From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Crossing Lines: Deconstructing Black Superheroes

A few months ago came up with their list of the Top 25 Black Superheroes of All Time. As a life long comic book/superhero fan I was anxious to check out who they considered the best. Some of their choices I cheered and at others I cringed so hard I worried that my face would stick that way. However, cringing in regards to black superheroes is not that unusual.

PatriotAll too often black heroes are based on harmful and offensive stereotypes cleaned up just enough that the majority of people won’t object. For example: Patriot from the Young Avengers title, the leader of the group and grandson of the original black Captain America. He’s a hero and a great leader until we come to learn that he’s lied about the source of his powers and is actually shooting up a new street drug to gain super-strength. Or to take a hero from the list itself, D.L. Hawkins from the TV show Heroes; the only black hero on the first season and an escaped prisoner. Yes, it does turn out he did not commit the crime he was incarcerated for but he has committed previous crimes. Other black superheroes are simply two dimensional copies of a white hero given a more “street” background, a coat of brown paint and then called something like “Black” Goliath — who’s one of the heroes on the list by the way.

Within the realms of television there’s the ever present creation of animal/non-human superheroes and then having the heroes voiced by African-American actors. This way the claim of diversity can be made and all the while there’s never a hint of brown skin on the television screen. Characters that fit this profile include Autobot Jazz (Transformers), Hong Kong Phooey (Hong Kong Phooey) and Panthro (Thundercats), all of whom make an appearance on the list.

Monica Rambeau and Misty KnightI have numerous problems with this list, the main one is the lack of any women except for Storm (X-Men). Placing her near the top does not make up for the lack of any other female heroes. Despite general perceptions, there are quite a few black women heroes that are pretty well-known: Monica Rambeau, who led the Avengers for a period of time and was recently the leader in the title Nextwave; Misty Knight, a black female detective with a bionic right arm who was created in 1975 and is presently in the revamped Heroes for Hire title; Catwoman played by Halle Berry in the movie of the same name. The absence of these strong female characters especially rankles when the others who are on the list are taken into account, such as characters from low budget cult films like Meteor Man and Blankman. Characters who are barely remembered by popular culture yet they’re the Top Black Superheroes of All Time?

Blankman is more of a buffonery-hero than a true superhero. Another on the list that fits this mold is The Brown Hornet. These characters may be heroes that save the world or people in some fashion, but they also play on the idea of the buffoonish black man. They are there to make people laugh. That’s not inherently bad — I enjoy a comic hero as much as the next man — but these draw on the stereotype of the inept black man to be funny. They stumble, they fumble, and though in the end they win, the question remains: is the audience laughing with them or at them?

Luke CageI’m also bothered by the lack of deconstruction. As I said, many of these characters have very problematic issues deeply embedded in their creation and portrayal. For a list to come from and offer absolutely no critiques about the characters rubs me wrong. Where do we talk about the co-opting of blaxploitation culture in the creation of Luke Cage? Where do we discuss the anger that in at least three of these characters there is no actual blackness; that we’re expected to identify with a robot, an anthropomorphic dog and an anthropomorphic panther? These things have to be discussed in relation to the characters. These are things that make people of color cringe when we read comics — the dichotomy of wanting to see heroes that look like us but knowing that, especially in titles from huge corporate prints, those characters will have aspects that portray us as little more than stereotypes.

All of this does not mean that you can’t love some of the characters I’ve listed above, or that they weren’t groundbreaking in many ways and deserving of respect. But you can love and respect these characters and still critique the way they are written.

Storm and Black PantherI’ve been a fan of Storm for years but that doesn’t mean that I don’t discuss the fact that over the last three decades her facial features have gotten less African and more and more European-looking. Or the fact that her marriage to the Black Panther made very little sense within the canon of comics and seemed to be more of a case of “These two characters should get married ’cause they’re both black! And from Africa! It totally works!” than a substantive history of interaction between the two. Would the list have been somehow worse if there had been a paragraph talking about the way these representations of black people could be problematic?

The list was clearly supposed to be tied to the release of the movie Hancock. The constant tagline as you flip through the list is “Is Hancock No. 1?” I don’t know if this points to a lack of knowledge in regards to black superheroes in other genres besides Film/TV, but the list does give that impression with a total of 18 our of the 25 either being Film/TV created heroes or the pictures used to represent them being from their screen adaptations as opposed to their original comic book form. If the compiler of the list wanted to do a list of Film/TV heroes, that’s great, but then why start out the article by talking about the comic book industry? This perhaps points to a cursory knowledge of comic books, black superheroes, female superheroes and their representation through the years. If this is the case then it seems patently false and misleading to name the heroes as the Top Black Superheroes of All Time because without a more thorough knowledge of comics how can this claim be made?

Black GoliathI know a lot of people out there wonder why it matters. These are, after all, only imaginary superheroes. Why does the way they are created and portrayed matter so much? The answer is because they perpetuate the stereotypes as they play on them, they reinforce these ideas within the minds of fans. We are meant to look upon most superheroes as just that — heroes. We are meant to look up at them as people to emulate and aspire to be. This makes it especially unfortunate that black superheroes and specifically the ones chosen for this list are part of a pattern that continues to portray black people on the basis of opinions and stereotypes formed decades and even centuries ago, a pattern that continues to erase black women from any kind of discourse or agency. For a medium that endeavors to look into other worlds and possibilities, it seems reluctant to release the preconceptions of this one and that’s a true shame. This list doesn’t help dispel any of that at all.

Who do you think are the Top Black Superheroes of All Time? Old or new, from comics, movies, or TV?

Naamen Gobert Tilahun is a freelance writer in San Francisco. His lifelong love of Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror books, TV and movies (both really-exceptionally-bad and good) can probably be traced to a mother who showed him films like Monster Squad and Bladerunner and TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits at far too young an age. He writes about identity, politics, media, and writing at his personal blog Words From The Center, Words From The Edge and is one of the many wonderful bloggers at Feminist SF – The Blog!.

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