Portrayal of black people in comics

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Black people have been portrayed in comic books since the medium's beginning, with their portrayals often the subject of controversy. The integration of black characters in mainstream and superhero comics has endured various obstacles and challenges. Many critics have outlined the role of black men and women as victims of jungle or ghetto stereotyping. Another aspect in the role of black people in comics, is in its portrayal as sidekicks.

African characters[edit]

Cartoonist Lee Falk's adventure comic strip Mandrake the Magician featured the African supporting character Lothar from its 1934 debut. He was a former "Prince of the Seven Nations", a federation of jungle tribes, but passed on the chance to become king and instead followed Mandrake on his world travels, fighting crime. Initially an illiterate exotic garbed in animal skins, provided the muscle to compliment Mandrake's brain on their adventures. Lothar was modernized in 1965 to dress in suits and speak standard English.[1]

The publisher All-Negro Comics, Inc. published a single issue of All-Negro Comics (June 1947), a 15-cent omnibus, at a time when comics generally cost ten cents. The feature starred characters that included the Lion Man. He was a young African scientist sent by the United Nations to oversee a massive uranium deposit at the African Gold Coast whose main enemy was Doctor Blut Sangro.[2]

The series Powerman, designed as an educational tool, was published in 1975 by Pikin Press of Nigeria, for distribution in Nigeria and other parts of Africa. The series, starring Powerman, was written by Don Avenall (aka Donne Avenell) and Norman Worker, and illustrated by British artists Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. Powerman, who was superstrong and could fly, appeared in stories rendered in a simple style. His only apparent weakness was to snakebites.[3]

1956: Comics Code Authority tries to censor "Judgment Day"[edit]

In the 1950s the portrayal of a Black man in a position of authority and a discussion of racism in a comic was at the centre of a battle between Entertaining Comics editor William Gaines and the Comics Code Authority, which had been set up in 1954 to self regulate the content of US comics amid fears they were a corrupting influence on youth. Gaines fought frequently with the CCA in an attempt to keep his magazines free from censorship. The particular example noted by comics historian Digby Diehl, Gaines threatened Judge Charles Murphy, the Comics Code Administrator, with a lawsuit when Murphy ordered EC to alter the science-fiction story "Judgment Day", in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (Feb. 1956).[4] The story, by writer Al Feldstein and artist Joe Orlando, was a reprint from the pre-Code Weird Fantasy #18 (April 1953), inserted when the Code Authority had rejected an initial, original story, "An Eye For an Eye", drawn by Angelo Torres[5] but was itself also "objected to" because of "the central character being black."[6]

The story depicted a human astronaut, a representative of the Galactic Republic, visiting the planet Cybrinia inhabited by robots. He finds the robots divided into functionally identical orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that due to the robots' bigotry, the Galactic Republic should not admit the planet. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself to be a black man.[4] Murphy demanded, without any authority in the Code, that the black astronaut had to be removed. As Diehl recounted in Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives:

This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office. 'Judge Murphy was off his nut. He was really out to get us', recalls [EC editor] Feldstein. 'I went in there with this story and Murphy says, "It can't be a Black man". But ... but that's the whole point of the story!' Feldstein sputtered. When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen', he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business'. [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious [and] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you'. Murphy made what he surely thought was a gracious concession. 'All right. Just take off the beads of sweat'. At that, Gaines and Feldstein both went ballistic. 'F**k you!' they shouted into the telephone in unison. Murphy hung up on them, but the story ran in its original form.[7]

Feldstein, interviewed for the book Tales of Terror: The EC Companion, reiterated his recollection of Murphy making the request:

So he said it can't be a Black [person]. So I said, 'For God's sakes, Judge Murphy, that's the whole point of the Goddamn story!' So he said, 'No, it can't be a Black'. Bill [Gaines] just called him up [later] and raised the roof, and finally they said, 'Well, you gotta take the perspiration off'. I had the stars glistening in the perspiration on his Black skin. Bill said, 'F**k you', and he hung up.[8]

Although the story would eventually be reprinted uncensored, the incident caused Gaines to abandon comic books and concentrate on Mad magazine, which was EC's only profitable title.[7]

First African-American solo series[edit]

Lobo#1 (Dec. 1965), the first comic book with an African-American star. Cover art by Tony Tallarico.
Main article: Lobo (Dell Comics)

Lobo was a fictional Western comic book hero who was the medium's first African-American character to headline his own series. He starred in Dell Comics' little-known two-issue series Lobo (Dec. 1965 & Sept. 1966), was co-created by writer D. J. Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico.

