Why Black Superheroes Succeed - and Fail

Black Panther was the alter ego of T'Challa, the dignified king of a fictional African kingdom called Wakanda who led a double life as a costumed crimefighter. The character had no link to the Black Panther Party, founded by Bobby Seales that same year, in 1966. For a time, Black Panther's name was changed to "The Black Leopard."

Still, the character was accepted, even as the civil rights movement was becoming more militant.

"I think it's worth noting that Black Panther was African as opposed to African-American," said Marvel Comics editor Axel Alonso. "One must wonder if it was easier to deal with that character in that context, given the times."

The Falcon, a Harlem social worker/crimefighter, debuted in Marvel as an ally of Captain America in 1969. Black Panther and The Falcon paved the way for creation of other African-American superheroes in the 1970s and comic book series that focused on them as title characters.

An Age of Progress and Blaxploitation

Though Black Panther was the pioneer for black superheroes, he did not get his own solo comic book title until 1977. Gang member-turned crime-busting mercenary Luke Cage (also known as "Power Man") became the first African-American superhero to be the title character of a comic book when Marvel published Luke Cage, Hero for Hire in 1972.

Cage and other characters from that time were portrayed as strong African-American men, but they carried the baggage of what became perceived as black stereotypes. They tended to reflect the blaxploitation films of the 1970s — from the best in Melvin Van Peebles' landmark Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song to less than critically acclaimed movies such as Blackenstein and Black Samson.

Cage and D.C. Comics' Black Lightning were cousins of cinema's Shaft and Superfly. In the beginning, they tended to be jive-talking, Afro-wearing supermen who battled more urban or ghetto-oriented villains. Cage in particular was known for, among other things, his trademark Afro and open-chested canary-colored shirt with the butterfly collar.

Still, Cage and Black Lightning represented the best comic book characters of that blaxploitation era. Actor Nicolas Cage was such a fan of Hero for Hire that he took his stage name from the character.

A Short-Lived Milestone

But these characters — as well as Black Panther and The Falcon — have not been nearly as successful as Spider-Man, Batman, Superman and The Hulk.

No black superhero has had the kind of sustained run enjoyed by Batman, Spider-Man and Superman in their own comic books. None has a hit TV show or blockbuster movie. The Panther had three different solo series that ran in the late 1970s, 1980s and late '90s. Cage's books ran between 1972 and 1986 before being revived for two other volumes in 1992 and in 2002.

"You have to wonder why some characters have been so popular and why some have not," said M. Thomas Inge, professor of English and the Humanities at Randolph-Macon College in Virginia. "In many ways we have made a lot of progress, but there are things that suggest that perhaps we have not."

In 1993, a group of African-American cartoonists — Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle and Michael Davis — launched Milestone Media with the goal of publishing comics featuring a new set of heroes who happened to be black, Asian and Hispanic. Milestone Media had a licensing agreement with D.C. Comics and unleashed the new heroes, led by characters such as Icon and Static.

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