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SUPERHEROES: Can a brother live?

While Marcus Logan goes on the hunt for Black superheroes, he unearths a deeper story about why summer blockbusters always seem to leave them out.

Words: Marcus Logan
Images: Marvel Entertainment and Entertainment Earth

“There’s always somebody getting hurt in New York. When’s the last superhero been here? They need saving.”—Wiz Khalifa

We looked in the sky, but never saw anyone to come save our day.

Growing up in Brooklyn during the 70s and 80s highlighted a chaotic New York City. With a near crash of the NY Stock Exchange, welfare running us dry, drug infestation highlighted by cocaine, heroin, crack and ultimately crime, the “world’s greatest” city was close to being crippled. We regularly played host to an urbanized version of Cops and Robbers, except our cops and robbers were real cops and robbers. There were no fingers pointed or mock sounds of bullets being fired in this game. Hammers cocked and bullets flew. The police protected New York with a vigilante styled no-holds-barred approach. The robbers were circumstantially anyone young and Black. Their bullets were real and they hurt. Much like soldiers of war, we grew used to the countless atrocities that were being committed in the streets. Our police force was disproportioned by an increasing crime rate and a growing sentiment by the NYPD that expressed “Even when we are wrong we are right.” NYC was in a “by any means necessary” state of mind.

Origins of the Black Superhero

On July 29,1976, the Son of Sam serial murders began, lasting one year. This was followed by the Blackout of 1977. With the lights turned off, the devils came out to play. Looting was on overdrive. Stick-ups, robberies, vandalism was on “a hundred thousand-trillion.” We were scared, but never afraid. Our fears were masked with dreams and our minds ran wild. Reality became distorted by our imagination—from Superman to Batman, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, X-Men and the countless other heroes we used as gatekeepers for our youth. Such saviors were 50 cents and a trip to the comic store away.

Aside from the colored newspaper, there were coming-of-age films like Cornbread, Earl & Me, Car Wash and Cooley High, setting the tone for our generation. Also noted were exploitation figures such as Shaft, Super Fly and Dolomite. It was the actors, musicians and athletes who served as our Black heroes. The athletes weighed heaviest on us because you needed no formalized education to play. Before the days of the World Wide Web, BET or MTV and Rap, sports were our gateway to mega millions, aside from street hustles or old-fashioned hard work. Perceivably, fortune awaited those who exceptionally swung a bat, shot hoops or made magic on the field holding the pigskin. Dr. J (basketball), Tony Dorset (football), Jim Kelly (karate), Reggie Jackson (baseball) and Muhammad Ali (boxing) were all standouts. This iconoclast ideal exploded when DC Comics published Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, an oversized comic book in 1978. As children, we lost our minds! The 72-page book, retailing for $2.50, featured Superman teaming up with the heavyweight-boxing champion Muhammad Ali to defeat an alien invasion of Earth. Ali, a Black man paired with the “world’s greatest defender” Superman! WHOA!

To put this in perspective, what Barack Obama represents to us now is what Muhammad Ali meant then. We had arrived. Ali was the Black Superman and if he was super, than so were we. The doors of my imagination were wide open. My mom came home with my first Black superhero comic book featuring Luke Cage/Power Man. Who said we got no heroes? Luke Cage possessed superhuman strength, stamina and extremely dense skin and muscle tissue making him hard as steel. He was so ill that he didn’t even wear a cape! Although Cage was an ex-con, he was still one of us. He reminded me of so many of the young brothers I often saw in the streets. On a grander scale, the heroes’ comic books unveiled in the years after often had very positive backgrounds. Interestingly, there was nothing “token” about the characters. In fact, many were impressively accomplished.

Notable figures include:

T’Challa aka “Black Panther” (1966), the first Black superhero, is a skilled hunter, tracker, strategist, and scientist— he has a Ph.D. degree in physics from Oxford University. Considered one of the eight smartest people on the planet, he is a genius in physics and advanced technology, and is a brilliant inventor.

Bill Foster aka “Goliath” (1966), who first appeared as Dr. Foster in Avengers #32 (September 1966), was born in Watts, Los Angeles. Foster is a Biochemist with the ability to increase his size and mass to a gigantic size by psionically drawing extra mass from an extra-dimensional source, while gaining superhuman strength in proportion to his height. The Black Goliath series ran for five issues in 1976.

Eric Brooks aka “Blade” (1973) is a master martial artist, swordsman, marksman and street fighter. He is adept in the usage of throwing knives. He is also an accomplished jazz trumpeter. Blade possesses superhuman strength, stamina, speed, agility, heightened senses and a rapid healing factor that attacks any alien substances (chemicals/viruses) in his body, which eliminates any chance of him being rendered helpless or maimed from the inside. He is also unaffected by daylight, most other traditional vampire weaknesses and he ages very slowly.

Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” (1975) is the reigning queen consort of Wakanda, a title held by marriage to King T’Challa, better known as the “Black Panther”. She is an extremely powerful mutant and has demonstrated a plethora of abilities, most of which are facets of her power to control the weather. Storm possesses the psionic ability to control all forms of weather over vast areas. She has been able to control both Earthly and extraterrestrial ecosystems on several occasions.

Sam Wilson aka “The Falcon” (1969) is Marvel’s first African-American series star, almost six years before Storm (the first black female). He is also the first superhero of African descent not to have the word “Black” as part of his superhero name, preceding the John Stewart Green Lantern by over two years. The Falcon is an excellent trainer of wild birds, and has been trained in gymnastics and hand-to-hand combat by Captain America.

Black Heroes Save the World – Going Mainstream

My earliest recollection of anyone Black relating to a superhero on TV or in a film was Uhuru, who was featured in the 60s original TV show Star Trek. Played by Nichelle Nichols, Uhuru was one of the first African-American heroes ever watched by mainstream America.Her name was derived from the Swahili word uhuru meaning freedom, a nod to the burgeoning afrocentric movement during that time. Next was Eartha Kitt, who was featured in the Batman TV series. Kitt introduced us to her infamous “purrrr” as the badass feline-inspired seductress “Catwoman.” Just as much of a hero as Uhuru and Catwoman was the role of Kelly played by Bill Cosby in the popular TV program I Spy (‘65-’68). Although Cosby’s role was technically not a superhero, the role was revered as a first for African-Americans. In fact, his casting was groundbreaking for mainstream television, as Cosby became the first African-American to “star” on a series.

1977 gave us Lando Calrissian played by the incomparable Billy Dee Williams aka “The Colt 45 Man.” Billy Dee’s appearance in the blockbuster Star Wars series was monumental for Black culture. He was good-looking, Black and in space! Seriously speaking, how many times can you count the existence of African culture out of an earthly context? Like Nichelle Nicols, the acknowledgement of Williams in the film was huge.

In 1983 legendary comic Richard Pryor was cast in Superman III as August “Gus” Gorman, an unemployed and ultimately villainous flunkey who discovers a knack for computer programming. Unfortunately, Gorman turns out to be a thief who embezzles money through a scheme called “salami slicing.” I mention this role because it set a precedent in Hollywood that the Black community could and would nationally embrace Black actors in featured roles. Although critics bombed the movie, Superman III remains the fifth highest-grossing Superman movie from the series. (Sidebar: Pryor secured a $40 million dollar film contract following the film’s release.)

But it wasn’t until 1993, ten years after this landmark role—for an African-American to “technically” be cast as a lead superhero—and fresh off of the successes of his hood classics including Five Heartbeats and Hollywood Shuffle, that African-American director, writer & producer Robert Townsend would create a film about a Black superhero. Entitled Meteor Man, Townsend stars as the mild-mannered schoolteacher, Jefferson Reed, who becomes a superhero after being struck down by a glowing green meteorite that crashes down from the sky. Jeff soon discovers the meteorite has left him with superhuman abilities such as flight, x-ray vision, strength, invulnerability, healing, to absorb a book’s content by touch, freezing breath, telepathy with dogs and telekinesis. And while Townsend’s intent was on point, the movie, however, was a disastrous fail, right down to Luther Vandross, Big Daddy Kane and Sinbad rocking the worst blond haircuts imaginable.

The cult hero Spawn hit the big screen starring Micheal Jai White as the lead character in 1997. Considerably popular upon its initial release in the 1990s, Spawn was a notable feat for a non-DC and non-Marvel character. Creator Todd McFarlane stated repeatedly that his goal was for the character to become as well-known as Superman or Spiderman. Spawn, formerly known as Albert Francis Simmons, was born in Detroit, Michigan and who eventually became a very gifted member of the United States Marine Corps, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He later joined the United States Secret Service, which led to his promotion to the CIA. But Simmons was murdered during a mission in Botswana by the mercenary known as Chapel, at the order of Director Wynn. It is at that point that Simmons is sent to hell because of his life as an assassin. Making a deal with the devil, he becomes a hell spawn, who serves a character called “Malebolgia,” often referred to as a major “Lord in Hell.” Go figure! Although this character held few “positive” attributes by real-life standards, Spawn became popular across the board to Black and White fans alike.

