In Search of a Black Superhero Thoughts on the absence of black heroes in comic books and films.

In Words
Scroll this

Despite the fact that all of the comic books I grew up with had white superheroes, whenever I appropriated any superhero in my mental daydreams, they were always black. And very Rémy-esque. They had my hair, my nose, my impudent smile (which works very well on imaginary damsels in distress, by the way) and my manner of speaking. They would like my kind of jokes, they would have my weaknesses and my fears – so all of them were by necessity required to fear spiders. Some of my greatest mental villains have eight legs. Dr Arachnia is one of the villains I have yet to conquer.

The remoulding of heroes to suit my sense of self was quite diligent. When I started wearing glasses I had a mental dilemma trying to figure out how my mask would look with them. Although contact lenses would have solved the problem immediately, it was hard to factor them into my mental projection of myself because I did not wear them. So hard was it for me to imagine myself without glasses that my mental Gotham was infested with crime for two weeks while my Rémy-Batman anxiously debated with Lucius Fox about the best way to fashionably accommodate my short-sightedness. Eventually, we reached a kind of compromise; we would discard the original mask and incorporate super sleek goggles that had the same prescription as my lenses.

Gotham became crime free once again.

It really didn’t matter what I was fantasising about, the star of my phantasm would always be more like me than not. My sense of self permeated each and every mental image of myself; I would always be black and I would always have whatever atrocious haircuts my dear Mom gave me — which never hit it off with the Gotham ladies, even if they were imaginary.

For me, Rémyfying all of my heroes seemed to be the natural order of things regardless of the fact that all of the comic book media was predominantly white. It didn’t strike me as strange until years later when a couple of friends and I were sitting in a dorm room talking about the mysteries of life (in other words, girls and football) when the conversation took a strange turn towards race. When I asked them what colour they were in their heads whenever they acted out some imaginary situation in their youth, a tense silence filled the room until one brave soul admitted that his mental projection of his superhero-self had been white.

It was shocking.

But it shouldn’t have been, we all grew up with very white superheroes: Superman (white alien from Krypton with dubious tastes in fashion), Spider-Man (white photographer – who I never endorsed because of the spider thingy), Batman (white billionaire who likes to dress up late at night), the Silver Surfer (who is as white as they come), the Hulk (white scientist who jumps the crayon barrier when he is angry) and the Fantastic Four (white scientists who are the definition of anti-cool in the known universe). There were of course the X-Men (who are almost always white except for a few dark anomalies here and there – that mutant gene is actually quite discriminatory), the Avengers (another bunch of really uncool white people) with Captain America, Thor and the Scarlet Witch at their helm. These are just a handful of the heroes that a nine-year-old had at his disposal growing up, there are many other costume clad super humans and aliens that crash landed on Earth or mysteriously acquired some super power but they would be too many to mention.  What they all had in common was that they were really cool. And they were white.

It shouldn’t have been completely surprising that in the midst of this, it would be conceptually hard for many black six-year-old to imagine himself as a black superhero – the basic societal constructs like books (or comic books in this case) did not support it. All the cool superheroes were white – the message seemed clear: be white. Looking back on it all, I am not sure why I never thought of myself as white in my daydreams. Perhaps it is because my parents instilled such a strong image of self in me or because I am so arrogant (which is probably the real reason) I cannot stand the thought of someone other than me occupying my mental psyche. Whatever the reason, I never thought of myself as black and all of my superheroes were coloured over in my head. You should see the black Superman. He is too cool.

There aren’t any black superheroes I know of. Spawn doesn’t count; in his previous life he was an assassin. He was sent to Hell and obtained his powers from the devil. His full name is Hellspawn. That’s not hero material. Blade doesn’t count either; he is half-vampire, half-Wesley Snipes. Although the former can be overlooked, the latter cannot – no black child should grow up with Snipes as a role model.

If there is any black superhero, I am yet to hear of him.(Please resist the urge to say Barack Obama.)

The reason why black superheroes do not exist is perhaps because their characters would be so hard to explain to readers, both white and black. A black person being bitten by a radioactive spider (why didn’t he just swat the damn thing?), a black billionaire (doesn’t he have bills to pay?), an advanced black alien from Krypton (let’s not even go there) is so incongruous with what is depicted as black that it would be hard to make society believe in his existence. I am not sure that the idea would take off.

There are any number of reasons why a negro superhero is still quite a long way off (am I allowed to use the word “negro”? I am not sure anymore), even in the 21st century where there is more integration than ever before. Firstly, the superhero industry which is merely an arm of the larger publishing industry which shapes societies perceptions of cultures and people, doesn’t understand whatever it means to be black (if there is such a thing). The artists are white, the writers are white, the publishers are white and the market is white. It’s very hard to break a black character into this very pale skinned universe. At most, the best that can be done are black sidekicks; a main character is still a long way off.

