Three years ago, I confessed that my knowledge of black superheroes was disgracefully meager. Soon after, I decided to go hard at rectifying this problem. Starting with Frances Gateward and John Jennings’ The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, I worked backwards. I checked out Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. I wanted to cop a few more like Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime or Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation, but then the Rona invaded the US territory.
With libraries closed and all-hands-on-deck at work as an essential worker, I was forced to put my self-education on hold. Nevertheless, as a sort of praxis, I would like to write a few lines about some influential black superheroes who I have encountered over the years.
When I was in grad school, I expressed in a conversation with a professor of American literature, my frustration with the limited number of black characters in comics. He then asked me if I knew about Static Shock. Sadly, I did not.
Looking back, it is embarrassing to me, finding out how much I did not know about what I did not know. Dwayne McDuffie, Rest in Power, has done more for comics than is possible to ever give him sufficient credit. After co-founding Milestone Media to address the dearth of black representation in comics, McDuffie would sign a deal with Warner Bros. to bring Static into the mainstream with a cartoon. He was not the first black superhero to appear on TV. However, he was the first to get his own show, the DC equivalent of Spider-Man — a friendly neighborhood superhero who had to balance vigilantism and his personal life. Static will always maintain an important place in the pantheon of black superheroes.
I recently read an interview of Michelle Pfeiffer, and soon after, a B-roll of her playing as Catwoman in Batman Returns went viral. Though her depiction is the most famous in the mainstream, it was not in my household. I grew up with my parents singing the praises of Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman.
Kitt’s Catwoman instilled in me at a very early age the fact that fictional characters are only static in their racial depictions because the creatives in charge want them to be. That said, Kitt’s Selena Kyle established so-called “race-bending” very early in the character’s tradition. Hopefully, Zoë Kravitz’s Catwoman in 2022’s The Batman makes us forget that Halle Berry’s ever happened.
3. Sister Night
Alan Moore’s Watchmen is an undeniably seminal work, so skepticism toward a sequel was warranted. But Damon Lindelof pulled off an impressive feat. And he did it by casting a black woman as the lead — specifically, Regina King during her Oscar-winning year that was 2019. Even those who have not seen the show know she is the lead because she has the most awesome costume!
Sister Night herself is a fully three-dimensional character — cavalier at times, and others, a loving softie. The contrast between how she raids a Seventh Kavalry camp, and then has to play defense on her home turf to protect her husband is something to see. HBO’s Watchmen is a prime example of how to execute diverse depictions, even bringing into mainstream attention the Greenwood Massacre.
4. Captain Marvel (Spectrum)
I like to call Monica Rambeau “Captain Marvel” to troll folks, but I am technically not wrong. She was the second Captain Marvel after Mar-Vell. By the time this goes live, Teyonah Parris as Monica on Disney+’s Wandavision will have made her debut as Spectrum, demonstrating how powerful she is by momentarily resisting the powers of one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. (That is, based on the 616 universe. After sidelining Hulk as a Thanos jobber in Infinity War, I will never not give the MCU the side-eye.) Monica has suffered some severe power fluctuation crises over the years, yet she always has the time to dunk on how bad Carol Danvers is. I look forward to that inevitable confrontation.
Sticking with modern characters, I have recently taken it upon myself to catch up on one street-level Marvel show that began on ABC Family and ended on Freeform. Because it was neither part of the Marvel Netflix collection, nor part of standard ABC shows like Agents of Shield, Agent Carter, or Inhumans, Cloak & Dagger was largely forgotten.
I would not have known that Cloak even existed if I had not played Maximum Carnage on the Sega Genesis. Arguably only one-half of a fully-realized entity, I believe that Cloak possesses better powers than Dagger, being able to teleport and envelop ne’er-do-wells into a purgatory of darkness. I enjoyed Aubrey Joseph’s portrayal of Tyrone, whose modernized origin story is significantly more sensitive to black plight than his comic book lineage. When Cloak & Dagger was created in the ’80s, Regan’s awful War on Drugs was in full effect, and the characters were written accordingly, in an anti-gang, anti-drug paradigm. Today’s Cloak (& Dagger) bring unjust police and human traffickers to their knees.
