Black Representation in Marvel and DC Comics

Representation in the media has long been debated whether it be racial, female, LGBT, disabled or cultural. In this post I will look at black representation in comic books, more specifically at superhero characters and comics produced by the two major America companies Marvel and DC. Both companies were founded under different names in 1939 and 1934 respectively, and as can be seen below, both companies took until the 1960s and 1970s to introduce black superhero characters. In some respects this is not a surprise as these two decades are now historically intertwined with Black history in the West and especially America where these two companies are based. It is impossible to cover every black character in these comics in this blog as that would easily fill a book, so I have chosen a few of the most famous and influential characters to focus on. I have also looked at the issue of black representation in Marvel and DC’s comic book adaptations for television and film which has increasingly become the way that the majority of the population is exposed to such characters. Three comic book adaptions now sit in the top ten worldwide grossing films of all time. But then why have these movies often been almost exclusively white?

Black Panther first appeared in 1966 in issue #52 of The Fantastic Four, making him the first black superhero in mainstream comics. The character was created as T’Challa, the chief of Wakanda, a fictional African nation which was a technically advanced nation which can be seen as an ‘anti-colonialist critique’ and a ‘stark contrast to the historical and symbolic constructions of Africans as simple tribal people and Africa as primitive’. The character got his own run with Jungle Action #5 in 1973 which ran until 1976. The uniqueness of this title compared to black characters that followed is interesting; unlike other black characters T’Challa was not restricted in terms of storyline or setting of just American ghettos to symbolise racial inequality but was placed in more fantastical settings like some of his white counterparts. As Adilifu Nama summarises: ‘in spite of the cringe-inducing title, Jungle Action was progressive in the way it avoided many of the ghettocentric clichés of the ‘black experience’.’ After Jungle Action, Black Panther was re-launched with a self-titled series and even after that title’s cancellation, the character has continued to have his own comic in every decade since his conception. He has also played a major role in a number of other series including the Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men and Daredevil. In 2006 Black Panther married his fellow Black superhero Storm although this was later annulled.

First appearing in Captain America #117 in 1969, Sam Wilson known as the Falcon became the first African American superhero in mainstream comics. The significance of this was not lost on the writers. Wilson and other black characters were concerned about him being a sidekick to Captain America, a white man. Wilson’s black love interest, Leila criticised the character for being ‘a racial sellout’. Nama explains: ‘By having Sam and other black characters question the power dynamics of his relationship with his white superhero friend, the comic avoided creating a static black superhero… His concern and constant attention to the issue gave their personal relationship a social resonance with broader racial tensions, and symbolized a social debate about if aggressive or incremental steps were move effective in achieving racial equality.’ The writers understood the impact that having such a character would have, and the issues that would come from it. While with the creation of Black Panther there had been some element of removal from the social issues in America of the time, this was not possible with Falcon. Perhaps this is why, between 1971-78, the character was billed alongside Captain America in the comics as Captain America and the Falcon, elevating a black character to the title of a leading comic was significant and could be seen to symbolise a greater hope for integration. There was a brief 14 issue run of a new version of Captain America and the Falcon in 2004-2005 but this was cancelled. He had his own four part miniseries in 1983 and has been a member of the Defenders and the Avengers over the years. Falcon played a significant role in the Avengers volume 3 and has continued to play a supporting role in the Captain America comics. It was announced that Wilson would take over the mantle of Captain America after the original, Steve Rogers, lost his abilities. The comic will premiere in November.

