Thursday, January 21, 2010

MLK Week Special: Black SUPER Power Part 5 of 5

The End is here! Then back to blathering on about TV and celebrities and toys and such. But for now, here are the pinnacle (and nadir) in black super heroes. How did I rank them? Basically, I made the whole thing up. Well... I mean, I weighed a few factors, mostly impact on comics (both in the real world and in terms of sales and notoriety in the imaginary comic universes) as well as overall cultural impact, licensing and other adaptations. Like I said, The Falcon ranks so highly because his owners, Marvel Comics, made a point of including him on pretty much every Marvel licensed product in the 70s and 80s.

Along those lines, I realized that there was one black super hero that EVERYONE knows, but that I didn't include because he's not that big a star in actual comic books...
Honorable Mention: Blade, Vampire Hunter
Why didn't Blade make the cut? Because while he's starred in three hit blockbuster movies, the comic book version of Blade had starred in approximately ZERO hit comic book series. Let me weave this overly complex metaphor for you. The comic book Blade is like a seed, which Wesley Snipes and the writers and producers of the Blade movies took, planted, grew a tree from, cut down the tree, turned it into boards and built a house. Does that make sense? In other words, the movie Blade kicks ass. The comic book Blade sucks ass. For whatever reason, Marvel's never been able to capture the awesomeness of the Blade movies on the printed page.

As I stated last blog, in doing my research, I realized I omitted a really great hero who should have made this list over, say, Mal Duncan, so just forget Mal and replace him with...

10: Cyborg (Victor Stone)
Cyborg is one of the best-written characters in comics, being one of the rare super beings who HATES his super powers. His body was nearly destroyed by one of his scientist father's experiments... the same experiment which killed Vic's mother. Vic's father saved his son's life by replacing his damaged body parts with cybernetic enhancements. However, for all the powers and abilities Victor now has, he can never feel that he is a normal person or live alongside normal people. A former athlete, Victor now feels that all his abilities are no longer his, but due to his freakish nature.
Cyborg helped form the New Teen Titans in 1980 and quickly became one of the hottest new characters in comics... so much so that he was added to the animated Super Friends cartoon lineup and included in the spin-off Super Powers toy line. He assumed a mentor role to a new generation of Teen Titans, and most recently graduated to the Justice League of America.

His tortured struggle, coming to terms with his status as a cyborg was one of the most interesting story lines in comics, and thanks to his allies in the Titans, he eventually realized that despite his outward appearance, his humanity is never in question.
He was also included in the Teen Titans cartoon and toy line in the 2000's.
He has appeared on a number of licensed products, including toys, DVDs, clothing, stickers, books, bedding and even a video game. Like Green Lantern, he also had a children's Halloween costume made in his likeness, based on his depiction on the Teen Titans cartoon.
Okay! Enough of that! Ready for the big winners and loser? Let's start with the loser, shall we? The worst black super hero ever is...
#1: The Black Bomber (a.k.a. The Brown Bomber)
When DC decided it needed a black headliner, the original idea was for a character called The Black Bomber. The origin someone concocted was that a white supremacist could gain super powers... by turning into a black male super hero. In the original scripts, The Black Bomber would rescue people without seeing them fully, in once case, a baby in a stroller, only to react in disgust when he discovered that he's risked his life to save a black person! According to writer Tony Isabella who was handed these scripts, the character would make some racist slur at this point! On top of that, Black Bomber's costume looked like a glorified basketball uniform. Isabella convinced DC to discard these scripts and he set about creating Black Lightning instead, who eventually did become DC's first black headliner.

No artwork was completed for the Black Bomber, but African American writer Tony Isabella made reference to it in a recent parallel universe story in Justice League of America, referring to this character as the Brown Bomber.
Classy! No white writer could get away with a C.P.T. joke!

And now for the top two BEST black heroes:
#2: Black Panther (A.k.a. T'Challa, The Black Leopard)
The very first black super hero in comics, The Black Panther was the king of the mysterious African nation Wakanda, visited in the comics, by The Fantastic Four. Wakanda was a wonderland as could only exist in comics... a land where people still dressed in traditional African garb and carried spears, but that possessed incredible scientific wonders at the same time. It is also the only place on Marvel Earth, where the powerful metal Vibranium can be mined. Stronger than steel, Vibranium can absorb any force directed at it and was used in the creation of Captain America's indestructible shield.
The Black Panther has enjoyed a long and illustrious career in Marvel Comics, joining The Avengers (at one point, serving as Captain America's replacement) and The Fantastic Four. However, like many other characters like The Sub-Mariner and Aquaman, being the king of a foreign country political demands often pulled him away from super heroics.

