Comic book culture has seen a recent surge in mainstream popularity, moving quickly away from associations with the nerdy teenage boy to having a mass following among children, teens, and young adults. The Marvel universe has overtaken Hollywood, becoming a stand-alone cinematic brand that can sustain life outside of the physical comic book realm. We don’t all assume our peers have read all the Avengers comics, but we expect them to have seen all the movies. Meanwhile, The CW is content to give the network a DC makeover with its slew of DC small-screen adaptations, from Arrow to Supergirl to DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. Although some might argue a culture of comic book puritans still exists, it’s safe to say comic book culture is not exactly a niche interest anymore.
So, now that comic book culture is mainstream and superheroes are for everybody – let’s talk diverse representation. To be clear, comic books themselves have always been a diverse medium with strong white, black, and green characters alike. Yet, media representation has been largely of the white and green variety. That is to say, images of the black superhero have not been equally represented, especially in live-action. When we do get characters like Storm, Falcon, War Machine and Black Panther appearing in movies, they are typically only supporting characters. Exceptions have included Blade, star of his own franchise, and Luke Cage, the title character of a Netflix series. But there are many more populating the colourful pages of comic books. Here are 15 black superheroes we haven’t seen enough of.
15. John Stewart – The Green Lantern
No – not Ryan Reynolds, you’re thinking of Hal Jordan. In the DC universe, there is actually a collection of Green Lanterns chosen to protect the universe, including Hal Jordan AND John Stewart. After a difficult childhood in Detroit, John set himself on a disciplined academic path, eventually joining the Marine Corps. When he was first chosen, Hal Jordan feared John’s anger towards society (having experienced abuse, loss, and racism), would prohibit him from being a viable protector, but he was proven very wrong.
John’s first appearance was in 1971 and he has since been featured in over 1200 comic book issues. He is also THE Green Lantern in the Justice League animated universe, but has yet to make it to the live-action big screen. Rumour has it, though, that we can expect such a debut in 2020. After a disappointing Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds) movie was released in 2011, comic book fans are eager for a fresh start; however, there is no confirmed word yet on who might don the green ring.
14. Monica Rambeau – Spectrum / Captain Marvel
She’s not just a black female superhero, she’s also been the leader of the Avengers (take that, Storm). Best of all, she was a hero before she was imbued with superpowers. After rising through the local police ranks in her hometown of New Orleans, an off-duty Lieutenant Rambeau teamed up with a scientist to take down an international dictator who had become a threat to America. In an attempt to destroy his evil energy machine, she was hit with a massive dose of extra-dimensional energy, and Spectrum was born.
Her first appearance was in 1982, and she has since appeared in over 780 comic book issues. After being dubbed Captain Marvel by the media, Spectrum eventually met up with the Avengers, became one, and routinely acted as their leader. She also spent time as an Agent of H.A.T.E, a bit of a misnomer which stands for Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort. In regards to her personal life, Spectrum has a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Brother Voodoo.
13. Eric Henderson – Quantum
Quantum and Woody is not a terribly popular comic series, but it should be. Jam of Comics Alliance gleefully compares it to Archer (the TV series), “but with more pointed racial commentary and a higher batting average for funny jokes.” The series follows brothers Eric and Steve Henderson who, after a long time of estrangement, reunite at their father’s funeral. Notably, Eric is black, and Woody is white. In a diversion from typical media representation of blended families, it is Woody who is the foster brother. Although the brothers are no longer on good terms, they team up to find their father’s killer – oh yeah, and they gain atomic superpowers in the process. The series began in 2013 and has 95 issues published. Arguably, it’ a bit early to complain about it not having been adapted, but it’s never too soon to hope.
Nubia was created as a secondary character in the Wonder Woman story, and has stayed that way. It’s a shame, because her story has major potential for complex and intelligent writing. She is Diana’s (Wonder Woman) sister – actual sister, that is. Just as Diana was made of white clay and given life by Aphrodite, Nubia was made of black clay at the same time. Aphrodite is also her creator, and she was meant to be every bit as powerful and honoured as Diana. However, she was stolen by Mars who made her his warrior, keeping her loyal to him by placing a magic ring around her finger. When she is finally freed of him, Nubia defies Mars and leads her warriors in the way of peace. An origin story like this immediately invokes images of slavery, and undoubtedly has the potential to capture the big screen in a big way. So far, though, she has only made it into 30 comic book issues since her first appearance in 1973.
