Friday, July 2, 2010

Great Moments in Comics: The Black Bomber

Welcome back to another installment of Great Moments in Comics, where we take a look at some of the forgotten episodes in comics history that deserve to be remembered for their sheer awesome power. Lat time out, you may recall, we recalled the classic Boy Comics amputation scheme from Boy Comics #19. This time around, though, we're mixing it up a little by taking a look at a comic that never actually existed, the legendary DC book The Black Bomber.

Now, as you may recall from February's discussion about African-American superheroes, there once was a time when pretty much every costumed hero was as white as the pages they were printed on. This began to change in the mid-60's, as Marvel introduced Black Panther, followed by The Falcon (who shared the title for a decade with Captain America beginning in 1969) and Luke Cage, who became the first black superhero to get his own comic in 1972.

Over at DC, though, things were going a little slower. Yes, there was some progress -- Teen Titans introduced an African-American hero named Mal, for instance, while John Stewart took over the mantle of Green Lantern for one issue. But that was just one issue, and other DC attempts at diversity (such as Jack Kirby's characters Vikin the Black and The Black Racer -- essentially a cosmic grim reaper on flying skis) left something to be desired. By the mid-70's, it was clear that if DC wanted to stay relevant and catch up to the times, they needed a black hero sooner rather than later.

The solution they came up with, however, was probably the worst idea in the history of comics: The Black Bomber.

You guys remember the classic Dave Chappelle character Clayton Bigsby, a white supremacist who is blind and therefore doesn't realize he's black himself? Well, he had nothing on The Black Bomber, who predated Bigsby by nearly 30 years. The unbelievable concept behind The Black Bomber? In his civilian identity, he was a white racist bigot. However, he was also a Vietnam veteran, and during his time in the war he was exposed to an experimental Agent Orange-style gas designed to allow troops to blend in with natives. As a result, during times of stress, the vet would suddenly turn into a black superhero -- The Black Bomber! Even better, The Black Bomber's costume was a Harlem Globetrotter-esque basketball jersey. Essentially he was like Captain Marvel, only instead of Billy Batson saying "Shazam" to turn into the Big Cheese, it was Archie Bunker using the N-word to transform into Meadowlark Lemon. And to top it off, the white version had no memory of being black, while the Black Bomber didn't know he was a white guy either -- and both personalities had their own racially appropriate girlfriends!

By now you probably think I am completely shitting you, especially since I don't have any images to back this up with. But that's because, luckily, DC decided to offer The Black Bomber to comics writer Tony Isabella; they already had two completed scripts in hand, ready to begin production, and wanted Tony to take over with the third issue. He took one look at the stories DC was preparing to publish and, being sane, managed to talk them out of what would undoubtedly have been one of the biggest fiascoes in comics publishing history.

Here's Tony himself discussing this bizarre episode courtesy of official friend of the Vault Fred Hembeck and how it led to him instead creating the first black DC character to actually get his own title, Black Lightning:

"I will say that I created Black Lightning after convincing DC not to publish another "black" super-hero on which they had started work. The Black Bomber was a white bigot who, in times of stress, turned into a black super-hero. This was the result of chemical camouflage experiments he'd taken part in as a soldier in Vietnam. The object of these experiments was to allow our [white] troops to blend into the jungle.

In each of the two completed Black Bomber scripts, the white bigot risks his own life to save another person whom he can't see clearly (in one case, a baby in a stroller) and then reacts in racial slur disgust when he discovers that he risked his life to save a black person. He wasn't aware that he had two identities, but each identity had a girlfriend and the ladies were aware of the change. To add final insult, the Bomber's costume was little more than a glorified basketball uniform.

DC had wanted me to take over writing the book with the third issue. I convinced them to eat the two scripts and let me start over. To paraphrase my arguments...

"Do you REALLY want DC's first black super-hero to be a white bigot?"

Okay, he wasn't precisely their first black super-hero, but I made my point. The Black Bomber stories were deep-sixed and I went to work on my own creation."

While Black Lightning wasn't exactly a massive sales success, the character has proven to be quite resilient, and still features prominently in Justice League of America and other major DC books. As for The Black Bomber, as far as I know nobody has ever made public the scripts or concept art for the scrapped series. However, Justice League writer Dwayne McDuffie recently slipped a slightly altered version of the character into an issue of the series as a joke and easter egg for hardcore comics historians. Take a look (and as always, click to enlarge):

If that last sequence doesn't seem to make sense, it's because DC editorial erased some of the dialogue form the last panel in post-production; the Brown Bomber is supposed to be asking Vixen if it's okay for him to use the N-word when he's in his black identity. It's too bad that they axed the line, because it is both funny and sharp commentary, but it at least proves that, 35 years later, DC editorial has at least learned some of their lesson from the debacle that almost was The Black Bomber.

If you're new to the Vault, be sure to check out our First Anniversary Flashback, where we go over all the highlights and lowlights of The Vault's first year.

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Love the concept. If DC gave me the reigns to the character I'd make him as popular as Deapool with a decent origin story to boot.

Aaaaand the commenter above is a super racist douche.

So, is there a script or proposal that we can find with the whole comic on it?

Even the Brown Bomber sequence that did NOT get canned is offensive.

Thank God for Black Lightning, Black Panther and Luke Cage among others. This was DC's first attempt at a Black Superhero... despicable to say the least, especially Black Bomber but Brown Bomber wasn't much better...

Fuck all you hypersensitive losers. This is funny af. Now comics suck ass and are politically created. FUCK THE COMIC BANDWAGON.