My problem . . . and I'll speak as a writer now . . . with writing a black character in either the Marvel or DC universe is that he is not a man. He is a symbol.
Dwayne McDuffie, Comics Journal
Circa 1975, when I was five or six, my father took me to a toy store. I went straight to the section where all the superhero action figures were on display, enclosed in window-boxed packaging. They were eight-inch toys made by the now defunct Mego Corporation. Prior to this moment, superheroes inhabited the television reruns of Filmation's The Superman/Aquaman Hour of Adventure (1967–1968) and the few comic books I had tucked in the corner of my room. Now I was poised to have a handful of superheroes of my very own and I would be able to dictate the terms, times, and types of superhero adventures I could enjoy. I mentally pleaded with my bladder to stop distracting me long enough to concentrate on prioritizing which superhero figure to choose. I wanted to grab them all right then and there. Since I could not, I examined them all and mentally separated various superhero figures into two groups: my must-haves and my want-to-haves. I made sure to point to the Falcon superhero first, and after he was firmly in my grasp I asked my pops if I could get a few more. His "yes" gave me the go-ahead to scrutinize several other superhero figures and pick the ones I thought looked best. Aquaman, Captain America, and Spider-Man made the cut. Over time I would later acquire Batman, Hulk, Iron Man, Thor, and the Human Torch, but it was the Falcon that captured my imagination most and cemented my attachment to virtually all things superhero. Why? He was a black man that could fly.
With the Falcon I was able to imagine myself as a superhero, rising above my socioeconomic environment, beating the neighborhood bullies, commanding respect from my male peers, and enjoying approval from all of the pretty girls that made me feel so nervous. I later became captivated by another "flying" black man, the legendary Dr. J (Julius Erving), a basketball player known for defying gravity and for dunking the basketball right in his opponents' faces. Although I dutifully tried to imitate the "moves" I had seen Dr. J perform and dedicated virtually all of my free time to watching, playing, and practicing basketball, I never forgot about the Falcon. The Falcon was my first and my favorite flying black superhero.
The image of a black man gliding through the air, compelling attention, awe, and respect, made a lasting impact on my imagination. The Falcon also operated on a broader social level. The image of the Falcon gliding across an urban skyline symbolized the unprecedented access and upward social mobility many African Americans were experiencing in education and professional positions in the wake of the hard-earned antidiscrimination laws of affirmative action. In this sense, black superheroes like the Falcon are not only fantastic representations of our dreams, desires, and idealized projections of our selves, they are also a symbolic extension of America's shifting political ethos and racial landscape.
Even though I am, in the popular parlance of the black barbershop, a "grown-ass man," I still enjoy seeing superheroes save the day in comics, films, live-action television shows, cartoons, and video games. My enjoyment of superheroes as a mature adult, however, does not take place without some degree of trepidation. When parents see me gleefully poking around a local comic book store alongside their children, or catch me dragging my wife into the latest superhero film, I often detect their scornful glances that betray feelings ranging from mild annoyance to awkward disdain for what they probably perceive as an adult still stuck in adolescence. Nonetheless, I am not deterred by their embarrassment for me because I know that the imaginative realms and representational schemes that black superheroes occupy in comics, cartoons, television, and film express powerful visuals, compelling narratives, and multiple meanings around a range of racial ideas and beliefs circulating in American culture.
Despite the symbolic significance of black superheroes in American popular culture, the topic remains, for the most part, unexamined. Admittedly, there are a few scholarly studies concerning black superheroes, but they are topical or truncated glimpses of the fascinating racial complexity black superheroes articulate. For example, Fredrik Stromberg's Black Images in the Comics: A Visual History (2003) includes only a handful of black superheroes alongside a wide-ranging pictorial documentation of black comic figures. Richard Reynolds's Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology (1992) contains just a few paragraphs about black superheroes and even boasts that black superheroes have very little to offer in the way of ideological meaning. In contrast, Bradford W. Wright's definitive text Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (2003) addresses the importance of superhero comic books to American culture and aptly touches on race. Yet Wright's discussion of black superheroes and their cultural significance is subsumed under broader social themes. Consequently, his analysis flattens distinguishing features between black superheroes and has very little to say about what black superheroes articulate concerning the cultural politics of race and blackness in America.
