With countless multiverses and a crisis every week, it can be hard to appreciate the countless characters that occupy the pages of pop culture. It seems that comic book franchises like Marvel and DC Comics have a character for everything, from men who can swing from webs to women who can touch the stars. The rich, in-depth characters of these companies never fail to entertain the public with their films, television shows or epic blockbusters. However, with Black History Month finally arriving, there’s no better time to appreciate the characters of colour. The heroes that prove you can save the world no matter what colour your skin or what you believe in.
In July 1966, Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby released Fantastic Four #52, an issue that would change the history of comic books forever. This wasn’t because the Fantastic Four were doing something heroic or Reed Richards (Mr Fantastic) had created a monumental device. It was because this comic was an introduction to Marvel’s first mainstream black superhero, a character with the name of… Black Panther. With the help of Jack Kirby, Stan Lee crafted a story of the Fantastic Four being invited to a technologically advanced country called Wakanda. However, Marvel’s First Family weren’t invited to be hailed as the heroes that they were. Instead, they were being hunted by a black-clad predator that looked a lot like a cat. When the dust settled, and Fantastic Four was captured by their mysterious predator it was revealed that he was actually T’Challa, the Prince of Wakanda.
That vital issue of the Fantastic Four opened the floodgate for hundreds of these characters to burst into the fold. The brilliant Black Lightning who shocked the enemies that stood in his way. Eric Brooks/Blade, a vampire that had all the strengths of creatures of the night but none of their weaknesses. Storm from the X-Men made the team more diverse as she was almost like an African goddess. It seems that Black Panther was a beacon for all of these superheroes of colour to come out into the limelight, giving the comic book community a sense of diversity and people of African descent all around the world a reason to be proud about their skin colour.
However, as time went on these superheroes were pushed into the background. Their stories were cancelled because of controversies, such as the rise of the political party named “The Black Panthers” (no association with the comic book character). As a result, Marvel had no choice but to change the name of their character, for Black Panther became Coal Tiger (even though they were basically the same thing). Storm was almost put into the background to make way for Wolverine and Jean Grey’s stories (such as the Dark Phoenix), she went from a starring member to a glorified extra of the X-Men comics. Blade’s comics were cancelled as they weren’t as popular as Fantastic Four or X-Men. Little by little, these characters were turning more inconspicuous rather than being in desire.
The early 2000s and the present day saw something strange though. In recent years Marvel, DC and other comic book companies have yet again embraced the diversity of their characters. The medium of television and film has become another way for these characters to be appreciated. Characters like Black Lightning (Cress Williams) have their own Netflix shows, The Guardian (played by Mehcad Brooks) helps Supergirl protect National City, and Vixen has enjoyed some of the limelight on her own animated show, as well as a stint on Legends of Tomorrow (played by both Maisie Richardson Sellers and Megalyn Echikunwoke).
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there is also no shortage of characters. Falcon has become a fan favourite as he’s now assuming the role of Captain America with Steve Rogers’ blessing. Tessa Thompson is the new Queen of Asgard, however, not only does she represent the black community but the LGBT+ community, as she’ll be looking for a Queen to rule alongside her. Finally, we have the Prince of Wakanda himself who has taken his original name of Black Panther once more to earn £1billion at the box office, how’s that for a cinematic benchmark? This proves that the Marvel Cinematic Universe is thriving with these characters. Sure, we have heroes such as Iron Man and Black Widow, but the Avengers shouldn’t shy away from diversity in their roster as the characters of colour are major powerhouses.
You could argue that comic books weren’t diverse enough as the new influx of media has rewritten some of the characters into the black community. For instance, the rumour spouting Number 3 from the Netflix show ‘Umbrella Academy’ was never from black descent in the comics, yet is now played by Emmy Raver Lampman. Also, the aforementioned Guardian (Jimmy Olsen) in Supergirl has gone from a red-haired, caucasian photographer to a black man who’s the head of a mainstream media outlet. The question is, with all these characters getting changed for the small and big screen…were comic books not diverse enough?
Nevertheless, looking back on the history of these characters, you can’t help but be impressed.