The Modern Age of comic books is commonly thought of as the current age. Sometimes it is considered to overlap or encompass the Bronze Age; sometimes it’s called the Dark Age, but for our purpose here, it is everything post-Bronze Age to present day. A lot has changed during this time. The comic book Modern Age emerged with a cry for more realism, complexity, and depth in characters. It wasn’t enough anymore to have a shiny cape and mask. Readers wanted character motivation; they wanted to relate (and sometimes . . . more cowbell).
Beginning with the early-to-mid-1980’s, comics readers began to see not just the introduction of new Black characters, but Black characters (as well as other historically marginalized groups) replacing existing superheroes or roles that shifted the diversity spectrum. Step in Lt. Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, Tony Stark’s best friend (the Tubbs to his Crockett—a dated reference younger readers) and, later, War Machine. When Tony Stark’s alcoholism overcame him, Rhodey stepped up and became one of the first Black characters to assume the role of an established hero, taking over as Iron Man until Stark recovered.
Rhodey would don the mantle again about a decade later when Stark seemingly died, laying the foundation for him to become War Machine when Tony returned. Rhodey has since remained a popular character in Marvel comics and on screen. Around the same time, Monica Rambeau was introduced as the second Captain Marvel. Originally intended to resemble Pam Grier, artist John Romita was later told to pattern the character after another model deemed “more attractive”. She became increasingly popular, going on to lead the Avengers at the same time Storm was leading the X-Men. Over the years, the character would change her name and her powers several times (although not as many times as Batman changed Robins . . . ba-boom!). Monica Rambeau soon became a solid fixture within the Marvel universe. She is currently known as Spectrum.
Marvel really was on a roll in the comics Modern Age. By the 90’s, the X-Men had become one of the most popular comics properties on the market and was expanding rapidly, starting off promisingly with the introduction of new, diverse characters from Bishop to Gateway. Unfortunately, this X-Men boom would lead to an over saturation of titles, characters, and the desperate need to call everything “X-” something.
I mean, Maggott??? Really??? What makes him a mutant, you ask? Why that would be his digestive system having been replaced by a hollow cavity that houses a pair of semi-sentient slugs . . . yes, SLUGS, called, get this: “Eany” and “Meany”. The two creatures leap out of his torso to use powerful enzymes “to process and digest any solid objects in their path” and transfer the energy created from the food back to Maggot to supercharge him, which turns his skin blue and his eyes red. If you thought Matter Eater Lad was out there, Maggott takes it to a whole new level.
One of perhaps the most groundbreaking things to happen in the comics Modern Age was the creation of Milestone Comics and an unheard-of publishing and distribution deal with DC Comics. In 1993 a coalition of African-American artists and writers who believed that people of color were underrepresented in American comics came together to form Milestone Media as a means of correcting the issue. What made this different from other independent Black comics was that the deal that was struck so all Milestone characters existed in a separate continuity that did not fall under DC Comics’s direct editorial control (but DC still retained right of refusal to publish). This allowed Milestone to:
- Retain total creative control
- Retain all copyrights for characters under the Milestone banner
- Have the final say on all merchandising and licensing deals pertaining to their properties
In essence, DC Comics received an annual fee and a share of the profits in exchange for licensing the characters, editorial services, and creative content of the Milestone line.
Milestone characters existed in a continuity dubbed the “Dakotaverse”, which referred to the fictional city of Dakota in which most of the early Milestone stories were set. Think of it like DC’s Pre-Crisis dimensions, such as Earth-S where all of Captain Marvel’s (Shazam’s) adventures took place. This allowed Milestone characters to operate free from any constraints of the DC Universe. The characters were interesting, the stories were creative, and the concept was great.
Milestone had several distinct advantages in its publishing efforts. Their books were distributed and marketed by one of the “big two” comic book publishers, the comics industry had experienced remarkable increases in sales in preceding years, they featured the work of several well-known and critically acclaimed creators, they used a coloring process that gave their books a distinctive look, and they had the potential to appeal to an audience that was not being targeted by other publishers.
They also suffered from several disadvantages. The comics market was experiencing a glut of new characters and new universes as several other publishers launched superhero lines around the same time (a slump would start in 1993 and a market crash in 1994), a significant number of retailers and readers perceived the Milestone books to be “comics for Blacks” and assumed that they would not be of interest to non-African American readers, leading to people literally “judging a book by its cover because of the characters depicted.“ After four years, Milestone stopped publishing a few of their characters in order for them to be brought into the standard DC Universe. Static and Rocket arguably enjoyed the most popularity and crossover success.
Just one year later, a somewhat lesser-known Black character would lead Marvel Comics onto the big screen and pave the way for the current success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—and arguably all current superhero movies. Blade had made his debut during the Bronze Age of comics in The Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973) as a supporting character, half human and half vampire (depending on the incarnation), and was featured in several stories and titles as a noted vampire hunter. But the Modern Age really placed him on the map, so to speak. In addition to being in several titles and story lines from Ghost Rider and Midnight Sons to Civil War and Curse of the Mutants, Blade’s unforgettable introduction on the big screen played by Wesley Snipes (and later in a television series by Kirk Jones) cemented him as a permanent fixture in comics and popular culture. The public enjoyed the Blade movies (at least two of them) and it lead to a resurgence in his popularity and a push for Marvel to bring more characters to the screen. Blade paved the way for Bryan Singer’s X-Men trilogy, and later, Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.
