As we celebrate black history month, the topic of race in comics has come up in my circles of discussion quite often. In fact, it's been a recurring theme on episodes of Geek Cred because of the amount of fan feedback received. Clearly, race & superheroes is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of many. With that in mind, here are the top 5 black superheroes in comics as far as I'm concerned. Feel free to disagree, feel free to pick your own favorites but, to me, these characters are the ones with the most impact, the most influence and the most importance.
5. Black Panther
Appearing in the Marvel cinematic universe soon in Captain America: Civil War before going on to star in his own movie, Black Panther is a long-standing superhero that debuted all the way back in Fantastic Four #52. As the first black costumed superhero in mainstream American comics, Black Panthers position in history would be cemented without any other strengths attributed to the character. Panther, however, goes far beyond simply possessing a "first" accolade to his name. Indeed, having carried multiple starring book roles and having been a member of many prominent superhero teams, Black Panther has become an absolute linchpin of the Marvel universe.
With physical powers to rival Captain America, intellectual might to rival Reed Richards and, at least to me, one of the strongest visual appearances of any superhero ever created thanks to its simplicity and shear awesomeness, T'Challa, the Black Panther, is truly a total package as far as characters go, especially when all of this is combined with the origins of the character as African nobility and the ruler of his own nation. Indeed, it is those ties to his nation that really show the strengths of the character. Instead of falling into any common, tired, insipid tropes regarding "noble savages" or anything of the like, T'Challa is and always has been a modern man of science that, at the same time, effortlessly stands in both that world and the world of spirituality & tradition without either dominating the character.
I look forward to non-comic book fans being exposed to the character in the upcoming Marvel movies and hope it leads to his star rising even higher.
Another character with a "first" to his name, the Falcon (Sam Wilson) is the first African-American superhero and, like Panther, he has gone far above and beyond that simple milestone. As a long-standing partner to Captain America, Sam has always been presented as a compassionate, forward-thinking and, above all else, deeply community-oriented hero. A social worker before a superhero, that sort of compassion has also been communicated in his portrayal by Anthony Mackie in the Marvel movies where Falcon is a former soldier that helps work with other soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
t's actually that attitude and compassion that has made me a long-term fan of Falcon and that makes his partnership with Captain America so powerful. Working together with the Captain, they strike a perfect balance of cultural symbol and connection to the average man. It's a balance so strong that, for the better part of the 70's, the Captain America books were titled "Captain America and the Falcon" as a testament to just how active and popular the character was.
Possessing mechanical wings that allow him to fly, a telepathic connection to his pet falcon Redwing and a limited ability to control birds, Falcon's powers are not anything incredible by comic book standards. As such, it is his personality, ingenuity and friendship with Captain America that has made Sam a perennial fan favorite both in the comics and now in the movies. He's just genuinely a nice guy that you'd want to hang around with and he represents so many qualities that turn "regular" people into heroes with his compassion and concern for those around him.
Created by Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle and Michael Davis, Static is the most recently created character on this list, having been created DECADES later than any of the others and, if nothing else, that should speak to the power of the character. Created for the independently-owned Milestone comics (a division of DC comics), he was cast in the mold of Spider-Man as a young, African-American teen dealing with the problems of life and life as a superhero. Static ran for only 4 years until his book was canceled but the characters potential was very real and became realized in the animated television series "Static Shock" that aired for 4 seasons consisting of over 50 episodes. Nominated for a number of awards, the show was absolutely AMAZING with a diverse cast of characters and classic superheroics.
Though dealing with many social issues, Static Shock never treated them in a ham-fisted manner and it always seemed to focus on the characters first and above all else.
The strength of the Static character turned a short-lived comic book superhero into a legitimately relevant and beloved pop-culture character for countless kids of my generation. Without the name recognition of heavy hitters like the X-men, Batman or Spider-Man, Static stood beside them effortlessly. Personally, I would attribute his ability to resonate with kids to the fact that he wasn't a black teen dealing with "black" problems, he was a teen dealing with teen problems and he just happened to be black. He was relatable in all the right ways and it made for a great character.
2. John Stewart
The first black superhero of DC comics, John Stewart was created by Neal Adams and Dennis O'Neil as a replacement Green Lantern. Since then, he went on to moderate popularity in the comics that then EXPLODED when he was featured alongside other major DC heroes in the cartoon series Justice League. An architect and former U.S. marine, his portrayal in Justice League was so strong and so flat-out badass that there was considerable (and I would say rightful) outcry when Hal Jordan, as portrayed by Ryan Reynolds, was chosen as the star of the Green Lantern feature film. Supposedly, this is to rectified with the reboot Green Lantern Corps mvoie coming out in 2020 that will feature both Hal & John as co-stars.
So, considering he has the same exact abilities as Hal Jordan and the other Green Lanterns, what makes John Stewart so great? Well, he's no nonsense, smart and pragmatic in a way that a lot of other superheroes simply aren't. In Justice League, especially, as portrayed by Phil LaMarr, John hangs alongside heroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman and, never once, feels out of place or superfluous. With an interesting background including his life as a soldier and his passion for architecture coupled with the ability of his Green Lantern ring to make anything he can imagine, John often uses his powers in both useful and visually awesome ways!
Beyond that, John Stewart embodies the "hard ass with a soul" that men seem to respect and women tend to like. Strong when he needs to be, but not shut off from others, John is, for lack of a better phrase, a "man's man" in all the right ways. Plus he loves "Old Yeller" and he's got the best first name ever. Those qualities help too.
Arguably the true first lady of comic books, Storm, simply put, is friggin' amazing. Created by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in May 1975, Ororo Munroe (Storm) truly came into her own under the pen of Chris Claremont. Perhaps the most prominent X-men character other than Wolverine, Storm is a powerhouse of a character both in terms of her ability to control the weather and in the history & characterization given to her over her decades within the comics. Often a leader of the X-men, formerly worshiped as a goddess in Africa, a verifiable bad-ass even when she was without her powers, and possessed of a variety of great & classic costumes, Storm has been a perennial fan-favorite and with good reason.
Like some of the other characters on this list, Storm was one of the first black superheroes but, beyond that, she is also the first female black superhero and has remained, almost inarguably, the most prominent, successful and recognizable black superhero of any gender. With a will of iron and a heart of gold, Storm is basically a cornerstone of comic book fandom for many. Despite being worshiped as a goddess and having been a Queen, despite possessing near-godlike power, Storm has continuously been one of the most relatable mutant superheroes because of her mixture of kindness and conviction. Black, female, and a mutant, Storm has never been solely or entirely defined by any one or more of those qualities and, instead, has always been a person that fans of any type can relate to.