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Saturday, 28 May 2011

Characters of Colour in superhero comics - the men (part one)

Following on from our previous post about good women characters of colour within superhero comics, we come to the second post, about male characters of colour.

Firstly, an explanation of the label system. 
On the blog we label all our posts with CoC for Characters of Colour if the character has a significant role in the book.  You can view all posts tagged with this label here, this includes the independent comics.

Don’t forget our manga reviews.  Most of our manga is set in Asian countries so the default ethnicity becomes Asian and there are very few white people in the books.  As such we won't list any manga titles in this post.  Independent and manga comics will be covered in another post.

First up, DC comics.

Static is an African-American teenager with powers over electromagnetic energy.  He was first created by Dwayne McDuffie as part of Milestone comics (more on that later), and has since moved into the DC Universe proper.  You may have seen him in the Static Shock animated cartoon.  He has a couple of solo trades collected, namely Static: Rebirth of the Cool, and Static Shock: Trial by Fire.  I would avoid the book which introduces him to the DC Universe (Teen Titans: Terror Titans) because it is quite frankly not very good.

John Henry Irons is another African-American hero otherwise known as Steel.  He is Uncle to Natasha Irons (featured in the female characters of colour post),and is creator of some advanced armour that helps him fight the good fight in metropolis.  Steel was inspired to create the armour when Superman died, as he realised that he could make a difference, and if he could, then he should.  You can read about him in 52 volumes one, two, three and four.  After something called the Infinite Crisis (discussed here) all DC titles skipped forward a year.  52 was a weekly comic that chronicled this 'lost' year in the DC Universe.  It sounds like you need to do know lots of background to enjoy 52.  You don't.  It's a introduction to a whole range of amazing and interesting, less well known, characters.

John Stewart is a Green Lantern, also African-American.   Readers may have noticed some trailers for a Green Lantern film due out very shortly.  The Green Lantern in the trailers is Hal Jordan, and very white.  Green Lanterns are space cops and each one is given a particular space sector to patrol.  Hal Jordan was the first Green Lantern from space, and John Stewart started as one of his back ups, although he is now a full Green Lantern in his own right.  John is also an architect and an ex US marine.  He was introduced in the second Green Lantern/Green Arrow book, (the first one is reviewed here).  John refuses to wear a mask as he feels he has nothing to hide.  He is also responsible for one of my favourite comic panels.

You may recognise him from the JLU animated cartoon, where John was that team's Lantern.  Certainly lots of people do know him from that, so much so that was an outcry about why the film's Lantern was white.  As for trades that you can pick up about John, well, that's a bit tricky.

He has been a recurring character in the Green Lantern books since he was introduced, and he currently appears in the ongoing Green Lantern Corps series, as well as being in Blackest Night (along with pretty much every other hero in the DCU), but he hasn't really had any solo books dedicated to him.  He was in an 18 issue early 1990s series called Green Lantern: Mosaic which is generally acknowledged as being very good, but it wasn't traded (more's the pity).  You should be able to pick up the issues from ebay though.

Thomas Kalmaku is another character linked to the Green Lantern stories.  Thomas is Inuit and is an engineer at Ferris Aircraft, who employ Hal Jordan (the first Earth Green Lantern) as a test pilot.  For many years Thomas had the derogatory, racist nickname of pieface.  Thankfully that is not the case now, but it does mean that you read older issues with Thomas in, you cringe.  As a sidekick, Thomas does not have books of his own, but he does appear in Green Lantern: No Fear and he does have a large role in the upcoming Green Lantern film.

Cyborg, aka Victor Stone, is another African-American hero and a founder member of the Teen Titans.  As the name suggests, he is a Cyborg.  The Teen Titans are a teenaged superhero team, where the next generation of heroes can get together, hang out and learn to be better heroes without their mentors breathing down their necks.  I would suggest that you start with Teen Titans - A Kids Game.

A quick note: I realise that there is a prominence of arse on the cover.  That would belong to Starfire.  She's an alien princess from a culture with no nudity taboo so she doesn't wear a lot of clothes.  I know I know it sounds terrible.  But the book is really rather good, and the cheesecake isn't quite so obvious inside.
Cyborg also appeared in Smallville as a member of the Justice League.

Black Lightning, or Jefferson Pierce in his day job, is the father of Anissa Pierce (known as Thunder and featured in our female characters of colour post).  He can generate and control electromagnetic energy (a bit like Static Shock, but their powers manifest in different ways).  Pierce was the first black superhero to carry his own title, back in 1977 when he was created.  In his life he has been an Olympic decathlete, a superhero and the secretary of education when Lex LuthorBlack Lightning: Year One.

Freedom Beast is Dominic Mndawe, an African hero who has mind control power over animals and can also fuse two or more animals into one hybrid creature.  Dominic got these powers from a white man named B'wana Beast and he first appeared in Animal Man #13 (these Animal Man books are reviewed here).  After this issue, he has only been used a few times, see the wikipedia entry for more information.

Aqualad is a new character.  Linked to the Aquaman family, he is another black character and he has water powers.  Created last year, it is not entirely clear what his full powers are or what his full story is.  We know he is the son of villains, Black Manta being his father (see the next entry).  He appears in the Brightest Day maxi series, in issues 10, 11, 16, 19 and 20.

