Meet the Blaxploitation Superheroes!!!
By Wil Forbis
For the past several years, come yonder each February, your loyal servants at acid logic have put cyber pen to webpage to effortlessly induce articles on Blaxploitation, the 1970s film movement that captured the anarchy and beauty of African-American ghetto life. As readers may know, we generally accomplish this by authoring a profile of a prominent Blaxploitation star or a review of a famed Blaxploitation movie (as John Saleeby is doing this issue with his piece on Rudy Ray Moore's "Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil's Son-In-Law"). But as the due date moved closer for my article on this subject, I found my mind askew. I just couldn't come up with a film or actor that commanded my attention long enough for me to jot down some prismatic prose about them. Then it dawned on me: Why does a Blaxploitation feature have to be about movies? Did not the movement thrive elsewhere - on television, in cartoons ("Hey, hey, hey," as Fat Albert would say), in comic books?
"Comic books?" you exclaim. "How could this be? Are comic books not the realm of the whitest, pastiest, nerdiest specimens of middle-class suburban youth? How could the trials and tribulations of the urban African-American possibly find any play in superhero tales? And how could delicate, complex issues of race, class and bigotry be handled on the brightly colored comic book page, a medium not known for its subtlety?" All legitimate concerns my friend, and ones no doubt shared by the comic book authors of the 70s as they contemplated bringing a different kind of color to their work. Nonetheless, while Blaxploitation movies raged on the screens of grindhouse theaters, comic book publishers, Marvel in particular, released dozens of Afro touting superheroes into their universes.
This is not to say that black characters - and the complex political issues they carried in their wake - were at that point unseen on the comic book page. During the Silver age of comics (late '50s to early '70s) the industry had shown itself willing to tackle numerous "heavy" subjects. I was recently reviewing some of the 1960s-1970s Spider-man comics and was struck by how political (and essentially liberal) they were. They directly addressed the issues of the day, particularly those facing youth: drugs, student unrest and racial strife. The burgeoning civil rights movement found a voice in the form of Daily Bugle city editor Robbie Robertson's son, Randy. In a Captain America comic from the same era, Cap, after being asked by a conservative media figure to denounce student protests, states, "...if he thinks I'm against the kids --- or against dissent --- forget it!" In the pages of a 1969 issue of "Daredevil", the sightless superhero traveled to Vietnam to offer words of encouragement to a black soldier who’d been blinded by a grenade. Marvel’s authors had their finger on the pulse of America and their pages directly reflected the social upheaval that was occurring.
Just as the Blaxploitation film movement heralded the arrival of black characters that were not just tokens or objects of pity but strong-willed, self defined protagonists, so did the onslaught of black superheroes during the late 60s and 70s. Marvel's pages came alive with vigilantes who represented every spectrum of African-American culture, from the statesmanlike stature of the Black Panther, to the jive-talkin, take no guff attitude of Luke Cage, Power Man.
What was Marvel's goal with the black superheroes? Was the company trying to lure black readers? Were they trying to impress white readers, who tend to regard anything black as having a built-in hipness and street value? (See gangsta rap.) Or were they simply trying to make the comic book universe resemble the real world? My guess is that it was all of these things, with a dollop of liberal fair-mindedness on top.
Intrinsic to a lot of the black superheroes was the fact that they were often viewed as being on the wrong side of the law. (As, of course, was Marvel's premiere superhero, Spider-man. If William Jefferson Clinton, could be our first black president, then Spider-man was our first black superhero.) Just as many heroes in the Blaxploitation film movement were on the run, black superheroes like Power Man and the Prowler were eyed dubiously by the mostly Irish and Eastern European cops that seemed to populate the New York City police force in Marvel Comics. Even the Black Panther was first introduced as an antagonist for the lily white Fantastic Four.
Inherent in the Blaxploitation film movement was always a degree of controversy. It was argued that white film producers funded films about the proud, strong willed, but often cartoonish heroes of Blaxploitation films merely to sucker black audiences out of their hard-earned cash. Only by handing the cameras over to black directors and writers, it was said, could the authentic voice of black culture finally make its way on screen*. On a smaller scale, this controversy flamed in the realm of comic books. I've little doubt about the good intentions of the creative forces in Marvel who introduced the slew of black characters in the 60s and 70s but it could be questioned whether the almost exclusively white writers and artists on these comics could really understand the complexity of black subculture. I have to concede when I read comics featuring Blaxploitation heroes from this era there something awfully contrived about a lot of the dialogue and situations. These books read a lot more like they're coming from the viewpoint of a guilty white liberal than an African-American. I think Marvel was on much firmer ground in the 80s when they temporarily retired Tony Stark from the role of Iron Man and replaced him with black pilot, Jim Rhodes. While race was certainly an issue addressed during the "black" Iron Man stories, it was simply one facet of Rhodes’s character. And there's no doubt that the super heroine, Storm, of the X-Men comic, who rose to popularity in the 80s, was a fully fleshed out character who completely defied tokenism.
* As I've argued before, to some degree this did occur during the Blaxploitation movement, further muddying the controversy over the authenticity of these films.
As such, I think it can be said that, as clumsily rendered as many Blaxploitation superheroes were, they were a necessary step towards the evolution of a comic book universe that reflects the same struggles with race that exist in our own. I think any reasonable person would agree we should not too harshly judge the efforts of the comic book creators who struggled with the implications of integrating the ranks of super-herodom. And we can only hope that these efforts will lead to a day when a man is not judged by the color of his skin, but whether or not he can rip a car in half with his bare hands or shoot lasers out of his eyes.
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