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Vincent S. Moore Presents:









 

Comics in Full Color: a look at racial diversity in superhero comics

The wonderful world of superheroes shows us readers a world filled with many more colors than we see in the world outside our windows. It shows us a world where gods walk amongst men, literally and figuratively. Where aliens are more often than not humanoid in form and friendly to us humans and very powerful. Where play with radiation leads to powers and abilities instead of cancer and death. Where anything can happen and usually does. Where life is larger and brighter, bigger and better.

As long as you are white, that is.

If you happen to be a person of color--African American, Hispanic, or Asian--then it shows a world nearly more devoid of those who look like you than the world outside your window.

The world, as usually depicted in the typical superhero comic, is less racial diverse than our own. It is enough to make one wonder just exactly what wish is being fulfilled by these power fantasies.

This is not to say that characters of color, particularly superheroes of color, are not present. Merely that such characters are more noticeable by their absence and have often been promoted with an attitude of “see, look, we’ve got one” a person would have thought had become passé during the 1960s and 1970s.

So the question we have to deal with is just how diverse have superhero comics become in the days since 1938, the year Superman debuted.

Now, I will--given the dreadlocks flowing from the top of my head and rather permanent deep brown tan of my skin--primarily focus upon superheroes of African and African American descent. And to get a better grasp of what has been done, what has not, and what needs to be done, let’s take a very brief and incomplete look at the diversity that has gone on in superhero comics since 1938.

For example, a character like Ebony White, sidekick to Will Eisner’s The Spirit, who first shows up in 1940. A character that still sparks some controversy in certain circles. Ebony, first showing up as a taxi driver chauffeuring the hero around the town and then morphing over time into a young child along the way, often aided The Spirit in his cases. He was drawn in a stereotypical style of the day, accentuating his lips and speaking in the standard literary version of Ebonics, Ebony still stands out as one of the earliest black characters to be featured in superhero comics.

One has to move forward a generation to meet the next major character of color and this one is the first black superhero, The Black Panther. Created by the powerhouse duo of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in 1966, the Black Panther was and still is unusual as a hero. Not necessarily a superhero but an African king and a priest of the order of the Black Panther, T’Challa stalks the forests of his native Wakanda and the concrete jungles of New York with equal ease. While the character has his fans, the Panther has never been a marquee hero, having difficulties launching and maintaining series all on his own. Still, until this point in the mid-1960s, there weren’t any superheroes of color. Meaning the Black Panther holds a place in history as the first and in many ways the best.

1969 was a banner year at Marvel for black superheroes, featuring the debut of two. First was the Prowler in Amazing Spider-Man. The Prowler, also known as Hobie Brown, started off as a misguided villain who learned from Spider-Man to use his engineering gifts for good and not for gain. Since then, the Prowler has shown up from time to time, taking up the mantle of hero with much difficulty. The second hero to debut was Captain America’s occasional partner, The Falcon. Trained by Cap and later equipped by the Panther with his wings, Sam ‘Snap’ Wilson soars the skies to fight crime and save the world, just like the white heroes do.

This is not to say that Marvel was alone in introducing black characters into their titles. DC Comics as well would get in on the act. Originally introduced in 1971 as a substitute for Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, John Stewart would later become a full Lantern in his own right and move onto a storied career filled with the highest highs and the lowest lows, from marrying Katma Tui to hubristically allowing an entire world to be destroyed by a minion of Darkseid to becoming a Guardian of the Universe for a time and many other events that would shape and change both his character and the character of the DC Universe.

After that and to pick up the pace we can count the many names that joined the ranks of superherodom:

Luke Cage, Power Man, the Hero For Hire.

Black Lightning, former Olympian and hero of Suicide Slum in Metropolis.

Black Goliath, the giant-sized scientist turned superhero. Storm, the weather goddess of the New X-Men.

Cyborg of the New Teen Titans, equal parts angry young black man, brilliant genius, and tragic survivor.

James Rhodes who would go from pilot to and friend of Tony Stark to replacement Iron Man to War Machine.

Spawn, the tragic superhero who so loved his wife that he was willing to sell his soul simply to see her again, only to learn that any bargain with the Devil truly isn’t one.

The wave of heroes from Milestone Media in the early 1990s--Icon, Hardware, Static, Blood Syndicate, and others--set a new tone and style for black superheroes for a decade.

Tribe, by Larry Stroman and Todd Johnson, that set sales records as the highest selling comic featuring black characters in the history of the comics industry.

