Saturday, August 18, 2007

African Americans in Comic Books Part Four


In some respects, in the Nineties the comic book industry had made a good deal of progress with regards to African American characters since The Black Panther's first appearance in 1966. In that time there had been African American characters who had headlined their own series (Luke Cage and Black Lightning) and African American characters who were important members of superteams (Storm and Cyborg). And while there would only be a few African American characters by the end of the Sixties, by the end of the Eighties there were quite a few more. That having been said, in some respects the comic book industry had made little progress with regards to African American characters since 1966. Although black characters had headlined their own series, their number was actually fairly small (Luke Cage, The Black Panther, and Black Lightning among them). And as of the early Nineties, no African American character had seen the success of characters such as The X-Men, The Hulk, Spider-Man, Batman, or Superman.

Fortunately, the Nineties would see this change. The early Nineties would see the creation of several important African American characters. The decade would also see the debut of several comic books headlined by African American heroes. Finally, it was in the Nineties that the first comic book company dedicated to giving minorities more exposure in comic books was founded.

It would be in X-Men #282, November 1991 that the first major African American male character to play a role in the X-Men titles would appear. Bishop was a mutant from the future who travelled back in time to join the X-Men. The character proved popular, appearing as the headliner in four different limited series and continuing to appear in X-Men titles to this day.

As popular as Bishop was, it would be an independent company rather than Marvel or DC who would create what could be the most popular African American character of all time. In 1992 Image Comics was founded by seven artists (many of whom had worked on Marvel's X-Men titles) who wanted to retain the rights to the characters they created. A good proportion of Image's original output were outright X-Men ripoffs (Youngblood may have been the exception--it was a Teen Titans ripoff), but within their first few months they would publish a book featuring an African American hero who worked solo. That hero was Spawn, who debuted in Spawn #1, May 1992. Spawn was CIA agent Al Simmons, who was murdered and sent to Hell where he was transformed into one of the hellspawn, an officer in the army of Hell. As might be expected, Spawn rebelled and took to fighting the forces of evil, much to Hell's chagrin.

Spawn proved enormously successful when first published. It was Image's biggest selling title and it is only one of two of their original titles (the other being Savage Dragon) still published today (Spawn is currently on its 170th issue). It would be adapted into an HBO animated series which ran from 1997 to 1999. Spawn would also become the first African American superhero featured in a motion picture released in 1997 (beating Steel to the theatres by two weeks). Spawn has been the basis for several video games. Over the years several series and mini-series were spun off from it. Currently another Spawn movie is in pre-production. Arguably, Spawn is the most successful African American comic book character of all time, and one of the few suprheroes that the average person might actually recognise (if only from the movie and TV series).

Image had other African American characters besides Spawn. Chapel debuted as part of Youngblood, Rob Liefield's variation on the Teen Titans, in Youngblood #1, April 1992. A government assassin, Chapel always seemed to me a bit reminiscent of both Bishop and Cable from the X-Men comics. Despite this, the character proved popular, with more than one mini-series and appearances in Spawn. Shadowhawk also first appeared in the pages of Youngblood, although he worked solo. Shadowhawk was Paul Johnstone, who donned an exo-suit to become the hero Shadowhawk. Infected with HIV, the original Shadowhawk eventually died, and since others have bore the name. Shadowhawk did not see the success of Chapel, let alone Spawn.

Another popular African American character also emerged from an independent company. Shadowman may well have been one of Valiant Comics' most popular characters, and possibly one of the most popular characters of the Nineties. He debuted in his own title, Shadowman #1, May 1992. Shadowman was Jack Boniface, a jazz musician who developed unusual powers after being bitten by a strange creature. Shadowman proved to be one of the most popular comic books of its era. When the series ended in 2002 it was not because of low sales, but due to other matters. In 1996 Valiant Comics was bought by Acclaim Entertainment, who published the old Valiant titles under the Acclaim Comics imprint. Unfortunately, while the comic books continued to sell well, Acclaim Entertainment took heavy losses on their video games, eventually forcing their company to go under.

