In December 2014, the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered. The trailer begins with a black screen which becomes illuminated with a large open desert and a hazy blue sky coming into focus. A gravelly voice breaks the silence: “There has been an awakening…have you felt it?” Jarringly, a young Black man, sweating, panting, and heavily uniformed as a Stormtrooper pops into view. For those not familiar with the franchise, this breaks all of the rules. Rule #1: Stormtroopers are clones and they all look alike. Rule #2: Stormtroopers are not Black. In these first few seconds, J.J. Abrams, the director of the film, has shifted all that we know about this universe and its relationship to characters and race. When the narrator at the top of the trailer speaks about an awakening in the force, we are to understand that this young Black man is that awakening. With that awakening, he is our hero.
What is different about the trailer’s opening scene, is that the Black character is not being delivered to us in a supporting role, but instead inhabits the role of a major protagonist. Since the film’s release, we now know the circumstances and the name of the young Stormtrooper, played by John Boyega. He has a hero's story, but he is not the film’s major protagonist nor does he have the force. When the trailer was released, the Internet blew up. Many were angry and frustrated with this possible change in character design. Some fans were angered that a fantasy hero could be played by a Black man.
While doing research for Black Pulp! I came across a comic book from the 1950’s. The story was called "Judgment Day," first published in Weird Fantasy #18, April 1953. This story depicts an astronaut from the future traveling to another planet to see if the inhabitants should be admitted into the Galactic Republic. During the astronaut’s visit, he realizes that the robots on this planet are segregated by color. The astronaut decides that, due to their bigotry, they cannot be admitted into the Galactic Republic. In the last panel of the story, the astronaut removes his helmet to reveal that he is a Black male, glistening with beads of sweat running along his cheek. In the illustration, the beads of sweat converge with shimmering starlight to convey to the reader that the figure is a mortal while also from the stars. He is a man from the future.
This image, upon release, also commanded outrage. A judge sitting as a member of the newly founded Comics Code Authority took issue with the image, citing the race of the astronaut as the primary concern. While at the time the image was being used as a reprint from an earlier release, the judge believed that the image was nonetheless improper for public consumption. When the co-editor of EC Comics, Ed Gaines refused to remove the image and replace the Black astronaut, the judge called back demanding the removal of the stars on the astronaut’s skin. Ed Gaines declined with a loud expletive and hung up the phone. What the judge saw in "Judgment Day" in 1953 is what many also experienced watching the The Force Awakens trailer in 2014. What did the “Twitterverse” and the judge see that was so threatening? They saw a Black person with more power than they have, and they didn’t like it.
The protagonists in comics and fantasy have one thing in common: justified power. Justified power has a natural morality attached to it, yet the protagonist’s awareness of this power is not important because it is tied to destiny. Another facet of this justified power is that the hero has the power of self awareness, while also being a representative of an entire society.
The image of the Black protagonist in a comic begins to destabilize what we know about power in our culture. He is a natural agitator with an appearance which usually shocks the reader, as well as the characters in the book. This shock is a result of the historical role people of the African diaspora have typically played in comics and fantasy. These roles symptomatically have ranged from the cannibal savage (Sheena Queen of the Jungle/ Tarzan), to the man-servant Lothar (Mandrake the Magician), or the trickster Lando Calrissian (The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi), or finally the magical and one dimensional Mace Windu (Star Wars Prequels). Rarely do we see the Black character in fantasy or in comics depicted as the principal hero in the narrative. When the protagonist is Black, they inherently shed the dehumanized state of “othered” status to evolve into privileged persons of power.
Lobo, created by Don “D.J.” Arneson and Tony Tallarico (Dell Comics, 1965), is the first African American hero in a stand-alone comic book. The idea for the comic came from the The Negro Cowboys by Philip Durham and Everett L. Jones. Lobo is an amalgamation of characters found in The Negro Cowboys as well as Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger. Lobo is a liberated person, his only superpower being his free will at a time of enslavement. Though the book had a small run and the character was not a pivotal one, his race and power offered the reader a new perspective on the Old West as it was understood. There is no clearer persona of heroism in American culture than the cowboy.
In comic books there is an idea that the main character is taking you through the story by way of their experience. This idea of existing in the presence of a character’s perception can be stretched when the race of the protagonist is modified. The fluidity in comics to quickly change and assert who the hero is in a single panel is immediate. This new occupation in the mind of the reader is sudden and absolute, and Lobo fulfilled this role.
