African_American_Superheroes_by_GreeneLanternIt’s Black History Month here in the United States and 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.

We’ve already seen the honorable mentions, but now lets take a look at the first set of proper entries.


John Stewart – Green Lantern 2814.3

John Stewart JimleeWhen John Stewart was appointed the backup Green Lantern of Earth in 1971, the world was a very different place. Black heroes were a new trend in mainstream comic books. Marvel lead the way with Black Panther, the Falcon, and Storm, but none of them were starring characters yet. Just a year earlier, Denny O’Neil had ushered a new era of social consciousness into DC’s universe when the Green Lantern was left speechless in Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76, but, clearly unsatisfied with the position that black people held in the company, he took things one step further by appointing an African-American as Hal Jordan’s backup.

In his earliest appearances, John was something of an ‘angry black man’, though debatably only for the purposes of deconstruction. He was a different hero from Hal, one whose experience was tuned to the struggle of the lower-class and disenfranchised. Conservative test pilot, Hal Jordan, could no longer represent the American working class.

John was different right from the beginning. He had no pretense, calling out corruption wherever it was and balancing his duty to the law with a dedication to real justice. Before long he abandoned his mask, opting for transparency and relatablity.

Though Luke Cage and Black Panther beat him to the punch of headlining an ongoing series, John would take over Green Lantern from Hal in 1984, making him, far and away, the highest profile black hero of the era. Unfortunately, John never fully escaped from Hal’s shadow and, when Jordan reclaimed the series in 1986, he found himself shuffled through a number of status quos, including an attempt to provide a place for him as the first mortal Guardian of the Universe, before the soft reboot of the title stripped him of his title. Luckily for John, in 2001 he was selected as a member of Bruce Timm’s Justice League line-up, bringing him to a larger audience than ever before.

While Justice League’s interpretation of Lantern Stewart was extremely well received, it cast him somewhat differently from his original character. Where John had originally been a somewhat rash champion for social reform, the DCAU John Stewart was a former U.S. Marine. As a girlfriend put it, “He folds his socks!” The new origin was hastily transferred into mainline continuity, ignoring the unlikelihood of John being both a marine and an architect. This tension would prove evidence of a growing problem with the character, namely his inability to live up to his animated counterpart.

John was returned to service by the Green Lantern: Rebirth mini-series, but the franchise’s obsession with Hal Jordan frequently pushed him to the sidelines. Eventually he was transferred to Green Lantern Corps, alongside Kyle Rayner, but failed to find traction the way that Kyle and Guy Gardner seemed to.

John currently headlines Green Lantern Corps, but strongly substantiated rumors that DC was planning to kill the character off last year prove that one of the company’s oldest black heroes is not receiving the sort of respect that he deserves.

It seems to me that John has grown aimless, lacking the strong personality that have endeared risk dysphoric Hal, everyman Kyle, or hothead Guy to readers. Green Lantern Corps #25 recently did an admirable job of reconstructing John’s pre-Lantern character, but he needs DC to get behind him the way they have the other Lanterns.

While John Stewart holds a distinguished position in comics history, he’s rarely been treated as the ‘true’ Green Lantern. He’s, fairly unanimously, one of the most underutilized black characters in comics today and, especially after ten years of Hal Jordan, it’s about time DC realized that they have an amazing character on their hands and gave John a chance to shine. I hear they have a Justice League movie coming up and a flop of a Hal Jordan film rotting on store shelves, perhaps a certain Detroit native can be of service…


Killer Croc

Joker CrocThough he’s become fairly well known in the past twenty years, I’m not sure that many people realize that Killer Croc is an African-American by the name of Waylon Jones. Though he lacks the pathos of Mr. Freeze or the allure of Catwoman, Croc has been a rather amazing success, easily joining the second tier of Batman adversaries, despite a late entry in 1983. The only other Bat-villains I can think of who have had that level of success post Bronze-Age are probably Hush, Bane, Harley Quinn, and the Ventriloquist.

Introduced in Batman #357, Croc was originally fairly human in appearance, taking his name purely from the hardened scutes that afflicted his skin. But by 1993 he was sporting a bright green coloration and a reptilian tongue, by 2000 his action figures were sporting dinosaur feet, and by 2003 he had gained a snout and tail. His appearance wasn’t the only thing that changed.

In his first appearance, Croc was a usurping mob boss, out to wrest control of Gotham’s underworld from the Joker and his gang. He hid his appearance under a trenchcoat and worked in the shadows, picking off rival ganglords from a distance. This was not to last. Though Croc’s appearances on Batman: The Animated Series were undoubtedly helpful to his name-recognition, it clearly established his answer to most problems as ‘throw a rock at it’. Croc spent years as a dumb brute, tricked or hired by more intelligent criminals, before he and the rest of his world were wiped clean by “Flashpoint”.

Killer Croc MonstersAfter the New 52 reboot, Croc appeared in Scott Lobdell’s much reviled Red Hood and the Outlaws. While the series’ poor reputation probably did little to bolster his fandom, Lobdell’s handling of Croc was one of the strongest elements of the title. In issue 3 we visit Roy Harper’s most cherished memory. Kicked out by Oliver Queen, Roy had become an alcoholic and picked a fight with Croc, now more reptile than ever, on a Gotham rooftop. The fight was hideously one-sided, with Croc’s superior strength overwhelming the weakened teenager. Croc would have flattened him, had he not realized that this was Harper’s plan. Croc refused to be a pawn in Arsenal’s drunken suicide attempt and instead got the boy to AA, effectively saving his life. Roy would later refer to his sponsor, Waylon.

This may be my single favorite moment of the New 52, the one thing that is truly and undeniably better than anything the old continuity had to offer. Sadly, Waylon’s only appeared in a Villain’s month one-shot since Lobdell left the title.

Starting as a criminal mastermind, ending as a superhero’s last lifeline, Killer Croc has run the gamut in his interpretations. Croc deserves better than being a mindless brute and his recent reboot has given him plenty of material for writers to work with. Whether it’s as a Gotham mainstay or as one of the few people of color in Batman’s rogue’s gallery, Croc deserves a great story and I know that DC can provide if only they realize it.

Croc was notably depicted as an African-American man in the graphic novel Joker and his relationship with Roy Harper is collected in Red Hood and the Outlaws Vol. 1: REDemption.



We’ve got five more excellent characters who deserve more panel time. Check out the next three in Part II.

 

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