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African-American Heroes


In 1990, DC Comics editorial director Dick Giordano was asked by one of his young staff editors why virtually all of the DC superheroes were white: "Because they were created in the 1940s by Jews and Italians who wrote and drew what they knew," he replied.

From Invisibility to Comic Relief

Superhero comic books have mirrored societal trends since their inception, and when the medium originated in the late 1930s, African Americans cast no reflection: Segregation made blacks invisible to most whites.

When African Americans did appear in the early comics, they were abhorrently stereotyped with wide eyes and exaggerated pink lips, portrayed as easily frightened to elicit a chuckle from the white reader, and characterized as utterly dependent upon their Caucasian benefactors. The cover of The Spirit #1 (1944) promised "action, thrills, and laughs," the latter provided by black sidekick Ebony White, nervously tiptoeing through a graveyard while sticking close to his protective mentor, the white Spirit. Timely (later Marvel) Comics' kid team the Young Allies included an African-American teen named Whitewash Jones<em>the "comic relief" equivalent of Buckwheat from the Our Gang (a.k.a. "The Little Rascals") theatrical shorts—who was frequently rescued by white heroes Bucky and Toro. No black sidekick was more offensive than Spirit-clone Midnight</sq>s aide Gabby, the talking monkey, drawn in some stories to resemble a chimp-sized black person with a tail.

Other portrayals of people of color depicted them in subservience. A black butler answering the door in the Vision story in Marvel Mystery Comics #13 (1940) announced to white visitors, "Ise sorry, gennilmun, de doctor is pow'ful busy, experuhmintin!" Lothar, the aide to comic-strip hero Mandrake the Magician, "served for many years as the dumb, faithful factotum of the intelligent white man," wrote Reinhold Reitberger and Wolfgang Fuchs in their book Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium (1972). "This black man, dressed in a lion skin and wearing a fez, could be trusted at first to perform only the simplest of tasks for the intellectual Mandrake."

Sidekicks and servants aside, the integration of white and black Americans was mostly avoided during comics' Golden Age (1938–1954). DC Comics, however, published at least two stories in the later Golden Age that included early attempts at enlightenment. World's Finest Comics #17 (1945) shows African-American World War II servicemen on leave being denied service in a "white-only" restaurant, and in Batman #57 (1950), the hero stops a fight between a white man and a black man. But instances such as these were rare. African Americans remained in the background, if seen at all, in comic books of the late 1940s and 1950s, although a handful of titles specifically targeted a black audience: All-Negro Comics (1947), Negro Heroes (1947–1948), and Negro Romance (1950).

The First Black Superhero

During the early Silver Age (1956–1969), African Americans were nonexistent in the pages of DC Comics' superhero series like Superman, The Flash, or Green Lantern. Remarked historian Bradford W. Wright in his tome Comic Book Nation (2001), "Handsome superheroes resided in clean, green suburbs and modern, even futuristic cities with shimmering glass skyscrapers, no slums, and populations of well-dressed white people." The burgeoning Marvel universe, commencing from the release of Fantastic Four #1 (1961), occasionally depicted a token person of color amid Manhattan crowd scenes, or in an urban school class with Peter (Spider-Man) Parker. By 1965, war—"the great leveler," according to Reitberger and Fuchs<em>afforded African Americans equality in the fictional realm of war comics, with black soldiers like Jackie Johnson (from the Sgt. Rock series in DC's Our Army at War) and Gabriel Jones (from Marvel's Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos) valiantly fighting alongside whites in stories set during World War II.

Marvel made history by introducing the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (1966). Whether the comic's writer, Stan Lee, intentionally named the hero after the militant civil rights group, the Black Panthers, is uncertain. The Panther—actually Prince T'Challa of the affluent, industrialized African nation of Wakanda<em>was highly educated, extremely noble, and amazingly lithe, becoming a colleague of the Fantastic Four's resident brain, Reed Richards (a.k.a. the immodestly nicknamed Mr. Fantastic). The Black Panther broke the color barrier for African Americans in the world of superheroes and was portrayed as an admirable role model for readers of any race. The impact of his introduction, however, was not apparent from an examination of the cover: The Black Panther's full facemask provided no hint as to his ethnicity.

