Welcome to the first in a long line of special Representation and Health columns that I am dubbing… The Representation and Health Black History Spectacular!
Forgive me for the number of times you may see that this month. I’ve decided to take a look at some of my favorite Black characters in comics and examining what makes them important, as well as how they enhance conversations about Blackness in media. I’m excited for you to see what I have written and hope it inspires you to think intently about these characters we all love.
Today, I’m going to take a trip through history and look at some Black firsts in comics. While we have some common names, I actually found that there’s more to the story than the first ones that come to memory, such as Black Panther. There are so many interesting Black characters, even though in the grand scheme there are significantly fewer than White characters. I found some really cool information in this process and realized some cool and disheartening truths about Black history through comics.
Black characters in comics actually have a very extensive history. I often have to remind myself that comics exist in more than just the common book form; strips and webcomics have their rightful place in the medium. In fact, one of the first Black characters in comics could be considered to be Lothar from Lee Falk’s Mandrake the Magician comic, published starting in 1934.
In 1947, All-Negro Comics #1 was created by John Terrell and George J. Evans, Jr. Due to the times, it was not widely printed and was largely seen within Black communities. This one issue comic was created by Black artists and featured a variety of stories.
Years later, in 1993, Milestone Media was created, spawning Milestone comics, famous for introducing characters like Icon and Static, and I’ll discuss some of Milestone’s achievements in a bit.
Superheroes have oft been the focus of comics, but the first Black characters weren’t actually superheroes. While it can be tricky to pinpoint absolute firsts, there are some names who are credited as the earliest Black characters in comics. In 1954, Atlas Comics, what would later be known as Marvel Comics, introduced ‘Waku, Prince of the Bantu,’ as part of its anthology series Jungle Tales. Sergeant Gabe Jones, first appearing in Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos #1 in 1963, was one of Marvel’s first Black characters. At DC, soldier Gabe Jones was one of the first Black faces to show up, his appearance within Our Army at War #113 in 1961. In 1965, a Black man headlined his own comic in Lobo, a two-issue series printed by Dell comics focusing on the eponymous Western hero. However, Lobo would meet an unfortunate publishing end, as many retailers were not open to the idea of selling a series with a Black hero.
Black Panther may not have been the first comic book character or even hero, but he was definitely the first major Black superhero. He appeared in the pages of Fantastic Four #52 in 1966, alongside the eponymous team. Falcon followed in the Panther’s footsteps in 1969, his first appearance in Captain America #117.
Over at DC, John Stewart donned a green power ring in Green Lantern #87 in 1972, and has been DC’s most famous Black hero throughout his history. However, two lesser known men appeared just a couple of years earlier. Mal Duncan, known through the years as Guardian, Herald, and Vox, appeared in Teen Titans #26 in 1970, and the Black Racer first showed up in New Gods #3 in 1971.
When it comes to marginalized identities, cis-heterosexual men tend to be the first ones to come on the scene. Yet, it’s important to highlight other characters as firsts. Nubia, first seen in 1973 in Wonder Woman #204, was revealed by Hippolyta to have been created from dark clay as Diana’s black counterpart. However, our first major super-heroine was Bumblebee, creating her own buzz in Teen Titans #45 in 1976.
Within Marvel, Storm burst out of the pages of Giant Size X-Men #1 in 1975, cementing her role as the premier Black hero at the company. However, other Black women, such as Georgia Jenkins, who appeared in Night Nurse #1 in 1972, actually predate Storm. This same year, Misty Knight actually made an unnamed appearance in Marvel Team-Up #1, though her first major appearance was in Marvel Premiere #21 in 1975.
We’re working on expanding Black characters beyond cis-heterosexuals, though we have a few examples of Black queer characters in comics. Prodigy was Marvel’s first queer Black man, first showing up in New Mutants #4 in 2003, while DC’s first prominent Black queer man was Hero Cruz, who first appeared in Superboy and the Ravers #1 in 1996, though a random character by the name of Troy showed up in Swamp Thing #121 in 1992. Thunder, the daughter of Black Lightning, appeared for the first time in Outsiders #1 in 2003 and is DC’s first queer Black woman. The first queer Black woman in Marvel was Catastrophe Jen, who showed up in Rawhide Kid #2 in 2003.
Beyond the Big Two, Milestone Comics, while published through DC, may have been one of the first companies to introduce Black queer characters. Both Fade, a gay man, and Masquerade, a transgender man, first appeared in 1993’s Blood Syndicate #1. What makes this even more awesome is that Milestone was a largely black and diverse company. Masquerade’s problematic powers aside (the Big Bang essentially enabled him to quickly transition and develop shape-shifting powers), this was a major step from a Black comic company.
After doing my research, Masquerade was the only Black trans character I found in comics. Granted, many new titles are being released through companies like Image and BOOM! Studios, and smaller publishers, so I could definitely be missing some. In fact, I came across a slew of awesome Black characters when pulling together the data for this article that do not often reach the spotlight. Beyond that, many Black creators are self-publishing or creating webcomics. These people are definitely out there, and later this month I plan to do an extensive list.
While I’m barely scratching the surface here, many of these firsts are important. Consider that Black heroes and even supporting characters didn’t see a major ascent until the Civil Rights era. Part of this is due to the Comics Code Authority, who apparently blocked a Black character from appearing in Incredible Science Fiction #33, though this story would later be printed in its original format. Believe it or not, comics reflect a changing landscape too, and they have their role in challenging and changing bigoted public perception.
Second, much like how privilege functions, Black men were first to grace the pages of comics, followed by women, then followed by queer people. Regarding the last group, it was more likely for a gay or lesbian character to appear first, though Milestone Comics broke ground introducing the trans man Masquerade in 1993. Blackness does not occur in a vacuum, so it’s vital that creators push limits and introduce more characters with intersecting identities.
What I hope is that the comic industry and creators further push comics to the forefront of progressive media. In this age of Twitter and Facebook, many of us with marginalized identities are speaking up and letting people know we’re here and we matter. Tweeters like @MizCaramelVixen and @BlackGirlNerds are doing amazing work in highlighting Black comics and nerd culture. They are among many who are doing some great work in helping the world recognize the existence of Black fans and the importance of Black characters in comics. As more and more voices like theirs and ours are heard, maybe they’ll create more impact in comics, something that is desperately needed.
If you know of any firsts I didn’t mention or would like to add some clarification to these characters, hit me up at @80Grey on Twitter! This month, I hope to have some extensive discussion about comics and Blackness, but also highlight some awesome creators who are doing work now.
Edit: @AquamanShrine on Twitter pointed out that Black Manta first appeared in 1967 in Aquaman #35, making him one of the first major Black characters in DC to show up.
And for a look at other Black characters all month long, check out the rest of Representation and Health 101!