Putting the Color Back In Comics, Part One: A Pictorial Evolution of Comics Diversitycsudhbulletin April 9, 2021 0 COMMENTS
Welcome to the online portion of the first part of a three-part series in the Bulletin (also in this week’s e-edition on pages 11 & 12), that will explore the past, present and possible future of ethnic, gender, and LGBTQI+ diversity in comics.
But not just any comics. This treatise will mostly bypass the graphic novels and alternative comic publishers that have elevated the long ridiculed and dismissed medium of comic books.
Instead, we’ll mostly be talking about superhero comics. Yes, those mighty modern-day mythological marvels who have dominated a 90-year-old medium that, at times, have been scapegoated as the primary source for corrupting America’s children, yet praised for positive values and messages (superheroes may all deal with one or a dozen serious neurosis, which is only natural when you’re called upon to save the world every day that ends with a y, but though battered, beaten, bloodied and berated by an endless roster of equally screwed-up super villains, the arc of the comic book universe does tend to bend toward good conquering evil).
It’s a medium long dismissed as too unsophisticated and juvenile for serious critical or scholarly appraisal; yet the subject of reams of serious critical and scholarly appraisal. One whose fans have endured mockery and stigmatization for reading silly books aimed at kids; yet today can point to the $28 billion Marvel Cinematic Universe and all the other ways superheroes seem to have a stranglehold on popular culture as evidence that geek culture has won. At least in the marketplace.
But though the superhero segment of the comic book industry has had many peaks and valleys financially and public perception-wise, one thing has remained as certain as a flat road while driving through Kansas:
Mostly white men have told the stories of mostly white male characters.
The focus of this series will be exploring the issue of ethnic, gender and sexual diversity in those comic books. What it means, whether it’s important, where it’s been, where it’s at and maybe where it’s going. Long story short: as is true in so much of America, diversity is way better than it used to be in comic books, but still has a long way to go before anyone can claim that it accurately reflects the society that many believe comic books do or should.
But before we get into all those words relaying the story that journalists are kind of partial to, we’re talking about comic books here. Ad while words are important in comics, without the pictures they’d just be comic books without the comic in front. And what’s the fun in that?
So in this installment of Putting the Color Back into Comics, we are going to use some pictures to help tell it, with staff reporter Benjamin Gomez focusing on 20 significant characters or companies that serve as road signs on the painfully slow march toward some kind of realistic diversity in a medium that has had such a huge impact on what some people still think is a major part of what makes humans human: the stories we tell each other. But who gets to tell those stories, and what it’s all mean? That’s what this series will explore in its next two installments, which will be online only but will coincide with the release of the Bulletin’s sixth and seventh e-editions of the semester.
(And speaking of visuals, if you haven’t seen our designer’s tricked-out comic pages in our e-edition which went live today, do so. They’re awesome)
A short list of books about comics available via e-edition in the CSUDH library.
- EC Comics: Race, shock and social protest. 2019
- Gender and the superhero narrative. 2018
- Encyclopedia of Black Comics. 2017
- The Hernandez Brothers: Love, Rockets and Alternative Comics, 2017
- The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art. 2015
- Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation. 2015.
- X-Men and the Mutant Metaphor : Race and Gender in the Comic Books, 2014.
- Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men : Superheroes and the American Experience, 2013
- Super Black: American pop culture and black superheroes, 2011.
- Dangerous Curves, 2011
- Your Brain on Latino Comics, 2009
- Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans, 2000
Four of the e-books available in the CSUDH library
1947. All Negro Comics
All Negro Comics (1947) was a single-issue comic launched by a group of Black writers and artists and led by Orrin C. Evans, who may have been the first Black general assignment reporter for a mainstream white newspaper in the United States. The 48-page issue sold for 15 cents a copy and featured a staple of comics at the time, a hard-boiled city detective named Ace Harlem, as well as the first legit Black comic superhero, the Lion Man. It was also written, drawn and otherwise produced by Black contributors. However, it lasted only one issue as when it came time to print the second, Evans and his compatriots could not find anyone to sell them paper, and distributors “mysteriously” disappeared.
