American Pop Culture and the Black SuperheroFilm February 23, 2018
In discussions of the steroid-fueled action star pantheon of the 1980s, the heroes of the two movies I grew up revering most—Action Jackson and The Last Dragon—tend to get left out. Neither wore capes, but for me—an 11-year Marvel Comics aficionado more interested in nailing kick-flips than three-pointers—both Detective Sergeant Jericho “Action” Jackson and “Bruce” Leroy Green were superheroes. Alongside Legolas, Captain America, and Reepicheep, Jackson and Green resided in the divine order of fictional characters that informed some of my earliest notions of justice, honor, and courage. I held these black superheroes in the same reverence that I suspect my kids will hold the film and TV versions of The Black Panther and Luke Cage.
O.K., maybe not in exactly the same reverence. I’ll be the first to admit that superheroes have always meant a bit too much to me. What can I say? In the absence of sports heroes, I sought fictional ones. Brothers like Clyde Drexler and Dominique Wilkins were inarguably cool, but they accomplished things about which I struggled to care. How could it matter who won the Slam Dunk Contest when the Hulk could jump over an entire building?
For my generation, geekiness was more than simply an overwhelming passion for a particular pastime—it was any interest that fell outside black masculinity’s rigid expectations of expression:
“A skateboard? Negro, as tall as you are? You need to get on down to the court.”
“Atheism? Boy, you better bring your black ass to church.”
“Comic books? Comic books? Hold up. Hold up. I’m fixing to clown this fool!”
Fourteen-year-old black boys in the 1990s suffered if they could name every single X-Man (I’m talking all the way down to Shatterstar), but not the Bulls’ starting lineup. The difference between waxing poetic over Chris Claremont’s run with the X-Men and Phil Jackson’s run with the Chicago Bulls was the shame involved.
But I could still sneak into the conversations of my older brother and his boys about Action Jackson or The Last Dragon. In this cultural moment everyone is talking about representation, and I did love to see people who looked like me depicted as heroes for a change. But I cherished Green and Jackson all the more because conversations about them often led to talk of other superheroes, and during those fragile moments my comic book expertise transformed me from dork to one of the fellas. I guess in that sense I’m glad that Luke Cage and the Black Panther won’t have to mean quite as much for my kids as Jackson and Green meant for me.
Like the Black Panther, “Bruce” Leroy Green represented an infallible, morally upright superhero of the Sir Galahad or Captain America mold, while Detective Sergeant Jericho “Action” Jackson and Luke Cage epitomized the Blaxploitation genre’s heroic rebel; think John Shaft. Between these two poles—the infallible hero and the Blaxploitation rebel—lies virtually every pop culture depiction of black American masculinity (mostly sidekicks and the sort of affable negroes who have been holding their chins high as moral standard bearers for white protagonists since Sidney Poitier jumped off that train in The Defiant Ones).
Like mythologies, superhero stories symbolize societal attitudes regarding good and evil, justice and fair play, and—I would argue—femininity and masculinity. Representation matters, and it is in this spirit that I swallowed my anti-DC bias and ended up thoroughly enjoying Wonder Woman with my kids.
Discussions of masculinity today feel like tiptoeing through streets littered with IEDs. But avoiding these conversations does a disservice to both girls and boys. In We Should All be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls masculinity, a hard, small cage that we trap boys in. When Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of black boys going to war over a scuffed pair of Nikes in We Were Eight Years in Power, what he’s describing is a cage with even less breathing space. The patriarchy viciously oppresses girls and simultaneously stifles black boys to the point of placing their devalued lives on the line for a foolish manhood point. Smashing the patriarchy also means radically redefining masculinity, and an examination of black superheroes necessarily touches on some of the cultural underpinnings that make being a man about more than just identifying as male.
During the 1980s, most pop culture depictions of black masculinity were still seeped in vestiges of the 1970s Blaxploitation film craze. Discounting folktales like that of John Henry, the protagonists in Blaxploitation films were, in many ways, the first black American superheroes.
From street toughs—like Youngblood Priest and Sweetback—to those more loosely associated with the U.S. military or law enforcement—like Detective Sergeant “Action” Jackson and John Shaft—Blaxploitation heroes had three things in common.
First, all were, to varying degrees, hyper-sexualized, a script tactic that—judging from the commercial success of these films—played to both white and black audiences. While the misogyny and homophobia that this hypersexuality fed into remains—rightly—one of the most maligned aspects of the genre, it also lays bare the function of black men in the country’s racial imagination. As James Baldwin put it in the 1961 essay The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy, “To be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol; which means that one pays, in one’s own personality, for the sexual insecurity of others.”
