In honor of Black History Month, we at Nerdlocker would like to explore the portrayal of black characters as superheroes in comics. I will be the first to admit that my own personal knowledge of many of these heroes is extremely limited, so I had to do a lot of research. And I never realized just how many there are! I was reminded of some that I had forgotten and learned about many I never even knew existed.
Let me begin by saying that I couldn’t have possibly included every black superhero. If I left one out that you think should have been included, that’s what the comments section is for. Please share your knowledge with the rest of us!
Also, while there are many black characters who are supervillains, like Moses Magnum and Black Manta, and still others that are supporting characters like Joe Robertson, this article is devoted specifically to superheroes. The way in which black superheroes have been represented is complex enough, so to add to the conversation the portrayal of black characters as villains and supporting characters opens a whole different can of worms.
Let’s begin with the trailblazers – the first black characters who were created in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Black Panther (1966) – While Black Panther is predated by the black characters of All Negro Comics (1947), Waku, Prince of the Bantu (Jungle Tales, 1954), Lobo (Dell Comics, 1965), and even Gabriel Jones of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos (1963), he is the first black superhero in comic books. He is the first black character with super powers. His first appearance in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966), and thus the name Black Panther, predates the founding of the Black Panther Party by only three months. While I wondered if the black-militant political party was inspired by the Marvel character, I soon found out that a black panther was the logo of the party’s predecessor, the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. Still, it is interesting that Marvel created a character that shares the name with the political party synonymous with black power. In fact, in Fantastic Four #119 (Feb. 1972), Marvel tried changing his name to Black Leopard in an attempt to avoid such allusions.
While the Black Panther (T’Challa) has undergone many incarnations, some of which have been deemed a misuse of the character, at his best the Black Panther is a great example of a strong black character. Intelligent, highly educated, and defiantly regal, he refutes many of the negative black stereotypes. The Black Panther should always be an in-your-face type of black superhero. He is no one’s sidekick. T’Challa is king of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda. Race has always been at the center of his story. He has battled the Ku Klux Klan, villains by the names of White Gorilla, White Avenger, White Wolf, and White Lion, and fought in a civil war. His nation of Wakanda is technologically advanced and rich in vibranium. By being technologically advanced it refutes common assumptions of Africans as savage, while the continued pillaging of his nations vibranium parallels the European and American colonial theft of Africa’s national resources. Yet, Wakanda was also portrayed as extremely superstitious and highly patriarchal.
But what makes the Black Panther great is the controversy that started with the unintentional association with the black-militant political party. T’Challa is bold, proud, and not afraid to address race issues while his fellow superheroes choose to ignore them. His people come first. This is most recently, and clearly, seen in his reluctant role as a member of the Illuminati. Every other member of this secret society happens to be a white male (albeit two of them are mutants). It’s no wonder that the Black Panther only becomes involved because it is in the best interest of his own people. When a people are marginalized, they sometimes have to rise up and forcibly demand attention.
Falcon (1969) – Falcon (Samuel Wilson) is mainstream comic’s first African-American superhero (Black Panther is African). Falcon gets a lot of flak for simply being Captain America’s sidekick. Marvel had replaced the boy, Bucky, with a black man who would receive second billing to the great American hero. His powers and abilities leave a lot to be desired as well. He’s the aviary version of Aquaman; he can talk to birds and see through their eyes. He can fly with the help of detachable jet-powered glider wings and is expertly trained in hand to hand combat and gymnastics. While he has taken on a more prominent role in the kids show Super Hero Squad, it doesn’t seem that many kids imagine becoming Falcon.
But Falcon deserves a little more credit than just being the first African-American superhero. His origin story is very intriguing. Growing up in a tough Harlem neighborhood, a young Sam’s encounters with racism leave him jaded. When his father is killed breaking up a fight and his mother is murdered by a mugger two years later, anger and grief consume him. Sam gives up his work as a community volunteer and moves to Los Angeles, Here he creates a new persona, “Snap” Wilson: a racketeer, gang member, and pimp. After crash landing on an island, “Snap” is recruited by the Red Skull (from whom he gets his powers) to befriend Captain America so that he can later betray him. Of course, in the process of helping the enslaved natives rise up to fight their slave owners, Sam, with the help of Captain America, becomes the Falcon and foils the Red Skull’s plans. Falcon continues his career as a crime fighter as well as returning to social work.
Others also praised Falcon for his role as sidekick. “If a guy who literally looked like a walking version of the American flag could take on a black partner, how could America resist the call for integration?” (www.acidlogic.com). In one four-part miniseries, Falcon saves President Reagan from a black street gang and uses the opportunity to teach the president about the challenges of black youth.
Falcon’s story raises many interesting issues. For instance, his repression of his past as “Snap” gets continually brought back out of him. For example, when Scarlet Witch goes mad, she destabilizes the Falcon’s mind and he begins to act more like “Snap.” Is this a suggestion that deep down Sam is “Snap” and that he must continue to repress this “thug” behavior? Or does it suggest that while a person can be a product of their environment and experiences, he can rise above it to become something better. Truly, the most admirable part of Falcon is his work as a community volunteer. Social change doesn’t come through punching people, it comes through helping them.
Another interesting aspect of Falcon’s story is his membership as a member of the Avengers. He is made a member because of an Affirmative Action mandate by Henry Gyrich. When Falcon discovers that this is the sole reason he is a member, he angrily quits the team.
Luke Cage / Power Man (1972) – He is the first African-American superhero to star in his own comic book series, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. When I think of black superheroes, I think of Luke Cage. It’s difficult to determine why. His comics could qualify for the Blaxploitation genre – the 1970s film movement that portrayed African-American ghetto life in a manner that some deemed empowering to blacks and others accused of perpetuating white stereotypes about blacks. Cage is an ex-con with impenetrable skin and super strength. He fights on the streets of Harlem and much of his dialogue was “jive talk.” So I have to ask myself, is my instant recognition of Luke Cage as the epitome of a black superhero because of his reinforcement of my own stereotypes? I’d like to think, instead, that it is because he has remained a strong black character in the superhero canon.
Cage’s story is similar to Falcon’s. A young Cage joins a gang (the Rivals or the Bloods, depending on the story) where he commits petty crimes until he realizes how his actions are hurting his family. Unfortunately he goes to prison anyway when heroin is planted in his apartment. It is in prison that he receives his powers in a variant Super Soldier serum. He escapes prison and becomes a hero for hire (although he rarely collects). He later teams up with the Iron Fist, but unlike Falcon, Luke Cage keeps top billing in the series Luke Cage and Iron Fist. Luke Cage continuously battles villains from his days in prison, is framed again (for murder of Iron Fist this time), and in modern storylines he has a complex relationship with Jessica Jones.
One aspect I like about Luke Cage is that he doesn’t have an alter ego. He is Luke Cage. He is not afraid to speak his mind and has never been ashamed when others perceive him as a second-tier superhero. Just check out this early interaction with Doctor Doom.
The black superhero in comics has always been a complex and even controversial topic. But race is a complex and controversial topic. The comic book audience is largely made up of white males, so publishers have often erred on the side of caution with black characters or have created a black character simply in an attempt to market to a new audience of black readers. Still, examining the way black characters are portrayed in comics can reveal a lot about our society’s views on race.
Like I said, I’m sure there are other black superheroes who deserve to be recognized as trailblazers. Part Two will cover DC’s trailblazers and while Storm is certainly one of Marvel’s I decided to save her to headline Part Three: Enduring Black Superheroes. But if there are any Marvel heroes that you feel I’ve overlooked, please feel free to tell me who and why in the comments below!
Coming soon: Trailblazers (DC)