Created by Don “D. j.” Arneson and Tony Tallarico, Lobo (1965) was published by Dell Comics, the company that produced the very first comic book in 1933 and that long once held the license for Disney characters. But by the 1960s it was running on fumes and was trying anything to stay afloat. So why not create the first comic book featuring a Black protagonist?
Lobo was an Old West gunslinger who didn’t have any superpowers other than this: he somehow managed to steer free of the stereotypes that bedeviled so many Black characters for so long. Then again, he only lasted two issues. Much like poor Orrin Evans, Dell found after the first issue that its distributors had never even taken the comic out of the boxes to give to retailers and 90 percent were returned. The second issue was too far along in the process to stop but after it was released, Lobo disappeared into the setting sun.
1966. Black Panther
Black Panther (1966) first appeared in The Fantastic Four #52. Created by the legendary Jack Kirby with maybe some help from Stan Lee, he was the first Black superhero for either Marvel or DC, and he was also one of the early Black characters from the twin behemoths to not be saddled by the angry Black man, or ex-con trope.
Under the mask, he was T’Challa, king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Wakanda is hidden from the rest of the world, but it is the most technologically advanced nation in the Marvel Universe. The Black Panther was long held to a smaller role in the comics because the character wasn’t seen by Marvel as commercially viable. But that all changed in 2018 when the character got his own movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe which grossed over $1.3 billion, making the character one of the most widely known heroes to date.
1967. The Falcon
The Falcon, the first American Black superhero, was created by Gene Colon with maybe some help from Stan Lee. He was another non-powered hero, but he did have groovy mechanical wings and a hawk trained to do all sorts of cool maneuvers and commands. Oh, he also had a good pal named Steve Rogers who moonlighted as Captain America.
Initially, Wilson’s back story was that he was a social worker from Harlem determined to help people in the inner-city, but being a respectable and law-abiding citizen wasn’t enough for Steve Englehart, who later in the 1970s would retcon Wilson’s real back story: you got it, a criminal thug.
For years, Wilson was a glorified sidekick for winghead, although one of the few places where either Marvel or DC even alluded to the Civil Rights movement was in the pages of this book.
Eventually, Wilson scored his own book, joined the Avengers for a brief time around 1980 and then permanently in 1998. But he got his biggest headlines in 2015, after he donned the red, white and blue of Captain America after Rogers’ temporary retirement.
Wilson has grown in popularity over the last several years with appearances in six films in the Marvel cinematic universe and is currently starring in his own show “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” airing on the Disney+ streaming service.
1971. John Stewart, AKA Green Lantern
John Stewart (1971) was DC Comics first Black hero. He is one of the Green Lanterns, a hero who older comics buffs associate with Hal Jordan, a guy that went psycho after his hometown was destroyed and nearly wiped out the DC universe. He did his penance by being the human form inhabited by the character, the Spectre, and that’s when things get really weird.
Anyway, Jordan would get his main gig back, but not before other Earthlings served as the emerald protector, including Stewart. Stewart was the brainchild of Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams, who modeled his original character design based on actor Sidney Poitier.
Stewart long played second fiddle to Jordan until the 2001 animated series Justice League on Cartoon Network made Stewart the show’s main Green Lantern. The massively popular animated series, which ran for four seasons, made Stewart a founding member of the Justice League and introduced him to a new generation of kids who would grow up to think of him as the original Green Lantern.
1972. Luke Cage
Luke Cage was Marvels’ attempt at cashing on the Hollywood blaxploitation trend. Four people had a hand in his creation– Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr., none of whom was Black. And, man did it show, in everything from Cage’s backstory (criminal convict) to his forced Black Powerish dialogue and, of course, his wardrobe, which no self-respecting Black man in the 1970s would ever walk out of the house not wearing.
