The Lightning and the Storm: How an Imperfect Past Shaped the Rise of the Black Superhero

From Left to Right: Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden, John Stewart/Green Lantern, created by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, Storm, created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, Spawn created by Todd McFarlane, Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby,  and Static, created by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle
From Left to Right: Black Lightning, created by Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden, John Stewart/Green Lantern, created by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, Storm, created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum, Spawn created by Todd McFarlane, Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and Static, created by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Michael Davis, and Derek T. Dingle
Illustration: Benjamin Currie

Editor’s Note: The Rise of the Black Superhero is a three-part series breaking down the past, present and future of Black superheroes across comics, film, and tv. This is part 1. 

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Before we get into it, you need to be aware of one thing reader: I love this shit. 

If you ask my family, they will tell you that one of my first words was “Batman.” Childhood days spent running around the house with a towel on my neck, screaming “I’m Batman!” turned into teenage afternoons spent pouring through the crates at Atomic Comics. I’ve got two boxes filled with comics I’ve been collecting since I was in middle school, I genuinely grieved over how bad both cuts of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice were, and I’m pretty sure The New Mutants is the only superhero movie I haven’t seen.

Yes, I’ve even watched the ’80s Supergirl movie.

So I say again: I love this shit.

While I’ve had an undying love of all things superheroes my entire life, the genre has historically had a pretty wishy-washy relationship with Black people. While we’ve recently gotten to a point where there are a multitude of Black creators telling Black stories within the genre across comics, film, and TV it’s been a long and winding road to get here.

The evolution of the Black superhero is a fascinating journey, one marked with false starts, incredible highs, and disappointing lows.

The ’70s-’80s: The “Technically Black” Years

Ah yes, the ’70s. The decade when white people went “So I guess Blacks are people now?” followed by “Oh shit, that means they can buy things.” Outside of Black Panther pulling up in some Fantastic Four and Avengers comics in the ’60s, there really wasn’t much representation for Black folks in comics before the ’70s. X-Men was intended to be an allegory for racism in the ’60s, but like, they were still mostly white, though.

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As the ’70s dawned and Black culture began to permeate in music, film, and TV, the comics industry realized that they were more or less leaving money on the table if they didn’t at least try to appeal to Black audiences.

Enter Luke Cage.

Luke Cage—Power Man if you’re nasty—is the first Black superhero to headline his own series. Luke Cage: Hero for Hire was published by Marvel Comics in 1972 and was created by Archie Goodwin, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr. He was very much a product of the Blaxploitation craze at the time, and I can’t front, the early Luke Cage books were the epitome of “White people trying to make a Black thing.”

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The Malcolm and Marie of comics, if you will.

Two of the biggest highlights of this decade had to be Don McGregor’s Black Panther run and Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden’s Black Lightning. I think part of the reason why these two characters have endured for so long is because they were built with such strong foundations.

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In fact, they’re some of the few Black heroes who haven’t been excessively retconned/retooled in order to account for modern tastes. Black Panther being a warrior-king who is torn between his oath as a king and his duties as a globe-trotting Avenger is always going to be a compelling-ass story.

The same can be said about Black Lightning who’s got an incredibly rich origin story. Jefferson Pierce is a Black man who’s trying to be a dutiful husband, a good father, and use his powers to help improve his crime-infested neighborhood that everyone else has given up on.

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Those conflicts are inherently interesting, no matter what decade you put them in.

The ’70s would also see characters like Blade, Bumblebee, John Stewart/Green Lantern, Hornblower, and of course, the goddess herself, Storm, also come into play. Of those, Storm would obviously go on to become the most enduring because she is 100 percent that chick, all day, every day. Find the lie, you can’t.

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While John Stewart would eventually grow into a fan favorite and formidable Green Lantern in his own right, he got his start in the ’70s as the backup to Green Lantern’s backup. John Stewart is here to save the day! But, you know, only when Hal Jordan is busy doing space stuff, and Guy Gardner gets food poisoning.

As we transition from the ’70s into the ’80s, a lot of these efforts at inclusion would fall by the wayside. While there has rarely been a period in time where there hasn’t been at least one ongoing Batman book, or Spider-Man title, comics starring Black heroes typically had short, infrequent runs. Throughout the ’80s, at both Marvel and DC, Black heroes were relegated to B-tier team books.

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There were some highlights to be sure: Storm leading the X-Men, Monica Rambeau leading the Avengers, and Cyborg generally killing it in the Teen Titans. To be honest, Storm and Cyborg were the MVPs of the ’80s. Ask any old head who was reading the books in this era, and they’ll tell you that the Teen Titans and X-Men titles were the shit during this era.

For everyone else, though, the results were mixed. Black Panther was canceled by the end of the ’70s due to low sales and he wouldn’t have another solo series until a miniseries in 1988 by Peter B. Gillis and Denys Cowan. McGregor would come back a year later for the excellent “Panther’s Quest” arc, but T’Challa generally wasn’t a marquee hero during this era.

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Black Lightning was relegated to the Outsiders. Oh, excuse me, Batman and the Outsiders. As you can judge by that title, Jefferson often played support to the Caped Crusader, and had to share space with several other heroes. These books weren’t bad, but it definitely plays more like Batman and friends. Batman would eventually leave the group and wouldn’t you know it the book was canceled shortly after.

Much like the real world, it seems that while there was a concerted effort in the immediate wake of the civil rights movement to create more inclusive comics, as the years went on those efforts became more lackluster.

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One thing you may have noticed is that just about all these books, and all these characters, had white creators. No matter how well-meaning they may have been, that lack of authenticity could be felt across many of the books. There wasn’t always thought put into how Black characters were portrayed, as if simply having a Black face on the page was enough.

Things would soon change though, as the coming decades would see Black talent create new heroes, new worlds, and take ownership of the existing heroes in ways previously thought to be unimaginable.

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Next Time! A group of intrepid artists and writers launch a Black-owned comics company that would create one of the most electrifying heroes in the game. Meanwhile, on both the big and small screen, Black heroes would make their mark in new and exciting ways! All this, and much more, in the next thrilling installment of The Rise of the Black Superhero!

DISCUSSION

By
GreatScott

Sorry dude, while I’m a fan of all Black heroism (and have been since childhood), I always thought Cyborg was in serious need of some adamantium (Nth metal? Maybe?); I really got tired of him getting torn apart in every Titans battle. His number of dismantlements (is that a word) was second only to the Red Tornado’s. And I totally get what you’re saying about white creators handling of black characters; even with a group/story set in the 3oth century, writers still brought in the usual “militant Black man versus the world” tripe when they introduced Tyroc (Tyroc...) in the Legion of Superheroes.