First appearing in 1972, Luke Cage sometime known as Power Man premiered in his own comic Luke Cage, Hero for Hire becoming the first black superhero to have his own comic. The title ran for 6 years until falling sales made Marvel decide to team up the character with another superhero, Iron Fist, whose sales were also falling to save both characters from cancellation. This new series ran until 1986. Cage’s origin story is one of the most politically aware origin stories; he is sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit and in prison suffers racism at the hands of the prison guards. In an attempt to improve his chances at parole he volunteers for a cell regeneration experiment but the experiment is sabotaged by a sadistic prison guard with a grudge which leads to him gaining his superhuman strength and durability. The concept of Cage being unjustly imprisoned coincides with widening attention on the incarceration of black people. Such an origin story relates the ‘issues of unjust black incarceration, black political disenfranchisement, and institutional racism in America’. Cage’s decision to use his powers for profit is also interesting, as an escaped convict he had no opportunity to pursue legal work and unlike many of his superhero counterparts he was not independently wealthy to be able pursue such a career unlike white superheroes Tony Stark or Charles Xavier, who both had family wealth to fall back on.

DC’s first black superhero was John Stewart who first appeared in 1971 in Green Lantern volume 2 #87. Stewart was chosen to become a back-up for the then current Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, by those who had given the powers of the Green Lantern, the Guardians. When Jordan quit being the Green Lantern, Stewart replaced him headlining the comics between 1984-86, until Stewart himself, quit. Subsequently he played a major role in the 1988 comic Cosmic Odyssey. Then in 1992 he was the lead in Green Lantern: Mosaic but despite critical and commercial success DC cancelled the title because they felt it did not fit in with their editorial vision meaning the character became restricted to a supporting role until 2006 with Green Lantern Corps. Stewart found widespread popularity when he was portrayed in the Cartoon Network animated series, Justice League. The development of the character has changed over the years. In his first appearance ‘Hal views Stewart as too angry… the critique of Stewart easily played to the racial archetype of the “angry black man”’. In comparison Stewart is ‘a mainstream superhero’ who ‘articulates an integrationist, albeit culturally pluralistic, ethos’.

The first black female character in Marvel or DC to play a major or supporting role was Storm, also known as Ororo Munroe, in 1975. She first appeared in Giant-Sized X-Men #1 and has gone on to appear in the majority of the X-Men comics since her introduction. The character has led the X-Men on various occasions and is one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe. Such development over the years is intriguing due to the fact that Storm ‘symbolizes many of the struggles that black women… face and resist’ and yet ‘Storm was a triumphant third-world version of a black female superhero’. She can be seen as an inspiration for black women to try to overcome the barriers that not only a racist but also a sexist society place upon them, and dispel the idea that black women are somehow less worthy or inferior. Storm had her own miniseries in 1996 which ran for 4 issues and finally received her own ongoing solo series in July 2014.

In 2000, Marvel released a new ‘universe’ of comics, known as the Ultimate Marvel which reimagined a number of Marvel characters in a new way. Spider Man was one of these. In 2011, Miles Morales took up the mantle of the recently killed Peter Parker in the role of Spider Man. The character of Morales was Black-Hispanic, and while some were disappointed at the killing of Parker (although Parker was alive and remained Spider Man in the main run of the comics), others claimed that it was publicity stunt and political correctness. Others, including an article in the New York Times and Spider Man’s creator Stan Lee, lauded the change citing it as a positive for non-white children to see a character that looked like them. Despite claims of a publicity stunt, Morales still continues to appear in the comics, and his own run ran for just over two years.

Another character changed in Ultimate Marvel was Nick Fury who had traditionally been portrayed as a white man in the main run of the comics. This Nick Fury’s appearance was based on that of actor Samuel L. Jackson. After the first comic in 2002 featuring Fury, Jackson contacted Marvel about appearing as Fury in any movies featuring the character. He made his first appearance as Fury in a post credits scene of Iron Man in 2008. While this version of Fury has yet to headline his own series, he has played a major part in many of the storylines in the Ultimate universe as the General of S.H.I.E.L.D and as the leader of a reimaging of the Avengers known as the Ultimates.

