In May of this year, Captain America: Civil War became the first mainstream movie to co-star three black superheroes: War Machine (played by Don Cheadle), the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) – the latter of whom will also prove to be a vital extension of Marvel’s universe thanks to a standalone film with Creed/Fruitvale Station‘s Ryan Coogler at the helm.
As Hollywood pushes for more diversity in all facets of production, the Black Panther film and the upcoming release of Netflix’s Luke Cage – whom will become Marvel’s first African American lead in a title series or movie – are major steps toward creating a more inclusive landscape.
With Luke Cage set to debut on Netflix on September 30, here is a crash course in other black superheroes you should know about.
Real name: T’Challa
Black Panther is Marvel’s first real push to have a black superhero in a leading role on screen.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, he first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July 1966 and was often depicted in the pages of the comics as as the king and protector of Wakanda, a fictional African nation, who would later venture to New York to fight crime alongside The Avengers using his superhuman strength and intellect which is on par with Tony Stark and Reed Richards. Ultimately, Black Panther would be featured in his first standalone comic book, Jungle Action, in 1973.
People have always assumed that Lee and Kirby were inspired by the Black Panther Party when creating their hero. However, T’Challa’s creation predated Huey Newton’s formation of the radical nationalist political organization by six months. Marvel only mentioned the connections in a single issue which was released in 1972 and found the hero calling himself “Black Leopard” for a short time because his former name now had “political connotations.”
But there were some instances when issues of race were touched upon in the comics. For example, he fought a white supremacist group clad in white sheets and dubbed “The Clan” which ran in Jungle Action #19–24.
“This one is important,” Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios President, told Empire magazine in its 2016 preview issue which touted the upcoming Black Panther film. “Not only do you get an unbelievable lead character, but you also get all of [fictional African nation] Wakanda which is a whole new setting and culture to explore.”
Feige also went on to explain how the Black Panther film will prove vital in setting up the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War – Part 1 which is scheduled to be released May 4, 2018.
“He’s not the strongest,” Chadwick Boseman says of his upcoming portrayal. “You know what I’m saying? He’s not necessarily the fastest, but he is strong, and he’s fast, and he is… he has a wit, he has a wisdom and a plan, an overarching plan that a lot of times you don’t necessarily see. So it’s his strategy during a fight or during a battle, and it’s not just him — as far as the comic book goes. I think that’s the difference. It will be — it’s an introduction to the character.”
“Since his introduction, T’Challa has always been an icon and a role model,” adds former Black Panther writer Jonathan Maberry. “He was ethical, he had values, he had nobility and dignity, he was brilliant, and he was a leader rather than a follower. Imagine the impact of all that on kids like me: white kids growing up in economically depressed neighborhoods, where bigotry was commonplace and racial intolerance was the primary lesson we learned at home. Suddenly there was a black character who wasn’t the white guy’s sidekick. He wasn’t any kind of second string—or worse—stereotype. He was equal to Reed Richards. T’Challa’s values were based on a worldview rather than an America-centric view, which was also something kids like me hadn’t really encountered.”
Real name: David
When it was announced that not only would there be a Justice League movie, but that Aquaman would be getting his own standalone film, many were left to ponder who Arthur Curry’s nemesis would be given the fact that much less in known about the exploits of Atlantis – as opposed to Gotham City – when it comes to the criminal element.
Enter Black Manta, who many have speculated will assume the role of Aquaman’s chief nemesis.
Although the character has existed in the DC world since 1967, an attempt at a backstory for Black Manta didn’t occur until 1993 when it was explained he grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and loved to play by the Chesapeake Bay. After being kidnapped and forced to work alongside the waterway, he turned to Aquaman for help but didn’t receive it. In turn, he sought out his revenge. In 2003’s Aquaman #4 Vol. 6, we got another origin story for the character that focused on him being an autistic child whose only comfort came from sitting in a pool of ice cold water. After he was experimented on at Arkham Asylum, he would later be cured – albeit temporarily – while also acquiring super strength.
In later comics, Black Manta also revealed to Aquaman that his quest centered on finding a home for his “people” – removing his iconic bug-like helmet to illustrate that he meant black people.
“Not that racism is my motive – there’s no profit in in prejudice – but since blacks have been suppressed for so long on the surface, they fight well for a chance to be ‘masters’ below,” he said.