After the formation of the militant group The Black Panthers, Marvel briefly changed T'Challa's codename to The Black Leopard.
In recent years, his popularity has grown with a hit comic book series and an animated series on BET. He even gained mainstream press coverage when he married...
#1: Storm (Ororo Munroe)
... making them the comic book equivalent of Barrack and Michelle Obama... or Jay-Z and Beyonce'. Either way, they are comics mightiest power couple! Kneel before them!
Debuting in 1977, as a member of "The All-New, All-Different X-Men," Storm was comics first black super heroine and was an immediate break-out star! Possibly the most powerful X-Men, Storm can control the weather, summoning Tsunamis and hurricanes as simply as Wolverine can pop out a razor sharp claw.
When the X-Men's leader, Cyclops left, Storm easily slipped into the role as the team's commander and has remained a leader of the team ever since, even after Cyclops eventually returned. Storm steered comics' most popular team through it's most acclaimed times (with critics as well as fans), during the late 70s and 80s, well into the 90s. She has appeared each time the team has been adapted into other media, first in animation in two episodes of Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, then in a late 80s TV pilot, then eventually in the long running hit X-Men series and subsequent adaptations, X-Men Evolution and Wolverine and the X-Men.Halle Berry portrayed Storm in the three blockbuster X-Men movies, with another, X-Men: First Class on its way. (The role will most likely be recast.)
In 1996, comics' two leading publishers combined their universes and allowed fans to vote for who would win in a fight between the most popular characters from both companies. Thanks to the fans, Storm defeated comic's leading lady, Wonder Woman in combat!
The two women were then merged into one, in the special one-shot comic Amazon!
Storm very possibly is the most licensed female super hero, appearing on a legion of action figures, dolls, statues, clothes, books, posters, stickers... even candy!
Storm isn't just the queen of Wakanda, she's pretty much the Queen of Super Heroes, appearing nearly everywhere super heroes pop up! Not bad... for a girl!

Finally over! Thanks anyone who read all this! We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

MLK Week Special: Black SUPER Power Part 4 of 5

Soooo... somewhere I made a miscalculation. I'd originally intended to present this as a five-part series, with two "Bests" and one "Worst" per blog, but since I was too busy on Monday, I shortened the series to four parts, but intended to double up the first one. BUT, I only listed two Bests instead of four, so now I have to expand back to five anyway. So tomorrow will be a jumbo blog. I'm holding off on my top Worst until then. I also realized I made a huge error and omitted a pretty important character, so I'll be giving him a special tribute as well as mentioning a few that didn't make the list. Basic VH1 countdown stuff... "Why did you include this person instead of that one? Why is so & so higher that this guy?" I'm not even sure if anyone is reading these, but I enjoy writing them, so whatever... anyway, we're up to...
#4: The Falcon (Sam "Snap" Wilson)
Debuting in 1969, The Falcon is the first African American super hero. The first black super hero, The Black Panther, is just plain African. Trained by Captain America and given a flying harness by The Black Panther, The Falcon, miraculously avoided being dubbed "The Black Falcon" and becomes the first black super hero to headline a comic, when Captain America became Captain America and The Falcon. Okay, so he really co-headlined the book, but he was still the first.
In addition to flight, The Falcon was telepathically linked to his pet falcon, Redwing and eventually, could establish telepathic contact with other birds as well as see through their eyes. (And people make fun of Aquaman...)
The Falcon joined Marvel's flagship super team The Avengers, but learning that he was enlisted to fill a racial quota, he quit, but occasionally teams up with them when his help is needed. And while his name no longer appears in the headline, he still works regularly alongside Captain America.The Falcon is the first black super hero to receive his own action figure, as part of the Mego line in the mid-70s. Controversially, his hands were recycled from Mego's Planet of the Apes line and were extremely hairy, which some people attribute to racism. Others suggest pretending they're feathers instead of hairs. My question: Why does he have brown hands to begin with? He wore white gloves. Why didn't they include the gloves as part of his costume? At this point, who can say? But honestly, they INCLUDED him in the line, so I doubt there was any racial overtone. They probably just cheaped out on the hands and it kinda backfired.

He also appeared very frequently on all Marvel merchandise during this time, including stickers, books, various toys and even...a 7-11 Slurpee cup!
Ironically, although in the comics, he is most often thought of as Captain America's partner (NOT sidekick!), in animation, both times he has appeared on a series, it's been without Cap. First in a short-lived Avengers series in the 90s and currently on Super Hero Squad, along with a host of other Marvel Heroes all, strangely illustrated to look kind of like babies.

