Change. While it's the word and spirit of the moment for the nation and the world, it has trickled more slowly into the world of comic books. Ethnic integration of characters in one of the legendary comic-book series hasn't been exactly faster than a speeding bullet. But this month, Superman, the granddaddy of them all, has finally, fully come around.
Some 37 years after the first African-American character was depicted in the celebrated comic-book series, created in 1933 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, DC Comics has released a Superman comic book with characters whose appearance fully announces Krypton as a racially integrated planet. Can someone say Obama effect?
Issue No. 683, released around the first of the year, features a story line in which 100,000 Kryptonians with powers like Superman arriving on earth—some of them non-white Kryptonians.
The Superman shift represents a departure from the Man of Steel's past, back in the intergalactic day when blacks on Krypton resided on Vathlo Island, described as the "Home of a Highly Developed Black Race"— a curious parallel to the era of segregation in the United States, despite its location on another world.
The first Kryptonian of color made an appearance in 1971, long after the advent of the civil rights movement and advances in other genres of popular culture. "In issue 239, a two-page map showed that Kryptonians of color had an island all to themselves, which is pretty embarrassing," said Mark Waid, an expert in Superman arcana and periodic DC Comics writer, in Newsarama.com, a Web site devoted to science fiction and fantasy.
"It wasn't until the mid-70s, when more 'World of Krypton' back-up stories ran more regularly, that we really saw any ethnicity whatsoever on the planet," Waid said.
A true comic-book aficionado, Waid defends the omission as one might expect: It was an oversight borne of the '30s-era habits and experiences of creators Siegel and Shuster, and of those writers and artists who followed.
But it's inescapable that such an omission, well into the period of African Americans and minorities in the mainstream of American life, sent the message that comic books without blacks and minorities represented some idealized realm, an alternate world without the thorny, complicating issue of race.
Thankfully, earlier comic-book depictions were more in tune with reality. In Marvel Comics’ Spider-Man series, launched in 1962, Joseph "Robbie" Robertson was the black editor in chief of the Daily Bugle, where Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man) worked as a photographer. Robertson, the rational right-hand man of the erratic publisher J. Jonah Jameson, was a trailblazer: one of the first meaningful black characters in mainstream comics.
For years, the Nick Fury comic-book series, also published by Marvel, featured Sgt. Fury and the rough-and-ready Howling Commandos, one of whom was Gabriel Jones, the squad's sole African-American member, who played a horn before rushing into battles during World War II. Jones debuted in the series in 1963.
And the character of John Stewart, a former Marine, was the first African-American Green Lantern, debuting in DC Comics in late 1971.
Marvel has taken point most recently on the issue in a way that's certain to build its comic-book sales by capitalizing on the cresting wave of Obamamania.
In issue 583 of Amazing Spider-Man, Marvel will present a bonus story about Barack Obama, a nod to the new president's childhood fascination with comic books. About half the publication run ($3.99 each copy) features Obama on the cover with the Webslinger. Issue 583 in stores now.
"How great is that? The commander in chief to be is actually a nerd in chief," Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor-in-chief Quesada, told the AP. "It was really, really cool to see that we had a geek in the White House. We're all thrilled with that."
Spidey's hookup with the 44th president and Superman's encounter with Kryptonians who don't look like him are just more examples of the ways real life moves in on our popular culture, how pop culture takes its cues, if not its oxygen, from society—often years later than it should have.
Blacks in comic-book roles have moved into that other outlet of the popular imagination: the movies. Halle Berry starred as Storm in two of the highly successful X-Men films, based on the celebrated Marvel-comic franchise.
And last February, MTV News reported that rapper Common (who's proven his acting chops in American Gangster and the upcoming Terminator Salvation) had been cast for the role of Green Lantern in a film whose production has lurched forward by fits and starts.
They're all concessions to the fact that—this just in—black people have fantasy lives, too.
It's just wonderfully ironic that now, almost two generations after Superman first discovered black America, the nation as a whole has found and embraced a superhero who's transcended the pages of comic books. Spider-Man's sidekick in chief of the moment, that darker figure of flesh and blood who took the oath of office on Tuesday, must now take on demons and monsters the comic-book world never imagined.
Michael E. Ross is a regular contributor to The Root.