Real name: Sam Wilson
Having appeared in Marvel Studios films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man and Captain America: Civil War, the Falcon was created by Stan Lee and artist Gene Colan – and first introduced in a trilogy of Captain America comics #117, #118 and #119 in 1969 – which debuted nearly three years before Luke Cage, Marvel’s first African-American series star, and almost six years before Storm, the first black female superhero.
Forever linked to the exploits of Captain America with whom he had helped battle Red Skull and his exiles on a mysterious island along with his trained falcon, Redwing, Sam Wilson had found himself living on the island after being orphaned as a child in Harlem and after a time as two-bit hood with the moniker, Snap Wilson, who was a criminal and gang member in Los Angeles. Ultimately, Wilson would later return to the States to fight alongside Steve Rogers.
“The Falcon was the very first African-America super hero, as opposed to The Black Panther, who preceded him, but wasn’t American,” notes Marvel Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort. “In a time when the struggle for civil rights was very much at the forefront of the American dialogue, The Falcon brought some of those issues concerning the black experience onto the comic book page for the very first time. He was so popular that he rapidly became a co-headliner on the series. Not just a reflection of Cap, The Falcon was his own man, and steadily expanded on and improved his arsenal of weaponry and powers, aided by characters such as The Black Panther, who developed the Falcon’s wings.”
The Falcon was also the first super hero of color to get his own action figure back in the 1970s.
In a further connection which illustrates Marvel’s desire to showcase a diverse environment, it was also later revealed in The Incredible Hulk #232 that The Falcon’s deceased nephew was Bruce Banner’s sidekick, Jim Wilson, one of the first openly HIV-positive comic book character.
Real name: John Stewart
The character Green Lantern has bared several names since he was introduced in All-American Comics #16 in July 1940 – including Alan Scott, Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner and Simon Baz. Despite the different names, one attribute was regularly represented; he was white.
However, that was not the case with John Stewart’s turn as the hero when he became the first African-American superhero to appear in DC Comics.
Created by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams for Green Lantern Vol. 2, #87 in December 1971, Stewart was an engineer from Detroit, Michigan who was selected by the Guardians as a replacement for Guy Gardener after he was injured by a falling bus after an earthquake. Our first introduction to him comes from the perspective of Hal Jordan who sees him arguing with police about the lack of respect for his civil liberties and later sees him grappling with the idea of protecting a racist senator.
Hal Jordan ultimately disagrees with the Guardian’s choice for Guy Gardener’s replacement, yelling, “That’s the man you want to trust with a power ring – the finest weapon ever devised?”
Ultimately, Stewart is given a costume, but refuses to wear the mask, saying, “I won’t wear any mask. This black man lets it all hang out!” Later in the issue, the same racist senator is doused with oil, and Stewart cracks “haven’t I see you picking cotton someplace?”
Although 2011’s Green Lantern film starring Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan will surely go down as one of the worst, Warner Brothers is still toying with the idea of bringing the hero back – in addition to featuring alternate versions of the character including John Stewart who has gained popularity in recent years thanks to Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.
Real name: Mari Jiwe McCabe
Vixen was intended to be the first African female DC superhero to star in her own series, but the first issue of her series was cancelled. Thus, her first appearance came in 1981 in Action Comics #521.
Like Black Panther, Vixen grew up in a fictional African nation, Zambesi, and was raised by her father after her mother had been killed by poachers. Later, she would flee to the United States after her father was also killed in an attempt by her uncle to possess the “Tantu Totem” – an artifact that would give the wearer all of the powers of the animal kingdom, including the ability to channel extinct beasts like the saber-toothed tiger and the triceratops. Additionally, she has the power to physically shift into animals like that of a wolf, owl and cougar.
Vixen also most notably spent time on the Suicide Squad after a period where she could not control her animal instincts which resulted in the murder of a drug kingpin.
Real name: Amanda Waller
Tasked with being the leader of one of the most unpredictable and diabolical groups ever assembled, Suicide Squad, Amanda Waller has remained at the helm since 1986.
People have always been enamored with Waller because of her moral ambiguity. Simply put, she wants the job done, and doesn’t care how that happens, Thus, her qualities are distinctly human in the pages of comics where the lines between good and evil are always so defined. It’s a testament to creators John Ostrander, Len Wein and John Byrne, who predicted a trend of people becoming enamored with antiheroes.
Despite a lack of superpowers, Waller’s origin story mimics that of characters who would later harness their gifts for the betterment of mankind. Widowed and childless after her loved ones were murdered in the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago, Waller later became a congressional aide before learning of the existence of two previous iterations of the Suicide Squad and proposing a third version with her at the helm.