Valiant would publish another title featuring a notable African American character. Quantum and Woody was billed as "the World's Worst Superteam." Quantum was the one who was African American, a disciplined, former Army officer with an array of special weapons. Woody was his blonde partner who was also a bumbling fool. After donning a pair of mysterious metal bands, the two discover they must stay together. If they don't touch the bands together once every day, they'll disappear...literally. Largely played for comedy, Quantum and Woody was popular, but like Shadowman the series ended when Acclaim Entertainment went bankrupt.

Independents were not the only companies in the Nineties to create popular African American superheroes. In 1993 DC Comics published a multi-issue story arc called "The Death and Return of Superman." Among the heroes to emerge from this story arc was Steel. Steel was John Henry Irons, a weapons engineer who built a powered suit of armour in effort to stop Doomsday, the entity who had killed the Man of Steel. Eventually taking the identity "Steel," Irons would be popular enough to earn his own title. Steel ran from 1994 to 1998. He was also popular enough to appear in the second movie to feature an African American hero, Steel, which debuted in 1997. Following his book's cancellation, Steel would become a member of the Justic League. He eventually retired, and his niece Natasha would take over the mantle of Steel. Although no longer a superhero, he continues to play an important role in the Superman titles as Superman's technology advisor.

Even with several African American characters starring in their own titles (Spawn, Shadowman, Steel, and so on), in the early Nineties there was still disparity in the numbers of African American characters when compared to European American ones. In 1992 comic book artist Denys Cowan, writer Dwayne McDuffie, Derek T. Dingle (then managing editor of Black Enterprise Magazine), and artist Michael Davis founded Milestone Media with the goal of correcting the inequity of minority characters in the comic book industry. Milestone struck a deal with DC Comics would publish its titles and act as both its product licensing and media licensing agent.

Milestone Media entered publishing with Hardware #1, April 1993. The series centred on Curt Metcalf, an inventor who fought crime as Hardware in a gadget laden suit. Hardware broke new ground in presenting an African American hero who was also a fairly complex character. Being both an African American and a scientific genius would have been original enough, but Curt Metcalf also had a interesting reason for donning the Hardware suit. It was not so much to fight crime, as to get revenge on his mentor Edwin Alva, who had cheated him out of his share of the profits for the things he has invented and was also heavily involved in crime. Quite simply, Metcalf sought to avenge himself on Alva by destroying his criminal business.

Although Hardware was Milestone's first character and always an important character in Milestone's comic book universe, it would be Static who would be their most popular character. Static first appeared the same month as Hardware, in Static #1, April 1993. Static was teenager Virgil Hawkins who, after being exposed to an experimental chemical, develops the ability to manipulate electricity and electromagnetic phenomenon. Static then became a superhero, although in true Spider-Man fashion this did nothing to solve the typical problems a teenager sees any given day. The combination of teen angst and superheroics, along with a good rogues gallery, made Static a fairly popular title in the Nineties. Eventually it would serve as the basis for the Saturday morning animated series, Static Shock, which ran for four years on the WB. Static would be one of the few Milestone comic book characters who would see publication after Milestone closed shop. He appeared in the limited series Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool published by DC Comics in 2001.

Another important Milestone character was Icon. Strictly speaking Icon was not African American, but an alien. According to Icon's origin, in the 19th century a spaceship crashed in a cotton field in the American south. The alien, Arnus, used technology aboard his ship to change his shape to something similar to the first human he encountered, a slave named Miriam. As a result Arnus took the shape of an African American man. The slaves who became Arnus's friends persuaded him to hide his powers for fear that using them would bring down retribution from European Americans on all of them. Living much longer than human beings, Arnus hid his powers for decades and in the present day assumed the identity of lawyer August Freeman IV. It was an encounter with teenager Raquel Ervin that persuaded him to become Icon to fight crime. Raquel in turn became his sidekick, Rocket. Icon was described as a "black superman" because he superficially resembled Superman, although there were important differences. Besides possessing various powers which Superman does not, much of the appeal in Icon lay in the fact that his often conservative views put him at odds with other Milestone characters, not the least of which was his own sidekick Rocket.

