The 27 Biggest Milestones In Black Superhero History
Progress is not quite faster than a speeding bullet.
With Black Panther headed to the big screen and Black Lightning tearing it up on the CW, it's a watershed moment for black superheroes. That doesn't mean that it's been an easy journey to get here. The following moments represent some of the biggest steps forwards--and some backward--for superheroes of color.
27. 1941: Marvel's first black sidekick
A few months before Pearl Harbor plunged America into World World II, Timely Comics (later known as Marvel) published Young Allies, a comic series about a group of kids who help Captain America and Bucky Barnes fight the Red Skull. One of the team members is a big-lipped, superstitious, and dim-witted African American that embodies some of the worst stereotypes of the era. His name? Why, Whitewash Jones, of course.
26. 1942: The Big Red Cheese gets some help
Around the same time, Captain Marvel editor Ed Herron introduced Billy Batson's simple-minded "valet," Steamboat, in America's Greatest Comics #2. Steamboat was supposed to be a positive role model and was created to draw in black readers, but many fans disagreed, including over 11,000 schoolchildren who called themselves the Youth Builders, and a group of African Americans who traveled to Fawcett's editorial offices to protest in person. Executive editor Will Lieberson took their side, and Steamboat disappeared from the book in 1945.
25. 1944: A big behind-the-scenes debut
Matt Baker, the first known African American comic book artist, made his debut penciling the cover story in Jumbo Comics #69, which features a leopard skin-clad crimefighter known as Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. The tale, "Slaves for the White Sheik," features the noble, aristocratically-born white hero freeing the hapless black natives who have been forced to participate in an illegal pearl-harvesting operation.
24. 1947: Enter Lion Man
In the late '40s, Orrin Cromwell Evans, the first black reporter to handle "general assignments" for a mainstream white newspaper, produced and published the only issue of All-Negro Comics, which Time Magazine called "the first [comic] to be drawn by Negro artists and peopled entirely by Negro characters." While private eye Ace Harlem is All-Negro Comics' big star, the issue also features a story starring Lion Man, a college-educated African American who ventures to Africa to fight white criminals.
23. 1954: Waku swings into action
Marvel, then called Atlas, introduced its first black hero, Waku, Prince of the Bantu, in Jungle Tales #1. While Waku isn't technically a superhero, he shares many of their traits, including a tragic backstory (he's orphaned at the very beginning of his tale) and a resolute no-killing policy.
22. 1964: From fan artist to counter-culture icon
Richard Eugene Green, better known as "Grass," made waves as the first black man to join the burgeoning fan art and underground comics community. His early comic, the superhero adventure title Xal-Kor the Human Cat, owed a huge debt to the Golden Age comics of the '30s and '40s. It quickly became one of the most popular features in the Star Studded Comics fanzine, which also featured early work from future Marvel editors-in-chief Jim Starlin and Roy Thomas, renowned superhero artist Dave Cockrum, and Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin.
21. 1965: Mainstream comics' first black title star
The first African American character to headline his own comic arrived when Dell Comics published Lobo #1, starring the mysterious gunslinger of the same name. The series only lasted for two issues and was cancelled after roughly 90% of retailers refused to sell Lobo because of its lead's skin color.
20. 1966: All hail the king of Wakanda
Black Panther, arguably the first real black superhero, appeared in Fantastic Four #52, in which he helped Marvel's first family defend Wakanda from Klaw, a scientist-turned-supervillain. Black Panther, real name T'Challa, went on to become a mainstay in the Marvel Universe. He joined the Avengers in 1968, starred in Marvel's first long-running multi-issue story arc in 1973's Jungle Comics #6, took on the Ku Klux Klan in the same series in 1976, and made his big screen debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War.
19. 1969: The Falcon takes to the skies
Black Panther might be Marvel's first black superhero, but the company's first African American hero didn't appear until a fews year later, when Sam Wilson (alias the Falcon) popped up in Captain America #117. The Falcon quickly settled into the role of Cap's sidekick, and ultimately assumed the shield and cowl when old age caught up with Steve Rogers in 2014.
