Progressive social change in our country is slow, like a large ocean liner changing direction. Why? Because this type of change is always met with resistance, regardless of how just or deserving. Our nation experienced this during the Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement and even now with the Gay Rights Movement. These changes rarely ever come from the top. Our government is usually forced to act when the cries of protest overpower the status quo. Such movements always start with a tiny minority who aren’t afraid to deviate from the norm.
Those first voices usually come from writers, filmmakers and other artists who are blasted as subversives and trouble makers. They are the few that are willing to explore ideas outside of the nation’s comfort zone and question what we believe. During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Otto Preminger’s To Kill a Mockingbird forced America to see the dark truths it worked hard to avoid. Along with film and literature, the Civil Rights Movement had another lesser known artistic ally: comic books.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, black characters where relegated either to servile roles straight out of a minstrel show or to that of jungle savages who needed to be tamed. These portrayals today would be considered offensive and laughable by anyone’s standards, but they were very much the norm at the time. It wasn’t until 1963 that this norm was challenged by a liberal leaning writer named Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee.
In 1963, Stan Lee introduced Gabriel Jones, a black soldier and a member of Sergeant Fury’s multi-racial Howling Commandos. Their races were part of who they were, but didn’t define them. They were always friends and comrades first. At the time, Stan was told a book about a multi-racial team would never sell, but the book was a consistent seller for Marvel Comics.
Three years later in 1966, Marvel Comics introduced The Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52. As the comic world’s first black superhero, he possessed none of society’s racial stereotypes of the era. He was the wealthy ruler of an African nation that touted technology far superior to any in the western world.
In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King’s assassination, The Falcon made his first appearance in Captain America #117. At first glance, he looked to be Cap’s new sidekick. However, Stan made it clear that The Falcon was Cap’s equal and stood toe to toe with the Sentinel of Liberty instead of trailing behind him carrying his luggage.
These characters were a huge step forward, but they were all in the shadow of the main characters. It wasn’t until Dell Comics released Lobo #1 in 1965 that a black character starred in his own series. Lobo was a western hero created by writer Don “D. J.” Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico. The title lasted only two issues. In a 2006 interview, Tallarico said regarding the cancellation, “They [Dell] discovered that as they were sending out bundles of comics out to the distributors [that] they were being returned unopened. And I couldn’t figure out why. So they sniffed around, scouted around and discovered [that many sellers] were opposed to Lobo, who was the first black Western hero. That was the end of the book. It sold nothing.”
Not until 1972 did a black hero carry his own in a series when Luke Cage premiered in Hero For Hire #1. His origin may have been saturated with stereotyping as it piggybacked on the popular blacksploitation genre of the time, but Luke Cage stood as a symbol for overcoming oppression and injustice in 1970’s Harlem. After 40 years, he’s evolved into a mainstream Marvel character and leader of The New Avengers rather than a token hero.
The present day comics landscape may still show inequalities, but we’ve come a long way from the Golden Age stereotypes. In fact, the measure of how far we have come can be found in present controversies. When Marvel killed off the Ultimate version of Spider-Man and relaunched the character as Miles Morales, a half black and half Hispanic teenager, there was considerable outrage. The vast majority of fan anger, however, was focused entirely on their objections to killing Peter Parker, a beloved character, and not on the race of his replacement. In fact, Miles is not even the first Spider-Man of color. Twenty year ago, only a stone’s throw away from the days when main characters could not be anything but white (or orange, or green, or…), Marvel introduced superhero genius Miguel O’Hara. True to its progressive roots, the Spider-Man of Marvel’s future is a hero of mixed heritage.
The interesting thing is that aside from the name, race plays almost no role in the character’s presentation. In Marvel’s 2099, the color of your skin no longer matters. As we watch the headlines of the day and realize that, as far as we’ve come, we still have so far to go, perhaps we can look forward to the future the “funny books” show us, and garner some hope.