A second reason why black superheroes will continue to be rare is because the idea of black or blackness is quite fragmented. There is not one single cohesive conception of it. The lack of a single black consciousness is probably what inhibits the mainstream depiction of black superheroes. Black people do not have the same understanding of blackness. I believe that the black consciousness movement is destined to peter out because of its inability to create a lasting understanding of blackness, a concept or ideal that translates to all black people. Black people from Africa don’t understand blackness in the same way that African-Americans do; black South Africans see themselves as being completely different from black Namibians. Ghanaians, Nigerians, Kenyans and Cameroonians – all of these see themselves as distinct and different black people, with their own identity. To harmonise all of these, and produce a character that transcends all of the individual stereotypes of each group is a political and social nightmare I would be hesitant to go into as a writer. There are black people who think they are better than other black people, black people who shun other black people, black people who judge other black people by how dark they are. There are so many shades and textures of black I can sometimes understand why Marvel and DC Comics have played it safe and kept to the farm boy from Smallville.

If you find unanimous agreement on what the concept of being black is, I’ll name my child after you.

And I am not talking about the definition that is found in anthropological books. I am talking about a street definition that applies to everyone and anyone with a dark skin; understanding that everyone with a dark skin can buy into. Even Ubuntu in peer-reviewed journals means something quite different to the average person – and not all African people believe in it. Harmonising something as complex as being black is perhaps not impossible, but so hard and trying that people never try. That’s the tragedy, no one is willing to give it a try.

Even I think about blackness (both my personal self and the wider concept) differently from brothers, and we are as close a family unit as you can imagine. It’ll be very hard to design a character for us that we will not question: What language does he speak? What is his ethnicity? Which country is he from? Has he paid his child support?

I have a mental picture of an artist sitting down to create a black superhero and giving up barely two minutes into the preliminary sketching. Perhaps that is how it works in the publishing industry.

The divided and fragmented nature of black consciousness is sharply contrasted with the general and easy acceptance of a middle-class farm boy from Kansas like Clark Kent, or the effortless acceptance of a white crime-fighting billionaire. It’s very easy to create white characters, just give them a handful of teenage angst and you have a young hero waiting to confront his destiny. Black characters are infinitely much harder. Try and imagine a black Frodo Baggins. I’ll give you a while.

It’s not just the stereotypes (from the ghetto, talking “black”, dressing “black”) that would choke a black superhero though, it’s also the expectations. Somehow, I find it hard to imagine black people warming up to some random black billionaire dressing up as a bat late at night to kick some ass. The day you discover you have Superman’s powers or Bruce Wayne’s fortune, 99% of your worries as a black man fall away – just sign a contract with the NFL or the NBA and you are set for life. So what do you do in the off-season? Fight Brainiac? Really?

It’s the lack of cultural sustainability that might choke off the creation of black superheroes. Because the understanding of black culture (this label really grates on my nerves) is so thin and disseminated in a diluted manner so that the white populace can understand it, I am convinced it would be hard to create a character that continuously traverses the customs of the black world; morning prayers (if you are Muslim), passing the rites of manhood (can Superman be circumcised? Doesn’t he have a super foreskin or something of that kind?), paying lobola (does Spiderman approve of this anyway?). The challenges are legion.

Spawn and Blade had to be pulled from the fringes of black society in order to get support.Their characters had to be so otherworldly in order for them to be believed. Sure they might be dark on the outside but their experiences and characters are not genuine. They need a healthy sprinkling of xenophobia, racial discrimination and a healthy obsession with Mzoli’s before they can fool me. Only by stripping them of most of their blackness and making them neutral could they get a toehold in the market. If Spawn or Blade decided to get a university degree, they would lose all of their appeal – who wants to read about a black man with a degree when there are so many without them, robbing grocery stores and appearing on Fox News that could get the job done?

Even if someone were to create a black superhero, the next worry kicks in: the market. Who would buy a comic with a black superhero in it? Would black people support a black superhero? That’s a question I am not sure I can answer. I can only draw an example from mainstream Hollywood media: would black people have watched Hancock (and let’s face it, Hancock was no Superman) if Will Smith wasn’t portraying him? Or buy the idea of a black Gandalf? The first question would have to be answered negatively and the second positively on one condition: Morgan Freeman would have to portray him.

It’s saddening the extremes that the writing and film industries have to go to in order to get the different racial groups interacting in the same medium. Will Smith was the only reason white people watched Hancock (Oh! Charlize Theron was there too!); he’s more appealing to them because he is almost one of them (no hard feelings there, Will). Hancock would have fared quite differently if any other black person had acted in it. It’s sad because superheroes are supposed to be average people with super powers. It’s more authentic when someone who closely resembles the hoi polloi plays them – this is the whole selling point of comic books anyway: that any one, no matter who they are can sometimes become a hero. But why go all the way to Will Smith in order to portray a drunken bum (who we never really bought into by the way)? Simple, because of my earlier argument: Will is closer to white than most other actors. He is diluted. More so than say, Peter Mensah.

