Comment: Being Black in a Four-Color World

All Negro Comics #1, courtesy of Tom Christopher
All Negro Comics #1, courtesy of Tom Christopher

It’s an old joke: Why is Black History Month the shortest month of the year?

There’s no punchline to that one, of course. The question is the joke.

In time for Black History Month 2005, Marvel Comics is relaunching the Black Panther in his own series, his fifth including the short-lived, unfortunately-titled but highly-regarded Jungle Action in 1974, by Don McGregor and Billy Graham; and his most recent eponymous incarnation, under the Marvel Knights imprint, which lasted six years under the redefining direction of writer Christopher J. Priest and a passel of artists, before ending in September 2003. This time around, Hollywood director and comic book aficionado, Reginald Hudlin, is at the helm, joined by fan favorite artist John Romita, Jr., promising to lift the Panther’s profile into the upper echelon of the Marvel Universe.

“My goal is to write the definitive Panther. I will write the book for as long as people want to read it, but I know that by the end of the second arc, the character will never be seen the same way again.”
–Reginald Hudlin, Who Is Reginald Hudlin?

How long will people want to read it is the $100,000 question, indeed. And will enough even give it a chance to matter is the bonus question.

Internet chatter has, of course, been predictably mixed w/r/t the announcement, ranging from enthusiastic to skeptical to outright hysterical. Before a single preview page was made available, the particularly ignorant pointed to Hudlin’s resume, which includes the House Party movies and the highly-acclaimed Birth of a Nation graphic novel with Aaron McGruder and Kyle Baker, and lamented his presumed intent to turn T’Challa into a hip-hop gangsta out to dis the white man. When the first issue was finally previewed, they had their proof: an anachronistic “Stay cool. Stay cool.” uttered by a 5th Century African tribesman; and a racist, 21st Century US General uttering a derogatory “jungle bunnies” in the presence of a Condoleeza Rice-analogue.

And the idea that his father would be capable of beating Captain America in hand-to-hand combat? Blasphemy!

Given the track record for comic books fronted by characters of color, this probably isn’t the buzz Marvel was hoping for when they decided to put some real, and admirable, marketing muscle behind this relaunch. But they probably weren’t surprised.

“There is so much work to be done in promoting African-American and minority heroes in comics. There is so much work to be done in educating comics publishers on issues relating to African-American and minority characters, concerns, and creators. There is so much ignorance and unconscious — I sincerely hope — racism which must be overcome.”
–Tony Isabella, “Out of Fairness,” Back Issue Magazine

Why is the Black Panther, a ground-breaking, well-respected character that’s been around as long as most of Marvel’s major icons, such a hard sell? Hell, why is any book featuring a minority character, few and far between to begin with, such a hard sell?

Blade, the lead character in three successful movies in recent years couldn’t carry the latest Tomb of Dracula effort, an admittedly average effort at best that Marvel gave little marketing support to. Certainly no worse, qualitatively, than [insert any of the myriad X-Men-related books here], though.

Even the recently re-launched Amazing Fantasy fronted by Araña, a young Latina with an as-yet-undetermined connection to the cash cow known as Spider-Man, and bolstered by a serious PR-push that netted her a “Woman of the Year” honor from Latina Magazine, was met with an inordinate amount of resistance, much of it attributed to her standing as the first Latina superheroine to front her own title. As a result of their rarity on the front lines, instead of being judged solely on the quality of the title itself, these characters are loaded with the untenable burden of being representatives of their race, often forced either into stereotype or an inoffensive whitewash that strips the individuality and uniqueness from their background, making them just another superhero. And just another cancelled series.

Interestingly, arguably the most successful “black” superhero is Spawn, a character who, thanks to his mask and badly scarred face, most people don’t even realize is black! Or, at least, they don’t have to acknowledge that fact on every page. (Of course, success is relative as Spawn is averaging approx. 35,000 copies/month over the past year, a number Hudlin’s Black Panther will have to at least match, if not double, to really be considered a success.)

“Most people want to read comics or see movies or listen to music they can immediately identify with, and I’m guessing a great majority of people who have never even tried PANTHER have an instinctive notion that they will not be able to identify with the character. But people universally identify with Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson or Muhammad Ali.”
–Christopher J. Priest, “the last time priest discussed the viability of black heroes”

There’s a common point of fact that comes up in conversations about race and the media, one which usually immediately follows a white person questioning the importance of a character’s race, “If it’s a good story, what does it matter?” It probably doesn’t to someone who sees some version of themselves regularly depicted in mass media. Growing up in the 70s and 80s, the majority of the heroes I saw on TV and in the movies and in comics, though, were white. For kids today, there’s a handful of prominent athletes and movie stars of color, the majority of whom enthusiastically shrug off the position of role model.

Star Wars, probably THE movie of my generation gave me a choice between Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. (If I felt like being really sarcastic, I’d point out the black man good enough to voice, but not portray, the evil Darth Vader.) I chose Boba Fett instead because I could at least pretend that, behind that mask, he looked something like me.

“Most comics creators are young (or not as young as they used to be!) white males. Most comics readers are young white males. I think if there were a more diverse creator base creating comics reflecting their unique experiences and perspectives then the audience might also reflect that diversity as well.”
–Lee Dawson, “Why Don’t Black Books Sell?,” The Panel

Today, despite UPN, Will Smith and Benicio Del Toro, there are certain mediums I hold dearer, like comic books, where I still very rarely see people that look like me — a half-Puerto Rican, half-Black American (Africa’s at least four generations removed from my bloodlines). Even behind the scenes, where these kinds of changes always start, beyond a select handful of writers like Quesada, Priest, McDuffie, and…? — I’m not even aware of particular names to seek out.

So when a Black Panther or an Araña pop up, or even an El Gato Negro, fronting their own series, I’m going to support them — assuming a good, or at least inoffensive storyline, of course — in the hopes that their success becomes contagious and more like them follow. Bravo to Marvel for making the commitment. Hopefully the audience will meet them halfway…

As much as I love Batman and can relate to Peter Parker, I want heroes I can call my own; heroes that look something like me, and deal with problems like mine; heroes that I can share with my kids as they grow up so they don’t have to look to a Boba Fett, his face always hidden behind a mask, his true identity unclear. They’ll have more than enough of that to deal with in the real world.

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One thought on “Comment: Being Black in a Four-Color World

  1. Where are the creators of color in the comic book industry? There’s plenty of artists, relatively speaking, but where are the writers? WHO are they? Names and links to web sites would be most appreciated as I ultimately want to put together my own online version of Writers on Comics Scriptwriting, featuring both writers of color and women.

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