tumblr_myi7fzNeZj1rlu163o1_500It’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.

If you want to refresh your memory, you can find the rest of the list at the links below:

Honorable Mentions

Part I

Part II


Alex Wilder

Alex WilderThis one’s gonna contain SPOILERS for Runaways. That’s the nature of it and I’m sorry. If you don’t want the series spoiled, skip ahead to the last entry, but trust me when I say that Runaways is awesome and we could all use some more Alex Wilder in our Marvel universe.

Everybody ready?

Alright.

Alex Wilder loves superheroes. From the day he went trick-or-treating  as Spiderman to the present  he’s loved them. Unfortunately for him, living in California means that there’s not a lot of superheroing to be done, so he spends his days playing Superhero MMOs, watching the Prisoner, quoting the West Wing, and generally being an awesome dork. But once a year his parents get together with five other families and Alex is stuck hanging out with their kids.

And so it went, year after year, until the kids stumbled upon  a secret passage and discovered the truth about their parents. These six families make up The Pride, a cabal of brilliant villains who control every aspect of west coast crime.

Knowing only that their parents are murders who need to be stopped, the kids join together and try to find evidence to put their folks away. In the process they discover that each of them, except Alex whose parents are the West Coast’s Kingpins, have inherited a unique power from their parents and that the Pride has the police in their pocket. Swearing to oppose their parents’ evil plan, the six kids name Alex as their leader.

Alex’s knack for strategy and attention to detail make him a formidable general while his intelligence and patience make him the only one able to decode the Pride’s mystical manifesto in time to stop them. Commanding an army made of teenagers is a challenge but under Alex’s leadership the Runaways became a formidable team.

Alex joins Storm and Kaldur’ahm as one of the few black teamleaders in superhero comics. He’d easily be recognized as one of the best if it weren’t for one small detail. Alex was a mole for the Pride.

Having learned of the Pride a year earlier, Alex discovered a conspiracy between two of the families to betray the others and formed the Runaways to thwart their plans without putting his parents at risk to their telepathic betrayers. In fact, Alex supports his parents’ plans to restart the world. Taking on the powers of three of the other kids, Alex very nearly succeeded in ending humanity, however his feelings for fellow Runaway Nico Minoru allowed the team to rally and spoil the Pride’s plans. When the Gibborim, the ancient giants the Pride served, discovered that their minions had failed them, Alex took responsibility for the failure and was summarily killed.

The sheer shock of Alex’s betrayal is still felt by fans of the cult favorite series to this day, but it’s not just the surprise that made it so effective, but the realism of it. Alex is a brilliant boy, but he’s human. Unlike Loki, he doesn’t depend on complex deceptions or perfect knowledge of his intended marks, instead he lives by what he calls “rule number one of gaming: a good dungeon master always make his players feel like they’re in control, especially when they’re not.” How cool is that? He’s a master planner who handles people like they’re game pieces; that’s a great gimmick. Not to mention that he’s basically a miniature Ra’s al Ghul, out to make the hard choices that the world needs. The kid justifies the extinction of the planet with Wrath of Khan!

runawaysRunaways is a series based on a simple premise: what if things really were the way you saw them as a teenager? What if your parents were evil? What if you really were destined for bigger things? It’s a battle between childhood and adulthood and despite Alex’s claims that he never betrayed anything, he’s a traitor to youth. Runaways looks at adulthood as a state of certainty, power, and moral compromise and Alex is all too eager to embrace it. He’s a perfect villain for the modern world, a symbol of moral greyness in all its insufficiency.

Brian K Vaughan’s runs on Runaways are underappreciated masterpieces, which ended with Alex dead. However, after so much time and with little hope of a real continuation, I’d be happy to see Alex Wilder return to the Marvel universe. Alex makes a final appearance in the second volume of Runaways, aiding his former teammates in an attempt to earn his way out of the limbo he’s been trapped in since the end of the first series. When the Gibborim find themselves banished to the same empty dimension, Alex mocks them, realizing that they themselves are merely children, looking to make their father proud, just as he was.  Ever focused on the plight of the world, it seems as though Alex wants to use his talents to help save it, but his final statement seems to imply that, once he’s free, he’ll be doing it on his own terms.

I think that Alex could carve out a very unique place in the current Marvel Universe. All of his actions in the original series were taken to earn his father’s approval, but it seems he’s grown past that need, setting him up for a natural reinvention. His strategic brilliance and stone cold principles make him a powerful player and Marvel has proven again and again how much fans love the smartest man in the room. Whether as a hero or a villain, Alex Wilder is ready for a comeback.

