storm vixenIt’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.

Feel free to catch up with the honorable mentions and Part I of the list.



Storm

STORMThis may seem like a strange choice for this list, but I definitely think that Ororo Munroe belongs on it. While many who feel the same will yell out that Storm deserves her own title, I actually disagree. Not that it wouldn’t be wonderful to have Marvel’s most famous woman of color (and perhaps most famous female superhero) starring in her own ongoing, but that wouldn’t solve the problem that got her on this list.

You see, while Storm is famous for being one of the greatest success stories in the history of minority superheroes, in recent years she’s succumbed to a cruel but tragically common ailment. Like Wonder Woman, Batman, and countless others, Storm has gotten lost in her own competence. In fairness, Storm has technically always been at risk, as Chris Claremont was famously fond of making her a beacon of incorruptible goodness/awesomeness/sexiness, but as Storm has lost her naiveté and bounced around the X-universe, she’s gotten awfully generic.

A bad marriage and a poorly justified reversion to her Punk look haven’t helped, but Storm has kind of become too amazing for her own good. With powers that often rival the strongest mutants around and enough grit to lead the X-Men easily, it’s often obvious when writers aren’t using Storm to her full potential. Ever since Schism, Storm has stood solemnly by, pointing out the flaws in whichever leader she currently follows but rarely acting to correct them. And despite leading a team in Brian Wood’s X-Men, Storm has generally stayed out of actual confrontations in that title.

In short, Storm needs to be a powerhouse again. An ongoing would be great, but I think it would be more helpful to see her supported in a central X-Men title. Storm needs a writer who understands her and is willing to give her her own stories instead of letting her play a role in someone else’s.


Hotspot

758815-joto_1An experimental sleeper agent for the invading H’san Natall, Isaiah Crockett is a half-alien superhero who joined Ray Palmer in creating the second incarnation of the teen Titans. Part of a healthy, upper middle-class family, Isaiah’s intelligence and drive (not to mention his parents) led him to enroll in college classes when he was only 16. Unfortunately, his sixteenth birthday triggered the alien genes within him and he found himself abducted by the H’san Natall for programming. Escaping with three other hybrid teens and Professor Palmer, Isaiah became a superhero.

Reserved, intellectual, and kind of a fanboy, Isaiah was in many ways the core of the second gen Titans team. His collected demeanor and optimism were a stabilizing influence on the untested team and the Titans took it very harshly when it appeared he had died in the line of duty.

Isaiah has heat based powers that allow him to raise the temperature of anything he touches and to sense infrared energy. He originally called himself Slager, but changed it to Joto, Swahili for heat, on the advice of his father.

Palmer’s Teen Titans was comparatively short lived, and Isaiah drifted into obscurity until he was featured in an episode of Teen Titans in 2004. Given a new name and increased powers, Hot Spot battled Robin in the Tournament of Heroes, however this was little more than a sizable cameo. A year and two seasons later, Hot Spot returned to star in the episode “Trust”.

Hotspot_(1)Portrayed as self-reliant, competent, and slightly arrogant, Hot Spot was one of the only guest characters to have his own episode. This second appearance also confirmed that Hot Spot was black in the television continuity and introduced me (and, I’d imagine, many others) to the character.

Following his television appearance, Hot Spot made a brief appearance in the comics, sharing his animated powerset but it didn’t last long. He sprung up again here and there but ultimately never made waves and in the wake of the New 52 reboot, he has disappeared.

Isaiah is probably the character on this list with the lowest profile, but I think he deserves his place. There are a lot of great elements in his character that are just begging for a reboot. He’s a young black hero with a stable, happy family life, which is always good to see and unfortunately uncommon. His origin story can introduce a new player to DC’s cosmic toybox and naturally asks all kinds of great questions about humanity, identity, and family. He has a simple yet interesting powerset that readers naturally flock to. And whether you keep his face visible or let him flare up, the animated costume is a winner.

Isaiah’s gone by many names in his short career. My favorite is definitely Joto, however, the writers of the Teen Titans animated series discovered that joto is also a slur in Spanish. While I think it was wise to distance the character from the offensive word, I liked that there was a link to his African heritage, if only through his father. I also appreciate that his father only knows Swahili because he studied it in college. Handled properly, I think this could be a fascinating element of the character, though I admit that, as a recent article revealed, I’m somewhat biased towards the examination of hybrid-identities.

