In September, DC Comics launched the New 52, a bold initiative to draw in new readers by revising some of the foreboding continuity, renumbering series such as Action Comics and Detective Comics, and offering titles featuring new or revamped characters. St. Petersburg Times media critic Eric Deggans notes the presence of “characters of color and a gay woman as superhero stars in six new books.” According to Deggan, this includes “Static Shock, a black kid with powers over electricity who once had a popular TV cartoon; the new Blue Beetle (now a Latino man); Batwing (the Batman of Africa); Green Lantern Corps (co-led by John Stewart, a lantern who is black); Firestorm (a black teenager with nuclear powers); Batwoman (who is a lesbian); and… Mister Terrific.”
This is not DC’s first major foray in black superheroics; the company once distributed Milestone Comics, a line of comic books featuring predominantly African American superheroes. However, since Milestone’s closure in 1997, there has been a relative dearth of comics (at least from the the two largest comic publishers, DC and Marvel) featuring a black superhero as titular or lead protagonist. Furthermore, much has been written about the often problematic ways in which black superheroes historically have been depicted (like Jeff Brown’s “Comic Book Masculinity and the New Black Superhero” and Marc Singer’s noteworthy “‘Black Skins’ and White Masks”). So how do black superheroes fare in the New 52?
To give DC some credit, it is trying.
Comics in the new millennium suffer from what media scholar Vincent Brook calls “convergent ethnicity.” In his essay “Convergent Ethnicity and the Neo-Platoon Show,” Brook describes convergent ethnicity as the increased use of multiracial, multigendered casts largely as a response to “global economic forces, sociocultural changes, and media monitoring pressures” (331). While Brook notes that this has led to an increase in diversity in media (particularly television, on which Brook’s essay focuses), he notes that the unfortunate cost of convergent ethnicity is the “dissolution of difference” in that characters appear differently but act the same (348). In DC Comics, this is primarily because many of its recent non-white characters have been legacy characters in that they have inherited their secret identities from white predecessors (see Chris Sims spot-on take on this in “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling“).
Perhaps no comic is more indicative of this than Green Lantern Corps, which features protagonists John Stewart and Guy Gardner both attempting to wrestle with feeling out of place in their civilian lives. While John is a respected architect and Guy seeks work as a football coach, the differences between them are superficial. As one might suspect, John is contemplative and calculating; Guy is brash and bold. However, at the risk of sounding essentialist, there is little outside of his phenotypical appearance that makes John black–which in a comic book about a large, primarily alien corps of galactic cops, is not necessarily surprising or arguably even necessary.
That said, outside of Green Lantern Corps, the other New 52 comics featuring a leading black protagonist do make attempts at portraying a discernibly black character–to varying degrees of success. The authors of Firestorm and Mister Terrific present readers with protagonists with chips on their shoulders. In the former, high schooler Jason Rusch–one half of the duo who shares the power of the title character–is a bright student who laments the lack of prospects and respect he receives because he is not an athlete. In a rather caustic encounter with Ronnie Raymond, the school’s white quarterback and Firestorm’s other half, Jason lashes out at Ronnie when Ronnie suggests that Jason should try out for the football team. Jason informs Ronnie that their school has never had a black quarterback despite having a nearly half-black population. The moment seems somewhat unexpected and heavy-handed though it establishes Rusch’s concerns about being perceived as smart and establishes an obvious dramatic tension between two who have to share power.
Mister Terrific somewhat embraces the same strategy. The title character (secretly scientist Michael Holt) saves Londoners from a weapons manufacturer wielding a dangerous armored suit. While he prepares to fly away from the scene, a pair of residents ask who he is, and he replies, “Mr. Terrific. Some people call me the third smartest man in the world.” The Londoners then ask him about who are the first and second, to which he replies, “Actually, a simple ‘Thanks, black guy, for saving us from a homicidal lunatic wearing weaponized body armor will do.'” It is a light-hearted retort, quite similar to Agent J’s rant to ungrateful New York subway riders in one of the early scenes of Men in Black II. It is a more subtle and effective gesture than Jason Rusch’s unwarranted outburst. However, this moment takes a backseat to the true racial conflict in the book, which occurs between two of Michael Holt’s potential love interests–the white Karen Starr (superheroine Power Girl) and Holt’s black female assistant Aleeka Okafur. After Karen assures Aleeka that she and Michael are just friends, she then remarks, “I get it. It’s because I’m a white girl, isn’t it?” Aleeka responds, “And I’m a black woman, which means I’m built to handle things you can’t even imagine. Or never had to do” before assuring her that her jealousy is over Karen’s wealth. As was the case with Firestorm, it is heavy-handed moment that clearly is setting a conflict for the future.
Of course, comics are not known for subtlety. The enterprise of myth-making has little room for such. This is unfortunate, for when comics do not make such pronounced overtures to race is when they are most effective at rendering black characters. Evidence of this is Batwing, which features the title character as an operative of Batman who patrols Tinasha, a fictional Congolese metropolis. Outfitted with technology and weaponry from and supervised by the Dark Knight himself, Batwing still manages to be much more than Batman in blackface. Batwing’s alter ego David Zambimvi is not a billionaire playboy philanthropist but rather a former boy soldier turned police officer trying to fight corruption. His “Alfred” is not a butler but Matu Ba, founder of a child soldier rescue organization. Of the New 52’s prominent black superheroes, Batwing is undoubtedly the one who is most distinguishable.
Overall, the New 52’s new black superheroes represent a great deal of progress in portrayal of black superheroes, particularly for DC, which has never had a particularly compelling black superhero outside of Milestone. While blackness primarily is still limited to phenotype and racial conflict, many of the overt stereotypes that have troubled black superheroes of the past currently are not present . However, two challenges remain: First, DC has yet to develop a well-wrought black superheroine, even in the New 52 (of course, as recent articles suggest, DC is still facing concerns about sexism with its white female characters). Second, readership is still a problem. While the New 52 launch was quite successful, the black superhero comics were among the lowest selling. As such, it will be interesting to see if DC has the opportunity to continue developing these characters once sales figures come back to earth after this initial rush of interest.
(Image taken from Newsarama.com.)