Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Black Heroism Illustrated

Comic books and race in America go hand in hand.


Comic books haven't always been a place where African Americans could find characters they related to. Black comic book characters ranged from being barely noticeable and blatantly disrespected 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 debuted in "Fantastic Four" No. 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 superheroes in 1972. The vampire hunter Blade came along a year later—introduced in "Tomb of Dracula" No. 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, Marvel's Power Man and Iron Fist were the second multiracial superhero team. They debuted in "Heroes for Hire" No. 1 back in 1972. DC Comics was very late to the party as far as fielding a respectable black superhero 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 superhero of merit, inspiring me 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 as 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.

Thanks, InsidePlaya

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