Black History Month & Comics: Two Great Tastes That Go Together [Op-Ed]
The beginning of February heralds the beginning of Black History Month in the United States, a time when we remember the accomplishments of black Americans and attempt to restore them to their rightful place within the context of American history in general. Comics would seem like an odd subject to tackle during Black History Month, but history is filled with surprises. After the jump, ComicsAlliance writer David Brothers shares his personal history with comics and black history, and why he dedicates every February to writing about black history and comics.Being a black comics fan can be weird sometimes, particularly if you’re a fan of mainstream comics. There’s not a lot that appeals directly to you. The black guys are mainly sidekicks or second stringers at best, and the black women consist of Storm, and that’s really about it. Theoretically cool moments like Luke Cage’s “Where’s my money, honey?” feel cornball and silly. Who talks like that? And heaven forbid should you read a comic dedicated to fighting racism, because you’re in for what’s sure to be the most simplified, condescending, po-faced tale ever. Don’t even get me started on the Professor X/Martin Luther King and Magneto/Malcolm X comparison, because that is one of the laziest, dumbest things in comics.
Some of it was due to racism, institutionalized or otherwise, but a lot of it wasn’t. For every Ebony White, there were several dozen well-meaning but misguided portrayals of black life. For a long time, and actually up to very recently I’d argue, black characters in mainstream books felt like they were loosely based on actual black people, but twisted through a funhouse mirror. Everyone was from the ghetto, everyone had to fight the Klan (or whatever Comics Code approved group of racists you could use), and they’d all speak jive that was at least twenty years out of date, if it was ever in style at all. Black characters in comics were inauthentic, generally, or bland.
The first time I read a comic that I could look at and go, “Wow, this feels like it’s aimed directly at my skull!” was probably Dwayne McDuffie, Robert L. Washington, and John Paul Leon’s Static, from Milestone in the ’90s. In hindsight, it was an updating of the Spider-Man/Peter Parker archetype and specifically geared to appeal to kids. It worked. It hooked me hard, and judging by the insane success of the cartoon show in the late ’90s, it worked on the next group of kids, too.
I’ve spent a lot of my time reading comics just sort of making do with the lack of black characters and creators. I had other role models I could look up to, anyway: Muhammad Ali (who beat up Superman once!), Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Langston Hughes. And really, even today, if you want to see black creators at the Big Two, you’re looking at (as of the latest solicits) Eric Wallace, Marco Rudy, Jamal Igle, Chriscross, Kyle Baker, Olivier Coipel, and… well, hardly anyone else. That’s a murderer’s row of talent, to be sure, but how many comics do Marvel and DC pump out a month? Back then, I just made do with what I got and kept reading until I hit that point where it was time to quit. While all of this was going on, I grew up.
As an adult, I found out that there was this whole level of black history in comics that I’d missed out on. Billy Graham, a black artist, had a hand in the first sixteen issues of Luke Cage’s earliest adventures and pencilled a significant portion of “Panther’s Rage,” the greatest Black Panther story of all time. On top of that, he provided art and served as art director at Warren Publishing, a company known for its fantastic horror stories.
Jack Kirby, the guy who almost every superhero comic owes its visual language to, created, co-created, or used a host of black characters. Black Panther, Vykin the Black, the Black Racer, the Falcon, Princess Zanda, Flippa Dippa, and Shilo Norman are all Kirby creations and cooler than cool. Kirby didn’t have to create so many black characters, but he did. He made a point of it, as near as I can tell.
Looking back in time revealed the existence of All-Negro Comics. In 1947, a group of black creators got together and made a comic book for the black community, one that would counteract the racial poison present in many other comics and provide a positive role model for black youngsters. In comparison, look below to see what Ebony White from Will Eisner’s The Spirit looked like in 1947.
And even before then–everyone loves George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. You can’t throw a brick without hitting a cartoonist who gives it up for Herriman. Did you know he was a black Creole man who passed for white for much of his life? Krazy Kat began in 1913. You want to see an example of how black history is the exact same thing as American history? There it is, right there.
Black History Month serves an important purpose. It emphasizes the fact that black people have more to offer in history class than discussions of chattel slavery and racism. Black people have been an integral part of American history in dozens of ways, and Black History Month is meant to educate everyone, not just blacks or whites, about that. Education is the most powerful tool in anyone’s arsenal, and you can never have too much of it. If, as a kid, I’d had more comics that were made by or for black people, or simply featured a realistic portrayal of black life in America, I think I would have stuck with comics longer than I did.
Ever since 2008, I’ve been blogging on a daily, or near-daily, basis during the month of February in honor of Black History Month. In 2008, I just went wild and covered everything I could, from the personal to goofy comics stuff. In 2009, I tried to talk my way through my issues with blacks and comics while providing a bit of context at the same time. In 2010, I focused on where comics need to go. This year, I’m getting out of the way and letting the creators who paved the way do the talking. My only hope is to fill a gap in the same way that Black History Month fills a gap. I want to educate, so that people who say that comics aren’t for black readers can be proven incorrect. The history of comics is shockingly vital and interesting, and black people played a fairly surprising role in its evolution. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t know that, just like there’s no reason there shouldn’t be comics for everyone.
“Knowledge is power” is a cliche, but it’s true. Alongside that, I’ve found that the more I learn, the more I love comics. Happy Black History Month. I hope you learn something.