Black History of Comics

Posted on February 28, 2010 by

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As Black History Month comes to an end it felt only right to take a second and reflect back on the rise of black comic book stars. While it is nothing new for black people to be in comics it was something quite rare to see outside of stereotypes until  the mid-60’s. Though even in the 60’s it was not easy to sell a main character that was not white. The era of free love was not meant to be love for certain comic book characters.

Up until the 60’s characters of color were reduced to nothing more than jungle guides and it wasn’t until 1965 there was a break through with the comic Lobo. No not the pale skinned punk rocking through the galaxies on an intergalactic motorcycle. Lobo was a comic set in the old west with a black star that was a well off gunslinger. I like the addition of his calling card being a gold coin with a wolf embalm and an “L”. Due to the times just coming around to having an open mind the comic sold very little with most boxes being sent back and not even getting opened.

The next black character to get any real recognition as a hero was Falcon. With the Falcon not much had changed in the imagery of African-Americans within comics. He was given the stereotypical past of a black person growing up in Harlem. His father was a reverend, both his parents killed in fights, and he even went on to be a drug dealer and pimp. His powers were not really anything more than a bird version of Aquaman. He gained the ability to talk to birds and somewhat control them and could breathe on land. It wasn’t until years later he was given a flying harness by the Black Panther that allowed him to be able to soar through the skies.

However, even with a stereotypical past this character did step up to the world and show he could overcome this. He had his memory taken away by the Red Skull and given the power to talk to birds, but even after getting back his memory and knowing his pain he stood his ground as a hero. He was a constant friend and co-hero with Captain America and even took on the mantle more than once when Steve Rogers was either MIA or had stepped down. He is a character still brought out to this day in the Avengers and still called on to help people. Even with all of this he was not granted his own series.

While the Falcon was given a mini-series years later it would not be until Luke Cage came on the scene that a black super hero would truly get his own series. The first black character to officially have their own title came with Luke Cage in 1972. Another man from Harlem as apparently back in the day comic writers didn’t know of anywhere else black people could come from. Luke Cage was not a person of the past’s vision of black people. He was instead a product of the blaxploitation era. If you are not sure what that is it was an era of the 70’s where cheap movies put black men and women in leading roles of bad asses with bad pasts. Think something like the original Shaft movies or the arguably king of main stream blaxploitation movie The Last Dragon.

Cage was a walking version of black people in media of the time. Even taking on the name Power Man and dropping the line “Blame it on Black Power.” more than once. He was a criminal in his youth who overcame a bad past only to get sent to jail for a crime he was innocent of. He undergoes an experiment based on the Super Soldier program (what hasn’t been a side effect of this project?) and gains skin hard as titanium and increased strength to match. At one point he was even teamed up with one of the first main stream Asian characters in Iron Fist; though Iron Fist was not from Asia but another dimension. That is an article for another day.

Cage was a breakthrough that led to putting black characters out in the public. It was this character that Nicholas Cage took his pseudo last name from. He was able to take down the barriers and led the way for many characters we have today. In the Marvel Universe of many teams he has gotten around to being a part of almost all of them. In the beginning he did nothing without the right amount of money being paid leading to his title being called “Hero for Hire”. In time his moral side outweighed this and he started working for anyone who needed the help and even turned down money many times.

Not all characters were like this though and not all shared the same past. Back in the day before the era of Luke Cage in a supporting role that goes to this day we have Joseph “Robbie” Robertson. This character was the first black character in a big main stream comic who was not a sidekick or a running gag for comic relief. He was the second hand man to J. Jonah Jameson. He was the voice of reason and protector of Spider-Man at the Daily Bugle. He was looked up to by everyone including Jameson himself. Not too shabby coming out of the generation his character was created in.

It is true that the beginning of black people in comics was dipped deep in forms of racism of the day, but they all still stood up against it and showed they were All-Americans. They not only changed the way people viewed black people in comics but were the fore fathers that led to the characters we know and love today. It was with them we got characters like Storm and Bishop from the X-Men, Blade and even a green lantern in John Stewart. It was from these humble flawed beginnings we got these heroes who have even starred in their own multi-million dollar blockbuster movies.

In parting never forget that everyone had to start somewhere and earn their respect. Black characters in comics are no different. Respect your elders and forefathers for all they have done and never forget that the characters of today have someone to thank for their heritage as well. Their predecessors led to the creation of some of the strongest and most loved characters.

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Posted in: Comic Book Stuff