Comic book showcase: The creators of Thanos.

So I saw Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.

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The only thing I will say about it is that it’s one heck of a turning point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and an epic way to cap off this giant experiment that Marvel and Disney have been running for the past ten years.

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Other than that, I’m not saying anything else about the movie.  The internet is filled with enough spoilers as it is.

No, today I want to do something different and talk about the behind the scenes history of big bad guy of the film, the villain who has been teased for the past five years: Thanos.

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The character is pretty simple.  He’s in love with the Marvel Universe’s personification of death and he attempts to prove his love by killing off half of the universe using the Infinity Gauntlet.

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He’s one of Marvel’s most powerful bad guys and a big part of the strange and weird cosmic stories that Marvel produced in the 70’s and 80’s.

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Sadly, Marvel’s cosmic stories were never a big seller for the company when you compare them to their mega hits like Spider Man and the X-Men.  Stories about characters like Ronan the Accuser and Adam Strange weren’t very popular, even though they’ve been getting more attention nowadays with the smash success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

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This is really sad since these are some of the weirdest, most bizarre, and high concept storytelling the company has ever produced, and most of this insanity was created by the other legend working at Marvel, and a long time favorite of this blog series: Jack Kirby.

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You know him, you love him, he helped create nearly every single superhero on the big screen right now, and he loved him some crazy far out aliens and space stuff.

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You can see a lot of his

design aesthetic on display in Thor: Ragnarok.

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While Marvel had Kirby to thank for some of the most fascinating and bizarre aspects of their superhero universe, he didn’t create Thanos.

Thanos was created by writer Mike Friedrich,

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and writer/artist Jim Starlin.

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Both of these artists have had long and storied careers at both Marvel and DC and came into their own in the 70’s and 80’s, reinventing what comics could do and giving us some of the greatest characters and stories today.

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Starlin in particular is the prince of the Marvel cosmic universe, and his resume is only dwarfed by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby themselves.

He helped create Thanos,

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Drax the Destroyer,

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Gamora,

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and he reinvented other heroes which will probably be making appearances in future Marvel movies like Adam Warlock,

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and Captain Marvel (who has a long and interesting story that I’m not going to talk about here, but long story short he was created in the 70’s and was reinvented as a lady in the present day).

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Yes people like Kirby, Friedrich, and Starlin were some of the most prominent and successful names in comics in the 70’s and 80’s, and were responsible for many of our childhood favorites.

And they all hated Marvel with a burning passion.

Long story short, the mega publisher decided to continue the long and sordid history of comic book publishers screwing authors and artists over.  Kirby followed in the footsteps of hundreds of his Golden Age co workers and was famously screwed out of most of the credit and royalties of his work, watching as his co creator Stan Lee would go on to become the biggest name in comics.

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Starlin in particular hates Marvel with the burning passion of a neutron star.

 

So they decided to quit Marvel and move on to greener pastures.  Kirby would move to DC Comics and create the characters of New Genesis and Apokalips, the latter being home to one of DC’s most powerful villains: Darkseid.

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Starlin and Friedrich decided to create their own comic, an anthology series known as Star Reach.

Star Reach is an interesting bit of comic book history.  It may seem like the comic book scene is dominated by Marvel and DC, and for the most part that’s true, but there has been a long running independent comic book scene that really took off in the 1970’s with the work of underground super stars like Harvey Pekar,

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Art Spiegelman,

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and Robert Crumb.

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The independent “comix” scene has its own separate and unique history and you could write books about it,  but for the sake of time and simplicity all you need to know is that it was characterized by its own unique art styles, adult themes, and subject matter that was absolutely NOT for children.

Star Reach was a comic anthology that collected short science fiction and fantasy stories and shared and helped bridge the gap between mainstream comics and the independent comix of the time.

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The first issue was published in 1974 and fans described the book as a “ground level publication”, sharing the distinction and aesthetic with a similar European publication we know today as Heavy Metal.

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Perhaps it was the lurid material, or the crossover appeal bridging the gap between mainstream comic books and the underground comix scene, or maybe it was the famous names attached to the book.  Either way, Star Reach was a hit and had a pretty solid five year run.

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Also, it helped set off a boom of independent comic books published in the late 70’s and early 80’s which helped shape the pop culture landscape we know and love today.

