Jana Cunningham: Hello, thank you for joining me on Humanities Radio. I'm Janet Cunningham with the
University of Utah College of Humanities. Today, in honor of Black History Month,
we're discussing the representation of Black characters in graphic novels with Andrew
Shephard, Assistant Professor of English. Professor Shephard has taught courses on
Black Panther here at the U, and is currently developing a monograph project about
the character. Since the beginning of comic books, from what I understand, I'm not
super familiar with comic books, but from what I understand, Black characters have
faced many various racial stereotypes. Can you just explain how Black people were
typically portrayed in comic books before any shift in positive representation?
Andrew Shephard: The representation of Black people in comics was complicated. There were negative
representations and there were positive ones. You could go back as early as, say,
Ebony White in Will Eisner's The Spirit. Will Eisner, he's like the Orson Welles of
comics. He's the guy who did things with the medium that really pushed it forward
in terms of how you could tell stories specifically with the tools available to you
with sequential narrative. The Eisner Awards, which are like the Oscars of comics,
are named after him. Eisner created a character called The Spirit, which basically
has a noir-ish detective story feel to it. It was a big influence on Frank Miller's
Daredevil run, among other things. There was a character who was a little Black kid
who was a sidekick to the main character, The Spirit. This character's name was Ebony
White. Ebony White became controversial for being ... Essentially, this character
was a well-intentioned effort on Eisner's part, but unfortunately, he spoke in a very
thick 'Negro' dialect. He was drawn as a Sambo-esque racial caricature.
Andrew Shephard: He was portrayed as a heroic character and actually was portrayed as fairly intelligent,
but basically the character rubbed people the wrong way. He was like a figure out
of a minstrel show. It contrasted with, say, the relatively mimetic style, or the
generally mimetic style, that every other character was rendered with in The Spirit.
Basically, that's an example. Eventually, Eisner transitioned the character out because
he got such negative feedback for him. Eisner, more or less, apologized for it. I
mean, he expressed mixed feelings, basically about what his intentions were versus
how it was interpreted. That was an example of one of the ways in which Black characters
were not always represented well. In the 1950s, around 1956, there was an incident
between the newly established Comics Code Authority, which was basically a regulatory
body that was instituted in 1954 following some concerns about basically the content
of comics and whether or not it might be corrupting the youth of America. There was
a book called the Seduction of the Innocent that was published by a guy named Fredric
Werthham. Basically, there was a whole McCarthy-esque Senate subcommittee looking
Andrew Shephard: The CCA essentially had very strict regulations about what you could and couldn't
say in comics, and for many decades afterwards. Basically, there was a story that
was being published in the EC Comics line that was owned by William Gaines. This is
the line that gave us Tales from the Crypt, and Vault of Horror and Haunt of Fear.
They also did crime comics, they did science fiction comics. This is back in a period
where the American comics industry was actually much more diverse in terms of its
genre representation. Part of the reason why it became predominantly superhero oriented
was actually because of the CCA. Basically, there was a story that they wanted to
publish called Judgment Day. It was actually a reprint from 1953, so it was a pre-code
comic story. Basically, I believe it was Al Feldstein wrote it and Joe Orlando illustrated.
This story involved an astronaut in the future traveling to an alien world, which
is inhabited by two races of robots. They're orange robots and blue robots. They're
more or less identical, aside from the differences in their coloring.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, despite being identical, the orange robots are subjugating the blue ones.
This astronaut looks at this and he's been tasked with determining the admission of
this planet to a galactic republic. By the end, he refuses them admission on the grounds
that basically bigotry is a disqualifier. Then he removes his helmet and it reveals
that he's a Black man. Basically, Judge Charles Murphy, who was a New York City magistrate
who sat on the Comics Code Authority board, he specialized in juvenile delinquency.
He was brought in basically as one of the people who got to determine the content
that publishers were allowed to put out there. He objected to the astronaut being
Black. He basically said, "Change that panel, or we won't approve the story," which
basically in 1956 might have actually really caused publishers a lot of trouble. William
Gaines, the publisher, and Al Feldstein, the writer, both got on the line with him
and basically talked to him about this.
