Vincent S. Moore Presents:
Bring On The Black Bad Guys
The best part of reading any superhero comic is seeing the star of the book fight against his or her archenemies. The classic confrontations between Superman and Lex Luthor or Batman and The Joker, Spider-Man and the Green Goblin or the Fantastic Four and Dr. Doom have thrilled more than one generation of comics readers. Even the current wave of Hollywood adaptations owe much of their appeal to the mythic power of good versus evil taking place upon the big screen.
A hero is only as heroic as the villain is villainous. The more powerful the villain is, the better the hero has to be in order to win, and the more the audience enjoys the story and roots for the hero.
The hero/villain dynamic has probably informed storytelling from the dawn of time. One can imagine ancient storytellers sitting around the communal campfire and weaving tales of the tribal ancestors fighting against an unforgiving landscape personified by an enemy tribe or the black sheep of the tribal family. One can also visualize the tribes listening raptly, wishing they themselves could deliver the final blow to vanquish the evildoers.
Yes, heroes and villains go hand in hand.
Just not all the time.
When it comes to the handful of black superheroes that populate the universes published by the "Big Two" American comics companies, that dynamic is incomplete--perhaps even broken. If one were to think about the black superheroes that are being published or featured in comics now, names like the Black Panther, the Falcon, Luke Cage, Icon, Hardware, Static, and others would spring to mind. The names may be relatively few but one could spend at least some amount of time and some effort naming these heroes of color.
Now, try to think of the comparable black supervillains.
Try to name at least ten black supervillains, without running to the Internet and sites like Wikipedia. Even longtime superhero comics readers might be hard pressed to name more than a dozen black supervillains.
Why is that?
Where are all the “cool” black supervillains? Where is the black Lex Luthor? Or the black Dr. Doom? Where are those black bad guys that comics readers can love to hate? Those black bad guys made from the same stuff of myth and legend as the Joker and the Green Goblin. The brilliant yet disturbed mind. That one obsession which drives the need to conquer or create mayhem. The hero’s opposite number. The capacity to make the hero suffer, to even defeat the hero if not for that one fatal flaw that thwarts all the mad schemes. Where are those black bad guys?
The journey from none to a number of black superheroes has been covered in other places. The whys and wherefores of the creation of black superheroes, the politics and philosophies of such, is a topic with depths still worthy of exploration.
However, no one should be in the dark as to where some of the top black superheroes come from and why. Whether it was the black power movements of the 1960s or the Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s, the rise of black people onto the landscape of American pop culture led to a corresponding rise of black superheroes in mainstream comics. But that rise hasn’t appeared to have created a complete and completely satisfying world around those very black superheroes. If the civil rights movement itself was about equality, then it is necessary to create black bad guys to go with the good ones; not doing so could be considered just as wrong as not imagining any black heroes at all. And it is possible that the very lack of powerful, recognizable black supervillains has contributed to the difficulties in creating mass appeal for books starring heroes of color.
Let’s look at one example: the oldest and best known superhero of African descent is the Black Panther. Ever since springing from the minds of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the Panther has prowled through the Marvel Universe for more than four decades. A king in his homeland, barer of the mantle of chieftain of the Black Panther clan, T’Challa is a grand example of a hero, well suited to the shared mythology of which he is a part. But who are his villains? Who are his arch enemies?
The being made of sound known as Klaw springs immediately to mind. After all, it was the man formerly known as Ulysses Klaw The Great White Hunter that killed T’Challa’s father. This is a perfect example of the hero/villain dynamic, where the two sides of the equation are linked by a common event. The battles between the Black Panther and Klaw have been great fun to read and experience. Yet Klaw is more often thought of as belonging to the Fantastic Four’s rogues gallery than of being a Black Panther villain.
A character most often positioned as the Panther’s truest nemesis is Erik Killmonger. Once a loyal subject of the Black Panther’s, Killmonger blames his former king for abandoning him when he was taken from Wakanda as a young man. Grown to manhood in the West, Killmonger has made it his mission to take Wakanda from the Panther and make it his own. In his quest, a number of minor henchmen have helped Killmonger but none have ever completely stepped out of his shadow.
Surely the Black Panther has more villains of his own than this one? What about Achebe?
