This year America is excited about the reemergence of the Black super hero. This week, the CW rolled out a new show featuring DC comic strip character Black Lightening and next month Marvel’s comic strip character Black Panther will make it to the really big screen – a movie theater near you. All of this comes on the heels of Luke Cage, a 2016 Netflix series about another Black Marvel super hero.
It’s hard to read much into the trend other than green, the color of the piles of money these series are generating. The reintroduction of these Black heroes to some, and the introduction to others, follows the trend of numerous Hollywood remakes. However, stepping back to the 1960s and 70s, when these characters were originally introduced may tell us more about the origins of these characters.
According to research compiled by Harvard University’s Houghton Library, the first Black comic book super hero, the Black Panther, was introduced in 1966. It was the heyday of the real Black Panther movement and it was a period when African-Americans were developing a new sense of cultural pride. Afros were the rage and the fact that we were descendants of African royalty was a sense of great pride.
DC Comics jumped on this theme with the Black Panther. He was an agile and athletic African King named T’Challa. “According to Houghton records, the Black Panther, “had a fairly reasonable and inclusive racial outlook, was keenly intelligent, highly educated and defiantly regal.”
The Black Panther was a lot of what Black people were trying to convince themselves they were and a lot of what White People hoped Black people would be or buy into.
By 1972, with the introduction of Luke Cage, Marvel had given up on the perfect Black man role model for a Black super hero, and instead jumped on the growingly popular Blaxplotation film movement with its damaged super heroes who lived in Urban ghettos and battled drug dealers and other inner-city bad guys. With Luke Cage, Marvel comics jumped firmly on the money making, Blaxplotation wagon.
While previous Black super heroes, the Black Panther, Black Goliath, and the Falcon, were featured as part of other comic series, Cage was the first Black super hero to have his own series.
According to Houghton research, the first issue tells the story of Carl Lucas, born and raised in New York City, now wrongfully incarcerated in a maximum security prison in the South. Lucas volunteers to be a test subject for a medical experiment that leaves him with super-strength and skin impervious to bullets.
Lucas breaks out of prison and returns to New York where a diner he enters is robbed by a gunman. While trying to flee the diner, the gunman shoots Lucas. Of course, the bullet bounces off Lucas who then proceeds to knock-out the gunmen with a single blow.
The grateful diner owner gives Lucas a cash reward and thus is born the idea of offering his services as a hero. Lucas adopts an alias and becomes Luke Cage a “hero for hire.”
The Netflix series develops the same background story, but Luke isn’t for hire and he’s from the South. However, he does spend time fighting the drug dealers and bad street characters of Harlem.
Black Lightening, introduced in 1977, follows a similar Blaxplotation model. He was the first DC Black super hero to have his own comic series.
Even though Black Lightening resides in DC comic’s fictional town of Metropolis, he lives on the “Southside” in an area called “Suicide Slum.” Black Lightening is the alter ego of Jefferson Pierce, who returns to Metropolis after success elsewhere to become principal at Garfield High. Like other Blaxplotation super heroes, he fights inner-city crime.
According to Houghton Library, “the cover of the first issue has Black Lightning amidst a crowd of men he has beaten, with the Metropolis skyline in the background, he is shown mid-punch telling a drug dealer, “You pushers have wrecked the city long enough—now it’s my turn to wreck you!”
The initial episode of the new CW series “Black Lightening,” seems to follow closely the original story line.
For fans of these characters, the good news is the new focus on Black super heroes appears to stay true to their roots, which proved successfully green to their creators. With a successful formula in place, it appears these new live action releases are set to generate even more green for their creators.