Flying While Black: Two Creators on Inventing (and Reinventing) Black Superheroes

By Eve L. Ewing | Author of the Marvel series Ironheart

My Twitter notifications were a garbage fire. They said I had no talent, that I was a harbinger of everything that was going wrong in the comics industry. Some of them used coded language like “forced diversity.” Other messages, like a simple image of a burning cross, were more direct.

It was December 2017 and everything was a culture war; the world of comics was no different. Comicsgate had emerged beginning in 2016: a loose conglomeration of hashtags, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts that derived glee from the targeted harassment of women, trans people and people of color. That included real people, like me, and fictional people, like the character I’m best known for writing: a Black teen girl from Chicago named Riri Williams who enters the valiant fray of Marvel superheroes under the moniker Ironheart.

As a Black woman with an established public internet presence, I was used to harassment. I had some tried-and-true strategies: block, mute, ignore and go do something else with your day.

But there was something fundamental that I didn’t understand, and it bugged me. Of all the things I had said and done in public, of all my commentary about policing and politics and education and media, nothing had attracted a firestorm like the one prompted by the mere rumor that I might be writing Ironheart.

Why this? Pretend stories about a girl who flies around the city and shoots energy beams out of her armored super suit — this was the thing that made them so angry?

Writing for Marvel seemed to me to be about the least political thing I had ever done. To me, this was about fun. It was the stuff of youthful miracles, a shiny new bike and unlimited arcade tokens rolled into one.

More than anything, I was concerned with the essentials of writing something decent. Riri had an origin story furnished by the writer Brian Michael Bendis and the artist Mike Deodato. She was a teen genius who had tragically lost loved ones to gun violence and was now attending M.I.T.

My job, as I saw it, was to puzzle out the deeper elements of who she is with and without her armor. What fears and desires motivate her? What are her quirks and flaws? Who are the people in her life who love her?

I knew I had to figure out how Riri might see things as someone who grew up in a hyper-policed community, including her thoughts on who gets labeled a criminal. The page pictured above is my remix of the iconic superhero landing pose: Riri transitions from that super aggressive stance with her fist down to a more gentle and empathic stance, down on one knee to talk to a child.

The not-so-hidden secret of superhero stories is that readers want to understand who the person is when they’re not suited up.

Once you figure that out, then you can get to the titanic battles over the future of the universe. But for me, this was all in good fun.

Don’t get me wrong — I knew that what I was doing was historic. At the time I was hired, I was the fifth Black woman writer in Marvel’s nearly 80-year history. Still, why Riri and I were so divisive, I didn’t get.

I mused aloud about this to Ta-Nehisi Coates, who himself had been targeted for his writing on Captain America.

“If you do this,” he told me, “you will face the most racism and sexism you’ve ever dealt with in your life. And you will also have the most fun you’ve ever had writing anything.”

I told him I was all in on the fun part but I was confused by the racism and sexism part. Why were people so angry?

“No, Eve,” he said. “Don’t you see? They’re right.”

I didn’t see.

“They’re right. About you. About us. About these characters,” he said. “You are a threat to them.”

And when he said that, I was a kid again, walking home from the train station at night, in a time before anyone had apps to track you, before Black girls snatched up from the street had any means to go viral. If you disappeared, you would be gone forever.

In those moments, I always thought of one person: Batman. In my head, he was just out of view, perched atop a darkened church. I almost caught the smallest edge of his cape disappearing around a corner, I reasoned, but I had turned my head a beat too late. When I was scared and alone, that’s who my mind called out to.

Superheroes reflect our shared cultural mythologies: what it means to be good, to be courageous, to face unbeatable odds. In recent years, “representation matters” has become a refrain acknowledging how vital it is that children see possibilities for themselves in media.

But superheroes represent something beyond that. It’s not only that if little Black girls see Ironheart being brave, they will understand that they can do the same because they look like her. It’s that superheroes serve as a shared cultural mirror, paragons of what bravery even is.

For example, in one of my favorite panels from the series (shown above), I wanted to show the unbridled joy Black kids from Chicago would feel if they got to meet Ironheart and experience flying for the first time. It’s important to me to push against the adultification of Black children, and show them being silly and having fun. This is also a full-circle moment because, early in the story arc, Ironheart catches the boy in green committing a petty crime, but instead of punishing him, she wants to help him.

