Friday, 17 August 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Three


In the early Seventies both Marvel Comics and DC Comics had a tendency to follow the latest fads in society. For instance, when kung fu gained enormous popularity in the United States early in the decade, both companies launched comic books devoted to Asian martial arts. It then makes perfect sense that with the popularity of blaxploitation movies in the Seventies, that they would have an impact on comic books. In the early Seventies both Marvel and DC would publish characters influenced by the blaxploitation cycle of movies.

The blaxploitation cycle began with two films released in 1971. The first to be released was Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, essentially an art film centred on an African American man fleeing from the police after rescuing a Black Panther from racist cops. The second to be released was Shaft, which focused on an African American detective of the same name. The blaxploitation films that followed were always extremely violent and often contained a good deal of sexual content. While many blaxploitation featured people fighting crime as the heroes (detective John Shaft and the avenging nurse in Coffy are examples), others featured drug dealers, pimps, hit men, and gangsters as their protagonists (examples being Superfly and The Mack). In both cases the ghetto experience was often central to the plot. The blaxploitation cycle was controversial in that many felt that the movies exploited modern day stereotypes about African Americans. The NAACP, Urban League, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference even formed a group to combat the genre, the Coalition Against Blaxploitation.

Ultimately, the blaxploitation cycle would end around 1974, with only a few more such films released in 1975. It seems most likely that the controversy over the films had less to do with the genre's decline than the genre simply having burned itself out. In the end, there were not only blaxploitation action films, but blaxploitation Westerns, blaxploitation kung fu movies, blaxploitation gangster movies, and even blaxploitation horror movies.

Marvel Comics was the first of the two major comic book companies of the time to embrace blaxploitation. Hero for Hire was cover dated June 1972 and featured the first African American superhero to headline his own title. Luke Cage was an ex convict who underwent experimental treatments which gave him superhuman strength and impenetrable skin. Rather than go the usual route of simply fighting crime as a vigilante, Luke Cage became a "hero for hire," helping those who could pay his fee.

Like the heroes of the blaxploitation movies of the time, Luke Cage tended to be defiant of authority. He often fought racist, European American villains. And Cage spoke in a comic book approximation of street slang. The one thing that set Cage apart from the heroes of blaxploitation movies was an utter lack of sexual content, which was forbidden to comic books of the time under the Comic's Code. Luke Cage would prove to be one of the most popular African American characters created by Marvel. His magazine, undergoing a few title changes, would last 125 issues.

The most famous Marvel, African American character today is probably Blade, whose fame was spread by three successful movies and a TV series. Like Luke Cage, Blade grew out of the blaxploitation cycle. Indeed, in his first appearance in Tomb of Dracula #10, July 1973, Blade could have easily passed for John Shaft. A vampire hunter whose mother had been bitten by a vampire before he was born. This made Blade immune to vampire bites and slowed his aging process. Blade could be downright rude at times. And like Luke Cage, he spoke in the comic book equivalent of street slang. Despite his success today, Blade appeared infrequently in Marvel Comics from the Seventies to the Eighties, often as a supporting player.

Unlike Marvel Comics, DC was slower to embrace the blaxploitation cycle. When they did create a character who grew out of the genre, he not only capitalised on the blaxploitation cycle, but on the concurrent kung fu fad as well. The Bronze Tiger first appeared in Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter #1, April-May 1975. The Bronze Tiger was Ben Turner, who had take up Asian martial arts in an effort to control his rage after his parents' murder. Unlike other characters to emerge from the Blaxploitation cycle, the Bronze Tiger was more villain than hero, and could aptly be described as Richard Dragon's archnemesis.

Among blaxploitation movies of the era were those that featured African American woman fighting crime, such as Cleopatra Jones and Coffy. Marvel Comics would develop a similar character in the form of Misty Knight. First appearing in Marvel Premiere #20, January 1975, Knight was seriously injured as a New York police offer attempting to thwart a bombing. Her right arm was replaced by a bionic one. Retiring from the police force, she formed her own detective agency. Knight never achieved her own magazine, although she has been an important character in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, Power Man and Iron Fist (the final version of Luke Cage's title), and The Uncanny X-Men.

DC Comics' next entry in the blaxploitation cycle was Tyroc. Tyroc was the first African American member of the Legion of Superheroes, debuting in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #216, April 1976. And while Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes was set 2000 years in the future, Tyroc came off as a typical blaxploitation hero (without all the sex, of course). He wore an Afro and his costume even boasted huge, gold chains. Even his personality was somewhat stereotypical, that of the angry, young black man. Tyroc did not appear very often with the Legion of Super-Heroes and eventually disappeared altogether.