Andrew Shephard: They explained, "It has to be a Black guy. The story is about racial prejudice." Basically,
Murphy was going to hold on this position until Gaines basically told him, "I will
let the press know what your objection to this story being published is if you don't
allow us to publish it." Murphy backed down. He then said something to the effect
of, "Well, maybe you should remove the sweat glistening on him, basically." They told
him that was stupid. Basically, the story was published, but that was actually the
last comic that was published by EC Comics, which was having trouble with the type
of content it was producing, which was pretty lured in a lot of instances. Tales from
the Crypt, if you've seen the TV show, it's pretty representative of the type of stuff
that was going on in their horror comics, but basically Gaines soon transitioned into
doing Mad Magazine, which was enormously profitable for him. He basically, because
it was a magazine, was not subject to the CCAs regulations.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, so you've got some negative stuff, but you also have ... Some of the earliest
representation in the medium was there was a single issue that was published in 1947
called All-Negro Comics. It was founded by an African American journalist named Orrin
Evans. It was like an anthology comic. It featured amongst its many stories, it had
a lot of shorts. There was a character named Ace Harlem, who was a Black private eye
in a pulpy [Chant Larian 00:09:03] tradition. Basically, he fought off zoot-suited
thugs and it was like an adventure story. You also had a character named Lion Man,
who is arguably the first African superhero, proceeds Black Panther by basically two
decades. That book featured Black creators and Black characters and was designed to
be a for us, by us type of thing. It was analogous to the pulp fiction that was being
published in, say, The Pittsburgh Courier by the likes of George Schuyler. George
Schuyler, under several pseudonyms, published a lot of pulp fiction in The Pittsburgh
Courier. Basically, similar to that, unfortunately there was no second issue of All-Negro
My colleague, John Jennings, who himself is a phenomenal artist, he teaches at the
University of California Riverside in their science and TechniCulture program within
the English department, he also does comics himself. He's got a really cool series
called Black Kirby, which takes silver age Marvel comics imagery, and does them with
an Afrocentric spin. I would highly recommend checking out his stuff. It's really
cool. Basically, he is also a historian of particularly Black comics. He has argued
that all New York comics were blocked from being published as a series by racist distributors,
and why don't publishers essentially interfering with their ability to get the materials
to do that? Basically, these characters lay fallow. That potential got stymied. In
the early days of comics, there was a dearth of representation for a variety of reasons.
Jana Cunningham: When did readers start to see this shift, this change in the way Black characters
were portrayed in comic books?
Andrew Shephard: I would say one of the big sea changes was in 1966, Fantastic Four, Volume One Issue
52, a character that we all know quite well, Black Panther, premieres. This is the
first Black superhero by a major publisher in the comic book industry, one of the
big two. Basically, Black Panther debuts and he gets an interesting introduction.
Basically, the first time we meet him there's the what is the convention of the genre,
the hero versus hero fight. The Fantastic Four are coming off of a pretty major victory
in their own title. Basically, the Galactus trilogy has just happened. Basically,
they have just fought off a giant purple alien that eats planets that is older than
the current existing universe. They are Marvel's premier superhero team. They, along
with Spiderman, are the flagship characters for the line. Then basically, Black Panther
single handedly in their own book takes them to school. I mean, he roundly defeats
Andrew Shephard: Basically, he does this as a test of their abilities to see if they would be useful
allies for him for dealing with what would become a recurring adversary for him, Ulysses
Klaw. It's this interesting introduction to this character. He's introduced as this
genius polymath scientist, as a gadgeteer. In addition to being the king of his own
sovereign nation, you get this introduction to Wakanda as being this hidden enclave
within Africa that is technologically advanced. Now, granted in the original version
of it, Wakanda reverse engineers its technology from stuff that Westerners have left
behind. They store vibranium to do this. That would be re-con, that is to say retroactive
continuity. Basically, it's what happens when you go back and rewrite a story to fit
with your current storytelling agenda. Basically, that gets changed in the late '90s
when Christopher Priest, who is the first Black writer to write The Black Panther
title as an ongoing, basically reworks the character's origin story.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, it was a major shift for representation in comics. This was 1966. Soon
after, in 1969, Gene Colen, who was the artist on Captain America at the time, expresses
an interest in drawing Black characters to Stan Lee. Stan Lee creates a partner for
Captain America, The Falcon, Sam Wilson, who is, if you're watching the live action
Marvel cinematic universe stuff, is now Captain America. Basically, that character
gets introduced in part because Gene Colen's just like, "It would be cool to draw
a Black superhero." Then the Comics Code Authority starts to weaken around 1970, following
Stan Lee basically essentially protesting some of its more draconian edicts. Long
story short, Stan wanted to do an anti-drug story in Amazing Spiderman. The code opposed
this on the ground that you can't mention drugs. He said, "That's really dumb," and
just basically published it anyway and the sky didn't fall. Basically, that was ...
