I love comic books, and its long, strange history through its mainstream American publishing. Imperfect, by way of how Black superheroes have developed over the many decades, but in an awesome, positive direction. I am a reader of color, of mixed race complexation, yet often identified as Black because of my darker skin tones and facial features. Yet, I haven’t thought much of my representation throughout my many years of reading. I was more concerned with inclusiveness, being part of the grander designs of those comic book multiverses, and that is enough.
Yet, I ponder over some often said comments on the arguable statement of Marvel’s Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, being our first mainstream Black fictional superhero. This is certainly believed, since the recent popular and award-winning Marvel movie brought much attention to this previously mid-tier character of comics. It’s probably true, before I research anything.
When we often think Americanized super-heroes of a top-ten tier, we think the most prominent in this modern age – Spider-Man, Superman, Batman, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Captain America, Wolverine, Hulk. Most of these, have long standing roots dating back through decades of comic book history. All of these have primarily Caucasian appearances, set to their most known popular incarnations.
Since then, we have Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Cyborg, Storm (X-Men), Falcon, Luke Cage, Static Shock, Blade, Black Lightning, and more. All Black and proud, part of a building legacy. And it’s great that we get representation out there for comic readers, especially for those very young and discovering comics for the first time.
In my early years, I discovered my first Black super-hero in the comic pages of 1980s run of The New Teen Titans written by Marv Wolfman and George Perez. He was part of a very super-team where all seemed equal, together, a group of young friends with personal problems and gripes, yet also helping to save their city, planet, universe, and beyond. Part of that team, was Victor Stone, better known as Cyborg – a young African America man who became part machine, resulting from a tragic accident. With that, the powers and strength of an enhanced body, and he can a shoot powerful, sonic energy blast from his arm cannon. Cyborg was awesome, and still is. So, he is my first mainstream Black superhero. Storm of the X-Men follows a close second.
Though my readings and early obsessions with big comic book crossover melodramas, especially Crisis on Infinite Earths, Secret Wars, Infinity Gauntlet – I would learn of many more black superheroes. I would read many more comic titles from 25 cents bins, and become obsessed with sourcebooks like DC’s Who’s Who, and Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe. Many more of mine favorites include the Black Racer, Bronze Tiger, Vixen, Bishop, Green Lantern (Jon Stewart), and more
So for this Black history month, I looked back to this recent claim that Black Panther was the first black superhero. Black Panther appeared in Fantastic Four #52, released in 1966 as an African king from the fictional land of Wakanda. He would not be well-known for a while in the mainstream until the recent movie. And, he was far from any top favorite super-heroes as I enjoyed those closer to the X-Men and DC Teen Titans more. I liked the costume, and I like panthers, and that was it. I never realized how significant T’Challa really was, until later on as I enjoyed critically acclaimed runs by Christopher Priest, Don McGregor, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates. He also showed up in various cartoons, toy shelves, video and board games in the over the last two decades.
Yet, what legacy for Black superheroes, is known before the arrival of our king of Wakanda? Before 1966, to the Golden era of comics of the 1930s to 1950s?
So, I dug through the awesome archive of human history that is our Internet and its many searchable resources. I also picked through some comics history on my shelf including the highly recommended recent book, Invisible Men, The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books, by Ken Quattro. Here are my compiled findings.
The first Black superhero to hit the niche pop culture of early comic books appeared first in 1934 in the Mandrake the Magician. daily newspaper strips. Lothar is Mandrake’s best friend and crimefighting companion, also an African prince of the “Seven Nations” a fictional league of African jungle tribes. His super power was his mighty strength, stamina, and invulnerability to any weapons, and magic. his early appearances had him featured as a servant with poor English skills. His clothing choice was typical of such depictions of a mighty, yet very foreign African man at the time.
Well, Lothar seemed also a bit stereotypical of the African muscleman. manservant (possibly slave as well). Yet, that was far more acceptable and dignified than racist depictions of Blacks in comics of that time. Among the most dubious was “Whitewash” Jones, a young, very minstrelized patriot who joined Captain America’s Sentinels of Liberty in pages of Young Allies, published by Timely Comics in the 1940s (later Atlas Comics, then reborn as Marvel Comics). I don’t count him, or Ebony White (The Spirit, by Will Eisner), or Steamboat (Fawcett’s Captain Marvel series), or any awful racist depictions of the era. They don’t inspire, and held back the potential for better Black superheroes in a time where real life African Americans fought proudly yet segregated, throughout World War II.
I did a bit more digging and found the Red Mask featured in the pages of Best Comics, in 1939 which only lasted four issues, and very short printed. Unlike Lothar, the Red Mark stood alone, featured in his own stories. He wore a simple red mask, and fought bad guys. Weirdly, his skin color changed from cover to cover, and in the pages as well. But, for sure he was an
African (edit: correction, not African but likely a Pacific Islander) chief who masqueraded as a heroic masked fighter. Not much else is known.
But then, a real surprise came in 1947 with an obscurity, All Negro Comics – a single-issue, small-press American comic book published, written and drawn solely by African-American writers and artists.
Inside this special issue were multiple stories including “Ace Harlem” was an African-American police detective. The featured superhero was Lion Man, the first Black hero created by a Black man (Geo. J. Evans Jr.). He was “a college-educated African American sent by the United Nations on a mission to a uranium deposit on Africa’s Gold Coast, where he adopted the mischievous orphan Bubba.” Though his character costume was jungle-tribal style attire, it meant to more to inspire black American pride in their African heritage.
Yet, still a jungle-themed man, but with noble intentions at least.
Eventually came Jungle Tales #1-7, released circa 1954 featuring Waku of the Bantu, another African prince protagonist hero who battled sometimes battled supernatural foes. His serialization was part of an anthology of tales published by Atlas Comics (previously Timely Comics, and then soon rebranded as Marvel Comics). Waku was a more developed hero who favored non-violent solutions, yet skilled at martial combat, by writer Don Rico and artist Ogden Whitney. The comic art and storytelling was high quality…
And that pretty much all, ushering in a new Silver Age of comic books to come with the rise of Marvel Comics and the evolution of DC Comics. The Black Panther of Marvel Comics would arrive, though still carrying on the jungle royalty archetype. At least T’Challa wasn’t restricted to a loincloth, and hailed from a nation that was more technologically advanced, yet remained hidden and low-key to prevent the curiosity of outsiders.
The 1970s would play up a new type of African American hero, the urban tough city streets defender with the likes of Luke Cage, Black Lightning, Green Lantern (Jon Stewart), Black Goliath, Misty Knight; major players of the Blaxploitation era. Black Vulcan of the Super Friends TV cartoon, I think, was the first Black superhero to hit the mainstream beyond comic books.
Soon after, many more including the New Teen Titan’s Cyborg, where I jumped in. The 90s brought so many more Black superheroes of all types, including African princes to jump back in. Some would get an upgrade and felt more fitting to our modern era. Even Mandrake’s Lothar developed into more in his character reboot alongside Mandrake in the Defenders of Earth animated cartoon and comics. He was still a loyal bodyguard, but described not as an African prince. According to his action figure package lore, he is a “Ninja from the Caribbean.”
So yes, African American and Black superheroes in general share a strange yet developed tradition, which may not have had the best beginnings, but will remain and continue to represent, and be admired and inspire for centuries to come.