18. 1970: Ebon beats Marvel to the punch
Two years before Luke Cage burst onto the scene, indie cartoonist Larry Fuller (pen name Christian White) published Ebon, which is widely considered the first superhero comic with a black main character (Ebon might also be the first superhero comic produced entirely by a single black man, although that's debatable). The comic only lasted for a single issue, but that didn't deter Fuller, who went on to create the hilarious, satirical, and undeniably filthy underground comic series White Whore Funnies.
17. 1970: Green Lantern learns a lesson
Until the '70s, DC Comics' lineup was very, very white. Writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams challenged the company's lack of diversity in Green Lantern #76. The issue includes a now iconic exchange in which a poor African American man accuses Hal Jordan of ignoring Earth's racial injustices in favor of extraterrestrial threats.
16. 1970: DC's first black superhero isn't who you think
Despite what you might've read lately, DC Comics' first black superhero wasn't Black Lightning. Green Lantern John Stewart, Legion of Super-Heroes member Tyroc, and the New God's avatar of death, the Black Racer, all hit spinner racks before him. DC's first black superhero, however, was actually Mal Duncan, a gifted boxer who joined the Teen Titans in issue #26 of their ongoing series. While Mal didn't originally have any powers beyond his fighting prowess, he later gained a variety of abilities and went by a number of superhero code names, including Guardian, Hornblower, and Vox.
15. 1971: Kryptonians are racist too
A year later, in Superman #239, DC Comics made a misguided attempt to explain why we'd never seen Kryptonians of color before. Apparently, black Kryptonians were segregated from the rest of the population and lived somewhere called Vathlo Island. Understandably, Vathlo Island was only mentioned a handful of times before it disappeared entirely.
14. 1972: A (cover) star is born
The first mainstream black superhero to get his own comic book was Luke Cage, who debuted in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire. Initially, Luke Cage was a jive-talking hustler, and his adventures relied heavily on tropes and stereotypes from popular blaxploitation films. Eventually, the blaxploitation craze ended, and Luke's title faded away. However, the bulletproof hero has been a fixture of the Marvel Universe ever since, and even got his own Netflix TV series in 2016.
13. 1973: Wonder Woman's sister
DC might've been behind the curve when introducing black superheroes, but it actually beat Marvel on the superheroine front. In Wonder Woman #204, DC introduced Nubia, a black Amazon with a claim to Wonder Woman's title. Like Diana, Nubia was crafted out of clay and brought to life by the gods. Unlike Diana, Nubia was raised by Mars, the god of war, and not Hippolyta. Nubia's also a better fighter than Diana, and beat Wonder Woman in a duel before returning to her home, the Floating Island, in her debut story.
12. 1975: A new goddess in town
Giant-Size X-Men #1 didn't just revamp Marvel's merry band of mutants. It also introduced Ororo Munroe, better known as Storm, Marvel's first black superheroine. Raised as a thief on the streets of Cairo, the young mutant was regarded a goddess in her native Africa after her weather-controlling powers kicked. Later, Charles Xavier tracked her down and made her a core member of the X-Men team.
11. 1975: M’Shulla and Carmilla, sittin' in a tree…
The first interracial kiss in mainstream superhero comics took place in Marvel's Amazing Adventures #31, when M'Shulla Scott and Carmilla Frost, allies of the freedom fighter Killraven, locked lips during a down moment. Interestingly enough, that's actually the second interracial kiss that writer Don McGregor snuck into a mainstream comic book. The first happened in Creepy, a horror title from Vampirella publisher Warren, after McGregor's artist misread the writer's script and added an unintended smooch between its two leads.
10. 1977: Black Lightning
As the '70s rolled on, DC wanted their own take on black heroes like Luke Cage and Black Goliath, who got his own superhero identity and comic book in 1975. The company contacted former Luke Cage scribe Tony Isabella and tried to recruit him to write a character named The Black Bomber, who was a white racist who turned into a black man whenever he got angry. Isabella pointed out that this was a terrible idea and countered with Black Lightning, a super-powered high school principal who assumed his superhero mantle out of desperation, not some higher calling. DC approved, and Black Lightning went on to be DC's first African American headliner.