While The Falcon has only once headlined his own solo book, a 4-issue miniseries in the 1980s, I remember him appearing everywhere when I was a kid, because Marvel slapped his picture on every piece of merchandising they could. He HAS to be, at least until lately, the most merchandised black super hero and never underestimate licensed merch. Millions of people buy that stuff, but never pick up a comic book. That means something.

Speaking of merchandising...

#3: Spawn (Al Simmons)
In 1992, when Spawn #1, published by Image Comics, debuted, it instantly became the best-selling single comic book of all time! An especially impressive feat, considering it was published by NEITHER of the two top-selling comic book publishers, Marvel and DC. The secret of Spawn's success was it's creator/illustrator Todd McFarlane, an innovative artist who'd become a superstar, thanks to his work on Marvel's The Amazing Spider-Man among others.
The Spawn character, visually, was a little bit Spider-Man, a little bit Batman (both characters that McFarlane had previously illustrated) with a healthy dash of Ghost Rider and Dr. Strange thrown in. Al Simmons was killed (secretly by his own boss), went to hell and made a deal with the Devil (refered to in this series as Malebolgia), in order to return to Earth... Simmon's purpose-- to be with his wife, Wanda. However, as deals with the Devil generally go, Simmons was double-crossed and promptly realized that his new Earthly form bore no resemblance of the man he once was. As Spawn (short for Hellspawn), his skin is charred and burnt, like Freddie Krueger's and he possessed amazing magical powers.
Spawn, with its dark, graphically violent and sexual content, was a runaway hit immediately inspiring spin-off comic books, followed promptly by an adults-only animated series on HBO and a live-action movie, starring Michael Jai White in the title role. Just as McFarlane decided not to publish Spawn through one of the major publishers, he took the same DIY approach when it came to creating toys based on his comic.
McFarlane created Todd Toys, which became McFarlane Toys after a lawsuit by Mattel... it turns out there was a boy doll named Todd in the Barbie line. Yeah, me neither. McFarlane went on to create 35 waves of action figures over the span of 14 years. All of these factors easily make Spawn the most successful (at least when it comes to $$$) black super hero EVER!

One drawback... most people forget that Spawn IS black. He's completely covered from head-to-toe and even when his mask (or any other costume parts) are removed, his skin is charred beyond recognition. Even so... as De La Soul said, "Black is black."

Unfortunately, Spawn's popularity waned heavily after the close of the 90s. the comics have been relaunched a few times in an attempt to spark interest, but the toy line has ended (McFarlane Toys continues, creating toys based on a variety of sources, from rock bands like Metallica and KISS to TV shows and movies and their own fantasy creations). McFarlane has been hoping to create another Spawn movie, but it's been over a decade since the last one, so who knows if that will ever come to fruition. But at any rate, at one point, Spawn was selling in that Spider-Man/Batman/Wolverine range and that's quite a feat for a brand new, creator-owned character!

Okay, like I said, tune in tomorrow for the big finish!

MLK Week Special: Black SUPER Power Part 3 of 5

It's about to get Bad Ass up in here! Look out! Here comes...
#6: Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man, Hero For Hire)
Comics are always late in jumping on the pop cultural bandwagon, and when they DO get hip to a trend, they are always so delightfully misguided!
Hot on the heels of 70s Blaxploitation masterpieces such as Shaft and Superfly, came Marvel's ghetto defender Luke Cage, Hero For Hire. Wrongly convicted of a crime and sentenced to a prison located in some unnamed swamp, run by a racist warden (are there any other kinds?) Carl Lucas volunteered for an experiment which resulted in him gaining super strength and unbreakable skin. After escaping from prison, Carl Lucas adopted the alias Luke Cage and attempted to cash in on his super powers by becoming a "Hero For Hire" in the slums of New York City. However, Luke always ended up either getting stiffed by his clients or taking pity on them and refusing to accept payment. At some point, he took on the more super hero-y name Power Man.
Sales of Luke's comic weren't that strong. Neither were those of Iron Fist, another character based on a huge 70s fad, Kung Fu, so both books were combined into one and the two became partners. Blaxploitation AND Kung Fu?! Better'n chocolate and peanut butter! Could it get any more SEVENTIES?!?!
Answer: YES!!! Just add Disco, as in Disco Dazzler! Oot oot! Super Village People.... STRIKE!!!
Luke Cage briefly brought the Bad Ass to Marvel's First Family, the Fantastic Four (a whiter bunch of heroes, you'd be hard-pressed to find). No other super hero could demand of the diabolical, would-be world conqueror Dr. Doom, "Where's my money, Honey?"
Indeed, Doom, where IS his money, Honey? Yellow polyester blouses aren't free, ya know.
Taking a break from Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Storm teamed up with Spider-Man to teach kids that smoking was bad. Not only was this a PSA to help kids, but it also helped beef up Spidey's street cred. Sadly, Luke probably didn't get paid for this adventure either.
In more recent times, Luke has undergone a huge resurgence in popularity, thanks to a prominent role in The New Avengers, Marvel's flagship super team. Luke went so far as to assume leadership of the team briefly, and in more personal news, recently married his baby mama, Jessica Jones, a detective and formerly the heroine Jewel. (Not to be confused with the annoying folk singer.)
Honorable Mention: Misty Knight
If Luke Cage is comics' Shaft, Misty Knight is its Foxy Brown (or Cleopatra Jones, your choice)... with a bionic arm! Teamed with martial arts expert Colleen Wing, they were known in the 70s as The Daughters of the Dragon. In more recent times, they assumed Cage and Iron Fist's former title as Heroes For Hire, although in the comics, they go by Knight-Wing Investigations. Misty has had an on-again/off-again relationship with Iron Fist since their early days, but this independent diva isn't one to be tied down.

