Comics have always been on the front lines of popular culture, and before it was common to see black faces on television, comic books — especially superhero comics — were trying to reach young readers by better reflecting the world they lived in.
In no particular order, here is a partial list of some of our favorite black superheroes — and links to where you can buy and read the comics that feature them.
Most links are inexpensive reprint collections from Amazon, and tablet users should check out digital comics supplier Comixology and Marvel’s Netflix-style Marvel Unlimited service, but we encourage you to use FindAComicsShop.com to locate the local comic book store nearest to you. They can help you find inexpensive back issues (sometimes as low as $1 each) about any character or genre you’re curious about.
Comics look great on your coffee table when people come over. Or bring them to your niece or nephew so they can tell the other kids who Black Panther is before he’s in a movie. Just a thought.
Not technically a superhero, but Gabe Jones is one of the first black characters to appear in mainstream comics, and probably the oldest one still being written today.
Debuting in 1963 as a private in Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos, Gabe followed the career path of Nick Fury (a white guy in the comics before being thoroughly redefined by Samuel L. Jackson) going from World War II soldier, to Cold War super-spy, to the big screen where he was portrayed by Derek Luke in Marvel’s Captain America: The First Avenger. He also had a job in the 1970s fighting Godzilla, but who didn’t?
Essential Reading: The Gabe-focused Howling Commandos #56 (pictured above) unfortunately doesn’t appear to be collected anywhere, but the first 23 issues of Howling Commandos are collected in Marvel’s affordable, black-and-white Essentials reprint series.
The history of comics is messy, but Black Panther is widely considered to be mainstream comics’ first black superhero. T’Challa, son of T’Chaka, is the head of state and ceremonial protector of a secluded fictional nation known as Wakanda — dodgy, but at least they bothered to acknowledge Africa contains individual countries, which is not at all a sure bet in comic books.
Think Atlantis in the desert — Wakanda is civilization of highly advance technology thanks to their mountain of ultra-rare “Vibranium” (the stuff Captain America’s shield is made of). This also allows Black Panther to casually mention that he’s the richest man on Earth, while single-handedly besting them in combat in order to see if they’re worthy of hanging out with him. The first and most tenured black Avenger, he’s an Iron Man-level genius, with uncompromising Batman values — and did we mention he’s a literal king?
Essential Black Panther Vol. 1 (For classic Black Panther adventures)
Did you know Storm is the star of her own ongoing solo series right now? She is! Unfortunately low sales of female-led books are keeping Storm’s title perpetually on the chopping block (we barely knew you, She-Hulk). The #SaveStorm hashtag is keeping the idea alive, but if you’re curious about what one of your favorite childhood characters is up to in 2015 (dating Wolverine??!) head to your local shop and #SaveStorm while you still can.
Okay, that being said. Storm is the first African-American member of the X-Men and their frequent leader since her induction in 1975. Born in Harlem to a Kenyan mother and an American father, Storm was orphaned shortly after her family moved to Cairo, surviving as a street thief before manifesting her powers and being discovered by a tribe that worshipped her as a white-haired weather goddess. That’s Storm’s character in a nutshell — giving up being worshipped as a goddess to protect the same people who hate her.
Essential X-Men Vol. 4 (many of Storm’s defining experiences with the X-Men)
The Green Lantern (John Stewart)
If you came to comics through cartoons, like a lot of people did (especially the ’90s X-Men animated series, and the incredible Justice League / DC Animated Universe), you probably know John Stewart as the real Green Lantern — and a lot of people agree with you.
Introduced in 1971 during the same politically charged run of Green Lantern/Green Arrow that tackled heroin addiction and apartheid, John Stewart is a Detroit-born Marine who worked as an architect before being chosen by aliens as one of the bravest men on the planet. In his first appearance, John Stewart unraveled a staged assassination plot by a racist politician and saved the life of a police officer at the same time.
Since then, he’s been saving lives around the cosmos and was briefly caretaker of an entire planet. An on-again, off-again Justice Leaguer in the comics, he’ll always be THE Green Lantern to many of us.
For fans of the animated John Stewart — Justice League Beyond: Konstriction explores the old age and torch-passing of Earth’s most fearless space cop.
Monica Rambeau (Captain Marvel, Photon, Pulsar, Spectrum)
Monica Rambeau was Captain Marvel when the current fan favorite Captain Marvel was still going by Ms. Marvel — it’s not a competition, just saying. Plus, they’re totally cool now. Mostly. The first black female Avenger, Monica was a lieutenant in the New Orleans harbor patrol before a blast of extra-dimensional energy gave her the power to project — and transform into — any frequency of energy, making her a living laser and battery. Oh, and she was leader of the Avengers for a time as well.
