February is known for quite a few things. Among its traits is being the shortest month of the year. In February, you’ll also find Groundhog Day, Valentine’s Day, and Canada’s Flag Day. Another particular is the celebration of black history in North America. I feel it’s only fitting that we pay homage to some of comics’ important black figures and characters in this issue. There have been many African-American characters that broke ground, paving the way for some of the more iconic ones that followed. Whether successful or not, the importance of the following in comic book history, not just black comic book history, but the entire industry’s should not go unnoticed.
One of the first appearances of a black character in comics came in 1934, when creators Lee Falk and Phil Davis introduced Lothar in their daily comic strip Mandrake the Magician. Lothar was Mandrake’s personal servant, who was more of an African stereotype, speaking broken English and wearing a fez and leopard skin over his clothing. But when artist Davis passed away in 1965, Fred Fredericks replaced him and helped modernize Lothar. Upon his arrival, Lothar spoke proper English and was better clothed, not limited to any more African jungle-men clichés.
In 1947, a historical piece titled All-Negro Comics #01 was published. This was the brainchild of Orrin C. Evans, who helped break colour barriers years earlier by becoming the first African-American reporter to cover mainstream stories for the all-white newspaper The Philadelphia Record. When found without a job, he put together a small team of writers and cartoonists and created many Afrocentric comic books and strips. While work was completed on a second issue of All-Negro Comics, Orrin learned that none of his sources for newsprint would sell to him. Despite the outcome, Orrin C. Evans and his creations helped pave the way for more black creators and characters to come. He is known by many as the “Father of Black Comics Books”.
Among the first black characters to break into the mainstream was Waku, Prince of the Bantu. His first appearance came in the 1950’s in Jungle Tales by Atlas Comics, who would later become giants Marvel Comics. Waku starred in stories that featured few to no Caucasian characters, thus making it a pioneer in all-black comics in the mainstream.
Another original came from Dell Comics in 1975, who introduced Lobo. This was the first ever black western hero to star in his own self-titled book. Unfortunately, he didn’t last long. After the publishers sent out copies to distributors, they would have many of them returned with the packages still unopened. They discovered that many sellers were opposed to putting a black western hero on their shelves. A victim of racism, Lobo was a short-lived experience, but one that has its place in history today.
In those years, black characters began to appear more in comics. But they didn’t hit their stride until the mainstream companies like DC and Marvel decided to create more.
For Marvel, a big step was taken in Fantastic Four #52. This issue marks the first appearance of T’Challa, best known as the Black Panther. He was a king of the fictional and technically advanced African nation of Wakanda, hidden from the rest of the world. To think of him as some brute and mindless jungle man would be a huge underestimation. T’Challa is among the smartest people in the world, up there with geniuses like Tony Stark, Reed Richards, and Bruce Banner. He has proven to be honourable, brave, powerful, and highly skilled in hand-to-hand combat. He is known as Africa’s version of Captain America. The Black Panther is arguably the most recognizable and iconic black character in not only superhero comics, but all of comics.
Marvel took another big step in 1972. Luke Cage: Hero for Hire highlighted the tales of one Luke Cage, the first African-American character to receive his own eponymous title. Being created during a blaxploitation trend that began in Hollywood, Luke Cage was a stereotyped black man in America. He spoke in slang and used other clichéd mannerisms. But the hero evolved over time, being a more developed character and better portrayed overall, thus climbing the ranks where today, he enjoys being among the more popular characters in comics.
For DC, an initially terrible idea metamorphosed into a great one. The company had plans for a character named The Black Bomber, who would be their first black superhero to star in his own series. But an embarrassing characteristic of Bomber was that he was racist towards white people. But what some comic book historians feel was disgusting was that Bomber’s beliefs were a disgrace to any opinion and an insult to anyone with a point of view on anything, not just racism. Thankfully, this character never saw the light of day.
But The Black Bomber would be made over by Tony Isabella, who also worked on Luke Cage for Marvel. His experience for writing a black character was instrumental on why DC wanted him to create a new first black hero star for the company. The final result was called Black Lightning, a hero who fought alongside the Justice League for many years.
While many of the more popular black characters in comics are male, one must not exclude the females who helped make an impact. Easily the most popular black female is Storm of Marvel Comics. Fighting alongside and leading on many occasions the mutant team the X-Men, Storm became one of the first African women in the majors. She recently embraced her African roots when she wed The Black Panther, becoming king and queen of Wakanda. Other black females deserving of attention are Marvel’s Misty Knight and DC’s Vixen and Thunder, the daughter of Black Lightning.
I can definitely go on and on about how many great black characters in comics there are. I believe that I will list a few honourable mentions instead. Among the best you’ll find Blade, Bishop, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Steel, Falcon, The Spectre (Crispus Allen), War Machine, Spawn, Static, Aqualad, Doctor Mid-Nite, Mister Terrific, Strafe, Jack-in-the-Box, and the list is seemingly endless.
But not only were black characters important, but so were some of the creators. In a medium that is mostly made up of Caucasians, there are African-American writers and artists who left their mark as well. Matt Baker is credited as the first ever black comic book artist, working way back in the 1930’s. Matt Baker, Denys Cowan, and Billy Graham have also done great work as artists. Writer Christopher Priest has worked on many of the major books as well as numerous independent titles. Lenny Fuller is a writer/artist pioneer in underground comics who assured that the voices of black creators was heard.
A special focus is brought to black comics in the East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention (ECBACC), an annual convention highlighting the African-American characters, creators, and companies of comics. An annual Black Panel is also organized at San Diego Comic-Con International, the world’s second and North America’s biggest comic book convention of the year.
While racism and racial preferences are always present, I am happy and proud to say that the comic book industry I love is not one charged by such issues. Generally, fans and creators alike understand that while at times a character’s race can be a factor in their traits, most of them are not affected by it. Spider-Man, Batman or Superman could just as easily be something other than white and the stories would still have the same impact. But the truth is, things are perfectly fine the way they are because so many great black comic book characters are special because they are who they are and no one can take that away from them.