Looks like I’ll get this “Black History Month” post in just under the wire!
So yes, it is still Black History Month (with mere hours to spare) and here at last is the post I first mentioned back in January. Having had the good fortune to grow up on Bronze Age comics—a time when black characters received greater, more positive service than ever before—there are several favorites of my childhood I’d like to share. But first a little historical background.
From the late 30s up through the 50s, the treatment of black characters was almost universally racist. In terms of superheroes, the saddest example of the institutional racism that was so pervasive at the time is the Spirit’s sidekick, Ebony White. What makes it so sad is that Ebony really is a great character & enjoys a very positive relationship with the white title character (the Spirit), but is illustrated and dialogued as if he stepped straight out of a minstrel show. As great as Eisner’s work on “The Spirit” was, this will always be a tough thing to get past.
One highlight of the 1940s is All-Negro Comics, published in 1947. Featuring “Ace Harlem” and “Lion Man,” among others, it was produced solely by African-American writers and artists. Unfortunately, there was only one issue ever made. For more information, here’s the wiki on it, as well as a more extensive blogpost. As the comic has since passed into public domain, you can also download a free copy (in cbr format) from the Digital Comic Museum.
In my own opinion, the greatest social triumph of comics in the 1950s was EC’s “Judgment Day!” Written by William Gaines & Al Feldstein and illustrated by Joe Orlando, the seven-page story first ran in Weird Fantasy #18 (April 1953). To see the full tale and letters page reactions, click here. Perhaps quaint in its heavy-handedness by today’s standards, there’s no denying how incredibly progressive this story was for its time.
Set in the far future, the story involves an astronaut emissary from Earth named Tarlton visiting Cybrinia, a planet of robots. It’s Tarlton’s job to judge whether or not Cybrinia is advanced enough to join “Earth’s great galactic republic.” As he surveys the society, Tarlton realizes that there’s great deal of prejudice among orange robots toward blue robots. This causes him to deny the planet admission to the republic.
As he’s about to leave, Tarlton’s orange robot guide asks him if there’s “any hope” for the society of Cybrinia. In contrast to what had seemed a fairly cynical story to this point, Tarlton’s surprising response is: “Of course there’s hope for you, my friend.” He goes on to explain that Earth faced similar difficulties in its past and overcame them, giving the robot cause for optimism.
Now anyone who knows EC knows there’s almost always an O. Henry-esque surprise coming in the last panel of the story. In this case it’s when Tarlton removes his helmet to reveal his “dark skin,” upon which beads of sweat “twinkle like distant stars.”
Again, the story might seem simplistic by modern standards, but for 1953 it’s one hell of a leap for mankind. An even better story might be found in the tale of EC’s struggle to reprint this story under Comics Code authority just three years later in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (Feb. 1956). More details here.
The Marvel Age of Social Consciousness
As usual, the company at the forefront of progressive comics was Marvel. Their first major African-American character was Gabe Jones, a member of the “Howling Commandos,” appearing in the group’s inaugural issue, Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963).
In Marvel’s superhero titles, the title leading the progressive charge was Amazing Spider-Man. It started with no fanfare at all, just Ditko occasionally inserting African-American characters into the background of ASM—in crowd scenes, reading newspapers, what have you. Then in ASM #27 (August 1965), a group of three cops, one of whom just happens to be African American, help Spidey round up the Crime-Master’s crew. In this same issue, Spidey comes across a group of kids who give him a bit of a hard time. Again, two of the kids are white; the third is African American. No particular emphasis or attention is paid to the fact that we’re seeing African Americans here, nor should there be—‘cause, y’know, Spider-Man lives in New York City, a rather diverse place, and there’s nothing unusual about seeing non-Caucasians around.
From this point forward, African Americans are seen regularly in the book, starting with several of Peter’s classmates when he graduates high school the very next issue (ASM#28). In Amazing Spider-Man #51 (August 1967), the title gets its first recurring African-American character in the person of Joe “Robbie” Robertson, city editor of The Daily Bugle.
Oddly enough, despite the multicultural emphasis in ASM from very early on, Marvel’s first full-fledged superhero of color did not appear in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. Perhaps in deference to its status as Marvel’s flagship title, this seminal event instead took place in the pages of Fantastic Four.
The Black Panther
The first superhero of African descent was not African American, he was actually from Africa: The Black Panther. King of the fictional nation of Wakanda, the Panther (real name T’Challa) first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966).
This was a great storyline, of course, as it was done by the Lee-Kirby team near their creative peak. But for me, the character’s finest hour came in the early 70s in the pages of Jungle Action by writer Don McGregor. At first the art was handled by Rich Buckler, then by Billy Graham. Many consider the first storyline, “Panther’s Rage”—which ran across the first thirteen issues of McGregor’s tenure as writer, from Jungle Action 6–18 (Sept. 1973–Nov. 1975)—one of the earliest forms of a graphic novel. (In fact it was referred to as a novel in the lettercol at the time.)