Even the most definitive text to date on the topic, Jeffrey A. Brown's Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans (2001), devotes scant attention and analysis to the cultural work, symbolism, and sociological significance of the mainstream black superheroes that populate DC and Marvel comics. Instead, Brown invests virtually all his analytic efforts in covering the significance of black comic-book company Milestone Comics, negotiating the fickle terrain of a predominantly white comic-book culture, and discussing how racialized notions of hypermasculinity are a signature feature of black superheroes. As a result, the broad scope and social significance of black superheroes across the Marvel and DC Comics universes and in their television and film incarnations is severely diminished. In addition, the full range of cultural work that black superheroes have performed across several decades is completely ignored. In short, the bulk of analysis concerning black superheroes has come to obvious conclusions, is embarrassingly reductive, and neglects to draw deeper connections across significant cultural dynamics, social trends, and historical events. Most often the topic of blackness in the superhero genre compels discussions over the difficulty white audiences might experience identifying with black superheroes or knee-jerk criticisms that frame the genre as racially biased.
Certainly, comic books featuring heroes like Tarzan, the beneficent white jungle-savior, presented black characters as stereotypically subservient, primitive, or savage. Moreover, such examples make easy fodder for critique and open up a Pandora's box of vexing sociopsychological questions about racial projection and reader identification with superhero characters that promote racially insensitive images and ideas. Yet by using these issues as a point of analytical departure, the dynamic and rich source of racial meaning presented in the superhero universes of DC Comics, Marvel Comics, television, and film becomes buried beneath a mound of superficial critiques. Either black superheroes are critiqued as updated racial stereotypes from America's comic-book past, or they are uncritically affixed to the blaxploitation film craze as negative representations of blackness. What emerges from such nearsighted analysis is an incomplete description of the fascinating and complex ideological give and take that black superheroes have with American culture. In stark contrast, Super Black calls attention to black superheroes as a fascinating racial phenomenon and a powerful source of racial meaning, narrative, and imagination in American society that expresses a myriad of racial assumptions, political perspectives, and fantastic (re)imaginings of black identity.
The superhero archetype is heavily steeped in affirming a division between right and wrong, thus superheroes operate within a moral framework. Moreover, virtually all superheroes are victorious, not because of superior strength or weaponry, but because of moral determination demonstrated by concern for others and notions of justice. Accordingly, black superheroes are not merely figures that defeat costumed supervillains: they symbolize American racial morality and ethics. They overtly represent or implicitly signify social discourse and accepted wisdom concerning notions of racial reciprocity, racial equality, racial forgiveness, and, ultimately, racial justice. But black superheroes are not only representative of what is racially right. They are also ripe metaphors for race relations in America, and are often reflective of escalating and declining racial unrest. In this sense, black superheroes in American comic books and, to a lesser extent, in Hollywood films and television are cultural ciphers for accepted wisdom regarding racial justice and the shifting politics of black racial formation in America. Super Black demonstrates how black superheroes are not merely disposable pop products. They are reservoirs containing a considerable amount of ideological and cultural commentary about the broader politics of race in America.
Despite covering a broad body of work and several genres, Super Black does have a limited scope. Accordingly, because enumeration is not analysis, this book does not list or chronicle every black superhero character ever created. Instead Super Black is primarily focused on the black superheroes that populate DC and Marvel comics. This is an obvious and compelling choice, given how DC and Marvel comics have played such a significant and defining role in the construction of the superhero figure and the imprinting of the collective conscious of American society with enduring if not iconic images of numerous superheroes. Undoubtedly, various underground and independent black comic figures could claim credit for offering a varied type of black superhero, but the black superheroes of DC and Marvel comics speak to a broader scope and reach than these alternative outlets, and are the overarching focus of this book.
