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The Black Superheroes to See Next

Digital Art

Digital Creatives

April 23, 2021, 10:52 a.m.

By Evan Narcisse | Author of the Marvel graphic novel “Rise of the Black Panther”

When Black Panther hit theaters, T’Challa became a household name for millions of people. Filmgoers discussed the legacies of colonialism on the African continent (that museum scene!) and the ways that Black diasporic cultures intertwine. The director Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster movie showed how a costumed crusader’s intrinsic metaphorical power could open up new horizons. Now that the world has embraced one Black superhero, who is next? What are the other stories to be told?

The first waves of Black superheroes started showing up in comics decades ago, dreamed up in editorial offices staffed almost entirely by white men. Some of those trailblazing characters: John Stewart (Green Lantern, part of an intergalactic peacekeeping organization), Sam Wilson (Falcon, a close ally of Captain America who uses high-tech wings to fly), and Luke Cage (Power Man, an ex-con hero-for-hire who gained super-strength and durability after a prison experiment). They all had early stories linked to the midcentury idea of the ghetto and were often only used when creators wanted to comment on social unrest or systemic injustice. These heroes’ primary purpose was to attract new readers to publishers like Marvel and DC.

But for too long, Black superheroes hewed too closely to a few shallow stereotypes. Conversations about racial and ethnic representation in mainstream media often include a common postmodern refrain: “Black people aren’t a monolith.” The same goes for Black superheroes, who have the power to deftly demonstrate the multiplicity of Black experiences.

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As Black creators have slowly made their way into those companies, they have used characters like Luke Cage, Misty Knight (police officer turned cyborg private eye, a friend of Luke Cage), or Nubia (Wonder Woman’s Black Amazon sister) to expose audiences to facets of Black life they might not ordinarily encounter.

After growing up reading comics and then writing about them, I am now scripting superhero stories myself. Last year, when Marvel asked me to contribute to its Voices anthology series — which spotlights creators and heroes from marginalized backgrounds — I took on that same mission of exposure.

The main character in my one-page story was Jericho Drumm, a Black, Haitian-born sorcerer who fights evil under the super-sobriquet Doctor Voodoo. The character’s first appearance was written and drawn by Len Wein and Gene Colan, who were white. To my knowledge, none of the writers or artists who had ever worked on Doctor Voodoo shared his heritage. But I do. And I made it a point to thematically connect the character back to Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Adbaraya Toya, real historical figures who birthed the movement to wrest Haiti’s freedom from French oppressors. My parents told me that our revolutionary forebears were heroes; I wanted to use Jericho Drumm to introduce them to Marvel readers.

Similarly, a graphic novel centered around Nubia led to my telling my 10-year-old daughter about the Orisha gods of West African Yoruba cultures, who appear in the heroine’s recent stories. She had already encountered Greek and Norse gods, but this was her first time hearing about deities connected to her heritage.

Miles Morales, a Black Latino Spider-Man, and Shuri, the breakout character from the Black Panther movie, both offer new shades of dimensionality: She’s a princess who cares more about her high-tech Vibranium lab than fancy dresses; he’s an everyman superhero who quips in Nuyorican Spanglish.

But there are still more superhero stories to be told.

I would love to see the Black characters Icon and Rocket soar on screens because their mentor/sidekick relationship runs off a delicious intergenerational and socioeconomic class conflict.

Introduced by Milestone Media in 1993 and created by Dwayne McDuffie and Mark Bright, the two characters first meet when the teenager Rocket (a.k.a. Raquel Ervin) tries to burgle the mansion owned by the well-off lawyer Augustus Freeman — who is an alien stuck on Earth since the 19th century. (Yes, Icon is a sly remix of the Superman myth, and the characters are part of the DC Universe.)

Augustus uses his powers to stop the theft. When Raquel sees that he can fly, she pleads with him to don a cape and become a hero named Icon, a symbol for the residents of her hometown to look up to.

But his old-school ways clash with her youthful idealism. Augustus tells his teenage sidekick to defer to the police during their first big outing; she isn’t having any of it. As they fight crime in the original 1990s run of Icon, Augustus and his protégé argue, with police and each other — about everything from respectability politics to her unplanned pregnancy.

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Jo Mullein, the African-American heroine who stars in DC Comics’ Far Sector series, comes to the question of police accountability from a very different angle. Jo’s career as a police officer hits an ethical impasse after her partner uses excessive force on the job.

Disillusioned, she accepts an offer to join the Green Lantern corps, like John Stewart before her. Once she’s stationed in a cosmic metropolis teeming with its unique political tensions, she questions whether she — having witnessed firsthand how cops can reinforce structural inequalities — should uphold the unjust extraterrestrial law of the land.

Warner Bros. recently announced that a new Green Lantern TV show is in development. Ideally, it will be built around Jo (short for Sojourner, a pivotal figure in Black history). There are myriad juicy storytelling possibilities with a character who is a Black woman and a cop, especially in light of current tensions around policing in the United States.

Icon, Rocket, Doctor Voodoo, and Jo Mullein are heroes. But I also want the world to meet Masquerade, who is more of an antihero.

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Masquerade, another creation of Milestone Media, debuted in Blood Syndicate, a series named for a rambunctious gang of teens who gain superhuman abilities after exposure to experimental radioactive tear gas.

Before getting shape-shifting powers, Masquerade lived life as a woman. But when the Blood Syndicate starts fighting mind-manipulating enemies, Masquerade battles as a man. Masquerade’s lowest moment happens when a demonic adversary changes him back to a woman, a gender presentation that never fits interestingly

The scene is witnessed by a character named Fade. Masquerade confronts Fade, a closeted gay man who is intangible and unstuck in time. In one of the series’s most charged sequences, Masquerade threatens to out Fade if he reveals what he saw. The confrontation is an astringent, groundbreaking flashpoint for L.G.B.T.Q. representation in superhero comics.

Masquerade comes across as unsympathetic in the scene but the comics writer Danny Lore sees it differently. “Interestingly, this is between a trans man and a gay man,” Lore told me. “It is a situation in which their perspective and understanding of what a possible community would look like are still so different. Fade is lacking the understanding of the harm that still looms within the queer community for a trans man and Masquerade is missing out on what that support could do. And they both have legitimate reasons for feeling that way.”

The vast majority of superheroes are cisgender in the stories told for mainstream audiences by Hollywood. Masquerade could be a trailblazer: someone who demonstrates the power and peril of daring to define their own identity.

Many of the most famous superhero characters belong to the catalogs of DC or Marvel, major publishers with pipelines that feed directly into film and TV studios.

But there’s also a vibrant landscape driven by smaller publishers and independent creators, filled with fictional personas who can also take readers into new horizons. Titles like “Is’nana the Were-Spider,” “Spirit’s Destiny,” “Iyanu: Child of Wonder” and “Harriet Tubman, Demon Slayer” tell tales of immigrant demigods, toy with history, and zero in on the moments when fated duty and individual desire pull a person in opposite directions.

Seated at the center of the most popular Black superhero concept in the world, King T’Challa is royalty in more ways than one. But most Black folks don’t live lives of palace privilege. Why not explore other characters?

A conflicted cosmic cop, a generation gap super-duo, or a shapeshifting antihero who runs wild in the streets have the potential to become the next breakouts.

At the core of every superhero sits an existential question: How do we imagine ourselves into being? With every new Black superhero that audiences encounter, they can see that the answers are as varied as we are.

Originally published by New York Times

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Verny Joy Author

Verny loves to write poetry, fiction and quotes. Her love for writing landed her in journalism. She loves gadgets and travelling to explore new places.

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