DC and Marvel's black starring characters[edit]

In the 1940s, the only black character to appear in Timely Comics (predecessor to Marvel) was literally named "White-Wash" and looked like a young white boy in black face rather than an actual African American character. The character starred in Timely's Young Allies, a book about a "kid gang" who, led by Captain America's sidekick Bucky Barnes and the Human Torch's sidekick Toro, battle the Nazi menace.[9]

While Marvel Comics' 1950s predecessor Atlas Comics had published the African tribal-chief feature "Waku, Prince of the Bantu"—the first known mainstream comic-book feature with a Black star, albeit not African-American. Waku was one of four regular features in each issue of the omnibus title, Jungle Tales (Sept. 1954 - Sept. 1955).

Two early Westernized, non-stereotyped African-American supporting characters in comic books are World War II soldier Jackie Johnson, who integrated the squad, Easy Company, when introduced as the title character of the story "Eyes for a Blind Gunner" in DC Comics' Our Army at War #113 (Dec. 1961) by writer Bob Kanigher and artist Joe Kubert;[10] Marvel Comics' first African-American supporting character, World War II soldier Gabe Jones, of an integrated squad in Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos #1 (May 1963). The Amazing Spider-Man introduced the African-American supporting characters Joe Robertson, editor of a major newspaper, in 1967; his son Randy in 1968, and Hobie Brown.

The first Black superhero in mainstream American comic books is Marvel's the Black Panther, an African who first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). He was originally conceived by Jack Kirby as a character named "Coal Tiger".[11] This was followed by the first African-American superhero in mainstream comics, the Falcon, introduced in Captain America #117 (Sept. 1969). DC's first African-American superhero was Sgt. Willie Walker, a.k.a. Black Racer of the New Gods, introduced in writer-artist Jack Kirby's New Gods #3 (July 1971).

There would be no black hero starring in his or her own comic title until 1972, with Marvel's Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, followed in 1973 by Marvel's Black Panther title in Jungle Action. Marvel's Black Goliath was also introduced in the 1970s, as was Marvel's first major African female character, the superhero Storm of the X-Men.

Following Black Racer, DC in Green Lantern #87 (Jan. 1972) introduced John Stewart, an architect who becomes Hal Jordan's new backup Green Lantern.[12] By resisting a suggestion to name the character Lincoln Washington (a stereotypical slave name), artist Neal Adams struck a blow for diversity at DC.[12]

Victor's horrified reaction to his prosthetics.

DC Comics' first black superhero to star in his own series was Black Lightning. He debuted in his self-titled series in April 1977.[12] He was Jefferson Pierce, an Olympic athlete turned inner-city school teacher.[12] He toted a voltage-generating belt and a white mask. Three years later, DC would introduce Victor Stone, the superhero Cyborg, best known as a member of the Teen Titans. Created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez, he first appeared in DC Comics Presents #26 (Oct. 1980).

Jungle Action[edit]

Jungle Action#10 (July 1974). Cover art by Gil Kane and Frank Giacoia.
Main article: Jungle Action

Following Luke Cage, a second black Marvel character headlined his own series: the Black Panther in Jungle Action. This feature began within issue #5 with a reprint of the Panther-centric story in The Avengers #62 (March 1969). A new, critically acclaimed series followed, written by Don McGregor with art by pencilers Rich Buckler, Gil Kane, and Billy Graham, in #6-24 (Sept. 1973 - Nov. 1976).

