The comic-book Bronze Age is perhaps the most aptly or ironically named period because it had the widest range of introductions: the first Black superhero to have his own comic book (Luke Cage), the first Black female superhero (Storm), DC Comics’ first (Black Racer) and second (Green Lantern) Black superheroes, and others. The 1970s ushered in a new era of both black consciousness and popularity, ranging from the blaxsploitation movies to funk and R&B; hip talk, cool threads, funky styles replaced the psychedelic ’60s, and Black people were leading the trends everywhere. Comics heralded a wider array of Black personalities than had ever been seen before.
Luke Cage is interesting because, while he also follows elements of Black comic character stereotypes (imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, gains his super powers in prison), what makes him unique is that rather than running off to space or the other parts of the country, he sets up shop in Harlem where he grew up and offers the service of a hero for hire, under the idea that superheroes didn’t come to the impacted areas as much and thus needed someone there. Even though he was “for hire” as a means of making a living, Cage had a sliding-fee scale that would go as low as someone needed it.
He was introduced at a time when blaxsploitation films were at their peak, and that definitely had an influence: from Cage’s yellow disco shirt to his chain belt, he was straight out of the image of the time. But despite this, Cage never “forgot where he came from,” and he stayed in the community to give back. His dialogue was infused with street slang—sometimes to an exaggeration (I’ve yet to hear anyone seriously utter the phrase “Sweet Christmas” in my life), but in it there was an appeal to authenticity. Whereas the Falcon and the Black Panther represented one aspect of the Black community, Luke Cage represented another, and it was refreshing to see that in actual print.
Storm, also known as Ororo Munro, debuted in Giant Size X-Men #1 alongside a cast of international heroes of various ethnicities. I’m going to leave aside the fact that the only woman recruited for the team is topless, the image and cultural context of the old white guy from America approaching the nubile, half-naked, young African woman, and the dialogue, because that would take an entire article in and of itself to tell you what’s wrong with it.
Suffice it to say, Storm is recruited as part of this new team to rescue the old team, who have gone missing, and grows from this humble beginning. She is arguably the most powerful member and is the first one to take over leadership from the original head of the team, Cyclops. Marvel simultaneously broke a barrier and created one of its most popular characters of all time. It is ironic that she would eventually come to marry Black Panther in later years given what they each represent, but overall she is a force to be reckoned with on any given day.
I can’t really say a lot about Black Racer, DC Comics’ first Black superhero. Even though he’s part of the pantheon of New Gods, he never seemed to have any significant involvement or real character interaction, and his being Black seemed almost tangential. He represented death, therefore . . . also, he’s a Black man on skis. Part of his superpower set is being able to ski. As a Black guy. I can’t even.
More in touch and a better attempt was John Stewart (Green Lantern), DC Comics’ second Black character. Stewart was introduced in Green Lantern volume 2, #87 (December 1971/January 1972). According to cocreator and artist Neal Adams, Adams told his editor that given the racial makeup of the world’s population, “we ought to have a black Green Lantern, not because we’re liberals, but because it just makes sense.” While this is a great sentiment, and Stewart has become not only a great character but one of the best Green Lanterns, this sentiment lagged behind Marvel’s groundbreaking strides like DC was standing still.
Stewart was created not only as a backup to Hal Jordan but also as the second one because Guy Gardner (the original backup) had been injured. Further, his first mission was, of course, to protect someone racist while being doubted by the man he is supposed to stand in for (Jordan). Whether intentional or not, it reflects not only the position many African Americans find themselves in while in professional settings—having to “prove” that they are safe and can put aside issues of race in order to do a job and the right thing. Interestingly enough, white characters never seem to have to prove that they can put aside issues of race in order to do a job. Consider that as you think about why there may be a need for characters to be rebooted and reinvented and whether its justified to make the changes.
In 1977, DC Comics’ first Black superhero with his own comic debuted with Black Lightning. Jefferson Pierce, Lightning’s secret identity, grew up in a Metropolis slum—the same slum the 1940s Newsboy Legion operated out of. He escaped the ghetto by becoming an Olympic decathlon medalist. But, like Luke Cage, Jefferson Pierce returned to his neighborhood, becoming a high-school teacher to give back and help others find their way out.
Black Lightning would go on to become a bigger hero, initially turning down Justice League membership and eventually becoming a member of the Outsiders before joining the Justice League. Black Lightning remains one of DC’s most popular Black characters to this day. He is a stark contrast to what the publisher originally had planned as its first major Black superhero, the Black Bomber.
The Black Bomber was a white bigot and Vietnam Veteran who was exposed to a specialized Agent Orange that caused him to transform from a white racist into a Black superhero (think Shazam meets Parliament Funkadelic), with each alter ego having no memory of the other one. Seriously, this is real and what someone at DC thought would be a good idea for their first major Black hero. Luckily Tony Isabella, who was asked to take over Black Bomber as of the third issue, saw what this was, convinced DC to scrap the character, and created Black Lightning instead.
Three years after Black Lightning, DC would introduce Victor Stone, the superhero Cyborg. Originally a member of the Teen Titans, when DC Comics rebooted their continuity in 2011 it established him as a founding member of the Justice League. Cyborg tapped into the flavor of the era, coming on the heels of the Six Million Dollar Man and Robocop, but was portrayed as still struggling to accept who he was and be accepted despite society’s obvious fascination with his kind . . . a struggle many African Americans go through. But by the 1980s it was a new era; every superhero team carried at least one Black character on its roster. Black characters were broader and more diverse and had branched out into careers and white-collar occupations. They had more depth than ever before.
Though DC made an effort, Marvel continued to set the pace with the level of diversity represented in its comics, especially around Black characters that were mainstream and would grow to lead teams like the X-Men, the Avengers, and even the Fantastic Four during roster shakeups. This may be what led to DC’s involvement in one of the most groundbreaking concepts in the industry: Milestone Comics.
But you’ll have to come back for the next installment for more about that.
- Giant Size X-Men #1, 1975
- Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972)
- GREAT MOMENTS IN COMICS: THE BLACK BOMBER
- DC Comics Presents#26 (October 1980)
- “Hero deficit: Comic books in decline | Toronto Star”. Thestar.com. 2007-03-18.
- Greenberger, Robert (2008). “Cyborg”. In Dougall, Alastair. The DC Comics Encyclopedia. New York: Dorling Kindersley. p. 91