 

Black Lightning

black_lightning_by_joelgomez-d6gtwztEndlessly copied but never replaced, Black Lightning is one of the oldest heroes of color at DC and the first to headline his own series. Jefferson Pierce spent a long time running away from Metropolis after his father, an award-winning journalist, was murdered.

The driven young man became an athlete, eventually winning Olympic gold in the men’s decathlon, but his true passion was in education and it was teaching that finally brought him home. Offered a position at Garfield High School, Jeff was forced to witness the crime and hopelessness that afflicted Southside.

Southside had long been known as Metropolis’ ‘Suicide Slum’ after the belief that there was only one way to escape. Having made it out himself, Pierce was determined to do his part for the children of Southside as a teacher, but when one of his most promising students was killed in gang violence, he acknowledged that the systemic problems in Southside were too great for any one man to fix from within.

With the help of Peter Gambi, a family friend, Pierce created the identity of Black Lightning in order to protect his students and family while he used his skills to make a difference in Suicide Slum, by day as a teacher, and by night as a vigilante.

Despite his historic position, Black Lightning fell victim to the same DC Implosion that doomed his female counterpart, Vixen. He was offered a spot in the Justice League but, ever the loner, declined on the grounds that he could do more good fighting street level crime. Unfortunately, he had no forum to do so and Black Lightning drifted for a time. Luckily he was returned to prominence when he joined Batman’s JLA alternative, the Outsiders.

The next major stage of Jeff’s life came when he was appointed Secretary of Education to then-president, and fellow Suicide Slum native, Lex Luthor. Though his tenure as secretary of Education was comparatively uneventful, it had its benefits. Ironically, especially after Luthor’s true character was revealed to the public, many criminals assumed that Pierce was crooked, and he used these connections to gain information about the criminal underworld for the JLA. Finally accepting an offer from the League and donning his modern costume, Black Lightning began to find his footing, but it was placed on hold in order to accommodate the upcoming “Final Crisis”.

Black Lightning has made a couple of small appearances in the New 52 continuity, with the most significant being a three issue arc in DC Universe Presents that teamed him with Blue Devil and saw the pair face off against Lightning’s old nemesis, Tobias Whale. Unfortunately, the arc was not a huge success and Pierce has only made cameos since.

Despite a long and storied history, Black Lightning really came to my attention with the creation of the DC Nation Block on Cartoon Network. In addition to a couple of strong cameos on Young Justice, Pierce appeared in two DC Nation Shorts, starring his daughters, Annisa and Jennifer. The “Thunder and Lightning” shorts present Pierce as an earnest single father trying his best to save the city, raise his kids, and retain some small shred of their respect. They’re hardly masterpieces, but they’re cute little stories that highlight part of what makes Black Lightning such an interesting character.

tumblr_ljz8watxyD1qj1xuxo1_500Like Green Arrow, Black Lightning is a small-scale hero. He’s less worried about ensuring our future than improving it. His relationship with his students and his daughters help ground him and provide an instant supporting cast rife with interpersonal drama. Superheroes have played many roles, whether it’s been reporter, photographer, publishing mogul, or even owner of a newspaper, but in his civilian life Jefferson Pierce continues to serve his community in two of the most heroic roles our society has: teacher and father.

Pierce also straddles divides within the African-American community. As much as they’ve struggled to overcome the legacy of slavery and the racism contained within traditionally white institutions, there has long been conflict within the black community about assimilation and what it means to be black. Often, though not strictly, generational differences have presented affluence both as the ultimate success and a significant betrayal. Though, like many black heroes, Jefferson Pierce is generally well off, Tony Isabella made a clear effort to keep him connected to the plight of the less fortunate without looking down on them. While it’s, thankfully, been downplayed in recent years, this even extended to Black Lightning speaking in a more conventionally African-American cadence while in costume, reversing traditional assumptions about heroism and secret identities.

Black Lightning has proven powers; a great civilian life; and I think we should all agree that the black, blue, and yellow look is a winner, but the moment that really cemented me as a fan is Black Lightning vol.2 #5. Part of the second of two short-lived series by creator Tony Isabella, Black Lightning #5 is a simply brilliant comic. Set entirely within a pair of hospital rooms, the issue is an examination of heroism, guilt, history, and everything Black Lightning. After seeing scans on Comic Book Resources, I made a beeline for the back issue bins at my next comic con and snatched up the underrated gem in a heartbeat.

Though he’s never quite broken through to the top tier of modern-superheroes, Black Lightning is a great character with an important place in DC’s history. Whether he’s a meta-human or using a generator belt, planning lessons or busting gangs, Jefferson Pierce is a classic character who’s just waiting for the opportunity to light up the night.

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