When I first conceptualized the Blerdvision series for Black History Month, I wanted to be able to address a variety of topics in geekdom such as video games, comics, movies, and television. I did address video games in 2016, and I am pleased to see that there has been much progress since.
For example, my very own children celebrate that they can create a Pokemon trainer avatar that looks like them in Pokémon Sun and Moon. I have been singing the praises of Aurion: Legacy of the Kori-Odan since its April 2016 release, as it was developed in Cameroon, and stands as the only RPG I know of with a black lead character–it ranks as one of my all-time favorite (a)RPGs. Speaking of black leads, Lincoln Clay takes center stage in Mafia III as a Vietnam War veteran in the late 1960’s; lead writer Bill Harms was likely inspired by the United States of America seemingly turning a new leaf through Barack Obama’s popular ascension to the presidency by casting Clay as half-black, half-white character confronting the horrors of racism (I would have warned him that the Nadir of American race relations took place after, not before, Reconstruction). Gaming dives further into historical fiction by featuring the Harlem Hellfighters in Battlefield 1. Though sidekicked in both Uncharted 4 and its expansion Lost Legacy, Nadine Ross has established herself as one of the toughest characters in all of video games by beating the ever-loving snot out of Nathan Drake and his brother Sam at the same time. Lastly, Marcus Holloway from Watch_Dogs 2 deserves an honorable mention, but because his mask obfuscates his face, his identity is consequently subdued.
Even with these signs of progress, the video game industry still has much growing up to do. In one ongoing journey in the perils that is toxic video gaming, Campo Sando filed a DMCA against YouTuber PewPieDie after he used the N-word during a live stream of Player Unknown: Battlegrowns. Though Firewatch was already widely considered a masterpiece, come combination of PewPieDie fans, “free speech” advocates who think it should be okay to use racial slurs and epithets, and general rabbel-rousers, review-bombed Firewatch on Steam, many of them buying the game, leaving a review, and requesting a refund. The company has announced its newest project, In the Valley of Gods, and have recently publicly addressed some retrograde assumptions concerning the protagonists being black women; founder Sean Vanaman is particularly offended, using language that might require a considerable contribution to the nearest swear-jar, in his repudiation.
For Blerdvision 2018, I had decided that I would next write on comics, but I tragically realized that despite all of my knowledge in African American studies, my familiarity of black characters in comics is disgracefully meager. For instance, I know who Miles Morales is, but I have not read a single issue of Ultimate Spider-Man. On DC side, I know that John Stewart is a black green lantern because of Justice League (2001), and I discovered Cyborg while researching Marvel’s Deathlok. I did not even know that DC housed a black female superhero until I angrily investigated LEGO’s DC Super Hero Girls because my daughter into LEGOs, and I despite my living within twenty minutes of the nearest Toys “R” Us, I had never seen her. On the internet, I would unearth a character named Bumblebee (pictured at the beginning of this article, top right) whose concept makes me wonder if there has been some funny business including a wink, or a nod by Marvel to DC as her design is all too similar to Wasp.
Of course, with such a limited epistemology, I would not be able to write an article on black comic book heroes that would uphold my personal standards. Nevertheless, in the light of Black Panther’s debut in theaters this month, I feel inspired to share my personal experience with representations of black heroism, whether that be in comics or elsewhere. Therefore, I have (sub)titled this piece, “Superheroes,” and will now proceed to reset it with anecdotes concerning how I came to know what I know on the subject.
Ororo Munroe, code name Storm, is unquestionably the most well-known black superhero. Most people of my generation will recognize her all-white outfit from the X-Men cartoon that once aired during Saturday mornings on Fox (kids). She is one of the most powerful mutants ever conceived, yet it is her uncanny wisdom that I would consider her greatest attribute, earning her the position as leader of team X-Men Gold (Cyclops is leader of team Blue). Still, I always thought that she written in a way that under-utilized her power. Why do we get her only taking down one sentinel at a time when she could just hit them all with with 2.7 x 106 watts each? Is she not capable of deep-freezing more than Omega Red? Generate some tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis to stop wars?
Particularly blundered was her portrayal in the X-Men movies. In 2000, Halle Berry was the hottest black actress in Hollywood, fair-skinned (biracial), and therefore inoffensive, noninvasive. Still, in the films, she is little more than a side-character. With budgets not really a concern, I can only attribute this to poor writing. I was hoping that things would change in X-Men: Apocalypse, but we all know of that outcome.
