From Black Panther to Miles Morales, follow Marvel’s black heroes with DMC, Pete Rock, MF Grimm, Ron Wimberly & Axel Alonso!
I spoke to Andrew Wheeler at Marvel.com about black superheroes. Here are my unabridged answers to the questions:
Q.What did Marvel’s black heroes mean to you growing up?
RW. My earliest experience with Marvel Superheroes came in the form of licensed goods (pajamas, t-shirts, toys); I was a HUGE marvel fan before I even knew what Marvel was. I had the spiderman pajamas, the hulk quarter sleeve baseball T. …but I don’t remember there ever being any products that featured black superheroes when I was a kid (the eighties). By the time I finally was made aware of black marvel heroes, like storm or the black panther (which confused me at the time because he had nothing to do with Huey Newton or Angela Davis), I didn’t identify with them very much. I think it’s maybe because I didn’t know any black people like the characters in the comics; I never saw black people act or look like that. I loved Spiderman and the Hulk. I could identify with them. They reminded me of people I knew, believe it or not- their flaws, their problems, their character. Spiderman was a kid trying to hold down a job and maintain, I liked that about him. Also, they were the stars of the universe, so to speak.
Q. What impact did they have on you as an artist?
Black Marvel Superheroes, if they had any impact on me at all as an artist, they impacted my critical eye. They created in me a skepticism as to the validity of images of black people or culture. I remember when I first saw Bishop– it must’ve been around 1993– I thought, ‘man, this guy looks corny! He’s got a jerry curl, a skin tight leotard and a neckerchief.’ That would not fly in the streets. I mean, you’d have to go back to Grand Master Flash to see the last time that look worked, and really, Grand Master Flash was special! Eventually they made great strides with the look of that character. He got corn rows; he got a fade; he got dreds. I mean, I really liked how strong he was, and I thought his powers were particularly relevant to the black experience.
I never wondered who wrote Good Times, but when I saw Bishop I was immediately skeptical of who created that character.
(checks wikipedia) So wait, he’s aboriginal Australian? I don’t even know now.
Q. Where do you see these characters fitting in to the culture at that time?
In comics culture, I am not sure. I am not too deep in comics culture. I commend writers and artists for attempting to create a marvel universe that reflects the diversity of our actual world. I wonder what their lasting effect was for the readership. I wonder if it helped get more black readers. Personally, I’ve never picked up a superhero comic because of the black characters in it.
I would like to believe that seeing black characters could normalize the image of black people for the readership, but I suppose that has a lot to do with the quality of the writing. For talent, I imagine the addition of black characters created, for a time, an editorial incentive to reach out to black creators. I remember there being a lot more black writers for a time. Honestly, I don’t have the data on this so it’s all speculative on my end.
In black culture, growing up, I’d never heard of any black marvel characters. Again, I’d heard of the Hulk, Spider-man, The Human Torch. Hulk had a TV show, Spider-man had all sorts of shows and video games, but I don’t remember black characters being represented much, that is, until the X-men Cartoon, the Capcom game and the Blade movies.
As an adult, I met many black people who loved these characters, but for me, growing up, I’d never heard of them.
…I think that the black characters came off as a little “off brand” to many black kids I knew. And for me and the kids I knew, for better or worse, “off brand” was the worst thing you could possibly be. It’s kind of like how black capitalism played out against integration. You’ve added black characters to the universe, but now those black characters, come off a little “off brand”. Are they treated with the same care as the white characters. Like, you couldn’t afford the J’s so you got… I don’t even know what you’d get. See what I’m saying? In fact this extends to identity which may speak to how some audiences may perceive the authenticity of the identity of the characters.
Q. What legacy have those characters had on our culture today?
Marvel has, with it’s black characters and it’s unassailable cultural impact, an opportunity to shape the pop cultural narrative not only in the panels but in the credits. The presentation of these characters has inspired young minds to question these representations. They want to play with the Marvel toys.
Blade paved the way for the Marvel Film Universe. Blade, in a replay of cinema history, ushered in a new age of super-hero cinema. Blade was perfect for marvel and the superhero genre in general, his film could be marketed as a vampire film; he was both not recognizable to the general audience as part of the marvel cannon and recognizable to the core fans. Blade was a missing link that forwent the problems of depicting costumed heroes; he was plane clothed (kinda, the black male body, in mass media, is super and eroticized on it’s own… it’s own superhero costume). Without Blade, there’d be no Guardians of the Galaxy.
Q. Who is your favourite black Marvel super hero, and why?
Hands down, Blade. I like the idea of Black Panther and Wakanda, but Blade… the idea of Blade speaks to my personal experience, regardless of his blackness but also because of his blackness. Blade could be a white superhero, but being black, conceptually adds another dimension to his character. Blade has to deal with family dysfunction; the curbing of his own power/privilege while suffering from prejudice from others with privilege; his own internalized racism, self loathing; Blade deals with cultural bi-polarism; Blade has to deal with economic and temporal class rifts! My personal experience resonates with this, haha, and even if I don’t always see it in the Blade comics or in the films, what have you, the idea of the character speaks to me and my imagination.