Thursday, February 25, 2010

Black History Month Top Ten: Part One

Over the past few months I've made a habit of celebrating holidays and special events with top ten lists, such as the ones that graced Thanksgiving, Pearl Harbor Day and Christmas. Most of the time these features consist of a list of covers, but for Black History Month I thought I would do something a little different and present a look at how the industry has handled African-Americans over the years with a list of the top ten key moments in black comics history.

Before I get into my list, I'd like to add that I'm not really an expert on this, so researching it has been very interesting. Though I've consulted a few different resources online and offline, I'd like to mention in particular Dart Adams and his Poisonous Paragraphs blog, which presented a far more detailed timeline of black comics history, which you can read here and here. It's worth a look, as is this examination of the subject by blogger Mercurie.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's jump right in with our look at the Top Ten most important events in black comics history!

10) Storm joins the X-Men

When the good folks at Marvel decided to re-imagine the failed X-Men franchise in 1974, they made the decision to recast the team as a global group, with representatives from a number of different ethnicities and nationalities. And among them was the African-American weather queen Storm. Not only has she become by far the highest profile black female character in comics (with almost no competition) but thanks to X-Men becoming the most popular comic in the country for over two decades -- and spawning a line of equally popular films -- she has become one of the most recognizable superheroes, period.

9) The Blade Movie Premieres

Unlike Storm, just about nobody outside of the most hardcore Marvel zombies had ever heard of the obscure supporting character Blade the Vampire Hunter when the first Blade film debuted back in 1998. But it went on to become a surprise hit, not only becoming one of the most successful comic adaptations made to that point but also one of the most successful action films to star an African-American lead. The film and its two sequels raised the profile and proved the viability of African-American superheroes in the mainstream marketplace.

8) Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1

Despite what it claimed on the cover of Power Man #17, Luke Cage wasn't the first black superhero, nor was he the first African-American character to star in his own series. But there's no argument that Hero For Hire, which debuted in 1972, was the first major series to feature a black lead and gain widespread success; the comic ran for 125 issues before finally ending, while Luke Cage himself has become one of the key figures in the Marvel Universe thanks to his leadership of the company's flagship title Avengers throughout the last decade. All of it started with this comic, which proved that comic fans of all colors and creeds would buy a comic starring an African-American. (It should be noted, of course, that the characterizations were straight out of the blaxploitation handbook, which keeps this from placing higher on the list).

7) Fawcett Retires Steamboat

In the late 30's and early 40's, when comics were hitting their stride, the entertainment industry as a whole was rife with offensive stereotyping and superhero books were no exception. Picking up on the popular cliches perpetuated by characters like Buckwheat and Stepin Fetchit, publishers across the board began introducing their own versions, such as Timely's sidekick Whitewash Jones. At Fawcett, their version -- ironically and amazingly intended to appeal to African-American readers -- was named Steamboat. But while many of the creators working on the immensely popular Captain Marvel books were oblivious, fans weren't, and after a delegation of irate schoolchildren protested to editor Will Lieberson at the Fawcett offices. Lieberson, by his account, had come to his own conclusion that the character was racist and quickly complied with their demands, issuing an edict that Steamboat was henceforth banned from their books. Protests and actions like these helped end the popularity of these characters, and they soon vanished from comics, thankfully for good.

6) The Original Lobo

The first comic book debuted in 1934, yet, amazingly enough, it wasn't until 31 years later that an African-American character finally landed his own title. That book: 1965's Lobo, from Dell Comics, which followed the adventures of a black gunslinger in the old west. Unfortunately, even with three decades lead time, distributors were still unready for this level of equality: Dell was deluged with an unprecedented number of returns, many of them still in unopened bundles as stores and newsstands refused to sell the title. Because of this, the comic was canceled after the second issue, but it remains a milestone in comics publishing.

Tomorrow: The top five! Spawn! Black Panther! And much, much more! Be there, as Black HIstory Month rushes to its thrilling conclusion!

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Awesome picks on numbers 6 through 10. I can't wait for the top 5!

Great article and great blog, Scott, so I hate to nit pick, but...

Is Storm really African American and not African? I thought her origin had her in either Egypt or Kenya.

No problem, Dave. Storm was actually born in New York. Her father was American and her mother was from Africa. Her father was a photojournalist and moved the family to Egypt to cover a political crisis there when Storm was a young child; when her parents were killed in an airstrike she remained in Africa and grew up there.