This month marks the 70th anniversary of the first appearance of Superman. This means that it’s basically the 70th birthday of superheroes in general.
While I find the pre-WWII Superman very interesting– back when he couldn’t fly, didn’t have heat vision or x-ray vision, when he was just an enormously strong man who jumped around, and meted out social justice…
Superman gets enough attention already.
I want to talk about black superheroes.
Now, it’s no secret that comic books have, historically, been kind of horrible in terms of race. Even the great Will Eisner gave his detective character the Spirit a sidekick named Ebony White, who while he was quite human in his portrayal (especially later in the comic’s run), was little more than a manservant in blackface.
There weren’t any black superheroes for nearly thirty years of the genre’s existence. Eventually, in the sixties, black heroes started appearing. And they were very creatively named! In the next few years, you see the appearance of such heroes as the Black Panther, Black Goliath (especially creative, as he was a black man who took on the powers and costume of the superhero Goliath), Black Vulcan, and Black Lightning… More on him in a moment.
To add insult to injury, many of these black superheroes were not only ridiculously named, but were basically just patently ridiculous. In the competition for Worst Superhero Ever, two serious contenders come from this first wave of black superheroes in the late sixties and early seventies:
In one corner, you have Jack Kirby’s Black Racer, a black guy in a ridiculously colorful costume who serves as a harbinger of death. (And yet he’s not a villain.) Oh, and did I mention he gets around on cosmic skis?
In the other corner, you have the inimitable Mal Duncan, who has the dubious honor of being one of the few superheroes I remember thinking was stupid when I was five. Mal was an inner-city teen who became a member of the Teen Titans, basically the League of Superhero Sidekicks. Mal, however, wasn’t a sidekick. He didn’t have any powers. He didn’t have any demonstrable abilities, for that matter. Moreover, he didn’t even have a costume or a secret identity. He was just the Teen Titans’ token black friend, basically. Eventually, they gave him a magic horn, and he became the incredible Hornblower. Worst name ever. One of the worst powers. And still not much of a costume.
But still, it could have been worse. I recently encountered this article in Neil Polowin’s The Hembeck Files!, reprinting a column by Tony Isabella, creator of Black Lightning, the first black superhero to have a solo book published by DC, the publisher of Superman and Batman.
The name’s a bit of a stinker, yeah, but Black Lightning had some things to recommend him. Electrical powers are pretty impressive. He kept most of his adventures in his neighborhood– he gave back to the community. Moreover, dude was a teacher! How cool is a schoolteacher superhero?
Moreover, he was a lot better than the original idea the editors proposed, the Black Bomber. I’ll just quote Isabella on this one, he says it better than I could:
I will say that I created Black Lightning after convincing DC not to publish another “black” super-hero on which they had started work. The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he’d taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle.
In each of the two completed Black Bomber scripts, the white bigot risks his own life to save another person whom he can’t see clearly (in one case, a baby in a stroller) and then reacts in racial slur disgust when he discovers that he risked his life to save a black person. He wasn’t aware that he had two identities, but each identity had a girlfriend and the ladies were aware of the change. To add final insult, the Bomber’s costume was little more than a glorified basketball uniform.
DC had wanted me to take over writing the book with the third issue. I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments…
“Do you REALLY want DC’s first black super-hero to be a white bigot?”