Friday, April 10th, 2015...1:45 pm

Black Hero Comics of the 1970s

Jump to Comments

blackpanther010001Capitalizing on the popularity of Blaxploitation films, Marvel introduced several comic titles headlining black hero characters in the 1970s. Some of these characters had made previous appearances in Marvel comics. In 1966, Black Panther becomes Marvel’s first black (African) superhero (Fantastic Four #52) and Dr. Bill Foster, later to become Black Goliath, is introduced as one of the first African-American characters with a major role (The Avengers #32). Though the franchise had these black hero characters and at least one other–Captain America’s partner, Falcon, introduced in 1971 (Captain America #134)–the first African-American superhero with his own eponymous series was Luke Cage.

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 (1972)

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #1 was released June, 1972. This origin issue tells the story of Carl Lucas, born and raised in New York City, now wrongfully incarcerated in a maximum security prison in the South. Lucas volunteers to be a test subject for a medical experiment that leaves him with super-strength and skin impervious to bullets. Lucas breaks out of prison and returns to New York where a diner he enters is robbed by a gunman. While trying to flee the diner, the gunman shoots Lucas. Of course, the bullet bounces off Lucas who then proceeds to knock-out the gunmen with a single blow. The grateful diner owner gives Lucas a cash reward and thus is born the idea of offering his services as a hero. Lucas adopts an alias and becomes Luke Cage a “hero for hire.”

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #2 (1972)

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #2 (1972)

The Luke Cage storylines, like Blaxploitation films, rely on stereotypes of race, class, and gender. Unlike Marvel’s other New York City-based heroes (the Avengers and Fantastic Four) who appear to live on unlimited resources, Cage worries about paying the rent and dodges bill collectors. Many of the white superheroes have posh New York addresses in Manhattan or at least clean working-class neighborhoods (in the case of Spiderman). Luke Cage lives above a grindhouse theater in Times Square. He works, for pay, as a hero in slums and on streets filled with crime and urban decay, fighting street gangs and dealers, in contrast to Marvel’s other (white) heroes fighting fantastic supervillains. His closest confidant is the nephew of his landlord, a white film student named D. W. Griffith, who himself credits his name as an homage to the director of the infamous white supremacist film, Birth of a Nation.

Black Goliath #2 (1976)

Following the initial success of Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, Marvel issued Black Panther and Black Goliath in their own series. Black Goliath is a more traditional superhero than Luke Cage. Bill Foster is a scientist whose transformation to Black Goliath happened as a result of work in a lab. He has two distinct identities, Foster and Goliath, and has some existential struggle between them. Being more similar in nature and origin to his white superhero compatriots, does not prevent this character or comic from being as steeped in racial stereotypes as Luke Cage.

Black Goliath #1 (1976)

Black Goliath #1 (1976)

His superhero name for a start. Bill Foster is not the first nor last Marvel “Goliath”, but he is the only one to adopt the qualifier “Black” Goliath. While presenting his backstory in the first issue—a poor kid from Watts who makes good and returns to the old neighborhood—Foster is shown walking his old streets when he is set-upon by a local gang. The assailants are handily defeated by Black Goliath, but the incident acts as a catalyst for Foster to recall how respect and trust of white authority figures kept him from becoming like the leader of the gang who just attacked him.

Black Lightning #1 (1977)

In 1976, Tony Isabella, a writer working on Luke Cage story lines, moved from Marvel to DC Comics. DC had introduced an African-American Green Lantern (John Stewart) in 1971 (Green Lantern Vol. 2 #87) but did not have a title dedicated solely to a black superhero. At DC, Isabella was asked to work on a such a headlining character. In April 1977, Black Lightning, “DC’s boldest new super-hero!” was released. Black Lightning #5 (1977)Unlike Cage and Foster whose powers come from lab experiments, Jefferson Pierce was born with the power to wield electricity. Taught at a young age to control and suppress his powers, he left his inner-city Metropolis neighborhood after the murder of his father. Returning years later with his wife and daughter, Pierce is a gold-medal Olympian who takes a job as the principal in his old high school. The same family friend who encouraged him to hide his powers in his youth, now encourages him to use his powers to help clean up the crime and urban decay of the neighborhood. Black Lightning dons a mask and costume and works to clean up his streets. The cover of the first issue has Black Lightning amidst a crowd of men he has beaten, with the Metropolis skyline in the background, he is shown mid-punch telling a drug dealer, “You pushers have wrecked the city long enough—now it’s my turn to wreck you!”

Luke Cage, Hero for Hire #5 (1973)

Of the black superheroes that emerged in the 1970s, Luke Cage was by far the most successful, running in various incarnations from 1972 into the 1980s (as Hero for Hire for issues #1-16, Power Man #16-50, then teamed with Iron Fist and later others in Heroes for Hire). Black Panther ran for 15 issues from 1977-1979. Black Goliath ran for only 5 issues in 1976, canceled for lack of sales. Black Lightning ran for 11 issues 1977-1978. Due to the clever collecting habits and generous gift of Roger Stoddard, Houghton Library has a nearly complete run of all of these comic titles (lacking only the final four issues of Black Panther) as well as later re-emergences of these heroes as title characters in the 1980s and 90s in The Black Hero Comic Collection, 1972-2003 (AC95.A100.972b). The collection also includes a complete run of the single-issues of Robert Morales’ Truth: Red, White, and Black and the seven issues of Christopher Priest’s The Crew.

[Thanks to Susan Wyssen, Manuscript Cataloger, for contributing this post.]

3 Comments

  • As a kid of that decade, I can safely say Marvel’s black heroes books were out of date, heavy-handed and badly written. With few exceptions, they came from well-meaning white writers who caught most of their language from old black exploitation movies. To be fair, the writers had to split the middle between actual Ghetto tales and Marvel superhero genre conventions. And they gave a shot to Billy Graham.

  • Bob La Trémouille
    April 10th, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    It was a very touchy transition period.

    My biggest memory would be Teen Titans, or, more accurately, New Teen Titans, which did an excellent job on a racially integrated superhero team.

  • I wonder which were the exceptions, though? A few of the creators involved were not white.

    I know Jim Owsley (a.k.a. Christopher Priest) wrote Luke Cage for a time toward the end of that first run.

    Trevor Von Eeden was the initial artist on Black Lightning.

    That’s all I got, off the top of my head.