2018 has just begun but already it has been a historic year in film for the ever-growing superhero genre and its recent efforts towards diversity.
On Jan. 16, the CW premiered “Black Lightning.” Already home to four superhero television shows, the CW showcased the DC Comics hero Black Lightning, who uses his electric powers to fight crime in his neighborhood.
On Feb. 16, Marvel’s newest movie, Black Panther, hits theatres. To the everyday “colorblind” viewer, it may come off as problematic that both of these black superheroes have “black” in their names. It may savor of a past era of aggressive tokenism where the likes of Apache Chief (a stereotypical Native American hero from the show “Superfriends”) passed for representation.
Indeed, these characters have suffered that treatment at times, but upon closer inspection of these characters’ history it becomes apparent that the “black” in their names is more than a vestigial part of their identity. The characters were and are explorations of the African diaspora cultural identity.
Black Panther made his debut in Fantastic Four #52 in 1972 as Marvel’s first black superhero and very much reflected the 1960’s civil rights movement attitude. Politics are no stranger to comics, and the Black Panther is an especially strong example.
Aside from having a theme in common with the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist party that challenged police brutality in the 1960s, he also represents the ideas of Pan-Africanism and anti-colonialism by being not only a highly intellectual scholar and fair leader, but also definitively African. He is the king of Wakanda, a nation which, unlike the common perceptions of Africa as innately backwards, is advanced and futuristic. Wakanada is this way explicitly because they avoided European colonialism. If that symbolism wasn’t overt enough, in one of his first headline comic runs, Black Panther fights the Ku Klux Klan.
Black Lightning is similarly tied to his times and his culture. He was introduced in 1977 as DC’s first headlining black superhero. Black Lightning, like Superman, lives in Metropolis, but unlike the idyllic cityscape the Man of Steel routinely flies through, Black Lightning lived in a lower to middle class minority neighborhood on the southside riddled with drugs and violent crime.
As Metropolis can reflect the view of New York City in the 1940s, Black Lightning’s Southside reflects the grim reality of the Bronx in the 1970s, a time when violent crime and gang activities trapped it’s mainly Black and Latino citizens making for an almost unrecognizable version of American life.
From this context comes Black Lightning, not only a superhero by night, but a school teacher and community leader by day. Both of these characters serve a purpose beyond simple superhero entertainment.
While, yes, sometimes black characters can be just that, characters who happen to be black like the Falcon or Storm of the X-Men, sometimes a character’s blackness should be a primary part of their character. You can’t forget for a second that Black Panther or Black Lightning are black, and that’s not a bad thing.
Camryn Harris is majoring in art.