Everyone considers the Black Panther the first Black superhero in comic books. His debut in the Fantastic Four #52, in 1966, created quite a stir. But is it possible that another African American hero preceded him, way back in 1943?
The Dove debuted in Holyoke’s Suspense Comics #1, the Black sidekick of a masked man named the Grey Mask. Holyoke was a backwater publishing enterprise in the 1940s. Their Suspense Comics was an effort to try a comic book that featured mystery, a touch of horror, and a large dose of (wait for it) suspense. The Dove had no clear cut superpowers, but he did possess “keen senses,” “mighty muscles”, and could move with “surprising swiftness” despite his peg leg. The Dove was also nearly impossible to knock out.
A running premise of the Grey Mask and the Dove stories was that the Dove more often than not had to rescue his “boss” from a deadly trap. Whether you consider the Dove to be the first Black superhero will depend a lot on if you think Green Hornet’s Kato was a superhero. The two men (Kato and the Dove) have no superpowers, but then neither does Batman. Both Kato and the Dove could kick major ass, including those of their ostensible bosses. A formidable fighter, the Dove once pinned a crook against a wall with his wooden stump, threatening to put it through the guy’s chest if he didn’t cooperate.
The pros and cons of considering the Dove a superhero will be taken up at the end of this article. For now, a closer look at this intriguing character that virtually no one has ever heard of is long overdue.
The Dove and the Grey Mask’s Relationship
The Dove and Dr. Malcolm Muir (Grey Mask’s alter ego) live together on Muir’s lavish houseboat, where the Dove serves as his valet, cook and driver. The frequent visits of Muir’s good friend, the police inspector of a major West Coast city is how Muir and the Dove learn about troubling new cases.
No explanation is ever given for how the Dove lost his leg or how the two men first established their connection. Since Muir is (or was) a physician, perhaps he operated on the Dove after some serious accident, saving his life even though one of his legs needed to be amputated from the knee down. This might explain the Dove’s acute loyalty to Muir and his willingness to act as a servant even though is fully Muir’s equal.
The Grey Mask, as mentioned earlier, was “secretly” Dr. Muir, a wealthy physician who no longer practiced medicine. He dressed in the typical mystery man fashion of the era, wearing a domino mask, hat and trenchcoat. The fact that the Grey Mask and the Dove fought crime together, despite the fact that the Dove also openly worked for Muir makes Grey Mask’s secret identity not much of a secret at all.
While the Dove refers to Muir as boss and sometimes “suh,” the Dove is referred to in the narrative as Muir’s “faithful attendant and companion.” A real relationship is suggested between them. While still an employee, the Dove feels free to suggest to Muir that he ought to take on a case or ought not venture out without him. In Suspense #7, for example, the Dove scolds Muir, “Don’t git into no trouble without me around to help you!” Muir does just that and the Dove has to rescue him, yet again. Muir as Grey Mask might solve the mysteries, but he depends on his “companion” to get him out of one death trap after another. In Suspense #8, the Dove rescues Muir from being shot out of a cannon. In Suspense #6, seconds away from death via a menacing cheetah, all Grey Mask can manage is a pathetic, “Dove, help!”
In three of the later stories, the feature is titled “Grey Mask and the Dove,” suggesting recognition of his important role in the stories.
Click of the three thumbnail images to the left to see three sample pages of the first Dove story, courtesy of Digital Comic Museum. Click on the DCM link if you’d like to read the full story.
Racial Dynamics and the Dove
The Dove’s given name is never supplied. The words “the Dove” are often placed in quotes, suggesting both a nickname and a crime-fighting identity. His name may represent a racially tinged play on words. Doves are white, the man is black. (Oh, the irony.) Black characters in forties comic books who were portrayed as blatant stereotypes and (so-called) comic relief often had “white” nicknames like Snowball, Whitewash, or Whitey. Conversely, such characters might have “black” nicknames like Inky or Eightball. This appears to be what passed as humor in some forties comic books for a presumed White readership. The naming of the Dove seems a more benign example of this pattern, in part because he was less stereo-typically portrayed.
Not that the Dove totally escaped such stereotypes. He was portrayed as a servant, calling his employer “suh.” In his earliest appearance, he spoke in a heavy stereotypical accent. As time progressed, the Dove’s speech was more grammatically correct, including an occasion when he wanted Muir to look at some evidence. “Perhaps you better look at it, boss! We’ve seen some mighty strange things happen before this!” Contrast this dialogue with the three pages reproduced here from the duo’s first Chinatown adventure.
While the Dove was not free of stereotypes, he was one of the more positively portrayed African American characters in 1940s comic books. He was largely fearless, as opposed to often superstitious and cowardly “comic” Black characters, such as Steamboat in the same period’s Captain Marvel stories. Just as important, the Dove was extremely effective as a crime fighter not bumbling and stumbling as was so often the case with other African American characters. Most remarkable of all, the Dove was arguably the more competent crime fighter of the pair. He rescued the Grey Mask from death traps in more than half of the duo’s nine recorded adventures.
The writing, the artwork and the coloring of these comic books were not always in sync. While the Dove’s hair and features continued to suggest a Black man, the colorist began to render his skin tone in lighter shades, at first lending his skin a lighter reddish brown color. By issue #5, the Dove was colored entirely as a White man. Later issues restored the Dove’s brown skin tones. The de-racializing of a person of color also happened to Voodah, a Black jungle lord of the later forties created by African American artist Matt Baker.
The Writers and Artists Responsible for the Dove
It is impossible to know who the creators of Grey Mask and the Dove were with any certainty. The first story published in Suspense #1 was written by Zac Gabel, of whom
nothing else is known, and Don Rico. But the story also indicates that it is the further adventures of the duo. The second story, published in Suspense #3, was credited to Thor Carlyle (very possibly a pseudonym) and Jack Alderman, and may have been the first drawn. The next several stories are all drawn by Don Rico, lending some credence to this theory. Bob Fujitake took over for one issue in Suspense #8.
The page represented here is drawn by Maurice Whitman, who drew Grey Mask and the Dove’s last two adventures in issues #11 and 12 in 1946. Changing racial attitudes and perhaps the artist’s own sentiments allowed this to be the most sympathetic and realistic rendering of the Dove yet. Unfortunately, a new writer no longer told stories of the Dove rescuing his boss, though the Dove still held the attitude that Muir would always get himself in trouble without him being at his side.
So, Is the The Dove the First Black Superhero?
Factors arguing in favor of the Dove as a superhero:
- He has a superhero-esque name
- He is the partner of a superhero or costumed hero
- He has a unique physical characteristic (his peg leg) that he uses in fighting
- While not possessing superhuman powers, he has abilities that exceed most normal humans (exceptional strength and very difficult to knock out)
Factors arguing against the Dove as a superhero
- He has no super powers, but then neither does Batman
- He has no costume–a more serious objection, in combination with the first
Whatever side of the fence you fall in his discussion, hopefully all will agree that the Dove needs to be remembered as a key character in the painfully slow evolution of heroes of color in comic books.
Appearances of the Dove
Suspense Comics #1, 3-8, 11-12 (12/43-9/46)