Black Superheroes: The Essence of Swagger

Black Heroes art by Larry Stroman

Hey, all. The following is an article that I wrote last year for the Spanish magazine LaRAÑA de Sevilla. Also, since the beginning of The Horsemen, I’ve been trying to see if the Orisha have manifested themselves in other comic book pantheons. I believe that they have, especially in the Marvel Universe. Check out the my selection for Marvel’s version of The Horsemen and let me know if you would agree. Enjoy the article and I’ll catch you on the flip side:

BlackPanther as Obatala

Every culture has its own mythology. It is integral to the identity of the culture. It defines the best that the culture strives to be and warns against the forces, internally and externally, that seek to destroy that culture. I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about mythology; the living, breathing folklore that adapts and changes to fit the needs of the society rather than locking a society in a dogma where many of the old rules don’t apply. Comic books and comic book creators have become the modern day bard or griot; the storytellers.

The superhero is a mythological construct unique to American society and the backbone of the American comic book industry. There is a reason why superheroes only work in American comic books. The superhero is the construct of immigrants, people from different cultures coming together to form a new nation where the unique attribute of each culture contributes to greater whole. This mythology of the superhero has its roots in the culture and faith systems of its architects. Because of this we have the holy trinity of superhero lore (Superman, The Batman, and Wonder Woman) whose roots stem from the Judeo-Christian faith and the mythology of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

Where is the African American presence in the superhero paradigm? How does the “Black” hero fit into the pantheon? Where are the culture, folklore, and mythology of the African Diaspora represented in this vibrant world of heroes and villains? What is the essence of the “Black” hero? The essence of the “Black” hero is swagger.

Storm as Yemaya

The immigrants of Africa were omitted from this super heroic pantheon relegated to the role of comic relief, stereotypical subordinate or worse. This was not limited to the comic book industry, but visual American entertainment in general. In fact, the emergence of the “Black” hero in cinema prompted the emergence of the “Black” superhero. Indeed, one could argue that Sidney Poitier’s cinematic rise paved the way for The Black Panther’s first appearance in Fantastic Four #66. The “Blaxploitation” movement in the 70s was a direct influence on the creation of Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Brother Voodoo and others. In these films, we are introduced to the “swagger” of the “Black” hero: a combination of physical strength and bravado, social consciousness, cultural navigation and, to a great extent, sexual prowess. Actors like Pam Grier, Jim Brown, Tamara Dobson, Fred Williamson, Jim Kelly and others served as the template for the hero who goes against the system because they have been maligned by the system.

Blade as Shango

The African American superheroes created during the late 1960s and 1970s fell into two categories: The “Poitier” model and the “Roundtree” model. Like seminal actor Sidney Poitier, heroes like The Black Panther, Storm, Doctor Voodoo and others carried the hope, promise and weight of the African Diaspora on their soldiers. Often, this type of character is not from the United States, but from Africa or other countries in the Diaspora proper (The Black Panther is from the fictional country of Wakanda, Storm is Kenyan, Doctor, formerly Brother, Voodoo hails from Haiti, etc.). In order to be seen as “equal” to their white counterparts, they had to be above them while being educated at the finest schools that Western civilization had to offer. In addition, their “secret” identity’s profession is more prestigious than most of their white counterparts (i.e. The Black Panther is the ruler of Wakanda, Storm was worshipped as a goddess and is now queen of Wakanda, Doctor Voodoo is a physician, etc.). Sadly, the attributes given these characters reflected an underlying conceit that still exists today: that an African American has to be twice as qualified to even be considered for the same job that a white American applies for. This statement is not written out of bitterness, but out of a sad fact in the history of American culture.

Then, there is the “Roundtree” model named for the tough “Anti-heroes” which make up the bulk of the 70s Black Action films first popularized by Richard Roundtree’s iconic character John Shaft. These characters were all American born, from the “rough” streets of the inner city, living on the fringes of society and angry. Hero for Hire Luke Cage, Green Lantern John Stewart, Daughter of the Dragon Misty Knight, Black Lightning, Blade and more fit into this category. Their professions were directly tied to the problems of the urban plight following the Civil Rights movement (Luke Cage was an ex-con cum private investigator, John Stewart was an out of work architect who was given the power ring, Misty Knight is a former cop turned bodyguard and P.I., Black Lightning was an inner city high school teacher, etc.). These characters were limited by the scope of their exploits, effectively becoming an inner city folk hero, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but still extremely limiting to the development of the character.

