So, anyone who spends any amount of time speaking to me tends to find out that I am very, very pro-black. There’s a song by dead prez that goes, “Thirty-one years ago I would’ve been a [Black] Panther.” This is so true in my case that I have actually gone back in time and helped found a chapter of the Black Panther Party in Brooklyn. I did this when I was a little older. Time travel is tricky, all right?
I was sitting here thinking, as us intellectual types are wont to do, and I’m not feeling the love, comics. You aren’t treating your black characters right. You call Jason Rusch, the new Firestorm, a token, an affirmative action quota kid, and all kinds of other nasty names. Bishop? Bishop had a perm. What kind of self-respecting, non-pimp black man wears a perm? Virgil “Static” Hawkins and his imprintmates at Milestone went the way of the dodo, despite being some of the best comics to come out of the ’90s. Static was the first Ultimate Spider-Man, if you get me. Don’t even get me started on the reaction to Captain America: Truth – Red, White, and Black, or the kind of glaring lack of writers of color at the big two.
It’s cool, though. Blacks in comics have come a long way. Luke Cage used to be a patently offensive stereotype, though he’s been pretty well gentrified now. Stepin Fetchits abounded during the early years of comics. Comics great Will Eisner even had his own little stereotypical black kid running around. Did we have it as bad as Chop-chop and Egg-fu? Well, yeah. Stereotypes, unless played very carefully, tend to be ugly, ugly things.
Anyway, this is all introduction to the meat of the matter. A lot of black heroes are wack, but there are some gems, too. For every Black Goliath there’s a Black Panther, dig? So check the list and let me know what you think.
First up? Virgil Hawkins, aka Static!
The easiest way to explain Static to your friends is that he’s Peter Parker for the ’90s. I don’t mean that he was derivative or anything. He was pretty much to the ’90s what Peter Parker was to the ’60s. Peter was the nebbish, smart and funny but with no way of showing that to his peers. Virgil is more outgoing and class clownish, but he’s no idiot. He wants to fit in just like everybody else, but he’s not one of the popular kids, either. His big mouth gets him into more than one fight, to boot. He’s multifaceted. He’s cool, but not. He’s at the point where a boy becomes a man, but he hasn’t made that leap. He’s conscious of this, I think.
He wouldn’t even have gotten his powers if he didn’t want to show that he was a real man. He was thoroughly embarassed in school by a bully in front of the new girl, Frieda. Later, he’s speaking to her on the phone and she basically calls him a wuss. He doesn’t take it well.
He gets a gun from a friend and goes to show this kid what-for. He breaks out, takes aim, and realizes that he isn’t a killer. He dumps the gun and ends up getting gassed along with tons of other gangsters and kids. He wakes up and finds out that he has powers. He does the only sensible thing and hooks up a costume and fights crime.
There’s a lot of talk about an “everyman.” Peter Parker is one of them. The everyman is a POV character that most people can instantly relate to in some way, shape, or form. Despite his hot, supermodel wife, Peter Parker is the everyman of the Marvel U. Virgil Hawkins is the everyteen. He goes through the same problems that real kids do, whether it’s worrying about losing his virginity to his girlfriend, keeping his secrets close to his chest, or simply fitting in at school and making sure he’s well-liked.
I was pushing ten years old when Static hit the streets, so I was also pretty able to relate. He’s a great character and his show on the WB was actually quite good. It kind of says a lot when your show gets more viewers than Pokemon or whatever, yet DC Comics can’t seem to properly promote your series so that it’ll sell.
#4: Papa Midnite!
When he first showed up, and for a few appearances thereafter, Papa Midnite was a joke. Typical voodoo guy. He rocked a grass skirt… and a top hat and coattails. He killed his sister for power and sent her out to be his spy in hell. Later on, he jumps off the Empire State Building.
The reinterpretation of sorts in Mat Johnson‘s Papa Midnite miniseries is much, much better. He’s younger, thinner, and altogether cooler. He’s not some bone-in-the-nose jerk. He’s voodoo with style. Fedoras, button-up shirts, suit jackets, the whole nine, not to mention the slick sideburns.
He’s given a new origin, but one which still lets the previous origin stay in effect. Midnite dates from the 1700s. He and his sister used to make their living by tricking white men into thinking that they would have sex with her, but then hitting them with an old fashioned penance stare and making off with their loot.
Midnite is eventually approached by Cuffee, a slave who is planning a rebellion. Midnite sells him snake oil: a magic powder that makes men bulletproof. It fails, and Cuffee kidnaps Midnite and his sister. Midnite is given a grisly order: a life must be repaid with a life. Either he kills his sister and undergoes torture, or she lives and is tortured. He kills her dead, and is doomed to live until the white man no longer rules Africans.