Though the 1966 premiere of the Black Panther is regarded as acutely influential from a long-term historical perspective, the hero appeared sporadically at first, and no other African-American superheroes followed his lead. The comics industry was experiencing a superhero boom during the mid-1960s and regarded black superheroes as a financially risky venture given the social unrest playing out on college campuses and in American streets of the day. Yet through the actions of real-life activists, most notably the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—the greatest African-American hero of the decade<em>a blending of cultures was transpiring across America, warmly welcomed by the progressive, vehemently resisted by the ignorant, and violently opposed by the bigoted.

Avengers #52 (1968) took the next giant step for African-American heroes in comics by admitting the Black Panther into the roster of Marvel</sq>s mighty superteam<em>and this time, the color of T'Challa's skin was clearly evident on the cover (and in the interiors), as his facemask was modified to reveal his nose, mouth, and chin. Scribe Roy Thomas dropped the "Black" from the hero's name to distance Marvel's Panther from the militant group, and showed no fear in chronicling white America's distrust of people of color. When T'Challa arrived at Avengers headquarters to report for duty, he discovered three of his new teammates apparently dead, and was suspected of and arrested for the crime by Caucasian operatives of the covert organization S.H.I.E.L.D. The Panther was soon cleared, and his fellow Avengers, unlike S.H.I.E.L.D., were colorblind, accepting T'Challa with no hesitation.

Then came the Falcon, a black hero flying into Captain America #117 (1969). Behind his feathered fighting togs was Harlem social worker Sam Wilson, who guest-starred with Marvel's "Star-Spangled Sentinel" before actually becoming his teammate, sharing cover co-billing. Noteworthy is the fact that Captain America, the superheroic embodiment of American ideals, was the first white superhero to partner with a black superhero; he also endorsed the Black Panther's membership in the Avengers. Cap's actions tacitly endorsed racial equality, imprinting the mores of many of Marvel's readers.

"Alienated superheroes like the Hulk and the Silver Surfer especially empathized with African Americans," historian Wright observed. "The green Hulk befriends an impoverished black teenager and explains to him, 'World hates us ... both of us! ... Because we're different!'" African Americans were now a part of the Marvel universe. Outside of the occasional in-house public-service announcement extolling racial harmony, however, DC's world—its superheroes, its supporting cast, and its incidental background characters<em>was almost exclusively white.

But DC was about to receive a wake-up call.

The Relevance Movement

Writer Denny O'Neil grabbed DC Comics and its readers by their collective collar and forced them to address racism in the landmark Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 (1970). A haggard old African-American man asked the following of Green Lantern, the power-ring-wielding, conservative cosmic cop:

I been readin' about you <el3> how you work for the blue skins ... and how on a planet someplace you helped out the orange skins ... and you done considerable for the purple skins! Only there's skins you never bothered with—! ... The black skins! I want to know ... how come?! Answer me that, Mr. Green Lantern!

On the 2003 History Channel documentary Comic Book Superheroes: Unmasked, O'Neil revealed his rationale behind that speech: "It was too late for my generation, but if you get a real smart twelve-year-old, and get him thinking about racism," then change can be effected.

A "relevance" movement swept DC's comics, and people of color at last gained visibility. "It's important that I live the next 24 hours as a black woman!" asserted Metropolis' star reporter to the Man of Steel as Lois Lane<em>now with brown skin and an Afro hairdo—exited a pigmentation-altering "body mold." This scene played out on the cover of Superman's Girl Friend Lois Lane #106 (1970), in a tale titled "I Am Curious (Black)," described by writer Les Daniels in his book Superman: The Complete History (1998), as a "well-intentioned but unsuccessful story, inexplicably named after a sexually explicit film." DC had better results with the introduction of John Stewart, the African-American "substitute" Green Lantern, first seen in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #87 (1972). Stewart so extolled "Black Power" that GL/GA #87's cover blurb touted, "Introducing an unforgettable new character who really means it when he warns ... 'Beware My Power.'" Even DC's romance titles, long the home for fairy tales starring spoiled white debutantes, printed love stories featuring black women (often social workers) and men.

