Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project
We have now come to Spider-Man Noir: Eyes Without a Face, one of the last installments in the Marvel Noir series (it was followed by Iron Man Noir, which we looked at quite a while back). Like the first Spider-Man, it was written by David Hine and illustrated by Carmine di Giandomenico. The story picks up in September 1933, eight months after Spider-Man Noir. The power vacuum left in the underworld after Peter Parker’s first foray into the world of crime fighting has been filled by “the Crime Master,” a mysterious crook who wears a mask. As the story progresses and Peter tries to track this new lord of the underworld down, it turns out that he has found his way into a conspiracy that involves kidnappings of African Americans, government research, the Friends of the New Germany – a Nazi-friendly American group that was active in the 1930s and 1940s – and Nazi Germany.
Like the first Spider-Man Noir, Eyes Without a Face is more masked avenger pulp than film noir, which is not surprising given that it is a sequel. It does, however, amplify the first installment’s historical consciousness. Eyes Without a Face is sensitive to historical racial formations, and it reads very much like a commentary on historical racism in America. This is evident from the plot itself, and in the dialogue; Robbie Robertson, for example, comments on how the New Deal’s NRA (the New Deal National Recovery Administration) stands for “Negroes Robbed Again,” which was a critique voiced during the Great Depression. Perhaps more than anywhere else in the Noir line, parts of New York play a central role as location and as a supporter of the themes explored in the comic: the central location is Ellis Island. When Peter and Robbie first visit, they discuss the place. For Peter – historically improbable though it is – it is a place of light nostalgia: “My great grandparents must have stepped off the boat right on this spot.”* For Robbie: “I’ll venture that my ancestors were a little less optimistic about their prospects than yours when they set foot on American soil” (#1, np).
That said, the series’ relatively strong awareness of history and place only goes so far. It falls short in its presentation of eugenics, the once-popular pseudo-science of racial genetic “improvement,” which is more central to the story than either the legacy of slavery or economic segregation, or of the contentious meaning of Ellis Island in contemporary discourse. Rather than showing the pseudo-science as something native to America, its practice in Spider-Man Noir‘s United States is made alien by a presenting it as an import from Nazi Germany, despite the fact that the country was important in its emergence and had a leading role in the field at the time of the series. (Rockefeller Foundation money funded German eugenic research up until 1939.) Whether or not Hine knew this history, I cannot say, but he give Spider-Man a line of dialogue that marks it as un-American at one point, thus giving American eugenicists – the existence of which must have been known to the writer – an alibi. Although willing to make a few critical statements, then, the series pulls the strongest historical punch it could have thrown.
These criticisms aside, Eyes Without a Face is one of the most readable series published under the Marvel Noir banner.
* Ellis Island opened in 1892.