Fast forward to the present day. He’s remade himself after coming down off the ESB. He’s practically a new man. He runs a high class nightclub, he’s into organized crime (i.e., he’ll take your land if he wants it, and you better raise up), and he dresses like he just stepped off a magazine page. He’s cool. He matches wits with John Constantine, too.
His reimagining is one of those that’s so much better than the original it isn’t even funny. Papa Midnite is a fun book, and different than the usual Vertigo fare. It isn’t trying to be particularly deep or introspective. It’s just about a man who has been given a mission, but cannot find the guts to actually accomplish it.
Lucas Cage, is that you?
Take your standard blaxploitation stereotype. A big, dumb, oversexed negro. Dolemite, but more low down. How do you fix that? Well, you can’t, really. Cage is the “thug with a heart of gold” stereotype. This may just be a personal failing, but I’ve always loved that stereotype. I dabble in fiction writing, and I don’t do it often enough, but it’s a character that I like to use. Why? I do not know.
Anyway, my favorite version of Cage is a throwback to his original incarnation. Brian (100 Bullets) Azzarello and Richard Corben sat down and delivered five issues of awesome neo-noir blaxploitation. It can be hard to reconcile. I love the book. My uncle likes the art but hates the writing. I’ve seen black people on comics sites hate the book for being stereotypical and love it for being real talk. I fall into the latter camp. Cage is real talk.
He’s the guy that makes everyone uncomfortable. Affluent blacks pass him by because he’s a thug. Whites do the same thing. He’s a thug, but he’s thugging it out by choice. He made a bad choice when he was younger and he’s punishing himself now. He does jobs for whoever has the money, but in this story, he’s doing it because it’s right. Redemption? Not quite. It’s vengeance.
Cage talks like people I know, be it family or friends. It’s probably the most honest portrayal of black men I’ve seen in comics in a long while. It’s a look at the side of society nobody wants to see: poor people in the hood and the tug of war that comes with that. People want your house so they can build something profitable, and when something profitable goes up, so do property values, so you need to leave before you can’t afford anything.
This is Cage in his purest form: street level. No costumes, no super-villains, and no theatrics. Things happen for a reason, the violence is quick and brutal, but Cage manages to stay above it all. He’s there for one reason: to do right. If he can make some money in the process, or perhaps sleep with that fine Korean girl inexplicably named Dixie? All to the good.
Corben’s gorgeous art and Azz’s skillful writing are just icing on the cake.
Number two? Sam Wilson, The Falcon. Take Luke Cage and force him down a different road.
Sam has been a lot of things. He’s been a teacher, a super-hero, a sidekick, a gangster, and (for a mercifully short time) a “Bucky.” Which is the real Sam? Only he knows. He’ll hit you with whichever personality he needs to in order to get results. The common ground between all of them? Loyalty. He’s fiercely loyal to Steve Rogers, though their methods often differ. If you’re on his side, you’re all good.
Christopher Priest and Ed Brubaker have done a good job with him recently. Brubaker used him more for a cameo when Cap had to face down the Winter Soldier, but Priest had him as his own character in Captain America & The Falcon. They were a killer team, and they were both working toward the same goal, but through different methods.
Wilson took it to extremes. Snap came out. He strong-armed a man in his own home, made a mess of the Daily Bugle offices, and he basically let the demon out. He was doing a better Luke Cage act than Luke Cage.
C’mon. Running a grown man out of his own place, fighting villains with Cap, and trouncing drug dealers all at the same time? This is good stuff. I will say that Falcon’s latest appearance in New Avengers was right in that he’s down with Cap, but wrong in that he’s 1) hostile to anyone who isn’t immediately down with Cap and 2) tossing in random slang. That isn’t Sam, and it wasn’t Snap, either. “I’m down, brotha?” C’mon, Bendis, you can do better. “Ya dig?”
Anyway, Sam is a rarity: a black male character who is consistently written as being on the same level as Captain America. Cap probably has more experience and natural (super-soldier-based is natural, right?) skill, but The Falcon always keeps up. That’s admirable. He’s a partner, not a sidekick. Even keel, baby.
Oh, like this one is a surprise. T’Challa is tops, kids.
Do I even have to explain this one? He’s the one character in the Marvel Universe that’s even remotely an analog to Batman. He has plans, plans, and more plans. He has a Galactus file in his desk in case the Devourer comes calling. His father beat up Captain America, he’s smarter than most, and he was smart enough to marry Storm. I mean, c’mon, what more do you want? He’s living the black american dream: he’s a king.
Sure, I used to think his costume was a little lame. He looked like he wore tube socks. It’s grown on me, though. It’s simple, and I like that it’s all one solid color.
Christopher Priest (there’s that name again!) and Reggie Hudlin have done a wonderful job on the character. They made him from something of a joke character into a force of nature.
He’s Marvel’s Batman, with noticeably less angst and pointlessly dead sidekicks. He’s what Batman wishes he was. Plus– Storm. C’mon!
Next up: the ladies!