In the world of comics, iconic figures such as Superman, Spider-man, Batman and the like; have made their indelible impression on both the mythos of heroes in general and the comic book genre specifically. Yet, there are other characters, perhaps not as well known, who nevertheless contributed to the love and appreciation we share for our heroes. These “super” heroes – often relegated to a second tier status relative to the preponderance of characters that are Euro-centric in nature – reflect the diversity that is part and parcel of the American landscape. These are the superheroes of color, many of whom inspired a generation of readers emerging out of the throes of the civil rights movement. These groundbreaking characters had (and continue to have) a significant impact on the portrayal and utilization of minorities within the comic genre. Gone are the days when characters of color were no more than a convenient backdrop in a splash panel. Their stories are our stories…So get ready for a trip down memory lane, because here are the top ten comic book superheroes of color.
10. El Gato Negro
This guy makes the list almost on the coolness of his name alone. In English, The Black Cat doesn’t particularly invoke any sense of dread. But “El Gato Negro”? Yeah, now that’s cool. Actually, with the criteria that I used for this list, EGN was a close selection because of the relatively short period of time that he has been around and the limited recognition (outside of comic aficionados) of the character. But the truth of the matter is that Latino characters are in short supply and woefully underrepresented in the industry. But this isn’t a pity selection either. EGN has a fairly sizable following of fans (you can check out his Facebook page if you don’t believe me), and with good reason.
When the character debuted in 1993 in El Gato Negro #1, the level and intensity of the writing (followed by an impressive word of mouth campaign) allowed the series to completely sale out on its first printing. That’s no small feat considering that the publisher, a small startup called Azteca Productions, was trying to find its place in an industry dominated by the Big Two (DC and Marvel comics). EGN creator Richard Dominquez, however, tapped into something special. His character, paying homage to the moody and dark style of the Dark Knight Detective, as well as the generation spanning mythos behind the Phantom created a character that resonated with many readers. EGN is a so-called “street level” hero. He doesn’t have any powers, but he has a driving determination to rid his community of the festering disease of crime.
Leaving the cosmic battles to others, EGN is taking down the mob bosses, drug dealers and the dregs that populate the underworld of the American southwest. Dominquez’s creation, resonating with a contemporary readership that demands a high degree of realism and believability in their comics, sparked a deluge of Latino inspired characters. And that alone is enough to earn EGN a spot on this list.
Black Lightning was DC comic’s first African American character to star in his own title, debuting in “Black Lightning” #1 in 1977. Amazingly, though not surprisingly, DC was several years behind the ground breaking work over at rival Marvel Comics, who had introduced a number of black character in prominent roles by this time. In fact, Black Lightning co-creator Tony Isbella had previously worked on Marvel’s Luke Cage (#2 on this list) title. If I remember correctly (and it’s been awhile), BL was the first book I read that featured a black hero in his own adventures. It left an impression on me, and no doubt others, of the possibilities that lay ahead.
The BL character was one that came across as a role model and this is exactly what writer Isabella intended. While the character followed an annoying trend among characters of color introduced in the 70s to append the word “black” to their name, wore the standard deep V-neck cut disco shirt and sported a blowout afro (which was a wig); he nevertheless rose above the stereotype. BL, in his civilian persona, was a school teacher, a gold medalist decathlete and a responsible family man. He was a man who was dedicated to serving and protecting his community. So much so, that in an issue of the Justice League, he is offered membership by fellow street level crusader Green Arrow. Feeling, however, that time with the League and its world saving activities would take away from his responsibilities at home, he declines.
BL’s own book would be short lived (both incarnations). Yet the character continued to be active in DC continuity. He was a prominent member of Batman’s team called the Outsiders and would eventually accept active membership in the League and become one of its key members. BL is also one of the few active heroes with children who are also superheroes. Both of the characters daughters have donned tights and taken to the streets to battle crime. This reluctant hero has always risen to the challenge and that’s a trait we can all strive to live up to.
