The Racist Roots of the Black Comic Book Villain

With the emergence of black superheroes came an array of black bad guys whose storylines were just flat-out racist.

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Electro-Spider-Man-Sony-Pictures
Jamie Foxx as Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Sony Pictures

In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which opened Friday, actor Jamie Foxx plays Max Dillon, a dorky genius, uncomfortable in his own skin, locked out of enjoying the fruits of his own labor at science-technology company Oscorp by supervisors who belittle him. But after a horrific lab accident—as is often the case in comic books—Foxx’s body and mind change. After falling into an oversized fish tank and being shocked by cables, wires and eels, his left-for-dead body morphs into one with the ability to project, absorb and manipulate electricity with deadly precision. 

For men of color, it is easy to relate and see how Foxx’s intense portrayal of Electro is indicative of the black male mindset in corporate America. He’s a brother who has been used for his genius by corporate higher-ups but lacks the voice and power to stand up for himself. But as the role is quickly reversed from nerd to twisted, power-hungry villain, the birth of Electro brings him control over life and death. A lambasted black man who is suddenly given a superpower with which he can get even with his former oppressors? Sounds like something straight out of a Tea Party member’s nightmare. 

Electro, who was first introduced in The Amazing Spider-Man No. 9 in 1964, wasn’t the only brother who’d had a similar issue with “the man.” Thunderbolt, of the Wrecking Crew, who first appeared in 1974’s Defenders Vol. 1., No. 17, was often called Marvel Comics’ black Bruce Banner because of his genius-level intellect in the field of gamma radiation study. He turned bad because his scientific discovery was stolen by corporate higher-ups. 

But just as in life, the sensibilities of bad guys are seldom as simple as black and white. African-American characters as a whole first began to proliferate in DC Comics and Marvel in the late ’60s. Their sensibilities, as penned by white writers who initially struggled to carve out a niche for comic book characters of African descent, were socially motivated and reflected the turbulent times from which they were spawned. 

The Black Panther and Power Man were among the first superheroes of African descent. But there were many obscure black villains and antiheroes created around them with some story lines that were flat out racist. 

Black Panther’s archenemy was Man-Ape. He first appeared in Avengers No. 62 (1969) and gets his powers from bathing in blood and eating the flesh of the white gorilla, which gave him superhuman strength and agility. A large black man, in a white gorilla suit, juxtaposed against the racist idea of black men behaving savagely and looking like apes sounds more than a little bit racist.

A full year before DC Comics’ first black superhero, Black Lightning, appeared in 1977, the comic company published a story featuring its first black villain or antihero—depending upon your point of view. His name was Tyroc. With his rather hip-hop-sounding moniker, Tyroc first appeared in Superboy No. 216 in 1976. He was a former slave turned racial separatist who lived in the 30th and 31th centuries. It was a time when all black people in the world had exiled themselves to an interdimensional island off the coast of Africa. Tyroc’s power was his voice, which emitted power blasts with the ability to—among other things—destroy, teleport and fly. So, a black man living on an island of black people off the coast of Africa whose powerful voice is his superpower?

OK. When he rocks the mic, he rocks the mic right, huh?

In the 2003 book The Legion Companion, by Glen Cadigan, the author revealed that Jim Shooter, one of DC’s artists in the ’70s (a white guy), was repeatedly shot down in his attempts to create a good, well-thought-out African-American hero. In the book, Shooter called the depiction of Tyroc “pathetic and appalling,” while co-creator Mike Grell, another white guy, described Tyroc’s backstory as “possibly the most racist concept I’ve ever heard in my life.” 

Read more at the Shadow League.

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