6. Johnny Storm
I owe a high school friend of mine a profuse apology. When Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm in Fant4stic, I was apoplectic. I went on a tirade about not only the improbability, but also the cheesiness that would be required to explain how a black Johnny Storm would be adopted into a white family. The joke is on me; in the film, Sue is adopted into the black Storm family.
I was caught flat-footed in my cynical assumptions. In my defense, the previous two Fantastic Four movies were abysmal, and they remain so even when watching in the present-day and expecting tawdriness. However, I would place Fant4stic on the same level of the original X-Men movies. I very much liked Jordan’s interpretation of Johnny Storm, portraying a “hot shot” not in a way reminiscent of Silver Age comics like Chris Evans’ version, but with modern swagger. This is one time where it feels good to stand corrected.
7. Nick Fury
I am not exactly a fan of the Ultimate Marvel Universe because I am a fan of canon. But when artist Bryan Hitch redesigned Fury to resemble Samuel L. Jackson, I was cool with it, even though I wondered about white Nick Fury’s past. Are they the same?
Of course, SLJ reprised, or rather, accepted this role as such the MCU. And so now, Nick Fury is black, not just a version of him. What I like most about him is that, though he is supposed to be the super spy to end all super spies, his greatest strength is his wisdom.
8. Luke Cage
I have made my grievances known concerning my love/hate relationship with Luke Cage as a blaxploitation character. But when Executive producer Cheo Hodari Coker said at Comic-Con 2016, “When I think about what’s going on in the world right now, the world is ready for a bulletproof black man,” he had my full attention. The show would double-down with its cultural relevance whenever Mike Colter rocks the black hoodie — an allusion to Trayvon Martin. And that is just the Netflix show’s version of the character; in the comics, Cage, Jessica Jones, and Danielle are Marvel’s modern nuclear family. Progress!
9. Black Panther
For Gen Z, T’challa is perhaps the most well-known black comic book character, receiving that billion-dollar MCU boost. Fans really voted with their dollars! In the world of comics, we have Christopher Priest to thank for modernizing the character and granting him his accouterments: his smoothness, his tech, his kingdom of Wakanda, the Dora Milaje, and more.
Tragically, Chadwick Boseman is no longer with us. In a grotesque way, it makes sense in the Black Experience that we cannot even keep our fictional heroes. Wakanda Forever….
Black Panther was not the only character to receive a makeover in the ’90s. Everyone remembers Wesley Snipe’s Blade, but hardly anyone remembers what he was as a C-tier character. That is trivia for Silver Age fans; the Snipes depiction of the character is what matters now, with Mahershala Ali’s interpretation apparently coming soon! My favorite aspect about Blade is that he is a “daywalker.” How cool is it to have vampire powers but without one of its primary weaknesses? Shame about the Thirst, though. He is trying to kick the habit.
Whenever anyone puts together a list of black comic book characters, where T’challa appears, Ororo Munroe is not far behind. Between 90’s X-Men cartoon on Fox Kids, the comics, and the movies, Storm is probably the most well-known black comic book of all-time. Marvel has tried to push Carol Danvers as the Wonder Woman equivalent, but we all know it is Storm. After all, remember the DC vs Marvel crossover?
It helps that Storm’s character from conception is well-written, from street thief to X-Men leader. Of course, her mutant power to control the weather is one of the most awesome in all of fiction. Some mutant powers are impractical except for perhaps fighting, while Storm can end droughts, put out wildfires, and reroute hurricanes. If only she had something in her back pocket for climate change.
Uncanny X-Men #17 was the first Marvel comic book that I ever owned. Therein, I discovered Lucas Bishop (and his sister, Shard). Alternate timelines and time travel aside, Bishop was the first black male member of the X-Men that I can remember. He is one of the only ones, in fact, causing the fandom to debate his ethnicity. If only there were enough to go around.
To this day, I keep a framed poster from a Wizard collection in the ’90s (above). It is not necessarily one of my favorite images of him, but it is a fond memory from my childhood.