She’s gone by the names Captain Marvel, Photon, Pulsar, and Spectrum, but her most recent claim to fame was as Monica Rambeau, leader (again) of the satirical super-team Nextwave — where she dished on which Avengers used the worst pickup lines on her, and fought, among many other incredible things, a giant gorilla dressed as Wolverine.
Avengers #279: Who Will Lead the Avengers? (Spoiler, Monica f’ing Rambeau will lead the Avengers)
Avengers #227 (Available digitally)
Captain Marvel Giant Size Special #1 (Ask your local comics shop)
Steel (John Henry Irons)
Even if you didn’t read comics in the ’90s, you would’ve heard about when Superman died. At the time, this was a pretty high-profile stunt; superheroes had died and come back, but not usually anyone with household name recognition. Enter the four replacement Supermen — and one great one.
Steel’s origin story has shades of Iron Man. The aptly named John Henry Irons was a brilliant weapons designer who became disgusted with his former career and started over as a construction worker. Saved from a fatal fall by Superman, Irons was inspired to keep the Man of Steel’s example alive — with a high-tech suit of armor that made him a literal man of steel himself. Not to mention wielding a big-ass sledgehammer in the spirit of his folk-hero namesake.
Steel is consistently portrayed as one of the big brains and chief engineers of the Justice League, but is obviously a heavy hitter when stuff goes down. Like Green Lantern, he’s great in his small part on the Justice League Unlimited cartoon, but do not, do not, do NOT watch the 1997 movie starring Shaquille O’Neal. Seriously. Don’t.
Fiona Staples / Via Image Comics
OK, OK, OK — as a winged alien, Alana may not be black in the traditional sense. And she isn’t technically a superhero. She’s more like Han Solo, if Han Solo were a mother, a veteran, and a fugitive from two warring civilizations. Holding down a job and potty-training a toddler while the universe is trying to kill you sounds pretty heroic to us.
Saga is one of the most popular and critically acclaimed comics of the past decade, and it’s a great place to start for any new comics readers. Basically a race of people with wings have been at war with a race of people with horns for as long as anyone remembers — when two of them fell in love and had a baby. This is their story.
The superhero universes beyond DC and Marvel have always been a laboratory for more diverse characters and concepts — and Valiant Entertainment’s Shadowman is pretty out there. A recent reboot of a character created in the ’90s, today’s Shadowman is Jack Boniface, the supernatural protector of New Orleans who slips in and out of a hellish afterlife dimension and keeps its monstrosities at bay.
Essential Reading: There are only a few volumes of Shadowman out yet, so it’s easy to catch up. Start with his origin story in Vol. 1: Birthrites or binge-read the first few volumes in the deluxe hardcover.
Another Justice Leaguer, another resident of a (dubious) fictional African nation, and another inheritor of a supernatural mantle of responsibility. Mari Jiwe McCabe, or Vixen, was planned to debut in 1978 as the first black female character to headline her own solo series at DC, but didn’t actually appear until a few years later in a supporting role.
Mari grew up in the (fake) country of Zambesi, but left to pursue a glamorous job as an international fashion model. It was only on a trip back to her home village that she inherited the magical totem that allows her to summon the physical abilities of any animal. Ever. Including dinosaurs.
Another pattern — Vixen might be at her best on the Justice League cartoon, but is also set to star in her own online animated series, set in the same DC television universe inhabited by The CW’s Arrow and The Flash.
The origin of Africa’s Batman, David Zavimbe, is truly brutal. While Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered, they left him a loving caretaker and a fortune. When David Zavimbe’s parents were taken by AIDS, he and his brother were drafted as child soldiers — and he got terrifyingly good at it.
It wasn’t until he disobeyed an order to torch a village full of women and children that he fled and rededicated his life to justice as a member of the utterly corrupt Congolese police force. All of this made him an ideal candidate when Batman went global in the Batman Incorporated series, inducting new Batmen all over the world, but few likely to be as enduring as Batwing, currently the only international Batman to be given his own series.
This origin story aside, the Batwing mantle has already changed hands once, and the man in the suit is currently Luke Fox (the son of Wayne Enterprises inventor Lucius Fox, portrayed by Morgan Freeman in the movies).
