Comic books and race in America go hand in hand.
Comic books haven’t always been a place where African-Americans can find characters they relate to. Black comic characters ranged from being barely noticeable and featuring blatantly disrespectful instances, to receiving lessened moments of racism from decade to decade. DC Comics didn’t have a black superhero who could stand on his own until 1977 when Black Lightning and his ability to create and manipulate electricity and electromagnetic fields was introduced. Marvel Comics beat them to the punch by 11 years with the Black Panther. He first debuted in "Fantastic Four" #52 in 1966. Created by Jack Kirby, the Black Panther rules over the southern African kingdom of Wakanda. He dons a suit made of vibranium, a nearly impermeable metal found only in his country, and also is an elite level martial artist and technological mastermind.
Captain America's trusted sidekick, the Falcon, would swoop in on the scene in 1969. In fact, his teaming with Cap was the first time a black comic character was a co-star to a major comic book character. There have been other heroes and villains of apparent African descent who appeared prior to 1970, such as August Durant of the Secret Six (DC Comics) and Jackie Johnson of Sergeant Rock’s Easy Company (DC Comics 1960). However, there weren’t many characters developed and layered enough to carry an entire comic book series on his or her own at DC or Marvel.
The Falcon would be joined by Power Man aka Luke Cage in Marvel’s fast-growing pantheon of black super heroes in 1972, the vampire hunter Blade came along a year later − introduced in “Tomb of Dracula” #10 in 1973. Marvel also introduced an Asian character, Shang-Chi Master of Kung-Fu, around the same time. It was clear they were trying to be inclusive and to tap into a market of underserved comic book readers.
Other than the introduction of ex-Marine John Stewart as a part-time member of the Green Lantern Corp (DC) in 1971, as well as some smaller, less powerful characters dispersed here and there, DC's black characters were just plain wack. Marvel’s Power Man and Iron Fist were the second multi-racial super hero team. They debuted in "Heroes for Hire" #1 back in 1972. DC Comics was very late to the party as far as fielding a respectable black super hero goes. Black Lightning came along in 1977. But Marvel was all about the one up. They introduced with great fanfare Ororo Munroe, aka Storm of the X-Men, in 1979.
I never forgot that Marvel was the first to feature a black super hero of merit and I was inspired to become a lifelong fan because of it. Comic books were a welcome escape. I could leave the hood whenever I needed and go on missions to save the Earth for 25 cents in the 70s, 50 cents in the 80s and up to a $1.50 in the early 90s.
But early on, some comic book publishers had the misguided idea to use “black” as a descriptive prefix to the name of any hero of African origin. Black Lightning, Black Vulcan, Black Goliath, Black Racer, the Black Spider, Black Manta and so on. DC Comics was guilty of this offense more than anyone else, but Marvel had its fair share of naming faux pas as well. I was happy to see an increase in black superheroes as any other lover of comic books. But the fact that almost every character had to be given the “black” marker in his actual name as some sort of self-segregating practice of identification was just flat out ridiculous.
Another stereotypical practice of comic publishers in the 70s and 80s was having every black superhero be from Harlem. Power Man was from Uptown, along with Falcon and a slew of others. Falcon was actually a street hustler who was rescued from the life by Captain America.
I mean, really?
These things let me know that while publishers were making an active effort to court and engage black readers, their ideas regarding our culture were still boxed and stereotypical. They felt like Harlem was the center of the black universe. And yes, at one time it was. Ironically, the home of New York City soul is skipping a beat with every encroaching step of gentrification. But that, true believers, is a story for another day.
The 80s brought an influx of ever more powerful, popular, and culturally accurate characters in comic books. Cyborg debuted in DC Comics Presents #26 in 1980. While the 90s would see DC Comics pick up the pace as well with Firestorm, the Blue Beetle, The Atom and others. But Marvel was already the publisher of choice for many in the inner city long before then. This love of the genre can be seen in the aliases that rappers of the early 90s assumed. Method Man chose Johnny Blaze aka the Ghost Rider. Ghostface Killah picked Tony Stark aka Iron Man. And lest we forget rapper MF Doom’s masked imagery is a homage to the great comic book villain Dr. Victor Von Doom.
But today, with the advent and exponential growth of portable devices, and the price for a single book being over $2.00, comics have waned in popularity from their Golden Age. But the culture they helped create lives on as fathers, uncles, and grandfathers pass them on to sons and daughters who themselves become fans of the next generation lead by the comic book phenomenon in film and TV.
Eartha Kitt received critical acclaim for playing the role of Cat Woman in the Batman television series back in 1966. Today’s mainstream fan will undoubtedly recall the under-appreciated Cat Woman starring Halle Berry. Many comic book aficionados believed her role left a lot to be desired, while others thought she was corny. Halle attempted to make up for that with her recurring role as Storm in the X-Men film franchise, which was yet another role that fans felt would have been better interpreted by another actress. And no matter what you may think about his financial decisions, Wesley Snipes blew the doors off the Blade film franchise. No one could have possibly done it better.
Samuel L. Jackson successfully played S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Nick Fury, a character who was previously white in the Avengers, as well as other Marvel tie-ins. Film characters that are traditionally of another race often cause comic book fans to lose their minds when a familiar character is re-colored for the purpose of casting the hottest new thespian. When Heimdall was played by Idris Elba in Thor 2: The Dark World, nerds across the globe lost their minds. Some of it was just plain racism, while others were legitimately concerned with accuracy. Honestly, when Michael B. Jordan was cast as the traditionally blonde haired, blue eyed Johnny Storm aka the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot, I was vehemently against it. No offense, but comic book nerds like characters to remain as close to the original blueprint as possible. Any deviation is frowned upon. Both Terrence Howard and Don Cheadle played James “Rhodey” Rhodes, the best friend to Tony Starks who would become the similarly armored hero War Machine. In the upcoming Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier Anthony Mackie plays Falcon. As most comic book lovers are already happily aware of, they all were originally black characters.
As was the case in the comic book renditions of these heroes, the film versions are intelligent, loyal and possess superior leadership skills. But the fact that they toil in a fictional world does not take away from their importance. With the introduction of Jamie Foxx in the Amazing Spider-Man 2 we find a black antagonist whose intelligence and psychotic behavior make him a formidable foe as well. As in reality, every brother ain’t a brother.
Though comic books are fictional in nature, they are a reflection of African-American morals that other media offerings often lack. The importance of inclusion is something that Marvel appears to have taken seriously for over 40 years and that tradition still continues to this day. In 2011, Marvel introduced a black Latino character named Miles Morales to replace Peter Parker, who had been killed in that story arc as Spider-Man. Though the “real” Spider-Man was not dead because this took place in an alternate universe, the comic book world was up in arms because of what was deemed a blatant attempt at political correctness.
The question of whether art imitates life or vice versa is an ongoing dialectic. While there are an ever increasing number of characters of African descent in comic books and at the movie theater, the young and impressionable are done a great injustice whenever comic books take a myopic, whitened version of existence. All heroes are not white, and all villains aren’t black. The real world features people from all ethnicities, backgrounds and genders who are committing heroic deeds every single day. It’s only right that this fact is reflected in all mediums of communication, be they fact, fiction, illustrated with ink and color pencil, television pixels or in 3D.