13. War Machine
Though James “Rhodey” Rhodes comes from the tradition of black sidekicks to the white hero, I found myself watching the Iron Man cartoons on Saturday mornings in the hopes that I would see him become the War Machine. I remember buying an Iron Man action figure and pretending, imagining he was Rhodey. I had to wait until Marvel vs Capcom to play with him for real. His penchant for ballistic weapons gives him and John Stewart something in common.
I actually did not know that Spawn was a black character until I saw the 90’s movie. Had I known, I might have taken a greater interest in him than Violator. Though he is a fictional character, Al Simmons’ plight affected me in a personal way that still gets me hot under the collar. KIA during a special ops mission, he goes to hell and makes a deal with the demon Malebolgia, his soul in exchange for seeing his wife Wanda one more time. Upon his arrival, he learns that she had married his best friend, Terry, even having a kid!
Whatta raw deal, Simmons damning himself for an eternity only to find heartbreak. I know that when I said my vows, including “till death do us part,” I did not go into marriage thinking that I would die young. I never considered how things would play out if I did. What happens with Spawn makes me reflect on my insecurities, and I do not like it.
Speaking of insecurities, I enjoy a good narrative about a superhero who is not. As Zuko from AtLA would say, “Why [is he] so bad at being good?” The way in which he wreaks mayhem, even on accident, provides me with amusement upon every viewing.
I have often wondered what Superman would actually be like if he were real. Okay, Brightburn is the actual answer to that question. That aside, worst-case-scenario, I would anticipate that if people were super-powered in real-life, there would be plenty of the unintentional mass destruction like that Will Smith inflicts upon the people he ambivalently protects.
16. Icon and Rocket
At the point of his inception, Icon answers the question, “What if Superman signified black?” When Dewayne McDuffie conceptualized the character, he seemingly designed him to be a superhero who just-so-happened to be melanated. Because he was one of the few and proud black superheroes, some give him a pass despite his origin story – crash landing on earth during the first half of the 19th century, taking on the identity of a black slave, and proceeding to live in anonymity throughout the 20th century. Imagine being an alien with superpowers identifying as a black man living through slavery, the nadir, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, MLK’s assassination, and all kinds of systematic racism, and just minding your business, pretending to be your son generation after generation so that you do not blow your cover. That is Icon’s origin story.
Enter Raquel Ervin, who accidentally discovers during a break-in that Augustus Freeman IV has superpowers. She convinces him to become a superhero and wants to tag along. Thus, he blesses her with some of that juice, and she becomes Rocket. Clearly, she is the brains of the operation.
17. Black Lightning
Embarrassingly, I at first confused Black Lightning with Static Shock, believing the latter to be like Batman’s Robin, and becoming Nightwing upon adulthood. On the contrary, Black Lightning is a Bronze Age comics character, while Static Shock is Modern Age. Not being big on DC comics, I would not discover his existence until the 2018 CW television show! Jefferson Pierce’s whole school principal by day, avenger by night thing is cool, but not at the cost of his marriage, I do not think.
18. Misty Knight
I will admit that I did not really know much about Misty Knight before Netflix’s Luke Cage and Iron Fist Season 2, beyond the Iron Fist kiss in the comics. And even after watching both of those shows, I still do not know how to describe her to anyone beyond her bionic arm and detective’s intuition. But I had to include Simone Missick in this list.
Respectfully, of course.
19. Princess Shuri
Whether in the 616 or MCU, Shuri is indeed the princess of Wakanda. Because of the MCU, most know her as a spunky, snarky, little sister scientist. That would be cool all on its own, but in the comics, she at one point dons the mantle of the Black Panther! Since her MCU debut, she has enjoyed a deluge of fictions written in her honor. Reggie Hudlin, Nnedi Okorafor, Nic Stone, and others have been contributing stories about the character with ferocious pacing.
I am not a fan of Superman. I do not really care for any “Boy Scout” types. However, after the Death of Superman, Steel’s broad nose and full lips caught my attention. Just looking at images of him brings to mind the tall tale of John Henry. I snickered when I discovered that Steel’s name is in fact John Henry Irons. Hey, I like the idea of folklore gaining mainstream attention, and would like to see it happen more often. (I am less intimidated by Brother Voodoo, but I am also not in a hurry to absorb myself in him.)
