Black (Super) Power

African-Americans in Comics

Black writers, artists and characters have been part of comics books since the beginning but like much black history has been kept a secret. Torchy Brown by Jackie Ormes was first published in 1937 in The Pittsburgh Courier, a black owned newspaper. What was unique about Jackie Ormes was that she was both black and a woman. Two things that could have worked against her in an industry that, to this day, has remained predominantly white male oriented. A year later DC Comics launched Action Comics, the first comic book to feature Superman. In 1946 Superman fought a new enemy, the Ku Klux Klan in the Adventures of Superman radio serial. In the audio adventure, called “The Clan Of The Fiery Cross” Superman battled the Klan after a Klan infiltrator, Stetson Kennedy contacted the producer of the radio show with the idea of exposing the group to a national audience and educating children about their activities. From June to July 1946, Superman exposed Ku Klux Klan codewords, rituals and its bigotry, all based on   intel collected by Kennedy. He became Klan Enemy No 1, with Grand Dragon Sam Green offering a reward for killing him while the show damaged the group’s reputation and led to a steep decline in membership from which the KKK never recovered.

By the 1950’s Torchy Brown reflected the Civil Rights struggle. In the pages of EC Comics, the story “Judgement Day” published in 1953 caused more problems for a publisher who was always in trouble with authority.  A year before Dr Martin Luther King began to lead people towards a dream of freedom and equality “Judgement Day” questioned separation by colour in a Science Fiction story. It wasn’t long before EC Comics were ‘forced’ out of business by a new code, The Comics Code Authority, created in 1954. The same year the Civil Rights Movement began. However, what the Comics Code didn’t realise was that, as soon as a rule was made it can be broken. Instead of seeking approval from the Comics Code some publishers went ‘underground’, whilst others published material independent of the Code.

During the Civil Rights struggle, many were inspired and informed by a comic, “Martin   Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which was a 16-page comic book published in 1957 by The Fellowship of the Reconciliation. “The Montgomery Story” was written by Alfred Hassler and Benton Resnik with illustrations by Sy Barry, was widely distributed among   civil rights groups, churches, and schools. Over 50 years after its initial publication, the comic inspired the best-selling, award winning “March” trilogy by Congressman John Lewis, himself a veteran of the Civil Rights Movement.

In 1966 Marvel Comics launched its first black superhero, Black Panther, in the pages of the Fantastic Four. On October 15th of the same year The Black Panther Party was formed in Oakland, California.

In 1972, Marvel Comics published the second Black Superhero to have his own title, Luke Cage, also known as Power Man. He first appeared in “Luke Cage, Hero For Hire” in June of that year. The character was created during the Blaxploitation era and was an ex-convict imprisoned for a crime he did not commit who gains the powers of superhuman strength and unbreakable skin after being voluntarily subjected to an experiment. After leaving prison he becomes the hero for hire.

The character has since been adapted from the comics into a live-action television series set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This premiered in September 2016, along with a second series which released in June 2018.

It was another black hero, though, who would open the door to Luke Cage in this new Universe after he had been freed from the pages of the comic book that brought him to the attention of the comic buyers. His creator, Marv Wolfman, deliberately stopped using the character for fear that he would upstage other supporting characters.

Blade first appeared in the July, 1973 edition of Marvel Comics’ ‘Tomb Of Dracula’. Although Blade proved to be more than just a supporting character in the comics it was Wesley Snipes who brought the half-human, half-vampire hero to the attention of everybody in the 1998’s Marvel movie.

The film has since been cited as being the beginning of the Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. Marvel Comics wasn’t the only major publisher who showed an interest in making a difference. Towards the end of the 1960s Green Lantern buddied up with Green Arrow and went in search of the ‘real’ America in an attempt to make things right. Their classic journey had begun with a confrontation between Green Lantern and an elderly black man. This was Green Lantern’s very own Judgement Day. For all his super-powers he felt helpless. In the December 1971 issue of Green Lantern/Green Arrow John Stewart was introduced as a substitute Green Lantern.

John Stewart became DC Comic’s first black superhero and has been a major recurring character within the Green Lantern storylines ever since his debut. Between 1984 and 86 he took over the role from Hal Jordan. Stewart was featured as one of the lead characters on the Justice League Cartoon series from 2001 and In 2011, John Stewart starred in the New 52 relaunch of Green Lantern Corps becoming the sole lead character of the title from 2013 until the series’ conclusion in 2015. The title was changed to “Green Lantern: The Lost Army” which also stars John Stewart as the lead.

In April 1977 Black Lightning became the new hero on Superman’s turf, Metropolis, fighting drugs in the neighbourhood where he had been raised. The story opened with a quote,

“Justice, like lightening, should appear to some men hope and to other men fear.”

In 2018 Netflix launched the Black Lightning character to a new television audience.

In 1993 Ho Che Anderson wrote, designed and Illustrated a series of comic books based on the life of Reverend Martin Luther King and Milestone Media was founded the same year by a coalition of African-American artists and writers who felt that minorities were underrepresented in American comics. Milestone Media was their attempt to correct this imbalance and were able to make a deal with DC under which DC would publish Milestone’s comics, but Milestone would retain all legal and creative control, including copyright. The comics were published under the Milestone imprint.

Underground artists like Rick Griffin. Graffiti artists became part of the new culture of Hip Hop. Hip Hop not only sampled music but also borrow images from Underground comic artist like Rick Griffin, as New York became the focal point for ‘Wild Style’. Suddenly cartoons were no longer seen in newspapers and magazines but were on every subway, wall and train. Once again, something linked with comics had become controversial. Opinions were split, some people thought that the graffiti art made run down areas look better whist others saw it as vandalism.

In 2020 graffiti art continues to be used to express the views of people at community level and is a potent, creative weapon when needed to highlight injustice. In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, graffiti art sprang up all over America.

“The Silence Of Our Friends “, published in 2012 is a story based on the childhood memories of writer Mark Long about the friendship between a white television reporter and a black College Professor during the student protests of 1968. It effectively shows the small ways in which racism was reinforced by society as well as the larger issues that both men faced in different ways.

John Lewis, American Civil Rights leader and politician who led the march that was halted by police violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, co-authored “March” published in 2013 to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement to a new generation.  Both “The Silence Of Our Friends” and “March were illustrated by Nate Powell.

Kadir Nelson, who has worked for Marvel comics created the June 2020 cover of the New Yorker devoted to the history of violence inflicted on black people in the United States. Entitled ‘Say Their Names’, the powerful illustration features George Floyd, and shows his body imprinted with images of individual victims, placards, scenes from history and pertinent symbolism.

More than ever comic books and the art forms related to them are important in getting messages across to the masses.

Historically, storylines have been placed within the safety of fiction. However, the truth being faced in the world are now being seen standing alongside these fantasy settings as facts. In 2019 HBO aired Watchmen, based on 1986’s groundbreaking series by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The series is a sequel that takes place 34 years after the events of the comics within the same alternate reality and introduced new characters and conflicts that create a new story that focused on racist violence in Tulsa , Oklahoma in 2019 whilst  highlighting the 1921 Tulsa Black Wall Street massacre which left 300 African-American’s dead. The series won 11 Primetime Emmy Awards including Best Limited Series, Regina King for Best Actress for a Limited Series and Abdul-Mateen for Best Supporting Actor for a Limited Series; the most for any show in 2020.

The contribution of African-American artists and writers has been important throughout the history of Popular culture and helped to influence not just the comic books we read, but the films we watch, as well as the music and style we enjoy.