AFROS, ICONS, AND SPANDEX: A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE AFRICAN AMERICAN SUPERHERO
By Erick Hogan
In a classic issue of “Green Lantern” writer Denny O’Neil wrote a powerful exchange between Green Lantern and a black man from the inner city. The man asks, “I’ve been reading about you, how you work for the blue skins, how on a planet some place you helped out the orange skins and you’ve 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!” The Green Lantern’s reply, “I can’t.”
The same question could be asked of comic creators during the first half of the twentieth century. Prior to World War II, blacks were rarely seen in the pages of comics. When they were featured the images were often mocking caricatures. However, a glance through history shows that the portrayal of blacks in comics was often a reflection of society.
Lothar, Prince of the Seven Sons, was the forerunner of today’s black superhero. He was the first black character to appear in a syndicated comic (the “Mandrake the Magician” comic strip of the 30s). Lothar was an illiterate strongman dressed in animal skins who provided brawn to compliment Mandrake’s brain on their adventures. As was the case with Lothar, black characters featured in comics during the 30s and 40s were stereotypical images of poverty and servitude.
The 40s war comic “Young Allies” featured a character named Whitewash who constantly fell prey to Axis forces; providing the Young Allies with a “hapless victim” to rescue.
Will Eisner’s “Spirit” comic featured another such character, Ebony White. His exaggerated features and “minstrel dialect” were accepted at a time when blacks in entertainment were used primarily as comic relief.
During the 50s, characterization of blacks improved from the sidekicks and lackeys of the 30s and 40s. “Waku, Prince of the Bantu” debuted in 1954. This marked the first time a black character was featured as the lead in a comic. Waku, an African tribal prince, was written as a strong, kind, and intelligent leader of his people – a welcome change from previous incarnations of black characters. He battled warring tribes, carnivorous animals, and “white hunters” who sought to enslave his tribe.
The next step in the evolution of the black superhero occurred during the civil rights movement of the 60s; again, comics served as society’s mirror. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Black Panther as an adversary to the Fantastic Four but as his popularity grew he quickly transformed from heel to hero. A few years later he became a regular in the “Avengers” and went on to star in his own series in 1973. The progression of the Black Panther wasn’t limited to super-heroics; he is also king of the technically advanced nation of Wakanda and a scientist on par with Reed Richard and Tony Stark in the Marvel Universe.
Even once marginalized characters were upgraded: Lothar began speaking proper English and ditched the bare-chested loincloth look, while Ebony White returned to the pages of the “Spirit” as the mayor of Central City.
The hip talk, cool threads, and big afros of the early 70s Blaxploitation movie craze swept into comics; bringing with it more characters of African descent than ever before. Despite the increased number of black characters, the majority were one-dimensional stereotypes. Characters like Luke Cage reinforced the ghetto lifestyle prevalent in movies.
One of the most popular and lasting black characters of the 70s, however, is Storm the African goddess of weather (introduced in the Claremont and Cockrum 1975 revamp of “X-Men”). At the time black female superheroes were virtually nonexistent. Unlike other marginal black characters that faded into the background, Storm became a staple of the X-Men, appearing in comics, cartoons, and movies for the last 28 years.
By the ’80s the floodgates were open; every superhero team carried at least one black character on their roster and characterization was broader and more diverse. Their alter egos had progressed to white-collar occupations: doctors, lawyers, and scientists replaced the street thugs, drug pusher, and pimps. Gone were the cliché ghetto related stories that dominated the 70s.
The 90s brought even more change. Newly founded powerhouse Image Comics would further diversify the playing field. “Spawn,” one of the top selling comics of the 90s, featured a predominantly black cast. While another popular ’90s comic, “Shadowhawk,” featured a Batman-like vigilante whose alter ego was a black man coping with AIDS.
In 1993 Milestone Comics introduced a new universe of minority characters with titles such as “Blood Syndicate,” “Icon.” “Hardware” and “Static.” These heroes fought more than villains; they also dealt with problems faced by the black community: racism, gang violence, and teenage pregnancy. Despite critical acclaim, Milestone Comics folded a few years later but their presence left a lasting impression – a “kid-friendlier” version of “Static,” “Static Shock.” The cartoon series currently appears on the Warner Brothers’ Saturday morning cartoon line-up.
Today, comics mirror the multi-ethnic state of the world. A character is just as likely to be African American as he is to be a mutant or from Krypton. But while the frequency of black characters appearing has increased the number of comics featuring black leads remains low.
What does the future hold for the black superhero? There’s no telling which mothballed character will be resurrected or what facets of the black experience new creators will reveal. One thing is certain, black superheroes are a mainstay that has advanced over the last century and continues into the next.
Erick Hogan is a contributing writer for “Inside the Lines” magazine and comic book historian extraordinaire. He can usually be found debating things like “Who has a larger head: Galactus or the Watcher?” on the CBR forums.
Next week: Patrick pimps “The Path” and more from Marz.
Meanwhile, join Erick and me in the OYM forum to discuss this week’s column, talk shop, or debate, “Who had the funkier costume: Power Man or Iron Fist?”
Thank you for your attention.