If kids who are scared and alone call out in their heart of hearts for protection and the face they see in their mind’s eye is a Black teen girl from the South Side of Chicago, or a Muslim Pakistani-American nerd from Jersey City (Kamala Khan, a.k.a. Ms. Marvel), or an undocumented Mexican-American kid from Arizona who can fly (Joaquín Torres, also known as Falcon) — if those faces become cultural stand-ins for the ideals we strive for in our society, in the ways that Superman, Batman and Captain America have been for generations … man, if I was a white supremacist, that would make me mad, too.

There’s a folder of images I keep on my phone. It contains some screenshots from Twitter and Instagram, but not the ones calling me unprintable names. I keep the photos of kids dressed as Riri — kids across the country whose parents posted images of their children reading comics I wrote and tagged me online, and kids who showed up at comic book conventions and store signings.

I keep the pictures of the line that snaked out the door and into the street the first time I did a signing at my local shop, First Aid Comics. I save the photos from the first time I attended New York Comic Con and posed with a squad of other Black comics creators, grinning wildly beneath our thick glasses.

I save the photos from when I posed with the Ironheart who had braces, and the littlest Black Panther, and the Ms. Marvel who sat on my lap.

It’s still true that some people are pretty angry about the future of comics, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m on the best superhero team. And as you may have heard, we are mighty.

By Evan Narcisse | Author of the Marvel graphic novel “Rise of the Black Panther”

When Black Panther hit theaters, T’Challa became a household name for millions of people. Filmgoers discussed the legacies of colonialism on the African continent (that museum scene!) and the ways that Black diasporic cultures intertwine. The director Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster movie showed how a costumed crusader’s intrinsic metaphorical power could open up new horizons. Now that the world has embraced one Black superhero, who is next? What are the other stories to be told?

The first waves of Black superheroes started showing up in comics decades ago, dreamed up in editorial offices staffed almost entirely by white men. Some of those trailblazing characters: John Stewart (Green Lantern, part of an intergalactic peacekeeping organization), Sam Wilson (Falcon, a close ally of Captain America who uses high-tech wings to fly) and Luke Cage (Power Man, an ex-con hero-for-hire who gained super-strength and durability after a prison experiment). They all had early stories linked to the midcentury idea of the ghetto and were often only used when creators wanted to comment on social unrest or systemic injustice. These heroes’ primary purpose was to attract new readers to publishers like Marvel and DC.

But for too long, Black superheroes hewed too closely to a few shallow stereotypes. Conversations about racial and ethnic representation in mainstream media often include a common postmodern refrain: “Black people aren’t a monolith.” The same goes for Black superheroes, who have the power to deftly demonstrate the multiplicity of Black experiences.

As Black creators have slowly made their way into those companies, they have used characters like Luke Cage, Misty Knight (police officer turned cyborg private eye, a friend of Luke Cage) or Nubia (Wonder Woman’s Black Amazon sister) to expose audiences to facets of Black life they might not ordinarily encounter.

After growing up reading comics and then writing about them, I am now scripting superhero stories myself. Last year, when Marvel asked me to contribute to its Voices anthology series — which spotlights creators and heroes from marginalized backgrounds — I took on that same mission of exposure.

The main character in my one-page story was Jericho Drumm, a Black, Haitian-born sorcerer who fights evil under the super-sobriquet Doctor Voodoo. The character’s first appearance was written and drawn by Len Wein and Gene Colan, who were white. To my knowledge, none of the writers or artists who had ever worked on Doctor Voodoo shared his heritage. But I do. And I made it a point to thematically connect the character back to Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines and Adbaraya Toya, real historical figures who birthed the movement to wrest Haiti’s freedom from French oppressors. My parents told me that our revolutionary forebears were heroes; I wanted to use Jericho Drumm to introduce them to Marvel readers.

Similarly, a graphic novel centered around Nubia led to my telling my 10-year-old daughter about the Orisha gods of West African Yoruba cultures, who appear in the heroine’s recent stories. She had already encountered Greek and Norse gods, but this was her first time hearing about deities connected to her heritage.

Miles Morales, a Black Latino Spider-Man, and Shuri, the breakout character from the Black Panther movie, both offer new shades of dimensionality: She’s a princess who cares more about her high-tech Vibranium lab than fancy dresses; he’s an everyman superhero who quips in Nuyorican Spanglish.