#5: Green Lantern (John Stewart)
One of the earliest black super heroes, John Stewart unfortunately falls into the "black version of a white hero" category. The Green Lanterns are an intergalactic corps of thousands of beings from all over the universe, entrusted with the amazing abilities of their Power Rings by the Guardians of the Universe and with protecting all of inhabited space from evil.

The "main" Green Lantern from Earth is Hal Jordan, but in cases where Jordan was incapacitated (like once, he slipped getting out of the shower and bonked his head... no really) architect and former Marine sniper, John Stewart was quick to take up the Power Ring and mantle of Green Lantern. Unlike Hal Jordan and pretty much every other super hero, John Stewart refused to wear a mask OR keep his identity concealed. He wanted his people to know who he was and to take pride that one of their own was serving as a super hero, both solo and as a member of the Justice League.
Originally, John was depicted as an "angry young black man," but over time has calmed down considerably. During an extended period of time in the 80s, Hal Jordan resigned from the Green Lantern Corps and John became the full-time GL assigned to Earth.
Though Hal Jordan was the most famous Green Lantern and at the time, in the comics, a new younger Caucasian, Kyle Rayner was the only active Earth GL, the producers chose John Stewart to serve as the GL on the hit animated series Justice League (later Justice League Unlimited). The result was John's having the highest profile of any of the other comic book GLs for a number of years.
John has had many action figures and has appeared on all kinds of merchandising from clothing to video games... even bedding sheets and beach towels!
John was also the first GL whose costume was adapted for a Halloween costume, POSSIBLY the very first black male hero to receive that honor!

And now for today's Hall of Shame'r...
#2: Lois Lane
Yes, THAT Lois Lane! In one of my favorite comic book stories EVER, nosy pain-in-the-ass reporter, and Superman's love interest, demanded Superman use his advanced Kryptonian science to turn her into a black woman so she could uncover a story in Suicide Slum (see: Black Lightning), after she discovered that the people that lived there refused to speak to her when she was white. Guess even back then, no one liked a snitch.
Guess Supes isn't down with the swirl... or is he?
My favorite scene in the story is when, after undergoing the transformation, Lois asks Superman to fly her to an ethnic clothing store so she can change... because there's no way anyone would believe she was really black unless she were dressed like Erykah Badu!!! (Remember HER?! "Think ya better call Tyrone...") Why not just carry a sign reading "I'm really black!" I can't say for certain, but this story may have inspired Eddie Murphy's HILARIOUS Undercover White Man sketch on SNL in the 80s. Brilliant! This story? Maybe not so much.

Stay tuned... the best is yet to come!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MLK Week Special: Black SUPER Power! Part 2 of 4

Welcome back for the second in my series of tributes to the best (and worst) black super heroes in comics. Today's installment could be subtitled "It's Electrifying!"
#8: Black Lightning (a.k.a. Jefferson Pierce)
For whatever reason, there's some law that requires a huge percentage of African American heroes to be former Olympic track and field medalists and Black Lightning is just one. Also fitting the bill...Amazing Man...and Mr. Terrific. Guess humility in name selection was NOT a requirement.