One "relevant" moment in a DC comic ignited a firestorm of controversy. In Teen Titans #26 (1970), Mal Duncan, a black member of the Titans, was given an innocent farewell kiss by his teammate Lilith<em>who was white. "This was a superhero group, and Mal and Lilith were friendly—why wouldn't she kiss him good-bye?" thought Giordano, the editor of that issue, in his recollections in his biography, Dick Giordano: Changing Comics, One Day at a Time (2003). When others at DC objected to the scene prior to its publication, Giordano instructed the colorist to color the scene monochromatically, to call less attention to it. "Regardless of its hue, it made some readers see red," observed Giordano biographer Michael Eury. Some readers wrote hate mail to the editor<em>including a death threat!—but a flood of supportive letters validated Giordano's gutsy interracial encounter.

Outside of comics, doors were opening for African Americans in popular culture. Primetime television introduced series featuring black leads, including Julia (1968–1971) and Sanford and Son (1972–1977). The interracial friendship of real-life Chicago Bears football stars was chronicled in the tearjerker telefilm Brian's Song (1971), starring Billy Dee Williams as Gayle Sayers and James Caan as Brian Piccolo. "Blaxploitation"—a trend of low-budget movies starring black action heroes—became popular through vehicles like Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972).

I'm Black and I'm Proud

Marvel Comics once again took a momentous stride forward by producing the first comic-book series starring an African-American superhero: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972). "Lucas" was a streetwise black man unjustly incarcerated and given superpowers—superstrength and ultra-dense skin—in a scientific "experiment" intended to destroy him. He punched his way through the stone walls of jail and, as a free man, sold his augmented talents as a mercenary. With his Afro, open-shirted funky disco outfit, and bad-ass attitude, Cage was Shaft as a superhero<em>the cover to his first issue, in fact, was blatantly inspired by the montage motif so common among blaxploitation movie posters. He eventually called himself "Power Man," beginning in issue #17 of his magazine. (Nicolas Coppola, a young fan of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, was so enamored of the character that he took his name, and is better known as Academy Award<en>winning actor Nicolas Cage.)

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire trailblazed a trend: Marvel broadened its universe with new black superheroes. Tomb of Dracula #10 premiered the vampire slayer Blade, a human/vampire crossbreed with a mission to destroy Deacon Frost, the vampire that killed his mother as she was giving birth to him. Blade rode the wave of 1970s superhero blaxploitation, then retreated into the void until several 1990s revivals and a successful 2000s franchise of live-action movies. Brother Voodoo, first seen in Strange Tales #169 (1973), mixed the supernatural with superheroics. He was Jericho Drumm, a U.S.-schooled physician who returned to his native Haiti to avenge his brother's death by using occult powers. The Black Panther leapt into his own series beginning with Jungle Action #5 (1974), in an acclaimed collaboration by writer Don McGregor and African-American artist Billy Graham. This duo handled provocative subject matter, including T'Challa's war with the Ku Klux Klan (issues #19–#23 [1975–1976]). Despite its innovation, Jungle Action was canceled in 1976 and replaced with the hero's own title, produced by the legendary Jack Kirby, who, unfortunately, made Black Panther (1977–1979) a routine superhero comic.

Storm, the African weather-controlling goddess, moved to the U.S. to join Marvel's menagerie of mutants in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (1975), and black scientist Bill Foster became a ten-foot superhero in the short-lived series Black Goliath (1975–1976). Discounting Storm's inclusion in the popular X-Men series, these titles failed to attract their target audience—black readers—and carried marginal appeal to whites of the era. Only Cage's comic survived past the 1970s, and did so by incorporating a white co-star, Iron Fist. Penned commentator Aylze Jama-Everett in the irreverent magazine BadAzz MoFo vol. 2 #3 (1998), “There are just more white geeks in America than black. And sadly, little cracker geeks ain't down with brothers and sisters kicking honky ass on a monthly basis.”