Misty Knight was an NYPD officer who lost her arm in a BOMB ATTACK and got a ROBOT ARM and became a PRIVATE EYE. Both her BEST FRIEND (Colleen Wing) and her BOYFRIEND (Iron Fist) are MARTIAL ARTS experts, because that’s what it takes to keep up with MISTY KNIGHT.
Wither her forever-’70s look and big-hair-don’t-care attitude, Misty Knight is such a popular choice for cosplayers that it was almost as easy for us to find pictures of people dressed as her as it was to find a drawing. With a slate of street-level Marvel superhero shows coming to Netflix, including one headlined by her on-again, off-again Iron Fist, there has never been a better time to read every comic about Misty Knight — and then dress like her. In your daily life.
The Essential Power Man & Iron First (supporting role)
Quantum (of Quantum & Woody)
Portrayals of young black men in comics are fraught with cliches about fatherless teens in the inner city who flirt with gang activity before gaining superpowers that involve hip-hop or skateboarding somehow. Keep that in mind when we say Quantum & Woody is a superhero comedy about “the world’s worst superheroes” — the straitlaced nerd son of an atomic physicist and his deeply troubled, juvenile delinquent foster brother. But refreshingly, “Woody” was the criminally inclined white kid and Quantum was the steady-handed good influence with his shit together.
After the two clashing personalities reunite as adults to solve their father’s murder, the brothers narrowly survive an atomic accident that gives them laser-y powers and bonds them together on the quantum level, preventing them from being apart for too long. Add a talking goat and a fast-paced series of genuinely laugh-out-loud superhero misadventures, and you have a comic that defies expectations in all kinds of ways.
OK, so, forget everything we just said about inner city teen hero cliches — Static is great. A flagship character from DC’s African-American-focused Milestone imprint, Static was partially envisioned as a contemporary reinterpretation of Peter Parker. After getting doused with experimental chemicals, Virgil Hawkins gained electromagnetic powers and donned the identity of Static to help him balance crime-fighting and high school as teen heroes are wont to do.
To be brutally honest, Static probably wouldn’t have been well-known enough to make this list without (yet again) the animated DC Universe, who gave Static a four-season run of his own animated show, Static Shock, periodically crossing over with the contemporaneous animated Batman show and other Warner Bros. properties.
In his 20-odd years as a teen, Static has been relaunched and rebooted a number of times despite legal/ownership difficulties and the tragic and unexpected death of his creator, Dwayne McDuffie. But he’s got Teen Titans material written all over him and he’s too fun a character to ever stay on the shelf for long.
The Brave & The Bold: Milestone (feat. other stars of the Milestone universe teaming up with more famous DC characters)
Go ahead — tell Amanda Waller she’s not a superhero. We’ll wait. You’ll wait. Until she’s done yelling. At Batman.
Another hugely important character to the DC Animated universe (god, just go watch them already, they’re all on Netflix and Amazon), Amanda “The Wall” Waller is a tough-as-nails government agent generally tasked with keeping totally unregulated superheroes from accidentally blowing up the world. Sounds easy, right?
More often than not, she’s shown running incarnations of DC’s Suicide Squad property — a team of reluctantly reformed villains going on suicidal government missions in exchange for pardons (or death). Amanda Waller doesn’t really care which, as long as America and her interests remain safe. She also might be responsible for the creation of Batman Beyond, but it’s a long story.
If you still doubt her sheer power, none other than Pam Grier herself portrayed her in an appearance on Smallville, Angela Bassett took over for the Green Lantern movie, and now How To Get Away With Murder’s Viola Davis is also rumored to be playing her in a Suicide Squad movie coming soon. Sold.
For years, before there were six superhero movies a year, maybe even before X-Men came out in 2000, you could ask any black male actor of a certain physique what their dream role was and you’d get a two-word response: Luke Cage. With Netflix releasing its aforementioned slate of Marvel shows, that dream appears to be a reality for up-and-coming actor Mike Colter (The Good Wife and like, a million supporting TV drama and/or vaguely military roles). But before he was a TV star, before he led multiple teams of Avengers, Luke Cage, Hero for Hire (later called Power Man), was Marvel’s answer to the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s.
A young gang member in Harlem, Cage is framed for dealing heroin, imprisoned, and coerced into volunteering for a medical experiment — sabotaged by corrupt guards with the intent of killing him, but instead providing him with superhuman strength and unbreakable skin. Even after the discarding of his Afro, billowy disco shirt, silver tiara, and unfortunate catchphrase (“Sweet Christmas!”), Cage floundered as a B-list character for decades, until an early 2000s renaissance put him front and center in the Marvel universe.
