evolution of the black superhero: from the racist stereotypes in the early days to luke cage

November 15, 2016
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For the last 10 years, we’ve been flooded with superhero films. Every time we open our browsers, a new, obscure comic book hero has been given a movie deal. Ant-Man gets his time in the spotlight and Spider-Man gets yet another reboot but how many Black superheroes can you name? Blade? Spawn? The original Green Lantern? In this non-stop current of masked crusaders, why aren’t there more heroes to represent minorities?

Netflix has answered the call with their latest Marvel collaboration, Luke Cage. The explosive new show tells the story of a Black superhero in Harlem reclaiming his neighborhood from drug dealers, crooked police officers and senseless violence.

There have been a few attempts at creating Black superheroes before, but most have fallen into facile stereotypes or have become token sidekicks. Luke Cage delves into the complexity of Black identity by referencing important social issues such as gun crime, systemic racism and Black culture. But why has it taken so long to produce what many are calling an authentic Black superhero? We’re going to take a look at the evolution of the Black superhero, from the ’30s to now, through the lens of Luke Cage.

By Sean Gallen /*, AFROPUNK contributor

1. Racist Stereotypes In The Early Days Of Comics Luke Cage first appeared in Marvel comics back in 1972 but before Cage and Black Panther burst onto the scene, most black comic book characters were based on deeply racist jungle or ghetto stereotypes. So while Superman and Wonder Woman were symbols of a new, modern America embracing the future, Black people were still seen as arcane caricatures.

Black people depicted as uneducated, indentured servants in the original ‘Wonder Woman’ series / DC Comics

The social context that Luke Cage and Black Panther emerged from was one of great turmoil. Many Black people had become disillusioned with America after the failures of the Civic Rights movement in the ’60s. Some even turned to radical politics of the Black Panther group. This social upheaval rippled into the cultural world as the African-American community pushed for a fairer representation in art and entertainment. Part of this cultural revolution led to Blaxploitation cinema, which is a genre of independent film that seeks to subvert and play with Black stereotypes. Films like Shaft, Coffy and Blacula challenged the tired ghetto and jungle stereotypes by creating Black heroes and founding a Black film community. These films were characterized by a lewd sense of humor and over-the-top stories, and even though they were low-budget productions, they made an impact because they depicted Black people in a new light. Check out the trailer for the cult-classic Shaft below:

2. Welcome To The ’70s: The Origin Of Luke Cage When Luke Cage first smashed into comic books, he looked like a character ripped straight from a Blaxploitation film. His afro was immaculate, he used a thick chain as a belt and as a weapon (a not-so-subtle allusion to slavery) and he spouted the most copacetic, ebonic jive-talk you’ve ever heard. His iconic catchphrase, “Sweet Christmas!” is the epitome of Blaxploitation use with Black vernacular.

Apparently, the original Luke Cage was stingy.

Born Carl Lucas, his story began on the streets of Harlem where he was part of a gang as a teenager. Lucas is falsely accused of possessing heroin by the police and is sent to prison for 10 years. Lucas is released on an experimental research program that puts him through dangerous tests that give him his super powers. Once he has broken free from prison, he adopts the name Luke Cage and vows to clean up the streets. Still Trapped In The Cage Of Stereotyping While it was amazing to see a Black superhero kick ass, Luke Cage was still created by two white men (Archie Goodwin and John Romita Sr.) and relied heavily on some dangerous stereotypes. Much like Blaxploitation films, Luke Cage was confined to a world of dealers and pimps and despite his super powers, he was still a one-dimensional caricature trapped in that world. Even the hero Black Panther, who was characterized by his high IQ, fell subject to racist stereotypes, hailing from the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Black Panther and Luke Cage signaled a step in the right direction but they still relied on the jungle and the ghetto for definition.

Black Panther’s first appearance in ‘Fantastic Four #52’ / Marvel

3. The ’90s: A New Generation Of Sidekicks And Tokens The ’90s was a time when African-American culture crossed over into the mainstream. Cultural superheroes like Michael Jordan and superstar rappers became household names and earned global fame and recognition. With more characters of color in comics than ever, it seemed that the long and arduous road to fairer representation was almost at an end. In the comic book world, Luke Cage was dug up and given a make-over in ’92 but the comeback was a flop and he almost fell into obscurity. Over the course of the ’90s, he lost his afro and the jive-talk but kept the chains and sassy sense of humor. Instead of a hero for hire, he was a devoted husband and a father in Jessica Jones Vol. 1. This new Cage was sensitive and goofy, but at least subverted the old stereotype of the absent father. Despite being a positive role model, Luke Cage was pushed into the background of Jessica Jones and The New Avengers and became a token black character that provided comic relief.

Luke Cage and Jessica Jones in domestic bliss in ‘New Avengers Annual #1’ / Marvel

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, a spate of new and vibrant Black superheroes would be introduced into big franchises to inject life into old stories. Big titles like the X-Men introduced Storm and Bishop, and Captain America was supported by his black sidekick Sam Wilson. While these characters were a positive step forward because they had interesting backstories that didn’t rely on clichés, they were seldom explored and acted merely as one-dimensional tokens to add a sense of diversity to the comic book landscape.

Sam Wilson in ‘The Falcon’ / Marvel

Golden Age For Superheroes Of Color Nowadays, superheroes of color are allowed more of the spotlight with storylines of their own that aren’t dependent on tired stereotypes or white characters but explore new territory. The number of writers of color has increased too, which has led to a rise in authenticity in the depiction of non-white themes. Sam Wilson took over for Steve Rogers as Captain America, and with the introduction of Miles Morales, even Spider-Man has become Black.

Sam Wilson takes over for Steve Rogers in ‘All-New Captain America #1’ / Marvel

With these advances, it seems like Black superheroes have escaped the reductive jungle and ghetto stereotypes, but sadly the social landscape seems to have relapsed into the turmoil that was rampant in the ’60s. Police shootings of unarmed Black men have created a new Black counterculture in Black Lives Matter who believe in direct action and an open dialogue with authorities. Luke Cage could not have resurfaced at a better time. He has become an authentic Black superhero because he turns clichés on their head and the show isn’t afraid to confront darker political issues. The new edition of Luke Cage sports a hoody in reference to Trayvon Martin, he fights corrupt police and drug runners and although the character is terse, he is very vocal about how he feels about segregation and inequality. Luke Cage is a celebration of African-American culture but also a testament to the long journey the superhero has undergone to reach a fairer representation. It is a result of Black writers taking control of Black characters to create a clear projection of the issues that affect them. Obviously, this is just the beginning and there is still a long way to go but positive representation is worth fighting for, if you don’t believe me listen to Leslie Jones explain why:

*This post is in partnership with Movie