8. The Falcon
Honestly, this guy should probably be higher up the list. The body of work of this character is as great as or greater than anyone on this list (and a good number of heroes in general). The Falcon was introduced in Captain America #117 in 1969. As with any Stan Lee (and Gene Golan) creation, you can expect great things. He was, of course ground breaking. While not the first character of color to have a prominent role within the Marvel universe (that distinction goes to the number 1 entry on our list), the Falcon is the first African-American to be heavily featured in a title. And heavily featured he was.
The Falcon appeared (in fact, was co-billed) in The “Captain America and the Falcon” title from 1971-1978. This character is more readily identifiable as Captain America represents the living embodiment of the American dream and way of life. Teaming this blonde, blue eyed, all-American white guy up with a brother in a silly costume (yep, deep cut V-neck disco shirt) spoke volumes to a generation of readers (especially white readers) during the civil rights era. Stan Lee is a visionary, and he let his words and pictures speak poignantly to the issues of the day. The Falcon has always been portrayed as the proud, strong and professional hero. He, for example, renounced his membership in the Avengers when he found out that he had been selected to fulfill a government quota. Though he would later rejoin the group (and play a significant role therein), the Falcon continued to have a highly visible role in the Marvel universe, especially with Captain America.
With no powers to speak of (at least in the beginning – his link to his bird Redwing is not much of a power- though this has been expanded somewhat), the Falcon had to rely on his fighting prowess, his wits and determination in the face of super powered criminals for much of his early career. In short, the Falcon is a hero among heroes.
7. Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu
If you’re not a child of the 70s, then you probably won’t understand the popularity of this character (or even who he is). Suffice to say that when Bruce Lee dragon kicked his way into American theaters, there was a kung Fu explosion. EVERYONE was Kung Fu fighting (ok – who got that line?). Marvel Comics, always responding to the trends of the times, introduced their entry into the martial arts craze in the form of Shang-Chi. Representing the only Asian to star in his own title, Shang-Chi was surprisingly popular. I say surprising because marital arts is a visual form that doesn’t necessarily translate well to print mediums.
However the strong writing and capturing visuals of creators Steve Englehart and Jim Starlin, respectively, aptly overcame this obstacle. Debuting in Special Marvel Edition #15 (1973) Shang-Chi would move to his own self-titled book the same year and would continue until 1983. No powers, no costume and he lasted 10 years. The strength of the character derived from superior writing and engaging stories. The genesis of Shang-Chi, interestingly, is the result of fusing elements from the Fu Manchu stores and the Kung Fu television series (properties that Marvel had access to at the time). Considering the individual success of both of those entities, one supposes there is little surprise that the comic was successful as well as, martial arts. What was significant is that Marvel chose to use an Asian character as their main entry.
There were other marital arts characters available (Iron Fist, The White Tiger, the Daughters of the Dragon, etc.), and any one of them could have been chosen. After the cancellation of his book, Shang-Chi saw limited action in the Marvel universe. That trend has been reversed as of late as the character has enjoyed a rebirth as a member of the Secret Avengers. Through intense discipline and dedication to his craft, Shang-Chi was able to engage and defeat enemies that were more powerful than he was. In the age of heroes that can move planets – the Shang-Chi’s are a breath of fresh air.
6. The Character of Milestone Comics
Much in the same vein as Azteca Productions and #10 entry, El Gato Negro, the characters of Milestone Comics opened up a flood gate of possibility. Debuting in the same year (1993) as Azteca Productions, Milestone Media (of which Milestone Comics is a part of) was started by a group of African American writers and artist. They all shared the belief that minorities were underrepresented in the comic industry.
Interestingly, one of the founders, the late Dwayne McDuffie, commented that they wanted to avoid the burden of representing an entire demographic that comes with writing just one character or producing one book. Therefore, in order to provide a wide spectrum of characterization they would have to produce several books. This they did. In an unprecedented move, Millstone struck a deal with DC Comics to publish and distribute the comics. Milestone would retain their label, as well as the copyrights and editorial control over the characters. With one of the ‘big boys’ behind them, Milestone launched four new titles – all featuring characters of color: Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate and Static. The endeavor was historic. Never before had so many heroes of color appeared as featured characters in their own titles. And the stories were powerful and fresh. Take the Blood Syndicate, for example. These were the ultimate anti-heroes. Essentially, the team is a street gang comprised of various street gang members that gain super powers. Where do they do that? Yet the characters – African American and Latino – were so much more than what the normal street gang stereotype portrays. These were flawed men and women, to be sure, who were struggling to overcome their circumstances the best they knew how. There was Icon – a super powered brother on a level with Superman.