Second, Blaxploitation protagonists often found themselves battling cardboard cutout white antagonists in elaborate conspiracies against the black community. Lampooned as presenting a paranoid vision of American race relations, it’s interesting to note just how close some of these supervillianesque plots cut to real life. In 1974’s Three the Hard Way, Jim Brown, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly—in what essentially amounts to a Blaxploitation super-team—battle a white supremacist intending to poison a black community’s water supply. Recent events in Flint, Michigan render such plots more prophetic than sophomoric. This does not dismiss the outright pandering to black political fantasy in much Blaxploitation, but reminds us that just below the surface of many of these lay valid anxieties rooted in the black communities’ actual experience.
Third—from Sweetback and Youngblood Priest’s vicious battles with other criminals and crooked cops, to former Green Beret Jim “Slaughter” Brown and Detective John Shaft giving the system the finger while manipulating it from within—all Blaxploitation heroes spurned authority. In his 1994 memoir Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, Nathan McCall describes how this rebellious streak morphed a vile character like Superfly’s Youngblood Priest into a hero for a generation of black boys:
He made his money selling cocaine, kicked whitey’s ass, and rode off into the sunset in his shiny Eldorado. Almost instantly, Priest became a cult figure for brothers everywhere. Here was a film that gave us something rare in movies—a black hero—and expressed the frustrations of a lot of young brothers, who were so fed up with the white man that they were willing to risk prison and even death to get away from him.
Many Blaxploitation protagonists were despicable, but they were also young, black, and unafraid. You damn sure wouldn’t catch Youngblood Priest jumping off a freedom bound train to save a white man who’d called him a nigger.
It would be easy to dismiss Luke Cage, previously known as Power Man, as the comic book analogue of the worst of this genre: a hyper-sexualized, two-dimensional, conspiracy-drenched, Blaxploitation comic book superhero. Certainly, Luke Cage’s initial uniform has not withstood the test of time: a canary yellow butterfly collared shirt open to the navel with matching yellow trimmed boots, steel bracelets and a chain belt over skintight pants, topped with what can only be described as a tough guy tiara. Marvel’s initial incarnation of Luke Cage in 1972 as the headliner of the Hero for Hire series looked like a cross between a pimp and a professional wrestler, and his catchphrase, “Sweet Christmas!” could have worked in either profession.
By the mid-80s Marvel had paired Cage with Iron Fist, a white martial arts master, à la David Carradine in Kung Fu (Marvel was ahead of its time, but not by much). I mostly read Power Man and Iron Fist for Iron Fist (and his black girlfriend Misty Knight) and actually never gave Cage’s origin much thought until last year’s Netflix series.
Carl Lucas, a small-time hustler convicted of a crime he did not commit, finds himself caught up in the life and death intrigue of inter-prisoner politics, while refusing to become an informant for a crooked prison guard. Tortured by prison guards and hounded by his fellow inmates, Carl Lucas volunteers to participate in a cell regeneration experiment that will count toward his appeal to the parole board. Sabotaged by one of the prison guards, the experiment imparts Lucas with super strength, skin as resilient as steel, and a vastly accelerated rate of healing. Lucas escapes prison and takes the name Luke Cage, the Power Man, and operates out of Harlem as a hero for hire. From the 1972 comic book to the 2016 TV show, Cage’s origin remained unchanged and—in coupling mass incarceration with government medical experimentation akin to the 1930s Tuskegee Syphilis Study, where hundreds of black men went untreated for research purposes—still epitomized some of the deepest set fears of the black community.
Incarceration is no longer a rare or extreme event among our nation’s most marginalized groups, and it was in the early 1970s that the American Left first began to scrutinize what would eventually become our country’s prison-industrial complex. Both Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and George L. Jackson’s Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters of George Jackson were published in 1970. In 1971 protests against the imprisonment of “the Panther 21” and Angela Davis were at their peak, and that year the largest prison rebellion in American history occurred in Attica, New York.
In the 1970s, Marvel mostly pit Cage against small time thugs in gangland, inner-city style storylines. On the rare occasions when Cage found himself paired with big name Marvel super villains, he continued to display many of the mechanisms necessary for survival in prison, but highly dysfunctional almost everywhere else. Cage’s generalized mistrust and tendency to strike out with little provocation are immediately recognizable to anyone with family members who have served time. Frequently parodied by both black and white comic book fans, only the recent Netflix series has prompted Cage’s serious reconsideration as a working class black superhero. The contrast with the Black Panther is precisely what makes Luke Cage so compelling.