Ethnic stereotypes[edit]

The first Black character to be incorporated into a syndicated comic strip was Lothar who appeared in Mandrake the Magician in the 1930s. He was Mandrake's sidekick: the circus strongman, who wore a Tarzan-style costume, was drawn in the Sambo-style of the time (see below) and was poor, and uneducated.[13][14] Since the introduction of Lothar, Black characters have a received a variety of treatments in comics, not all of them positive. William H. Foster III, associate professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College said, "they were comic foils, ignorant natives or brutal savages or cannibals".[14]

Writer-artist Will Eisner was sometimes criticized for his depiction of Ebony White, the young African American sidekick of Eisner's 1940s and 1950s character The Spirit. Eisner later admitted to consciously stereotyping the character, but said he tried to do so with "responsibility", and argued that "at the time humor consisted in our society of bad English and physical difference in identity".[15] The character developed beyond the stereotype as the series progressed, and Eisner also introduced black characters (such as the plain-speaking Detective Grey) who defied popular stereotypes.

In a 1966 New York Herald Tribune feature by his former office manager-turned-journalist, Marilyn Mercer wrote, "Ebony never drew criticism from Negro groups (in fact, Eisner was commended by some for using him), perhaps because, although his speech pattern was early Minstrel Show, he himself derived from another literary tradition: he was a combination of Tom Sawyer and Penrod, with a touch of Horatio Alger hero, and color didn't really come into it".[16]

Physical caricatures[edit]

Early graphic art of various kinds often depicted Black characters in a stylized fashion, emphasizing certain physical features to form a recognizable racial caricature of Black faces. These features often included long unkempt hair, broad noses, enormous, red-tinted lips, dark skin and ragged clothing reminiscent of those worn by Black slaves. These characters were also depicted as speaking accented English. In the early 20th century United States, these kinds of representations were seen frequently in newspaper comic strips and political cartoons, as well as in later comic magazines, and were also present in early cartoons by Disney and Looney Tunes. In comics, nameless Black bystanders (see right) and even some notable heroes and villains were developed in this style, including Ebony White (see above), and Steamboat, valet of Billy Batson.

Blaxploitation era[edit]

In the late-1960s and throughout the 1970s, several African-American heroes were created in the vein of Blaxploitation-era movie protagonists, and seemed to be a direct response to the notable Black Nationalist movement. These predominantly male heroes were often martial artists, came from the ghetto, and were politically motivated. Examples of such Blaxploitation characters include Luke Cage, Bronze Tiger, Black Lightning, and the female detective Misty Knight.[17][18] The Falcon stars in one infamous story arc in the Captain America series, in which he is portrayed as a street hustler before being "rescued" by Captain America.[9]

Women[edit]

Very few Black female characters were present in superhero comics until after the African-American Civil Rights Movement, when several notable Black female characters began to appear. One of the most notable Black female character in comics appeared in the Bronze Age of Comic Books. Storm (Ororo Munroe) of the X-Men is an African princess and mutant who possesses the power to control the weather. Storm would eventually succeed Cyclops as the Team Leader of the X-Men.[19] In the 1980s, the new Captain Marvel, aka Monica Rambeau, had the power to become any form of energy on the electromagnetic scale. This Captain Marvel would join the Avengers in their battle against the Masters of Evil.[20] There are those who have criticized black superheroines for being one-dimensional and perpetuating several stereotypes, including that of the mythical superwoman and the hyper-emotional, overly aggressive Black woman.[21]

Storm[edit]

In X-Treme X-Men, conceived by writer Chris Claremont in July 2001, Storm was written as the leader of this new group of X-Men. Other members would include Gambit, former Brotherhood member Rogue, Sage, and the time travelling black anti-hero Bishop, to name a few. This new team in contrast to its related titles, Uncanny X-Men and New X-Men. In the period until its end in issue #46 (June 2004), Claremont continued to write Storm as the central character. During this time, Storm enjoys a brief flirtation with younger fellow X-Man Slipstream and is kidnapped by the intergalactic warlord Khan. Khan wants to make her his queen, but Storm defeats him. In the series, she also becomes leader of the fictional X-Treme Sanctions Executive, a special police task force of mutants policing mutants given worldwide authority.[22] In the aftermath of the 2005 House of M storyline of Brian Michael Bendis, while 98% of the mutants lost their powers due to the Scarlet Witch's magicks, Storm is among the 198 mutants who retain their powers.[23] In that same year, the miniseries Ororo: Before the Storm, would be a retelling of her backstory in greater detail, concentrating on her relationship with surrogate father figure Achmed el-Gibar during her childhood.[24]

