I want to start by thanking those of you who checked out the first part of our countdown. Some people even pulled me aside in the local comic and card shops and lobbied for their favorites. I suspect I’ll be hearing from some of them again. And no, for the numerous folks that suggested it, Barack Obama is not a superhero – yet. So without further ado here come Nos. 5-1 on SFUniverse’s countdown of the Top 10 Black Superheroes.
5. Blade- Created in 1973 by Marv Wolfman and Gene Nolan, Blade began as a supporting character in the Tomb of Dracula series. While the infant was being born, Blade’s mother got bitten by vampire Deacon Frost. Frost’s attack passed certain vampire characteristics on to the infant. After growing up and getting combat training, Blade became a tireless vampire hunter that would eventually kill Frost. Blade’s road to fame and fortune was a long and slow one, his true rise in popularity beginning in the 90s. A partnership with Ghost Rider called the Midnight Sons played on the common supernatural themes of the two characters and is fondly remembered. But Blade’s limited fan base hasn’t even allowed him to sustain his own solo title.
So more than a few eyebrows raised when Marvel turned Blade into a feature film. Against all odds, Blade was such a big hit it spawned two movie sequels and a short-lived TV show. Wesley Snipes portrayed Blade in the films while rapper turned actor Kirk “Sticky” Jones played the vampire hunter in the TV series. In an era when movies about heroes like Superman languish in development hell for years, Blade was the little vampire that could. His unexpected box office success paved the way for future franchises like the X-Men and Spider-Man movies.
4. Black Lightning- DC’s first solo Black hero was a unique case study in how comic offices worked in the 70s. Eager to cash in on the “black hero” trend, DC threw some interesting ideas against the wall. According to one comic historian, DC’s first attempt would have had a White racist masquerading as a Black hero. Thankfully the “Black Bomber” never saw print. Tony Isabella, a former writer on Marvel’s groundbreaking Luke Cage book, suggested the new hero Black Lightning. The character debuted as the lead of his own title in 1977, a landmark development for DC.
Jefferson Pierce was a talented athlete who fought crime in Metropolis’ Suicide Slum using gadgets that gave him electrical powers. Pierce later found he didn’t need the gimmicks and that they had only served to activate his underlying electric powers. Isabella drew some heat for the character’s behavior in the book. Pierce was an intelligent, capable black man but in his guise as Black Lightning acted like a stereotypical blaxploitation character. He spoke in “jive” talk and even wore a fake Afro to conceal his secret identity.
In recent years, however, Pierce has been allowed to show his true personality and be a positive role model. Pierce served as Secretary of Education under fictional President Lex Luthor. Although forced to resign because of his not-so-secret superhero activities and later framed for murder (he has since been exonerated) Pierce got the better of his enemies. He now serves as something of a double-agent, able to get secret info from supervillains who think he still works for Luthor.
Black Lightning was originally supposed to be one of the “Superfriends” in those famous cartoons. Network brass opted to use the thinly veiled ripoff “Black Vulcan,” rather than pay royalties on a relatively obscure hero. Sometimes even heroes that make history don’t get any respect.
3. Luke Cage, Hero for Hire- Starting his own solo book in 1970, Luke Cage was one of the first black heroes to have his own title and the first for one of the Big Two publishers. This creation of writer Archie Goodwin and artist John Romita, Sr. was born Carl Lucas, a man imprisoned for a crime that, of course, he didn’t commit. While in prison he underwent experiments that gave him steel-like skin and superhuman strength. After escaping he christened himself Luke Cage, also often going by the moniker Power Man.
Cage planned to hire himself out but often ended up taking no pay for his misadventures. His thuggish, ghetto-inspired expletives like “Sweet Christmas!” drew understandable ire from critics. Like many characters conceived in the 70s, he started as a stereotype but as comics evolved, so did Cage.
