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Black Power in Comic Books and the Importance of Nuance

Black Panther may not have been first black character printed on paper, but he certainly has a lively journey filled with ruling Wakanda, saving the multiverse and early writer’s problematic beginnings.

For decades, comic books are powerful forms of literature with large fandoms that span generations and social movements. There is a certain appeal to seeing yourself in the brave or broken characters in graphic novels printed and manga. Those printed or uploaded-to-the-Internet stories capture the lived experiences of characters that readers relate to. Or just look very cool.

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One upon a time in the 1970s, Bostin University communications professor F. Earle Barcus began researching content analysis he conducted between the number of male and female characters and number of white and non-white characters on children’s television.

He analyzed over 1,100 characters in 20 children’s television programs. Out of the various characters, only 42 were black.

Since then, researchers are constantly finding that animated worlds children see on TV aren’t matching up with their real-world environments.

History Lesson: The Black Comic Book

Black audiences are prominent consumers of comic books since the 1940s.

It’s important to note that much of America employed some form of segregation around this time period in history. Jim Crow laws kept African Americans in perpetual social inferiority imposed by the dominant white class. Threats of violence and lynchings were not uncommon for an African American living in the 1940s.

The only black character to appear in Timely Comics, the then Marvel, was named “White-Wash.” This troubled portrayal was illustrated to appear like a young white boy in black face, rather than an actual African American character.

Photo of the character "White-Wash" from Timely comics, the predecessor of Marvel. He appears like a young while boy in black face, rather than an actual African American.
(Photo credit via Marvel)

Black and African American audiences had little resources when it came to positive representation of themselves in printed comic books.

There were some breakthrough predecessors to T’Challa, like Waku, the Prince of the Bantu and the first known mainstream comic book feature with a Black, non-African American lead; Jackie Johnson and Gabe Jones, two early Westernized African American supporting characters in a World War II D.C. Comics’ Our Army at War; and Bill Foster, a scientist who appeared in The Avengers #32.

But Philadelphian African American writers and artists had enough of the ridicule. Established in mid-1947, All-Negro Comics was the first known comics magazine written solely by its target audience.

Cover art for All-Negro Comics #1. Depicts various black characters, ranging ages from youth to adult.
(Cover, All-Negro Comics #1, 1947 / Cover artist unknown / Labeled for reuse via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s no new news that Caucasian writers and artists back then expressed overt ignorance with portraying people of color. What’s worse are the lack of opportunity given to people of color to tell rich and authentic stories.

They were comic foils, ignorant natives or brutal savages or cannibals.

William H. Foster III, associate professor of English at Naugatuck Valley Community College

Publishing changed forever with the 1966 print of the first black superhero in mainstream American comic books, Marvel’s Black Panther. Appearing first in Fantastic Four #52, this was followed up by the first African American superhero in mainstream comic books, the Falcon, a winged crime-fighter and buddy of Captain America.

What Does It All Mean?

Comic books are economically viable forms of literature for youth. The diversity of image and explored nuance in storytelling aids in shaping how we perceive the world around us.

Negative representations geared specifically toward a group of people can sway public opinion of said group, thus creating associations that linger in the minds of people.

Exposure to diverse media at a young age gives agency to the various people we encounter in our lives, allowing them to tell their stories without the fear of violence and rejection.

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