From Black Panther to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Black characters are transforming the superhero narrative for a new generation. They can fight the bad guys and save the world, but do they have the power to transform the way Black people are viewed on the screen, or even in real life?
It was just three years ago when Marvel’s Black Panther took Hollywood, and the world, by storm. It broke box office records and finally convinced white audiences and gatekeepers in Hollywood that Black superheroes could be as popular and profitable as Superman and Batman. With the rerelease of Zack Snyder’s Justice League on HBO Max and the launch of the highly anticipated Disney+ series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Black superheroes are once again at the forefront of pop culture.
On Friday’s episode of A Word, I spoke with John Jennings about the phenomenon. He’s a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of California, Riverside, as well as an award-winning comic book artist. Jennings is also the curator of the Abrams Megascope line of graphic novels. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Jason Johnson: Look, you and I are both comic book fans. But, for folks who are casual fans at best, why does it matter if Black characters are actually front and center in the comic book genre, now that it’s so pervasive in American culture?
John Jennings: I personally think that everyone who is in a society or participating in a society deserves to see themselves reflected back at them. Since the inception of our country, white people have actually taken that for granted to a great deal, and honestly, anyone who is in power takes that for granted. And so there’s also this demonization of Black folk or denigration of Black people that is actually a part of our country as well. And so it begs the question: “Well, how would the Black character actually be trusted enough to save you?”—that kind of thing. So these are some really interesting questions when we talk about heroism and whose culture is actually being counted and whose history is being counted.
The other thing, too, is comics are basically these morality tales; they’re extremely mired in ideas around good and evil. And so to some people, that actually might be oxymoronic to talk about a Black superhero, right? Like, “How can a Black person be a hero?” So these are some of the ideas that pop up, and traditionally in popular culture these particular stereotypes have haunted the Black image in popular media. So to see something like Black Panther or Falcon or Cyborg or Black Lightning, or what have you, these particular characters start to become extremely powerful and empowering to Black people in particular.
In the last week or so, two big features premiered. In a lot of ways, they were centered on Black heroes. So we’re going to start with talking about The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. We’ve got Anthony Mackie staring as the Falcon. This is a superhero whose main power seems to be that he has sort of a flying suit; he’s sort of a techno genius. But in a clip, from the premiere episode, we see Falcon trying to get a bank loan. How does that scene play into that role of Black people being much more grounded as heroes?
I find that a lot of people don’t realize, or haven’t really thought about, the fact that there are tropes and ideas that are connected to superheroes as a genre. There’s this cool book called Superhero: The Secret Origin of a Genre by Peter Coogan that lays out three categories that illustrate what a superhero is. One of them is the powers, of course, the identity. And then, there’s this thing called “a mission.” And a lot of times that mission is supposed to be altruistic, right? So, superheroes are not supposed to be paid for what they’re doing. Now, you look at someone like Falcon. Falcon was in the military. Some people were like, “Well, why didn’t you go to Navy Federal?”—because he’s actually a veteran.
And the other thing is it does actually speak to the amount of sacrifice that Black people in this country have gone through to help build the nation but also how the nation hasn’t loved them back. So, we talked about not having direct access to the GI Bill. We’re talking about an erasure of the history of Black soldiers and people in the military. We’re talking about just how people have been treated, how Black people have been treated after they come back from wars.
Also, in that scene, the white bank owner thinks he’s an athlete at first too. It’s definitely talking about from really, really particular microaggressions or even macroaggressions to a direct indictment of institutionalized racism in our country. Even for someone as amazing as the Falcon is.
Is keeping all of these Black superheroes grounded in real-world issues—instead of always fighting aliens or jumping through universes like white folks—is that a lack of imagination with Black characters? Or is it because we as consumers find them more authentic and engaging when they’re facing the real-world issues that we face.
On some level, you want to have a character that will allow you to escape the everyday. But I would definitely argue that comics, particularly superhero comics have always dealt with the on-the-ground, everyday kind of issues, social issues, even Superman started out as more of a socially centered character. And of course, you look at some of the characters in the ’70s, like Green Lantern and Green Arrow. Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams created a series of comics where these two white characters are actively dealing with racism and land rights and all these different issues. So I would say that it depends on the reader in some fashion. I think we should have a smattering of both. I feel like as a Black artist, as a scholar, as someone who wants to see these things unpacked and dealt with, I think it’s very difficult for me to get down with a character that’s fighting against Galactus or, like, Thanos or what have you, if you’re still dealing with these racialized issues on the planet. Something’s going to really feel corny and not relevant if it doesn’t deal a little bit with what’s going on in a society, because entertainment has always done that, and the comics definitely have always done that.
I want to turn to Justice League. Justice League has this thing called the Snyder Cut. The original Justice League film came out in 2017. It was not very popular. It made money globally, but it was riddled with critical attacks. And it’s just been rereleased in an extended version. And in this new version, a character named Cyborg played by Ray Fisher had a heck of a lot more screen time than he did in 2017. So then we find out about a year ago that the actor Ray Fisher, who plays Cyborg in the original Justice League film, said that it was an incredibly hostile environment, that director Joss Whedon had been racially discriminatory and had retaliated against him by cutting the screen time and the role of his character Cyborg in the original film. Now that the Snyder Cut has been released, we see that Cyborg, the character Ray Fisher played, is actually a linchpin of the film and a really important character overall in this new DC universe.
Well, it’s definitely not a new phenomenon. For instance, if you look at the first Green Lantern film, the John Stewart character, who is a Black Green Lantern, really is the more known character because of the fact that, just like Cyborg, this character has been on multiple platforms. And John Stewart is a really popular character on Justice League and Justice League Unlimited. They still went with Ryan Reynolds as the white, Hal Jordan version of the character, in spite of the fact that there was obviously an audience of people who knew the other character more. I’m hoping that now that this cut is out, it’s definitely a message to not only Warner Bros., but other larger transmedia companies, that it really is in their best interest to listen to the audience, to listen to these different constituencies who are not used to seeing themselves reflected in these spaces. And also too, that systemic racism and also inherent personal bigotry does exist and that sometimes it manifests itself, sometimes even subconsciously, in different ways to not let these particular images come out.
When I was a kid growing up, most of the Black superheroes were really lame. Originally Black Lightning and a lot of these Black superheroes were dependent on some white guy making them a technical suit. How has that changed today? What have we seen in the evolution of Black male and female characters that now they are empowered, they do have natural abilities. Why do you think we’ve seen that change and where’s that sort of played out in TV and cartoons and comic books?
I had the same experience coming up. So I think what starts to happen is you start these mainstream comic book companies start to hire Black editors and Black writers who really care about these Black superheroes and bring a level of authenticity, and meaning, and empowerment to these characters. So what’s happened is you’ve seen these people who are coming from these spaces actively making characters that look like them, or writing about characters that look like them. If you read through these comics these days, they’re really good. They’re actually doing a great job of doing their research and also really, really stretching out and filling up these characters a lot more. I think when you have Black editors or editors who are of the same cultural background as the characters, you start to see a lot of enrichment.