In 1989, while an editor at Marvel Comics, Dwayne McDuffie, an African American, sent out a memo to his staff addressing this very issue of character development. The memo was titled, “Teenage Negro Night Thrashers.” In the memo, McDuffie proposes a new hero team consisting of four young Black men. The memo employed sharp satire to directly attack the tropes that were being used whenever Black characters were involved. In his memo, he describes characters with outdated clothing and hairstyles, bizarre and unrecognizable speech patterns, a smart, white friend that gets them out of trouble, and an attractive, white female friend to calm them down when they get too excited. The significance of McDuffie’s memo is that it calls into question the lazy and shallow architecture of character development for Black fictional characters.
The world of comic books is a compartmentalized world. It is a world based on a perceived logic that mirrors our own reality. For instance, the Marvel world exists as a parallel world to our own. The characters inhabit locations similar to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. DC Comics inhabit a world somewhat removed, where some cities co-exist in our world and theirs, while other cities, such as Metropolis and Gotham, represent psychological extremes of light and dark, i.e. the Apollonian and the Dionysian. With the knowledge of what these locations represent, an allegorical United States of America comes into focus. This can allow us the possibility to examine how these fantasy universes deal with the ethnicity of their heroes.
The world of Marvel and DC comics retain our issues of history, education, and politics. When we follow Peter Parker (a.k.a. Spider-Man) into the classroom, it is a comment on education. We experience American politics when we follow Steve Rogers (a.k.a. Captain America) into World War II to fight the Nazis. Clark Kent (a.k.a. Superman) illustrates ideas around labor when he heads into work like everyone else, and maintains a typical day job. Heroes are able to fall in love, give birth to children, and have touching moments amongst friends. The Hero juggles their professional and personal life. These mundane everyday aspects to the characters’ lives help to establish more dynamic elements of who they are. Ideas of protection, community, and solidarity are huge staples of comics that place the hero into the role of zeitgeist. In a world where heroes hold so much moral sway, what does it mean when so few of them are people of color? If comic books seemingly parallel our own world, it can be argued that the lack of Black representation in comics is proof of a perceived lack of power and the minimal role Blacks play in our American society.
John Terrell and George J. Evans Jr. created All-Negro Comics, Issue #1. Produced in 1947 by All-Negro Comics Inc., All-Negro Comics was the first full African American production of a comic book. The book is broken up into several stand-alone stories illustrated by artists John Terrell (Ace Harlem, Lil' Eggie), George J. Evans Jr. (Lion Man), Cooper (The Little Dew Dillies), and Cravat (Sugarfoot). The book was designed to touch on on pre-existing comic genres (funnies, adventure tales, detective stories, and fantasy), but with a Black perspective. The characters do not merely exist in tandem with white people, they are instead simply the protagonists of their narrative. Although this comic did not succeed beyond a first issue, it established a patchwork of new themes and ideas for Black bodies to occupy.
There are also creators who were able to establish a more realistic view of Black communities. Comic strips like Ollie Harrington’s "Dark Laughter" (1930s), Jackie Ormes’s "Torchy in Heartbeats" (1950s), and the comic book series Negro Romance (1950), explore daily Black life through three distinct narrative plotlines. "Dark Laughter" is a “black” comedy that jabs at the world Black people endured in Jim Crow America. The strips have a distinctive way of highlighting the hypocrisy of America while simultaneously mocking one of the main characters, Bootsie. "Torchy in Heartbeats" depicts a female lead, Torchy Brown, with a mix of situational comedy and romantic intrigue. Torchy is a young single woman trying to make it in the world. Her primary issues are routine, related to dating and holding down a job. Yet in the ordinary, everyday narrative, Torchy’s self-determination and desires are at the center of the narrative, decidedly not on the periphery. Negro Romance fits into the soap opera drama of storytelling, by which love comes at a high cost with equally high emotions. These images worked to dispel the narrative of the unfeeling, unwashed savage sitting on a stoop and pining for a cotton field. All writers and artists behind these books expressed a desire to show a natural, non-derogatory depiction of not just Black individuals, but Black life as a whole.