In 2001, Sam Jackson gave his consent for Marvel Comics to model their ultimate version of the Nick Fury character after his likeness. In the 2008 film Iron Man, he made a cameo as the character in a post-credit scene. In February 2009, Jackson signed on to a nine-picture deal with Marvel, which would see him appear as the character in Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers as well as any other sequels they look to produce.

Will Smith is no stranger to this scene either. In 2008, he signed on to co-produce Hancock, an adaptation of a 1996 screenplay, originally entitled Tonight He Comes. Hancock is essentially a dysfunctional alcoholic superhero who wakes up late, is always mad at the world and has no responsibility for his actions. Later in the film though, Hancock secures a PR man, played by Jason Bateman, to help him turn his life around. Interestingly, this was a first for me—witnessing a Black lead character having a White man as his savior. The roles had typically been reversed in the past. Think about it: Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours, Gladiator, Avatar—the list goes on. Smith signed on for a fee of $20 million dollars and a 20% gross of the film. With a production budget of $150 million dollars, Hancock went on to make over $620 million dollars even with mixed reviews (and we hear Will is making a superhero-esq film about the last Pharaoh…)

In 2010, Reginald Hudlin, former President of Entertainment at BET, wrote an animated adaptation of the Black Panther series along with John Romita, Jr. as the artist, using the story arc of the Black Panther comic entitled, Who is the Black Panther?, for which the first six episodes were based. As mentioned, Black Panther aka “T’Challa” was literally comic book royalty, and Hudlin was compelled by this status and the opportunity Black Panther presented as an inspirational figure within Black culture. Voices from Academy award-winning actor Djimon Hounsou, Marvel comics’ creator Stan Lee, Kerry Washington, Alfre Woodard and singer Jill Scott highlighted the amazing talent involved.

Although the series was short lived, Hudlin’s realization of the Black Panther series was monumental. So often it is asked, “Is White America ready for a Black superhero?” I ask is Black America ready? Black Panther’s lineage to African royalty pushed Black America to proudly acknowledge its lineage to Africa. But in truth, we must still be having troubles embracing our roots; otherwise this series would have been more fully supported and available for viewing audiences today.

The upside is Hollywood says they [now] support the development of more “super” Black characters in major film productions (So why is Green Lantern not Black in the new film?). This is a huge nod to the purchasing power of the African-American market and the developing need to support multiculturalism (Remember Blankman?). According to Nielsen Research African-American families spend over $70 million dollars monthly going to the movies. Now that’s serious business.

How to find a Black Super Hero

There was a time when the only perceived relation to being “Black” and “super” was the guy who managed buildings and fixed things. Fortunately times have changed…sort of. I recently dropped by a popular bookstore in Union Square and asked a woman at the information desk for books relating to Black superheroes. She typed a query into her computer and responded “Uhhh, well I don’t think one exists…let me check. Mmmmm, sorry. No. There are no such thing as Black superheroes.”

I did not assume that she had a racist undertone. Her words felt more suited to ignorance. I told this story to a friend and she said, What about Waiting For Superman, the critically acclaimed 2010 documentary film from director Davis Guggenheim, which analyzes the failures of American public education?”

‘Real talk,’ I replied, but that’s not what I currently needed for my research. I then asked her, “What is a Black superhero?”

And she said, “A Black superhero is anyone who cares about people and has skin that’s a varying shade of brown or black.”

“And wears a cape,” I said.

She smiled and agreed. “Yes …and a long flying cape.”

This triggered my conclusion.

Dreams of a Black superhero are the result of our struggle to be equal and/or greater than expected. Like anyone who is on the come up, we want nothing less than for our families to be provided for and equally protected. Superman, the greatest hero of all, was impervious to everything except Kryptonite green. His powers were the practical solution for bullets. His cape signified limitless freedom. It juxtaposed the trapped and dangerous elements of our surroundings. To the Black youth of yesteryear and today, this as an opportunity to ask, “If White America could enjoy Superman’s protective power, why can’t we?” Why would our needs be any less than yours?

The lure for a protector was and still is our call for peace, justice and equality. This is what Superman and the thousands of heroes stood for right? Metaphorically, it’s Kryptonite green that perpetuates a myth for Black people that money will fix everything. Instead it supports the need to exercise the ego in pursuit of the “green.” (Did we mention that Green Lantern is Black? But he’s not in the film…) It is this green that ultimately becomes the distracter for finding the real “Black superhero” in all of us. When the dust is clear, a real hero is a person of morality, integrity, consideration, love, compassion, justice and equality. In our hearts, money has little to do with who we are. And as an adult, I no longer look in the sky, dreaming of Black Superheroes because the ones I know live right here on the ground.

Images courtesy of Marvel Entertainment and Entertainment Earth.

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