They realized, we're not being strictly regulated by ... Say, no legal body is going
to come in and punish us if we don't follow the codes edicts.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, that led to a loosening of the types of content that you could show. You
got characters like Luke Cage, hero for hire, who had his own Netflix series basically,
which was a response to the blaxploitation movie trend. Movies like Shaft, for example.
He was specifically portrayed as almost a private investigator type. I mean, basically
he was a hero whose services you can hire. There's a memorable story in which Dr.
Doom hires him for a job and then tries to stiff him on payment. He shows up in Latveria,
in Doom's home country, and basically famously says, "Where's my money, honey," and
fights his way through the Doom stronghold to get paid. There was that. There was
a character named Misty Knight, who was a former NYPD detective, who basically she
lost her arm in an explosion and received a bionic prosthesis from Tony Stark that
basically she uses to fight crime.
Andrew Shephard: She ends up teaming up with Luke and his partner, Danny Rand, The Iron Fist. Basically,
you get Black Goliath, who could enlarge himself. Basically, he was the partner to
Hank Pym, the original Ant-Man, and Giant Man, who uses Pym Particles. He was his
lab partner. You had those characters taking off at Marvel. You also had a pretty
landmark Black Panther run from a guy named, gosh, Don McGregor, who basically said,
"What if we really use this character to comment on political stuff?" Basically, so
he's the guy that introduces Erik Killmonger as a villain, really fleshes out the
character's rose gallery, develops Wakanda as a setting, and famously does a story
where The Black Panther fought the Klan, fought the Ku Klux Klan.
Jana Cunningham: Oh, wow.
Andrew Shephard: He travels back to Georgia with his then girlfriend basically, and they run a foul
of the Klan. There is a four issue arc where they do battle with him. I mean, and
this is 1974. That arc was actually drawn by Billy Graham, who was the first artist
to draw a Black Panther comic. Over at the Distinguished Competition, DC Comics, you
have a character named Black Lightning who emerges. He has, as you would imagine,
electrically oriented powers. Basically, he starts off, he's created by a writer named
Tony Isabella. He starts off in Suicide Slum, which is basically the ghetto of Superman's
metropolis, looking out for the community there. Basically, shortly after that you
get John Stewart, who is the ... Well, he's often described as the Black Green Lantern,
but basically he was introduced during Dennis O'Neil and Neal Adams run on Green Lantern
and Green Arrow. Basically, he initially has a more militant stance. The idea of having
a Black guy with strong opinions on Civil Rights being introduced into this core of
space cops is an interesting premise.
Andrew Shephard: He and Hal butt heads for a while before they develop this mutual respect and eventual
friendship. You start to see this shift that really starts to happen in the late '60s,
early '70s, well into the silver age and the early bronze age, that's due to shifting
attitudes on racial politics. The Civil Rights Movement has gone on. I think the fact
that the comic book industry, especially the superhero genre, was largely founded
and written by Jewish Americans who themselves had a lot of experience dealing with
racial prejudice. Basically, I think that's an enormous factor in why comics start
to shift in terms of being more positive. I think that's a big deal. I think in the
late '70s you see Jim Owsley, also known as Christopher Priest, get hired initially
as an editor at Marvel Comics during Jim Shooter's run as editor in chief. Jim Owsley,
under his other name, Christopher Priest, becomes the first Black writer at Marvel.
