The Portrayal of Black Superheroes

A revolution seems to be happening in the superhero world. Black Panther is being released this week and it's a big deal. To understand why it's such an anticipated movie, we need to look at the history of black superheroes, both in comic books and in cinema.

Introduction

Although there are many publishers of comics, and even more superheroes, when one hears "superhero" they think of powerhouses DC and Marvel. DC is the creator of household names such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, whereas Marvel is known for Spiderman, X-Men, Captain America, and the Avengers. Unless you're really deep into comics and superheroes, chances are, your favorite superhero comes from one of these universes. Think of your favorite heroes from each of these universes. When it comes to diversity, how does your list of favorite characters stack up?

IGN lists its top 25 superheroes from DC Comics and you guessed it, only 1 of them is black (Cyborg). They manage to include 2 Green Lanterns, and still leave off John Stewart—the black Green Lantern.

Black people make up roughly 13% of the population, but white, non-Hispanic people only make up 60% of the population. If the comic book industry was as diverse as the United States, showing equal care to the storylines of minority characters as white characters, the superheroes on the list would have the following racial makeup: 4 Hispanic, 3 black, 1 Asian, 1 multi-racial, and 16 white characters.[1] Of course, you'd still expect epically awesome superheroes to exist for even smaller minority groups such as Native Americans and Pacific Islanders.

If the list reflected worldwide demographics, these numbers would change even more dramatically! Based on worldwide demographics 61% (15)—more than half—of the superheroes should be Asian. 4 should be from Africa, 3 should be European, 2 from Latin or South America, and 1 from North America.[2]

IGN's top 25 list for Marvel stacks up far better with 4 black superheroes making the list (Black Panther, Storm, Blade, and Luke Cage). Not only does this paint Marvel as more progressive in creating well written diverse characters, all four of these characters, plus a few others, have made it in to their cinematic universe, and Nick Fury, a white man in the comics, was recast as a black man.

Bringing in Black Faces

The difference in diversity across IGN's lists shouldn't surprise you, though. Marvel broke the mold in creating the first mainstream black superhero to have his own comic in mainstream America. That superhero was Black Panther, an African prince from a technologically advanced city, hidden in the midst of Africa. Black Panther was introduced in 1966.[5] For perspective, this was 2 years before my hometown began the process of integration and 3 years after my undergraduate university admitted it's first black student. DC's first black superhero to have his own comic, Black Lightning, wasn't published until 1977—over 10 years later![30]

Firsts for Black Superheroes(in Print)

While Black Panther is widely accepted as the first black superhero to star in a comic of his own, he wasn't the first black superhero to appear in a comic. In fact, he wasn't actually the first to have his own comic. The first black superhero to have his own comic was created in the summer of 1947 by All Negro Comics.[7] All Negro Comics was black owned and operated. That's right, it was a for us, by us moment. It marks the first comic to both feature black heroes as the stars of the comic and to be drawn by black artists.[6] All Negro Comics stared Ace Harlem as an expert detective and Lion Man the first black superhero.

The first black person to appear in a superhero comic, as a supporting character of course, came just a little sooner, probably in 1934. Many credit the appearance of Lothar in Mandrake the Magician as the first black supporting character in a comic. Lothar was not a superhero, and fits neatly into the tropes I've been mentioning all month: he's the main character's sidekick, illiterate, and dresses "exotically."[8][9]

Black Superheroes as Main Characters (in Film)

If you're old enough, you know that Black Panther isn't the first film to have a black man star as the main superhero in cinema history. 20 years ago, there was The Blade Trilogy starring Wesley Snipes as the titular superhero, Blade (also a Marvel superhero). There's also been Hancock, staring Will Smith, Meteor Man (1993) starring Robert Townsend, and Steel (1997) staring Shaq. However, Black Panther is still a first of sorts.

Budget and Promotion

Photocredit: Marvel/Blade
Perhaps it's because I was only 10 when Blade came out, but I don't remember it being given so much promotion from Marvel. Let's look at the numbers to see if it's creation and launch was comparable. Blade had a $45 million dollar budget;[10] Black Panther had a $200 million dollar budget.[11] When Blade was released, there wasn't quite the same furor around superhero movies, nor was computer animation as advanced as it is today. This could explain the massive difference in budget.