Of course the majority of the population’s exposure to comic books is via movies and television. The earliest representation was Eartha Kitt as Catwoman in 1967 in the third season of the Batman TV series. The role had earlier been played by a white actress who was unable to reappear. This was not just unique for black representation in comic book adaptions but also for black representation on TV, with Kitt being one of the first black women on mainstream TV. Beginning in 2001, Smallville ran for 10 seasons focusing on the life of Clark Kent before he became Superman. The only black regular character, Pete Ross played by Sam Jones III, left the show at the end of the show’s third season. Two members of the Justice League, Cyborg (Victor Stone) and Martian Manhunter (John Jones) were played by black actors along with Amanda Waller, a prominent character in a number of DC properties. Waller is also portrayed in the show Arrow, focusing on the character Oliver Queen as he becomes the Green Arrow, which is due to start its third season this autumn, in a recurring capacity. The show also introduced John Diggle, a character created purely for the show played by David Ramsey. Since his introduction, the character has been added to the comics. Like Ross in Smallville, Diggle plays the confidant role to the lead, although so far the character has fared better as Diggle has been given several storylines that are separate from the white lead. A spin off from Arrow, The Flash, which premieres this Autumn, has two of the characters Iris West and her father Detective Joe West cast with black actors, Candice Patton and Jesse L. Martin whereas their comic book counterparts were white. Another two DC television shows to premiere this year with characters not from their respective comic books, Gotham and Constantine have Jada Pinkett Smith and Harold Perrineau. On the Marvel front, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D has no black characters in its regular cast but has 3 in its recurring cast. J. August Richards plays the superhero Deathlok along with Ruth Negga and B.J. Britt playing characters unique to the show (although in the case of Negga, her character could easily turn out to be a comic book character). Our first black lead should come with the Netflix series around Luke Cage, although the part has yet to be cast, and its future could possibly rely on the success of the Daredevil series that will precede it.

While not technically a superhero film, the Blade franchise was (and still is) the only comic book franchise led by a black actor. Starting in 1998, Blade a dhampir played by Wesley Snipes was the protagonist. The films were a financial success following with Blade II in 2002 and Blade Trinity in 2004. Two factors delayed Blade 4. First was a dispute between Snipes and the studio that his role was marginalised in favour of two white supporting characters and accusations of racism from the writer/producer/director David S. Goyer and crew. Snipes also claimed that in previous films that an effort had been made to employ a multi-racial crew but on Blade Trinity only white crew were intentionally hired. Then Snipes’ subsequent imprisonment for tax evasion meant the film was put into limbo and the rights to the character have now reverted to Marvel Studios (the rights to the character Blade and numerous others had been sold to other studios in the 1990s when Marvel Studios were facing financial issues), which further puts the film in limbo, although Snipes has said he would return to the character. Blade laid the foundations for many of the comic book movies that would start in the early 2000s, it was commercially successful and after the failure of Batman and Robin proved a comic book movie could become a franchise. The fact that Blade was led by a black actor should not be forgotten, despite many comic book movies ignoring their black characters. Without a black character, studios may have not taken a chance on the likes of X-Men and Spider-Man.

Catwoman is the only other comic book movie that has a black lead, with Halle Berry playing the titular character in 2004. However, unlike Blade, the film was a box office bomb and was critically panned. The film, along with Elektra (another bomb), is often used as an excuse for not producing a female led superhero or comic book film. The fact that a comic book movie hasn’t had a black lead (or a lead who wasn’t Caucasian) since Catwoman would suggest that Catwoman may be used as an excuse for that too. In reality, the writing of the film has been considered poor by reviewers especially considering that the film was only a Catwoman film in name, as the character’s alter ego Selina Kyle is not the lead (or present in the film) nor does it share the Batman universe that the character inhibits.

