on the cues to Jim Crow and racism, then they begin to empathize with Zeerohs not as a Martian but as a Black man. Likewise, Orlando’s positioning of Zeerohs in the adaptation serves the same purpose. How much of an effect these things had on readers? Now that is another matter that I cannot answer.
In “Judgement Day!”, Feldstein and Orlando place Tarlton as the voice of authority throughout, and once they reveal that he is Black, the reader has begun to trust him i this position. Like “The Teacher from Mars,” though, Orlando directly confronts the reader. This time, he places the reader in the shoes of the orange Cybrinian guide. Two panels show this placement.
When the guide takes Tarlton to the blue factory and shows him the educator, Tarlton asks the guide, “Would you deny the differences between you and the blue robots are taught in your ‘educator’?” The guide hangs his head, stumbles, and replies, “I . . . I couldn’t deny that, Tarlton.” In the panel, Tarlton, in the background and looking at the guide, points his finger out of the panel. The guide is on the right side of the panel, in the foreground. Like the panel with Tom Blaine pointing his finger, Tarlton’s finger extends past the panel and points out towards the reader.
Two panels later, the position of Tarlton and the guide switches. Tarlton pushes for the guide to understand that the orange and the blue robots do not have the same opportunities. The orange robot, hand to his face in contemplation, tells Tarlton that once an orange robot has worked on the assembly line it can choose whatever path it wants to take.
The next panel shows a closeup of blue robots working on the assembly line with Tarlton and the guide silhouetted in the doorway on the left side of the panel. The guide, exasperated, raises his arms at Tarlton and states, “You are lecturing me as though all of this were my fault, Tarlton! This existed long before I was made! What can I do about it? I’m only one robot!” What stands out to me in this panel is the robot’s up-stretched arms, giving up on even attempting change.
Orlando could have placed the guide in the foreground, positioning him as a direct stand in for the reader as he does in the earlier panel. What would this have done if we saw part of the guide’s face and an arm upstretched in the foreground as we looked upon Tarlton’s face? Or, he could have had this dialogue in the previous panel with the robot holding the hand to his mouth. How would this change the understanding? I say it would place the guide as more defiant.
These are all things we need to think about when reading comics. The ways that artists position us, as readers, especially in stories like those discussed in this post, are important. They cause us to identify with certain characters and to thus view ourselves in their position because what occurs to them faces us as well within the visual aspects of the panel.
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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