By Valerie Cranmer, Doctoral Student, University of St Andrews
Featured Image: Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel (Marvel, 2009).
Dr. Adam Brashear (Blue Marvel) is unique among comic book superheroes: he is black, a talented college football player, an alumnus of Cornell University with a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, whose education could have perhaps been made possible by the G.I. Bill, a benefit that he would have earned as a decorated Marine veteran of combat during the Korean War. Commonly referred to as the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War lasted from 1950-1953 and was the first war the United States fought with desegregated units following President Truman’s Executive Order 9981 in 1948.1 Yet, EO 9981 didn’t immediately change the military’s structure or culture. It is in this space, between the legal abolishment of segregation and the restructuring of military organization, that Dr. Brashear exists, and he typified the realities of integration experienced by Black service members. Although a very fictionalized comic book which heightens real moments of bravery and valor through the lens of superheroes, Blue Marvel is as much a history lesson about the intense and circuitous path involved with military integration as it is the origin story of Superman-esque hero.
In Blue Marvel’s introduction and limited series, Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel, creator Kevin Grevioux leaned into both institutional and personal racism experienced by Blue Marvel during the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout the limited series, Dr. Brashear is constantly confronted with systemic racism and discrimination within the Marine Corps and the federal government. He consistently confronts racism as a superhero typically would – he rises above personal slights to put the good of humanity before himself – telling his archnemesis (and best friend from his Marine Corps days), “I’m a fool, because I’d rather give people the benefit of the doubt…because as evil as mankind may be, there will always be people worth saving!”2 This belief in putting the greater good before oneself is enshrined in the military, particularly in the combat awards system. The Silver Star, the third-highest military award for battlefield valor, which Dr. Brashear won twice in Korea, is awarded for gallantry, typically for voluntarily exposing oneself to risk and enemy fire to helping another service member. As a veteran of the Forgotten War and due to his race, Blue Marvel provides a window into the very real (and just as forgotten) history of Black service members.
Understandably, integration of Black forces experienced hurdles during the Korean War. Although the Korean War was technically the first war fought under desegregation, the services were not prepared to fight a desegregated war. Following EO 9981, services were required to develop implementation plans to help ease the transition into a desegregated military. This included dismantling Black-only recruit training posts, allowing access to combat arms jobs, and changing the promotion structures. However, the Korean War began prior to these plans even getting approved, let alone enabling services to recruit Black service members. At the time of EO 9981, Black Army Soldiers composed a significant minority, 12.4% of the entire force were enlisted and only 1.8% officers3 Unlike the Army, integration in the Marine Corps posed a different problem, particularly due to numbers of service members. Only 1,502 Black Marines served on active duty at the outbreak of the Korean War, comprising only 2.1% of the enlisted force and with no officers.4 Representing such a small population, Blacks and the United States Marine Corps, the official Marine Corps’ monograph on the history of Black Marines, pointed out, “a peculiar problem arises when the story of Black Marines in the Korean War is researched.”5 Since the Marine Corps immediately stopped recording demographic data pertaining to race following EO 9981, and with the desegregation of all-Black units, the only way to ascertain the race of a Marine would be to go into individual records (a painstaking endeavor). As a result, “the narrative thread of the story of Black Marines in the 1950s has been extracted from the experiences and reminiscences of a few representative officers and men whose careers spanned these years.”6
In the Marine Corps’ official chronology between 1947-1964, only four entries dealt with race, including zero references to the deactivation of Montford Point, the all-Black recruit depot for the Marine Corps, compared to nineteen on gender.7 Institutional racism during the Korean War ensured that Black Marines remained a tiny proportion of the fighting force with Black Marines being predominantly placed in service support roles rather than combat duties. While the Marine Corps introduced policies that eliminated racial categorization from the institution, personal and perceived racism still existed, and in many ways, was allowed to flourish under the guise of the institution overcoming overt racism.
Unsurprisingly, nearly every superhero with a military background had some sort of valor award. Frank Castle, the famous Vietnam anti-hero, is said to have a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and four Purple Hearts.8 John Proudstar, the ill-fated X-Men character doomed to a permanent comic book death, received “multiple awards.”9 By their very nature, superheroes are defined by their selfless exposure to risk and death in the service of ordinary people. Even Marc Spector, the anti-hero Moon Knight, who was dishonorably discharged from the Marine Corps, is implied as having received a number of valor awards as a Force Reconnaissance Marine.10
There is no doubt that the valor demonstrated by Private Brashear in Korea is an accurate depiction of both Black Marines at the time and fictional superheroes. The perception that winning valor awards and serving honorably as a gateway to broader acceptance was a pervasive thought throughout Black communities in the United States.11 Michael Lee Lanning stated simply, “For blacks, service in the [American Revolution] provided a pathway to liberty and rights and the enhancement of opportunities. Unfortunately, the white majority also set a pattern for this and future wars— to call upon African Americans only in time of great need and then to ignore them and their contributions once peace resumed.”12 Blue Marvel squarely fell into this belief, reiterating throughout the limited series and his storyline in Fear Itself: The Home Front #4, that he would not engage the racist/fearful behaviors toward him and instead, let his actions be the proof of his worth.