Since 2000 there have been over 40 movies based on comic books. Before 2000, with the exception of the Superman and Batman franchises, the majority of comic book adaptations were television series or movies released on TV or straight to video. With the exception of the two above, these have generally had white leads, with black characters often playing supporting or minor roles. As can be seen in the list below, I could only find 39 named characters that were played by black actors (the list might not be 100% accurate as I have not watched every film nor did IMDB have an image of every actor). As can be seen the vast majority of these films only had one named black character. Other racial groups fare generally worse, with East Asians the only group coming anywhere near the amount of black characters in these films, which shows a complete and utter lack of diversity. This has been noted by some of the actors who have played these roles. Djimon Hounsou who played Korath in Guardians of the Galaxy explained he took the role because: “I have a four-year old son who loves superheroes from Spider-Man to Iron Man to Batman. He’s got all the costumes. One day he looks at me and says ‘Dad, I want to be light-skinned so I could be Spider-Man. Spider-Man has light skin.’  That was sort of a shock. This is why I am excited to be a part of the Marvel Universe, so I could be hopefully provide that [sic] diversity in the role of the superhero.” Hounsou’s comments reflect the feeling that for the sake of children’s identity, and despite some people’s belief, diverse casting is important.

Even the more diverse franchises such as X-Men have been criticised. Halle Berry, who plays Storm in four of the films, had to petition to have a larger role in the X-Men: The Last Stand despite playing one of the most significant X-Men characters. X-Men: First Class was also fiercely criticised after killing Darwin halfway through the movie and having Angel, the only other black character switch sides (!SPOILER for Days of Future Past! – Angel was also then killed off-screen much to the fury of some fans).

The Avengers films have also been criticised, with no non-white leads for its first nine movies. In Guardians of the Galaxy, Zoe Saldana, a black actress was cast as the female lead (and the one named black female character in all 10 films) but her character was an alien and Saldana was covered in green paint. The films have been criticised for their lack of women, especially with no female fronted film; this is even more pointedly obvious when Saldana is the only non-white woman to appear in the 10 films produced.

Black characters in the Avengers films have been significant supporting roles, most prominently Nick Fury, James ‘Rhodey’ Rhodes, also known as War Machine, and Sam Wilson as mentioned above, the Falcon. These characters have been incredibly important to the plot and supported the white leads; they are all characters that could headline their own films. With the focus so far on the big four of the Marvel universe (at least out of the properties that Marvel Entertainment own the rights too), it is not surprising that there has been a lack of black characters in the films. At least in the case of Rhodes and Wilson, who both play significant roles in the comics, they weren’t ignored completely. However Marvel is rapidly running out of excuses for its poor show on diversity, not just racially.

The most popular way to increase diversity in such films has been to cast non-white actors as traditionally white characters, similar to several of the TV shows above. This is mostly due to the age of many of the popular comic book characters, with so many premiering before even the most minimal attempts were made at diversity often these comics have all-white casts of characters. Although even more recent comics are not necessarily much better in this respect. For example Michael Duncan Clarke played Kingpin in Daredevil and Jamie Foxx played Electro in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which allowed both actors to play major roles. While black superheroes sometimes struggle to be known by the public, black supervillains are even less well known. However this does not sometimes go without controversy. When Idris Elba was cast as Hemidall in Thor, known as “the whitest of the gods” and portrayed as white in both comics and mythology, there were a number of people who criticised the casting. In response, Elba pointed out the most glaringly obvious truth: “Hang about, Thor’s mythical, right? Thor has a hammer that flies to him when he clicks his fingers. That’s OK, but the colour of my skin is wrong?”

Black representation in comics has been slow and fairly limited, especially in main roles. This has also been similarly reflected in the film and television adaptations. While there have been attempts to increase diversity these have failed to make much change. While Miles Morales has had decent sales, he has been unable to compare to Peter Parker. Part of this problem is falling comic book sales, the most successful are generally the more established books such as Batman. It is difficult for less established characters or new characters to break through. Perhaps the best attempt to do this is to introduce more black representation into film and television adaptations and make more of an attempt to encourage such viewers to buy comics. As we attempt to move into a more integrated society the lack of black representation is problematic (as is racial representation in general) and perhaps in future at the centre of the origin stories, racism won’t be a major or core factor.

