Black Panther came out February 16, 2018, making $192 million, the highest of any solo hero film in the MCU. And it was great. But we are not here to talk about just Black Panther, but about black superheroes in general. We previously wrote an article about why representation of minorities is important, but due to the movie and how February is Black History Month, we thought we should take a look at all of the great Black superheroes, whether Marvel or DC, and give them all the spotlight they deserve.
In 1966, 25 year old Huey P. Newton (pictured in the header) founded the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, whose core practice was its armed citizens’ patrols to monitor the behavior of officers of the Oakland Police Department and challenge police brutality in Oakland, California, which is also the location of the opening scene of the film Black Panther. We clearly have not moved very far.
Now taking a look at Marvel Comics, in 1966 a Fantastic Four comic, issue #52, shows us the first ever black superhero, Black Panther. What is surprising though, is this comic came out in July, whereas the political party was founded in October. Not only did Marvel do it first, but there wasn’t even a connection between the two, and Marvel attempted to change their name to Black Leopard, though it didn’t stick.
T’Challa, King of Wakanda, is a man who is from an isolationist nation in central Africa, the only location of the super powerful metal Vibranium. He has fought with the Fantastic Four as well as the Avengers, and even the Illuminati, a group of powerful superheroes who help decide the fate of heroes and the world.
The Falcon was the first African-American superhero (because Black Panther isn’t American), who joined forces with Captain America. While some people might see this as African-Americans always being the sidekick, they have to remember that Steve Rogers was an Irish-Catholic during the 1930s, when they were the also a very ostracized group in America. I’m not saying that what happened to the Irish is worse than black slaves by any means, but that Marvel has always viewed America as a place built upon oppression, and the oppressed rising above their station and becoming greater than the oppressors thought possible. This is important to understand.
…in the late 1960s [when news of the] Vietnam War and civil rights protests were regular occurrences, and Stan [Lee], always wanting to be at the forefront of things, started bringing these headlines into the comics. … One of the biggest steps we took in this direction came in Captain America. I enjoyed drawing people of every kind. I drew as many different types of people as I could into the scenes I illustrated, and I loved drawing black people. I always found their features interesting and so much of their strength, spirit and wisdom written on their faces. I approached Stan, as I remember, with the idea of introducing an African-American hero and he took to it right away. … I looked at several African-American magazines, and used them as the basis of inspiration for bringing The Falcon to life.
–Gene Colan, creator of Falcon
John Stewart Green Lantern
Not to be outdone, DC comics realized they needed to throw their hat into the race. So in 1971 they created a back-up for Green Lantern Hal Jordan, should he ever not be able to fulfill his duty, John Stewart. As the Green Lantern stories continued, however, Stewart took more and more of a front seat, and less of an understudy. “We ought to have a black Green Lantern, not because we’re liberals, but because it just makes sense.”
The heroes of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement were Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. However, both men were not able to continue their cause, because they were shot down and assassinated. Shortly after, Marvel decided that there should be a hero that not only is powerful and black, but that cannot be shot down and assassinated by those who are driven by fear. So they created Luke Cage, Power Man, with super strength, but most importantly, impenetrable skin. While the character was created during the Blaxploitation hype, and as an ex-con, he was wrongfully committed, again much like MLK and Malcolm X.
Netflix has a show called Luke Cage that is a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, that is unapologetically black, set in Harlem, with many allusions to modern day mistreatment such as a bullet-riddled hoodie, similar to that of Trayvon Martin.
1975 rolls around, and Marvel decides to take it another step further, and not just have black superheroes, but black female superheroes! X-Men get Storm, and Luke Cage gets Misty Knight (pictured above). While both ladies are strong female characters, Storm later becomes leader of the X-Men as well as the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning at different times. Taking another step forward towards representation, especially for women.
Cyborg is again taking another step further with disabilities this time. Many superheroes with disabilities tend to not have a major role in who they are. Matt Murdock (Daredevil) is blind, but still can see through his enhanced senses, which actually helps hide his secret identity. Hawkeye is 80% deaf, and while some comics show him communicating in sign language, they completely dropped that from the MCU films. Moon Knight has some form of psychosis, but sometimes he strays from being the hero because of it. Cyborg is the only major full time hero that seems to have a disability that affects him. We really see this in the Teen Titans show, Justice League, and hopefully the upcoming Cyborg movie.
While not the first black superhero, Blade was the first mainstream black superhero movie, which is also definitely worth mentioning. Whats ironic though, is how actor Wesley Snipes was actually trying to create a Black Panther movie, but studios were more open to creating a movie about a vampire hunter in black leather because, you know, the ’90s.
Few superheroes are more popular than Batman and Spider-Man. Rumor has it that the creation of a non-white Spider-Man came from an episode of Community, where actor Donald Glover comes on screen wearing his Spider-Man pjs. This sparked a fan-casting of Glover playing a black version of Spider-Man, and he was all for it. It became so popular that #Donald4Spiderman was trending on twitter, which helped him voice Miles Morales in the animated show Ultimate Spider-Man. This is why it was such a treat to see Glover in Spider-Man: Homecoming as Aaron Davis, with the line “I got a nephew who lives in this neighborhood,” referring to Miles Morales, who has an uncle in the comics by the name Aaron Davis. Aaron Davis is also seen in the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse movie, as the Prowler and Miles’ fun uncle.
Half-black half-Latino, Miles Morales returns the Spider-Man character to a high schooler now that Peter Parker is a full grown adult. Spider-Verse, being the best Spider-Man movie to date, and incredibly popular, he has joined the list of some of the most popular Black superheroes ever.
Nick Fury doesn’t really have a place in the history of black heroes, but it’s a fun story. Nick Fury started as a white David Hasselhoff looking guy, but when his son Nick Fury Jr. grew old enough, he took his fathers place as Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Of course when the artists were deciding on what to make Jr. look like, they threw in Samuel L. Jacksons face for fun.
Sam is famously the coolest man alive, and both myself and artist Bryan Hitch just liberally used him without asking any kind of permission. You have to remember, this was 2001 when we were putting this together. The idea that this might become a movie seemed preposterous, as Marvel was just climbing out of bankruptcy at the time.
–Comic book writer Mark Millar
When asked if he was upset, Jackson responded “Thanks for the nine picture deal!”
Black Lighting, DC hero with a brand new show on the CW.
War Machine, best friend to Iron Man Tony Stark.
Riri Williams is a 15-year-old engineering student, who was able to create her own Iron Man like suit.
There is a lot of history when it comes to People of Color in comics, and as a white man, I won’t always see all of the importance in each one. Forgive me if anything I’ve said here is tone deaf, and feel free to correct me.