Black Comic Books And The Long Journey To Positive Representation

With the release of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther just around the corner (Feb. 16), comic book fans and moviegoers alike are understandably amped to volunteer their coins and support the latest film adaptation in the Marvel family. Additionally, fans have been championing the film’s primarily black cast and creative team, and the underlying notion that black people can also be depicted as heroes.

While Wakanda is hardly the first comic book universe to portray black people in a favorable light, it’s monumental to see positive representation of the community in another comic-inspired film. Throughout the history of the comic book medium, black characters have had to face a plethora of racial stereotypes in terms of their depictions.

They were often viewed as uneducated, ghetto caricatures with highly exaggerated physical features. Early examples of black characters who embodied the societal and physical stereotypes include Lothar from 1939’s Mandrake The Magician (a hulking, primitive companion of the titular character) and Ebony White from 1940’s The Spirit (a sidekick drawn with big pink lips and a Minstrel-style speech pattern).

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CREDIT: Eisner & Iger/ chaostrophobic.com

Even the Black Panther comic book treaded murky waters, according to Dr. Sheena C. Howard, an associate professor at Rider University and the Eisner-Award winning author of the book Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation (2013).

“Early versions of Black Panther were problematic and stereotypical, in the ways Africa was portrayed and the assumptions made about Africa,” Dr. Howard shared via e-mail. “[The] Black Panther—who is African, not black American—made for a character that was more easily distanced from the rigid stereotypes in media that white and Jewish creators leaned on. This allowed for [Jack] Kirby and [Stan] Lee to paint a picture of a black king who was royalty, but also [a character who] a fan base would accept.”

While the physical characteristics of black comic book characters changed in the 1970s and ‘80s, negative stereotypes were carried over by way of storylines reminiscent of the Blaxploitation era. Dr. Howard points out that male characters during this time were often depicted as “jive talkin’, inner city black men who didn’t have any healthy relationships with black women.”

There didn’t seem to be an effective shift in the distorted way blacks were portrayed in comics until the 1990s. Through the development of companies such as Milestone Media, black creators like the late-Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis and Derek T. Dingle were able to create the representational change they wanted to see.

“In some ways, the 1990s were considered the ‘Dark Age’ of comics, but what happened in the ‘90s was a boom in independent comic companies and self-publishing,” wrote Dr. Howard. “Black creators really took ownership of their characters and gained control and access to publish the things they wanted to see outside of the ‘Big Two’ [Marvel and DC]. I think this shift was also inspired by the diversity in film, which inspired the black community to imagine shows like The Cosby Show, In Living Color, Family Matters, etc.”

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Comic book characters such as Image Comics’ Spawn, Milestone Media’s Static Shock and Icon, and the first & only black lesbian hero, Amanda (Amanda and Gunn), were created during the ‘90s. All displayed the positive attributes, diversity and multi-dimensionality of black people. According to Dr. Howard, Luke Cage showrunner Cheo Coker, costume illustrator Phillip Boutte Jr., and comic artists Eric Battle and Alitha Martinez are just a few people who have exceptionally displayed the complexities of blackness to a wide range of audiences within the comic world.

“[Netflix’s Luke Cage] showed black people interacting with other black people in their communities and shows a diversity of opinions on issues in the black community—from the way communities organize, to diverse thoughts on the n-word, to black relationships,” she explains. “Lion Forge, a black-owned company, does a great job of depicting diverse characters across many different titles.”

Integrating characters into a story without first-hand knowledge of societal experiences can pose a challenge to certain writers, in this case, writers who aren’t minorities. For this, sensitivity readers come in handy.

“Some people cringe at sensitivity readers, but sensitivity readers are usual when writers are writing characters with identities that they do not readily relate to,” says Dr. Howard. “Writers might have good intentions in wanting to diversify characters, but they have to do the work to try to get it right. For underrepresented people, negative representations can mean swaying public opinion and creating associations that really linger in the minds of people.”

For example, I am writing Superb for Lion Forge, a monthly comic book series,” she continues. “The lead superhero has Down syndrome. My co-writer and I, as well as Lion Forge, worked closely with the National Down Syndrome Society in reviewing the way we write the character.”

Now more than ever, there’s not only a want for more representation of black characters who defy cliches and stereotypes, but a need, making the hype surrounding Black Panther so prevalent. The film not only highlights true black excellence, but also serves as a metaphorical “fists up” moment for black comic book creatives, who have been fighting for respect and better representation within their field.

“Comics represent imagination and inspiring people to imagine things beyond their realities,” Dr. Howard concludes. “This makes comics representation important, especially during a time when the President of the United States considers African countries ‘sh*tholes’… these characters have the power to inspire [and] to imagine better days, and also provide a sense of escapism from the everyday realities of being black in America. The superhero is a story of overcoming trials, beating the odds and good winning over evil.”