Of the few X-Men comics I managed to get my hands on in my youth, one of them included X-Cutioner mortally wounding Colossus, and Storm seemingly vaporizing him in retaliation. Within that arc, I also discovered a mutant named Bishop, a character who did not exist until 1991. In the simplicity of my then-puerile mind, I naturally gravitated toward him due to the “M” tattoo over his right eye, as that is my first initial, and I understood it on Bishop as a mark of otherness because he is a mutant—I found solidarity with him because of my skin. Unfortunately, the few comics I owned revealed little about him and his sister Shard other than they were time travelers, and they did not appear in the show enough for my tastes, either. Shard ends up dying to a Nimrod-like super-sentinel in the comics, so I immediately forgot about her; unlike Marvel, I believe that when a character dies, they should stay that way.
I am satisfied with Bishop’s portrayal in X-Men: Days of Future Past. For a cameo, he showcases more than most would with equal time. My grievances with the film involve sending Wolverine back instead of Kitty Pryde, but I suppose we cannot have a sentinel eviscerating Logan in a PG-13 movie—a missed opportunity. I do find it strange that Bishop channels his mutant power to absorb and discharge energy through his gun, but this is a minor complaint.
I discovered Luke Cage by sheer serendipity. Blockbuster Video distributed Marvel Fleer and Flair cards as consolation prizes during its 1994 summer Video Game Championship series. I acquired a card with the above cover on it, and proceeded to totally “judge a book by its cover.” The last thing Marvel needed was another Strong Guy. As Cage did not capture my interest, I erased him from memory. Then I stumbled upon some older comic strips demonstrating that he was the comic book equivalent of a Blaxploitation character, given his tendency to speak in slang, emphasizing his blackness above all else. His dialogue was an attempt at mimesis, but only managed to succeeded at stereotype.
The trailers for Netflix’s Luke Cage began to circulate at a fortuitous time. Made available to the general public on September 30, 2016, the shooting of Philando Castile was still fresh on American minds. Conscious of the unease, frustration, and pain, several blogs began to run stories titled “Marvel’s Luke Cage is the Bulletproof Black Man We Need Right now.” The actor who would portray the Harlem Hero, Mike Colter, had gone on record to say that Cage’s penchant for hoodies is a call-back to Trayvon Martin.
The hype was forreal. I have had a Netflix subscription since I could get three DVDs sent to my house and stream for the same price that we are now paying only to stream (Netflix: “LoL, suckers!”), and the premiere of Luke Cage was the first time that I can remember the streaming service suffering an outage. Indeed, fans who wanted to see Luke Cage broke Netflix! The best part about this is that the show is actually good—up to the third act, at least. Without question, the MCU needs more villains like Mahershala Ali’s Cottonmouth. Cage himself his okay, too; I might like him more if actually knew how to fight. He (and Jessica Jones) look terribly out of place in the same room with Daredevil, Elektra, and Iron Fist in The Defenders. Looking bad while in the same room as Danny Rand is an impressive feat.
And that is it! That was the limit of my knowledge of strictly comic book knowledge of black superheroes. Though I dedicated some space to Luke Cage, Storm and Bishop were really all I had available to me during my childhood. I had heard of War Machine making appearances in Iron Man, but I never managed to catch him on an episode. I noticed that Robbie Robertson and Terri Lee made frequent appearances on Spider-Man, as did Tombstone, but the first two are side-characters and Tombstone is a villain.Therefore, I would have to draw from other sources to get my fix of black heroes. Movies would have to suffice as suppliment.
Though Storm and Bishop were simply the first black superheroes that I knew of—association by lack of options—Meteor Man, was the first time I learned of a superhero that I feel I could relate to, that I would want to be. After all, what kid would not want a power that gave them the ability to know everything in a book simply by touching it? Straight-A’s in school, all day, son!
