Why Black Superheroes Have Identity Crises

Most superheroes worry about protecting their secret identity, but black superheroes often have to grapple with an identity crisis.

When twin brothers Mike and Mark Davis created the new comic book Blokhedz and its central character, Blak, they wanted to present a hero and story with supernatural elements that was still representative of their own experiences growing up.

An aspiring rap artist, teenage Blak has an otherworldly ability to control people with his rhymes. He must deal with the everyday struggles of ghetto life and his older brother's slaying while coming to terms with his powers.

Street Legends Ink, the Los Angeles-based company that publishes Blokhedz, is run by the Davis brothers, along with the father-son team of Michael and Brandon Schultz and collaborator Nicole Duncan-Smith.

The book has been gathering a following, mostly through word of mouth. The creative team said they met recently with one of the "big three" comic book companies (Marvel, D.C. and Image Comics) to pursue opportunities to widen the book's distribution and publication, but they declined to name which one.

The Blokhedz team said their book impressed one company but the executives wanted changes.

"They said they loved the gritty, urban feel of the book but they wanted us to remove the supernatural element, the mythology," Schulz said. "We said, 'No way.' … We're not really interested in producing a comic book version of [the 1991 film] Boyz 'N the Hood."

Black Exterior, White Interior

In some ways, the Blokhedz team's experience reflects the dilemma black superheroes and their creators have long faced — maintaining a character's unique voice, or perhaps ethnic identity, while getting industry insiders and even readers to recognize him as a superhero, period.

Image Comics' Spawn, one of the most successful titles in the industry since the 1990s, focuses on the struggles of a slain black special forces agent who comes back from the dead after striking a deal with the devil. (A less-than-memorable, critically drubbed movie adaptation of Spawn, starring John Leguizamo, Martin Sheen and Michael Jai White, made it to the big screen in 1997.)

Blade, a vampire hunter who happens to be black, debuted in Marvel Comics in the 1970s and has been the subject of two Wesley Snipes movies — with a third on the way.

Still, some claim these characters are really white heroes in dark skin.

"With a lot of the [black] characters, it just seems like they were really white guys dressed up as black men," said Mike Davis. "But still, I just want black superheroes to be recognized as just heroes."

New Takes on Old Characters

In recent years, some comic book creators have revamped the stories of some of the industry's most popular heroes by either recasting them as African-Americans or writing alternative stories about their origins.

In a recent relaunch of its character Firestorm, D.C. Comics made a young black man the hero's alter-ego. Last year, Marvel Comics writers made Nick Fury an African-American in its comic book mini-series, Ultimates.

And in another limited series, Truth: Red, White & Black, Marvel presented a storyline in which the blond, blue-eyed Captain America learned he wasn't unique. It seems the serum that turned him into a super-soldier was first tested on black soldiers anxious to fight in World War II.

Marvel Comics editors say Truth sold well, but they did receive criticism, mostly from purist fans who complained they were corrupting the Captain America character.

"Most of the criticism came before anybody hadread anything that had been written. Most of the criticism came at the conceptual stage, when we released images of what the characters would look like," said Marvel's Axel Alonso, who edited Truth. "Whenever you try something radical, some conservative fans are going to reflexively hate it. There were some comments that had some racist elements on the surface."

"But," Alonso continued. "At the end of the series, when Steve Rogers [Captain America's alter ego] had the face-to-face-meeting with [Truth protagonist] Isaiah Bradley, and people realized that they were linked in history and brothers and not antagonists, this one Web site that railed against the comic book took back its comments and wrote a favorable review."