Friday, January 26, 2018

On servants, sidekicks, and partners, or why I don't put Lothar, Kato, and Tonto among the first superheroes of color

Superheroes have three kinds of companions, and the difference matters, especially when the hero is a white man and the companion is not.

The first is the servant, like Lothar and Kato when they first appeared. Servants may be very capable, but they rarely act on their own. They do what they're told. The relationship between a hero and his (or, rarely, her) servant may be friendly, but there is never a hint that it's a relationship of equals.

The second is the sidekick, usually a boy like Robin, Bucky, and Ebony White, or an adult like Jimmy Olsen, Tonto, and Doiby Dickles, or a love interest like Lois Lane and Steve Trevor. Sidekicks may be the hero's social equal, but they're not the hero's equal in ability.

The third is the partner, a character who is effectively the hero's equal in every meaningful way—see Superman and Batman, Hawkman and Hawkwoman, Captain America and the Falcon, Luke Cage and Iron Fist...

In the 1960s, heroes' servants were upgraded. Lothar and Kato became more like sidekicks than servants, and Chop-Chop became a full member of the Blackhawks. Since then, their writers do the best they can to make them partners, but even today, the best you can say about Lothar, Kato, and Chop-Chop (or Chopper or whatever they call him now) is they're treated with the respect a writer would give Lancelot or Will Scarlet, but they're still not King Arthur or Robin Hood. This attempt at creating a team from old newspaper heroes shows the problem: the white guys are clearly the heroes and Lothar comes fourth in importance:

So for me, Lothar, Tonto, and Kato are major characters in the history of superheroes, but they're important steps toward the creation of superheroes of color rather than fully-realized characters in their own right.

That said, Kato has effectively eclipsed the Green Hornet, thanks especially to Bruce Lee's TV performance. If I was publishing their comic, I would title it Kato and the Green Hornet.

Boosting Tonto and Lothar to full partnership status is more challenging—giving them equal billing would be a start. Lothar's enormously strong and an African prince as well; there's no reason he can't be as interesting as the Black Panther. But Tonto is saddled with a name that means "fool" or "moron" in Spanish, and while I suspect that came out of ignorance rather than malice—the name may have been inspired by the Tonto Basin in Arizona—it's a problem. I would be tempted to reveal that Tonto was also a man on a mission, so when he teamed up with the Lone Ranger, he chose a false name that amused him. When he completes the mission—perhaps by finding the people who killed a member of his family—he could reveal his true name.

Possibly of interest

Ask the Archivist: Meet MANDRAKE THE MAGICIAN includes a very early example of Lothar saving a white woman in her boudoir, which had to have been considered daring in its time.