For Black History Month, CBR and I have brought back The Color Barrier for a special examination on Black culture as it relates to the worlds of comic books and popular entertainment.
So without further ado, I have to kick off the month by talking about one of the most well-known Black superheroes around, Storm of the X-Men.
Created by writer Len Wein and illustrator Dave Cockrum, Storm was first introduced in “Giant Size X-Men #1,” a comic book which also introduced other mutants of color, and is a collector’s item.
Born Ororo Munroe, the woman who would become Storm had a Kenyan princess for her mother and an African-American for her father. She was born in Harlem, but would spend her first set of formative years in Egypt.
A former thief and street-smart survivor who discovered her powers to manipulate the weather, Ororo was recruited to travel back to America and join the X-Men, a group of mutant heroes who fought to protect Homo sapiens and mutants alike.
In the forty years that followed, the ups and downs of Storm’s character development have been enough to bend the brains of many fans, in ways both good and bad.
Recently, Storm has been the subject of debate because of the latest casting choice for her appearance on the big screen. Throughout the various X-Men films produced by 20th Century Fox, Storm has been portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Halle Berry. To this day, a vocal community of fans communicate their displeasure with Halle as Storm. However, that talk has been overshadowed by displeasure with the actress chosen to play a young Storm in the upcoming Fox film “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Her name is Alexandra Shipp, and she has just stepped into it by accepting the role.
Her complexion, significantly lighter than that of Storm’s own, is a big issue, during these times in which darker-skinned actresses are getting more exposure in Hollywood. It’s a subject deserving of examination, and various people have done it already, so I’m not going to tackle that one today.
I’m interested in the new “Storm” ongoing series by Marvel Comics. Written by “Action Comics” scribe Greg Pak and illustrated by Victor Ibanez, the monthly series is the book fans have been asking for, forever.
“Storm” is finally here, and it’s not selling well. The sales are at the point where Marvel made it known that the book was in danger of cancellation.
How is that possible? A book that is long overdue, of a Black female superhero, at a time when Black women are at the center of popular entertainment, in real life and fiction? When the word “diversity” is so widespread you cannot go a week without seeing it in the cyber-circles of entertainment?
It’s a concern to be sure.
What do we find if we look back through the history of the Storm character?
A strong Black woman who survived through poverty and the loss of her parents as a child, discovered her extraordinary gifts and used them to help her people, travelled to America to help on a global scale, lost her powers, refused to become a victim and emerged as a woman strong enough to wrest leadership of the X-Men from a superpowered comrade, became the leader of a band of underground mutants by defeating the band’s leader in battle, returned home for self-exploration, regained her powers, and married King T’Challa, thereby becoming the Queen of Wakanda, one of the most technologically advanced nations on Marvel’s Earth.
The very look of Storm has changed over the years as a reflection of the character’s growth, culminating in the second phase of her Mohawk hairstyle.
On the other hand, Storm and King T’Challa are no longer married, their relationship torn to shreds as one of various casualties of a Marvel line-wide event.
Granted, marriages do not always work out, but the symbolism of two of Marvel’s top-tier Black characters getting married was major, and the dissolution of that marriage was perceived as a different kind of symbolism.
Since there are few to no all-Black marriages in superhero comic books, for the only one to fail was not an appreciated ending by Storm’s fans.
That one still sticks in people’s minds. It’s a blight on the character. A demerit.
But wait! Storm was made the leader of an all-female X-team in “X-Men,” kicked off by star writer Brian Wood and star illustrator Olivier Coipel, whom has illustrated many a popular Marvel Comic monthly series and limited series, ranging from “Thor” to “House of M.”
So that erases the blight, right?
Not really, but we’ll run with it. After all, “X-Men” premiered out the gate to stellar sales figures, proving that if you combine the right intellectual property with the theme of female empowerment, and add a powerhouse creative team, you have a damn good chance of hitting the jackpot.
Looking at Storm, throughout the years and the various art styles that have helped develop and prolong her image, it’s fair to say Storm is one of the most beautiful women in the Marvel Universe. Just as Wonder Woman probably is for the DC Universe.
Part of what sells comic books is art. The combination of art with character. Art with intent. Putting together the right formula to get a positive result.
When you get it right, the results speak for themselves.
