Comic books depict a world where struggles between good, evil, and the morally ambiguous are a matter of life and death. As grandiose as these events may be, many of these narratives can stem from reality, evolving from true struggles that their protagonists have suffered.
Established 80 years ago, comic book narratives still heavily reflect the demographic of their social eras. Over the years, the introduction of African Americans into comics has been gradual and occasionally contentious. In 1963, Stan Lee and Jack “King” Kirby’s X-Men told the story of a noble (but light-skinned) minority struggling against people who refused to accept him due to their ignorance and fear, a subtle but powerful nod to the racial injustice of the time. Kirby, a comic legend and proponent of civil rights, created the first mainstream, black hero, Black Panther, three years later.
In honor of Black History Month, let’s take a look at superhero comics who feature real-life African Americans.
Superman vs. Muhammad Ali
‘Superman vs. Muhammad Ali’ (DC Comics, 1978)
One of the most notable appearances of a real person in a superhero comic is the legendary Muhammad Ali. In Superman vs. Muhammad Ali (1978), the world-famous boxer battles the Man of Steel for the role of Earth’s champion against an invading alien horde. Only the bombastic Ali would declare himself a superior warrior to Superman.
Muhammad Ali (born Cassius Clay) earned, lost and regained the Heavyweight Champion title three times over his career, during which he also earned an Olympic gold medal…and recorded a very interesting live album of poetry and unusual comedy skits. While young Clay spend his youth learning how to box as a method of self-defense in Louisville, Kentucky, the adult Ali spent much of his boxing career promoting himself with a charmingly narcissistic flair, and using the same passionate charisma when fighting for civil rights. Part of this fight was a name change to show solidarity: Ali was dubbed “Cassius X” by Malcolm X. He kept this name for less than one day before the Nation of Islam, who once refused Ali’s entry due to his fighting career, christened him with the venerable title of ‘Muhammad Ali.’
By the time of the publication of this Superman comic, Ali had lost and regained the Heavyweight title twice, once because of draft evasion. (Superman would also land himself in trouble for “anti-American” behavior, many years later). While Ali would regain the title a third time, this comic marked the beginning of the end of his boxing career.
‘Malcolm: An Unauthorized Biography’ (Comic Zone Productions, 1992)
Once a friend of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X (born Malcolm Little) has been the subject of multiple biographical comics. Struggles are the bread and butter of comics, so his presence on the visual page is unsurprising. Malcolm Little was the product of a tumultuous childhood: his father and uncle were murdered during his youth, and his mother was confined to a mental hospital. Little discovered the Nation of Islam while in prison for breaking and entering, and this revelation would change the course of his life, encouraging him to vocally and actively fight for civil rights, and change his name to ‘Malcolm X.’ Growing disillusionment with the group’s leadership convinced Malcolm X to depart, and less than a year later, he would be assassinated by the same group he once represented.
Because the story of his life is controversial, multiple authors and artists have tried to capture his story within the pages of a comic. Artist Sue Coe created graphic depictions of Malcolm X’s life in The Life and Times of Malcolm X (1986), and noted comic artist Michael Avon Oeming created another biographical series of comics, as well as The Assassination of Malcolm X in 1993.
President Barack Obama
‘Amazing Spider-Man’ #583 (Marvel Comics, 2009)
Barack Obama is a triumphant reflection of decades of fighting for racial equality. Not only is Obama the first African-American president, but his presence in pop culture is also very strong, just like his predecessors Abraham Lincoln (vampires, anyone?) and Bill Clinton (hello, ladies’ man). Comic books have positioned Obama as a muscle-clad barbarian warrior, visiting Archie’s town of Riverdale, fighting zombies with Ash from Army of Darkness, hanging out with Spider-Man, and of course, simply being the President.
Of course, a senator from Chicago doesn’t usually fight dragons, but Obama is a man who captures the imagination. A community organizer, a civil rights attorney, and a law educator, Obama’s election as president was quickly followed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Obama’s tenure as President has been replete with important events: the end of the US involvement in the Iraq War, the death of Osama bin Laden, and an epic battle against a struggling economy…which is probably a lot scarier than fighting dragons anyhow.
As a comic character, Barack Obama is joined by both his wife, Michelle, and the family dog, Bo, both of whom have appeared in biographical comics.
Golden Legacy Series
‘Golden Legacy 13: The Life of Martin Luther King Jr.’
Countless other figures from black history have also appeared in comics, most notably in the Golden Legacy series. While the publisher calls these “not a comic magazine, but a new approach to the study of history,” telling stories in illustrated panels pretty much still falls under the category of comic. Different issues of this series focus on Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., and other lesser-known names like Amistad-defendant Joseph Cinque, explorer Matthew Henson, and almanac author Benjamin Banneker.
Since comics always reflect both the popular and social culture during the time in which they were created, observing a comic from any era can be a telling experience. Whether they’re superheroes or just mere mortals, African Americans have found an important place in comics.
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