With the introduction of Gabe Jones in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963), Marvel Comics took their first step toward introducing non-stereotyped black characters to a white, mainstream audience. It didn’t happen quickly, but compared to other publishers, Marvel was essentially on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. 1966 then saw the introduction of Dr. Bill Foster in The Avengers #32, and in The Amazing Spider-Man #51 (Aug. 1967) editor Robbie Robertson premiered.
While being supporting characters, none served as comic relief or played out offensive stereotypes, with each being accomplished in their fields, respected by their peers, and accepted with hardly any acknowledgment of their race. But none of them had powers.
The first black superhero to appear at Marvel would be The Black Panther, in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), but he was African, rather than African-American, and wouldn’t headline his own series until Jungle Action in 1973. Finally, America’s first black superhero arrived in Captain America #117 (Sept. 1969), when Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan, created The Falcon. But it would be another few years before Archie Goodwin and artist John Romita, Sr. would introduce Luke Cage to the Marvel Universe, in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972), making him the first African-American superhero to star in his own series.
Each of these characters, though sometimes playing with stereotypes in their characterizations, were, nonetheless, almost always respected enough to stay in the forefront of minds in the Marvel Universe (with Gabe Jones appearing as an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. when Nick Fury took over and Dr. Bill Foster taking on the superhero identity Black Goliath in 1975) throughout the Sixties and Seventies.
One black hero, however, never quite made it into the mainstream, but has always been one of my personal favorite characters. I’m speaking, of course, of Jericho Drumm, Brother Voodoo.
As documented in the essay, “Introducing Brother Voodoo,” first published in Marvel’s Tales of the Zombie magazine #2 (Oct. 1973), Brother Voodoo was designed to headline the relaunch of Strange Tales, which had ceased publication in 1968 when its headliners, Doctor Strange and Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., were given their own titles. Writer Roy Thomas was tasked to come up with a character that would blend the appeal of Marvel’s supernatural comics with that of the superhero titles in a manner similar to that of Ghost Rider and Doctor Strange.
Thomas, with a name suggested by Stan Lee, developed Brother Voodoo to contrast with the “street educated” Luke Cage by making him a highly educated, successful sociologist who follows the Dr. Strange model of doubting the existence of magic before becoming its top practitioner. With Len Wein on board to script and Gene Colan providing moody pencils, Brother Voodoo was launched in Strange Tales #169 (Sept. 1973).
What followed were two three-part stories, the first of which served to establish Jericho Drumm as the Houngan Supreme (essentially the Sorcerer Supreme of Voodoo), with the second exploring and expanding the world of Haitian voodoo in the Marvel Universe. It doesn’t really succeed on that count, but more on that later.
This was a fantastic opportunity to create and promote a powerful, intelligent black hero while also incorporating a fascinating religious tradition. There are many sociological textures to the practice of voodoo that can be woven into Brother Voodoo’s narrative, grounding him in real-world details, avoiding the more nonsensical anything-goes approaches that have hampered Doctor Strange stories at their lower ebbs.
But I guess I never really expected an approach like that to be taken. It’s really the possibilities that this character represented that attracted me to him. But he didn’t get off to a bad start.
The structure of this first story is interesting in and of itself, opening in medias res before looping backwards into a two-full-issues origin flashback, which then leads into a further in medias res opening (issue #171) that flashes back to pick up where we left off after the introductory pages of issue #169. It’s an awkward structure that I can’t quite figure out the motivation for. Brother Voodoo’s origin story might have been better served by simply jumping right in, rather than setting the stage with a scene that will need to be replayed practically in its entirety two issues later.
My only guess is that it was incorporated late into the opening pages of issue #169 because otherwise we wouldn’t actually see Brother Voodoo in action until near the end of issue #170, when he assumes his role of Houngan Supreme. It’s only this convoluted structure that forces these first three issues into what can be called a three-part story, because issue #171 really stands on its own.
It does drive home the fact that both portions of this story, while set in Haiti, are not of Haiti. Both the pathologist who arrives by plane in the opening pages and Jericho Drumm, who arrives by plane halfway through the issue, are representative of a more prosperous, “modern” scientific world colliding and contrasting with the poverty-stricken and superstitious third-world country.
With that said, Thomas, Wein, and Colan do an impressive job of characterization as we follow Dr. Jericho Drumm back home to Haiti at his estranged twin brother’s behest. Colan’s shadowy style is especially important in creating the mood and setting the tone for the stories to come. While he’d made his name for years illustrating Captain America and Daredevil, it was on the mystical and horror-themed titles Doctor Strange and Tomb of Dracula where Colan really hit his stride.
I can’t imagine another artist at the time being better suited to illustrate these first Brother Voodoo adventures.
The thing that really makes Brother Voodoo stand out, though, is the inclusion of a concept that DC introduced with their Deadman character in 1967 (interestingly, also influenced by non-Western mysticism). You see, Jericho Drumm is possessed by the spirit of his deceased twin bother, Daniel Drumm – the previous Brother Voodoo – and like DC’s Boston Brand, Daniel can leave Jericho’s body and possess others, providing Brother Voodoo with an extra set of hands in a pinch.
