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Black Superheroes in Comic Books

MotorCity Comic Con flies into metro Detroit on May 16-18, but African-American fanboys and girls alike will be left wondering: Where is the color in comics?

The summer movie season has become synonymous with caped crusaders and super powers. This year alone, Captain America, Spider-Man and the myriad mutants from X-Men will heat up the silver screen. But among those popular characters, there is only one person of color: Halle Berry's Storm. Rumors have it that her few scenes will be cut from the final film. We'll find out this month when the movie opens—and Detroiters are in full comic mode, as the MotorCity Comic Con's 25th anniversary hits Suburban Collection Showplace in Novi May 16-18.

But even if Storm makes an appearance, the fact is that comic books have a dearth of African-American characters. For every Storm or Blade or Spawn, there's a handful of White comic character who are bigger, badder and wildly more popular.

"Black characters just don't make the cut," says the manager of Detroit Comics in Ferndale, who has been going by the name Worm since high school.

"Captain America is like the big guy in Marvel. The closest Black character to him would probably be War Machine, Jim Rhodes," says Worm. "But every time they give him a book, it gets canceled really fast. No one is interested in just a War Machine story. He's pretty much just Iron Man, but not."

War Machine, who was created by White writers, could be just another token character. The problem Worm has with some of the Black characters that are developed is they are not relatable to African-Americans. And that's coming from a man who is White.

"I think the main thing is it's not that there (is) no want for it, but I don't think people can relate to it—because I don't think there are any Black writers. At least there aren't many," says Worm, specifically talking about the mainstream DC and Marvel comics. "I'm sure a lot of the 30-something White writers don't know what they're talking about. I couldn't write it. I wouldn't know where to start with a Black character."

Why color matters in comics

If you can't beat them, join them, as the saying goes. But Andre Batts has turned that expression on its head. For him, if you can't join them, beat them.

His passion for drawing comics as a kid led him to create his own comic universe, Urban Style Comics—based in Detroit—in the mid-'90s. His lead superhero is Dreadlocks, a blind but strong African-American character with locs, based on the Rastafarian culture.

Batts got the idea of creating the character due to the underrepresentation of Blacks in comics. While listening to reggae and house music with a few friends, the idea of Dreadlocks started to form.

"We started talking about the comics we used to read back in the '80s and how comics are now, and how they still lack representation of us," says Batts.

Batts is a former fan of the mainstream comics. His favorite was Doctor Strange, The Mighty Thor and Spider-Man. Batts no longer favors the mainstream universes because of the lack of diversity.

"When (youth) are reading books, they don't see color. They are not even taught that. But at the same time, we are being forced into an inferiority complex without even knowing it. Until we get older and we realized, 'Wow, this is what the world is really about,'" says Batts.  "When I grew up, I was reading everything Whites had written-—so now I have to figure out how to break free from this. I realized what had to be done as an adult as far as changing the images to represent us."

Batts says that Dreadlocks helps with literacy and educates Blacks with a little African culture.
"When they read the comics, not only are they enjoying our artwork, but they are learning something of their culture to the point where when they read the Dreadlocks book, they are like, 'Wow, I need to read up on some of this information that's in this book to see what's going on and find out some truth,'" Batts says.

Batts isn't the only one joining the movement. Thousands of people make or support Black comics across the nation. Black fan boys and girls even have their own comic book convention called The Black Age of Comics. Detroit's, the Motor City Black Age of Comics, is held annually in September. This year, it's Sept. 13 at YouthVille Detroit.

And why it doesn't

While no one can dispute the lack of Black characters in comics, some like Michael Washington say it's irrelevant. Washington, who once went to Detroit Comics about three times a week, isn't interested in Black comic books, although he is Black. His favorite character will always be Batman.

Washington contends that heroes represent certain values rather than race.

"Basically they are representing the idea of right and wrong, and trying to always do the right thing and protect those that can't defend themselves. Also, always make something of yourself, always be the best you can be, don't ever be scared, and never show fear," says Washington. "Heroes portray these great values that should be in all of us, so it's not really a Black thing. It's something that all humans should be."

