Celebrating Black History Month!

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Luke Cage

Historically, the first African-American character to star in his own comic series was a Western character named Lobo, who appeared in two Lobo Dellissues published almost a year apart by Dell comics: Lobo #1 (Dec. 1965) and Lobo #2 (Oct. 1966). Unfortunately, I can’t comment on these comics because I’ve never seen them—if anyone out there can point me in the direction of a copy of either issue, I’d be most appreciative. (Lobo #1 is actually listed on ebay right now for over 200 bucks; I was hoping to pay just a tad less than that.)

But the first African-American superhero to star in his own series was Marvel’s Luke Cage, who first appeared in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 in June 1972. Take a gander at the cover:

cage1

Published about a year after the release of the film Shaft, the parallels are obvious. First and foremost, Cage and Shaft are both private investigators operating in New York City. They’re both street smart; they’re both tough and unafraid of getting their hands dirty in a fight. And that first-issue cover definitely has a very blaxploitation movie poster kinda vibe to it, no?

This presented a problem for the character early on, as he seemed more like a blaxploitation film hero than a traditional comic-book superhero. Many a fan wrote in and complained that it felt wrong for Luke to take money in exchange for his heroic deeds while his white counterparts performed similar deeds for free. He also didn’t have a real superhero name.

They were able to fix the latter problem rather expediently by giving him the name “Power Man” in the seventeenth issue:

cage2

The name was a good fit. First, it matched his super powers, which were super-strength and invulnerability. The word “power” also evoked “black power,” a contemporaneous American political movement. Still, the “hero for hire” gimmick remained a bit problematic. Also, looking back on the strip in later years, there was some criticism that Cage’s personal background and dialogue made him a stereotype.

Now the idea of a superhero “hired gun” might have been a fresh and interesting concept, but I’ll agree it was probably not the best approach to take with your first African-American series star, as it makes him seem less noble than the other white superheroes you’re publishing. I’m sure they weren’t thinking in those terms at the time; they were really just looking to mimic Shaft. But again, it was a problem.

The other criticism, however, I disagree with. In fact it strikes me as kind of a double standard that you can’t have an African-American character who’s “street” without it somehow being a stereotype. The Thing/Ben Grimm, for example, is very “street,” but you never hear anyone complain about it, presumably because he’s white. His dialect is very Lower East Side, dropping his G’s (most famously when he shouts “it’s clobberin’ time!”), freely using the word “ain’t,” and pronouncing the phrase “what do you” as one word (whaddaya), but no one protests. In fact, most comic fans find these traits endearing. Hell, he even ran with a gang as a kid (the Yancy Street Gang), which absolutely no one has a problem with.

In 1997, they brought Cage back (after a few years in comic-book limbo) in a new Heroes for Hire team book. I haven’t re-read these comics since they were first published eighteen years ago (I think I put them out in the garage with a whole bunch of other 90s comics that I’d rather forget), but as I recall, writer John Ostrander retconned Cage’s background and turned him into an English professor or something, which I naturally hated. Has political correctness grown so out of control that we can’t even have an African-American character who’s blue-collar/working-class? Or (heaven forefend) actually poor?

Black Panther is one of the all-time great superheroes. He’s cool, regal, charismatic, and will probably always be the greatest superhero of African descent. But as a character, Cage was more accessible and relatable to me. Cage lived in my world; I knew guys like him (of every ethnicity). So I say screw all the haters out there & all the guardians of political correctness—I loved the old school Luke Cage/Power Man.

There was another trait that set Cage apart: he could be comical—at times very comical. In fact it was in this context that I first fell in love with the character, in the pages of Defenders.

Back when I started this blog and I delved into the secret origins of my comic book fanaticism, I brought up a couple of specific issues of Defenders, numbers 37 & 38. Judging from the cover of #37 alone, you can see how prominent a role Cage played in the story:

def37-c

Cage’s association with the team began in issue #17, when he got in the middle of a brawl with the Wrecking Crew. He then returned for a storyline involving the Sons of the Serpent in issues 22–25. Through it all, Cage groused a lot about how he wasn’t getting paid and how he doesn’t need all the headaches that came with being a part of the team.

Still, by issue #37 he’s back again to help them battle the Plantman. The situation: Dr. Strange and the Red Guardian are being held hostage by said villain when Cage gets the call. He’s just finished disposing of some thugs who have attacked him in his office when the phone rings. (One gets the impression that fighting off street thugs is a daily nuisance for Cage.)

def37-11

The exasperation and the grumbling here is just so Cage. Okay, the truth is out: Cage was a curmudgeon™ after my own crusty heart. No wonder I enjoyed him so much.

In the wild and wacky adventures of the Defenders (and believe me, they didn’t get any wackier than Steve Gerber’s Defenders), Cage’s street-smart, no-nonsense, all-too-practical worldview was put to most humorous effect. One need go no further than the opening splash of the next issue, wherein Luke, Doc, and RG have been captured by Nebulon:

def-splash

Cage’s line is pure comedic gold. Decades later, I still can’t help but smile every time I read it.

I caught up with most of Cage’s exploits in his solo book by buying up back issues in later years. I really like the Dick Tracy-esque nature of many of his bad guys: Black Mariah, Senor Suerte/Muerte, Big Ben, Cottonmouth, Piranha Jones, Cockroach, Mr. Fish… my favorite issues are the ones by McGregor, naturally, though his run was (unfortunately) short and peppered with fill-ins. McGregor’s greatest contribution to the Cage mythos was the running gag about the coffee machine in the lobby of the Gem Theatre, which never ceased to drive Cage crazy.

