Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

(Black) Knights in White Satin: The Strange Early Life of Dane Whitman

As probably everyone reading this knows by now, The Eternals introduces us to the MCU’s Dane Whitman, AKA the Black Knight. It’s one case where cutting out some of the character’s history will probably be a plus. From his first appearance in Avengers #47 (1967) through the seeming end of his career in #84, he bounces between being scientist, science superhero, magical superhero and cursed soul.

Talking with SyFy, Roy Thomas says he was a huge fan of Marvel’s 1950s Black Knight, Sir Percy of Scandia. While writing Avengers Thomas set out to create a new version of the Arthurian hero who’d also be a contemporary, modern man, like the Black Knight Stan Lee created as a Giant-Man foe. Thomas says he preferred reworking old Marvel characters to creating someone completely new, given that Marvel would own all the rights either way. Perhaps that mix of intentions and influences, coupled with Thomas’  random plotting style in those days, explains the twists and turns in Dane’s first four years at Marvel.

When we first meet Dane, he’s an arrogant scientist working with his assistant Norris on using magnetic energy to contact intelligent life in space (you can guess from the cover who it is he contacts). When Norris asks why Dane’s so obsessed with achieving something big, Dane reveals he’s the nephew of Nathan Garrett, the evil Black Knight —— who fell of his winged horse during a recent battle with Iron Man. Normally nothing serious for a supervillain but in this case the fall proved fatal. With his dying breath Garrett contacted his nephew, who now feels he must balance the scales by using science for good.

The #47 cover shows how well that worked. But never fear, the following issue Dane decides if you don’t succeed at first, put on a costume!It turns out Dane is following his uncle’s deathbed request — not to simply use science for good but specifically the Black Knight’s science. Meaning  his multipurpose lance weapon and his genetically engineered winged horse. Which doesn’t really fit with what he told Norris, though as he considers his assistant a scientific wage slave, it’s understandable he didn’t blurt out “Don’t laugh but I’m going to become a superhero too!”

The Black Knight flies to the Avengers for help but in a Silver Age Marvel comic that was never going to work well. They instantly assume he’s Nathan Garrett and attack, pissing him off to the point he starts hitting back. By the time everyone sorts it out, Dane’s in a snit and flies off alone instead of teaming up. He doesn’t even spare a thought to putting right what he did wrong by helping take down Magneto.

We next see Dane when the Masters of Evil reform in Avengers #54 and invite him to join. Okay, technically it’s an old invitation to his uncle but when Dane stumbles across it, he figures he can help the Avengers by posing as Nathan. He does manage to help and the Assemblers are more impressed with him this time. Before they can say thanks, though, he flies up, up and away and out of the book for a year.

Thomas said in the interview that he didn’t expect his Black Knight to be an A-lister but saw him as a good second-stringer, maybe an Avenger. That makes me wonder why Thomas didn’t bring him onto the team when they had every reason to invite him. It doesn’t happen until #71, after Dane saves the team from Kang, and by then he’s living in England and can’t participate regularly. Was the reader feedback negative? Did Stan Lee decide he didn’t like the character? Despite Thomas saying he’d always planned to tie Dane to Sir Percy, was that really a Hail Mary play to generate more interest? Because when it happened, it was a game-changer.

In Marvel Super-Heroes #17, Dane learns he’s inherited Garrett Castle — I’ve no idea from whom, given he thought Nathan was his last living relative — and goes to England to sell it. Dane, Dane, don’t you know selling off inherited old buildings from relatives you’ve never met is never that easy?

Sure enough, he’s confronted by Sir Percy’s spirit — his exact double — and gets a crash course in how his ancestor bought the farm. The Black Knight’s magic sword made him unkillable, except by a dagger forged of the same star-metal. Morded, here an evil sorcerer, used the dagger to remove his archfoe during the fall of Camelot. Mordred died but his spirit endured and now threatens the 20th century. Will Dane  accept his ancestor’s mantle to fight against Mordred? Where Nathan flunked when he had to prove his worth, Dane wins his mystic challenge and receives the ebony blade. He’s now invincible in battle — unless of course, that dagger turns up.

