March 6, 2017 Black in the 21st Century
Trump promised to make America great again. But when it comes to African American representation and authorship, that Golden Age started during the Clinton presidency and has only begun to peak right now. This is my fifth and final installment in this series exploring African American superhero history.
The presence of black superheroes continued to expand across the comics industry in the 90s. Former sidekick Shilo Norman assumed his predecessor’s identity in Miracle Mister—though in a costume that entirely obscured his racial identity, as had the Jim Rhodes Iron Man five years earlier. Former characters continued: Don McGregor wrote another Black Panther mini-series with artist Dwayne Turner in 1991, John Stewart starred in Green Lantern: Mosaic and Luke Cage in Cage in 1992. Darryl Banks penciled a new Green Lantern series beginning in 1994, and Tony Isabella renewed Black Lightning in 1995, the same year newcomer Doug Braithwaite began penciling at Marvel. New characters debuted: Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee introduced Bishop to The Uncanny X-Men in 1991, Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove’s Steel first appeared in The Adventures of Superman in 1993, and Marvel’s Night Thrasher series began in 1993.
The most influential new character, however, came from Image Comics, a creator-owned company that formed a year before Milestone. Todd McFarlane’s 1992 Spawn altered the unchallenged domination of Marvel and DC in superhero comics, with reports of the first issue selling 1.7 million copies. Where Black Panther’s skin-covering costume might have been an avoidance of race in 1966, Spawn’s equally skin-covering costume might suggest the altered significance of race as a comparatively incidental characteristic a quarter of a century later. Svitavsky, however, argues otherwise: “This concealment is yet another way of soft-pedalling black superheroes to resistant readers,” noting the costume pattern in nine black characters (2013: 159).
Less commercially successful, Ania, a consortium of Dark Zulu Lies Comics, Africa Rising, UP Comics, and Afro Centric Comic Books, released a number of short-lived titles in the early 90s (Poole), and Dawud Anyabwile and Guy A. Sims’ Brotherman Comics debuted in 1990 and ran for five years. Pioneering artists Jones and Pollard both left comics in 1995 after co-penciling Daredevil #343. Ania folded shortly after its formation, and Milestone began cancelling titles in 1995, before closing its comics branch in 1997. McDuffie moved to TV animation, writing for Teen Titans, Justice League, and Justice League Unlimited, and beginning in 2000 his Milestone character Static starred for four seasons on the WB’s morning cartoon Static Shock. McDuffie returned to DC for a Milestone Forever mini-series in 2008, and after 2008’s Final Crisis, the Milestone universe was merged into DC’s main continuity, with Static joining the Teen Titans, while Icon, Rocket, and their team members appeared in a Justice League of America story arc. After McDuffie’s death in 2011, Milestone Media and DC continued their partnership with a Static Shock reboot as part of the initial lineup of DC’s company-wide New 52 reboot in 2011 and with the Milestone universe entering DC’s multiverse as Earth-M in 2015.
Other superhero comics by black creators continued through the 90s. Jimmie Robinson founded his Jet Black Graphiks imprint in 1994, soon expanding into Image Comics and later Marvel. Kerry James Marshall presented Rhythm Mastr as an art installation in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art and weekly in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beginning November 1999: “Marshall’s comics propose an alternative to mainstream superhero culture by introducing protagonists taken from African archetypes and African American cultural life” and spirit powers “which once guided enslaved Africans to insurrection and freedom” (Carnegie). Jim Owsley, having changed his name to Christopher Priest, developed the new title character Xero for DC with artist ChrisCross in 1997. Xero continued the black cyborg motif of the 70s Misty Knight, the 80s Cyborg, and the 90s Deathlok, now with a black man “reconstructed of chemically-dependent bio-mechanical implants” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 21), earning Marc Singer’s praise for “its richness and complexity, free of the tokenism and erasure which have dominated the genre” (2002: 116). Though introduced and drawn as “a 6’6” blond man” (Priest & ChrisCross 1997: 7), Xero removes his light-skinned face and wavy hair to reveal dark skin and a black goatee near the conclusion of the first issue (19). Priest wrote all twelve issues, before beginning yet another Black Panther series in 1998. This iteration proved to be one of the most commercially successful, with Priest writing the final 62nd issue in 2003.
