Comic books are filled with powers; Wolverine’s power to heal himself, the Flash’s power to be run quicker than the speed of light and the Avengers with their power to beat even Avatar at the Box Office. Comic books have a deeper power though, something which many titans of the industry have always known – they reflect real life, allowing many to discover the hero inside themselves.
Comic books, like most of pop culture, focused on white heroes for a long time, but as writers and publishers started to push the boundaries of what a comic could do – or could be – people from all backgrounds started to see themselves reflected in their favourite titles.
As the world still galvanises around the Black Lives Matter movement, let’s look at the best black Marvel characters and black comic book heroes who have helped inspire, engage and represent generations of comic book fans.
Wakanda Forever became more than a catchphrase after the momentous movie adaptation released in 2018, it became a battle-cry for black people fed up with a lack of equal representation.
The movie might have been a cultural reset, but Black Panther has always been a political character.
Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, T’Challa was introduced to fans in the late 1960s.
A member of the royal family of the fictional African country of Wakanda, T’Challa claimed the throne of the country after his father is killed. Upon claiming the throne, T’Challa inherits the mantle of the Black Panther. Upon becoming the Black Panther, T’Challa was exposed to a mystical herb that enhanced his strength and agility to near-superhuman levels.
The character’s blackness was integral to his importance, and writers weren’t afraid to explore the grim realities of being black in a racist society.
In Jungle Action, a series written by Don McGregor and drawn for the most part by the African-American artist Billy Graham, the story had T’Challa return to a Wakanda plagued by infighting and sedition, where he managed to balance his Black Panther heroics with teachings and thoughts on colonialism.
The storyline featured an all-black cast, something that had never before been attempted in mainstream superhero comics, and in later issues Black Panther even faced off against the Klu Klux Klan.
First Appearance of Black Panther: Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966)
Created by writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum, Storm is the first major female character of African descent in comics.
Born Ororo Munroe to a tribal princess of Kenya and an African-American photojournalist father, Storm grows up to become a member of the X-Men, having the power to control the weather. She is one of the longest-serving X-Men, having led the team on several occasions as well as joining the Avengers for a time and even marrying Black Panther.
She is often regarded as not just one of the most iconic black comic book heroes of all time, but one of the best characters ever written.
Such is her popularity that, when Marvel and DC Comics published a DC vs. Marvel miniseries in 1996, she was pitted against Wonder Woman in a one-on-one battle and came out on top after winning a readers’ vote.
When it comes to creating a character with such a legacy, lightning won’t strike twice…
First Appearance of Storm: Giant-Size X-Men #1 (May 1975)
We’re taking a walk on the wild side with this character now, created by Gerry Conway and Bob Oksner for Acton Comics.
Vixen is a superhero with the power of the Tantu Totem, which allows her to harness the ashe – or spirit – of animals. She can conjure the power and abilities of any animal past or present. Her powers were passed down from the warrior Tantu, who asked Anansi the Spider to create a totem that would give the wearer all the powers of the animal kingdom, only if they would use the power to protect the innocent.
Vixen receives the power after her mother is killed. When she’s not being a hero, the character’s daytime persona, Mari McCabe, works as a model in New York City.
First Appearance of Vixen: Action Comics #521 (July 1981)
Created by writer Marv Wolfman and penciller Gene Colan, Blade is one of the best vampire slayers around – no offence Buffy.
Blade has had varying origins and skillsets throughout his fictional career. He was initially just a skilled fighter, chasing away weaker vampires. However, he was later brought back in a more central role where a battle with Morphius left him as something of a half-vampire/half-human mix. He is most commonly depicted this way – a skilled fighter with some superhero (/supernatural) skills.
Despite being left off the roster for the recent batch of Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Blade has already had a film franchise – and he’s set for a reboot. Wesley Snipes originally played the character back in the original trilogy which started in 1999, though Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali will be playing him in an upcoming reboot.
First appearance of Blade: The Tomb of Dracula #10 (July 1973)
Created for Marvel by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas, and John Romita Sr, he was the first black superhero to be featured as the protagonist and title character of a comic book.