The Black Panther – Moving Beyond Blaxploitation
I first encountered the Black Panther in Marvel’s 1984-1985 Secret Wars mini-series. In our present superhero saturated pop culture—where C-list characters (think Ant-Man) boast films with A-list actors—it’s difficult to remember just how large a relatively small scale event like Secret Wars loomed in the lives of the geeks of the early 1980s.
In addition to magnificently byzantine inter-comic book crossovers and a line of collectible action figures, Secret Wars introduced a number of lasting storylines into the Marvel Universe. Before Junot Diaz referenced him in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the Beyonder first appeared in the Secret Wars campaign, during which Spider Man discovered the symbiotic black costume that eventually became his arch-nemesis Venom and the Fantastic Four achieved the first ever super-team gender parity when the She-Hulk replaced the Thing. Seismic stuff, but none of it mattered more to me than two pages tucked into the middle of the mini-series, where the X-Men’s pint-sized Canadian scrapper, Wolverine, took on the Avengers’ full-time African King and part-time super-hero, the Black Panther. A full appreciation of what these half a dozen panels meant in my pre-teen world requires some context.
The Black Panther first appeared in 1966 in Fantastic Four issues no. 52-53. In a fairly standard two-issue comic book plot, the Black Panther, as his alter ego King T’Challa, lures the Fantastic Four to the kingdom of Wakanda, a sort of futuristic African Shangri-La. There the Black Panther and the Fantastic Four battle the super-villain the Klaw, who is bent on Wakanda’s destruction. During the two-issue storyline the Black Panther proved popular enough to continue popping up in the pages of the Fantastic Four throughout 1967, including alongside the Inhumans—another popular Fantastic Four spinoff—in that year’s Fantastic Four Annual. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee strove to avoid any conflagration with the Black Panther Party, going so far as to briefly change the character’s name to the Black Leopard, a lame moniker that, happily, only lasted a couple issues. Marvel officially added the Wakandan King to the Avengers’ roster in 1968.
The Black Panther was an Avengers’ mainstay until Marvel began the cringe-inducingly-titled: Jungle Action Featuring the Black Panther, which ran from 1972 – 1976. In 1977, Marvel redubbed the comic The Black Panther, and the series ran under this title until 1979.
The 1970s Black Panther stories ranged from high-browish Philip K. Dick-style science fiction to racially-charged critiques of the United States and Post-Colonial Africa. But, as I became a fan during Marvel’s late Bronze Age (yes, that’s really a thing), I experienced this era of the Black Panther solely through the flea markets where I perused second-hand comics with my dad on the weekends.
In 1984, the Black Panther hadn’t headlined a comic book in over five years. The Wakandan King had shriveled into a token second-string Avenger, relegated to the third row of the super-group’s annual class photo. Similar to my feelings while watching Chris Rock’s goodnight wave at the end of Saturday Night live during the 1990s, in 1984 I was more aware of the Black Panther’s absence than his presence. The brief but satisfying Secret Wars’ match-up with Wolverine—probably the most revered character in the X-Men’s lineup—was, for me, the Black Panther’s reintroduction to Marvel’s primetime.
With the glaring exception of Storm (my pride when the Kenyan born storm goddess took command of the X-Men can really only be compared to how I felt while watching Barack Obama’s first inauguration), the Marvel Universe contained no heroes like the Black Panther: a regal, highly-intelligent and ethical ruler of a kingdom that melded science fiction iconography with African imagery. As a black boy weaned on American history books that taught that the continent of my origin had no history, I was struck hard by this radical reimagining of an African kingdom in a way previously reserved for lily-white fantasy landscapes like Camelot, Narnia, and Middle Earth.
In his 2008 memoir, The Beautiful Struggle, Ta-Nehisi Coates recalls replacing one pantheon (the superheroes of his childhood) for another (the Third World revolutionaries and Black Power icons he discovered in late adolescence). But for me the Black Panther amalgamated the two: Sir Galahad and Malcom X; Geronimo Pratt and Captain America; Jomo Kenyatta and Thor.
It has been with no small amount of agitation that I’ve watched the Black Panther release celebrations leak from the blerdosphere (black-nerd-sphere) into my wider social media world. The way I see it, the travails of my youth earned me a special right to grumble over the masses sudden interest in Killmonger’s tortured soul. Unfortunately, some of the blerds on my Facebook feed have used the Black Panther premiere as fodder in (further) haranguing the Luke Cage series. And, guys, I get it.
But I for one hope Marvel doubles down on the contrast between the two. Pairing Cage (the working-class black American hero who gained his powers as a direct result of racism) and the Panther (an African King reared to heroics in a society absent of racism) would be one hell of a story. The kind of stark contrast illustrating that the modes of black masculinity are much more varied than the American myth would have you believe.
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Black Panther, Luke Cage, Marvel, Comics