Allow me to be one of “those” comic book fans for a second: The Milestone Era was a great time to be a fan of black superheroes, because the superheroes that we saw from Milestone Media were unapologetically, unflinchingly, unmistakably rooted in their identities, cultures, and political ideas. That’s a hard statement to make about mainstream black superheroes from many other eras, including this contemporary one. Black comic book readers are well aware of the ways that their existences are politicized, and long to see their heroes–on the page and in real life–discuss the injustices that they have faced and continue to face. There is an episode of the Static Shock TV show where Static goes to Africa to help out Anansi, a fellow superhero. The two save the day, and at the end of the show, Static tells Anansi about how cool it is to have a black superhero to look up to. Remember this, because we will revisit it later.
I’ve recently become a fan of Marvel’s Nighthawk, a black character whose story is written by a black man (David F. Walker). In a time of political turmoil and trauma for black comic book readers, Nighthawk’s unflinching dedication to meeting those who would perpetrate and serve as the face of systemic oppression with all of the power and precision at his command is cathartic, because so often, we are made to feel powerless by these same systems. Nighthawk uses his wealth and business savvy to fight gentrification, housing segregation, and cultural assimilation. He uses his connections to find and employ the best people who are most often overlooked because of who they are–in this case, Doctor Tilda Johnson (aka Nightshade–who’s thankfully wearing a lab coat, a new haircut, and Jordans in place of that awful leather bikini). He uses his fighting prowess and ultraviolence to take out white supremacists and crooked cops, in a series of shots that is as politically aware as it is satisfying–who among us doesn’t wish that we had the strength to remove our oppressor’s boot from our neck? Even the book’s antagonist seems to be prodded to destroy those who profit from the subjugation of black people.
Discussion of race and racism among comic book creators is positioned as taboo, as some sort of transmode virus that manifests more the more we address it, and sucks all of the energy from different spaces. However, one doesn’t have to look hard to see that time and time again, where representation is concerned, colorblind viewpoints–which invariably turn into colorblind policies and narratives–do not remedy systemic injustices. This adherence to the idea of race discussions as poison is how we can have scenes in comics where a young black superhero spends a page lamenting the fact that he has to be seen as a black superhero. The constant adherence to this colorblind storytelling is irritating at least, and offensive at best, especially given the repeated racial violence that black people face in the same United States that most of these heroes operate in.
Stories like Nighthawk’s are refreshing because black superheroes are too often divorced from these kinds of political ideas and the basics of their cultural identities, all the while serving as representations for “all lives matter” style lessons about racism or hamfisted plot devices designed to wax moral on the evils of discrimination. These heroes perform “blackness” awkwardly and leave little room for any ideas of them as black people outside of their superhero identities, which leaves us with questions because of how flat their characters are. As a black man, I wonder: does Miles Morales have a good relationship with his barber? Can Misty Knight Milly Rock? Does Luke Cage face a staggering moral dilemma when deciding to whether or not to eat the last piece of chicken at Avengers gatherings? Even worse than this, these characters can–and do–serve as mouthpieces for the flawed ideologies of their writers, something that cultural diversity at all levels of creative staff can combat.
Static and Anansi’s conversation ends with Anansi telling static that Superheroes come in all colors, a sort of refute to Static’s suggestion that Anansi, as a black superhero himself, fills a necessary role. Heroes need not be any color, Anansi admonishes. Static’s reply? That having a superhero that looks like you, walks like you, mourns like you, gets enraged like you, and loves like you is as important, and as desired, as having any hero at all. I’m inclined to agree.