Despite his rough upbringing, he has served as a valued member of teams like the Fantastic Four and currently is one of the Avengers, Marvel’s flagship superteam. Cage still fights against the establishment every bit as hard as he did in the 70s. During the recent Civil War storyline, Cage refused to register his name and powers with the federal government and ran afoul of espionage organization SHIELD.
Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Young actor Nicolas Coppola, not wanting to succeed because of his uncle (famous director Francis Ford Coppola) took his favorite character Power Man’s adopted last name and became Nicolas Cage.
2. Black Panther- It figures that one of the most unique heroes in comics would come from the legendary tandem of writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby. Appearing as a guest star in a 1966 issue of Fantastic Four, the Black Panther became the first modern Black superhero. Unlike many Black heroes that would follow him, the Panther was neither an African-American nor a stereotype. On the contrary, this character’s secret identity was that of Prince T’Challa from the fictional African nation of Wakanda.
In his initial meeting with Marvel’s First Family, he battled each individual team member to a standstill before they collectively cornered him. This encounter served to test T’Challa’s worth to be the Black Panther and to see if the FF could help him against arch enemy Sebastian Klaw. Klaw killed T’Challa’s father, the previous Black Panther. The title of Panther is ceremonial, transferring from each chief of T’Challa’s tribe to the next through a ritual including fierce combat. While Wakanda conceals most of its secrets from the outside world, it is one of the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nations in the Marvel Universe. An issue of the Panther’s latest monthly series revealed Wakandans have cured diseases like cancer.
Black Panther is notable not just as the first modern Black hero, but as the star of a book that introduced many conventions still used in comics. His book was one of the first to use the multi-issue story arc that is now an industry standard. T’Challa, now King of Wakanda, has gotten a lot of publicity for his marriage to the no. 1 hero on this list. A Black Panther feature film is rumored to be on Marvel’s slate of upcoming properties but no significant progress on the movie has been reported.
Trivia: Marvel’s Black Panther actually predates the American militant political party. The character briefly called himself the Black Leopard to avoid any confusion.
1. Storm- This powerful mutant crimefighter has had a ride that’s exceptional even among characters in the wild world of comics. This creation of writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum made her debut in 1975′s landmark Giant-Size X-Men, becoming the first African superheroine. Giant Size revitalized Marvel by introducing a new, multicultural X-Men squad. It gave us characters like the Russian strongman Colossus, rabidly popular Wolverine and Ororo Munroe, a mutant with the power to control the weather.
Orphaned at an early age, Storm took to stealing for survival. Later she wandered into the Serengeti and after her powers developed, natives worshipped Storm as a rain goddess. That’s when Professor Charles Xavier found her and persuaded her to join his X-Men. She went on to become a fan favorite and writers seized on that, making her one of the team’s strongest characters. She challenged Cyclops for leadership of the X-Men and won without her mutant powers. Also while powerless, she saved her teammates’ lives by defeating the leader of a group of mutants called the Morlocks. That victory made her leader of the Morlocks as well.
Storm has gone on to lead multiple teams over the years and appeared in merchandise like video games, action figures and in the X-Men movies. Storm is one of a select group of comic superheroes played by an Academy Award-winner (Halle Berry). The former “rain goddess” has become one of the most recognizable icons in comic culture, black or white. Storm is so popular that when Marvel and DC agreed to let readers vote on who would win select comic fights, fans decreed that Storm should beat Wonder Woman. Being a Marvel character with a victory over one of DC’s “Holy Trinity” is a pretty good trick.
Marvel Editor-In-Chief Joe Quesada called Storm’s marriage to the Black Panther the comic world’s equivalent of the Prince Charles and Lady Diana union. Mainstream writer Eric Jerome Dickey came in to pen the couple’s love story and a wedding that anyone who was anyone in the Marvel Universe attended. After their marriage, T’Challa and Ororo made a diplomatic tour and served as interim members of the Fantastic Four while Reed and Susan Richards took time off. From thief to goddess to queen, Storm’s legion of fans have followed her every move and made her one of the most beloved heroes of any culture.