Andrew Shephard: He writes a pretty famous run on Power Man and Iron Fist, which is Luke Cage and Iron
Fist teamed up, that really leads into them being the interracial friendship. It was
very fondly remembered as definitive take on both of those characters. This was the
early '80s when he's doing this. He writes a mini series on The Falcon that was published,
I believe, in 1983. Basically, he becomes one of the first big names in comics to
be a person of color. In the '90s, he revamps Black Panther as a character. He gets
asked to do so by the editor of the company line, a guy named Joe Quesada, who's now
the editor in chief of Marvel. Basically, Priest was skeptical because at this point
Black Panther's reputation was not ... He wasn't an A-list character at this point.
His initial response was, "The guy with the kitty ears? You want me to make him cool?"
Then he proceeds to do so.
Andrew Shephard: I mean, when you look at the movie version, a significant amount of the material that
you see in that is drawing upon, I would say, Christopher Priest's run and Don McGregor's
run. Basically, he really goes back to the idea of this character as this insanely
prepared genius polymath Wiz kid engineer, who is a master strategist and has contingency
plan upon contingency plan. I used to joke with people before the movie came out.
If I wanted to explain Black Panther to people, I would tell them it's like Eddie
Murphy's character from Coming to America meets Batman. Christopher Priest really
cements that version of him. You start to see that type of shift. Also, another figure
starts to emerge in the late '80s, early '90s, initially working as an editor and
then graduating to writing chores on books like Death Lock, is Dwayne McDuffie. Dwayne
McDuffie is a pretty big deal in terms of Black representation in comics. He's also
incidentally the half brother, or was the half brother, of Keegan-Michael Key from
Key and Peel, just a random factoid.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, so Dwayne McDuffie, in the late '80s he's looking at the types of representation
that's being offered to Black people and how stereotypical a lot of it is. One of
the things that you might notice is that with a lot of these early characters, there's
always Black such-and-such as part of the name. Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black
... It's like, did you notice that this character is Black? Basically, it's well intentioned,
but it stands out as peculiar after a while and falling into some similar tropes.
Basically, McDuffie puts out a mock pitch about Teenage Negro Ninja Thrashers essentially,
basically pointing out the proliferation of Black characters who are teenagers on
skateboards that live in urban environments. At a certain point, I was like, there
is this rut that people are getting in terms of representation. He does this in this
Andrew Shephard: Then basically, he takes that dissatisfaction with the ways in which non-Black characters
are represented in comics. He creates his own imprint at DC comics. He creates the
Milestone line in 1993, which was a landmark. He invites a bunch of Black creators
and people of color, for that matter, there were quite a few sympathetic white creators
who came over too, to help him develop this new shared universe. Among them you had
Denys Cowan, who was a prominent Black artist at the time. He'd done stuff with Black
Panther. He had done a memorable run on The Question with Dennis O'Neill, which is
phenomenal for anyone who loves Roshak from Watchman. The Question is the character
that he was based upon. They do arguably the definitive take on The Question. I would
recommend that. Not related to Milestone, but basically a ton of cool characters emerge
out of this. I can go into some of those characters if you'd like to hear about them.
Jana Cunningham: Well, talk a little bit about Milestone Media. I mean, you've talked about how they
came in and how they started, but how else did they create some representation change?
Maybe that's through the characters that you're about to talk about, and maybe just
talk about a couple of them to give an example to the listeners.
Andrew Shephard: Sure. One of the things that they did was there was an interest in creating characters
that represented a broad spectrum of Black and minority experiences. You'd have like
a character like Hardware, he was a genius engineer named Curtis Metcalf. This was
a guy who's their answer to Ironman, but instead of being the owner of his own corporation,
he worked for a guy named Edwin Alva. The name Alva seems like a nod to Thomas Alva
Edison. Basically, in trying to get more of a stake in ownership in the inventions
that he was creating for this corporation, he discovers that his boss is actually
secretly a crime lord and supplying technology to the mob. He built himself a mechanical
suit of armor to essentially thwart this guy, and basically is fighting crime on the
streets of this fictional city, Dakota. Gets into questions of corporate America and
how capitalism becomes complicit in certain forms of racism and systemic disadvantage-ment.