Created during the height of the blaxploitation genre in the 70s, Luke Cage is an ex-con imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, who gains the powers of superhuman strength and unbreakable skin after agreeing to an experimental procedure. Once freed, Cage becomes a ‘hero for hire’, later joining forces with the likes of Iron Fist and Jessica Jones.
First appearance of Luke Cage: Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (June 1972)
John Stewart / Green Lantern
Created by Dennis O’Neil and Neal Adams, John Stewart’s Green Lantern wasn’t the original Green Lantern, but he has become a vital player in the mythos of the character.
He was also DC Comics’ first black superhero, with the original design of the character based on actor Sidney Poitier, the first black man to win an Academy Award.
The Green Lantern isn’t just one hero, but the name given to a team of heroes who fight evil with the aid of rings that give them extraordinary powers, fuelled by their emotions and imaginations.
First appearance of John Stewart: Green Lantern (Volume 2) #87 (December 1971/January 1972)
Created in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, Miles Morales is one of the newbies on the block, but his impact has been undeniable.
Miles was introduced Marvel Comics’ Ultimate Universe – a separate continuity that was based in an alternate reality that included different versions of well-known characters, including Peter Parker.
Miles originally became Spider-Man after the death of his world’s Peter Parker before eventually swinging his way into the mainstream Marvel Universe when the Ultimate Universe was destroyed, where he now shares the identity of Spider-Man with Peter Parker.
Morales was the main character in the 2018 feature film Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature.
First appearance of Miles Morales: Ultimate Fallout #4 (August 2011)
Black Lightning, DC
Created by writer Tony Isabella and artist Trevor Von Eeden, Black Lightning was DC’s first African-American superhero with his own series.
Black Lightning was introduced to the comics as a schoolteacher from the crime-ridden Suicide Slum area of Metropolis who acquires electrical superpowers from a technologically advanced power belt that he puts to use to clean up crime in his neighbourhood.
Over time, when he is introduced in new storylines or universes, he is said to be a metahuman who was born with his superhero powers.
First appearance of Black Lightning: Black Lightning #1 (April 1977)
Not all comic book heroes have to be from the heavyweights of Marvel and DC.
Created by Todd McFarlane, Spawn is a black comic book hero who appeared in a monthly comic book of the same name published by American company Image Comics.
Spawn started life as a simple man named Albert Simmons… who just happens to be sent to Hell due to his life as an assassin. Making a deal with the devil Simmons agrees to become a Hellspawn and serve the devil if he can see his wife one last time. He agrees, and returns Simmons to the living realm, but stripped of most of his memories, with a burned body, and a demonic guardian, named the Violator.
After his death and subsequent rebirth, Simmons – now known as Spawn – arrives on Earth only remembering vague flashes of his life as Al Simmons.
Despite not hailing from one of the big companies, Spawn was ranked 60th on Wizard magazine’s list of the Top 200 Comic Book Characters of All Time, 50th on Empire magazine’s list of The 50 Greatest Comic Book Characters, and 36th on IGN’s 2011 Top 100 Comic Book Heroes.
First appearance of Spawn: Spawn #1 (May 1992)
Isaiah Bradley aka the ‘Black Captain America’
Considered to be the ‘Black Captain America’, Isaiah Bradley created by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker is a profound, subtle commentary on race relations in society.
Though he has the same powers as Captain America – with both being Super-Soldiers created by the Weapons Plus syndicate – one goes on to great glory, while the other is largely forgotten.
In the 2003 series around the character, he is depicted as an underground legend among much of the African-American community in the Marvel Universe, howeber, outside the Black community he remains largely unknown.
When he arrives as a special guest at the wedding of Storm and the Black Panther, several African-American heroes are awestruck, including Luke Cage. However, the Wolverine is shown to be totally unaware of his identity or importance.
In the series, Truth: Red, White & Black which introduced Isaiah, even the character’s ending is a bittersweet nod to a real-life black hero.
After years of damage from the serums and the fights, Isaiah is left with dementia and brain damage, which was writer Morales’ nod to Muhammad Ali.
First appearance: Truth: Red, White & Black (January 2003)
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