9. 1977: Big screen debut
The first movie starring a black superhero wasn't a big-budget Hollywood production. It was a low-key blaxploitation flick called Abar, the First Black Superman (later renamed In Your Face to avoid trademark complications). In the film, a scientist gives a chemical concoction to a local heavy, creating a superpowered vigilante who fights neighborhood bigotry. Abar was filmed on a shoestring budget and didn't have official permits, but it didn't matter; when the police arrived to shut down filming, a real life motorcycle gang that had been hired to appear in the film scared the fuzz away.
8. 1990: Indie creators get in the game
Brotherman wasn't supposed to be a cultural icon. Artist Dawud Anyabwile and his brother, writer Guy Sims, created the character as a parody, intended mainly to drive business to Anyabwile's airbrushing store. And yet the character--an everyman who doesn't actually have any powers--is widely credited with reinvigorating the black indie comics community. Anyabwile sold over 750,000 copies of Brotherman before the series ended in 1994. In 2018, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture announced that it would add Brotherman materials to its archives, citing the comic's "historical and unique" influence on the indie comic scene.
7. 1993: The Dakotaverse is born
Fed up with mainstream comics' lack of diversity, Dwayne McDuffie and a group of other black creators founded Milestone Media, a company devoted to empowering people of color both on- and off-panel. Milestone's books were published by DC, but their creators retained both editorial independence and intellectual property rights. While Milestone's comic division closed in 1997, its franchises remain popular. Static, one of Milestone's flagship characters, got his own cartoon series in 2000, while characters like Rocket and Icon made appearances in Warner Bros.' sidekick-oriented animated series Young Justice.
6. 1993: Meteor Man crashes
Meteor Man might be the first mainstream movie featuring a black superhero, but sadly, it's not very good. Despite the appearances by celebrities like Robert Townsend, James Earl Jones, Sinbad, Cypress Hill, and Bill Cosby, the campy, lighthearted superhero adventure failed to win the hearts of critics or audiences and only made back $8 million of its $30 million budget.
5. 1997: A tale of Spawn and Steel
In August 1997, the first two superhero flicks starring established black characters debuted at the box office. Spawn, starring Michael Jai White as Todd McFarlane's popular anti-hero, hit screens first. Steel, a Superman spin-off with all references to Superman removed, followed two weeks later. While Spawn was a moderate success, Steel tanked, putting a quick end to star Shaquille O'Neal's Hollywood aspirations.
4. 1998: Gone vampire hunting
Blade wasn't just the first Marvel movie starring a black character. It was the second Marvel movie ever to get a theatrical release in America (only Howard the Duck beat Blade to cineplexes). Starring Wesley Snipes as a character first introduced in Marvel's The Tomb of Dracula--in 1973--Blade singlehandedly kickstarted the superhero movie craze, spawned two sequels, and got a television spin-off in 2006--which ended up being the first Marvel TV show with a black lead.
3. 2004: The truth comes out
Truth: Red, White & Black, a seven-issue miniseries by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, tells the story of a government program to recreate Captain America's super soldier serum using black soldiers as test subjects, most of whom are mutilated or killed by the experiments. Online, traditional comic book fans condemned the book, while critics praised Marvel's decision to highlight the sordid and brutal history of America's race problem, especially the infamous and highly unethical Tuskegee syphilis experiments on which Truth was partially based.
2. 2018: Jefferson Pierce returns
Since 2012, the CW has become the go-to place for superheroes on television. While the network has featured a number of characters of color, particularly on its lighthearted team-up series Legends of Tomorrow, the CW's ever-expanding line of DC-themed TV shows didn't get a black lead until Black Lightning debuted in January. Reinventing Jefferson Pierce as a retired vigilante who needs to suit up again when a criminal gang threatens his family, Black Lightning's first episode scored the best ratings for a CW premiere in two years, and looks set to join The Flash, Arrow, and Supergirl as a CW mainstay.
1. 2018: Black Panther goes big
After 17 big budget superhero adventures starring white men, Marvel Studios will release its first big-screen movie with a black lead in February 2018 when Black Panther hits theaters. The movie's been in development since 2005 (although Wesley Snipes tried to get a Black Panther movie off the ground as far back as 1992) and stars Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, and Lupita Nyong'o. Black Panther is a big step forward for Marvel behind the camera, too: The film is directed by Ryan Coogler, who previously helmed Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed. He's the first black director that Marvel's hired.