Martin Luther King, American civil rights, and comic books.

 

So it’s Martin Luther King Day here in America.

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For any international readers that might not know about this day, the 18th of January is a day where Americans celebrate the birthday of a man who was the face and soul of the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s during a time when America was still grappling with a lot of issues concerning the grossly unequal treatment of black people in America.  He was a man who had his faults just like the rest of us but accomplished so much in such a short period of time that he is remembered as a great man by many.  I’m putting his famous “I have a Dream” speech below and I highly encourage everyone reading this to take five minutes out of their day to watch it.

 

But this is a blog about comic books so let’s see if there’s anything in the comic book industry’s history that can tie into the birthday of this man who had a dream that inspired millions.

The truth is that black people have actually been part of the modern day comic book landscape since its beginning in the early 1940’s and were even around before the publication of the first Superman comic in 1938.  The problem is that a lot of the portrayals of black people during this time period are horrifically outdated and fall into some very uncomfortable racist stereotypes.  So here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to list some of the most important and influential moments in comic book history that have either involved a black character and/or a black creator in chronological order.  I can’t promise we’ll cover all of them and I can promise that some of these will probably be pretty uncomfortable but here it is.

1934: Lee Falk creates the first black character in comics

Lee Falk was a comic strip producer in the early 1930’s.  His two most famous creations were “The Phantom”

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and another strip entitled “Mandrake the Magician” which ran from 1934 all the way to 2013.

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Mandrake had a black sidekick named Lothar, who was an African prince of a confederation of jungle tribes (told you this might get uncomfortable)

The man was incredibly strong, capable of lifting an elephant with one hand, and the less I say about his outfit the better.  He is widely regarded to be the first African character in comics and despite the stereotypes he was a loyal friend to the main character and managed to hold his own in a fight.  His appearance would be changed in later issues of the comic strip to slightly less offensive garb.

1947: The first collection of black superheroes

In 1947 an African American journalist named Orrin Cromwell Evans

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created the first comic book publishing company founded, led, and staffed by African Americans called All Negro Comics.  They only managed to publish one anthology series featuring a collection of black heroes in 1947.  Here’s the cover.

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The comic featured heroes like the private detective “Ace Harlem” and the African hero”Lion Man” and unlike most comics at the time it was sold for 15 cents rather than 10 cents.

Sadly the company wasn’t very successful.  The comic was only able to circulate within the segregated communities of pre Civil Rights black America so distribution and circulation numbers are unknown and it’s very difficult to find copies that are in good condition.  Still, it was the first comic to be written, drawn, and published exclusively by African Americans so it deserves some recognition.

1956: EC Comics publishes “Judgement Day”

In 1954 the Comics Code Authority was founded.  It was an attempt to censor perceived violent, overly sexual, and otherwise immoral behavior that was allegedly causing the youth of America to descend into delinquency.  One of the hardest hit comic book publishers was Entertaining Comics, otherwise known as EC Comics, which published stuff like this.

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One of their most controversial (for the time) stories was a short story called “Judgement Day”.

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Basically the story went like this.  A mysterious representative of the Galactic Federation lands on a planet inhabited by robots in order to deem whether or not they are worthy to join the Federation.  While inspecting the planet the astronaut notices that the robot’s society is sharply divided between the orange robots and the blue robots.  While the two groups are the same the orange robots have more rights and privileges than the blue ones (subtle) and as a result the astronaut decides they are not ready to join the Federation and proceeds to leave the planet.  This was the last panel of the comic showing the astronaut with his helmet off.

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Needless to say the Comics Code Authority was not happy and EC comics would eventually be driven out of business, although they do live on through MAD magazine.

1954: The first Black solo star in comics

Marvel’s predecessor Atlas Comics published Waku: Prince of the Bantu in their 1954 story collection Jungle Tales.

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He was the first black character to be given a solo series in any comic book, feel free to judge the publisher’s use of ethnic stereotypes to your heart’s content. 

1961-1967: The introduction of black supporting characters in Marvel and DC Comics:

The early 60’s saw the introduction of non stereotyped African American characters into mainstream comic books.  Characters like Jackie Johnson in the 1961 DC Comics series Our Soldiers at War

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and Gabe Jones in Marvel’s 1963’s Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos

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introduced the comic book world to the idea that black people could actually be written and treated like human beings in comic books.  Special mention deserves to be paid to another black supporting character who was introduced in 1967, the long lasting and kind hearted editor of the Daily Bugle Robbie Robertson.

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Who has helped make Spiderman’s life considerably more tolerable and who has been a staple presence to the Spiderman mythos ever since.

1965: The first African American solo comic book series:

In 1965 Dell Comics published the first comic book series starring a black character called Lobo.

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He only lasted two issues.

1966-1980: An explosion of black superheroes

Over the course of the 1970’s black superheroes and issues facing black men and women in a post Civil Rights America would become a major part of American comics, so much so that to talk about them all would take all day.  Since you could write a book about the subject I’m just going to show some of the more famous black characters to come out of the era along with the date where they were first published

Black Panther (1966)

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The Falcon (1969)

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Black Racer (1971)

Luke Cage (1972)

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Green Lantern John Stewart (1972)

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Black Goliath (1975)

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Storm (1975)

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Misty Knight (1975)

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Black Lightning (1977)

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Cyborg (1980)

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I highly encourage everyone reading this to check these heroes out.  Granted they weren’t always perfect and many of them still played to certain stereotypes that a lot of black Americans had to deal with but I think it’s safe to say that the 1970’s was a good decade for black and African American superheroes.

1989-2011: Dwayne McDuffie 

No article talking about African Americans in comic books would be complete without talking about the legendary writer and creator Dwayne McDuffie.

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See, everything I have talked about in this article has had one small problem.  An overwhelming majority of the black characters that were created and written for were drawn and written by white men and despite everything that happened in the 1970’s, the comic book landscape was overwhelmingly dominated by white characters.  McDuffie was probably the most famous and public face in the industry that wanted to change that.  Now there are a fair number of black comic book creators out there but here’s a small sample of some of the stuff McDuffie worked on.

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You will notice that if you were a fan of superhero cartoons in the early to mid 2000’s you were probably a fan of his work.

But that’s not what made McDuffie important to the comic book landscape.  Before he became in incredibly successful screen writer he was actively pushing for more diversity in comics.  In 1993 he founded a company called Milestone Media with several other black comic book creators with the express purpose of bringing a wider range of diversity to the comic book landscape.  It reached a deal with DC comics early on where DC would publish the titles while Milestone would write and create them.

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And things were going well until 1996 when the comic book market crashed and Milestone was forced to cancel most of its titles.  However, all was not lost and Milestone found success in launching a television show based around one of its most popular characters Static Shock.

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Sadly Dwayne McDuffie died due to complications from heart surgery in 2011.  His work continues to survive with Static Shock becoming a part of the mainstream DC universe and the countless numbers of people who were inspired by his work.

So there you have it, an incredibly brief, overly simplified, and not too detailed overview of black characters in comic books.  While many black and African American creators and heroes were either cast aside or poorly written due to racial prejudices at the time the comic book industry has (for better or for worse) forged ahead with their attempts to bring a more diverse collection of characters to their pages and while the results have ranged from outright offensive to well written and meaningful I am personally glad we live in a time where I can enjoy characters like Static Shock and Luke Cage.

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