One of the biggest controversies the Amanda Waller character faced was a redesign. While Waller had always been depicted as shorter and heavy set – with co-creator John Byrne exaggerating her frame with stiletto heels – there came a time when she was presented as much younger and slimmer.
In response, several prominent comic book outlets derided the decision, writing, “In a sea of ageless and impossibly thin and tall figures, Waller stood out as a squat, middle-aged force to be reckoned with.”
Real name: Lucas Bishop
Created by Whilce Portacio and Jim Lee, Bishop first appeared in the Marvel universe in Uncanny X-Men #282. What makes the character standout is that he was from 80 years in the future and comes from a dystopian existence in which Australia had undergone a nuclear attack and mutant-hunting robot Sentinels had taken control of North America. In this timeline, Professor X and the X-Men had all been killed and remaining mutants had been forced into camps.
Bishop and his sister Shard were both born in an aforementioned camp in Brooklyn and branded with “M” tattoos over their right eyes for identification. Raised by his grandmother, she regaled him with stories of the X-Men and how they had fought for mutant rights and how he shouldn’t be ashamed of his special abilities – which included being able to to absorb all forms of radiant or conductive energy that are directed towards him and to release that energy from his body.
In the post-Sentinel future, Bishop would become a police officer. While in the line of duty, he chased a fugitive into the past – thus allowing him to fight along side the X-Men in the days before they met their untimely demise according to his own timeline.
Real name: John Henry Irons
While Shaquille O’Neal famously donned the suit of John Henry Irons in the comically awful 1997 adaptation, the character remains one of the best in the DC universe.
As the name would suggest, aspects of the character are inspired African American folk hero, John Henry, a “steel-driving man” who earned a living hammering a steel drill into rock to make holes for explosives used in constructing a railroad tunnel.
Cut from a similar cloth as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Irons has no superpowers to speak of but does have superior intellect and an inventor/weapon engineer’s mind for AmerTek Industries, which resulted in him wearing an armored suit which gave him the ability to fly and have enhanced strength.
Irons most notably assumed the title of “The Man of Steel” following Superman’s death in Superman #75 Vol. 2 in which he helped the Son of Krypton square off against Doomsday.
Real name: David Zavimbe
In 2011, David Zavimbe, a Congolese police officer, became the first black character to don the batsuit after Bruce Wayne enlisted the help of costumed crime fighters from around the world like Nightrunner and Batman Japan (formerly known as Mr. Unknown) in Batman Inc. #6 to enforce his brand of justice and prepare for a mysterious new enemy only known as Leviathan. In turn, Zavimbe would assume the moniker “Batwing” and be considered the “Batman of Africa” as part of Bruce Wayne’s “Batman Incorporated” initiative.
Donning a WayneTech flight suit designed by David Finch that had last been seen being worn by Batman and Robin in Batman: The Return #1, Bruce Wayne tells him “we’re building a ghost – a boogeyman too big to be clearly seen. Its edges indistinct, its full extent and purpose uncertain. A rumor. A terror made of shadows and flapping wings.”
Zavimbe has a similar, orphaned origin as Bruce Wayne. He and his brother were left parentless after they died from HIV/AIDS and were later taken from their orphanage and turned into boy soldiers.
Real name: Miles Morales
First appearing in Ultimate Fallout #4, Miles Morales is teenager of Black and Hispanic descent who assumes the role of Spider-Man following Peter Parker’s death after a battle against the Green Goblin – although he is later revealed to have survived his death as the result of the same OZ compound that gave him his powers in the first place.
Although Morales is the first black Spider-Man, he marks the second time a Latino character has taken the Spider-Man identity. Miguel O’Hara, who is of half Mexican descent, was the title character in the series Spider-Man 2099.
Much in the same way Peter Parker acquired his powers, so too was Morales bit by a spider after Oscorp scientist, Dr. Markus, used Parker’s blood to recreate the Oz formula and Morales is subsequently enhanced as a grade-schooler.
“The idea’s been in the air for a while,” recalled Marvel Editor in Chief, Axel Alonso. “We formally discussed the concept of a Black Spider-Man a few months before Obama became President as part of the discussion of an event called Ultimatum, which was blowing up and reconstructing the Ultimate Universe. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out at that time – not the least of which is we didn’t have the story yet. That changed when we realized we were actually going to kill Peter Parker in the story that became ‘Death of Spider-Man.’ We realized we had the opportunity to create a new Spider-Man. And Miles Morales was born.”
- Featured/Main Image: DC Comics