You know what?  I think this might be the perfect segue into a new age for this blog.  Sure, the 40’s were a fantastic time for comic books and produced some of comics’ most endearing characters and crazy stories, but the late 70’s and 80’s had some pretty insane characters and were a pretty fascinating time for the comic industry as well.

All good things must evolve, and I think now might be the time to change it up a bit.

This’ll be fun.

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Golden Age Showcase: Waku Prince of the Bantu

Did I go and see the Black Panther movie this weekend?  Of course I went to go see the Black Panther movie this weekend!

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It’s a great movie, if you haven’t seen it yet than you need to stop what you’re doing and go watch this movie right now, you can read this article while you’re watching the dozens of previews attached to the movie.

But I’m not here to talk about how this movie is important, other people are doing a better job of that than I can.  While he was the first black character in mainstream comics, he wasn’t the first black character to star in his own series.

That was Waku, Prince of the Bantu.

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Origin and Career

Waku made his first appearance in Atlas Comics’ Jungle Tales #1 in September of 1954.

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Yes, the title says “Jungle Action” we’ll get to that.

The character was created by artist Ogden Whitney,

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who worked as a fairly successful artist for several comic book companies and is most famous for co creating a hero named Herbie Popnecker.

It’s pretty clear that the comic is following in the footsteps of the old Tarzan stories, which makes sense because this book came out during a time when comics were moving away from super heroes and into alternate genres such as romance and westerns.

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It was also released at a time when race relations in America weren’t at their best.

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What’s interesting about comics is that black people have actually been part of the comic book landscape since the beginning.  It’s just that the way they’ve been portrayed hasn’t always been…

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well let’s be polite and say “sensitive”.

Waku was the first black character to star in a series of stories as the main lead.  Not only that, but the stories featured a predominately black cast.

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Certainly sounds familiar.

The character was the head of a tribe living in the depths of South Africa, and it is worth mentioning that there is some respect paid to actual history here.  The Bantu Migration was an actual historical event and is widely considered to have played an important role in developing African politics and identity.

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You can read more about it here.

The character’s first adventure has him inheriting the leadership of the tribe from his dying father, who tells him to forswear violence and govern with kindness and wisdom.  This proves problematic when he refuses to participate in ritual combat in order to take his place as king and loses his throne to a greedy and ambitious rival, who tries to sell his people’s services to “white hunters” at great personal profit.  Waku winds up killing this usurper and is about to kill himself in penance for what he’s done when his father appears as an apparition and frees him from his vow.

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The character would go on to appear in seven more issues and in each issue he would fight off some challenger to his throne or threat to his people.  This ranged from wrestling lions,

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to evil shamans capable of raising armies of the dead.

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In all of his appearanc

So what happened?

Jungle Tales lasted seven issues and was later changed to Jan of the Jungle.

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I guess it’s true what they say, sex sells.

Normally changing a title like that hints at some serious problems for the publisher but this time it wasn’t the case.  Atlas Comics re branded in the 60’s as the more familiar Marvel Comics.

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I’m sure they need no introduction.

Marvel rode the coattails of a little known writer who had been working for them since the 30’s and an artist with an incredible work ethic and a penchant for smoking cigars: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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For the handful of people that don’t know their names, these two men basically invented the entire Marvel Universe that we know and love today.

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And in 1966 they  introduced the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52.

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After a couple of guest spots with the Fantastic Four and Captain America, Black Panther was given his own solo series.  The title of the book?  Jungle Action.

Now, I’m not saying that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby used Waku as a direct inspiration for Black Panther, there isn’t any evidence of that and any allegations made would be unfounded and unprofessional.  But it’s worth considering that both characters were kings of African nations and tribes, both of them were capable warriors, and both Lee and Kirby were working for Atlas at the time Waku was being published.

I’d say that is one hell of a coincidence.

Is Waku a better character than Black Panther?  Not really.  Should Waku have been the face of black characters in comics? No.  But Waku was the first black character who was the star of his own stories and he was treated with respect and dignity.

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He was a good man, a capable ruler, and a good starting point for Marvel’s long and storied collection of black comic book characters.

Comic book showcase: Truth: Red, White, and Black

Today is Martin Luther King day.

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Now, we’ve been writing this blog series for a long time and when an important holiday happens to fall on a Monday, we like to find some sort of superhero and/or comic book that fits within the theme for that holiday.