Alternatively you could buy the collected volumes, which are as follows: 
Brightest Day volume 1 (collects Brightest Day #0–7, December 1 2010, ISBN 978-1401229665)  
Brightest Day volume 2 (collects Brightest Day #8-16, May 10 2011, ISBN 978-1401230838 
Brightest Day volume 3 (collects Brightest Day #17-24, September 13 2011, ISBN 978-1401232160)

All are hardcover and in this humble reviewer's opinion, not very good.  There are a lot of plotlines going on, each of variable quality, and it does rely on prior knowledge of the characters and their relationships to each other.

Aqualad also appears in the Young Justice cartoon and comic, which is much much better than the Brightest Day series.  Aimed at a teenage audience, this series is set outside of regular continuity.  We are four issues in it's proving to be a fun and enjoyable read.  No trades are collected as yet, but watch this space.

Black Manta is a villain and enemy of Aquaman.  He is human and non powered, wearing a wetsuit with a bug eyed helmet whilst in the water.  He is autistic and was raised in an orphanage.  Growing up he was obsessed with Aquaman and after being abused by those who should have been caring for him he turned supervillain.  Unfortunately only a few Aquaman trades have been published - the modern ones do not involve Black Manta and the Showcase books are quite old fashioned and are unlikely to suit adult modern tastes.  Kids might get a lot of joy from them though.  Then again, if your one major black character is a vicious supervillain, that doesn't really send a positive message.

At last we come to an Asian hero - Karate Kid.  This is really terrible - he is one of the few Asian characters at DC and of course his power is that he's an expert in Karate.  Sigh.  that's not to say he isn't a decent character, but it's rather frustrating when it seems the default for Asian equals martial arts prowess.  Anyway, if you are interested he is a member of the superhero team from the 31st century, named the Legion of Superheros.  There have been a few Legion books published, Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes has received praise (it is one volume of 3), so you could try starting with that one.

The second Green Arrow, named Connor Hawke, is mixed race Asian American.  Unlike most other Asian characters in this series, his abilities are not linked to martial arts. Instead he's an ace archer (like his dad).  He's an intriguing character, having spent a long time studying in a Buddhist monastery he is not a gung ho womaniser (unlike his dad), or a drinker, or an egoist.  He's a gentle observer who's slightly at odds with the other heroes in their community.  A good place to start reading about Connor would be Green Arrow: Quiver, where Oliver Queen, his dad and the first Green Arrow, comes back from the dead and starts living life again.

From Marvel comics:

Luke Cage, also known as Power Man (yes really).  He has impervious skin and superhuman strength, he gained these abilities after being subjected to experiments in prison (he was wrongly gaoled, having been innocent of what he was accused of).  He's been around for a long time and has a lot of connections with the Heroes for Hire superhero team.  For reading material, Cage recently became team leader of the New Avengers in volume 6: Revolution.  There's also New Avengers: Luke Cage which is an origin story of sorts.

Alex Wilder from the team Runaways is a black teenager.  He's incredibly intelligent but none powered.  The Runaways are a group of teenagers with supervillians for parents.  When they discover their parents secret lives they strike out on their own to make amends for the evil their folks have done.  This series is one of the best things I've ever read and I would recommend it to every teenager interested in reading comics.  I really can't say much more about Alex as his story is imperative to the first book, which we reviewed here.

Lastly from Marvel, we have Cloak, Tyrone Johnson, of the superhero duo Cloak and Dagger (Tandy Bowen).  Ty and Tandy were teenaged runaways who were forcibly injected with a new designer drug.  This drug killed most people, but it Ty and randy it activated their latent mutant abilities to turn them into Cloak and Dagger.  Tyrone found himself engulfed in darkness and his body and cloak became a sort of portal into a dark hellish dimension.  This darkness continually threatens to destroy him, and he only survives because of Tandy's light based powers.  Due to the circumstances which turned them into Cloak and Dagger they have a special interest in helping runaways and fighting the drug trade.

These two have not been able to sustain a series of their own, but they have cropped up in  plenty of other series.  You can read about them in Runaways vol 1: Pride and Joy, Runaways vol 2: Teenage Wasteland and Power Pack volume 1.  The Power Pack books are reprints of 1980s comics and are excellent for younger readers.

I mentioned a company called Milestone Comics.  This publisher was formed in 1992 by African-Americans, in order to produce superhero comics about characters of colour.  It's founder, Dwayne McDuffie had this to say about it's creation:

"If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren't just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can't be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn't all white people and neither is Lex Luthor. We knew we had to present a range of characters within each ethnic group, which means that we couldn't do just one book. We had to do a series of books and we had to present a view of the world that's wider than the world we've seen before"

The problem that characters of colour in superhero comics have is they rarely become A-list (whether these be due to the marketing, the fans, the writers or whatever), and so they even less often have many (if any) solo trade collections.  You can read about them in the monthly issues, but that's not so good if you can't get to/don't want to go into a comic shop, or if you just don't like the format of the floppy.

Milestone Comics set out to change all that.  They produced some brilliant stories and some brilliant characters, and now these characters have been taken into the DC Universe and we can only hope that they continue to get the exposure and love they deserve.

See also our other posts in  this series, Characters of Colour in Comics - the women (part one).  Part two coming for men and women, and non superhero books coming up soon.


  1. Hi Saranga

    Good list but I'd suggest one correction about John Stewart. You say "John Stewart is (one of ) his back up Green Lanterns." but John's been a Lantern in his own right for a long while and even took on the role full time when Hal quit the Corps around Crisis on Infinite Earths.

  2. Saranga,

    A brief correction:

    Natasha Irons is John Irons' niece, not his daughter.

    Good list.

  3. Hi both,
    Thanks for the comments. I have now edited and clarified the information.