5 Stupid Times DC Managed To Suck At Black Superheroes
When Marvel decided to introduce their first black superhero in the '60s, they pretty much knocked it out of the park on first try with Black Panther (literally a billion dollar idea, as it'd turn out). DC, not so much. It took DC's editors a lot longer to stop crapping the bed when it came to black characters, but at least their early efforts gave us hilariously terrible ideas to make fun of from this enlightened and totally-not-racist future, like ...
DC's Response To Black Panther Was ... A White Guy As The Only Superhero In Africa
Six months after Marvel debuted Black Panther (the first black superhero in mainstream comics), DC presented an Africa-based hero of their own by the catchy name of "B'wana Beast, the Jungle Master." Here he is in his secret identity:
Rupert Zambesi Kenboya was the son of a rich tribal chief ("rich" meaning "he's got more leopard claws than anybody in Africa!") who becomes a hero and a leader to his people, and then ... uhh, wait, sorry, that's just B'wana Beast's helper pal. The actual hero of the story is that generic blonde guy next to him. Michael "Mike" Maxwell (the whitest possible name calculated by six room-sized 1960s computers) uses his superior physique and animal-related powers to save African villagers who either ignorantly hate him or rabidly idolize him, depending on the page.
"Bwana," by the way, means "boss or master" in Swahili and was a word often used by dumb natives in old jungle movies to praise their brave white saviors. B'wana Beast was supposed to have a five issue miniseries in 1967 but it was cancelled after the second one because none of DC's artists wanted anything to do with this racist crap (so, no, "it was a different time" isn't the magical argument you think it is, dear commenter).
Even though his creator himself considered the character an embarrassing failure, B'wana Beast is still making cameos in DC comics whenever someone needs a character who's like Aquaman but on land. He's even shown up in various DC cartoons this very century, but that's OK because 1) they're leaving out the "white savior of Africa" part, and 2) he's mostly used as the stupid punchline he was always destined to be.
DC Wouldn't Let A Legion Of Super-Heroes Character Be Black, So The Writer Just Killed Him
Legion of Super-Heroes, as the title suggests, is a DC comic starring a shitload of heroes who are super. So, when a 14-year-old named Jim Shooter started writing it in 1966 (an insane story on its own), he decided it would be groovy if at least one of those super-people was black. On his first issue he introduced a character named Ferro Lad, planning to later take off his mask and reveal that he was dark-skinned. The idea was that no one would even comment on his race because the comic was set in the 30th century, when mankind doesn't even remember what that whole "racism" thing was about.
Unfortunately this was the racist-ass 20th century, so Shooter's editor vetoed the idea because DC would "lose distribution in the South." Even when Shooter offered to keep Ferro Lad's mask on the whole time, the editor still thought this unseen black face would be too much for America to handle. Frustrated, Shooter dealt with this setback like any teenage boy would: by breaking his toys. When he came up with a story that required a Legion member to blow himself up, he went with Ferro Lad a.k.a. Pointlessly Caucasian Youngster. In Shooter's (somewhat serial killer-ish) words: "I killed him off because it annoyed me that I couldn't do with him what I wanted."
Meanwhile, DC frequently asked readers to send in their ideas for possible Legion members, and they liked one for a black girl with shadow-based powers ... minus the "black" part. So they made her blue instead, but still tried to score diversity points because she technically counted as "non-white."
The fans who came up with Shadow Lass also intended for her to come from a planet populated by black people only. In retrospect, it wasn't the most racially sensitive idea. So, of course, DC ended up using it too ...
Planet Krypton And Earth's "Utopian" Future Were Both Racially Segregated
In the '70s, DC realized it was time to address the fact that their version of the 30th century was whiter than the non-televised seats in a MAGA rally. But, instead of saying "hey, we fucked up and we'll try to do better from now on," their solution was to reveal that the black people were there all along -- they just happened to live in an all-black island called Marzal that drifts in and out of this dimension every 200 years. The U.S. had just gotten rid of segregation and DC was already trying to give it a crappy sci-fi reboot.
At least Marzal Island served as an excuse to introduce a black hero ... if you can consider a racial separatist with sound powers and a disco-themed stripper suit a "hero."