While Tyroc was not a very successful character, the same cannot be said for Black Lightning. While he never had his own title for very long, he has appeared regularly in DC Comics since his first appearance in Black Lightning #1, April 1977. Black Lightning was not purely a blaxploitation character. His civilian identity was that of Jefferson Pierce, an Olympic decathlete and high school teacher who was appalled by the crime in his old neighbourhood. Pierce soon learned that the crime in his neigbourhood was created by the organised crime syndicate the 100. To combat the 100, he became Black Lightning. As Black Lightning he wore an Afro wig and spoke in the comic book version of street slang. While his own title only lasted eleven issues, Black Lightning would make several guest appearances and would become a member of The Outsiders. He would have another short lived series in 1995.

The blaxploitation cycle would also have a small impact on a character created earlier. From his first appearance The Falcon had been portrayed as an intelligent, articulate, social worker with a concern for his fellow man. In Captain America #186, June 1975, The Falcon's back story was modified so that he had originally been a gangster (nicknamed "Snaps") whose mind was manipulated by the Red Skull in an effort to destroy Captain America. As "Snaps" Wilson he was a character who could have been straight from a blaxploitation film. He even wore a "pimp suit," such as those seen in the blaxploitation film The Mack or the ones worn by Huggy Bear on Starsky and Hutch. Although this supposed gangster past did not have much impact on The Falcon in the years to come, it did make many of his fans very unhappy.

In movies the blaxploitaton cycle only lasted from about 1971 to 1974. In comic books, it lasted from 1972 to about 1977. Like any fad, it eventually faded, although its impact could still be felt in characters such as Luke Cage and Black Lightning.

One of the Team

Even during the blaxploitation craze there would be African American characters who did not stem from the blaxploitation craze. Bill Foster became Black Goliath in Power Man #24, April 1975. Another character emerged not from the blaxploitation craze, but from the kung fu craze. Although he was from the ghetto, Abe Lincoln of the Sons of the Tiger had very little common with characters such as Luke Cage. He and the other Sons of the Tiger first appeared in Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, April 1975. The short lived character Brother Voodoo also owed little to blaxploitation, drawing more on classic horror movies.He debuted in his own series with Strange Tales #169, September 1973. Sadly, it would not last long, only for four issues of Strange Tales and two issues of Marvel's black and white magazine Tales of the Zombie.

Another character to debut during the blaxploitation craze who owed very little to blaxploitation was Storm of the X-Men. Storm was Ororo Munroe, a Kenyan mutant with the power to control weather. Debuting in Giant-Size X-Men #1. May 1975, Storm has remained an important character in the X-Men titles and the Marvel Universe in general. She was an important character, as she was the first black superheroine at either Marvel or DC.

Storm would not be the only black superheroine for long. Besides Storm there was the aforementioned Misty Knight, and then there would be Bumblebee. Bumblebee debuted in Teen Titans #45, December 1976. She was scientist Karen Beecher, who developed a suit which gave her various abilities. Although never a major character, she has continued to appear in various DC Comics ever since, whether with the Teen Titans or as part of the Doom Patrol.

It would seem that in the late Seventies, DC and Marvel were determined to make up for the lack of black superheroines. Among those created at the time was Vixen. Like Storm, Vixen was an African rather than an African American. She would have been the first black superheroine with her own title had it not been for events in 1978. That year DC Comics was forced to cancel many existing titles and shelve unpublished titles. Vixen's magazine was among those that was shelved. She would not make her first appearance until Action Comics #521, July 1981. She never did achieve her own title, instead becoming part of the Justice League of America, the Suicide Squad, and Birds of Prey.

With the success of the revived X-Men (whose title had been cancelled in the early Seventies), the comic book industry moved increasingly towards titles featuring super teams. As a result many African American characters would make their debuts as members of these teams. The success of the new X-Men led DC Comics to do a similar such revival with their Teen Titans. Originally more or less a teenage version of the Justice League, the new Teen Titans was in many respects modelled on the X-Men. Among the charter members of this revived Teen Titans was Cyborg. Cyborg was the son of scientists who, when he was injured in one of their experiments, was rebuilt using bionic technology. He first appeared in DC Comics #25, October 1980.

Another superteam owed very little to the X-Men. The All-Star Squadron was created by legendary writer and Golden Age historian Roy Thomas. Its series essentially postulated that following the outbreak of World War II, President Roosevelt formed a loose group of several superheroes to help guard the home front during the war. This group was the All Star Squadron. In All-Star Squadron #23, July 1983, the group gained its latest member. Amazing-Man (named as an homage to Golden Age artist Bill Everett and his character of the same name). Amazing Man was Will Everett, an former Olympic athlete who gained the ability to mimic any substance he touched (if he touched steel, his body would gain the properties of steel) through a lab accident. Although appearing alongside Golden Age characters, Amazing Man was a modern creation. During the Golden Age, with the exception of Lion Man in All-Negro Comics, there were no African American superheroes. Although the Amazing-Man of the All-Star Squadron has not appeared often since that title's cancellation, his grandson, Will Everett III, would appear as a member of the Justice League in the Nineties, beginning with Justice League #86, March 1994.