But Cage was bad-ass, with immense strength, bullet-proof skin and a take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude. But he sure seemed angry a lot of the time. Maybe because white creators of a Black superhero figured the only way to make him realistic was to show him reacting to the unjust society around him. However well-intentioned that may have been, Cage often felt less like a fully developed character than a symbol that perpetuated stereotypes, rather than challenged them.
For the longest time, Marvel didn’t seem to know quite what to do with him. For the first 16 issues, his book was called Hero for Hire, then he adopted a real superhero name, Power Man and that lasted until 1978. Then, Marvel teamed Cage and Iron Fist up in an effort to boost both titles’ low sales. The duo would lead their book Heroes For Hire off-and-on from the late 70’s to their latest reunion in 2016. Over the years, Cage has a few short-lived single titles, been involved with the Defenders, Avengers and Daredevil (especially Jessica Jones) and has been featured in the Netflix shows Luke Cage and The Defenders on Netflix. But he ditched the threads years ago.
Blade (1973), created by Marv Wolfman (no joke; Wolfman was one of Marvel’s main writers in the 1970s and had a particular fascination in horror comics) and Gene Colon, originally appeared as a supporting character in The Tomb of Dracula #10. Blade is a daywalker, half-human, half-vampire, with most of a vampire’s strengths, but few of its weaknesses. He was Marvel’s first character to be adapted to film, in 1998.
1977. Black Lightning
Black Lightinng (1977) was originally going to be the Black Bomber, a white supremacist who would turn Black under stress. In probably the second wisest decision in comic book diversity history, writer Tony Isabella, who had previously worked on Luke Cage, was asked to fix the character before going to print. Isabella convinced the editors to use Black Lightning, a character he had been developing instead. Black Lightning would ultimately join the Batman-led supergroup the Outsiders, was recruited by the Justice League of America but turned them down, but eventually joined as a reserve member in 1980. He is currently starring in his own TV show, Black Lightning, which began its final season
Bumblebee is a member of the Teen Titans and Doom Patrol, she is considered by many to be the first Black woman superhero although Wonder Woman’s sister, Nubia, appeared previously in 1973.
Come to think of it, outside of being small and smart, there’s not much to Bumblebee, and she’s semi-retired anyway. So here’s Wonder Woman’s sister, Nubia.
Say, what? They couldn’t even show her on the cover? Isn’t it bad enough that she was stolen at birth by Ares, the God of War, and so didn’t obtain her sister’s powers? Well, Nubia’s probably not losing much sleep over it because for the first time she debuted she has a dedicated storyline. It’s in the graphic novel “Nubia: Real One, written by L.L. McKinney, a noted fantasy and comic author (and a Black woman). Nubia is also appearing in a comic that debuted this year, “Immortal Wonder Woman,” also written by McKinney. This is what she looks like in 2021, without the armor.
Storm, a member of the new X-Men squad pumped desperately needed blood into Marvel when it premiered in 1975, was originally designed to be male until the editors at Marvel decided they did not want an all-male X-men line-up. It may have been the wisest choice ever in terms of diversity, writer Chris Claremont and penciler Dave Cockrum chose Storm to make female. And she is probably the first female Black character in DC or Marvel history who could hold her own against just about anybody. She would go on to lead the mutant franchise that dominated the comics landscape in terms of sales and popularity for nearly 20 years.
Originally a founding member of the Teen Titans, this Marv
Wolfman-George Perez creation became a founding member of the Justice League in DC Comics ‘reboot in 2011.
Vixen (1981) was supposed to be DC Comics’ first female African to lead her own series in 1978 but was canceled due to what is known as the DC Implosion. Since then, Vixen, who was created by Gerry Conway and Bob Oksne, and is able to channel the powers of animals, has been a member of the Justice League America and Suicide Squad in print, and the JLA animated series and her own CW animated web series that ran for two seasons.
1982. Cloak and Dagger
Cloak and Dagger first appeared in Spectacular Spider-Man #64 and were created by Bill Mantlo and Ed Hannigan. The duo appeared alongside Spider-Man until they debuted in their own four-issue miniseries. They’ve had a few of those and been guests plenty of times, but the longest any book they star in only lasted 2 lasted The tandem has also made their live-action debut with a TV series that ran for two seasons and now lives on Hulu.
