black_history_month_superhero_by_anoma_lee-d5tsb7bIt’s February, and that means that it’s Black History Month here in the United States. Whether you’re excited about it, indifferent to it, or upset by it, Black History Month is valuable as a time set aside to remember the impact that people of African descent have had on history, hopefully a supplement to their presence during the rest of the year.

With that in mind, I thought I’d do something to celebrate black characters in comics. There are probably lots of best black superhero lists out there, but I don’t know that it’s terribly useful for one fallible comic reader to try to rank the diverse and varied black characters of comics (and I admit that the white part of me is not entirely sure that numbering African-Americans is the best way to celebrate the month). Instead I thought I would write up a list of black characters who aren’t being utilized as well as I think they deserve. Whether they’re minor characters who could be more or veritable icons who have lost their spark; whether they’re struggling to find their voice or simply not getting the screen-time they deserve, here’s my list of black comic characters who we should be seeing more of, starting with the honorable mentions.

Tia and Zari Jenkins

Supurbia Jenkins'I haven’t talked about my adoration of Grace Randolph’s Supurbia nearly enough on this site, but that’s an injustice that I’ll start mending now. Tia and her boyfriend Dion Jenkins were a superhero pair who went by Aso and Anansi, after the figures of African myth. Eventually they married and had a daughter named Zari. When Dion was chosen as the next Cosmic Champion and became a member of the Meta-Legion, Tia reluctantly stepped down as Aso for Zari’s sake. Years later she lives on a cul-de-sac with the other members of the Meta-Legion, filling her idle time and dreaming of the days when she was saving lives; making a difference; and, most importantly, busting heads.

Tia is a charming and wonderful character. Friend to Gio Taviani, the troubled but good-natured Agent Twilight, and lifeline to Eve White, the book’s viewpoint character, Tia is in many ways the heart of Supurbia. She’s fascinating as a wife and mother and her character finds equal expression in the guise of Aso, a cunning trickster and a downright badass.

Some of that has clearly rubbed off on Zari. Though she’s young, she’s smart as a whip and has the guts and the heart to be a hero if she ever decides to be. She even has a punk-rock teddy bear by the name of Lint Zeppelin; how cool is that?!

The story of Supurbia sees both women playing parts in a complex web of drama and superheroics, with issue 12 cementing the importance of both women to the series.

Tia and Zari are wonderful, so why are they only honorable mentions? It’s because their creator, Grace Randolph, is using them to the greatest degree that she can, which unfortunately is not at all at the moment. You see, Supurbia concluded its run with the aforementioned issue 12. It wasn’t a hard cancellation, the book functioned much like a television show and was merely declined for a second season, but alas it is no more. We can’t say if Supurbia will return, but it would be a tragedy to see two great characters fade away, especially when black superheroines are still fairly scarce.

Supurbia is a great series and the first three volumes are out in trade.

Elisa Maza

Elisa MazaLike Tia and Zari, Elisa is only on this list because she has no forum at the moment. A creation of Greg Weisman’s fantastic Gargoyles, Detective Elisa Maza was one of the countless brilliant characters that the show introduced us to and, as it happened, the highest profile person of color among them.

Admittedly, Goliath, the series’ star, received his melodious voice from Keith David, but the character was a Scottish humanoid descended from pterosaurs. Elisa, on the other hand, was unambiguously a woman of color, and an amazing one at that. Elisa was the human confidante of the titular clan, and one of the show’s most important characters. She was also half-Nigerian and half-Hopi.

Especially in 1994, that’s a pretty bold step for a broadcast channel and Elisa would likely make any African-American, Native American, or New Yorker proud. One of the best things about Elisa was that she was a woman of color who was neither defined by her heritage nor completely disconnected from it. It’s entirely possible that many viewers didn’t catch onto her ethnic background at first glance, but her fleshed out family life provided a healthy, middle-class mixed race family who remained part of her whether they were on screen or not.

Gargoyles was always a show that was fairly clear on its message of tolerance and anti-racism, especially once it escaped S&P through its comic book revival. It’s only fitting that Elisa would prove such a well-written and amazing role-model for boys and girls of any race.

Sadly, Disney’s licensing fees proved too much for Slave Labor Graphics, who had to give up the rights to the franchise, ending the Gargoyles comics. While there has been much change for the better in the last twenty years, I do wish that today’s geeks were getting new stories about Elisa.