It might also be that the lack of black superheroes is because the literary tools don’t support them. Wizards by nature are always white and need to have a white beard. If they were black they’d be sorcerers – also, let’s not forget the whole “black magic” thing; a black guy doing magic. That’s modern day Salem witch-hunt material. Fairies need to be white otherwise they’d be impish; dwarves can’t be black otherwise they would be tokoloshes and elves would be some race of orcs if they were black. So why is there no black equivalent for all of the things that are intrinsically white? Because of the two problems I have highlighted above: lack of identity and lack of market support. No one Is brave enough to have a black wizard (just read that again and see how negative it sounds), no one knows where such a wizard would come from (if he were Nigerian, how would you feel about it…?) and the market is too fragmented and divisive to actually support it. I really don’t blame Marvel.

Superheroes are not easy to create and maintain. The original conceptions of Superman, Batman and Captain America originated in the Second World War and spent the major part of the 1940s fighting the Nazis. They were a response to the need for the American way of life to justify itself and protect itself from Hitler’s world domination plan. They weren’t just people with super powers; they were protectors of the American Dream. In the 1960s, the same heroes were fighting communism. Though they were figments of imagination, they were created to serve a vital purpose, to serve as cultural symbols of the US, fighting against whatever threatened. It is strange therefore that during Apartheid there were no superheroes created by the writers at the time. Perhaps black people don’t like the idea of a superhero, but one cannot deny the identity (positive or otherwise) that it creates. It’s literature bordering on propaganda. And it’s not always bad – imagine how safe kids in the US felt thinking that Captain America was protecting them. Perhaps it’s time Africa had a hero of some kind.

You never realise the black void in pop culture until you pay close attention to it. Sure, some people write theses on the topics (and get a chair at some university) and others write a blog post about it (hoping that someone somewhere is reading it – like me), but very few, if any actually try to fix the void. Most black writers will stick to the safe topics: drugs, crime, Apartheid, Martin Luther King or war. No one wants to take the first step and think differently, dream differently, create differently. I respect Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe. I pray at the altar of Chimamane Adichie. All of these people write high literature about Africa and what it means to be black. But I will tattoo the name of the first person who creates a black superhero to rival Superman on my chest.

The lack of this ability to dream differently, to harmonise the black self with modern society that has all of us darkies walking off in different directions, might be the reason why there are no black superheroes. We are so insecure in our skins and so sceptical of all that is black, I don’t know what would happen if I got a superpower today. Would I be accepted? Or would I be branded an evil spirit?

I have a feeling that the lack of a clear definition of what it means to be black is the reason why black people find it hard to accept their own beauty; perhaps in their own heads they see slightly whiter versions of themselves, with longer straighter noses. Just once I would like to be transported inside a black woman’s head when she watches L’Oreal or Garnier adverts. What does she see? Does she see a white woman she would like to imitate? Does she transpose her face onto Sarah Jessica Parker? Does she darken or lighten her skin? What about her hair? Does it stay curly and wiry, or does it magically straighten and blow in the breeze like in the commercials? I don’t know. I should ask them sometime.

The reason why I bring up the issue of black superheroes is not to point a finger at the comic book industry, or to point a finger at the proverbial white man. I just think that black superheroes are important. They are an integral part of diversification – just as there are white and black musicians, there are black and white actresses. It is okay to listen to black musicians, it is okay to admire and praise black athletes. It’s recently become okay (in the US) to elect black presidents (although I must stress that we have been doing that for years here in Africa. Sorry Barack…). Surely there can’t be anything wrong with having a black superhero can there?

Black and white children need to know from an early age that there is nothing different or wrong with looking up to a person of a different race. For years now, black children have been looking up to Superman, and Batman and any other character that DC and Marvel Comics create – most of them have been white. I think it’s time white children also looked up to a black person. I cannot help but think that somewhere, there is a black seven-year-old playing out some imaginary superhero scenario. Or a black thirteen-year-old imagining himself as The Flash. In their minds, they see themselves as white people. That’s not right.

It’s 2012! And that means that there is a slew of superhero films coming out this year. The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises (also known as Remy’s Reason for Living) and of course, The Amazing Spider-Man, a much needed reinterpretation of the horrible trilogy that starred Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst. The new version has Andrew Garfield (The Social Network) and Emma Stone (Crazy, Stupid, Love and The Help) in the lead roles. They’re younger and fresher. Definitely what the franchise needs to breathe life into it.

But I can’t help but feel disappointed. It might be a new Spider-Man, but it’s still the same white guy, dealing with white problems. It would have been nice to see someone taking a bold step and making him black.

I don’t know, maybe I am just ranting. Maybe I am unnecessarily disappointed. Either way, I am still in search of a black superhero.