Basically, you had characters like Blood Syndicate, which was the sort of premier
super team at Milestone.
Andrew Shephard: Blood Syndicate was a really interesting concept because in the past you'd had ...
Team dynamics are interesting in comics. You had The Fantastic Four, who are family.
I mean, basically you had the X-Men, which was an ongoing metaphor for various suppressed
groups, basically for ongoing Civil Rights struggles. You had Doom Patrol, which was
like a disability metaphor. All of those characters are people who have strange relationships
to their own body, and they're as much a support group as they are superhero team.
With Blood Syndicate you had two gangs, basically two street gangs, the Paris Island
Bloods and the Force Syndicate, who essentially they get exposed to an experimental
mutagen while in the middle of this massive gang battle on a bridge that kills a lot
of them, but the ones who survive end up with superpowers. They were exposed to this,
basically it's a form of tear gas that was distributed by the police. Basically, the
police bombard them with this stuff, and basically they wind up with powers.
Andrew Shephard: They decide to combine forces and they say, "Well, look, the police aren't doing a
very good job of protecting our communities. What if we stopped fighting each other,
banded together and policed our own?" They police Paris Island, they go, they bust
crack houses. They deal with threats to this intercity community. Basically, they
were a multinational, or a multiethnic, group. You had Black members. One of the main
members who takes over as leader is a guy named Wise Son, who's a Black Muslim. You
had a guy named Tech 9, who is Puerto Rican. You had characters from a variety of
ethnicities being represented here. It was doing its own political slant on things.
A character that I think listeners would probably know best of any of these was a
character named Static, who got his own cartoon in the early aughts called Static
Shock. You can still find it on HBO Max, I think. Basically, he was their Spiderman
archetype, the team hero. He had electro powers too.
Andrew Shephard: Basically, he dealt with a lot of the usual, like girl troubles and bullies and balancing
school and superhero life the way Spiderman did, but also basically it dealt explicitly
with racial issues. Basically, his best friend and eventual love interest was a girl
named Frida, who is Jewish. Around issue seven or so, Static, Virgil, he's starting
to get interested in Black nationalism. He globs onto some, frankly, anti-Semitic
stereotypes. This is our hero. He repeats some of this, basically not really thinking
about how offensive it is, and she calls him out on it. Then basically an interesting
thing happens in the comic. They go home after having this argument, and their parents
talk to them about historical misconceptions between Black people and Jewish people,
and the interaction between the two. Then they actually talk about it and come to
an understanding. He's pretty apologetic about it. It's interesting because you actually
see these conversations being played out, that basically there's this effort to educate
people as much as there is to entertain.
Andrew Shephard: There's another character named Icon, who's interesting. He was basically like if
Superman was a Black Republican. Basically, there's this alien, he crash lands on
Earth in 1838. For people who are comic book nerds, you might note that's a hundred
years before 1938, when Action Comics number one debuts, which is the first appearance
of Superman. Basically, in his normal form, Icon looks basically like a giant muscle
bound version of Kermit the Frog. He does not look Black, but basically he lands in
this birthing matrix that changes him to look like the indigenous population of whatever
world he lands on. Because an enslaved black woman finds him in 1838, it changes the
baby in the matrix to a little Black baby. She raises him basically, and he's raised
in slavery. He ends up fighting in the American Civil War. He goes by the name Augustus
Freeman. Then because his species is very long lived, he has to reinvent himself several
times as his own descendant. He becomes Augustus Freeman Jr, and then Augustus Freeman
the third. Then by the 1990s, when the book starts, he's Augustus Freeman the fourth,
and he's working as a lawyer.
Andrew Shephard: At this point, he lived through multiple iterations of the Civil Rights Movement.