11. Jefferson Michael Pierce – Black Lightning
Rumour has it Black Lightning will soon be joining the roster of DC heroes invading the CW. Until then, we can only speculate about representation of this black superhero, who has his humble beginnings as a teacher and Olympic gold medalist. His sense of justice is instilled in him from a young age, thanks to his father’s career as an investigative journalist. Jeff first puts on his superhero suit to disguise himself as he takes down the criminals his father is fighting to expose but can’t due to their strong police connections. He is not just a superhero; he is a community leader and do-gooder, who seeks urban education reform. That what he stands for is an ever-relevant social topic only makes us more eager to see him portrayed on-screen.
Black Lightning’s first appearance was in 1977, making him the first black superhero to have a solo series. Unfortunately, it didn’t last long, but is still considered iconic today.
10. Adam Brashear – Blue Marvel
Created in 2009, Adam is very aware of his blackness, and of the systemic racism in America. In fact, he has had to come face to face with it. While serving as a U.S. Marine, he discovers he has superpowers and decides to use them to fight evil. When the government realizes Blue Marvel is black, they go to extreme lengths to keep tabs on him. It all comes to a head during a showdown with Anti-Man – his mask is damaged and his blackness is revealed. This is met with public outcry and rage, effectively ending his career. Saddened, he retreats to the moon where he leads a normal life (saving Earth once, to no one’s knowledge) and earns a PhD. Soon enough though, Anti-Man returns. Despite everything, and at the encouragement of Tony Stark (Iron Man), he takes up his Blue Marvel identity, once again. It’s a sad story, with powerful and inspirational cadences, and its comments on racism in America are poignant and worthy of being heard. We can’t wait to see where it goes, and if it makes it to the screen.
9. Jericho Drumm – Doctor Voodoo / Brother Voodoo
Both a mystic and an academic, Jericho is Haitian-born, and New York educated. After more than a decade away from his homeland, where he had embraced voodoo, Jericho returns to help his brother in a fight against a rival sorcerer. It is upon his brother’s death that Jericho vows to avenge him, and in taking in his brother’s spirit, he becomes the powerful Brother Voodoo.
The character is interesting because the storyline explores black cultural roots outside of America. But of course, this always threatens to trail into exoticism and exploitation. It’s a fate that caught up with Brother Voodoo once he had been taken over by new writers; however, his creators in 1973 gave us five comic book issues in which his character was well portrayed. His next 360 comic book appearances offer an unappealing cliché caricature of Haitian culture, which is exactly why we need more of Brother Voodoo done right. His brief cameo at the end of Doctor Strange hints of more to come.
Unlike most superheroes, Shadowman is actually a superhero persona that passed down through a lineage. The first to hold the power was Jack Boniface, a New Orleans based jazz musician who is given his powers by a mysterious Coven. When night falls, Shadowman takes over, turning him into a fearless vigilante driven to help those who need him. After Jack’s death, Michael Leroi is given the same powers and takes up the good work. This time, Shadowman can cross between the worlds of the living, and the dead.
Shadowman first appeared in 1992, but in a 2012 reboot, we learned that Jack’s father was also a Shadowman, long ago. The stories are filled with the tragically beautiful iconographic imagery of New Orleans – voodoo, magic, and darkness. Captivating cinematography is built right into the plot, ensuring that this black superhero would turn some heads in this new age of dark and gritty comic book culture.
Though not a superhero in the traditional sense, Alana is something of a super-soldier who deserves some serious screen-time. In the epic science fiction comic book series Saga, Alana is on the front lines of an intergalactic war when she falls for a P.O.W. she is charged with guarding. Despite being from two different worlds and having very different philosophies (he is a pacifist), when Alana winds up pregnant she breaks her lover, Marko, free and the two wind up on the run. We quickly learn that Alana will do ANYTHING to protect her child, and the man she loves.
The series is an excellent platform for discussions about race, war, prejudices, refugees, interracial marriage, and family – all topics from which Alana never shies away. Oh – and she’s a great fighter, too. Although creator Brian K. Vaughn has said he doesn’t think “the technology or financial model exists yet to realistically make Saga work as either a television series or a feature,” it’s certainly something worth holding out for.
6. David Zavimbe – Batwing
While Batman has been busy cleaning up Gotham City, David had his own hands full in the (fictional) African city, Tinasha. As a child, David lost his parents to AIDS and ended up on a very dark path, working for a domestic terrorist organization. Looking to repent, David joined the police force, but to his dismay, he found that corruption was coursing through the justice system. Determined to do something about it, he started asserting his own brand of vigilante justice. Batman took notice of this, and upon setting up the international batmen team, recruited David to be Tinasha’s official superhero. He eventually resigned, wanting to disconnect his image from Batman’s.