In 1993 Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, Derek T. Dingle, and Dwayne McDuffie created Milestone Comics. Milestone was a coalition of African American artists and writers who believed in creating a universe from a Black perspective. Created in the fictional urban environment of Dakota City, Milestone was able to develop stories with a racially diverse cast of heroes and villains without having to play within conventional comic book stereotypes for Blacks and other minorities. At Milestone, Black characters could have a voice on either side of an issue, rather than being one-dimensional champions. Milestone discontinued distributing comics in 1997. At the age of 13, when I read Milestone comics it was a curious oddity. It sat between my interests and a sense of social obligation to buy it. I knew that what they were attempting to do was important and extremely difficult at the time. Prior to discovering Milestone, my relationship to Black superheroes was simply that they were men behind masks that had their identity as well as their race hidden. They rarely acted in ways or participated in the narrative without performing an action of stereotypical Blackness. This covering of the Black body in a costume was used as a trick or a gimmick, and when uncovered, the individual’s race is the twist rather than his identity (Spawn, Shadowhawk). In Milestone comics, the inverse occurred: a hidden identity didn’t mean that the character’s race was conveniently excluded as well.
Where are we today? At the time of this writing, Marvel has put into production the first cinematic appearance of the Black Panther, a character created by Jack Kirby in 1965. Black Panther is an African leader from the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda. Wakanda is a sovereign African Nation which was never colonized by Europe, and even more, Wakanda is the most technologically advanced civilization in the world. The portrayal of an African nation in this light is twisted and subversive in contrast to the current state of affairs on the African continent. Black Panther represents Marvel’s future, and it is a test as to whether they can produce a mainstream blockbuster film with a primarily Black cast, and more importantly, if they can effectively depict Black characters with a sense of coherence, depth, and sensitivity. By employing acclaimed writer, Ta-Nehisi Coates to author the comic in an ongoing series for Marvel, and by hiring director Ryan Coogler (of Fruitvale Station, Creed) to direct the film, they are attempting to find a distinct and authentic voice for the Black Panther in the world in which he lives. By witnessing this dedicated commitment to character development, I am achingly reminded of history and of Static’s Malcolm X cap.
Static, a.k.a. Virgil Hawkins, was a key character from Milestone comics. Static follows a young Black teenage superhero as his crime-fighting career develops in Dakota City. He wears a black baseball cap with a large white “X” as a part of his costume. The “X” hat, made popular by director Spike Lee during the promotion of his film Malcolm X, connects Static to the real world with specific political and historical beliefs.
Static, as well as many of Milestone’s other characters, has been revived and inserted into the DC Universe. With this insertion into the mainstream DC canonical universe, some key characteristics have been lost in translation. Static no longer wears his Malcolm X cap, and without it, he loses the built in political history of the Black Civil Rights Movement, which just by wearing it gave his character political stance and urgency. Thus, he has been watered down and dissolved into the fantasy of the DC universe, where his race has been nearly reduced to the color of his skin, his politics and history nullified, with his connection to the real world removed. Virgil Hawkins is no longer tied to the deeper internal struggle. Now as an African American male in the United States of America, Static, (now re-named Static Shock), has been depicted as a background character who slips in and out of the world of more primary characters, to seemingly uphold a necessary sprinkle of diversity, or perhaps just to function as formal contrast.
Comic Books depict more than a physical struggle: Comic Books can give voice to our collective identity for a short time. As we rely and lean on Ta-Nehisi Coates to educate the world to the Black experience through the fantasy and story of Black Panther, we should ask ourselves, how long will it be before Black Panther is defanged, declawed, dehumanized, homogenized, bleached, eradicated, neutered, misled, mistaken, repackaged, rebranded, reshaped, reformed, and drawn as just another Black man from Africa? When will we stop removing the stars reflected and refracted off the skin of our Black Heroes? When is it acceptable for them to shine?
The above essay appears in the forthcoming catalogue for Black Pulp!, an exhibition curated by artists William Villalongo and Mark Gibson opening October 1 at the International Print Center New York. Black Pulp! debuted at the Yale University School of Art 32 Edgewood Gallery in New Haven, CT January-March, 2016. IPCNY is located at 508 West 26th Street, 5th Floor, New York, NY. Black Pulp! will be on view October 1 - December 2, 2016.
All images and text courtesy Mark Thomas Gibson, Curator of Black Pulp!