Because its best known characters were African Americans, Milestone Media was often thought of as an African American comic book company. This was certainly not the case. As mentioned earlier, Milestone was founded in the name of ethnic diversity, and as a result it featured characters who were not African American. Among these was Xombi, a Korean American given special abilities by nanobots, Kobalt, a Cuban vigilante, and assorted members of the Shadow Cabinet and Heroes.

Cover dated July 1994, Worlds Collide was a one issue crossover between DC Comics and Milestone Media. In Worlds Collide a postman became a living portal between the Milestone universe and DC universe. Eventually he becomes the supervillain called Rift, endangering both worlds. As a result Milestone heroes Hardware, Icon, Rocket, and Static must team up with Superman, Superboy, and Steel to stop him. The one shot Worlds Collide was meant to give Milestone's titles more visibility. Unfortunately, in the long run it would not save the Milestone Comics line. Sales for many of Milestone's titles were fairly low, and between 1995 and 1996 Milestone cancelled many of these. In 1997 Milestone Media shut down its comic book line completely. The company continues to exist as a licensing company for the various Milestone characters.

The reasons for the failure of Milestone Comics are complex, and much of it is rooted in the comic book market of the time. In late Eighties there developed what has come to be called the "speculator bubble" in the comic book market. The speculator bubble developed as a result of individuals buying mass quantities of comic books (often several copies of the same issue) at once in hopes of selling them later at a higher price (speculators). Such speculators drove comic book sales through the roof in the early Nineties. In response the various comic book companies increased the print runs of existing titles and debuted many new ones. They also used various gimmicks in an attempt to increase sales, from novelty covers to crossovers. In the end all of this caused many comic books to simply not increase in price the way speculators had expected them to. At the same time many long time fans were very unhappy with the various gimmicks being used to drive comic book sales up, often at the cost of a good story. In the end the speculators stopped collecting comic books, as did many fans, resulting in a collapse in comic book sales. Whereas a company could have expected to sell 200,000 copies of a comic book in 1992, by 1994 they might be luck to sell 20,000. Milestone Media was founded just as the speculator bubble was about to burst and comic book collecting dropped to a new low. Under such conditions, any comic book company would be hard put to survive.

The speculator bubble also led to the demise of Milestone Comics in another way. With comic book sales higher than they had been for years, many new comic book companies were founded, among them aforementioned Valiant and Image. Established comic book companies, such as Marvel, would come out with new imprints (such as Marvel's MC2 line and Malibu Comics' Ultraverse line). By the time Milestone was founded, the market was already glutted with new comic book lines. In the end, it was difficult for many of them to compete and only a few such lines have survived from that era.

The final reason for Milestone Comics' collapse may have been simple racism. Many retailers and even fans assumed that Milestone Comics were written for African Americans and were not written for those who were not African American. As a result Milestone's titles did not receive the exposure that a title owned by DC or Marvel would. While Milestone received some coverage in various new outlets, they were virtually ignored by such comic book magazines as Wizard. This was particularly sad not simply because Milestone featured characters who were not African American (Xombi and Kobalt), but because they published well written stories that could be enjoyed by anyone. A perfect example is Static, who would seem to appeal to anyone who had been a teenager at one time or another. The tragedy of Milestone Comics' demise wasn't simply that it was a company that gave greater exposure to minority heroes, but because it was a company that published titles of a qualtiy better than much of what was on the market at the time. Quite simply, Milestone Media published some of the best comic books of the Nineties.

From the Late Nineties to Today

When Milestone Media closed down its comic book line, it could have been perceived as a serious blow to the presence of African American characters in comic books. In the end, however, new African American heroes to appear from the late Nineties to today. Similarly, new comic book companies dedicated to the creation of African American characters would emerge in the wake of Milestone.

Among the most important African American characters to debut in the Nineties was a character called Jack-in-the-Box, who debuted in the pages of Kurt Busiek's critically acclaimed and award winning Astro City. Jack-in-the-Box first appeared in Astro City #3, October 1995. Jack-in-the-Box is notable as one of the most original characters created in comic books for some time. Essentially Busiek took the themes of toys, pranks, and jokes making generally associated with such supervillains as Toyman (a frequent opponent of Superman), The Jester (who fought Marvel Comics' Daredevil), and, the most famous of them all, The Joker, and applied it to a superhero. Busiek has also stated that the character of The Harlequin from the Harlan Ellison short story "'Repent, Harlequien!' Said the Ticktockman," as an inspiration for Jack-in-the-Box.

