How The Incredible Black Superman Represents Us

In 2011, Black Spider-Man arrived in comic stores. Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn, was replacing Peter Parker. I worked at a comic shop in Los Angeles, and Black Spider-Man’s advent sparked conversations with a few customers about the “Black Superman.”

But the Black Superman conversation wasn’t just about a single character; it was also about independent publishing and the aspirations of creating an icon. In addition to issues of diversity in comics, the conversations questioned the possibility of a Black person creating a Black character, and building a franchise around that brand. Considering the origins of Superman and how the character was co-opted as a propaganda myth to promote a more inclusive definition of American whiteness, the concept of a Black Superman always seemed alien.

Jewish Americans Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel created Superman in 1938. Their parents escaped anti-semitism in Europe and faced hardships in America. When they wrote a story about an alien arriving on Earth and having to pass as American, they weren’t talking about the traditional white American identity of the time. Superman enforced the American Dream while criticizing America’s shortcomings; he fought against corrupt politicians and domestic abusers alongside common criminals. With the success of Superman, Siegel and Shuster faced one of the challenges with which marginalized artists have to contend — the desire for outside ownership. In 1946, they lost the rights of their creation to Detective Comics (DC), which argued that they bought the rights to Superman for $130. Siegel and Shuster argued the sum was their pay rate of $10 per page. After several lawsuits involving the rights to the comics, DC settled out of court and retained the rights to Superman.

While Superman and the new superhero genre gained popularity throughout the country, Black voices were trying to find a space in comics. Orrin Cromwell Evans was a journalist for the Philadelphia Record and an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). To engage with a wider audience on issues of racism, he published All-Negro Comics in 1947, an anthology written and illustrated by Black artists. Evans was prevented from buying the materials needed to print the next All-Negro Comics; the first Black comic publisher never made it to a second issue.

In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent, a book that linked comics with juvenile delinquency and, responding to government threats, the comic industry formed the Comics Code Authority to enforce censorship rules. Of the 20 guidelines, five deterred Black, queer, and female artists from reflecting marginalized voices. These rules forbid the depiction of any government representative as corrupt, corruptible, or morally questionable. This was a dangerous time for subversive voices; America was in the middle of the Red Scare and McCarthyism scrutinized academia, the sciences, and the film industry. Together, the Comics Code and political climate decimated the comics industry.

However, Black authorship was thriving in mainstream publishing. Instead of Black Superman, the unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man captured the struggles of the Black identity as he navigated the American landscape.

By contrast, a Black Superman couldn’t even be believed in the context of a science fiction comic story in the 1950s. Superman was expected to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. For a Black Superman, this was a contradiction in terms. In the late ‘60s, Marvel Comics, led by Stan “Lee” Leiber, was at the forefront of the industry and created comics with Black leads such as Black Panther (1966) and Luke Cage (1973). Although these comics would inspire a new Black audience and help shape comics aesthetics, these superheroes felt inconsistent with the universes in which they lived. Comedian Roy Wood Jr. explained this in his critique of Luke Cage: “[Saving the world] is a luxury only white superheroes have… Black superheroes have to focus on their block. You would think with his resume Luke Cage would be somewhere with Iron Man trying to save the universe, but he never leaves Harlem.” Although Marvel was known for being politically conscious, they had difficulty creating believable Black spaces in their universe.

'Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1' (June 1972) (John Romita / Marvel Comics, WikiCommons)

Afrofuturism addressed this problem. During the 1960s, musicians like Sun Ra and George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic challenged notions of a limited Black future. Outer space stood in for the paradise promised; freedom awaited somewhere beyond. Parliament’s Mothership Connection spoke of a futurist escape while echoing spirituals with the refrain “Swing down sweet chariot, let me ride.” In 1994, Mark Dery identified this approach as Afrofuturism, and Black creators in literary science fiction, pop music, and visual art pushed Afrofuturism beyond the confines of genre or medium for the next two decades. In 1993 a team of Black comic artists created Milestone Media, which revisited the Black superhero and reimagined the spaces they occupy through titles like Hardware and Static (later adapted for television as Static Shock.) After revisions to the Comics Code, due to pushback from publishers, Milestone was able to address issues of race, police brutality, and sexuality. In issue two of Static, the title character’s origin reveals he acquired his superpowers when tear-gassed by police during a riot. The tear gas formula killed half the teen crowd, while the other half gained special abilities.

During a public lecture, comic artist and university professor John Jennings commented on Dr. King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. “[That Mountain] is an imaginary space. He created this space for us to be in. That is a Black speculative political notion.” This line of thought freed me from thinking about the Black Superman in the shadow of white institutions, white blueprints for success, or standards of quality rooted in white supremacy.

The Black Superman conversation was never about Superman. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ three-year run as the writer of Black Panther is reflective of the Black Superman. The Black Superman can be seen in the successes of Black-owned publishing company, Lion Forge. At his best, Black Superman is a Black speculative political notion. We made him for us.

About the Author

CM Campbell is a Brooklyn-based comic author and illustrator whose work often focuses on the intersection of race, culture, and politics. His work has appeared in Hyperallergic, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Sci-Fi San Francisco. He received his BA in fine art with a studio emphasis at San Francisco State University, and his MFA in comics at California College of the Arts.