Film Year Character Actor Size of Role Existing Comic Book Character/For Film
Superman III 1983 Gus Gorman Richard Pryor Major For Film
Batman 1989 Billy Dee Williams Harvey Dent Existing but Caucasian in comics, subsequently replaced by Caucasian actor in sequel
Batman Forever 1995 Margaret Kimberly Scott Minor For Film
X-Men 2000 Storm Halle Berry Major Existing
Spider-Man 2002 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting Existing
Daredevil 2003 Kingpin Michael Duncan Clarke Major Existing, but Caucasian in comics
X2: X-Men United 2003 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 2 2004 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Catwoman 2004 Catwoman Halle Berry Lead Existing, however is not the character’s alter ego
Elektra 2005 Stone Bob Sapp Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Constantine 2005 Midnite Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing
Dr. Leslie Archer April Grace Minor New
Batman Begins 2005 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting Existing
Colin McFarlane Police Commissioner Loeb Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
Fantastic Four 2005 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting Existing but Caucasian in comics
X-Men: The Last Stand 2006 Storm Halle Berry Major See Above
Spider-Man 3 2007 Robbie Robertson Bill Nunn Supporting See Above
Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer 2007 Alicia Masters Kerry Washington Supporting See Above
General Hager Andre Braugher Supporting New
Iron Man 2008 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Terrence Howard Supporting Existing
The Incredible Hulk 2008 General Joe Greller Peter Mensah Minor New
The Dark Knight 2008 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Police Commissioner Loeb Colin McFarlane Supporting See Above
Gambol Michael Jai White Minor New
The Spirit 2008 Octopus Samuel L. Jackson Major Existing
Punisher: War Zone 2008 Paul Budiansky Colin Salmon Supporting Existing
Watchmen 2009 Office Kirkpatrick Colin Lawrence Minor New
X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2009 John Wraith Will.i.am Supporting Existing
Iron Man 2 2010 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting See Above
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
Thor 2011 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in Comics
Agent Garrett Dale Godboldo Minor New
X-Men First Class 2011 Angel Salvadore Zoe Kravitz Supporting Existing
Darwin Edi Gathegi Supporting Existing
Green Lantern 2011 Amanda Waller Angela Basset Supporting Existing
Captain America: The First Avenger 2011 Gabe Jones Derek Luke Supporting Existing
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 2012 Moreau Idris Elba Supporting New
The Avengers 2012 Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2012 Miss Ritter Barbara Eve Harris Minor New
The Dark Knight Rises 2012 Lucius Fox Morgan Freeman Supporting See Above
Crispus Allen Rob Brown Minor Existing
Iron Man 3 2013 Lt. Colonel James “Rhodey” Rhodes Don Cheadle Supporting Existing
Man of Steel 2013 Perry White Laurence Fishburne Supporting Existing, but Caucasian in comics
Thor: The Dark World 2013 Hemidall Idris Elba Supporting See Above
Captain America: The Winter Solider 2014 Sam Wilson (Falcon) Anthony Mackie Supporting Existing
Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson Supporting Existing
The Amazing Spider-Man 2 2014 Electro Jamie Foxx Major Existing but Caucasian in the comics
X-Men Days of Future Past 2014 Storm Halle Berry Supporting See Above
Bishop Omar Sy Supporting Existing
Guardians of the Galaxy 2014 Gamora Zoe Saldana Major Existing, both in comics and film character has green skintone
Korath Djimon Hounsou Supporting Existing but skintone is blue in comics

Bibliography

Nama, A., Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (Texas, 2011)

Idris Elba defends Thor Film Role: http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2010/apr/27/idris-elba-thor-race-debate

Comic Con 2013: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ Cast Talk Rocket Raccoon and Playing Badasses: http://screencrave.com/2013-07-21/san-diego-comiccon-2013-guardians-galaxy-cast-surprise-appearance-talk-antiheroes-coming-providing-diversity-alligators/

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5 thoughts on “Black Representation in Marvel and DC Comics

  1. Reblogged this on ManaBurnt and commented:

    My friend Laura wrote this for our history blog which I think is truly fascinating and of interest to our ManaBurt followers.
    All the credit goes to Laura though, who is brilliant and wonderful to work with.

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