Milestone Media[edit]

Milestone Media was a company founded in 1993 by African-American artists and writers Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle), the company's focus was to make multi-ethnic characters the stars of their monthly titles. Christopher Priest participated in the early planning stages of Milestone Media, and was originally slated to become the editor-in-chief of the new company.[citation needed]

History[edit]

Although Milestone comics were published through DC Comics, they did not take place in the DC Universe. The Milestone characters existed in a separate continuity that did not fall under DC Comics' direct editorial control (but DC still retained right of refusal to publish). It is worth noting that some DC characters such as Superman took part in the World’s Collide crossover. In the summer of 1994, DC Comics and Milestone Media published an intercompany crossover called Worlds Collide (comics). It featured a meeting between Metropolis-based superheroes from the DC Universe and Dakota-based superheroes from the Dakotaverse. Unlike many intercompany crossovers, it was intended to be part of the regular continuity and took place in the monthly issues of the involved series. The situation was somewhat complicated by the fact that in the Dakotaverse, DC superheroes were known as fictional characters from comicbooks. Fundamental to Milestone’s agreement with DC was they would not relinquish any of the legal or creative rights to their work. Throughout the negotiations, Milestone, and their lawyers, insisted on three basic points: (1) that they would retain total creative control; (2) that they would retain all copyrights for characters under the Milestone banner; and (3) that they would have the final say on all merchandising and licensing deals pertaining to their properties. In essence, DC had in effect licensed the characters, editorial services, and creative content of the Milestone books for an annual fee and a share of the profits.[25]

All Milestone Media titles were set in a continuity dubbed the "Dakotaverse", referring to the fictional midwestern city of Dakota in which most of the early Milestone stories were set.[26] Before any titles were published, an extensive "bible" was created by McDuffie and other early creators, which provided back-story and information on all of the original Dakotaverse characters, as well as detailed information about the history and geography of Dakota. Cowan produced the original character sketches that served as a guide for the other artists. Milestone tried to add complexity to the one-dimensional stereotypes of black characters that made occasional appearances in the books produced by Marvel and DC.[9]

A significant number of retailers and readers perceived the Milestone books to be "comics for Blacks" and assumed they would not interest non-African-American readers, the books received limited exposure beyond existing comics-shop customers, the coloring process added slightly to the cover price of their books, and overall comics sales had peaked around the time of Milestone's launch and declined dramatically in the years that followed.

Debut[edit]

Milestone's first comic book was Hardware #1 (April 1993) and was written by McDuffie with pencils by Cowan and inks by Jimmy Palmiotti. It was the story of a brilliant black scientist named Curtis Metcalf who works for a powerful industrialist but is denied a share of the profits from his inventions. When he discovers that his boss is also a corporate criminal, Metcalf retaliates by creating a series; of innovative devices that turn him into a high-tech super hero called Hardware. McDuffie claimed that the book had little to do with ethnic issues. He stated that the first issue of Hardware was specifically about the Milestone creators leaving Marvel.

Icon, the third Milestone title, made its debut in May and the story of Icon clearly borrowed heavily from the Superman mythos. Compared to Superman, the alien’s spaceship crashed to Earth, although it was not in Kansas in the 20th century but in the cotton fields of the American South in the 1830s.[9] A slave woman finds the child and the ship alters the aliens appearance to look exactly like the first life form the alien encountered.[9] He receives the name Augustus Freeman but does not use his powers to lead a slave revolt.