A superteam whose adventures were set in the present day nonetheless had links to the Golden Age. Infinity Inc. was largely composed of the children of the Justice Society of America, the first superteam ever created in comic books. Among its members was Northwind. Strictly speaking, Northwind was not an African American. He was instead a native of the hidden city of Feithera. Hawkman and Hawkgirl (archaeologists in their civilian identities) journeyed to the hidden city with anthropologist Fred Cantrell. Cantrell fell in love with a woman there and married her. Northwind then grew up in the hidden city. Like all Feitherans, he had wings, superhuman strength, and above normal eyesight. Taken under Hawkman and Hawkgirl's wing (no pun intended), he became a superhero and joined Infinity Inc.

Unlike Cyborg, Amazing Man, and Northwind the first appearance of Monica Rambeau was as a solo character rather than the member of a team. She first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #16, 1982. A member of the New Orleans Harbour Patrol, she found herself bombarded by an extra-dimensional weapon during a case and as a result developed the ability to convert her body into any sort of energy, as well as manipulate energy. She initially adopted the identity of Captain Marvel (named after the earlier Marvel Comics character of the same name). While she appeared in her own title for two issues (which were published years apart), she is perhaps best known as a member of The Avengers. Monica Rambeau has changed her superhero identity twice, from Captain Marvel to Photon and then from Photon to Pulsar.

While Monica Rambeau started out as a solo act and became a member of The Avengers, Cloak was part of a duo for his whole career. Cloak was Tyrone Johnson, who with Tandy Bowen are given an experimental drug by minions of supervillain Silvermane. In Johnson's case, his body became a portal to the "Darkforce Dimension." As a result, among other things, he can absorb the life force of individuals. Bowen gained the ability to generate light. As the Darkforce Dimension drove Cloak to crave the life force of living beings, this was a good thing. Dagger's light could satiate his cravings for a time. Becoming superheroes, Johnson took the identity of Cloak, while Bowen took the identity of Dagger. They had their own titles from time to time, the first such one running 19 issues. Since then they have appeared on and off in Marvel comic books.

While many African American superheroes emerged in the Eighties as members of superteams, others emerged by taking over the identities of European American heroes. As mentioned earlier, when Hal Jordan retired, John Stewart took the mantle of Green Lantern. A similar situation was seen in the pages of Iron Man. James "Rhodey" Rhodes had been the personal pilot for billionaire Tony Stark (Iron Man), making his first appearance in Iron Man #118, January 1979. Eventually Stark succumbed to his alcoholism and he lost Stark Industries to the villainous Obadiah Stane. Stark gave up being Iron Man, at which point Rhodey adopted the identity (in Iron Man #170, May 1983. Rhodes remained Iron Man until finally suffering a psychotic break, during which Tony Stark was forced to don the armour again. He would later adopt the identity of War Machine, with another armoured suit.

Another hero who was not a member of a superteam was the obscure DC Comics character Onyx. First appearing in Detective Comics #546, January 1985, Onyx was a martial artist who served in the villainous League of Assassins before reforming and becoming a superhero. She has never been a major character, appearing infrequently.

Of much more importance is the character called Sabre. Not only was the graphic novel in which the character first appeared (also titled Sabre) the first thing ever published by Eclipse Comics, it was the first graphic novel ever published specifically for comic book specialty store (which were a relatively recent development). First published in August 1978, Sabre centred on a black swashbuckler in a futuristic world. Sabre would later star in his own comic book series, which ran fourteen issues.

Another important character was Blackjack, also published as an independent. Created by Alex Simmons, Blackjack. followed the adventures of an African American soldier of fortune in the Thirties. Blackjack was a very original character. Not only was he not portrayed as a stereotype, but as an adventurer in the Thirties he was not precisely a superhero. The Blackjack stories drew more upon the old pulp novels and movie serials than they did costumed crimefighters.

During the Eighties and even into the Nineties, most African American superheroes emerged as members of superteams. This was not unusual, as it seems that most European American superheroes also emerged as a part of superteams during this era. Eventually, however, superteams would go out of fashion, leaving the door open for African American solo characters again. Indeed, the years to come would not only see the emergence of possibly the most successful African American hero of all time (Spawn), but also of companies dediated to providing comic books for an African American audience.


BrittReid said...

Just curious as to why you left out Skywald's Butterfly, the FIRST Black superheroine.
She even had her own strip!

Mercurie said...

Britt, the reason is simple. In my extensive research at the time of this series, I didn't come across any references to her! Not surprising, given how little has been written on African American in comic books and just how obscure a title Hellrider was!