5. Luke Fox – Batwing
Finally getting his chance to shine – Luke Fox, son of Lucius Fox. Luke had wanted to join Batman Inc. since its initiation but, despite his very best efforts, he was passed on for David Zavimbe (the first Batwing). However, when David departs just a couple years later, Luke is called upon to take his place. In true Batman fashion, Luke has no superhuman abilities, but is very smart, and has a great suit full of gadgets. Lucius, who knows nothing about his son’s new persona is upset when Luke refuses a job at Wayne Enterprises and heads off to Africa, but hey, that’s the price of living a double life. Batwing has been in 87 comic book issues, and got his first appearance in the animated 2013 film Batman: Bad Blood. He has yet to make it to live-action.
4. Ororo Munroe – Storm
OK – we have seen a lot of Storm in the X-men film franchise, but comic book fans will be quick to point out there’s a lot more to Storm than what we have seen thus far. For a story about diversity and acceptance, the X-men movies fall really flat on exploring Storm’s difference. Her heritage is left all but unexplored, and her presence isn’t all that strong. Storm’s history in the comics, however, is rich and complex. She was the first X-Woman (introduced in 1975), and hails form a long line of royalty and sorcery that has existed since the dawn of time. Her family’s kingdom remains hidden in Africa, in the very valley that gave birth to humankind. Although she struggles with her sense of self, she is very aware of her roots. The sense of power that comes with a history like this enables one of the most empowering images of a black woman in popular culture, and it has been entirely erased from the movies. So, it’s time we see more of Storm owning that power.
3. T’Challa – Black Panther
After a captivating introduction in Captain America: Civil War, audiences are hungry for more Black Panther. Not to worry – the film is set for release in 2018. Here’s why you should be excited. As we saw in Civil War, T’Challa is originally a Prince from the very private (fictional) African country of Wakanda. After his father’s death he becomes King, inheriting not only the crown, but the title and powers of Black Panther. Since Wakanda is far more economically and technologically advanced than the rest of the world, T’Challa’s grandfather hid it from outsiders to prevent it from coming under attack. It is thus Black Panther’s sworn duty to keep his people and economy safe. He quickly became friends and allies with the Fantastic Four who, upon being invited, marveled at his “Techno-Jungle”. He then joined the Avegners, living a double-life as both a superhero and a King. Who says you can’t have the best of both worlds?
2. Virgil Hawkins – Static Shock
Back in 2015 unconfirmed rumours began to surface that Jaden Smith would be taking on the role of Static Shock in the character’s live-action debut – a Warner Bros. web series. Although these are still just rumours, it’s an exciting thought. Virgil neatly fits into the Arrow-verse, being a nerdy, bullied, New York teen who has an after school job at S.T.A.R. labs. He acquires his superpowers when he finds himself in the ultimate wrong-place-wrong-time scenario. During a large gang brawl, police unleash a chemically enhanced tear-gas on the 500 gang members involved – and Virgil, a bystander. Nearly everyone dies, but the few who survive, including Virgil, mutate and develop superhuman abilities. Seeing it as a way to break-away from his mundane identity, Virgil decides to become a superhero.
The story is especially relevant today, as discussions about police brutality and black teen deaths abound. What’s great, is this is a story with a happy-ending; Virgil may have been an innocent teen victim of the NYPD, but he is able to channel it into something positive.
1. Miles Morales – Spider-Man
Miles Morales is the other Spider-Man – the one that has risen to utter stardom since his creation in 2011. Of black and Hispanic descent, Miles is just an ordinary high school student with an aptitude for science. But when he is unexpectedly bitten by the Oz-spider, his whole life changes. Soon after developing powers, Miles saves a family from a burning building, but insists he has no intentions on continuing on as a superhero. However, when news breaks that Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is in a potentially fatal row with Green Goblin, Miles rushes to his aid. Unfortunately, he is too late and has to watch his hero die. At Peter’s funeral, Miles asks Gwen Stacy what made Peter choose to be a superhero, to which she responds, “with great power comes great responsibility.” From that moment on, Miles is inspired.
He has since been featured in nearly 400 comic book issues, becoming one of the few character’s to make it into DC’s mainstream from the 2015 All New All Different Marvel line-up. His animated movie is set to premier in late 2018, so it seems more a matter of when than if he will eventually headline a live-action franchise.