For those of you who want to meet Detective Maza yourselves, the entire show has recently been legally uploaded to YouTube. I encourage you to buy the series on DVD if you can, though. Not only would it help show support for the show, but the YouTube uploads are slightly edited for syndication. Once you’re done there, SLG has released two small trades that collect the full run of the short-lived revival.

Aqualad

KaldurThough his race was the subject of some early and ugly debate, Kaldur’ahm proved to be one of the many standout characters from the Young Justice animated series. Another spectacular show from (you guessed it) Greg Weisman, Young Justice turned a character who had (wrongly) been regarded as the useless sidekick of the (perceived) worst member of the Justice League into a fan favorite.

A stern warrior and a powerful combat mage, Kaldur, as his friends called him, was a founding member of The Team, and proved an essential member throughout the series. He was quickly named team leader, winning out over more established characters like Dick Grayson and Conner Kent, making him one of the few black superheroes to lead a prominent hero team.

Enamored with Kaldur, Geoff Johns ported him into mainline DC continuity as Jackson Hyde in Brightest Day. This version actually ended up appearing first, but Jackson didn’t achieve the kind of fan-response that Kaldur did. Perhaps it was his altered backstory, perhaps it was Johns’ writing, perhaps it was his inferior hairstyle, who can say, but Jackson never found a foothold and when DC rebooted their line there was no Aqualad to be found. There were mentions that Kaldur would join the Teen Titans when the time was right, but with the series ending, it seems like it’s not to be, at least not in this incarnation.

So why’s Kaldur only an honorable mention? To be honest, his last venture into comics continuity didn’t go well and there’s currently not much of a place for him in Aquaman. As that’s the case, I’m happy to leave Kaldur alone and let things align correctly for his glorious return.

If you’re interested in reading Kaldur’s adventures, Brightest Day is fully collected, as is the companion series to the television show. The series is also available on DVD, though sadly not in complete seasons,. Despite this, it’s a small price to pay for such a wonderful show and one that made an honest and admirable effort to highlight the heroes of color in DC’s toybox.

Jazz

Escalation2_Jazz_transformThough he may not be the most progressive character on this list, it’s hard to deny that Jazz is a Transformers classic with a well-earned fanbase. For those who don’t know, Jazz was the token black Transformer in the original cartoon series, friendly and eager to learn about Earth, especially its music. He was also voiced by Scatman Crothers, which is a win for pretty much any character.

Michael Bay may have managed to make him even more uncomfortable than he was as a relic of a less enlightened time, but Jazz has lived on in Tranformers Animated and in IDW’s Transformers Comics.

Unfortunately for Jazz, it’s been over half a year since he’s been seen in the pages of Transformers: Robots in Disguise. Though other big names like Prowl, Ironhide, Bumblebee, and Ratchet have all played huge roles in the IDW comics, Jazz has kind of fizzled of late. That said, Jazz was last seen breaking ties with his Autobot comrades after Starscream offered an ultimatum to renounce either his faction or Iacon. That’s a pretty fascinating turn for the character and one that likely will be explored once the “Dark Cybertron” event is over. But I also brought Jazz up for another reason.

There’s been some discomfort within the Transformers fandom of late about the addition of more female bots. While long-time Transformers scribe, Simon Furman, has long made the argument that Transformers have no reason or mechanism for sexual dimorphism, the Transfomers have come to be regarded as male by default, defeating the point of mono-gendered bots.

Likewise, Transformers are generally assumed to be white. While there’s less that can be done about that in comics (at least effectively), I think that it’s valuable to at least begin a dialogue about representations of race in human-less Transformers stories. Transformers: Prime did a nice job by casting a black man as Bulkhead, providing a space for black viewers to hear themselves, but we’re still looking at casts that are overwhelmingly white. Part of that is certainly due to the inbred nature of the voice acting industry, but that’s a problem within itself.

Mairghread Scott reminded us that the genderless paradigm was unsustainable if we couldn’t imagine Jazz played by a woman. Is there really anything about Optimus Prime that would be significantly changed by having him be voiced by or represented as a black man?

Those are my honorable mentions. Wanna see the first round of entries? I’ll see you after the jump.

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