The artist who designed that atrocity, Mike Grell, says he'd been trying to introduce a black character for a while but he "kept getting stalled off" by the editors, and then they sprung Tyroc on him. Grell immediately hated the whole concept, so he intentionally gave Tyroc a stupid costume (in his words) "somewhere between Elvis' Las Vegas costume and something you would imagine a pimp on the street corner wearing." He succeeded, and no one used the Legion's first black character for over ten years. Yay?
Meanwhile, Superman's editor was dealing with the same problem and came up with the same dumbass solution. How come you never saw any black people in the dozens of flashback stories set in planet Krypton? Because they all lived together in Vathlo Island, condescendingly described as the home of a "highly developed black race."
In other words, DC's idea of a futuristic utopian society consisted of cramming all the black people in the universe in islands that may not even exist in the same dimension as ours and occasionally forget about them. What's important is that their hearts were in the right place. Their stupid, racist hearts.
Green Lantern John Stewart Was Almost Called "Lincoln Washington"
Green Lantern John "With an H" Stewart was one of the few black DC characters to come out of the '70s who wasn't completely botched by editors ... but it wasn't for lack of trying. For starters, his name was originally going to be "Lincoln Washington." To quote Kevin Smith, "they might as well name him Black Blackman."
The whole story of how Stewart came about is full of narrowly avoided terribleness. In Green Lantern comics, magic rings from outer space find the most fearless person in each part of the universe and induct them into a cosmic police force. And on Earth, the first and second worthiest people happened to be white American dudes. When artist Neal Adams asked his editor if he thought the ring's third pick should be white too, the editor said yes, obviously, "to sell comics." They'd already shown pink, orange, and blue Green Lanterns, but one who looks like some of their own readers? That's just commercial suicide.
Adams convinced the editor to give the idea of a black Green Lantern a try, but he had to go out of his way to make it clear that he wasn't willing to draw a gang member, or a primitive tribesman, or a 19th century slave who'd just fallen into a time warp.
No, Adams insisted that it had to be a regular person with a regular person name. The next hiccup came when Adams colored Stewart with a realistic black skin tone, not the gray or khaki color that was used back then, and DC's head of production said, "Neal, this is awfully brown. Don't you think some black people will be offended?" Yeah, because black folks love seeing themselves colored as if they're made out of pants.
Fortunately, Adams stuck to his guns and DC ended up with their first African American superhero... and proceeded to ignore him for the next ten years (he made only four appearances between 1972 and 1982, one of which was a single panel cameo).
Black Lightning Was Almost A Racist White Guy Who Turned Black Under Stress
Fun fact: The CW's Black Lightning show could have been The CW's Black Bomber, the name DC originally wanted to go with. Or, more likely, it wouldn't exist, because there's no way the DC's utterly bonkers original idea would have ever been allowed to escape into other media. In fact, it's so insane and outrageous that we have to stress that none of what you're about to read is an exaggeration.
That idea? A "white racist" who had the superpower of turning black under stress. This was due to experiments performed on him during the Vietnam War to let white soldiers blend into the jungle, because that's easier than just spending $10 on camo face paint.
Now, some of you are already saying "How do you know the guy was racist? SJW slander!" But no, he was so racist that the script included a scene where he accidentally saved a black baby and was horrified that he'd "risked life for a jungle bunny." And it's not like he starts racist and reconsiders his position after living as a black man, because his secret identity as the Black Bomber is so secret that even he doesn't know about it. The heroic Black Bomber himself also lives in blissful ignorance that he's the split personality of some stupid bigot.
Writers Gerry Conway and Bob Kanigher wrote two scripts for this series in 1976 but weren't able to continue, for whatever reason (probably suddenly learning how to feel shame). DC was determined to publish their first comic headlined by a black superhero, so they asked Tony Isabella, who had written Luke Cage for Marvel, to "punch up" the scripts a little bit and continue them. Isabella had a better idea: flush this moronic drivel down the toilet and use a completely different character he'd invented called Black Lightning.
After carefully explaining to DC the concept of mobs storming their offices with torches and pitchforks (and promising to lead those mobs), Isabella convinced the editors to go with Black Lightning. Thankfully, he's had a mostly dignified existence since then.
Follow Maxwell Yezpitelok's heroic effort to read and comment every '90s Superman comic at Superman86to99.tumblr.com.
Top Photo: DC Comics