While the focus of this book—examining signature black representations that populate the superhero universe—is somewhat obvious, my analysis is not so pedestrian. In fact, my book makes a radical break from the authorial-intent approach that is such a prominent part of teasing out what superheroes symbolize, invoke, reflect, and project regarding the historical and cultural import of superheroes in American society. For example, in Comic Book Nation Brad W. Wright states:
while popular culture certainly merits close scrutiny, I believe that there are intellectual pitfalls in analyzing something like comic books too deeply. Therefore, I have confined my reading to meanings that were easily perceived by audiences, clearly intended by producers, or suggestive of broad historical developments and cultural assumptions. There are enough of those meanings to easily fill a book like this without one having to "decode" anything.
In contrast, Super Black adopts a poststructural approach that is not beholden to the type of authorial intent and intensely surface perceptions that Wright privileges. I view the meaning of any pop-cultural commodity, image, figure, or representation as not being fixed or automatically evident as it first appears. If the meaning of superheroes and the comics, films, and television shows they populate were as evident as Wright suggests, there would be no need for scrutiny or explanation because the subject of analysis would speak for itself. Hence, I reject such a surface and descriptive approach to examining black superheroes. Instead, I have employed a decidedly more interpretative and contextual approach for discussing the cultural work that black superheroes perform in American pop culture.
My approach employs an eclectic synthesis of cultural criticism, historical and cultural contextualization, and a hearty dash of textual analysis intent on yielding information, insights, and connections between text, ideas, and important moments in the cultural history of black superheroes and black racial formation. Most importantly, this book adopts a self-conscious critically celebratory perspective for examining the various expressions of superhero blackness. In other words, the purpose of this book is to reclaim black superheroes from the easily perceived, easily argued, and clichéd assumptions used to examine them that diminish their sociocultural significance and view the cultural work they perform as tired tropes about blackness primarily written by white men. The point is not to uncritically embrace these figures. Rather the mission of my analysis is to steer the discussion away from theoretical dead ends or conversations that lead only in one direction to one conclusion: black superheroes are negative stereotypes. Super Black is a rereading of mainstream black superheroes and the cultural work they have represented across several decades. Accordingly, the following chapters will reveal how these black figures frequently challenged conventional and preconceived notions concerning black racial identity by offering a futuristic and fantastic vision of blackness that transcended and potentially shattered calcified notions of blackness as a racial category and source of cultural meaning.
Chapter one, "Color Them Black," contextualizes the appearance of black superheroes in the broad and sweeping cultural trends of American politics and pop culture during the 1960s and 1970s. The increasing convergence of the popular and the political in American culture is discussed as a significant catalyst for the appearance of black superheroes. In particular, the emergence and popularity of Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams's Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow comic book series is examined, along with the impact this comic book series had in the way it addressed issues of racial inequality and justice. Chapter one also examines the origin of John Stewart, who was the African American Green Lantern, Black Lightning, and the Superman vs. Muhammad Ali special feature comic that came out in the 1970s. Ultimately, chapter one lays the foundation for how pop culture, the movement for racial equality, and comic books all intersected, resulting in superheroes becoming signifiers of real racial anxieties, desires, and wish fulfillments present in American society.
Chapter two, "Birth of the Cool," is an in-depth examination of the emergence of the seminal black superheroes the Black Panther and Luke Cage, also known as Power Man. The significant connections between these two black superheroes and the Black Power movement are examined and discussed, as are the multiple ideological permutations these black superheroes experienced as shifting symbolic expressions of political and cultural blackness. This chapter also maps the political and aesthetic interplay between the Black Power movement, black superheroes, and blaxploitation films like Super Fly (1972) and The Human Tornado (1976). Black superheroes and blaxploitation film characters are discussed as sharing the same signifiers of a superhuman status and often comment on the tensions expressed between black self-determination, racial authenticity, political fantasy, and economic independence.
