Where African-American Superheroes and Comic-Con Collide

Professor Julian Chambliss speaks at the famed San Diego Comic-Con about African-American superheroes.

A lifelong fan of comics, history professor Julian Chambliss has a serious academic interest in the popular medium.

“Comic books,” he says, “are artifacts of culture that encapsulate values and ideals.”

Comic books also still play a significant role in mass entertainment and help shape popular ideals.

“They are the modern mythologies,” Chambliss says. “Superheroes contain the American story.” He points out that many of the most beloved comic book series have themes that connect to deeply held beliefs. “Fair play. Equity. Neighbors and community. You can make something of yourself. Being smart is important.”

Those ideals, conveyed by many American comic book heroes, still endure. “The value statements are still true,” Chambliss says. “They may not be as true as we mythologize them, but they are truer here than in many other parts of the world.”

As a scholar of comic books,Chambliss is interested in understanding how blacks have been depicted in comics, which ranges from degrading racial stereotypes to superhuman avengers of evil.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook) Earlier this year, he appeared in the documentary, White Scripts and Black Superheroes: Black Masculinities in American Comic Books, which was created by Jonathan Gayles, associate professor of African-American studies at Georgia State University. The film, which addresses more than 40 years of representation of black men in comic books, will screen at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Following the screening on Friday, July 25, Chambliss will join a panel to discuss the film and the history of black superheroes in comic books.

Both the convention and the documentary film come at a particularly appropriate time. This year marks the 45th anniversary of the convention and the debut of black superhero, the Falcon. Earlier this month, it was announced that the Falcon, who first appeared as a crime-fighting associate of Captain America, would take over as the new Captain America. 

One of the points that Chambliss makes in the film and in his courses is that several distinctions exist among the first mainstream black comic-book characters. They have different powers and skills, live in different ages, and come from both the U.S. and Africa. According to Chambliss, most fans look to the Black Panther or Luke Cage as the first black superheroes. Black Panther, who possessed peak physical strength and enhanced senses, is the first black superhero, introduced by Marvel Comics in 1966; but he is from Africa. First introduced in the pages of the Fantastic Four, he eventually came to the U.S. to join forces with the Avengers, but he is not an African-American. Luke Cage, a character inspired by the film Shaft, appeared in 1972 in Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, and became the first African-American superhero to have his own comic book.

But the first successful African-American superhero is the Falcon, who appeared in 1969 alongside Captain America. The Falcon’s superpower involved seeing through the eyes of birds and summoning the creatures for aid.

Before the Falcon, there was Lobo, an African-American hero, who lived in the Old West and sought to clear his name of a crime for which he was unjustly accused. Distributed by Dell Comics, Lobo arrived in 1965 to a rather hostile reception. Many white newsstand operators did not want to promote or sell a comic with a black protagonist, so the series quickly faded away.

Interestingly, the Falcon appears to be here to stay. With his superior fighting skills and commitment to avenge evildoers, he has sustained a strong fan base. Moreover, nearly 50 years after some in the comic book world rejected Lobo as a mainstream black hero, the Falcon is poised to represent and defend the red, white and blue values of the nation, as he takes on the title of Captain America.

To see a clip of Julian Chambliss discussing the topic in the documentary, visit: www.blacksuperherodoc.com/?p=394