And many, many more.

This isn’t to forget or overlook the creators of color that counterbalanced the arrival and rise of black superheroes in the pages of comics.

Names such as Christopher J. Priest, formerly known as Jim Owsley, the first black editor for both Marvel and DC.

Kyle Baker, longtime inker and cartoonist.

Other artists of the 1970s such as Arvell Jones, Ron Wilson, Keith Pollard, and Trevor von Eden.

Also Billy Graham, regular collaborator with Don McGregor, that worked on Black Panther, Luke Cage, and Sabre.

Dwayne McDuffie, writer and cofounder of Milestone Media, along with Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek Dingle.

And again, many others.

There is even a convention devoted to black voices and black superheroes known as the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, or ECBACC, that gathers many fans and creators alike together year to see what new and exciting visions are on the horizon.

All in all, despite any omissions on my part, it appears that superhero comics are fairly diverse.

However, appearances can be deceiving.

We can return to this later.

In the meantime, one has to wonder why superhero comics were not diverse from the beginnings. What took them so long to even feature the handfuls of characters and creators that superhero comics do?

One very simple answer is the times themselves.

From the early days of the superhero, from 1938 up, one would be hard pressed to point out any characters besides the usual stereotypes that make Ebony White look like a NAACP role model. Even now, it is fair to say that no person of color worked behind the scenes in the early days of superheroes. Or if any did, the history of comics has conveniently forgotten to mention them. One could imagine that the presence of such folks might not have influenced what images were put on the page even if they were there.

Also, the creators of the 1930s and 1940s probably had no knowledge of any black readers of their comics. Numbers were more than likely not kept or recorded. And even if there were significant numbers of blacks reading superhero books, it wouldn’t matter. The black audience was not the majority or “mainstream” audience; their opinions didn’t count.

And since blacks were not the target audience, there was no incentive to create characters of color to appeal to a nonexistent audience.

But that didn’t stay the case.

Why? What turned the situation around?

The efforts of the early Jewish creators, to push for more and better depicted characters of color. For all the faults visible, one can tell Eisner tried to make Ebony White a fully rounded and realized character in his own right. Inspired by any and everything that crossed his path, Jack Kirby took visions of the early black power movement and translated that struggle into the Black Panther.

Speaking of which, the civil rights movement did a lot to change opinions about blacks in the United States. The decade of the 1960s put black people in the forefront of most Americans minds and allowed blacks to become more prominent in pop culture.

Both the civil rights movement and the blaxploitation films of the 1970s impacted superhero comics. Showing that there was a large black audience in America willing to buy products and support movies and TV programs featuring images of themselves, it then becomes natural to see why companies like Marvel and DC would experiment with creating more black heroes, to see what would develop and what would sell. Especially characters like Luke Cage and Black Lightning can trace their origins to films like Shaft and Superfly.

Also the rise of the comics fandom, comics shops, and conventions gave many black fans and aspiring creators places to nurture their love for the superhero genre.

All of these factors led to an increase in diversity in superhero comics. Just not much of an increase. A few new heroes spread out here and there was not true diversity. The increase in the visibility of black fans at the burgeoning comics shops, at the comics conventions and other places did not appear to be having any impact at all upon the casting choices of publishers and creators. A number of black artists did enter the comics industry during the 1970s, but no corresponding growth in the number of black superheroes was seen. Something had to be preventing the flourishing of diverse voices and characters in superhero comics. What was it?

Could it have been that characters of color, particularly black characters, intimidate white readers?

Probably not. Not in the way anyone would think.

In recent years, another possible explanation for the lack of diversity in superhero comics came to light.

There was a study performed by a group of scientists that was reported in Discover magazine in 2007. This study wanted to learn how different peoples react to images of diversity and uniformity. What was learned was a bit shocking but goes a long way to explain, in part, why superhero comics are so seemingly monochromatic. What the study found was that 80% of whites harbor at least some subconscious prejudice towards blacks and other peoples of color. If anyone is interested in the study, go online and put in the following address into your web browser: http://discovermagazine.com/2007/oct/how-not-to-be-racist. From there, you can read for yourselves the study and what it means for the so-called post-racial world.

Aside from that, a legacy of the very blaxploitation films that spawned many new black superheroes led to the perception that books featuring black characters were naturally anti-white by nature. Even if the book contained no references to The Man, some but not all white readers simply walked past and continue to walk past comics with black characters on the front cover. Could it be out of a fear of seeing pages filled with references to “that evil whitey”? Perhaps black superheroes strain the willing suspension of disbelief by defying the more commonplace images of black crime and violence in the mainstream media? It is difficult to prove or pinpoint. How exactly does one quantify such reactions occurring on a subconscious level?

