Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Black Super Heroes... DC

Originally, I conceived this item as a Black History Month piece prompted when I noted that DC Comics offered selected back issues featuring black heroes each week in February as part of its weekly $.99 digital sale. [read online][for iOS devices][powered by android] But February was a busy month for me. So instead, I've reworked it as a pre-emptive strike and companion piece to my original Race & The Comic Book Movie entry.

As you may remember, quite a controversy was stirred by Kenneth Branagh's decision to (re)cast the Asgardian Bifrost Bridge guardian Heimdall with (black) actor Idris Elba. I noted that Marvel's earlier decision to import the Ultimates black Nick Fury (based on Samuel L. Jackson) into the Marvel universe canon continuity for the movies by casting actual Samuel L. Jackson in the role elicited nary a peep. Well, we're a little under 3 months away from Warner Brothers' release of Man of Steel (14 June 2013), the Zack Snyder reboot of the Superman film franchise. DC Comics once again throws its hat into the ring of racial (re)casting this year with none other than Laurence Fishburne in the role of Daily Planet Editor-in-Chief Perry White.[1]

Snyder's got a lot resting on his shoulders with this film. Not only is he responsible for salvaging one of Warner Brothers' most recognizable (and hopefully bankable) properties next to Batman for the big screen following Bryan Singer's 2006 epic debacle Superman Returns. Now Man of Steel is pinned as the first strike for a run-up to a Justice League movie. Fresh off his wildly successful Batman trilogy, director Christopher Nolan has been tapped to produce Justice League.

The cynical me ignores Warner Brothers' past approval of casting decisions against the race of its comic book heroes for the big screen. It hopes Snyder et al didn't intentionally court Thor-like controversy in order to cash in on some of that sweet, sweet The Avengers[2] films revenue.

The optimistic me, on the other hand, hopes choices like this are directed at righting the race and gender imbalance in comics books, both on the page and screen. A majority of the most iconic heroes and their supporting casts were created during a time with very different social demographics. But the times, they are a' changin'. I hope DC and Marvel are taking the opportunity to (re)make their canon continuities to better reflect the modern, integrated world. You know, the one in which Americans elected a black man to be President. Twice.

So to (belatedly) honor Black History Month and the changing face of comics, here's my list of best known black super heroes in DC Comics. I've tried my best to arrange them in the order in which I encountered them. This is by no means an exhaustive list of black super heroes in DC Comics. Although Superman was (and may still be) hands down my favorite super hero, one thing becomes abundantly clear by reading this list: my primary access to the DC universe has been through its numerous fantastic animated series, tv shows (not Smallville) and films. I've briefly read runs of Superman and Batman comics over the years but never regularly subscribed like with Marvel's X-Men books. The recently relaunched Justice League, however, has caught my eye at the moment.

Black Vulcan (1977)
The original black super hero for me. He was a Super Friend. Perhaps a token minority character along with Apache Chief (eh-neeek-chok!) and Samurai (whom I'm not sure was Japanese) to balance out the white core at the Hall of Justice, I didn't perceive Black Vulcan that way. They, along with El Dorado, were each Hanna Barbera creations and not DC characters. To me growing up watching Super Friends in the early 80s, however, he was that guy with the lightning powers who wasn't Superman (my favorite), Batman,[3] Wonder Woman, or the other first class (generationally, not rank) of Super Friends. This is when I still bought coloring books instead of comic books so I wasn't yet aware of Black Lightning, whom Black Vulcan is "loosely" modeled.

Steel (1993)
I don't like Steel. It's not because he is (literally) a poor man's Iron Man, though that doesn't help. It's not even for that so-terrible-it's-kinda-good Shaq movie. No, I don't like him because of his origin. John Henry Irons, aka Steel, stepped up to the plate as one of four beings laying claim to Supes' crest after the Man of Steel's death-nap way back in 1993. That issue, Superman #500, has been blamed for single-handedly crashing the collector's glut back in 1993.

About that Shaq movie... The one good thing I can say about Steel is that, because of his inclusion in the Superman family, he is a high profile black hero. One that studio execs thought they could tap to bring "urban" audiences in to see a geek film. For being that kind of presence in pop culture, I don't despise him.

Static (2000)
Static appeared in an animation block along with Batman Beyond. I later learned he was an import from the now defunct Milestone comics line. He's kind of like a black Spider-Man, complete with quips and homemade gadgets. Unlike Spider-Man, Static never went the hero route alone. He relied heavily on his friend Richie for support.

Green Lantern (2001)
Jon Stewart, aka the black Hal Jordan. Seriously, whereas Hal was reckless and a lone wolf, Lantern Jon Stewart was a no nonsense former Marine. He debuted as the Green Lantern in the Justice League cartoon because the producers felt that his abrasive personality added a different dimension to the League. I wasn't fond of him and missed Hal Jordan. His romance with Hawkgirl felt forced.

Cyborg (2003)
I knew about the Teen Titans comics but never read them. Then came Cartoon Network's Teen Titans series and I was hooked. Cyborg was the mature Titan along with Robin but lacked Robin's moodiness, sullenness and lone wolf mentality. He was also best friends with my favorite, Beast Boy.

Vixen (2004)
I saw her in the Justice League Unlimited episode Wake the Dead (2004). She was Jon Stewart's black girlfriend replacement for Hawkgirl. Vixen is also a minor member of the Justice League in the comics. Her powers make her sort of a sexy Animal Man.

Mr. Terrific (2004)
Michael Holt version. First appeared in cameo in Season 1 Initiation and appears briefly in a few other episodes during seasons 1 and 2. He starts to move into role of JLU Coordinator after departure of Martian Manhunter in third episode of season 3 To Another Shore. For some reason I can't but think of the late 80s WWF heel Mr. Perfect when I hear his name.

[1] See Billy Dee Williams as District Attorney Harvey Dent in Tim Burton's wildly popular Batman movie; and Halle Berry as the titular character in the universally derided Catwoman. Well, don't actually SEE Catwoman.
[2] For those of you living under a rock for the past half decade, that would be: (1) Iron Man (2008); Iron Man 2 (2010); Louis Leterrier's reboot of The Incredible Hulk (2008) with Edward Norton as Bruce Banner; Thor (2011); and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The films were initially connected through cameo appearances of SHIELD Director Nick Fury as he tried to recruit a team of super heroes.
[3] This was between the Adam West years and the Michael Keaton / Tim Burton collaborations, before The Animated Series, and long before the because he's Batman meme.

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