What Color Is a Superhero?

More black people are obsessing over comic books than ever before.

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Today, with the much-hyped release of Watchmen, is a Holy Day in superhero comic book Geek Nation. The movie, an adaptation of the acclaimed graphic novel, has gotten mixed reviews, but that will not diminish the high level of interest among the comic book devotees flocking to theaters all weekend to see it.

But maybe more interesting than the movie itself is the changing face of the new American comic book fanatic. The perennial image of the white, nerdy, suburban kid locked away in the basement with his boxes of comic books is no longer operative because as America browns, the comic book audience is browning with it.

Ethnic diversity is worming its way into the panels of superhero comic books and into the legions of people who love them; the midnight lines for Watchmen were more diverse than it would have been 20 years ago. In Junot Diaz’ Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the title character escapes into comic books, science fiction and role-playing games to cope with the miseries of his life. This further alienates the already shy, awkward and overweight Oscar from his peers in their Dominican-American neighborhood in New Jersey because he can’t share his geeky sensibilities with anyone.

But judging by the “diversity” of superheroes, storm troopers and anime samurai who descended on midtown Manhattan for the New York Comic Con at the Jacob K. Javits Center last month, if Oscar had been born a decade later, he wouldn’t have been so lonely. These days, comic book fans are likely to see 1970s TV Hulk Lou Ferrigno signing autographs and Method Man browsing leather gauntlets and dapping fans. The pasty-white kids dressed up as Captain America and Spider-Man are still there, but today’s costumes at Comic Con are as common as a fresh fade and a bomber jacket. Issues of Spider-Man featuring Nerd in Chief Obama’s smiling grill, now in its fourth printing, are hocked to the greedy crowd of geeks looking for the best comics schwag. The throng of comic fans, clad in homemade tributes to their favorite characters, now includes heroes with names like Mr. Terrific, Static Shock and Black Panther.

“Black urban youth have always identified [with superheroes], partly because the audience is downtrodden, and partly because [superheroes] always live in cities,” says Professor Jonathan Gray, who teaches a class on graphic novels at John Jay University. “The cops are hassling Spider-Man. Well, the cops harass me. Spider-Man rides the C Train, I ride the C train … This is sort of a native audience.”

Gray, a tall, slender man with long dreadlocks and a speckle of gray in his goatee, was attending a panel set up by BET to promote their new prime-time animated series inspired by Marvel Comics’ Black Panther. Black Panther, a Stan Lee creation whose first appearance in 1966 predates Huey’s party, is the comic world’s first black superhero and a sometime member of Marvel’s flagship superhero team, The Avengers. Black Panther is an African king who resides in the fictional nation of Wakanda, and his advanced technology sent would-be colonizers fleeing in terror.

Aiming to capitalize on the changing demographics of comic book fans, the affable former CEO of BET, Reggie Hudlin, has been penning Black Panther as a side gig, bringing a racial sensibility to Marvel Comics that is helping to attract a more diverse audience.

“There’s these other people who don’t come into the comic book store, who come into it now because of Black Panther,” boasts Hudlin. Now he wants to entice his new fans to park themselves in front of the television and watch his new show, which features actors Djimon Hounsou and Kerry Washington.

And then when it comes to race in comics, the big questions are not as other-worldly as one might think. Even here, at Comic Con, post-racialism rears its nagging, pleading head. One middle-aged man in a snug T-shirt tells Hudlin how much he liked Black Panther as a kid, “because he wasn’t just another black guy,” and asks whether this will be the version of Black Panther who ends up on the show, suggesting that superheroes are the ultimate post-racial figures. “You know, when you put on a mask, you don’t have skin color, you’re just a hero like everybody else.”

Hudlin lets the man down gently. “The character did not turn on his ethnicity,” he says diplomatically, “but he was an African king. That’s about as poignant a statement as you can make.”

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