The third chapter, "Friends and Lovers," examines how both conventional and provocative pairings of black superheroes with white characters provide mainstream and challenging models of American race relations, reflect broader racial tensions, and advocate racial equality. Various black superheroes, in their roles as valued partners and team players beside white superheroes, symbolize struggles over racial integration and the political and cultural toll that shifting racial dynamics have on accepted notions of America's racial order. Chapter three contains an analysis of the contentious tandem of the seminal white and black pairing of Captain America and the Falcon. Over three decades their relationship expresses changing racial dynamics and desires for racial reconciliation and the rejection of Black Power politics in America. The relationship between Jim Rhodes, the valued black friend, associate, and helicopter pilot for Tony Stark in the Iron Man comic, is also covered. Lastly, the interracial pairing of Cloak, a black man, with Dagger, a white woman, is discussed for their demonstration of simultaneously regressive racial politics and avant-garde expressions of racial equality, independence, and black futurism.
Chapter four, "Attack of the Clones," details how black racial identity takes center stage in often ironic and contradictory ways when established white superheroes are remade as black superheroes. These white-to-black makeovers deliberately attempt to ignore race, but in so doing often call attention to it. Chapter four fully explores the weaknesses, aesthetic assumptions, and ideological implications of this imitative practice and what it suggests about black racial identity as a static or fluid expression of "blackness." The Steel series, wherein a black Superman replaces the original, is emblematic of this color-blind impulse. This figure is deconstructed and discussed alongside several other white-to-black superheroes such as the black Nick Fury, Nubia (the black Wonder Woman), Icon, Brother Voodoo, and the black Captain America. On the surface, many of these superheroes are easily read as a quick-fix effort to infuse static white superhero narratives with a sense of freshness. Yet they also signal an attempt to reinvent the black superhero. Chapter four discusses the reactionary and visionary aspects of this approach in relationship to original black superheroes such as Storm, Martha Washington, and several figures from The Crew (2003).
Lastly, chapter five, "For Reel?: Black Superheroes Come to Life," explores the handful of black characters that moved beyond the printed realm of superhero comic books to television and film. Symbolic and literal presentations of superhero blackness are also covered. For example, Eartha Kitt's Catwoman, from the 1960s Batman television series, is contextualized and her impact on subsequent versions of the feline villainess/heroine is discussed. Television shows such as A Man Called Hawk (1989) and M.A.N.T.I.S. (1994–1995) are contrasted with the films Spawn (1997), Blade (1998), Unbreakable (2000), Spider-Man 3 (2007), and Hancock (2008). Then I examine the television series Heroes (2006–2010) as a (re)imagining of multiculturalism and racial diversity in American pop culture. Chapter five concludes with a discussion concerning the convergence of the imaginary black superhero and the election of President Barack Obama.
Convention dictates the most rewarding approach to understanding contemporary black racial formation in America or black racial representation in mass media is found in examining the grand social and political dramas that have defined American race relations over the past century. To name a few, the Great Migration, Jackie Robinson and the integration of major league baseball, the rise and decline of the civil rights movement, postindustrialism, the groundbreaking success of The Cosby Show, the near ubiquitous presence of hip-hop in American culture, and, of course, the first black president have held, at one time or another, center stage as racially defining political and cultural events in American history. Admittedly, against such socially significant events, the examination of black superheroes can easily be viewed as cultural trivia or an exercise in self-indulgent fandom. Yet as Roland Barthes, Umberto Eco, and Dick Hebdige have superbly revealed in their respective works concerning cultural production and popular culture, that which appears the most mundane, innocuous, and everyday offers some of the most provocative and telling cultural and ideological information about a society. I contend this is certainly the case with various transformations that black superhero figures have reflected over the past forty years in comic books, television, and film. Black superheroes are not the disposable refuse of American pop culture, but serve as a source of potent racial meaning that has substance and resonance far beyond their function and anticipated shelf life.