While DC aliens tended to be white (just look at the majority of the members of the Legion of Superheroes), Icon was black. And a former slave. Who fought in the civil war. I mean the thought and imagination behind these characters and their stories was truly new age stuff. Unfortunately, with the whole speculation debacle in the late 90s, Milestone Comics didn’t survive. Currently, the characters have been folded into the DC universe and continuity. This is a good thing because these character and their stories need to be seen and told.
Sadly, Storm is the only woman of color on this list. This points to the dearth of female characters in general (though this has been increasingly addressed in recent years) and female characters of color specifically. Nevertheless, Storm is an equal to any of her male counterparts – racial factors aside. Splashing on the scene in 1975 in the pages of Giant Size X-Men #1; the X-Men, mutants and the Marvel universe has not been the same since.
Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, Storm and the new X-Men were replacements for the original team of young mutants. The newer team members were older, experienced, independent and multicultural. Again, Marvel was on the ground floor and running, when it came to confronting social issues. Storm, for her part, would become an integral member of the X-Men for the next 30+ years. Strong, regal (she’s a Kenyan princess on her mother’s side), and loyal – Storm personifies the qualities of a true hero. The interesting thing about Storm is that not only is she black and a woman (two factors that can work against one in this society), but she is also a mutant. In the Marvel universe – that’s like having four strikes against you all at once.
Nevertheless, like many of her mutant teammates, Storm fights against racism and oppression for the betterment of all. As leader of the X-men team, she has consistently shown her strength and dedication to this cause. More recently, Marvel decided to stage their own wedding of the century when Storm and T’Challa – the king of Wakanda (and the Black Panther) married. Now she’s a queen to boot. And true to her character, instead of choosing to be either an X-Man or a queen, Storm chose to do both. As one of the first black characters to have a feature role in comic, and the first woman of color to do so; Storm has represented herself well among the pantheon of heroes.
4. Green Lantern (John Stewart)
The Green Lantern Corps is DC comics intergalactic police force – charged with protecting the known universe. Wielding rings that tap into the emerald energy of will power, these cosmic cops are among the most powerful characters in the DC Universe. Prominent among these Lanterns is All-American Air Force pilot Hal Jordan, who was the titled Green Lantern character.
I love the concept and the character. The primary requirement was that a Green Lantern was a person without fear. Already in love with the mythos and character, I was taken to the next level when DC introduced John Stewart in 1972. Created by Dennis O’Neal and Neal Adams, John Stewart is a former marine and an architect who is chosen as Hal Jordan’s stand-in. A black green lantern! I was blown away. The character was portrayed as somewhat head strong and apt to go against authority in favor of his methods. Yet his motives were always pure. Initially, the character was only used sporadically. Gradually, he has taken on a much more visible role in the DC continuity. He is prominently featured in a lead role (with Hal Jordan) in the current Green Lantern title and other Green Lantern related stories.
He is a key member of the JLA and has been the Green Lantern of choice in the most recent cartoons featuring the team. It’s rare that a character of color (at least among the Big Two) holds the distinction of being one of the most powerful characters. In John Stewart’s case, this fact has been offset by his humanity and strength of character. He makes mistakes (big ones that cost lives) and has battled with self-doubt. He’s been to the brink of depression and yet, he has always fought back. A man who believes in honor and obligation, the character has represented himself well and earned his spot in the pantheon of great heroes.
3. Spawn (Al Simons)
This character is the ultimate anti-hero. He is, after all, an emissary of hell; charged with the duty of leading the forces of evil (literally) against heaven. You can’t get much more “anti” than that. Dark, moody and extremely dangerous, Spawn exploded on to the scene in 1992 in the self-titled book “Spawn” #1. The character was one of the flagship books that launched Image Comics. Created, written and illustrated by Todd McFarlane, Spawn was something no one had seen before. A key theme in the stories is this running battle between heaven and hell, a focus McFarlane (an acclaimed atheist) uses for dramatic effect. Renegade demons, mercenary Angels and the like dominate the book. In the midst of this, Spawn’s only desire is to see his wife again.