The Reverend Doctor Michael Ibn Al-Hajj Achebe, introduced by Christopher Priest into the Black Panther mythos, first appearing in Black Panther (third series) #3, was intended to be a villain in the mold of The Joker, perfectly matching the Batman-esque approach taken towards the Panther during the late 1990s series. Hailing from a war torn neighboring country to Wakanda, Achebe bedeviled T’Challa many times over the course of Priest’s run on the title and character. However, with Priest’s departure and the relaunch/reboot of Black Panther by Reggie Hudlin, Achebe is nowhere to be seen. During his turn on the title, Hudlin hasn’t introduced any new major recurring villains and even his use of classic Marvel villains like the Radioactive Man and Doctor Doom has felt limited or forced. So much for giving the oldest superhero of African descent a villain or rogue’s gallery truly worthy of him and truly his own.
The same can be said of other heroes. Are either Moses Magnum or Chemistro or the original Thunderbolt truly worthy of Luke Cage? Not necessarily.
In the case of Chemistro, a Cage villain that appeared exclusively in the original Power Man title, it was next to impossible to raise him into the classic villain category as three different men assumed the Chemistro identity. That made it tough to build up a solid hero/villain dynamic when there wasn’t a clear vision of who and what the villain part of the dynamic was.
As for Thunderbolt, a speedster villain, the fix was in from the very moment he appeared as his powers were rapidly aging him the more he used them. Like the proverbial moth to the flame, Thunderbolt as a villain lasted only a short period. One might think that no one writing the Power Man title at that point in time was thinking long term and big picture when it came to Luke Cage’s rogue’s gallery.
And Moses Magnum could be thought of as the very black Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor sought in the opening paragraphs. Or perhaps he could be thought of that way if the writers handling the character desired taking Magnum along that route. Unfortunately, between bouncing around the Marvel Universe from hero to hero and often losing his battles in ways that would make Doom and Luthor ashamed, Moses Magnum never lived up to his potential as a black bad guy.
Again I ask, why? Could it be a lack of imagination on the part of the writers? Could the stereotypes about blacks--laziness, weakness, inferiority, etc.--affect how black supervillains are envisioned? Could those same stereotypes affect how a writer would approach a black superhero? Despite being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and being hailed as the first superhero of African descent, the Black Panther also has not lived up to his potential or has the same sort of fame as his contemporaries in the Marvel Universe. If anything, Luke Cage, a character more fitting in with stereotypical images of blacks, is better loved by fans than the Panther.
Speaking of the Power Man, the early days of Luke Cage, Hero For Hire might provide a clue about the lack of quality black supervillains. The original first series featuring the character put him more often in opposition to glorified drug dealers and trumped up slum lords, with such imaginative names as Big Morgan and Cockroach. And even when Cage ran into Doctor Doom it was little more than an attempt to collect payment for work done by Cage for someone fronting for Doom. Definitely not anywhere near fulfilling the hero/villain dynamic readers expect.
However, is the lack of big time black supervillains troubling Luke Cage really a sign of any limitation on the part of the writers or more an expression of the times in which the stories were written and the film genre that inspired the character? After all, the subtitle “Hero For Hire” implies someone who is more akin to a private detective than a superhero. And even Superman fought small time crooks in his early days. So what is the big deal?
The big deal is this: Luke Cage, in a short period of time, transcended being a Hero For Hire but his rogue’s gallery did not do the same until Cage joined up with Iron Fist. Cage grew from Hero For Hire to Power Man within 18 issues of his first series. The growth was in more than just the title, as the quasi-private detective aspects of the book were downplayed and a more altruistic (read: with great power comes great responsibility) ethic came into play. This change in the hero should have led to a better class of villains. As the thrust of this shows however, no such improvement occurred. Cage’s villains remained the same low rent hoodlums even as he moved up the superhero ladder.
If black superheroes are few and far between, then black supervillains are even further back, further away from being the equals of their white counterparts. To some but not all writers, while white heroes are best defined by the quality of their villains, perhaps black heroes are simply to be defined by their negritude alone.