The problem here, which does not pertain to the film so much as it is an issue with American culture, is that Meteor Man is little more than Superman in a black ghetto. Noble, as Meteor Man diffuses gang activity and shuts down drug houses—things that are relevant to all of America, but because this narrative was told from a black perspective in the context of the Black Experience, it was met with limited reception. Furthermore, not only was Meteor Man a creation in its own vacuum, and therefore holds no meaning or lasting appeal, but it is also presented as a comedy. When Eddie Griffin, Bill Cosby, Sinbad, and Robert Townsend are headlining the cast, well, if the creators do not take it seriously, why should the audience? Lastly, his powers disappear by the movie’s conclusion. Psyche!
I have a soft spot for Todd McFarlane, as I believe him to be the best Spider-Man artist of all time, he created my favorite comic book character, Venom, and gave Marvel the DX-gesture with a few other high-profile creators on his way out of the door, sending a warning signal across the comics industry that creators should have ownership of their creations. That said, his Spawn is a zeitgeist for the EXTREME 90’s. I know these things in retrospect; I had actually first learned of the hyper-violent Violator comics from a friend, before becoming aware of Spawn. Therefore, I maintain more of an affinity for Spawn’s nemesis rather than Spawn himself.
Like every other geek, I still went out to see the movies despite hardly knowing a thing. I do not recall if I learned that Al Simmons is a black man from the film, the HBO short-run TV show, or a random comic, but the revelation made me perform a double-take. But even in those days, my nascently Christian, agnostic self was much too…innocent…to adopt someone as a “hero” when they make a deal with the devil just to see his wife, Wanda Blake, one more time. Though I suppose beginning a coup in hell counts for something. Even so, the joke is on him: when he does finally regain his faculties after having his memory wiped upon his return to Earth, Simmons collects the L of L’s, learning that his best friend had moved in. That is a whole bunch of nope!
Blade was a gosh-darn game changer. At the zenith of 90’s style of cool and EXTREME, Marvel dusted off an obscure, long-forgotten character, gave him a modern makeover with the powers of a vampire who is immune to the sun, yet still wears a jet-black trench coat and sunglasses because he is just that raw. Wesley Snipes’ black belts in two disciplines of martial arts made him the a perfect candidate to fill the role, as Jackie Chan’s films were popular at the time, and Jet Li was soon to make his US debut in Lethal Weapon 4. Because UFC had yet to achieve mainstream attention, so everyone still thought whoever knew martial arts was considered invincible, and could beat up everyone
Unlike Marvel’s first attempt at cinema with Howard the Duck, Blade takes a serious approach, carrying an “R” rating for violence and language. Blade is another character with whom I associated myself, because the other vampires call him a “day walker,” which is a slur in the context of the film. As a half-breed, a dhampir, bastardized and othered, Blade is something like a specter of vengeance using weaponized silver and ultraviolet rays to dispatch vampires with violent prejudice. This was, and remains, a significant change of pace as Marvel movies rarely show blood. Blade literally bathes in the stuff!
Anyone who is not impressed by a ninja vampire hunter is simply wrong. I am indebted to Blade for not only providing me with a black who with whom I could identify unconditionally, but also proving beyond a shadow of doubt that movies based upon comic book characters are viable (and again, even with with an “R” rating). Additionally, one of my favorite franchises, Underworld, would acquire its template for the lycan/vampire war from the action sequences in the Blade movies. Best of all, unlike most movies from the 90’s, Blade and Blade 2 hold up surprisingly well.
What was that? Did someone ask about Blade 3? I do not know what they are talking about—there is no such thing!!!
Some may wonder about a certain few films that I have neglected to mention. Admittedly, I have never seen Steel, nor will I ever, God willing. Ain’t nobody got time to take Shaq seriously in a moive; Kazaam is odious enough. Blankman is nothing more than a spoof of Batman, and because I have only seen it once, I cannot recall a single scene; perhaps that is for the best. Lastly, as popular as Hancock might be, he is not only an antihero, but his titular film is a comedy in the same vein as Meteor Man. Unlike Townsend’s character, Will Smith’s character, “John Hancock,” has to be convinced to do the right thing, up to the point of possibly facing death if he fails. Self-preservation, even if Charlize Theron’s character would mutually benefit.
Such is my childhood’s experience with black superheroes. Since, I have picked up a few additional names, such as Monica Lambeau, Moon Girl, and Jefferson Pierce (our very own Matt Cronn is all but dying for someone on staff to watch the currently-airing Black Lightning so he can talk about it). That said, another name I have picked up over the years is Black Panther, whom I mentioned earlier. This entire piece has led up to this moment: