Portrayal of black people in comics
Black people have been portrayed in comics 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. Critics have noted that black men and women have often been portrayed as jungle or ghetto stereotypes, and have often been portrayed as sidekicks as opposed to primary characters.
- 1 African characters
- 2 All-Negro Comics and other portrayals
- 3 1956: Comics Code Authority tries to censor "Judgment Day"
- 4 First African-American solo series
- 5 DC and Marvel's black starring characters
- 6 Ethnic stereotypes
- 7 Blaxploitation era
- 8 Milestone Media
- 9 21st century
- 10 See also
- 11 References
- 12 External links
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, he provided the muscle to complement Mandrake's brain on their adventures. Lothar was modernized in 1965 to dress in suits and speak standard English.
All-Negro Comics (June 1947) was a 15-cent omnibus written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists. The feature starred characters that included the Lion Man, 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. Lion Man was meant to inspire black people's pride in their African heritage.
The series Powerman, designed as an educational tool, was published in 1975 by Bardon Press Features of London, England, for distribution in Nigeria. The series was written by Don Avenall (aka Donne Avenell) and Norman Worker, and illustrated by Dave Gibbons and Brian Bolland. In 1988, Acme Press republished the series in the UK for the first time, to capitalize on the popularity of the artists, both of whose careers had since taken off. Acme changed Powerman's name to Powerbolt, to avoid confusion with the character Luke Cage, published by Marvel Comics. Powerman, who was super strong and could fly, appeared in stories rendered in a simple style reminiscent of Fawcett Comics' Golden Age Captain Marvel. His only apparent weakness was snakebite.
In the larger framework of UNESCO’s General History of Africa project (2012–2015), a series of open source comic books was used to support the creation of strong and positive African women role models; it was called The Women in African History e-learning platform. For the production of the comics stories available on the platform, UNESCO commissioned illustrators from France, Madagascar, Nigeria, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the United States. This project aimed to highlight illustration and graphic arts in Africa and constituted a springboard for the young artists involved:
- Y. Sanders (U.S.A.) — illustrator of the comic strip on Sojourner Truth
- Sleeping Pop (Madagascar) — illustrator of the comic strip on Gisèle Rabesahala
- Alaba Onajin (Nigeria) — illustrator of the comic strips on Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti and Taytu Betul
- Eric Muthoga (Kenya) — illustrator of the comic strip on Wangari Maathai
- Pat Masioni (Congo) — illustrator of the comic strips on Nzinga Mbandi and the Women Soldiers of Dahomey
- Yann Degruel (France) — Illustrator of the comic strips on Yennega and the Mulatto Solitude
All-Negro Comics and other portrayals
All-Negro Comics #1, published out of Philadelphia in mid-1947, was the first known comics magazine written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists. In describing lead feature "Ace Harlem," Time magazine wrote, "The villains were a couple of zoot-suited, jive-talking Negro muggers, whose presence in anyone else's comics might have brought up complaints of racial 'distortion.' Since it was all in the family, [publisher Orrin C. Evans] thought no Negro readers would mind." The protagonist of "Ace Harlem," however, was a highly capable African-American police detective.
Around the same time, Parents Magazine Press published two issues of Negro Heroes, which reprinted stories about such historical figures as Joe Louis, George Washington Carver, Paul Robeson, and Charles L. Thomas. In 1950 Fawcett Comics produced three issues of Negro Romance, which was notable for its eschewing of African-American stereotypes, telling stories interchangeable with those told about white characters. Fawcett also published short-lived ongoing titles featuring Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.
1956: Comics Code Authority tries to censor "Judgment Day"
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). 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 but was itself also "objected to" because of "the central character being black."
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. 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.
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.
First African-American solo series
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 created and written by D. J. Arneson.
DC and Marvel's black starring characters
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.
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; 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 Prowler) in 1969.