Just when the 1970s black-hero boom was dying, DC joined in with its own African-American headliner. Black Lightning #1 (1977) starred Jefferson Pierce, an inner-city high-school teacher in the “Suicide Slum” district of Superman's berg, Metropolis. To help clean up the community's drug traffic—and to give teens in the 'hood an empowering role model—Pierce donned a voltage-generating belt, a blue bodysuit with stylized yellow lightning bolts, and a white mask (with an Afro attached!) and took to the streets as Black Lightning. His title was disconnected after eleven issues, falling prey to the 1978 “DC Implosion,” a collapse brought on by an overaggressive expansion the year prior.

The Cultural Blend

The shackles had been broken, and beginning in the 1980s African Americans were regularly depicted as superheroes. Cyborg, a black teen whose nearly destroyed body had been outfitted with cybernetics, premiered in The New Teen Titans #1 (1980). New Orleans Police Captain Monica Rambeau acquired the ability to become living energy as Captain Marvel in The Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16 (1982), but later changed her heroic name to Photon. In a storyline running from 1979 to 1985 in the pages of Marvel's Iron Man, white industrialist Tony Stark, secretly Iron Man, succumbed so deeply to alcoholism that his best friend, African American Jim Rhodes, temporarily replaced him in the supercharged armor. Black Lightning returned, not as a solo character, but as a team member, in DC's Batman and the Outsiders/The Outsiders (1983–1988). Other people of color came and went through myriad series, some as heroes, some as supporting cast members or villains.

Since the 1980s, black superheroes have occasionally received their own comics. Notable examples include the four-issue Black Panther miniseries (1988) that addresses apartheid; Green Lantern: Mosaic (1992–1993), starring John Stewart; DC's Steel (1994–1998), a Superman spinoff; a monthly Black Panther series (1998–2003) examining Wakanda's role in a volatile and vastly changing global landscape; and several attempts to revive Power Man, including the hard-hitting, graphically shocking Marvel “MAX” interpretation Cage (2002). The mainstream media took note when Marvel published a provocative miniseries, Truth (2003), which revealed that the “super-soldier serum” that created Captain America had actually been tested on black GIs, one of whom had a secret career predating the Captain's. This was followed by a series (telling the story of the secret Captain America's son) that did not cause a stir with the general public but was more anticipated in fan circles: The Crew (2003), by popular Black Panther writer Christopher Priest, is unusual both for starring a black and Latino superteam and for its unflinchingly realistic look at modern race and class relations.

In the early 1990s, a group of African-American comic-book writers and artists banded together to produce superhero comics starring multicultural (largely black) characters, presenting “a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn't do just one book,” explained Dwayne McDuffie, one of the partners involved, in DC Comics: Sixty Years of the World's Favorite Comic Book Heroes. “We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that's wider than the world we've seen before.” Under the DC Comics–published imprint Milestone Media, a handful of series were released, spanning several years of publication. Milestone titles included Icon (1993–1997), Hardware (1993–1997), The Blood Syndicate (1993–1996), and Static (1993–1997). Arguably the most famous African-American superhero is Spawn. Published by Image Comics, Spawn #1 (1992) sold 1.7 million copies, and made its creator, Todd McFarlane, a wealthy superstar.

African-American heroes have been visible in films and on television since the 1970s. Black Vulcan, inspired by DC's Black Lightning, appeared in TV's animated All New Super Friends Hour (1977), and Cyborg was among the cast of Super Powers Team: Galactic Guardians (1985). Meteor Man (1994), starring Robert Townsend as an African-American caped superman, and Blankman (1994), a superhero satire featuring comedian Damon Wayans, failed to attract large box-office receipts. A similar sad fate was met by the Fox network's one-season show M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994–1995), staring Carl Lumly as an exoskeletoned super-scientist in moody adventures. A live-action theatrical version of Spawn (1997) was followed by made-for-video sequels and an HBO animated series. Basketball star Shaquille “Shaq” O'Neal portrayed DC's iron man in the poorly reviewed theatrical Steel (1997). Townsend returned to tights as the “Bronze Eagle” in the Disney Channel telemovie Up, Up, and Away! (2000), featuring a family of black superheroes. Wesley Snipes sizzled on the big screen as Marvel's martial artist/vampire slayer in Blade (1998), Blade II (2002), and Blade: Trinity (2004). And Green Lantern John Stewart is among the most popular heroes on the Cartoon Network's Justice League (2001–present). —ME

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