The story takes place in the kingdom of Wakanda, where the Panther has just returned, bringing along his African-American girlfriend, Monica Lynne. The relationship between Lynne and T’Challa would be the biggest subplot running in the storyline, while the main plot revolved around the Panther battling revolutionary Erik Killmonger for control of the kingdom. Looking back during a 1998 interview with Comic Book Artist, McGregor recalled:
The thing that was historical about the Jungle Action “Panther’s Rage” series, is this was the first time that a major company—and probably any comic book title—featured an all-black cast in a regular series. This wasn’t just a black hero surrounded by a mostly-white supporting cast; everybody, from the heroes to the villains—the men, the women, the hawks, the doves, the technocrats, the bombers— everybody was black. But I think it reached a wide audience, you know, and we managed to reach an incredibly diverse readership [that] loved the humanity of the characters. Some years back, the Village Voice did an article about the history of blacks in comics, while they were complimentary to “Panther’s Rage,” it was obvious the writer had not read the books, and there was a section that made a [big] deal out of the Panther having to be a paragon, that he could have no flaws, because he was a black hero. I’d debate to this day that I wrote the Panther that way. He was a man who wanted be a good leader, and was often afraid he’d fallen short, yet he was the same man who would not give up the woman he loved even when nearly everybody around him hated the relationship.
The artwork of Rich Buckler and Billy Graham was also excellent on this series; some of it quite experimental and bold.
Overall, I think it’s fair to say that the Black Panther has gotten the best service of any black character in comics. (Perhaps some of the best service of any character, period.) After his run in Jungle Action, he got his own book by Kirby for a while (which some disliked, but I found fun); a four-issue miniseries addressing apartheid by Peter Gillis and Denys Cowan that was pretty good (in 1988); then McGregor returned, first to do “Panther’s Quest” with Gene Colan in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents (in 1989), which was quickly followed by the prestige format limited series Panther’s Prey with artist Dwayne Turner (in 1990). McGregor had an idea for yet another follow-up titled Panther’s Vows, which would have featured the marriage of T’Challa and Lynne, but the project never got off the ground. (Maybe the sales of Prey weren’t as good as they had hoped; maybe it was something else.)
In any case, the Black Panther would return in two more regular series that were both very good. First there was the 1998 series authored by Christopher Priest (aka Jim Owsley) that lasted five years (ending with issue #62). Then a 2005 series written by Reginald Hudlin that lasted over three years (ending with issue #41). Both these series greatly increased the Panther’s profile in the Marvel Universe, along with his power set (at various points in the Priest series, the Panther goes toe-to-toe with the Hulk and Iron Man). I kinda prefer the more down-to-Earth Panther of McGregor, at least for dramatic purposes, but I can understand the urge to build the character up as one of Marvel’s “big guns.” And as I said, both these series were really well done.
(Full disclosure: I understand there’s been another new Panther series in recent years. I can’t comment on this because I have not read it.)
The creation of Stan Lee and Gene Colan, the Falcon (real name Sam Wilson) first appeared in Captain America #117 (Sept. 1969), making him the first African-American superhero. He had a pet falcon named Redwing and a totally funky green-and-orange costume.
A couple of years later, they changed his threads to red & white:
Then a couple years after that, they added the wings (which gave him the ability to fly):
The red & white number matches up better with Cap’s red, white, and blue; but I gotta tell ya, I really dig the original green & orange. That outfit had some serious flair.
So the Falcon started out as a fairly strong character, whose relationship with Captain America often served as a reflection of contemporary race relations in the U.S. His romantic relationship with the character Leila Taylor would likewise often reflect contemporary relationships between African-American men and women. Falc would get cover billing with Cap from issues #134–192 and 194–222.
One terrible misstep, however, was when writer Steve Englehart changed Falcon’s backstory and made him a former criminal named “Snap” Wilson. I think the idea here was to make the Falcon more like the title character from Super Fly, a very popular blaxploitation film of the era, but it was an idea that was severely misguided. It added nothing to the character, really, and in fact compromised much of the Falcon’s former dignity. Candidly, if I were ever put in charge of the character, it would be the first thing I’d jettison.
This is one of those rare occasions when I think the recent movies improved upon the comic source material. In Winter Soldier, they made Sam Wilson a war veteran, which makes his subsequent bond and friendship with Cap perfectly logical. Again, if I were in charge, I would try to work that into the comics if I could.
With the subject of blaxploitation fresh in our minds, let’s move on to our next character…