Like Halle Berry’s Catwoman, let us pretend Shaq’s Steel never happened.
21. Green Lantern (John Stewart)
In 2020, I purchased all eighteen individual issues of Green Lantern: Mosaic, heralded as the best of all stories involving John Stewart, because a trade paperback collection does not exist. Such is the struggle of trying to collect issues of black comic book characters!
Most though, will remember him from the Justice League cartoons. JLA Green Lantern will remain notable for a long time to come, especially because of Dewayne McDuffie’s magic touch. Dang, between Boseman and McDuffie, we can’t keep nobody….
22. Green Lantern (Sojourner Mullein)
I found out about Far Sector directly from N.K. Jemisin’s Twitter page. Who better to write a sci-fi comic about a black female Green Lantern than a Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author? But on the real, Jamal Campbell is on point with the aesthetic. It is absolutely fabulous, and I look forward to the end of the run. We are only nine issues deep in a twelve-issue series, so no spoilers!
Falcon is another example of a black sidekick to white hero who, for the longest time, I did not care for. So he can fly? Whoop-tee-doo. If I wanted to champion a flying black hero, I would choose War Machine instead.
However, I would like to see Anthony Mackie’s depiction of the character succeed, and inheriting the Captain’s shield might be the boost he needs. It will be interesting to see how Disney/Marvel grants him legitimacy rather than become a shadow of the Captain. I am gritting my teeth, because I have not been impressed by Mackie in Altered Carbon Season 2 or The Hate U Give. But as Issa Rae would say, “I’m rooting for everybody black.” Through clenched teeth.
24. Isaiah Bradley
Speaking of the Captain’s shadow, Robert Morales wanted to flip that concept on its head. According to him, Steve Rogers has Isaiah Bradley to thank for taking the initial L with a degenerative version of the super soldier formula. I am usually not a fan of retcons, but for Black Captain America being the OG, I gladly made an exception. Thank you for your sacrifice, and for your son, Josiah X.
25. Agent 355
Shifting to non-traditional comic book heroes, Agent 355 is no less a superhero than anyone else in this list. Once she finds out that Yorick is the last man alive, she dedicates her life to protect him from — more often than not, from himself. She is an unexpected protagonist in Y: The Last Man, and one of the most memorable characters I have ever experienced the pleasure of reading.
If people think that the TV show version of Michonne is awesome, it was the comic book version of the character who I fell in love with. A lawyer and recreational fencer in her former life, Michonne is something of an apocalyptic ronin, katana and all. She remains a compelling character to me, because she bears the kind of trauma that would crush the most mentally sound of mind, while living her life in a way to overcome it.
27. Miles Morales
Not to erase his multi-ethnic heritage as black and Puerto Rican, the diaspora is to be celebrated! Miles has been around since the Ultimate days, and I was ambivalent about “alternate Spider-Man.” But he received a signal boost with the best movie of 2019, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (yes, better than Infinity War. Fite me!). With the launch of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales to accompany the PS5, he has been further entrenched in fandom mindshare, not as a mere revision, or ugh, clone, of Peter Parker, but a whole character with powers and motivations to differentiate himself.
28. Moon Girl (and Devil Dinosaur)
Lunella Lafayette, or Moon Girl, is not necessarily for me, but for my daughter, who began to read voraciously after I purchased all of the trade paperbacks. Hearladed as the smartest character on Earth, her bite-sized existence has inspired a vast readership. Cheers to the next generation of Marvel fans!
In case someone stumbles upon this list during a leap year….
Though I wanted to write on 28 black superheroes and comic book characters who have impacted my life, there is space for plenty more! The next natural step from Moon Girl would be Riri Williams, or Ironheart, due to the era in which they were published. Furthermore, Darwin, Blue Marvel, Jace Fox as Batman, Mister Terriffic, Zazie Beetz as Domino, Javicia Leslie as Batwoman, and Anna Diop as Starfire ensure that modern comics fans will have more characters to look up to then I could have ever imagined.