Also apparently fitting the bill for these heroes, falling from grace. Amazing Man went from winning a Gold Medal to being a janitor. Jefferson Pierce ended up as an inner-city high school teacher. (Beats janitor, I suppose.) Can you imagine Michael Phelps having to work as a janitor? The idea of an Olympian... a MEDAL winner!... falling that far down is more unrealistic to me than guys putting on spandex and flying through the air, to be honest.Steel never won a gold medal, but went from being a genius inventor to being a construction worker. What's up with that? Even worse, he was portrayed by Shaq in a movie. Arguably a worse fate than being played by Halle Berry.
But I digress. Black Lightning lives and battles crime in Metropolis... er, in a not-quite-as-nice neighborhood as Clark Kent's. Officially, BL's neighborhood is named "Southside" but is more popularly known as "Suicide Slum." Makes you want to move there right now, doesn't it? BL was DC Comics' first African American hero to headline his own comic book, but unlike a lot of white headliners, it seems some conspiracy was hatched to prevent him from blossoming into a real "icon."
He refused membership in the Justice League, the team made up of DC's biggest names. According to this cover, his reason was that the JL was a "jive bunch of turkeys." (This is what happens when you learn to write black characters from watching Good Times.) In the story, he explains that the Justice League's focus is too broad and he wants to stay focused on street level crime that threatens his community. Shenanigans, I say! That never stopped Batman, Green Arrow or Black Canary and they are also "street level" crime fighters! Shenanigans!

According to BL creator Tony Isabella, the character was also kept out of the animated Super Friends show, because Hanna Barbera would have had to pay him royalties. So instead, Black Lightning was replaced with an all-new character Black Vulcan, who coincidentally also possessed lightning abilities... and a killer pair of gams.
It appears that in DC has finally realized Black Lightning's potential and have started promoting him more. He's finally relented and joined the Justice League as well as a second team, The Outsiders. He's had several action figures and other licensed items and has finally popped up in animation, beginning with the recent Batman & Superman animated movie.
In addition, his two teenage daughters have also embarked on crime fighting careers as... Thunder:And Lightning:Looks like he's finally breaking out... 20+ years later. Better late than never, I suppose.

#7. Static (a.k.a. Virgil Hawkins)
NOT Black Lightning's son, surprisingly enough, is Static, teenager Virgil Hawkins, who possesses electrical powers and wore a black, blue and yellow costume. Positioned as a modern take on Spider-Man, Static was the breakout star of the multi-ethnic Milestone Media line of comics which launched in the mid-90s.
Despite possessing amazing abilities, (just like Spider-Man) he suffered from horrendous bad luck... such as having the tag line of your first comic book be "You don't start none, there won't be none." That, along with the Malcolm X ball cap probably sounded like a great idea at the time. Like if he were being made up today, he'd be wearing Ed Hardy.
The Milestone Media comics never really found an audience, despite some high-quality work and folded after just a few years. Nevertheless, Static went on to star in his own Saturday morning cartoon series (remember when those existed?) entitled Static Shock. Produced by Warner Brothers, the owners of DC Comics, this allowed Static to actually team up with the Justice League, even though they existed in two different comic book universes. Static later appeared on the Justice League's cartoon, as an adult in the future, in the time travel episode "The Once And Future Thing." In the current comics, Static and the rest of the Milestone characters have been revived and integrated into the DC Comics stable, something his cartoon series preceded. Static currently appears as a member of the Teen Titans.

Static Shock, as most cartoon series do, produced a wave of various licensed tie-ins, such as DVDs, clothing and even a video game. Strangely, there's never been a toy line, but I wouldn't rule an eventual Static action figure out, especially now that he is once again appearing regularly in the world of comics.

As for today's Worst...
#3: Tyroc
The token black member of the 30th Century's Legion of Super Heroes, Tyroc didn't even have a real code name. The Legion had the most self-explanatory names in comics: Lightning Lad, Invisible Kid, Matter-Eater Lad... NOT MADE UP! There really is a Matter-Eater Lad!!! But Tyroc... what does that mean? Nuthin'!
Like Static's X cap, it probably sounded like a good idea at the time, but in his debut, it was revealed that all the black people on Earth now lived on one island. Lovely to hear that segregation not only exists in the 30th Century but has surpassed any that previously existed in the real world. Nice. Also, ALL the black people on Earth fit on ONE island?! Ugh.
The thing I remember most about Tyroc is that he NEVER appeared in Legion stories. They introduced him and he joined the team, but then in every subsequent issue that I read, they went out of their way to explain that Tyroc was busy elsewhere and couldn't participate in whatever mission the rest of the team was about to embark upon. After several years, they just stopped explaining his absence and he was basically forgotten. He never even turned up in reunion stories where all the other former members dropped by for a visit. It's been a while since I read them, but I'm guessing Matter-Eater Lad probably explained, "Tyroc sends his regrets for not being here, but he was busy with... y'know... something else. I think a new Tyler Perry 3000 movie just opened."

The End for today! Check back tomorrow for two more greats and one more "jive turkey!"