The White Tiger almost kicked Spider-Man’s ass. In issues # 9-10 of Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man – shit, was that actually 30+ years ago! – Webhead almost had a can of whupass opened on him by an enigmatic, white-clad kung-fu specialist few people knew much about. The Tiger and the Wall-Crawler got into a tete-a-tete based on a misunderstanding – in those days, Marvel Comics manufactured any misunderstanding that would get two heroes going for each other’s throat – but the Tiger held his own against his more powerful opponent, keeping Spidey off balance with an awesome array of kicks, leaps, and devastating chops, their knock-down brawl raging from the leafy campus of fictional Empire State University to the graffiti-stained tenements of the Bronx.
It was the first color appearance of this exciting new hero – not to mention a non-Caucasian one – and it seemed a no-brainer that he would become a ubiquitous presence in the Marvel Universe. Alas, this was not to be. Not only was El Tigre Blanco seldom seen again, he was rudely offed many years later, dispatched in a hail of bullets, and supplanted by his own niece. What gives?
The White Tiger, a.k.a. Hector Ayala, sprang forth from two distinct cultural trends in full bloom in the 1970s. First, the progressive social upheavals of the 60s, i.e., women’s lib, full civil rights for ethnic folks, gay rights, led American society, particularly pop culture, to be more inclusive of people previously viewed as “the other”. So, you had PBS’ “Sesame Street”, set on a ghetto block and featuring a rainbow tribe of youngsters, various Black characters on Norman Lear’s groundbreaking sitcoms, the rise of Richard Pryor and the Cos, and Blaxploitation cinema, to spotlight a few. Second, the rise of martial arts master Bruce Lee made the rigorous Chinese discipline of kung-fu an American obsession, with training schools popping up seemingly over night, and amateur schoolyard shao-lins chopping each other into detention. Indeed, it seemed that everyone was “Kung-Fu Fighting”, to quote the hypnotically silly Carl Douglas proto-disco hit. Even Lee’s untimely death didn’t quell the fervor; if anything, his legend increased kung fu’s popularity.
After the multi-racial – White, Black, Chinese, and a distaff Japanese – martial arts collective The Sons of The Tiger called it quits in acrimony, Puerto Rican night school student Ayala stumbled across their mystical amulets – there’s no shortage of magic in superhero tales – and que milagro!…he was transformed into the White Tiger, imbued with the agility, speed, and strength of three athletes, not to mention some mad Bruce Lee skills. Imagine a Nuyorican Daredevil who could give Jackie Chan a run for his money, and that would be the Tiger.
In fact, the Daredevil comparison is sociologically accurate. Ayala grew up poor in the notorious projects of the South Bronx, not a far stretch from Matt Murdock’s upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen – now gentrified into “Clinton” – with a washed-up boxer dad who may or may not have completed high school. Both characters rely on swiftness and hand-to-hand combat proficiency rather than brute force. Of course, with superior strength and martial arts expertise, Hector would have made short work of Matt in any realistic throw-down, but Marvel’s writers, at least in those days, were hardly consistent in their depictions of superhuman abilities. I mean, Spidey against the Hulk-strength Rhino?! Horns would’ve ground Aunt May’s favorite nephew into the asphalt of Riverside Drive.
Despite the Tiger’s sociological grounding in Me Decade social change, his repartee was consciously or unconsciously anachronistic. Instead of sounding like a Sedgwick Ave B-boy or a Pinero antagonist, El Tigre aped the courtly speech of a Ricardo Montalban or Don Diego. Try this on: “Since the day I donned this garb, I have been hunted, Senor…No longer! It is time for the hare to turn and rend the foxes”. Such florid talk brings to mind conversation between Diego de la Vega and Moncada’s nefarious henchmen in Isabel Allende’s lushly romantic, globe-trotting Zorro. The White Tiger was simultaneously hip and archaic, a Zorro for the ‘hood, but I wonder if that was anything more than a curious accident.
I’m not sure I can elucidate exactly what joneses me about the White Tiger. I’m forced to conjure up the elementary school mindset I surely had in 1977 in ruminating on his appeal to my dreamy suburban self. Maybe he stoked fantasies of power in me that all of us superhero geeks supposedly conceal in our subconscious. Perhaps his balletic grace and slightly exotic demeanor appealed to the armchair-traveler aesthete I would become. Who can say? Comic books were brand-spanking new to me at the time, and Marvel’s heroes were infinitely more complex – and thus more compelling – than those of Hanna-Barbera’s corny, pro-social Superfriends, a by-product of parental pogroms against violence in kiddie TV, which I nevertheless devoured every Saturday morn, along with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls.
And my interest in him has continued to this day. I do recall – in the early 90s – enlisting a teen artist to draw a likeness of the Tiger, which I intended to frame and hang on my bedroom wall, but the picture never materialized. I can’t help musing that a film adaptation could conceivably make him the household name he’s never been, but given the obscene economics of mainstream American cinema, it’s unlikely that Hollywood would mount an A-list production around such an obscure character.
I don’t know if the White Tiger has a significant cult of fans, but I can’t imagine that I’m the sole member of the club. For me, it’s always a giddy vindication when the masses fall head over heels with something I’ve treasured for years. I’m not convinced that the world will ever ‘discover’ the White Tiger, but you can bet that Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man issues # 9 and 10 will never leave my hands. Entiendo?