But there are still more superhero stories to be told.

I would love to see the Black characters Icon and Rocket soar on screens, because their mentor/sidekick relationship runs off a delicious intergenerational and socioeconomic class conflict.

Introduced by Milestone Media in 1993 and created by Dwayne McDuffie and Mark Bright, the two characters first meet when the teenager Rocket (a.k.a. Raquel Ervin) tries to burgle the mansion owned by the well-off lawyer Augustus Freeman — who is actually an alien stuck on Earth since the 19th century. (Yes, Icon is a sly remix of the Superman myth, and the characters are part of the DC Universe.)

Augustus uses his powers to stop the theft. When Raquel sees that he can fly, she pleads with him to don a cape and become a hero named Icon, a symbol for the residents of her hometown to look up to.

But his old-school ways clash with her youthful idealism. Augustus tells his teenage sidekick to defer to the police during their first big outing; she isn’t having any of it. As they fight crime in the original 1990s run of Icon, Augustus and his protégé argue, with police and each other — about everything from respectability politics to her own unplanned pregnancy.

Jo Mullein, the African-American heroine who stars in DC Comics’ Far Sector series, comes at the question of police accountability from a very different angle. Jo’s career as a police officer hits an ethical impasse after her partner uses excessive force on the job.

Disillusioned, she accepts an offer to join the Green Lantern corps, like John Stewart before her. Once she’s stationed in a cosmic metropolis teeming with its own unique political tensions, she questions whether she — having witnessed firsthand how cops can reinforce structural inequalities — should uphold the unjust extraterrestrial law of the land.

Warner Bros. recently announced that a new Green Lantern TV show is in development. Ideally, it will be built around Jo (short for Sojourner, a pivotal figure in Black history). There are myriad juicy storytelling possibilities with a character who is a Black woman and a cop, especially in light of current tensions around policing in the United States.

Icon, Rocket, Doctor Voodoo and Jo Mullein are heroes. But I also want the world to meet Masquerade, who is more of an antihero.

Masquerade, another creation of Milestone Media, debuted in Blood Syndicate, a series named for a rambunctious gang of teens who gain superhuman abilities after exposure to experimental radioactive tear gas.

Before getting shape-shifting powers, Masquerade lived life as a woman. But when the Blood Syndicate starts fighting mind-manipulating enemies, Masquerade battles as a man. Masquerade’s lowest moment happens when a demonic adversary changes him back to a woman, a gender presentation that never fit.

The scene is witnessed by a character named Fade. Masquerade confronts Fade, a closeted gay man who is intangible and unstuck in time. In one of the series’s most charged sequences, Masquerade threatens to out Fade if he reveals what he saw. The confrontation is an astringent, groundbreaking flash point for L.G.B.T.Q. representation in superhero comics.

Masquerade comes across as unsympathetic in the scene but the comics writer Danny Lore sees it differently. “It’s very interesting that this is between a trans man and a gay man,” Lore told me. “It is a situation in which their perspective and understanding of what a possible community would look like is still so different. Fade is lacking the understanding of the harm that still looms within the queer community for a trans man and Masquerade is missing out what that support could do. And they both have legitimate reasons for feeling that way.”

The vast majority of superheroes are cisgender in the stories told for mainstream audiences by Hollywood. Masquerade could be a trailblazer: someone who demonstrates the power and peril of daring to define their own identity.

Many of the most famous superhero characters belong to the catalogs of DC or Marvel, major publishers with pipelines that feed directly into film and TV studios.

But there’s also a vibrant landscape driven by smaller publishers and independent creators, filled with fictional personas who can also take readers into new horizons. Titles like “Is’nana the Were-Spider,” “Spirit’s Destiny,” “Iyanu: Child of Wonder” and “Harriet Tubman, Demon Slayer” tell tales of immigrant demigods, toy with history and zero in on the moments when fated duty and individual desire pull a person in opposite directions.

Seated at the center of the most popular Black superhero concept in the world, King T’Challa is royalty in more ways than one. But most Black folk don’t live lives of palace privilege. Why not explore other characters?

A conflicted cosmic cop, a generation gap super-duo or a shapeshifting antihero who runs wild in the streets have the potential to become the next breakouts.

At the core of every superhero sits an existential question: How do we imagine ourselves into being? With every new Black superhero that audiences encounter, they can see that the answers are as varied as we are.

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