In the latter part of the 1960s, change was beginning to be felt within the halls of venerable old DC Comics (then operating as National Periodical Publications.) The culture at large was going through a shift, and so the tried-and-true methodology that had kept the giant publisher on top was no longer working as well as it once had–new ideas and new approaches were needed. Unfortunately, for all that there was some realization in certain quarters that change was needed, in other areas, change was anathema. And so we come to the story of the aborted version of TEEN TITANS #20, a comic book that wanted to push the boundaries a little bit and speak to the time, and which almost got its creators drummed out of the business for the affront of daring to put forward–a black super hero.
When it started, TEEN TITANS was a bit of a silly comic book, a series that united the various sidekicks of popular characters as a group, its dialogue rife with dated pseudo-slang indicative of what middle aged white men thought that teenagers sounded like. But a shift began to happen when Dick Giordano was given oversight of the book upon his arrival at DC as an editor. This roughly coincided with a period when many of DC’s longtime writers were being quietly blackballed from the company for having the temerity of asking for some manner of pension plan for their many years of service. In their place, a new generation of young creators were brought in, people who were only too happy to be able to work on these books they loved so much (and unaware of what had befallen their predecessors.) Two of these newcomers were Len Wein and Marv Wolfman. In later years, each man would go on to create properties that would be enormous hits for the different companies at which they worked. But at this time, they were just a pair of progressives who were starting out, and who wanted to do stories more in line with the way the world was at that time. In their first TEEN TITANS story, which saw print in issue #18, they introduced Starfire, a Russian super hero who was depicted as being just as heroic and noble as any of his American counterparts (and who suffered suspicion from the Titans, in particular the conservative Kid Flash.) Flush from this success, the pair had another contemporary idea that they wanted to put forward: introducing an African-American super hero.
Editor Dick Giordano liked the idea and green-lit the pair to move ahead with a script. The trio also consulted with DC’s Editorial Director Irwin Donenfeld, the son of the firm’s founder Harry Donenfeld. Irwin was also positive about the potential of such a story, and advocated that it shouldn’t just be a one-off but rather a multi-part sequence. He saw the possibility for good press and an opportunity for DC to take back a bit of the spotlight from their growing rival, Marvel Comics, which had been written up in the press on a number of occasions as a more progressive publisher. Now, Wein and Wolfman were both young and new at their craft at this point, so the story they turned in, while well-intentioned, would eventually be criticised as being too much a polemic. Cries of reverse-racism were even thrown around. But for the moment, the story was a go. Wein and Wolfman delivered their script, editor Dick Giordano approved it and put it into production, and TEEN TITANS artist Nick Cardy began to draw it. He’d penciled the entire issue and had begun inking the job when the axe fell.
I’ve heard versions of this story told multiple times over the years, and everybody involved is a bit circumspect about pointing fingers. But privately, the situation surrounding this story is discussed a bit more directly. And it comes down to this; while this issue was in production, there was a changing-of-the-guard at DC. Irwin Donenfeld was let go as Editorial Director and replaced by Carmine Infantino, who had been working as the firm’s cover editor up until that time. Carmine is a storied artist whom nobody wants to speak badly of, and it’s debatable how much his decisions here were about his own feelings or his fears for the company should the story see print. At any event, becoming aware of the issue in progress, he asked Giordano to read it. And when he was finished, he told his editor that the book as it was then was unpublishable, not up to snuff and an embarrassment that DC would not print. Apparently, everybody involved in this initial conversation largely danced around the central issue; the fear that showcasing a black super hero would cost DC distribution in southern States. Nobody involved was happy about this sudden pronouncement, and apparently Wein and Wolfman in particular hit the roof and were very vocal about their position and beliefs. heated words were exchanged, and the pair was on the verge of being bounced out of DC by Carmine. Giordano had a more practical and immediate problem, however: he had to put an issue on press in about a week. In fact, the cover had already been sent to the printer, which meant that any replacement story that was done would have to still reflect it. Jericho was the proposed name of the new black character, so he title, “Titans Fit The Battle of Jericho” was emblazoned across the cover as copy. Apparently, the large mob of rioters had been colored as African-American on the version of the cover that was sent to print, so as a last-minute remedy, the printer was instructed to knock them all out in blues and purples so that no particular ethnicity would be evident. (or so the story goes–looking at the original art, those figures don’t look especially African-American to me.)
Both Giordano and the writers had an ally in the person of Neal Adams. Adams was a fair-haired figure up at DC in 1968, an artist who came in with an exciting new style and experience in real publishing, which meant he knew more about printing than many of the folks toiling away at DC. He was also a forward-looking voice and an advocate of young creators–someone who was listened to because of his own personality and his track record with sales and fan reaction. Wein and Wolfman approached Adams and asked him to read the story they’d done, claiming that management was being too conservative and asking for his help to salvage it. Neal read the book, and while he was sympathetic to its message, he didn’t think it was crafted well. But he was inspired to pull together a modified version of the story to present to Carmine, one that he would go into and fix with extensive redraws, bringing it into line. But Carmine would not hear of it. By this point, his back was up, and he wanted the whole thing spiked and Wein and Wolfman up against a wall. But now, Neal was involved, and Giordano still needed an issue that he could sent to print in a few short days. So Neal conceived an entirely new story, one without any black participants, which he penciled most of (a number of pages and panels from the aborted story were incorporated into it, partly in order to make it easier to get the issue done in the time left.) Nick Cardy was brought in to ink Neal’s pencils (really loose layouts in a lot of cases, so rapidly was this thing being thrown together.) Neal’s version replaced Jericho with a similarly-attired new super heroic character named Joshua, who also wore a largely stark-white costume. This replacement story came out and saw print without a ripple. But DC’s first black super hero would have to wait three more years until 1971–when Adams and writer Denny O’Neil would give Green Lantern’s power ring to African-American architect John Stewart for one memorable issue of GREEN LANTERN. It wasn’t until BLACK LIGHTNING #1 in 1976 that an African-American super hero appeared at DC with any manner of regularity.