Daniel doesn’t seem to have any other influence over Jericho, or distinctive personality, at this stage in the character’s development, serving more as a v
isual analog to Doctor Strange’s astral projection, but with the obvious physical benefits. Sometime later he will become a companion and confidant, but initially he’s a good bit creepier.
The origin story is essentially a revenge tale, as Jericho is called to Daniel’s side before he dies. The murderer is another houngan claiming to be a manifestation of the serpent god Damballah. Jericho, however, enters the jungles of Haiti to find Daniel’s mentor, Papa Jambo, who welcomes and trains him to become the newest Brother Voodoo. We also find out that Jericho had always been the chosen one, but with his rejection of voodoo and move to America twenty years earlier, Daniel had taken up the mantle.
With Jericho’s return, things are finally set right. He manages to defeat Damballah fairly easily, as well as the gathered Council of Vaudou (gaining a servant named Bambu in the process), and then our flashback is over and we can get back to the current story introduced nearly two issues prior.
Here’s where the structure gets really bizarre. Issue #171 opens with Brother Voodoo searching a graveyard when he is attacked by Zuvembies (Marvel’s semantic end-around of the Comics Code’s ban on zombies). As he’s overwhelmed, he is taunted by the arrival of the zuvembie-master, Baron Samedi. This leads us to another flashback, setting the stage for the actual beginning of this adventure. This involves a Haitian businessman traveling to New Orleans to tell Brother Voodoo about a zuvembie uprising at his electronics plant.
Yes, that is a flashback in the flashback. Then we get a flash-forward to the scene that opened issue #169, which then cuts back into the ongoing flashback which ends with Brother Voodoo heading off to the graveyard.
Then Brother Voodoo wakes up as a prisoner of Baron Samedi and A.I.M. Yes, I said A.I.M., Advanced Idea Mechanics. It also turns out that the zuvembies aren’t really zuvembies after all, but are kidnapped men who have been mind-wiped by a huge device created by Baron Samedi and A.I.M.
It’s all fairly contrived and works against the initial conceit of the character and the setting, and the story ends with a cliché Villainous Monologue that allows Brother Voodoo to summon a lizard to chew through the wiring of the “brain-drain” machine.
Luckily, the next adventure, taking place in Strange Tales #172-173 and wrapping up in Tales of the Zombie #6 is much better. It follows a fairly traditional plot, as we open with Brother Voodoo rescuing a drowning woman who turns out to be both the latest victim of a voodoo cult and the daughter of the Chief of Detectives of the New Orleans Police. Then, when she’s kidnapped by the cult, it’s a race between the police and Brother Voodoo to rescue her before she is sacrificed.
There’s a nice twist at the end of the story that’s only hampered by falling back on European legends rather than staying true to the mythology of voodoo. We are also introduced to the big, bad voodoo daddy who dresses like a rooster: Black Talon. The black rooster costume amazingly doesn’t look too bad the way Colan draws it, and it is inspired by voodoo traditions, but, sadly, that doesn’t make it any easier to take him seriously.
But overlooking the chicken suit, this is a solid horror adventure, with a touch of mystery and the hint of a recurring theme. That theme being a narrative dismissal of voodoo as an actual source of power, instead being an affectation to manipulate and frighten the poor and uneducated. Even Damballah turned out to be a faker of sorts, relying on a magical amulet to control snakes and inspire his followers.
Brother Voodoo appears to be the only character in these first stories who was actually indoctrinated in voodoo practices and is capable of manifesting supernatural powers distinctly voodoo in nature. There’s a minimal attempt at building a mythology that can support the Occult Superhero flourishes of the character, but nothing as vigorous as Lee and Ditko’s creation of Doctor Strange’s magical world, or even the incorporation of Christian mythology in the adventures of Ghost Rider (or in the eventual adventures of Daimon Hellstrom, The Son of Satan). Ultimately, these stories fall short of really setting up a world where Brother Voodoo can thrive creatively.
After one final solo story in Tales of the Zombie #10, Brother Voodoo entered the limbo of the occasional guest-star, making appearances throughout the Marvel Universe over the years, whenever cliché voodoo magic was being abused as a plot point, but never graduating the next level of respect and marketability that other black characters, or even other fringe horror characters, did.
Until recently, that is.
In New Avengers #53, writer Brian Michael Bendis cast Jericho Drumm (and his ghostly brother Daniel) as the new Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe. It was sloppily done, and gave the character an on-again off-again phonetic New Orleans dialect, but it was, I think, a fantastic idea. And finally, after 36 years of waiting, Brother Voodoo is launching his own title this month with Rick Remender writing and Jefte Palo on art, called Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural, changing the character’s name in order to both reflect his new role as Sorcerer Supreme, but also acknowledging his role as a Doctor of Psychology.
Remender has stated in interviews that he’s specifically addressing some of these world-building shortcomings that limited Brother Voodoo’s possibilities 36 years ago. That, along with the character’s incorporation into the Avengers family of titles should provide a solid launching pad for the series. Plus, this December will see the release of Doctor Voodoo: The Origin of Jericho Drumm One-Shot #1, which reprints Strange Tales #169-170, the strongest of his early appearances, with a new framing sequence written by Roy Thomas, himself.
It’s been a long time coming, but it looks like Jericho Drumm is finally going to be given the respect that I think the character has always deserved.