Spoiler: the dagger turns up. Mordred takes a broken-down ex-knife thrower, turns him into an agent of destruction and sends him, armed with the dagger, after the new, improved Black Knight. It doesn’t work but Mordred’s spirit is still around, the ebony dagger is still around —

And that was the last we heard about them for years. The Black Knight shows up at Hank and Jan’s wedding, where the Avengers treat his magic blade as routinely as if he’d always wielded it. As I said at the link, it’s odd that having pulled a soft reboot, Thomas didn’t draw more attention to it. Or maybe have the Avengers join the Black Knight against Mordred’s next scheme. Instead Thomas completely ignores the new set-up for Dane, including that aside from the dagger, Dane’s now as deathless as Wolverine. Perhaps it’s a sign that Thomas really didn’t intend Dane as anything but a second-stringer.

After a couple more appearances, including the battle against Kang, Dane vanishes for another year. When he returns in #84, the rules have changed once again.

When a couple of London crooks make a get away by helicopter, Dane smashes the rotor with his sword so that they’ll crash and die. As soon as he does it, he’s horrified he’s done it, and rescues them like a superhero should. He realizes there’s a dark, evil power in the blade and it’s slowly taking him over.  Worse, when Dane tries to destroy the sword, he can’t bring himself to do it. Sir Percy’s summoned spirit confirms that yeah, the blade’s cursed, but he kind of hoped that had worn off so he never mentioned it. Dude, not cool. Not honorable either, which for a knight is worse. Fortunately at the end of the story a Clash of Titans with Arkon winds up destroying the blade — Dane is free!

Haha, just kidding. In Avengers #100 it turns out the blade simply tumbled through the dimensions, ending up in the hands of Ares. As God of War, he has the power to master any blade, and uses it to take out the rest of Olympus. Next comes Earth, followed by Asgard. Sir Percy alerts Dane there’s a problem; Dane gets back into costume, picks up Nathan’s lance again and summons the Avengers. Ares goes down to defeat and Dane reclaims ownership of the sword.

I imagine if Roy Thomas had stuck with Avengers a few more years Dane would have kept up his irregular appearances. Instead, the Black Knight’s next appearance was in Defenders #4 by Steve Engleheart where he wound up turned to stone. In #11 Englehart resolved things by having Dane’s soul drawn back to the Third Crusade. Here he enters his ancestor’s body to stop Mordred allying with Prince John to take down Richard the Lionhearted. The Defenders put a stop to that but Dane stays in that era to enjoy glorious swashbuckling adventures fighting against the “Mohameddans.” Quite aside from glamorizing the Crusades, the ending is way out of character for Dane.

He would of course, return and go through many more changes over the years. Ally to Captain Britain in Otherworld. Member of the Avengers during Roger Stern’s run (probably the best use of him) and later of Excalibur. Hero of Malibu’s Ultraverse after Marvel bought the company. The curse of the sword would become more and more a defining part of his character, which I suspect is what we’ll see in the MCU too.

Because let’s face it, a faithful adaptation of his early years would have everyone scratching their heads and going WTF?

#SFWApro. Art top to bottom by Don Heck, Jack Kirby, George Tuska, Tuska again, Howard Purcell, John Buscema and Barry Windsor-Smith



  1. Chris Schillig

    Ah, the wonky Marvel plotting of the late ’60s and ’70s! Courtesy of Comixology’s recent Marvel Masterworks sale, I’ve had the opportunity to re-read a lot of the House of Ideas’ output from my childhood. And while the stories are still entertaining, I’ve needed to check my adult brain at the door. It’s very clear that comics were still seen as casual, adolescent reading with an audience that changed every few years. Any number of Roy’s FF stories, for example, turn on the Thing and his hairpin-trigger anger. His outbursts are so irrational and just plain dangerous that he could easily have been the villain of the story.

  2. Le Messor

    There’s also his UK appearances, where he meets Captain Britain, which twist this up a little more.

    Oh, and researching that, I’ve added another character to my ‘flightless birds’ list (Jackdaw, a Captain Britain sidekick who I’d forgotten about).

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