In 1966, Marvel introduced Black Panther, the first African-American superhero dedicated to upholding justice and equality for all.
African-American comic book characters have become more prevalent since then.
Whether it’s Storm from “The X-Men,” Nick Fury from “The Avengers,” or Spawn from Image Comics, black characters have gone from being a marginalized minority to becoming significant players in every major comic company’s currently running series.
“Changing Image of Blacks in Comics,” an exhibition by comic book historian Dr. William H. Foster III, attempts to encapsulate nearly 50 years of African-American characters in comics.
Perceiving a lack of widespread knowledge about black comic book heroes, Foster created the project in the mid-1990s. Housed in Denver’s Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library throughout February, the exhibition details the rise and struggle of African-Americans to get fair and equal representation in the medium.
“People will gain a better knowledge of the many different comics with black characters that appeared since the early 1940s,” Foster says of the exhibition. “I hope everyone who visits the exhibit will begin their own journey of exploration into this valuable part of American history.”
The growth of black comic book characters stems back to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Real-life heroic figures like Malcolm X and Rosa Parks inspired the comics industry to bring more ethnic variety to their pages.
Yet despite the growing prevalence of African-American heroes in comics, they have yet to make a big splash on the big screen.
We’ve already seen several cinematic comic book adaptations featuring black characters in non-starring roles, such as War Machine in the three “Iron Man” movies.
Yet at a time when superhero movies are enjoying big box office success, the fact that we’ve yet to see an African-American character take center stage says there is still ground to be gained.
One or two interesting projects are currently in the works to redress the balance.
Don Cheadle has been tapped to star as War Machine -- originally a supporting superhero in Marvel Comics’ “Iron Man” series -- in a standalone “War Machine” film. Marvel is also actively developing a “Black Panther” movie.
But there still remains a question as to whether either of these characters will appeal to mass-market movie audiences to the same degree they have in comics.
Some comic industry professionals claim that a multicultural sensibility is still missing from comics in general, thanks to a paucity of black writers in the industry. This lack might be keeping a high-profile African-American superhero from making the same successful leap onto the big screen.
“The comic industry certainly owns no sort of exclusivity when it comes to the lack of opportunity or attention afforded black writers in entertainment,” Joseph Hughes, editor-in-chief of the comic book commentary website Comics Alliance, says. “Characters like Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are some of the most recognizable and endearing this country has ever produced, and to continually have their stories told by members of the same increasingly shrinking demographic borders on irresponsible.”
An absence of black writing talent isn’t the only issue keeping African-American heroes from multiplex audiences. Finding a way to create and market enough minority characters so that they don’t have to represent an entire race is another challenge facing the industry.
“If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren't just that character," Dwayne McDuffie, a former editor at Marvel Comics and the founder of Milestone Media, a publishing company dedicated to balancing out minorities’ representation in comics, says. "They represent that race or that sex, and they can't be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people”
In charting how African-American superheroes have grown from being temporary sidekicks to full-fledged, complex heroes, the “Changing Image of Blacks in Comics” exhibition points towards a future in which film audiences might champion a black superhero.
Alexander Lumans is a writer, college instructor, and teacher at Lighthouse Writers Workshop.