Four days? The Kickstarter for BLACK reached its goal in F-O-U-R days. A testament to the coordinated push to get the word out and the talent involved for sure, but it also suggests something more. The pitch, “What if only Black people had superpowers?” gets at the heart of broader tensions inherent to the intersection between power and representation in U.S. comics.
The idea of what superheroes mean, especially the impact of black superheroes has grown in importance of the last few years. The scholarly work Adilifu Nama and Jonathan Gayles have put a spotlight on understanding how black characters are shaped by and are in turn, shaping race and power narrative in U.S. popular culture. While limited in number, the presence of a black super-powered character in comics or related media matters in myriad ways.
From a historical perspective, an examination of black superheroes notes the nature of the introductions aligned with the opening up of society in the 1960s and 1970s. The Black Panther broke into the all white superhero club in 1966, but arguably did not change the meaning of super-heroics. By the 1970s, the introduction of black character influenced by a rising tide of Black Power politics and pop culture reactions to it gave us characters like Luke Cage. Big, strong and street, Cage and similar Blaxploitation inspired characters marked a shift in tone that did little to create a depth of black representation. For all the celebration associated with their debut, criticism grows as black characters continually fail to diverge from their white counterparts. Unspoken, but lying under the surface, the readers (blacks and whites) naturally suspect a black hero’s action may reflect concern beyond those defined by white mainstream society.
The recent push for diversity in comics is clearly keyed to this concern. Arguably, this push has made some strides in terms of gender, but questions of race still lag behind. We have artists and writers of colors working and producing comics, but in an era of #OscarSoWhite the role of institutional gatekeepers looms large. With that idea mind,I asked the creators of BLACK about editorial control.
The creative team behind BLACK has experience in the industry, but has spoken openly about lack of editorial diversity. Is this project about going outside the system or inspiring the system to see the diversity as a plus?
Khary Randolph: Both, maybe? As I’ve said, I AM a part of the industry. I’ve been working off and on in comics for over a decade, so I can’t be considered an outsider in that sense. But I’ve always been taught to be the change you want to see. Not speaking for anyone but myself that is essentially what this is about for me.
If it were up to me my ethnicity wouldn’t even be a topic of discussion at all, it would be whether my work was any good or not. Its 2016 and race is amazingly still an issue. So all you can do is lean into it and hopefully be a force for change. If not, maybe inspire someone else to do better. We all win when that happens.
Jamal Igle: I’d like to think we’re part of the movement to inspire others to bring new concepts to the fore and to support new voices in storytelling. We’re all in this together.
Kwanza Osajyefo: I’d be proud to inspire people in the way that people like Dwayne McDuffie, Christopher Priest, and many others inspired my comics career. Diversity is a trendy word, but really the issue in comics and all entertainment is the lack of inclusion. Exclusion is something I’ve seen my entire career in mainstream comics. It wasn’t just in regards to ethnicity, but gender, age, etc. The industry can be cliquey and when those fraternities dominating the culture are mostly White men… it paints a picture, doesn’t it?
To be blunt, Marvel and DC need to hire more Black editors. It’s not cool that I’ve been one of two to hold that title in more than a decade. Hiring more Black creatives is a start, but you don’t have to Google for long to find the clash is about not having more Black people in editorial seats. It’s especially necessary with efforts to bring Black characters to forefront. Perspective is an important element if you’re going to do it authentically, and having to explain it to your editor makes for an arduous process where it’s just easier to just make “inoffensive” characters.
Tim Smith: Diversity in comics can come to play in many different ways and for many different reasons. Either the public is ready for it and the money is already proving this, or a publisher will want to take that leap of faith and see if readers truly want to invest in it. I would like to think it’s an inspiring movement for more dynamic stories either way. When I read a comic, and a new character is introduced, be it in an existing book or in a brand new series, I feel that the impact is not so focused on what the skin color is, but how they will save the world. How they will be absorbed in the continuity of the overall comic brands. However, when a character of color is introduced, it seems to focus on the fact a minority is coming to the newsstand.
That is actually great! It is showing that all the years of one predominant idea for what a superhero has to be is now changing, and people want to read it! The part that gets me is that it’s this one character coming in, and the rest of that minority (who are actually a majority by the millions, depending on where in the world they might be located) has no abilities to make them superheroes. They have to wait until the hype of this one diverse character simmers down to make room for one more to be released.
The BLACK takeover is not done. There are 18 days left in this campaign. Check it out.