Comic book heroes and anti-heroes are reduced to their simplest form by nature. The Punisher, the analog for attitudes about the moral bankruptcy of Vietnam and the Global War on Terror, is the damaged (sometimes sympathetic) war veteran. Captain America, representing nostalgia and assumptions of a more binary “good” versus “evil” war, is the personified idealism of Americanism. Blue Marvel, a forgotten hero from a forgotten war and a person of color at the beginning of the United States military’s integration, represents the struggle with race that the United States has engaged in throughout its existence. Specifically, his backstory depicts the struggle with integration within the Marine Corps and reflects the general belief that honorable military service would vindicate Black communities in the United States. The official Marine Corps monograph on Black Marines stated, “these few men…had to have, of necessity, a special quality of personal integrity and professional pride. They could never be inconspicuous wherever they served; they were, in a real sense, marked men. They represented Black Marines as a group and whatever they did, however well they performed their jobs.”13 Blue Marvel exemplified these qualities, and, like any other superhero, his superb courage and sense of personal sacrifice led him to receive military honors. Although Frank Castle is arguably the most recognizable comic book member of the military, Dr. Adam Brashear is the greatest embodiment of a military veteran turned superhero.
Valerie Cranmer is a life-long nerd. From reading every book on penguins at the local library as a child, to presenting on comic books at Nerd Nite, there isn’t a pop culture topic she hasn’t gotten into. Valerie is an intelligence professional with experience in both the active duty military and the civilian defense sector. Throughout her military career, she taught military members about culture and history in the Pacific Region. As a researcher, she currently focuses on the Japanese military during World War II. At this very moment, her current pop culture (re)obsession is with Miyazaki films. But as for tomorrow, who’s to say? Twitter: @pingumew981
- David Ulbrich and Bobby Wintermute, Race and Gender in Modern Western Warfare (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018), 278-279; Geoffrey Jensen, “The Political, the Personal, and the Cold War: Harry Truman and Executive Order 9981,” in Geoffrey Jensen, ed., The Routledge Handbook of the History of Race and the American Military (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2016): 191-200, 197.
- Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel #5, 2008.
- Ulbrich and Wintermute, Race and Gender, 279.
- Henry I. Shaw, Jr. and Ralph W. Donnelly, Blacks and the United States Marine Corps (USMC History and Museum Division: Washington, D.C., 2002 reprint), 59.
- Shaw and Donnelly, Blacks and the USMC, 59-60.
- Shaw and Donnelly, Blacks and the USMC, 59-60.
- Ralph W. Donnelly, Gabrielle N. Neufeld, and Carolyn A. Tyson, A Chronology of the United States Marine Corps, 1947-1964, Volume III (USMC Historical Division: Washington, D.C., 1971); Shaw and Donnelly, Blacks and the USMC, 57.
- History of the Marvel Universe #2, 2019.
- Classic X-Men #3, 1986. As of this publication, John Proudstar may be permanently returned to the land of the living due to the Krakoan resurrection.
- A dishonorable discharge would mean that all awards would be revoked. In perhaps further evidence of the civilian-military divide, Marc Spector’s conduct probably would not have resulted in a dishonorable discharge. Instead, he would have been administratively separated, given an Other Than Honorable (OTH) discharge, or in the case of the 2017 series, be medically separated. While both an administrative and medical separation could have resulted in Marc retaining some of his veteran’s benefits, an OTH would have similar ramifications to a dishonorable discharge but would not be equivalent to a felony charge. Moon Knight #3, 2006; Moon Knight #11, 2017.
- Michael Lee Lanning, “African Americans and the American Revolution,” in Jensen, Routledge Handbook, 27-35; David Williams “’We Did Our Duties as Men Should’: African Americans in the Civil War,” in Jensen, Routledge Handbook, 73-83; John H. Morrow, Jr., “”Only America Left Her Negro Troops Behind’: The African American Military Experience in the First World War,” in Jensen, Routledge Handbook, 151-159.
- Lanning, “American Revolution,” 27.
- Shaw and Donnelly, Blacks and the USMC, 63.