The lack of black superheroes squelched Isaiah’s enthusiasm for them as a child and made him feel like he wasn’t part of their world, but an entire crop of potential readers grew up seeing Hot Spot in syndication; if DC wants to increase the number of heroes of color in their line, this is the perfect time to bring Isaiah back.


Vixen

LION LOUNGEWhile Buddy Baker has made a good go of it in the New 52, he’s hardly the only animal based hero in the DC Universe. Taking a different approach to the familiar Animal Man powerset is Mari Jiwe McCabe, Vixen.

Mari actually might have been DC’s highest profile master of the Red (as well as their highest profile woman-of-color) had it not been for a few simple twists of fate. You see, while Animal Man predated her by about thirteen years, he made only eleven appearances between 1965 and 1985. Meanwhile, in 1978, Mari was set to be the first woman of color to star in an ongoing DC series, however she fell victim to the ‘DC Implosion’, a catastrophic downsizing of DC’s line where 40% of the publisher’s series (nearly including Detective Comics) were cut.

Mari luckily survived, appearing in Action Comics as The Vixen, but she never achieved the kind of prominence necessary to hold an ongoing series. In fact, she barely made any appearances in her first three years of publication. She caught her first break when she was made a part of the new Detroit-based Justice League of America, but when that team was benched for the JLI, she was set adrift.

Meanwhile Grant Morrison took a shining to Buddy Baker, rehabilitating the near forgotten hero into a modern classic. And while Mari actually teamed up with Animal Man, it wasn’t enough to propel her to stardom.

From there she bounced around the DCU for over a decade, spending a significant stay with the Suicide Squad. Mari could have gotten lost, but thankfully she was rescued by a significant cameo on Justice League Unlimited. Cast as John Stewart’s girlfriend, Mari quickly became a second tier leaguer alongside such classic characters as Captain Atom, the Question, and Black Canary. It certainly didn’t hurt that Mari received a new take on her costume for the show (ditching her Wolverine hair) and was voiced by Gina Tores. A few years later Mari became part of Brad Meltzer’s Justice League of America, finally establishing her as a serious part of the superhero community.

LION SWIPEDespite eventually becoming the League chairwoman, Mari hasn’t been treated well in comics and quickly faded out of Justice League International when the series was rebooted for the New 52. Still, a colorful history and some truly excellent appearances on JLU make it clear that that Vixen has what it takes to be a star.

Though many of us lose sight of it after childhood, the animal kingdom is simply amazing. The number of interesting abilities that Vixen (and, by extension, a clever writer) has access to is nearly limitless. The speed of a Cheetah, the senses of a wolf, and the powers of a spider have all made for popular superheroes in their own right, imagine the possibilities when you also have access to the regenerative powers of a lizard, camouflage of a mimic octopus, the hearing of an owl, the electroreception of a shark, or the sonic blast of a pistol shrimp.

Mari is one of the few actual African heroes on this list, born in the fictional country of Zambesi (presumably located somewhere along its namesake river). Right there she has something that sets her apart from many other black heroes, though she did move to America in her youth. Depending on a writer’s preference, Mari’s African identity or her connection to America could be very interesting elements of the character. JLU charmingly commented on this in the episode “Hunter’s Moon”. When Vigilante asks for her expertise in navigating a jungle, she indignantly informs him that she “live[s] in a loft in Chelsea.”

It’s also worth noting that the Tantu totem that gives Mari her powers is a relic of Anansi, the spider-trickster and that in some recent stories he actually resides inside the totem. While Americans (myself included) could really use some exposure to other figures from African myth, I do love Anansi stories and his presence opens up a number of additional dimensions to deepen Mari’s world and silence those Lionwho would deride her similarity to Animal Man. While there are definite differences, just imagine how popular a hero who received their powers from Loki would be right now. Now make that character a woman of color with lingering name recognition from one of the best superhero shows of all time. Yeah, the Vixen deserves another shot.

 

The list wraps up in Part III, see you there.

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