“Our Heroes: African-American Artists and Images in the American Comic Book” by Dwayne McDuffie, originally published in the exhibition catalog Black Ink: African American Cartoonists Showcase, Cartoon Art Museum San Francisco, February 5 – May 16, 1992
Alan Thompkins interrupted my one-on-none backyard basketball game with some important news. “The Hulk is gonna fight Thor. It’s supposed to be out already.”
If Alan said so, it must be true. He knew more about comic books than anybody in the whole neighborhood. Even though my interest in the subject was a good less fanatical than Alan’s, this was definitely worth checking out. Much of our rapidly-dwindling summer vacation had been spent in heated arguments over who would emerge victorious from such a contest. I was quite certain the Incredible Hulk would have no problem waxing a little guy who wore a cape and feathers in his hat. Alan, however, favored Thor, citing the Asgardian’s mighty hammer and mystical control over the weather as decisive factors. Maybe so, but then, Alan also preferred Joe Frazier to Muhammad Ali.
In any case, the solution to our debate was suddenly at hand. Only one obstacle remained in our way. Lindsay Drugs, the “good comic store,” was over three miles from my house and I was expressly forbidden from going there. I concocted a clever story to cover my illicit tracks, “I’m going over to Alan’s, okay?”
Mom went for it.
Alan and I hopped on our bikes and made the long ride. It was 1973. We were both eleven years old.
We ran into the drug store and scanned the comic racks. The Hulk vs. Thor comic was nowhere to be found. We were greatly disappointed. Alan consoled himself with a bag of “Gold Rush” bubble gum. I had twenty cents burning a hole in my pocket and was determined to buy a comic book. I’m very glad I did.
The comic book was Jungle Action #7, featuring a superhero I’d never heard of called The Black Panther, but then, I’d never heard of the Black Panther political party either. And the irony of a black character being the lead in a book called Jungle Action escaped me completely. What didn’t escape me was the powerful sense of dignity that the characters in this book possessed. I was instantly and hopelessly hooked.
It wasn’t that The Black Panther was the first black character I’d seen in comics. Blacks had occasionally appeared in crowd scenes and as supporting characters long before (the Panther himself first appeared as a supporting character in The Fantastic Four). One black character even had his own book. Marvel’s Luke Cage, Hero for Hire had been running for over a year when I first discovered the Panther. But I never connected with Cage, a super-strong “angry black man” who wore chains around his waist, didn’t seem particularly bright, and spoke in a bizarre version of “street slang” that didn’t even remotely resemble the speech of any black people I knew. Spider-Man made sense to me. Cage? I just couldn’t relate.
In those days, when black people weren’t busy being angry, they appeared either as faithful sidekicks, or worse, helpless victims who begged the white superheroes to rescue them. The Black Panther was nobody’s sidekick and if there was any rescuing to do, he’d take care of it himself, thank you. Moreover, the Black Panther was king of a mythical African country where black people were visible in every position in society, soldier, doctor, philosopher, street sweeper, ambassador – suddenly everything was possible. In the space of 15 pages, black people moved from invisible to inevitable.
In 1972, there were very few black people involved in the creation of the black images that occasionally graced the pages of comic books. In those days we were dependant on white creators to represent us. As noted about, some of them did remarkably well. Most did not.
Today, the responsibility for African-American images lies with us. If there’s any rescuing to do, we’ll take care of it ourselves, thank you. As African-American artists enter the industry in ever-increasing numbers, our dependence on whites for how we are depicted diminishes accordingly. The relatively new phenomenon of creator-owned and self-published comics further consolidates our control over how we will be portrayed. Nor is our output limited merely to African-American images. We’ve demonstrated our ability to communicate artistically concerning the whole of human experience.
When I talk about “Our Heroes,” I don’t mean The Black Panther, Brotherman, and Deathlok. Our Heroes are the growing numbers of African-American comic book creators who, each in their own way, open our eyes to the multiplicity of the African-American experience.
Our Heroes appearing in the Black Ink exhibit include: [inset images: Gil Ashby (The Laziest Secretary in the World, Hellraiser); Reggie Byers (Robotech, Shuriken, Jam Quacky); Denys Cowan (Deathlok, Punisher: War Zone, Batman, The Question, Prince, The Spook); Michael Davis-Lawerence (ETC, The Freedom Project, Shado); Matt Baker (Hooks Devlin); Grass Green (The Devil You Say); Shepherd Hendrix (Mile Up, Swamp Thing); Seitu Hayden (Tales from the Heart, the Marion Berry Game); Roland Laird (MC Squared); Milton Knight (Slug ‘n Ginger, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles); Turtel Onli (NOG, Future Funk); David, Guy, and Jason Sims (Brotherman); Dwayne Turner (Black Panther).]
The Black Ink exhibit barely skims the surface of the deep pool of African-American talent in the comic industry today. The artists who are included represent merely a small sampling of the staggering breadth and ability of African-American contributors to the form.
~ Dwayne McDuffie writes the adventures of the African-American superheroes Deathlok and Captain Marvel, as well as Double Dragon, Back to the Future, Damage Control, The Demon, and Ultra Man. In the fall of 1973, he and Alan finally got their hands on a copy of the Hulk vs. Thor comic book. It was a tie. ~