Besides, the 23-year-old fan, who got into comics five years ago, says there is a reason for the lack of representation, and it has to do with our history.

"All these comics started, at least 90 percent of all the top comic book heroes, between 1930 and the late 1960s, early '70s. They didn't start having a whole bunch of African integration until like around John Stewart (1971). He was the first African-American Green Lantern," Washington says.

Changing the history of comic books

Perhaps in an effort to "color correct" this lack of diversity, there have been considerations to have Black actors play historically White comic characters. For instance, Michael B. Jordan, the star of last year's indie hit Fruitvale Station, has been cast as Fantastic Four's Human Torch/Johnny Storm—a White superhero.

But Christopher Covington, a graduate student at Michigan State University, who has studied Blacks in video games and comic books, says changing the race of a character "just because" is the wrong way of doing things. He prefers writers stay true to the storyline, even if that means less Black superheroes.

"If you make one person Black, you have to make the sister Black," says Covington, referring to the fact that the Human Torch's sister, the Invisible Woman, is also White. (Despite the Human Torch being played by a Black actor, Kate Mara, a White actress will play the Invisible Woman/Sue Storm in the film.)

Instead of changing the race, Covington favors making a new person to portray the superhero. An example is the comic book Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man. This Spider-Man is half-Black, half-Hispanic-—but he's not Peter Parker. His name is Miles Morales. In this story, the original Spider-Man died and Morales took up his role. Covington says he hopes Jordan will only portray a different "Human Torch" who is not Johnny Storm.

"I don't want anyone to be the same name and be White. I wouldn't want them to make (a Black X-Men character) have the same name but make him White. That's not cool at all," says Covington.

While Covington agrees that there is a lack of representation of Blacks in the comic book world, he says that doesn't mean that a lot of characters weren't created. The issue is the Black characters that are out there don't have their own comic book series or movies.

"I don't think they need to create new characters. They have enough to pull from," says Covington, who has researched the backgrounds, appearance and powers of all the Black male characters in DC and Marvel to determine whether or not they are stereotyped. "I think they could either start to invest time in bringing them forward or at least give them some time in other aspects."

Covington says the purpose of his research was to promote change in character development and affect the people who have the power to create characters. His research found that most of the character's backgrounds weren't stereotyped at all. Out of the 87 male superheroes he studied, only four came from a criminal background or had stereotyped powers. However, the majority of them did have stereotyped features, such as big lips.

Creating more color

Change takes time, and after an over 70-year run of Batman and Superman, you can't expect change in mainstream comics over night. Covington says they have to either take "risks or adapt," but things have to change.

In 2010, DC took one of those risks by making Batman Incorporated. This comic book highlights the diverse agents of Batman/Bruce Wayne. One of the most popular characters of the group is Batwing, the Batman of Africa. Batwing is one of the few characters among the group to have his own title that is still running after two years. There is also a French Muslim Batman and a representative in Hong Kong.

Carl S. Taylor, professor of sociology and African-American graduate studies at Michigan State University, says having Black comic books and characters is a good start, because it can help build self esteem.

"It won't solve everything ... You can't overcome hundreds of years of racism or poor images, but it's a starting point," says Taylor. "That goes back to the doll experiment Kenneth Clark did (back in 1939). Black girls were selecting the White dolls over the Black dolls. We internally, as a community, are still wrestling with hair and pigmentation of skin."

A good start could also be introducing the established Black characters to Black children. Since most of these characters aren't in the limelight, the only way kids can be exposed to them is if someone shows them. Covington says that when he has a son or daughter, he won't force Black comics on them since the comic world is so broad. But if his child can identify with the character, it will open up a new world.

"My favorite character is Wolverine, but my favorite Black hero is Bishop. The reason why I wanted a Black hero," explains Covington, is so that "When (my child) asks 'Daddy, who is that Black dude?' I could be like 'Yes, he saw him!'" He needs to make that crucial visual connection."

And the message will be clear: Heroes can come in any color.

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