Black Hole: Why Aren't There More Black Super Heroes?
At the 2008 San Diego Comic-Con, a T-shirt was released with an image of then Sen. Barack Obama in a pose of superheroic proportions. The image, by renowned comic book artist Alex Ross, had Obama tearing off his shirt and revealing a large "O" emblazoned on the chest of a superhero costume underneath. Instantly recognizable as the iconic pose associated with Superman and his mild-mannered alter ego, Clark Kent, Ross’ painting helped introduce a new superhero to the world of comics, Super Obama.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the massive San Diego Convention Center, the annual "black panel" was taking place. A regular fixture among the workshops and panels at Comic-Con, it featured a lineup of creators, most of them black, discussing the current state of affairs in the comic industry as it related to both black creators and black characters. The conversation was pretty much the same one that had been taking place for years, with nothing of significance being said. There was, however, a bitter irony in the fact that, as Super Obama was making his way throughout the Convention Center and America was on the verge of electing its first black president, very little had changed in the world of comics as far as black superheroes were concerned.
Since being elected, Barack Obama has become a popular character in the world of comic books. An admitted comic book fan himself, Obama has made appearances in such titles as "Spider-Man," "Savage Dragon," "Youngblood," "Drafted" and even books like "Barack the Barbarian" and "President Evil" that feature him as the star. "Spider-Man" No. 583, featuring Obama on the cover, has become one of the best-selling comic books in recent years. But what does it say about an industry that can sell out books with the President of the United States on the cover, while at the same time has only one black superhero starring in his own monthly title? As it stands, there are more characters with green skin starring in their own books than there are those with brown skin.
The role of black characters in comics was defined back in 1934 when Lothar, the African "Prince of the Seven Nations" gave up his chance to be king of the jungle in order to play manservant to Mandrake the Magician. Very little changed during the following decades, until leading publishers Marvel and DC began introducing superheroes like Black Panther, Black Lightning and Black Goliath (notice a pattern?) in the late 1960s and 1970s. But any close scrutiny of black superheroes reveals that, for all the advances made during the ’70s, most characters of color aren’t much better off than Lothar, serving as sidekicks and supporting characters to create the illusion of a more racially diverse comic book universe.
The comic book industry in the United States is dominated by two publishers, Marvel and DC. Marvel was the first to introduce black superpowered heroes in 1966, with Black Panther, ruler of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, followed three years later by Falcon, who was introduced in the pages of "Captain America." Black Panther and Falcon helped set Marvel apart from DC in its use of black heroes, but by the mid-1970s both publishers had a small lineup of characters that had been primarily created to capitalize on the popularity of blaxploitation and kung fu movies of the day. Marvel had the X-Men’s Storm, Black Goliath, Brother Voodoo, Blade, Misty Knight and Luke Cage, the most enduring, iconic and popular of Marvel’s black superheroes (of course, when you’re being compared with Brother Voodoo and Black Goliath, winning a popularity contest isn’t difficult).
DC’s list of notable black heroes was much shorter. The first black superhero at DC was John Stewart, who became part of the elite Green Lantern Corps in 1971, when creative team Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams were tackling such heady issues as racism. DC would not get around to creating another prominent black superhero for six more years. By the time DC introduced Black Lightning in his own book in 1977, Marvel’s Falcon had partnered with Captain America, Black Panther had starred in "Jungle Action," Luke Cage was still going strong, and Black Goliath had already crashed and burned in his own title. Often confused with Black Vulcan, the token black member of the animated series "Super Friends," Black Lightning had the sad distinction of being the only superhero to wear a helmet that looked like an Afro.
Marvel and DC introduced a handful of black superheroes as little more than throwaways that would hopefully appeal to some cross-section of readers (preferably black readers who longed to see heroes that looked like them), and would create an illusion of diversity. The problem was, and continues to be, that the black characters at Marvel and DC were seldom more than tokens, and almost never taken seriously from either a creative or a business standpoint.
In 1998, the film "Blade," starring Wesley Snipes, transformed a third-tier Marvel character into a major film franchise and a television series. But in his comic incarnation, Blade the vampire slayer has continued to drift aimlessly, starring in a few limited-run series, and making guest appearances here and there. You would never know that the comic character was responsible for a film series that earned more than $400 million worldwide at the box office, because Marvel never bothered to take the character any more seriously than it had since he was introduced in 1973.
In 2001, when the animated series "Justice League" debuted, producer Bruce Timm decided to include John Stewart’s Green Lantern on the team. Stewart’s inclusion in the animated series catapulted him to a new level of popularity with fans, and he became the main Green Lantern for many. But Stewart’s popularity on the show was never built upon in comics. While the character Harley Quinn, introduced in "Batman: The Animated Series," was given her own title, Stewart’s comic adventures were still relegated to supporting roles.
Perhaps no black superhero best represents the lack of vision and overall apathy within the comic book industry than Static. Created in 1993, when DC partnered with Milestone Media to produce a landmark line of comics featuring primarily black heroes, "Static" was part of a roster that included "Icon," "Hardware," and "Blood Syndicate." Static would enjoy the greatest success of all the Milestone characters thanks to the animated television series, "Static Shock." But despite four popular seasons, the series itself has never been collected on DVD, there was never an on-going spin-off comic book series based on the show, and there were no action figures (except for a free giveaway from Subway). By comparison, DC’s other animated shows based on Batman, Superman and Justice League have all been accompanied by massive merchandising campaigns. With only one season so far, "Batman: The Brave and the Bold" has spawned a spin-off comic series and a line of action figures that includes 10 different Batman figures.
Although the comic book industry exists to create fantastic tales and epic adventures, the publishers that drive the market don’t take chances and seldom try anything new. More resources are spent thinking of new ways to tell the same old Spider-Man and Batman stories over and over again; because, as far as anyone is concerned, that’s the formula that works. But when you take characters like Black Lightning or Black Goliath that never worked in the first place, and try to repeat the same formula, you’ll continue to fail. And then when the fans don’t embrace the black superheroes or the books they’re in because it’s a rehash of the same junk that didn’t work in 1975, the publishers use that as a justification to not even bother developing heroes of color.
The truth is that there are great black superheroes out there; but they can be hard to find. "Brotherman," independently published by creators by Dawud Anyabwile and Guy Sims, first appeared in the early 1990s and only lasted 11 issues, but has built an incredible cult following over the past two decades. Infusing a hip-hop aesthetic into the world of comics, "Brotherman" possessed a raw authenticity that eluded black superheroes created by mainstream publishers, which is a main part of the reason the character has lived on. The same is true for Chocolate Thunder, the urban crime fighter created by brothers Jeremy, Robert and Maurice Love, who has become a cult figure in the world of comics. With only a handful of stories having been published, the Love brothers’ epic "Chocolate Thunder" graphic novel, a mix of superheroics, blaxploitation and kung-fu action, has languished without a publisher for almost two years.
For an industry with a tremendous level of influence over pop culture and the world of entertainment, comic books are pathetically behind the times. At a time when Barack Obama is president of the United States, Will Smith is the top box office star worldwide, and the music charts are dominated by hip-hop and R&B, there is only one monthly comic book currently being published starring a black superhero (Black Panther). And while that is not some call to arms for the industry to start producing comics with black heroes, it is time for all comic publishers, not just Marvel and DC, to actually step into the 21st century.
What black superhero would you like to see on the big screen? Write us at [email protected]
David Walker is the editor and publisher of BadAzz MoFo.