Spawn (1992) was created independently from the big two comic publishers, Marvel and DC Comics. Todd McFarlane made the character Black to try and show that race does not matter to the hero’s identity. The character is stripped of his skin when he becomes Spawn, who is a demon. Black man who is a demon. Got it.
But if you don’t think the race of comic book superheroes is a big deal, than spend a little time reading this essay. There is nothing funny book about it all.
2009. Superman as Calvin Ellis
Calvin Ellis (2009) is a Kryptonian from an alternate universe inside DC Comics. Created by the ridiculously brilliant Grant Morrison an d Doug Mahnk, Ellis is a Black man who is the Superman of his universe and also President. It is widely speculated that Ellis will be the Superman character in the upcoming film produced by J.J. Abrams.
The reason for that speculation? He is reportedly going to have a bigger presence in the paper comics. And not that Marvel and DC care about money because this is purely coincidental, but anytime there’s a superhero flick on the horizon, the characters sure have a higher profile in the books.
Spider-Man as Miles Morales
Miles Morales is a half-Black, half-Puerto Rican who became Spider-Man in 2011. But the character, created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and Italian artist Sara Pichelli, with input by Marvel’s then-editor-in-chief Axel Alonso, wasn’t the “real” Spider-Man. He took over for a dead Parker in Marvel’s Universe, which wasn’t the main Marvel universe just one that looked like it and charged the same price for its comics (continuity, alternative universes, multi-verses, etc, are soooooo complicated).
But after the Marvel Comic event “Secret Wars” in 2015, the main Marvel universe and the Ultimate universe collided and became one. Since then, Morales’ Spider-Man has had a hit film Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse, joined the Avengers, and teamed up with the original Peter Parker for the series Spider-Men.
2013. Ms. Marvel
First, at least in Marvel history, there was Captain Mar-Vell, a male Kree warrior who shared consciousness with a teenage white kid, Rick Jones, and then became a cosmic protector who battled Thanos, but then got cancer and died. Then the character was a Black woman from New Orleans, and then the genetically altered son of the first one and then that one’s younger sister, and then a Skrull sleeper agent, and then someone pretending to be the captain who gets allowed to be the character and then the one you might be familiar with from the film, Carol Danvers.
Exhausting, isn’t it?
But before that, Danvers was Ms. Marvel and Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American in New Jersey idolized Ms. Marvel. But Khan is a latent Inhuman (don’t ask) and in the way that comics do, wakes up one day and finds that she is the new Ms. Marvel.
More important than that, Khan is the first Muslim character to headline her own book. Ms. Marvel will make her live-action debut in late 2021 on Disney+
2016. Iron Heart
Ironheart is a 15-year-old engineering student, Riri Williams, and a super-genius in the Marvel universe. Created by Brian Michael Bendis, and artist Mike Deodato, and later redesigned by Eve Ewing and Kevin Libranda, she first appeared in March 2016, in Marvel’s easily digestible 160-title Civil War II crossover event .Williams designs her own suit of armor similar to Iron Man and after stopping two inmates from escaping prison, Tony Stark endorses her decision to become a superhero. In December, it was announced that Willams and her armor will join the TV wing of the MCU.
2021. Batman as Tim Fox
The news that DC’s other standard-bearer would be Tim Fox, the son of one of Batman’s oldest associates, made a lot of headlines. But while nearly every other iconic character, from Superman and Captain America, to Thor and Spider-Man have had different races, and even different genders, play them, the spandex invariably gets handed back to the original. Making it tougher to believe that this isn’t just the latest instance of temporary racebending is that this series is part of Future State, which is set in 2025 and is what DC is calling a “possible” future. But John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “12 Years a Slave,”and the writer of the books, more than hints that he thinks this Black Batman is going to stick around a while, and might even replace Bruce Wayne for good.
No word if Arthur is sticking around.