Icon was a black super hero and a political conservative who decided to use his superpowers for the very first time when his condominium is broken into by some African American teenagers. Icon must be convinced to use his powers to help others. The agent of change is one of the people who breaks into his condo, a fifteen-year-old girl named Raquel Ervin, who becomes his sidekick, takes the name Rocket and in issue 3 turns out to be pregnant (but not by Icon). Icon has been called the black Superman and McDuffie states it is because, "in the first two pages of the first issue I parodied the Superman origin. Past that there isn't much to it, because Icon isn't really about Icon. It's about the girl, Rocket".[26] After Freeman returns to his home planet, Icon is replaced by Buck Wild. A throwback to the early days of Luke Cage, Buck Wild possessed "belief defyin' strength" and "tungsten hard skin." He once used an experimental growth serum which turned him into the gigantic "Buck Goliath." After some time, Buck wore a replica of Icon's costume in order to take Icon's place when Icon returned to his home planet.

Other titles launched that year included Blood Syndicate, and Static. A year later, Milestone Media published its first company-wide crossover, Shadow War, which spawned two more titles: Shadow Cabinet and Xombi. Another ongoing series, Kobalt, was introduced later.

Legacy[edit]

Milestone had several advantages in its publishing efforts: they received press coverage from non-comics related magazines and television, their books were distributed and marketed by DC Comics, the comics industry had experienced remarkable increases in sales in preceding years, and they featured the work of several well-known and critically acclaimed creators, and they had the potential to appeal to an audience that was not being targeted by other publishers. Milestone provided the opportunity for many emerging talents who had been passed over by larger established companies, beginning the careers of many comic industry professionals. Among them are John Paul Leon, Christopher Sotomayor, Christopher Williams (aka ChrisCross), Shawn Martinbrough, Tommy Lee Edwards, Jason Scott Jones (aka J.Scott.J), Prentis Rollins, J.H. Williams III, Humberto Ramos, John Rozum, Eric Battle, Joseph Illidge, Madeleine Blaustein, Jamal Igle, Chris Batista and Harvey Richards.

21st century[edit]