So, let's look at other superhero movies that were released during Blade's era. The same year, Marvel released Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. (with Nick Fury portrayed by a white man) as a television movie. It was never released in theaters. DC's Batman & Robin came out just one year prior, in 1997, but it received a $125 million dollar budget. Before that, Batman Forever, which debuted in 1995, had a budget of $100 million dollars.[19] The Mask of Zorro, —which isn't really a superhero movie, but has many of the same elements as a superhero movie—was released in 1998, and had a $65 million dollar budget.[20]

Now let's look at recent Marvel releases. Captain America: Civil War, the movie Marvel used to introduce Black Panther two years ago, was given an estimated budget of $250 million dollars.[12] Thor: Ragnarok, which was released just last year, only had a budget of $180 million dollars.[13] Spider-Man: Homecoming, also released last year, only had a budget of $175 million dollars.[14]

Although movie budgets were considerably smaller during the time Blade was released, it's budget was still less than the other movies of it's genre for the time period. Black Panther garnered a budget quiet comparable to the other Marvel movies being released today.

Photocredit: Marvel/Black Panther
When you consider that characters such as Captain America, Thor, and Spider-Man are all already established in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and were probably household names even before their movies launched, it's a big deal that Black Panther's budget is basically on par with the budgets of these movies. Though Chadwick Boseman (shoutout to my fellow SC native), started his acting career as early as 1970, he is less familiar to a mainstream audience. Prior to being cast as Black Panther for the 2016 Captain America movie, Mr. Boseman had only been in 4 big screen films.[15] Captain America, on the other hand, cast well known actors and actress such as Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans (who, fun fact, was actually the Human Torch or Johnny Storm in Fantastic Four),[16] and Scarlett Johansson. That says a lot about the investment the studio place in Black Panther.

The Other Films

Most of the superhero movies starring a black actor that I saw in my youth were more like comedies than superhero movies. Meteor Man, along with the Disney Channel Original movie Up Up and Away, felt like a parody of superhero movies rather than actually superhero movies. Not surprisingly, they both star and were produced by Robert Townsend. Hancock, though not as joke-y as Meteor Man or Up Up and Away, doesn't quite have the superhero feel to it either. Perhaps it's because Hancock is an antihero; he has a bad attitude, is always drunk, and everyone hates him—including the viewer, I can't remember ever actually liking the Hancock character.

TV Shows

If you've been paying attention, you probably noticed that I haven't said much about DC in terms of film. While I can't think of any black DC characters that have made it to the big screen, this year DC comics launched Black Lightning a series about their first black superhero to have his own comic. Marvel's Luke Cage has been on Netflix for a while, as well.

Female Black Superheroes

Photocredit: Lupita Nyong'o in Black Panther
While things seem to be looking up for black men in the world of superheroes, black women aren't fairing nearly as well. X-Men gives us Storm (played by Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp) and Angel Salvadore (played by Zoë Kravitz). While Storm is a core member of the X-Men team, she's nowhere near as influential to the series or as popular as Professor X and Magneto (even Mystique or Wolverine in the film version). I couldn't even remember the name of Zoë Kravitz's character or which movie she appeared in when I started writing this post, so...yeah, she's not a crucial character. Also, with these two characters we clearly see the effects of colorism. I can't ignore the fact that a dark-skinned female superhero has not graced our screens. The casting of dark skinned women to play pivotal roles, including the love interest, in Black Panther is yet another reason to be excited about it's release.

DC

DC's first African female superhero, was Nubia, who appeared in 1973. For those unfamiliar with Nubia, checkout this video.[21] (Also, now that Wonder Woman was such a box office, can we get a live action Nubia?) DC's first African-American female superhero, Bumblebee, debuted in Teen Titan #48, which was released in 1977. She is now part of the line up in the animated shorts, DC Superhero Girls.[25][26] In 1981, Vixen appeared as a supporting member of the Justice League in DC's universes.[24] Vixen received her own animated series through the CW in 2015. According to IMDB, the series has 2 seasons and 12 episodes.[22][23] To my knowledge, none of these ladies have their own comic series.