Yet and still, one could conclude, based on the success of a title like Spawn--where the hero is black in terms of his stated background and possesses neither the skin color on a regular basis nor no other qualities that could tie him to the African American community-- and the failure of so many other titles featuring black superheroes, that there is a certain amount of negritude a black superhero is allowed to have that is “acceptable” before white readers are turned off.

Just how much is unknown at this time due in part to the dearth of any significant number of black superhero comics available. Perhaps that dearth answers the question itself.

Still, there are some black superheroes on the scene. So there is some diversity at work. It may only appear to some but not all black readers that there isn’t enough diversity, that there aren’t enough black superheroes in the marketplace for those very same black readers to enjoy. They may ask themselves if superhero comics have gone far enough to encourage more diversity.

The answer is not an easy one to determine.

The answer, in fact, may depend as much upon the perception of diversity as the reality of it.

For example, taking a look at a recent copy of Diamond’s Previews catalog/magazine tells an interesting story.

A rough count of the Marvel Heroes line of titles shows 67 books to be published in the month of March 2009. Of those books, 10 of them either feature solo black superheroes or black members of a superhero team. Or 14.9% of Marvel titles either star or feature black characters. African Americans, according to the 2000 U.S. Census make up nearly 13% of the total population. Apparently Marvel puts out enough products in proportion to the number of African Americans in the population of the United States.

Checking in with the DC Universe line of books, 40 titles will be published during the same month of March this year. Of those books, 7 either star solo black heroes or feature black members in a team book. Meaning, that 17.5% of DC’s titles star or feature black characters. Again, much better than the actual number of African Americans in the U.S.

So, why does it seem like there aren’t any or enough books featuring black superheroes being published?

One could point a finger to the relative lack of promotion of such books both within the comics industry and outside of it in the places where black people gather and shop.

One could also point to an oversensitivity of some but not all black comics fans. That if for so long there weren’t any books starring black superheroes, anything short of a massive--let’s say, 20 titles from any one or both of the Big Two--publishing initiative will seem like a total lack of diversity.

One might also admit that Rome was not built in a day. For so long, there weren’t any black superheroes and then there were a few. The same for black superhero titles. The time between now, with a relative lack of black superhero books, and the time when there is a multitude of them looks insurmountable.

However, nothing is insurmountable.

Then, if diversity will continue to grow with time, then the real question has to be should the comics industry do more to foster even greater diversity?

The simple answer is yes.

And it has to.

Why?

Because the core audience that supports the direct market is shrinking. It is growing older. It’s moving away from buy comics regularly. The core audience is dying off.

Meanwhile, the population of the U.S. is itself growing more diverse. Biracial and multiracial are growing categories where Americans are listing themselves in the U.S. Census. The overall numbers of whites are shrinking; the numbers of blacks and Hispanics are growing.

If the comics industry is to survive and thrive it has to do more than rely of Hollywood money to save the day. It has to grow audiences. One way to do that is to add more heroes of color and to promote such books to their respective groups.

Another way is to bring more voices into the scene. Many of today’s comics conventions are full of bright young talents of all races, attempting to break into superhero comics. The Big Two and other comics companies could do more outreach.

More books featuring black superheroes would bring in more black readers. More black readers equals more readers. And the industry would start growing again.

Recently, I spoke with a black customer at Comics Ink about the numbers of black readers in the store. On more than one occasion, this gentleman commented on finding the store seemingly filled with a notable number of black readers. The conversation about this surprised me because the initial viewpoint taken by this customer was one of amazement about this embarrassment of riches of black comics readers. If for one comics reader of color can, after years of shopping at the same store, be taken aback by seeing five or six more folk that share his ethnic background enjoying the same hobby as himself, then that says to me that more needs to be done to say the black people can and do love comics, especially superhero comics.

Coming back to the point made earlier, we can see that superhero comics have indeed become more racial diverse since the days when Superman first debuted. Maybe not as diverse as the audience who reads them feels it should be. But maybe more than the very population of the country where the genre was born and still flourishes. And definitely more diverse than its beginnings.

More can be done. And more will be done.

It took more than 40 years after the civil rights movement for the first African American President of the United States to be elected. Superhero comics will just have to catch up.

Namaste, until next time. 

Vincent S. Moore

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