The original Jack-in-the-Box was Jack Johnson, one of the first African Americans to have success in the toy industry. When Johnson found out that the company he for whom he worked was using his inventions in criminal activities, Johnson became Jack-in-the-Box and created various non-lethal weapons with a jack-in-the-box theme. Eventually, Johnson was killed in a battle with the supervillain called the Underlord. Shortly thereafter, his son Zachary became the new Jack-in-the-Box to avenge his father's death (and the first one to appear in the pages of Astro City). Besides being a skilled combatant, acrobat, and athlete, Jack-in-the-Box has a number of weapons in his arsenal, among them confetti which can entangle his foes, rubber clown noses that can act as a taser (delivering powerful electric shocks), and gloves which can telescope to punch opponents a good distance away (or as Jack-in-the-Box calls them, "handsprings"). Jack-in-the-Box appears more often than many of the characters in Astro City (of which there are several) and plays an important role in the history of the series.

Although none are as important as Jack-in-the-Box, other African American characters are also featured in Astro City. MPH is a member of the Honor Guard (Astro City's equivalent of the Justice Socity), who moves with super speed, while Glowworm is a supervillain with the ability to manipulate energy.

Another starkly original African American character to appear in the Nineties was Xero, who debuted in Xero #1, May 1997. Xero is one of the most original characters to come around. Xero was Coltrane Walker, a professional basketball player turned technologically enhanced secret agent for a government spy agency. Unfortunately, Walker's superiors at the agency require that he go into action disguised as a blond, blue eyed, European American superhero. The series not only focused on the conflict between his two occupations, that of an African American basketball player and an European American superspy, but questions if being an African American pro basketball player isn't as much of a role he plays as being an European American secret agent. Sadly, sales for Xero were not strong and it was cancelled after only running about a year.

As in the Eighties, recent years have seen the phenomenon of African American characters stepping into roles previously occupied by European American characters. the original Mister Terrific first appeared in Sensation Comics #1, January 1942. In Spectre vol 3 #54, June 1997, prodigy Michael Holt assumed the mantle of Mister Terrific. He would become a member of the reformed Justice Society of America and even serve as its chairman for a time. The original Crimson Avenger was DC Comic's second superhero, after Superman. He first appeared in Detective Comics #20, October 1938. In Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E. #9, April 2000, an African American woman (whose actual identity is a matter of mystery) took over the mantle of The Crimson Avenger. She has appeared in JSA and Action Comics.

While Mister Terrific and The Crimson Avenger were Golden Age characters, more recent characters could also be revamped with a different ethnicity than that of the original one. The original Firestorm first appeared in the late Seventies and was teenager Ronnie Raymond. Raymond would eventually die in battle with the Shadow Thief (one of the Silver Age Hawkman's rogues gallery). In dying, Firestorm's energy entered African American teenager Jason Rusch. As a result, Rusch had Firestorm's powers. He then assumed the name of Firestorm. He first appeared in Firestorm vol. 3 #1, July 2004. His title was just cancelled this year.

Other African American heroes have appeared as members of superteams. In fact, one appeared as the founder and leader of one. Josiah Power first appeared in JLA #61, February 2002. A successful lawyer, after an alien invasion he found he had the power to take a rock life form and manipulate energy. Josiah Power later founded the Power Company, a superteam with a structure not unlike a law firm. The Power Company was featured in its own title from April 2002 to September 2003.

An African American was also the heroine of Occult Crimes Taskforce, first published with a cover date of July 2006. Occult Crimes Taskforce follows police officer Sophia Ortiz as she finds a bizarre murder and meets up with New York's Occult Crimes Taskforce. The mini-series was co-written by movie star Rosario Dawson and David Atchison and illustrated by Tony Shasteen (Miss Dawson's uncle is comic book artist Gustavo Vazquez).

