Photo: Courtesy of Marvel

Black Heroes Matter calls for better representation in comic books

Like a bat signal, artists, writers, cosplayers and fans gathered at San Diego Comic Con for the Black Heroes Matter flash mob. Even as the photographer kept snapping, more and more attendees spontaneously jumped into the frame, tripling participation from the previous year. Without an explanation on what the picture was for, they recognized that their community had gathered with a purpose. They were drawn to be a part of the experience.

“Black Heroes Matter is the culmination of hundreds of thousands of fans of color,” said Richard G. Tyler II, co-founder of Black Heroes Matter and organizer of the 2017 San Diego Comic Con flash mob. “It’s an SOS call to creators of color.”

Tyler, better known by his pseudonym Uraeus, is an independent comic book artist from Baltimore, Maryland, and co-founder of the Black Heroes Matter movement. Unable to recall the first time he saw a hero that looked like him, he was never content to identify with the sidekicks he saw shaded in the same skin tones as himself. Secondary characters of color—such as Roadblock from G.I. Joe, Hadji from Jonny Quest or Jazz, an autobot with a stereotypically urban voice from Transformers—were exaggerated stereotypes of African Americans that troubled him.

Black superheroes did not even exist in mainstream pop culture until Black Panther, created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee in July 1966, who made his first appearance in Fantastic Four #52.  Black Panther, or T’Challa, is an African king from the fictional country of Wakanda who possesses superhuman strength and guards one of the most technologically advanced and secretive nations in the world. He’s also considered the wealthiest character in the comic book universe, with many speculating if Tony Stark’s net worth is even a fraction of the African leader’s riches.  

In 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther was the year’s best-selling comic, and anticipation for Marvel Studios’ Black Panther film, slated for release next spring, seems only to be building. If the film, directed by Ryan Coogler and starring Chadwick Boseman, delivers the expected success, it could lead to other franchises helmed by black superheroes. Marvel has begun promising to reboot the Blade series with Wesley Snipes; Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson will play villain Black Adam in a standalone film from the DC universe; and there’s talk of Will Smith reprising reluctant hero Hancock in a Hancock 2 film. A-list actors and their fan bases could turn the grassroots Black Heroes Matter movement into a global phenomenon.  

“Other more well-represented groups have the luxury to be able to turn on any channel and see somebody that looks like them doing incredible things, heroic things,” says Tyler. “But for children of color, you gotta search. Nobody should have a monopoly on heroism in the world.”

Ruth Ajuzie, who attended San Diego Comic Con dressed as Storm from X-Men (a descendant of African priestesses who is able to control the weather), expressed hope that major studios were starting to invest in better representation for people of color.

“Our dollar is important, and with whitewashed films actually crashing in the box office, I feel that studios are starting to see that. It’s been a passing fancy, we had Blade, but then what happened?” says Ajuzie. “I’ve been skeptical, and while I will be dressed up for the Black Panther opening night, I wonder what will happen after that. And that’s where we have to stand up and refuse to be stereotyped into a box, let them know I’m not that stereotype.”

Joe Smith, who participated in the Black Heroes Matter flash mob dressed as Marvel superhero Luke Cage, echoed Tyler’s thoughts on the positive influence and relatability of diverse superhero characters. Luke Cage first appeared in June 1972 in his own comic, Luke Cage Hero for Hire #1. Cage, a wrongfully convicted African-American man undergoes experiments during his imprisonment that lead to his superpowers of unbreakable skin and extreme strength.  

Netflix released a Luke Cage series in 2016 that has been renewed for a second season. The character will also appear in the new series Marvel’s Defenders and has a crossover role in Jessica Jones and Iron Fist as well.  

“Everyone just wants to see themselves being a hero. If you can see yourself being a hero or see someone that looks like you being a hero, then that reminds you that you have it in you too,” says Smith.

While Cage and Black Panther point to progress in representation, there are still far more examples of black superheroes demoted to sidekick to entice the pocketbooks of the colored audiences without really giving the characters the spotlight. Captain America bestie Falcon has yet to branch out on his own, and Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, is always just a little more reined in than necessary. Cyborg, a DC comic superhero, will debut in Justice League later this year, but has no solo screen time in the trailer or released clips without the more popular and whiter characters dominating the scene.  

At Comic Con in San Diego, it wasn’t just the flash mob participants taking part in the Black Heroes Matter movement. Security guards stepped in to help the crowd of costumed activists when their meeting spot on the grand staircase was found to be blocked off.

A young lady in the group called out to security guards, and after quickly explaining her group’s situation, the guards, all African American, exchanged glances and without a word agreed to allow the flash mob a few minutes on the lower half of the steps. Sometimes even the most inspired superheroes need a hand from those who believe in them.  

Anthony Marsh also contributed to this report.