Today’s Cage is a leader, a father, and a staple of the Avengers. Like all great superheroes, he embodies the bittersweetness of creating characters to fight the battles we can’t, whether that means being a super-soldier who punches Hitler square in the jaw, or being a black man in an American city, looking out for the people in your community who don’t have bulletproof skin.
The Pulse Vol. 3 (for modern family man Luke Cage and an introduction to his wife and future Netflix co-star Jessica Jones)
So who or what is Spawn? Al Simmons was a Marine turned black ops soldier who was betrayed by his partners, burned alive, and sent to hell, having knowingly killed innocent people during his CIA days. There, he sold his soul, despite being in hell already (don’t worry about it), and returned to Earth as an antihero who brutally kills gang members and pedophiles and becomes a sort of hobo king.
Spawn is ’90s comics at their most ’90s. Spawn #1 wasn’t just one of the biggest-selling issues in history — it was the cornerstone of Image Comics, the creator-driven company/experiment that would help trigger the ’90s collecting boom and seriously rival Marvel and DC’s “big two” monopoly for the first time in decades. In some ways, Spawn was the first step toward the brave new world of indie, digital, and self-publishing that makes comics such a rich and accessible field today.
Under writer-artist Todd McFarlane and his organization, Spawn was also the beginning of a cottage industry of expensive-looking action figures targeting adults, an R-rated animated series on HBO (yes, that HBO), and a skillion-dollar empire of video games, trading cards, clothing, and (of course) a forgettable feature film that could never do justice to McFarlane’s visuals.
Unfortunately the comics haven’t aged nearly as well as the gossipy and amazing stories about the rise of Image itself. It’s easy to overlook that at the center of this explosion of money and drama there was a story about a black Vietnam vet who sold his soul to the devil just so he could see his family again.
Spawn Origins Vol. 6 (Includes stories written by Alan Moore after a five-year hiatus from comics. Again, “yes, that Alan Moore.”)
Falcon (Captain America)
Debuting in 1969, The Falcon is widely accepted as being mainstream comics’ first African-American superhero. Born in Harlem (Marvel superheroes all live in New York, and apparently Harlem was the only neighborhood with black people living there), Sam Wilson had an early childhood affinity for birds and raised pigeons in rooftop coops before one day adopting a feral falcon he named Redwing. Then, obviously, the two of them started fighting crime and racial injustice. Falcon is Captain America’s most consistent partner, co-headlining Cap’s magazine for most of the 1970s — hence his pivotal role in 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier (played by Anthony Mackie).
But since a lot of the zaniness of comics tends to get stripped out by the time they get to Hollywood, let’s remember that Falcon’s wings were designed by the Black Panther, he has a telepathic connection with Redwing that lets him see through the bird’s eyes, and for about five seconds in the ’80s Marvel decided he was a mutant, and — if you can’t tell from the picture above — a recently super-aged Captain America chose Wilson to officially become the new Captain America. Just don’t call him an eagle.
All-New Captain America Vol. 1: Hydra Ascendant (This is the new one where Wilson dons the stars & stripes, but keeps the wings.)
There are honestly too many compelling characters to include everyone we love on this list, but you can still pursue them on their own:
• Lobo — The Dell Comics Old West gunslinger and first black character to headline his own comic book in 1965 (a year before Black Panther).
• Blade — British in the comics, Marvel’s vampire hunter would go on to be played by Wesley Snipes in a 1998 surprise hit, a full two years before X-Men, ushering in the current age of mainstream superhero films.
• Nubia — Simplified (perhaps overly simplified) Nubia is Wonder Woman’s long-lost black sister, her rival for the title of Wonder Woman, and, when we meet her, the ruler of an island of men.
• James Rhodes / War Machine — Terence Howard, then Don Cheadle in the movies. Rhodey is Tony Stark’s military liaison, bodyguard, righthand man and general bro, taking over as Iron Man frequently before getting the heavy-duty gunmetal-gray armor of his own.
This is just a starting place.
You can keep the conversation going beyond Black History Month. The hugely comprehensive WorldOfBlackHeroes.com was invaluable to this list, and your primer for countless more characters and creators. Similarly, the hashtag #BlackComicsMonth spearheaded by writer/blogger @MizCaramelVixen is keeping the conversation alive on Twitter and at BlackComicsMonth.com. Or just consult a comic book shop near you. Seriously. Today. On your way home.
The best way to get the kind of comics you want to read, is to support the creators who write them.
Don’t only spread awareness to #BlackComicsMonth via RTs, but also open your wallet and support these black comic creators featured!
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