The monthly “Black Widow” series, about the assassin hero known worldwide due to the Marvel Studios film slate, is illustrated by Phil Noto. His version of Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, is beautiful. Hands down. She is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she will slice a blade across your throat while you’re having a conversation with her. With a style reminiscent of fashion illustration, Phil makes Natasha look so real, you believe in the makeup on her face, the color of her piercing eyes, the shade of her complexion, the softness of her skin.
“Angela: Asgard’s Assassin,” a new series from Marvel Comics, is illustrated by Phil Jimenez. Phil is one of the top comic book artists in the field now, and among other things, he is well-known for drawing beautiful women. “Angela: Asgard’s Assassin” is simply one of the best-looking monthly comics being produced by an American publisher. You look at that book, and you know Marvel Comics is taking no prisoners with the title. Every aspect of the book comes together to make a book of high-production value.
Then we have “Storm.”
The art is solid. Better than solid. The storytelling is clear and on point. Panel arrangement, really good.
But do you find it attractive?
Think about this.
Do you look at the “Storm” series aesthetically and think it matches with an iconic Black female superhero of African heritage, who is quite possibly one of the most beautiful and majestic women, superhuman or otherwise, to grace the planet’s ground and sky?
I look at DC Comics’ “Wonder Woman,” and the style by former Marvel superstar artist David Finch, and I get the sense that the company’s goal is to match up an aesthetic with the character.
She is iconic. She is Wonder Woman.
The book should visually scream “Take me seriously. Ignore me at your peril.”
The aesthetic of Storm, no matter what medium you show her in, is a matter of import.
Storm has been illustrated, when not in her own series, by heavy hitters like Barry Windsor-Smith, John Romita, Jr., John Byrne and Simone Bianchi. Artists from different eras of popularity, but all of them top of the line.
If the most iconic Black female superhero in all American superhero comics, having appeared in four films and at least two animated series, the symbol of Black femininity and grace and strength and culture and sexuality to many a fan, Black and otherwise, if this superhero is not illustrated on a regular basis in her own book in a way that demands you take her seriously, in a medium and industry heavily impacted by the strategic use of art, then when will she be?
Decisions about a creator in relation to a book in development is, among other things, connected to a projected profit and loss. One book has a top budget, the next a median budget, the next a lower budget, based on historical sales patterns and a handful of people doing some analysis to decide what book gets a certain profile of artist, and, or a certain style that corresponds with healthy sales.
I wonder what “Storm” was projected to sell.
I wonder how many names were in the hat for the monthly choice.
This is the right time for a “Storm” comic book, and if the number one publisher in American comic books cannot get it to sell to a level that ensures its long-term survival (and these days that means twenty-four months), I don’t know about you but I am compelled to look at what other books have in relation to “Storm,” and start asking questions.
Are you buying “Storm”?
If so, that’s great.
If not, why not?
Really, why not?
Maybe if we can figure it out now, it’ll help us make certain purchasing decisions later to help books in need, or give us the certainty of knowledge with which to go to the publisher and say:
“I’m not compelled to buy this book, and this is why.”
And don’t be distracted by “Secret Wars” and its demolishing of titles.
Things did not fare well for “Storm,” no matter what.
The questions are still worth asking.
I just presented one possible reason.
Consider some others.
Joseph Phillip Illidge is a public speaker on the subjects of race, comics, and the corporate politics of diversity. In addition to his coverage by the BBC and Publishers Weekly, Joseph has been a speaker at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Digital Book World’s forum, Digitize Your Career: Marketing and Editing 2.0, Skidmore College, Purdue University, on the panel “Diversity in Comics: Race, Ethnicity, Gender and Sexual Orientation in American Comic Books,” and at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art in New York City.
Joseph is the Head Writer for Verge Entertainment (www.verge.tv), a production company co-founded with Shawn Martinbrough, artist for the graphic novel series “Thief of Thieves” by “The Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman, and video game developer Milo Stone. Verge has developed an extensive library of intellectual properties for transmedia development. Live-action and animated television and film, video games, graphic novels, and web-based entertainment.
His latest project is “The Ren,” a 200-page graphic novel about the romance between a young musician from the South and a Harlem-born dancer in 1925, set against the backdrop of a crime war and spotlighting the relationship between art and the underworld. “The Ren” will be published by First Second Books, a division of Macmillan.