Conversely, that very negritude itself may be a reason why there aren’t strong black supervillains. That the black power movement, the civil right movement, and Blaxploitation films could all be boiled down to battles between black folks and “The Man”, that embodiment of white power and privilege, to the extent that many white writers have felt compelled to tell only those stories: the stories of black superheroes overcoming the forces of The Man. And if the stories turned towards a more balanced version of the hero/villain dynamic, of black superheroes versus black supervillains, then those very villains were limited to variations on the black revolutionaries demonized by the mainstream media like Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party for example, dictators born and suffered on the postcolonial African continent like General Idi Amin, and the idealized drug dealers and pimps from movies like Superfly. The aforementioned Erik Killmonger represents one such attempt to create a supervillain inspired by an African dictator; aside from the DC villain mentioned below, there were no attempts to create a group of villains inspired by the Black Panther Party itself. Perhaps such groups were too radical to fuel any ideas in the writers’ minds. Perhaps, in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, the desire to demonize groups like the Panthers was considered passé. Or perhaps, the idea of a black Lex Luthor or Dr. Doom was simply too much for even the most fertile writer’s imagination.
Much of the civil rights struggle involved getting white America to see black people as just as capable of any achievement as whites themselves were, and doing so while convincing white America that no revenge would be taken upon them. When a nation has spent two or more centuries telling itself that one minority group is inferior, and has spent time, money, and energy designing and setting up systems to keep that group in check, it could be argued the majority group does so in part out of fear. Fear of being proven wrong. But also fear that the minority group would seek revenge for injustices. Imagining a black man with the capabilities of a Green Goblin or a Baron Mordo, wanting to perform the same sorts of evil acts, could lead to too many fears coming to light.
Just as when DC Comics allowed the Aquaman villain Black Manta to reveal himself to be a black man with aspirations of conquering Atlantis for the purposes of giving black people a place below the oceans where they could be treated better than they were upon land. Such a radical and political tack to the character was quickly changed and depoliticized over time. Was that change mandated by changing times or by delving too deeply into the subconscious fears of white readers? No one can rightly say. Except that Black Manta’s current agendas do not carry as much political weight to them.
Which may have much to do with changing times themselves.
The idea of Black Manta as black radical first appeared in the Aquaman title of the 1970s. A rare case of reimagining the black revolutionary as supervillain mentioned above. Throughout the 70s, the battles between Aquaman and Black Manta took on a political edge, nearly mythologizing the struggles between whites and blacks over issues such as school busing. Then came the 1980s and political correctness. New writers and editors began shifting away from this political slant. The mini-series Underworld Unleashed saw Black Manta transformed into a humanoid manta, once and for all eliminating the racial agenda he once had. Even though Manta is back in human form and back to his old tricks of seeking to conquer the world under the waves, aside from some play with this take on the villain in the recent Justice mini-series, the racial politics are gone. And it is difficult to say if this is a good thing or a bad thing.
Because, it is very difficult to feature any idea within the realms of popular culture about black people without questions of author intent and racial politics coming into play. The election of Barack Obama as President of the United States is challenging many comedians and political cartoonists in ways they never imagined in finding avenues for poking fun at America’s new leader without seeming like the same old racist caricatures of blacks that were once commonplace. Yet the election of Obama may offer a way forward as well.
For if a black man can become President of the United States just as much as a black man can become a dictator in Uganda, then it should be possible to imagine black characters that embody the best and worst aspects of human nature.
After all, that was the real goal of the civil rights movement. To be given an equal chance at fulfilling the same dreams and goals as white folks. Black people, as a whole, are not as fragile or sensitive as often seen on TV. If a black supervillain doesn’t merely play upon bad stereotypes, is made as fully rounded as white supervillains, is made just as interesting, then seeing the fights between heroes and villains of color will be as satisfying.
Imagine the Black Panther confronting an African dictator who controls even better technology and resources than Wakanda’s. Imagine a black crime lord as powerful as the Kingpin going up against Luke Cage. Conversely, imagine Batman in a battle of wits and wills with an inventor equal parts Booker T. Washington and Nikola Tesla or Superman in a struggle with black man or woman with even more powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men. Imagine what fights those contests would be.
C’mon, writers for the Big Two, it’s way past the time to bring on the black bad guys.
Namaste until next time.
Copyright 2006- 2010 Marc Mason/Comics Waiting Room. All rights reserved