Not only have new African American characters continued to emerge at the major comic book companies (DC and Marvel), but companies dedicated to publishing comic books featuring African American characters have also emerged. In fact, one was founded the year that Milestone Media folded its comic book line. Gettosake Entertainment was founded in 1997. They are perhaps best known for their online, animated character Venus Kincaid, about a government agent who finds herself turned younger, even though she still has the knowledge and skills of an adult. A feature film based on the cartoon is set for release sometime this year. Another Gettosake character is Fierce, an FBI psychic profiler who finds himself on the run. Fierce appeared in a four issue limited series of the same name published by Dark Horse Comics in 2004. Other published Gettosake titles are Chocolate Thunder and Shadow Rock.

Another company dedicated to producing African American comic book characters is Griot Enterprises. They published the series The Horsemen, an apocalyptic tale in which four ordinary people find themselves possessed by African gods. Griot also published WitchDoctor. The series focused on Dr. Jovan Carrington, who used voodoo to combat evil.

A more recent company whose goal is the creation of African American characters is the Guardian Line, founded by Milestone co-founder Michael Davis in cooperation with Urban Ministries Inc. The goal of Guardian Line is to publish comic books featuring African American characters with strong Christian themes. Currently they are publishing four titles: Code, Joe and Max, Genesis Five, and Seekers. Code follows a mysterious, Shadow type figure who possesses advanced technology and an in depth knowledge of the Christian Bible. Joe and Max follows the adventures of an eleven year old boy, Joe, who befriends his own guardian angel, Max. Genesis Five centres upon five angels who take the appearance of teenagers. Seekers follows a group of young time travellers.

It is notable that both Gettosake and Griot have met with some success, although neither is in the position to challenge the three major comic book companies (DC, Marvel, and Dark Horse) as of yet. And it remains to be seen how much success Guardian Line will meet with. I rather suspect that much of the hurdle small companies publishing African American characters face is the same that any small comic book company faces: lacking the distribution of the majors, and yet having to compete with the majors and their well established characters. When faced with companies that have been around for around seventy years (DC and Marvel) that own the best names in the business, it is probably difficult for any company to survive


In the seventy four years that the comic book industry has existed, there has been a good deal of progress made with regards to African American characters. In the early days nearly every African American character was drawn in the blackface caricature and spoke in minstrel show dialect. By the late Forties, African American characters had emerged who were more realistic. Although African American characters disappeared in the Fifties, the Sixties saw black superheroes emerge. By the Eighties it was not unusual for African American heroes to headline their own titles. And the Nineties saw the rise of a company whose goal was to give more exposure to minority characters, including African American ones. Given the typical African American character in the early Forties was Whitewash from Young Allies, it can be said that a good deal of progress had been made.

That having been said, it would seem that such progress has not been enough. When one examines the percentage of European American characters versus African American characters, that percentage still does not realistically reflect the population of the United States of America. What's more, even though it has been forty one years since the first appearance of The Black Panther, only two African American comic book characters have any sort of name recognition--Blade and Spawn. Now it is very unlikely that any character, whether African American or European American, will ever achieve the sort of name recognition possessed by Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man. The plain fact is that comic books simply don't possess the pop culture clout they did in the Thirties and Sixties. The only reason Blade is famous is because of his three feature films, not his comic book appearances. That having been said, the sad fact is that most African American comic book characters don't even have the name recognition of Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, The X-Men, or Captain Marvel. It is difficult to say why this is the case, but it could be due to the underrepresentation of African American characters in the titles published by the major comic book companies. After all, it is less likely for an African American character to become a breakout success if there are only a few of them around.

This is particularly sad as it seems that an African American could achieve the same success as The X-Men or The Incredible Hulk. If Milestone Media proved one thing, it was that an African American character could be popular enough to warrant a Saturday morning, What is more, Static's cartoon lasted four years, an overly long time for any Saturday morning product. And it seems highly unlikely that every viewer who watched Static Shock was African American. This shows that an African American character can appeal to broad enough an audience to have a good deal of success. Quite simply, it seems possible to me that an African American character could achieve the sort of popularity necessary to become a multimedia franchise in the same way that The X-Men have. It can only be hoped that the major comic book companies wake up to this possibilities or that one of the characters from the smaller companies becomes an breakout success. While a good deal of progress has been made in the past seventy years, there needs to be more progress made.

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