The turn of the 21st Century saw a number of significant events in comics. Marvel’s Black Panther had a new series launched, an in-depth back story of the relationship between he and Storm was introduced, which eventually led to these first Black characters from Marvel getting married. Brother Voodoo, another alternative character from the Bronze Age, returned to come to greater heights as he replaced Doctor Strange as the Sorcerer Supreme and was rechristened Doctor Voodoo. T’Challa’s sister became the new Black Panther. Miles Morales became the new Ultimate Spider-man. Luke Cage married Jessica Jones, had a baby, and went on to lead a team of Avengers. Readers also saw the introduction of the story of Isaiah Bradley, the second Captain America, who was created through a series of trials similar to the Tuskegee Experiments in an attempt to recreate Steve Rogers. Isaiah’s story is reminiscent of so many others within the mosaic of Black history, where the truth is hidden away, only to be shown to be of great significance when revealed. The tragedy of his creation as well as his heroic deeds are hidden away from the general public—a tale all to common today.
What can we take away from all of this? Well, first, my goal has been to share some of the highlights and provide the general consensus on the history of Black characters in comic books. Don’t think of this article series as a comprehensive list of all the characters and events—it’s more like a starting point.
For example, in the Silver Age, both Marvel and DC introduced two non-stereotyped Black World War II characters: Jackie Johnson and Gabe Jones. Johnson integrated Easy Company, and Jones integrated Sgt. Fury’s Howling Commandos. They provided a means to introduce Black characters in an integrated setting so as to improve the overall perception. Meanwhile, Joe Robertson was introduced as one of the first major ongoing supporting characters as editor of the Daily Bugle where Peter Parker worked. There are plenty more examples, so please follow the links at the end of the articles, search out characters, and learn more.
There are also Black characters in comics that evoke a broad range of opinions among readers, such as Mal Duncan, who was introduced to the DC Universe in 1970, pre-dating the Black Racer, and made a member of the Teen Titans. However he had no powers, costume, or code name at the time, but rather joined them as a regular guy (they were going through a crunchy granola pacifism stage) and shared in their adventures the way Rick Jones did with the Hulk or the Avengers. Mal Duncan did not get a superhero identity or ability until 1976, sometime after the Black Racer. Some would argue that he was the first Black superhero based on chronology and because he was made a member of the Teen Titans. However, my opinion is that Mal didn’t become a superhero UNTIL about six years later when he donned an exo-suit and costume and became the New Guardian. There is no doubt that he was a significant character, but it goes to the question of what makes someone a superhero. I believe you have to at least have a costume, if not some special ability or technology. Mal is among a number of non- “powered”/heroic identitied characters like Snapper Carr or Rick Jones who joined teams, hung out with heroes and helped out. These type of characters are not a superheroes even if they become one later, and not what I consider major players that fundamentally change the comics or their universe. But your mileage may vary.
My point in writing this is that, as in anything in geekdom, the topic of Black representation in comics will be one of ongoing debate and discussion, and there is more information and context out there than many people might realize. The main point of contention, according to the discussions I’ve been privy to, is whether it is going too far to have characters such as Nick Fury, Spider-Man, and Heimdall rebooted as Black characters?
The answer is no.
It is not going too far. In fact, it is one of the next stages in character evolution. So many comic book characters have changed significantly over time. For example, Superman, when he was first introduced, could not fly, but rather only leap 1/8 of a mile, only move as fast as an express train, and his powers came not from the yellow sun, but because Kryptonian physiology was millions of years advanced and all of them received great powers upon reaching adulthood. Superman has been through more incarnations and power sets from the introduction of “Super Breath” to the energy-based Superman Blue (and don’t even get me started on Superman IV’s crazy stuff) than the Winsome Wasp of the Avengers has been through costumes.
Characters change and evolve and are rebooted in a multitude of different ways. It’s just a mechanism of the genre. When Marvel did their big diversity push in the X-Men with the introduction of Giant Size X-Men #1, they killed off Thunderbird, their Native American character, on his second mission. Nine years later, his brother showed up with virtually the same powers and same name and costume. He eventually changed his mantle to Warpath and evolved the costume, but his role was essentially the same. There have been something like 13 different Captain Americas in the main Marvel Universe alone. And does anyone know what color the Hulk is this week?
Characters change. It really, really is not a big deal. In fact, it is what makes comics so unique as a genre. And what better reason to evolve and change than to try and address the lack of diversity and gender balance that has existed historically and still is around today? Rebooting—evolving—characters in this manner not only creates new story lines and themes, but it also helps to redress some of the inequities of the past. People forget that in 1938, the world was still a very segregated and discriminatory place for both women and people of color, and so many of the characters looked the way they did not from any inherent trait or intrinsic quality, but because White and predominantly male was the default. When you consider the variation of the world’s population, as well as the history of each culture, the fact that superheroes were overwhelmingly lacking in diversity is a clear indication of the times. Springing forward 77 years to a day and age when diversity is more recognized, more explicit and more necessary, it is only logical that new characters created would reflect current trends, but even more fitting that with as many “Crises”, “Convergences”, “Flashpoints” and “Secret Wars & Invasions” that companies would used the reboot opportunity to a purpose to make them more reflective of the world and readership.
Not everyone thinks that should happen, however, and I’ve seen fans angered by what they view as messing with canon. Yet this complaint holds little water when you look at DC’s New 52 and Marvel Now and how different their characters are from just a few years ago. It’s no wonder they would want to take that even further with rebooting characters as different races or genders. And given our changing world, I think this is a good thing. New characteristics can reinvigorate stale characters, bring new readership and appeal, and ultimately right age-old wrongs. And at their core, isn’t righting wrongs what superheroes are all about? Isn’t that what we should all be about? In the end, isn’t that worth it?
I think so.