Aware of the dearth of black superheroes in the first several decades of the genre, 21st-century comics have literally rewritten superhero history. The 2004 miniseries Truth: Red, White and Black retconned a black Captain America into a super-soldier variation of the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study, followed by the character’s grandson joining Young Avengers in 2005. In 2008, Blue Marvel was retconned as a 1962 superhero forced to retire when the public learned he was black. For the revisionist Young Allies Comics in 2009, Whitewash Jones was renamed Washington Carver Jones, with an explanation that the World War II comics produced by the Propaganda Office “exaggerated the story” and that the “art was all caricature,” with Jones made to “look like something out of a minstrel show!” (Stern & Rivera 2009), Cyborg also received a miniseries in 2008 and was retconned as a founding member of the rebooted Justice League in 2011, and starred in an on-going Cyborg title in 2015.
Black representation continued and in some cases has increased in other 21st-century titles. DC recreated its 1930s Crimson Avenger as a black woman in 2000. Alex Simmons and Dwayne Turner premiered Orpheus in DC’s Batman: Orpheus Rising in 2001. Marvel’s 2002 The Ultimates introduced an alternate Earth Nick Fury based on Samuel L. Jackson, who would play the film version of the character beginning in 2008. In 2003, the daughters of Black Lightning became the duo Thunder and Lightning, and a black teenager assumed the title-role of DC’s Firestorm in 2004. Reginald Hudlin wrote a new Black Panther series beginning in 2005, giving the title to the sister of the original character in 2009. Luke Cage joined as a permanent member of The New Avenger in 2005, before becoming team leader in 2010 and finally leaving the team after 95 issues in 2012. Coordinating with the animated TV series Young Justice, DC introduced a new black Aqualad in 2010 and added an African Batman Incorporated character David Zavimbe in 2011, giving him his own Batwing series the same year, before passing the Batwing identity to African American veteran Luke Fox in 2013. Beginning in 2011 Ultimate Spider-Man featured Miles Morales, a mixed black and Hispanic teen, as title character. Marvel’s Storm was featured in 2005 and 2014 miniseries, and in 2014 Marvel introduced its fifth Deathlok series, with a new black character in the title role. Continuing the John Stewart Green Lantern and Jim Rhodes Iron Man tradition, the final December 2014 issue of Captain America introduced the Falcon as the new Captain America, launching All-New Captain America the following month, followed by the ongoing series Sam Wilson: Captain America in 2015. As a result, four of the seven members of the 2016 All-New All-Different Avengers are characters of color: Sam Wilson Captain America, Miles Morales Spider-Man, Sam Alexander Nova, and Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel. The five-member 2016 Ultimates include one white woman, Carol Danvers Captain Marvel, and four characters of color: Monica Rambeau, Black Panther, Blue Marvel, and Miss America Chavez. 2015 also saw three new black lead characters: Lunella Lafayette of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur; the first black Robin, Duke Thomas in a team of Robins in We Are Robin; and a new black female Iron Man, Riri Williams Ironheart, who assumed the title role with Invincible Iron Man #1 (January 2017).
Fifty years after Kirby and Lee’s Black Panther premiered in Fantastic Four and coinciding with the introduction of the film version of the character, renowned journalist Ta-Nahesi Coates and Brian Stelfreeze’s Black Panther debuted in spring 2016, selling roughly 300,000 copies, one of the year’s best-selling superhero comics—a reversal of Roy Thomas’s early 70s lament that it is hard to get whites to buy comics in which the main character is black. The change in representation, writes Carolyn Cocca, reflects “how much the fan base has changed just over the last several years,” one that includes readers who, “due to changing population demographics and gains of civil rights movements, are not only more diverse but also more vocal with their desires and their dollars”; “The superhero genre,” she concludes, “has come far in a number of ways, but has far to go” (2016: 2-3). Laura Hudson draws a similar conclusion in a 2015 Wired editorial, acknowledging that “the faces on the pages [of] popular comic books have steadily grown more diverse,” while also critiquing a “demographic imbalance” in which “the editors and creators of mainstream comics remain overwhelmingly Caucasian” (Hudson 2015). According to Tim Hanley, roughly one of every five comics employees was non-white in 2014 (Hickey 2014). As editors Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II write in their introduction to Black Comics, “comics are still only peppered with representations of the multifaceted Black experience by Black artists” (2013: 4).