In particular, he's responded to Booker T Washington, more like pull yourself up by
your own bootstraps, Atlanta compromised model of Civil Rights advancement. Basically,
he lives in his mansion. He's very wealthy. He makes a good living as a lawyer. A
bunch of Black teenagers break into his mansion to steal some stuff. One of them is
a teenage girl who will eventually become his sidekick, Rocket. Basically, in the
process of warding them off, she notices that he basically flies at them to ... He
displays his powers in this way. She comes back and she asks him about his history
and finds out that he's an alien. Then she says, "Well, you can do all this stuff,
and you talk about basically how Black youth today basically aren't living up to their
potential. Why don't you put your money where your mouth is and why don't you be a
role model, put yourself out there? If you can do all these things and you can help
our community and you don't, then basically, how are you complicit in all of this?"
Andrew Shephard: He takes that admonishment to heart. He reinvents himself as Icon and goes out there
and has his views challenged basically, and tries to contribute to making the better
world that he feels should exist. A number of these characters, that line ... Dwayne
McDuffie was instrumental in developing that shared universe, much in the way that
Stan Lee, along with his collaborators, helped shape the Marvel Universe in the 1960s.
McDuffie has unfortunately passed since. I think that was one of the significant obstacles
to getting it restarted for a long time, but the good thing is that Milestone Comics,
as an imprint, has recently relaunched a number of Black creators, including Reginald
Hudlin. Some of the original participants in Milestone have come back to bring back
those characters. I mean, basically DC Comics is producing a lot of that stuff. Hopefully,
it continues and basically the line flourishes and people go out and buy it.
Jana Cunningham: Oh, that's very cool. There is a lot to this topic that I feel like we could just
go on and on about. You seem to know all of it and I find it very interesting. Especially,
I don't think maybe a lot of people realize the vast history of comic books, and especially
how Black people were represented throughout the beginning of comic books. I really
appreciate this conversation. Tell our listeners what classes you are teaching, so
if they want to learn more, they want to explore these topics a little bit. What are
Andrew Shephard: Right now I'm on sabbatical, but I have taught a course on Black Panther, the long
history of the character, starting with that initial Fantastic Four appearance through
multiple iterations over the past 50 plus years up to, and including, the current
film incarnation. That's English 2265. I've done that. I've taught a course on African
American literature too, which is a course on what I'm calling the Afro speculative
tradition, which is to say Black people's engagement with science fiction, fantasy
and horror. There is some comic stuff in that, but also film in prose fiction, basically.
That starts with W.E.B. Du Bois' science fiction offerings from 1920 in the form of
The Comet, to stuff like Get Out by Jordan Peele, and Sorry to Bother You by Boots
Riley. Basically, in that case, a century's worth of Black speculative fiction. Basically,
I tend to focus on essentially the representation of Blackness in popular culture,
as well as how people of color engage with these genres and use them to speak to their
own concerns. In the past, I've taught on H.P. Lovecraft, who is not Black and actually
infamously held some kind of anti-Black views.
Andrew Shephard: Not kind of, he just straight up did. Basically, talking about his legacy as a horror
writer. He's enormously influential. If you read Stephen King or Clive Barker, or
you've seen Ghostbusters, for example, you've seen something influenced by Lovecraft.
Basically, talking about not only his legacy as an author, but the people who followed
him and people who took some of his concepts, including people from historically marginalized
groups like racial minorities, like people on the LGBTQ spectrum, and used his ideas
to speak back against those prejudices. Basically, I've taught a course on steam punk
that I might want to offer again, this time to undergrads, that deals with that genre's
relationship to the age of empire and the potentially romantic notions of it that
it might be celebrating, and how that starts to shift when the people who were historically
oppressed during that era, racial minorities and women, basically start writing steampunk
stories and start repurposing that subgenre to their own ends.
Jana Cunningham: That was Andrew Shephard, Assistant Professor of English. For more information about
the University of Utah College of Humanities, please visit humanities.utah.edu, and
don't forget to subscribe to Humanities Radio.