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. In researching black superheroes, I never realized just how many there are. I was reminded of some that I had forgotten and learned about many I had never even realized existed.
Let me restate that I can’t have possibly included every black superhero. If I left one out that you think should have been included, that’s what the comments are for. Please share your knowledge with the rest of us.
Let’s continue with the trailblazers of DC comics.
Black Lightning (1977) – It seems obvious that Marvel did a better job at an attempt to create black superheroes. DC didn’t make a concerted effort until the 1970s and even then didn’t portray their characters as effectively. Author Jim Shooter had been prevented from creating a black member of the Legion of Superheroes in the 1960s. When DC finally sanctioned the creation of Tyroc in 1976, Shooter had this to say, “I always wanted to have a character who was African-American, and years later, when they did that, they did it in the worst way possible….instead of just incidentally having a character who happens to be black…they made a big fuss about it. He’s a racial separatist….I just found it pathetic and appalling” (Wikipedia). Co-creator of Tyroc, Mike Grell had this to say about his own character “”They might as well have named him Tyrone. Their explanation for why there were no black people [in the Legion] was that all the black people had gone to live on an island. It’s possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life…I mean, it’s a segregationist’s dream, right? So they named him Tyroc, and gave him the world’s stupidest super-power [reality warping scream]” (Wikipedia). Grell disliked Tyroc so much that he gave him a ridiculous costume.
While DC eventually had black superheroes, few of them are very memorable when compared to Marvel’s. The exception to this might be Black Lightning. I was first introduced to Black Lightning as Black Vulcan on the Super Friends. There was a legal dispute preventing Hannah-Barbera from using the name and likeness of Black Lightning. But aside from the name and costume, the character was the same.
Black Lightning (Jefferson Pierce) was salvaged from Black Bomber (a racist version of the character) by Tony Isabella, who had worked on Luke Cage, hence the obvious similarities. Some interesting differences include that Jefferson Pierce was a gold medal decathlete who returns to the Suicide Slum of Metropolis to become principal of a high school. He becomes Black Lightning after one of his students is murdered by a gang. He gets his inspiration from the quote “Justice, like lightning should ever appear to some men hope, to other men fear.” Later, when Lex Luthor becomes president, he appoints Pierce as the Secretary of Education. While his costume might resemble Blaxploitation, Black Lightning does not have the jive lingo that Luke Cage possessed and although he comes from a poor part of the city, he never falls into the criminal world like Falcon and Cage. So does Black Lightning buck the stereotypical black superhero or is he just a more comfortable one for white readers?
John Stewart (1971) – When Green Lantern came out, I was surprised to find that many teenagers didn’t identify with Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. Because of the Justice League cartoon, this newest generation of nerds picture the ex-marine, John Stewart as their Green Lantern. To me, and generations before me, John Stewart was a secondary Lantern. I was surprised a second time to find that John Stewart dates all the way back to 1971 as a member of the GL Corps.
However, in 1971 John Stewart was a secondary ring slinger – if that. Stewart is called upon by the Guardians to be Hal Jordan’s backup, but only because Guy Gardner is seriously injured. On top of that, Hal Jordan objects to Stewart because of his anti-authoritative attitude. Jordan also accuses Stewart of shirking his duties to protect a racist politician. Stewart proved Jordan wrong when he reveals that the assassination attempt was nothing but a hoax to win publicity. Stewart isn’t selected for full duty until the 1980s. Upon doing so he undergoes persecution similar to the other black superheroes, including wrongful accusations of murder, torture in the apartheid nation of South Nambia. Stewart hits rock bottom when he fails to save a planet from distruction. Because of these tribulations, however, Stewart becomes a stronger, more complex hero. DC does Stewart justice over time and even raises some issues that were still lingering in 1971. Noticing the anger in Stewart’s face and the words “Beware My Power” on the cover, I can’t help but wonder at the reaction of some of the readers of the time.
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, by examining the way that 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. Next week, Storm headlines part three: enduring black superheroes. But if there are any that you felt I overlooked, please feel free to tell me who and why in the comments below!
Be sure to check out Part 1: Trailblazers (Marvel)