Marvel

You're probably already familiar with Storm, a black female superhero from the X-Men series. Storm first appeared in 1975. Though depicted by Halle Berry and Alexandra Shipp in the recent X-Men movies, Storm does not appear to be a light skinned black woman in the comics—though she does have blue eyes and white hair.

Another black female superhero, Misty Knight, actually appeared 3 years earlier than Storm in 1972. She even has an iconic 70's afro, which screams black pride!

The Future of Female Superheroes

As a woman, it saddens me to know that despite the progress we've seen with black male superheroes, women are still trailing behind. I realize that women in general have not been featured as superheroes the same way men have, however, white women are still better represented in this area than black, Latina, and Asian women. Hopefully this current revolution will spill into our realm, as well.

Further Reading

Checkout the following articles, books, and videos for more information.

References

  1. "Census QuickFacts". United States Census Bureau. July 1, 2016
  2. "World Population: Digital Visualization 2014 & Beyond". Population Reference Bureau; visited February 2018
  3. Jesse Schedeen. "The Top 25 Heroes of DC Comics". IGN. November 19, 2013/li>
  4. Joshua Yehl and Jeff Lake. "Top 25 Best Marvel Superheroes". IGN. September 10, 2014
  5. Andrew Wheeler. "Trace the Lineage of Marvel's Black Super Heroes". Marvel. February 28, 2014
  6. "‘All-Negro Comics’, The first Black comic book written and illustrated by Black Americans". The Philadelphia Sunday SUN. February 29, 2016
  7. Jeff Enlow. "Before there were RiRi Williams and Black Panther, there was Lion Man." Timeline. July 6, 2016
  8. "Lothar". Comic Vine; visited February 2018
  9. "Mandrake the Magician". TV Tropes; visited February 2018
  10. "Blade (1998)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  11. Ramin Setoodeh. "Chadwick Boseman and Ryan Coogler on How ‘Black Panther’ Makes History". Variety; visited February 2018
  12. "Captain America: Civil War (2016)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  13. "Thor: Ragnarok (2018)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  14. "Spider-Man: Homecoming". IMDB; visited February 2018
  15. "Chadwick Boseman". IMDB; visited February 2018
  16. "Chris Evans". IMDB; visited February 2018
  17. Nick Fury: Agent of Shield (1998)" .IMDB; visited February 2018
  18. "Batman & Robin (1997)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  19. "Batman Forever (1995)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  20. "The Mask of Zorro (1998)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  21. Essence of Zen. "Who is Nubia | Behind the League". YouTube. February 29, 2016
  22. "Vixen (2015)". IMDB; visited February 2018
  23. D.L. Chandler. "CW Network Announces Animated Black DC Comics Heroine Vixen Series". News One. January 21, 2015
  24. "Vixen". DC Comics; visited February 2018
  25. Amy Ratcliffe. "Get to Know the DC Super Hero Girls: Bumblebee and Katana". DC Comics. March 29, 2016
  26. "Teen Titans #48". eBay; visited February 2018
  27. Princess-India Alexander. "Nubia is the twin sister of 'Wonder Woman' — and she is literally a black queen". Mic. June 15, 2017
  28. "Storm". Marvel; visited February 2018
  29. "Misty Knight". Marvel; visited February 2018
  30. Tim Beedle. "First Look: Black Lightning Comes to Life". DC Comics. March 29, 2017

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Author Image Author Image I love reading the Word of God. With prayer God's Word reveals so much: from comfort to temperance, from perspective to affirmation. Digging into the depths of the Word, cross-referencing history, language and time differences, is a passion of mine. In March of 2015 I decided to go back through the Bible doing an in depth study on each section I read. Eventually I decided to share my journal of notes as I partake in this journey. I hope you are blessed by God and inspired to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. I love reading and learning about God, nature, and science. I am interested in how it all connects. The Creator's fingerprints are all over his creation. We can learn so much about Him and how we came to be by exploring the world around us. Join me as I explore the world and draw closer to the One who created it all.
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