Recently, Barnes & Noble decided to try something for Black History Month that everyone decided was a Bad IdeaTM. No, that wasn’t a Babylon Bee article, they took characters from classic works [in many cases the villains, ironically] and made them black on the cover art as part of a promotion.
Last year, we put out a fully-illustrated edition of Brackett’s Planet Stories-era Stark adventures, and one thing we wanted to be sure to do was portray him on the covers and in the interior the way he’s described: black. No, not ethnically black, but dark-skinned; easily shorthanded as “black”.
Some people take issue with or confuse Stark’s changed nature with the de jour racial politics: “How is pretending Eric John Stark’s sun-blackened skin makes him a different race any better than just straight up race swapping characters?”
Who is Stark? Is he a white man? Is he a black man? Is he a white man with black skin?
His skin is black and everyone calls him a “great black ape.”
He’s stripped of any white ethnic identity by his physical condition as well as his upbringing.
He’s an eternal outsider.
He identifies as N’Chaka, Man with no tribe.
If Stark was ever “white”, he is no longer–he feels no racial kinship with “white” men of Earth. But he’s not “black” either, in that he is not African, nor would he feel any racial kinship with “black” men of Earth, though given his upbringing, he might feel more sympathetic towards them.
Brackett was a huge fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tarzan, and in some ways Stark may be looked at as an anti-Tarzan.
Tarzan was Nature over Nurture. Burroughs emphasized the importance of his noble Anglo blood that always shone through despite the circumstances of his upbringing; Tarzan was always true to his blood and nothing could change that. When he meets fellow whites, he knows them to be his people.
Stark was Nurture over Nature. His environment changed him physically and mentally; though he was the child of frontier settlers from earth, at his core he is a savage, more kin with the the wild Mercurian indigenous hunters than with the earth men who found him and dragged him back to earth in a cage “to civilize him”. That Stark was at some point in his early childhood a white boy would be immaterial to his ethnic identity as it presents to every other person he comes in contact with, and you can be damn sure he feels no sense of racial connection to “white” people. He’s a character who was crafted to be completely and totally an outsider among any race.
To say “he’s white with black skin” glosses over the experiment Brackett was doing with the character, creating someone with conflicting ethnic signifiers and no racial identity besides “other”.
So, when I say “Eric John Stark is black,” I’m not saying “Eric John Stark is either descended from African American slave stock or is a Sub-Saharan African”; I’m saying he’s literally black.
More details on our 70th Anniversary Illustrated Stark can be found here.
Also, be sure to check out our Spring Issue, available for pre-order now in e-book form [print pre-order coming soon!], out March 13th!