In the 50th issue, the book became Power Man and Iron Fist, as two comic characters born out of movie crazes (Cage from blaxploitation films; Fist from Kung Fu movies) joined forces. The result was a really good comic series that featured the most multicultural supporting cast you’ll ever see. The best of the run was the work of Jo Duffy & Kerry Gammill.

Black Goliath

Black Goliath’s run was painfully brief (just five issues, from Feb.–Nov. 1976), but I’m including him here for a couple of reasons. First, I liked him and this is my blog and I can do what I want, so nyah nyah. blk-gol1Secondly, he’s one of several characters here involved a thorny issue that I feel needs addressing.

Whenever I’m talking about classic comics with some young’uns and the issue of diversity comes up, many of them express offense over the number of black heroes with “black” in their names during this era. Now, I can see why this would strike modern audiences as racist, but it’s really not. You have to understand the context of the era we’re talking about—it was the 1970s and the “Black Power” and “Black Is Beautiful” movements were going strong. The roots of “Black Is Beautiful” go back to an essay written by Langston Hughes for The Nation in 1926. Full text here, but these are the most relevant portions for our purposes:

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

… [To] my mind, it is the duty of the younger Negro artist, if he accepts any duties at all from outsiders, to change through the force of his art that old whispering “I want to be white,” hidden in the aspirations of his people, to “Why should I want to be white? I am a Negro—and beautiful”?

The idea being that it should be a point of pride for a black person to identify himself (or herself) as such at this time; that they should embrace their blackness and take particular pride in it. So these superheroes having “black” in their names was not racist. In the context of the era, quite the opposite was true.

Now with Black Goliath it was unfortunate because there had previously been two white characters that had operated under the name “Goliath” (Hank Pym and Clint Barton), so modern audiences might easily infer that the white guys were considered regular old “Goliaths” while the black guy had to be specified as “Black Goliath.” I’m fairly certain this was not the intention at the time, but it’s understandable how one could make such an inference today. As I said, it’s unfortunate.

Be that as it may, this was a series I greatly enjoyed, particularly the final issue, as it featured the artwork of a young Keith Pollard, a personal favorite from this era. This may have even been his first pro assignment—if so, he started off with quite the “bang!” Just check out this action page:

blkgol-5

Just gorgeous work. I should point out that Pollard inked his own pencils here, too. He would go on to illustrate the 200th anniversary issues of both Fantastic Four and Amazing Spider-Man just a few years later, two childhood favorites of mine.

Black Lightning

At last we get to DC. Obviously, they spent most of the Bronze Age eating Marvel’s dust in nearly every category, and the category of racial parity was no exception. To be fair, it’s not as if the line was all white. They had Mal Duncan in Teen Titans; Black Racer & Vykin in Kirby’s Fourth World; they had Tyroc (briefly) in Legion of Super-Heroes; and perhaps most notably they had the John Stewart Green Lantern (though you could count the number of comic appearances he made in the 70s on one hand, basically).

Finally we get to late ‘76/early ’77, and the following ad appeared in the back of several of their titles (scanned from my own copy of Freedom Fighters #7):

BlkLghtAd

If that doesn’t whet your appetite for some slam-bang superhero action, I don’t know what will.

Then the premiere issue came out with an April 1977 cover date and it was awesome. That first issue of Black Lightning is one of the two most memorable comics of my childhood, along with Marvel Spotlight #28 (starring Moon Knight). In both cases the story kicks off with the hero kicking the crap out of a half dozen thugs. As a kid, that was all I really cared about: Fight scenes, particularly those that featured the hero kicking the crap out of a whole bunch of people. When you’re starting off a new superhero title, I still believe this is the best approach to take if you really want to get the story rolling right out of the gate. Here’s a little taste of Black Lightning #1:

bl1bl2

 

 

 

The issue also showcased the talents of Trevor Von Eeden, one of the more underrated artists of this time. Even with the inkers doing their best to ruin things, his talent still shines through. (And if you really wanna have a good cry, track down Back Issue #8 at TwoMorrows and take a peek at just how beautiful Von Eeden’s original pencils were. Then look upon the finished, published pages and weep.)

Sadly, the book lasted just eleven issues, becoming one of the many victims of the “DC Implosion” of 1978. But writer Tony Isabella and Von Eeden did give us some good work here, particularly early on.

Honorable Mentions

The characters above were the favorite black superheroes of my childhood, but I feel compelled to mention a few others here.

Blade is a pretty big deal and worth mentioning, particularly since his success as a film property helped launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A creation of Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan, he first appeared in Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973). I wasn’t into Blade, myself, because I wasn’t into the Dracula book at the time. I would appreciate him much more when I filled out my back issue collection in later years.

I should also mention Storm of the X-Men, the first black female superhero. Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, she first appeared in Giant-Size X-Men #1 (Aug. 1975).

Finally, there’s one more personal selection of mine, Brother Voodoo. While not thought of very highly in some quarters, he’s been a favorite of mine since I first encountered him in the pages of Werewolf by Night, when he helped out the Werewolf against Dr. Glitternight. The guy walked through fire and could call upon the soul of his dead twin brother for aid when he needed him. To the young me, this was totally badass. He was created by Len Wein and Gene Colan and first appeared in Strange Tales #169 (Sept. 1973). Here’s the cover:

brovoo169

Check out that cover text: “The senses-staggering superhero who DIED—yet LIVES AGAIN!” Now that is what you call a “hook.” Not many kids could resist a purchase with a hook like that.

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