When it’s the 4th of July we like to do a patriotic superhero,

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when it’s Halloween we like to do a horror themed blog post,

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and for holidays such as Martin Luther King day, we like to talk about black superheroes.

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We’ve briefly talked about the history of black men and women in comic books before, but today I thought we could break tradition and talk about an actual comic book series that was published in 2003 and uses one of the worst events in American history to tell a damn good story.

Today we’re going to talk about Truth: Red, White, and Black.

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Origin and history

WARNING: We are about to discuss a historical event that involves some very questionable ethics, upsetting imagery, and a rather frank discussion of race relations in America.  It may cause some people discomfort but talking about this is necessary in order to make sure something like this never happens again.

Between 1932 and 1972 the United States Public Health Service conducted a long running experiment known as “The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment” where they purposely infected 600 black men in rural Alabama with syphilis in order to study the long term effects of the disease.

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As if that wasn’t bad enough, the people running the study never told these men what was going on.  Instead, all the test subjects were informed that they were simply receiving free healthcare and medical treatment.

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This vile experiment continued until the program was shut down in 1972 after the project was discovered and public outcry grew too strong.

Although the study was shut down and $10 million dollars were paid out in reparations after a class action lawsuit in 1974 it remains one of the darkest chapters in American history.

The Comic

In January of 2003 comic book writer Robert Morales pitched an idea to Marvel’s editor in chief Joe Quesada that told an alternate story behind the serum that turned Steve Rogers into Captain America.

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As many of us know, the true recipe for the super soldier serum was destroyed after creating Captain America, but that didn’t stop the Allies and the Nazis from trying to replicate it and making more super soldiers.

What followed was as series of experiments to see if the formula could be replicated.  In the case of the Allies, they forced a regiment of African Amerian soldiers to act as human guinea pigs for the serum, because people are awful and mid 20th century America didn’t really care about black people.

The results were catastrophic and disturbing.

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...and the horror that ensued, graphic illustration of a moral low-point in human and US history.

However, five test subjects did survive to be sent off to the war and one manged to come home.  His name was Isaiah Bradley and he was the first black Captain America.

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Despite having every right to be pissed off at the people giving him orders, Isaiah did his job and did it well.  He managed to swipe one of Captain America’s spare shields and uniforms and kick a lot of Nazi butt.

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He was even captured by the Nazis but was rescued before he could be dissected and studied.

His country decided to reward his bravery and accomplishments by court marshaling him and throwing him into prison in 1943 because sometimes life just takes a steaming dump on you and there is nothing you can do about it.

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He was later pardoned by President Eisenhower in 1960.

At the end of the series, Steve Rogers managed to find out about the program that created Isaiah and tried to make things better.  Unfortunately, the serum had a debilitating effect on Isaiah’s mind and he suffered Alzheimer’s like symptoms until he had the mental capacity of a child.

The last panel of the series is one of the most heartbreaking and sweetest panels I’ve ever seen.

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Impact of the comic

Within the Marvel Universe, Isaiah Bradley became a symbol and a living legend within the black community.

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Also, he served as a grandfather like figure and inspiration to many of Marvel’s black superheroes.  Even Black Panther gives him a massive amount of respect.

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While he was immensely popular with other black heroes he remained unknown by many white superheroes

Sadly, even after he did his time and served his country the United States government tried to use him and duplicate the experiment.  They wound up creating a clone that was born from a surrogate mother.  The child managed to escape and named himself Josiah X.

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Isaiah also had a grandson named Elijah Bradly who would go on to become the superhero Patriot.

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I’ve talked about race relations in comic books before.  When the industry really started taking off it was not kind to men and women of color.  While I do think things have gotten  better there is still a wide discrepancy between black creators and superheroes and white creators and superheroes in terms of audience and exposure.  But, thankfully things are getting even better and I believe only good things are in store for the future.

Truth: Red, White, and Black is one of the most brutal and uncompromising comic books out there and it is well worth your time and money.  It takes one of the ugliest events in American history and manages to turn it into something that is not only educational but one of the sweetest and most important comic book stories in the past twenty years.

Thank you for reading this article!  Besides weekly blog posts about comic books and superheroes Cambrian Comics also publishes a bi weekly web comic called “The Secret Lives of Villains” and the first volume is up for sale on Amazon here!  If you enjoyed this article please feel free to support us by picking up a copy.  Thanks again!

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.