Not particularly happy with being a Spawn, upset (to put it lightly) that his wife is now married to his former best friend, and pissed that his life (old and new) seems to be one death match after another – the character is a cauldron of emotional angst. This constant struggle is played out in gripping story lines and capturing visuals (at least when penned by McFarlane). For a flag ship title to feature an African American character, with strong supporting characters of color as well was a major feat – one that has paid off. And the one aspect that is most enduring about the character’s development (for me at least) is that his racial background is not an issue worth bringing up or highlighting. He’s just another “guy” caught up in a mess not of his own choosing. That’s what’s up.
2. Luke Cage (Power Man)
I loved Power Man as a kid. Hey, it was the seventies (a perfectly understandable excuse). Here was a superhero of color, starring in his self-titled book. He was invulnerable (or nearly so) and had super strength. Considering the actual power levels of other heroes of color at the time (The Panther, Falcon and Black Lightning, for example, were fairly benign), – this guy was like a black superman. Created by Archie Goodwin and John Romita, Sr., Cage burst on the scene in 1972 in the title “Luke Cage: Hero for Hire.” Not coincidentally, I’m sure, popular black themed movies (dubbed Blaxploitation) such as Foxy Brown, Superfly, etc. influenced the characters creation. As such, Cage was poor, based in the ghetto, fought cheesy, over the top black villains, and had an Ebonics laced dialect.
Oh yeah, and he had one of those disco, deep v-cut shirts! (Falcon, Lightning, and Tyroc all had one, too), an afro and a tiara!! Honestly, those early stories were great adventures for an adolescent reader, but fail to hold up over time. Still, the character itself is what is so appealing. Cage is the “every man” type of guy. As they say these days, he was always ‘keeping it real‘.”
He paid the bills using the one commodity he had: his powers. (That’s keeping it real). It is this quality that has allowed Cage a longevity that few characters, black or white, experience. From his own title book, to the long running ‘Power Man and Iron Fist’ title, Cage maintained a highly visible presence on comic stands every month for years. Additionally, with stints in the Defenders, the Avengers, and now leader of the Thunderbolts, Cage remains a relative persona in the Marvel Universe. Sweet Christmas indeed!
1. Black Panther
What can be more credible (and cool) than being a superhero AND the monarch of your own nation? And not just some third world, downtrodden country either. Nope, the secluded, African nation of Wakanda is a thriving, technologically superior monarchy. Equally, their king, T-challa, exudes all the requisite characteristics one would expect: bravery, highly intelligent, and in control of seemingly every situation. Upon donning the ceremonial Black Panther garb (the hereditary symbol of Wakadan rulers); T-challa was equally a patriotic defender of his nation, as well as a globetrotting superhero. What else could we expect of a Stan Lee and Jack Kirby creation?
The Panther was the first black mainstream superhero to appear in a comic book (1st appearing in Fantastic Four #52, 1966), beating out Luke Cage, Falcon and John Stewart by a number of years. And to Lee’s and Kirby’s credit, he’s the only black hero who has the term “Black” affixed to his name that actually made sense (Black Goliath, Black Racer, Black Lightning, et al). What really sets the panther apart, however, is the excellent writing that has accompanied the characters journey in various titles throughout the years.
With abilities that were more akin to Batman, a genius level intellect, and a wealth of resources at his support; the character has always been portrayed as a strong man of honor and exceptional capability. This was illustrated most exceptionally in the Panther’s self-titled (vol. 3) (1998) comic book written by Christopher Priest/Mark Tereira. If you want to see the Panther at his best, pick up this series. Still, the Panther continues to be much more than a second tier character for Marvel. His solo adventures continued in successive volumes of books, he married the X-man Storm (an industry wide event), and is a member of the Avengers. Where a few black characters have to deal with a lot of stereo typing, the Panther continues to faithfully portray this character as one would expect of a superhero monarch. Bravo.
post by Lee Standberry