Misty Knight as Oya

Unfortunately, very few African American superheroes carried the same gravitas as their cinematic counterparts. This might be due, in part, to the fact that most of the heroes of color in the late 1960s to late 1980s were created by people who were not of the culture. Yes, they created a framework by which these characters could grow and develop, but they lacked the crucial understanding and deeper analysis behind the characters they created. They didn’t research, observe, and analyze African American culture beyond what they saw on television on in films. They just took the surface of what they saw, already exaggerated and simplified, as canon. In other words, they misunderstood the swagger.

The evolution of the African American superhero owes a great deal to the emergence of Hip Hop as a powerful social and political force. Fed up with the broken promises of the previous generation, young African Americans gave that frustration voice. That voice, pure and undiluted, further emboldened by the cultural significance of African American culture in the 1970s, was strengthened by the power of the beat; which hearkened back to the primal memory of the drum. MCs became the new “Black” hero in popular culture. Artists like Run-DMC, LL Cool J, NWA, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and others created personas that were, at once, larger than life while being completely accessible. Independent African American comic book creators took note of this and applied this philosophy to the comic book industry. The introduction of Brotherman by the Sims Brothers in 1988 was the call to arms. Brotherman effectively captured the essence of Hip Hop, which is the essence of the “Black” hero…the swagger.

Luke Cage as Ogun

In the 1990s, as Hip Hop spread its influence globally, the African American superhero evolved as well, almost symbiotically. Characters like Spawn, the entire Milestone line, Tribe, Martha Washington, Steel, Blackjack and others emerged during this time. In addition, the first wave of African American characters were re-contextualized and refined during this time with artists and writers, African American and otherwise, inundated and influenced by more a nuanced understanding of “Black” culture. It was during this time that a character considered on Marvel’s “D-list,” Blade would become the catalyst for the success that Marvel’s motion pictures currently enjoy. The Black Panther would star in a solo comic book and become an “A-list” and pivotal character in the Marvel Universe becoming even more relevant by marrying Marvel’s African goddess, Storm. In the cinema, we would be introduced to two of the coolest characters of color to ever exist in popular fiction: Morpheus from The Matrix Trilogy and Mace Windu from the Star Wars universe.

Photon as Oshun

Now, almost 10 years into this new millennium, the “Black” hero is further re-defined. President Barack Obama, whether you agree or disagree with his politics, is a transcendent figure, the sum total of the struggle and complexity of the African Diaspora. He is an aspect of Martin Luther King Jr’s. Dream made real. The racial “lie” of America has been exposed and the heroes, such as The Horsemen, created in this new millennium reflect this very new and fledgling African American consciousness.

Doctor Voodoo as Eshu

The African hero has always been one who is strong and defiant. From mythic “culture” heroes like Sudika-mbambi to historic figures overcoming extraordinary odds like Shaka Zulu, the African hero is independent and fearless in the face of the unknown. The African hero is about change and the strength of the human spirit. During the slave trade, the heroes changed and adapted to the times becoming a solace for a people subjugated and sold as cattle. The gods of the varied African tribes hide themselves in the faith systems of the dominant culture and create new ones from the synthesis. Shaka becomes John Henry, the steel-driving man who beats the machine. These stories fueled the spirit of this new African American community inspiring the people to rise above the station that they had been forced into and, to do it with and combination of strength, intelligence, style and panache.

The African hero has now evolved into the superhero. A new mythology has been added to the fabric of the super heroic paradigm. The African American superhero has demanded and now earned its place in the pantheon…and it’s about time.

In other words, get your swagger on, Black hero. Get your swagger on.

Thanks for reading. If you like this and want to see and read more, pick up Manifesto: The Tao of Jiba Molei Anderson on sale now. Cheers!

2 thoughts on “Black Superheroes: The Essence of Swagger”

  1. Was researching Ogun for an upcoming writing project and came across this post. Great stuff, very well written and interesting connection made from the Orisha to today’s comic book heroes.

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