Like many children his age, my five year-old son lives in a world of his own imagination. Although he reluctantly spends some of his time living in reality as we know it, when given half the chance he slips into a universe inhabited by Ben 10, Skylanders and comic book superheroes. To him, these characters are very real. They are the people he wants to be, with the strengths and invulnerabilities he wants to possess.
This is not at all surprising; in fact it is a healthy sign of childhood development. There is a growing body of evidence supporting the many connections between cognitive competence and high-quality pretend play. However, I didn’t expect the unprompted question he asked me a few weeks ago:
“Dad, why are there no black superheroes?”
What is interesting and slightly disturbing about this question is that my son had become aware that the make believe characters populating his imaginary world did not look like him. To his credit, he was curious enough to ask me about it. Despite being similarly obsessed by superheroes myself when I was growing up, this question didn’t enter my mind until I was much older.
For some people, this should not matter. The Incredible Hulk is green when he’s angry, so what difference does it make if Bruce Banner is white? But for black and brown skinned children growing up in a majority white culture, these issues can be important.
The Wild West
My son was not the first person to ask these questions. The graphic designer Jon Daniel is a British-born child of West Indian immigrants. Growing up in South West London during the 60s and 70s in a school that was predominately white, he had to struggle to define his own identity and became increasingly interested in black music, history and heroes.
While working in an ad agency during the mid 90s, Jon came across an image of a Malcolm X action figure in a magazine. Having ordered it from the US, his obsession with collecting black superheroes and action figures began.
His collection includes a rare copy of Lobo, the first comic to feature an African American as the lead character. Created by Tony Tallarico, Lobo was published in December 1965 by Dell comics. Perhaps fittingly, the cover reads: “Branded for life! An honest man blamed for a crime he did not commit!” Sadly the comic only ran for two episodes, as many shop keepers were reluctant to stock it. Nonetheless, it has subsequently earned its place in black history.
Diversity Politics in Spandex Tights
A year later, Stan Lee created the Black Panther. Despite the name, the storyline did not reflect the revoluntary politics of the time. It wasn’t until 1972 that Marvel comics launched their first black superhero title featuring Luke Cage – also known as Power Man – the Hero For Hire. Cage was a streetwise character heavily influenced by Blaxploitation movies such as ‘Shaft’, which was released a year earlier in 1971.
However Cage’s stereotypical ‘jive talk’, macho-man persona and ‘hip’ costume quickly became outdated. By the time I was growing up a few years later, Cage was more of a comedic figure than a comic book hero. His favourite exclamation of ‘Sweet Christmas!’ didn’t help matters.
A story that did resonate far more powerfully with my experience was that of a group of people who were feared and marginalized by mainstream society because they were different – The X-Men.
The X-Men were ethnically diverse, differently abled, and in some cases, transgendered. The story of mutant persecution drew direct parallels to anti-Semitism, fascism and eugenics. As can be seen in the recent film franchise, diversity politics is at the heart of the story.
Home Grown Heroes
Here in Britain during the 1980s, the writer Alan Moore created V for Vendetta and reimagined Captain Britain. Both narratives focused on identity politics, including race and sexuality. Moore portrayed dystopian visions of the UK dominated by Big Brother military states. They provided a scathing critique of the right wing politics of the Thatcher era.
These stories made an impact on me personally, and V for Vendetta has proved to be a lasting icon, providing the face of the anarchist movement Anonymous. Alan Moore would later go on to write the seminal Watchmen series, which was one of the first graphic novels to be taken seriously by the literary establishment.
A series entitled Third World War was even closer to home. It was published in Crisis, a radical political comic that aimed to be a more adult version of the popular 2000AD.
When the series creator, Pat Mills teamed up with the African Caribbean writer Alan Mitchell, they created a hard hitting narrative that covered issues including, police racism, class war, and black resistance. The lead character was a female named Eve and featured an underground movement called the Black African Defence Squad (BADS).
As a young man growing up in South London, what I found most striking was that the story was set in areas I could recognize, such as Brixton. For the first time, a comic featured people that looked and sounded like me.
I was hugely inspired by these stories, and was fortunate to later work with Alan Mitchell, creating our own comic featuring black superheroes, The Scrolls of Imhotep, which ran in The Alarm magazine in the mid 90s.
Finding the Hero inside
I appreciate that to non comic book fans this discussion will be as alien as a Star Trek convention. But books, comics, movies TV shows and video games all demonstrate the power of stories to enthrall us and help make sense of our lives and identities.
As yet I haven’t been able to share all these tales with my 5 year old son. However I was able to take him to visit Jon Daniel’s Afro Supa Hero exhibition, featuring a collection of more than 40 black action figures and numerous comic book heroes.
This free exhibition opens daily and runs until February 2014 at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. I strongly recommend a visit if you want to reconnect with your inner child and discover the wonderful world of Afro Supa Heroes for yourself.