  • In 2000, Christopher Priest wrote a new Black Panther series. One of the highlights of Priest's run was his storyline "Enemy of the State".[27] The Panther becomes a symbol of a larger African American community dealing with white supremacist violence. Priest even spoofs the old comics convention of bringing in black characters as an exotic supporting cast for the white superheroes with the Avengers appearing in the title.[9] The gist of the most recent Black Panther series is that focuses on the African nation that T'Challa leads.
The marriage of Storm and the Black Panther: Black Panther#18 (2006). Cover art by Frank Cho.
  • In 2006, Ororo married fellow African superhero the Black Panther. Collaborating writer Eric Jerome Dickey explained that it was a move to explicitly target the female and African American audience.[28] Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada was highly supportive of this marriage, stating it was the Marvel Comics equivalent of the marriage of "Lady Diana and Prince Charles," and he expected both characters to emerge strengthened.[29]
  • Kansas cartoonist Alonzo Washington is the creator of Omega Man, a self-published title about a socially conscious African-American comic book superhero who concentrates on positive, ethical values. Part of the focus includes addressing school shootings and youth violence that is affecting America. The focus was executed as a free web comic published on the official Omega Man website.[30] As a public service, Washington's comics came with trading cards each with an image of a missing child.[31] Washington would see stories of missing black children in the local press but didn't see them nationally. "Instead of just complain about it, I wanted to do something to change that and also raise the issue." said Washington.[32]
  • Axel Alonso has championed controversial projects involving minorities. A 2003 miniseries that re-imagined the 1950s western hero Rawhide Kid as a leather-clad gay cowboy. The 2004 series, Truth: Red, White and Black recounted the untold story of the second Captain America, an African American who endured brutal tests that echoed the real-life Tuskegee syphilis experiments that were conducted starting in the 1930s on a group of American men who were black and poor.[12]
  • In November 2005, Nelson Mandela announced that the comic book A Son of the Eastern Cape would provide an illustrated history of Mandela's formative years, starting with his birth. The opening panels show Mandela as a swaddled baby in his parents' arms in their mud hut in the village of Mwezo, near Qunu in the Eastern Cape. The book is scheduled to consist of 26 volumes, written and illustrated by Nic Buchanan, and to be translated into South Africa's 10 other official languages. A teacher's guide was also to be created.[33]
  • In 2005, Marvel Comics mounted a high-profile relaunch of a title starring their marquee black hero, the Black Panther. The series debuted in February – Black History Month – and landed at No. 27 spot on the monthly bestselling comics list.[12] Two years afterward, sales have dropped 50 per cent and writer Reginald Hudlin has been the brunt of criticism. One early scene that depicted Black Panther beating Captain America in a fight provoked online critics to accuse him of "shameless race-card playing" and "promoting an exaggerated super Negro."[12]
  • In 2006, DC Comics unveiled a new generation of heroes that were minorities. As part of a larger shake-up of the DC Universe, tying into stories such as 52, One Year Later and Countdown, DC introduced an African American version of Firestorm, along with a Hispanic version of Blue Beetle, and a new Batwoman, resurrected as a gay socialite.[12]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Comic Book Resources - Comic Book News, Reviews and Commentary - Updated Daily!
  2. ^ The Museum of Black Superheroes - Lion Man
  3. ^ Index to Comic Art Collection: "Nigel" to "Night Out"
  4. ^ a b Lundin, Leigh (2011-10-16). "The Mystery of Superheroes". Orlando: SleuthSayers.org. 
  5. ^ Incredible Science Fiction #33 at the Grand Comics Database
  6. ^ Thompson, Don & Maggie, "Crack in the Code", Newfangles #44, February 1971
  7. ^ a b Diehl, Digby. Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives (St. Martin's Press, New York, NY 1996) p 95
  8. ^ Von Bernewitz, Fred and Grant Geissman. Tales of Terror: The EC Companion (Gemstone Publishing and Fantagraphics Books, Timonium, Maryland and Seattle, Washington, 2000), p. 88
  9. ^ a b c d e f PopMatters.com column, April 27, 2005
  10. ^ Our Army At War #113 at the Grand Comics Database
  11. ^ Oddball Comics - Lobo
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h TheStar.com | sciencetech | Hero deficit: Comic books in decline
  13. ^ Hogan, Eric. "Afros, Icons, and Spandex: A Brief History of the African American Superhero", ComicBookResources.com. 2004
  14. ^ a b Dotinga, Randy. Coloring the Comic Books, Wired News. 2003
  15. ^ Time.com (Sept. 19, 2003): Will Eisner interview
  16. ^ Mercer, Marilyn, "The Only Real Middle-Class Crimefighter", New York (Sunday supplement, New York Herald Tribune), Jan. 9, 1966; reprinted Alter Ego #48 (see under References below)
  17. ^ Griffin, Rupert. Fanzing 32, March 2001: Black Power or Blaxploitation? Accessed June 29, 2006
  18. ^ Singer, Marc. "Black Skins" and White Masks: Comic books and the secret of race (African American Review 2002)
  19. ^ Uncanny X-Men #201
  20. ^ The Avengers #273-277
  21. ^ Johnson, Lynne D., Bearing the Black Female Body as Witness in Sci-Fi, PopMatters.com. 2003
  22. ^ X-Treme X-Men #1-46, July 2001-June 2004
  23. ^ House of M, 2005
  24. ^ Ororo: Before the Storm #1-4, Aug-Nov 2005
  25. ^ Brown, Jeffrey A. (2001). Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics and their Fans. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-281-0. 
  26. ^ a b Dwayne McDuffie official site
  27. ^ Black Panther #6-12
  28. ^ newsarama.com. "Black Panther/Storm wedding conference". Archived from the original on 2006-11-23. Retrieved 2006-12-01. 
  29. ^ Quesada, Joe. "Joe's Friday 31, a weekly Q&A with Joe Quesada". Archived from the original on 2006-11-23. Retrieved 2006-12-01. 
  30. ^ Omega Man
  31. ^ The Comics Journal
  32. ^ CNN transcript
  33. ^ Mandela: comic book hero - SouthAfrica.info

External links[edit]