When I was a kid, Batman and Superman didn’t just kick supervillains‘ butts, they also helped me battle the slings and arrows of outrageous adolescence. I had already read many exciting classic novels like The Three Musketeers, Ivanhoe and Treasure Island, which gave me hope that — unlike the mind-numbingly boring daily routine of childhood — adulthood could be an exciting adventure in which the battle to defeat evil and corruption paid off in massive public adoration and endless attractive women. Comic books were a modern shorthand version of those thick old books, made more exciting by the addition of superpowers or cool gadgets.
Then along came Spider-Man in 1962, when I was 15, the same age as poor, pitiful Peter Parker. Not only was he struggling to deal with his new Spidey powers, but he was fighting an even more evil nemesis: high school. Every high school kid understands the debilitating torment of being a teen, and how it seems like you have a secret identity — the polite, mild-mannered kid your parents want you to be hiding the bursting hormonal desires, demonic drives and unbridled energy that are the real you. Spider-Man was the perfect expression of that adolescent angst of id versus superego. But when you happened to be a teenage person of color, you had an additional secret identity — especially if, like me, you were one of only a few blacks in a white high school. Everything you did was scrutinized as a representation of how all African-Americans behaved and thought. You were the default ambassador of blackness.
Today, kids of color have it easier, at least when it comes to finding relatable comic book heroes, because this is a golden age of black comic book characters no longer relegated to servant or sidekick status. There’s now a cornucopia of center-stage black heroes, who run the full spectrum, from the traditional costumed male crime fighters like Spawn, Blade, Falcon, War Machine, Green Lantern, Luke Cage, Black Panther and half-black, half-Puerto Rican Spider-Man Miles Morales, to female warriors like Kamau Kogo (Bitch Planet), Amanda Waller (Suicide Squad), Moon Girl (Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur) and Michonne (Walking Dead). Marvel even has several Muslim female superheroes, including Ms. Marvel, Monet St. Croix and the second Black Widow. There’s a black Watson and Holmes series; a black NBA player turned inhuman, Mosaic; and a terrific black interpretation of the Frankenstein story called Victor LaValle’s Destroyer. But not all black characters are created equal. For me, there are certain characteristics a writer must consider when crafting a black comic book protagonist. After all, with great storytelling power comes … you know the rest.
First, a black superhero must have a social conscience that makes them aware that they are a minority and what that means to them and all others who are marginalized. Being black isn’t just having the colorist shade the skin darker, it’s a significant personal element that motivates the character’s actions. The character doesn’t have to start out full-throttle altruistic and self-aware. In fact, it can be a much more exciting story for the character to start selfish because they’ve been marginalized (“I don’t owe this world anything!”) and slowly come to the realization of their connection to society, even an imperfect society.
Second, the character should have a sense of humor, especially about themselves. The degree of humor depends on the overall tone. Michonne in Walking Dead can’t be cutting off zombie heads then using them as ventriloquist dummies. Having dour, humorless heroes only works if other characters poke fun at their dourness, as happens in Batman, with Robin, Alfred and Catwoman getting laughs off Bruce Wayne’s brooding self-importance. Humor is even more important for minority heroes because otherwise their earnestness overwhelms the story, making it seem like a political diatribe rather than an adventure story. A great story can be both, but humor makes it more subtle.
Finally, the character should be smart. It’s not enough to defeat the enemy with superior power, the hero must also be able to outwit them. One enduring racial stereotype is the black man who is more brawn than brain, the runaway field hand who crushes anything in his path to freedom. I prefer to see our black superheroes flexing their cunning and dazzling us with intellect as much as with their supernatural abilities. We have to promote the idea that anyone can attain knowledge — even as we entertain our fantasies of powers beyond science. Invisibility is nice, but intelligence wins the day.
My own graphic novel, Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook, features the very white brother of Sherlock Holmes out to save the world. My spin was to pair him with part-Native American and part-black Lark Adler, the partner — definitely not a sidekick — who rivals him in every way and surpasses him in some. My main goal was to throw these two together for an exciting and sexy adventure. But my subtext was to have a character who represents the exploited Americans (Indians, blacks, women) fighting alongside an enlightened white man to save the U.S. from a villain who represents the corrupt ideals of racism, sexism, xenophobia and class snobbery. Mycroft and Lark are funny, smart, brave and have dark pasts they want redemption from. After all, second chances are what America is all about. And the rising tide of black comic book characters lifts all of us closer. As Lark tells Mycroft, “This country may not treat me the way it should, but the Constitution says it wants to. I just want to help it get to that point.”
This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.