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". 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 Mal Duncan from Teen Titans #26 in 1970. He would later go on to be a member of the teen titans. The first African American female DC character is Karen Beecher aka Bumblebee from Teen Titans #46 as Karen and Teen titans #48 as Bumblebee
In 1970, Larry Fuller's black superhero Ebon appeared in one issue of his own comic, published by the underground comix publisher San Francisco Comic Book Company. Ebon was a bad fit with the largely white, adult audiences of underground comix, and didn’t meet with much success.
There would be no black hero starring in his or her own mainstream 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. By resisting a suggestion to name the character Lincoln Washington (a stereotypical slave name), artist Neal Adams struck a blow for diversity at DC.
DC Comics' first black superhero to star in his own series was Black Lightning. He debuted in his self-titled series in April 1977. He was Jefferson Pierce, an Olympic athlete turned inner-city school teacher. Created by Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden, 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).
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).
The earliest black character to appear in his own (American) comic strip was Pore Li'l' Mose (1900) by Richard F. Outcault.  Ken Kling's comic strip Joe and Asbestos (1924-1925) featured a black sidekick named Asbestos.
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. Since the introduction of Lothar, Black characters have 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".
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". 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".
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 African American 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. In erotic comics, blacks are at times portrayed as hypersexual, and accompanying physical features such as a macrophallic penis in black men. Robert Crumb's underground comix character Angelfood McSpade, introduced in 1967, embodied all of these qualities. Crumb intended the character to be critical of the racist stereotype itself and assumed that the young liberal hippie/intellectual audience who read his work were not racists, and that they would understand his intentions for the character. Nonetheless, in the face of accusations of racism and sexism, Crumb retired the character after 1971.
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. 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.
Inspired by Blaxploitation esthetics, Real Deal Magazine was an independent comic book title published in the 1990s. One of the rare contemporary African-American-created and published comics, Real Deal depicted Los Angeles underworld life with deadpan visceral humor and gross-out violence (termed "Urban Terror" by the creators).
Very few Black female characters were present in superhero comics before the Civil Rights Movement. Afterwards, 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 introduced as being worshiped as an African goddess, the Professor Xavier quickly reveals her to be a mutant who possesses the power to control the weather. Later we would find out that her parents had been killed when she was very young, and she grew up as a thief on the streets of Cairo. Storm would eventually succeed Cyclops as the Team Leader of the X-Men. 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. In 1991, Captain Confederacy became one of the first female black superheroes to have her own series, published by Marvel's Epic Comics imprint.
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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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 asserts he also participated in the early planning stages of Milestone Media, and was originally slated to become the editor-in-chief of the new company.
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 "Worlds Collide" crossover.
In the summer of 1994, DC Comics and Milestone Media published an intercompany crossover called "Worlds Collide". 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 comic books.
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:
- that they would retain total creative control;
- that they would retain all copyrights for characters under the Milestone banner; and
- 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.
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. 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.
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.
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. A slave woman finds the child and the ship alters the aliens appearance to look exactly like the first life form the alien encountered. 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 break 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". 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.
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.
- 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". 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. The gist of the most recent Black Panther series is that focuses on the African nation that T'Challa leads.
- Black Panther. Collaborating writer Eric Jerome Dickey explained that it was a move to explicitly target the female and African American audience. 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.
- 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. As a public service, Washington's comics came with trading cards each with an image of a missing child. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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."
- 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.
- African characters in comics
- List of black superheroes
- Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story
- East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention
- List of black animated characters
- List of African-American firsts
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- The Milestone Rave - lists details of 264 Milestone comics issues
- The Official website of Dwayne McDuffie, co-owner of Milestone Media.
- Milestone: Finally, I was there - an article detailing Christopher Priest's role in the creation of Dakotaverse and his involvement with Milestone in general.
- Milestone retrospective at Museum of Black Superheroes
- Milestone Character profiles at Museum of Black Superheroes
- Omega Man comic on Anti-Gang Violence
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