Who’s your superhero?
Hidden away in the back of the International Slavery Museum is a fantastic exhibit, Afro Supa Hero, with a unique way of showing one of the particular struggles of being Black and British; finding superheroes with which to identify.
To be fair, the exhibit is far much more than that. It’s also about the everyday heroes we have, and the representations of black people in mainstream media. Even today, British television is criticised for not making the most of the fantastic and diverse talent coming out of the country.
But let’s talk about the really geeky stuff… Jon Daniel, who curated the exhibition, presents to the visitor an incredible selection of comics which are on display until the end of the year. Ranging from the early Golden Legacy comics – which told the stories of great African Americans such as Harriet Tubman – to DC and Marvel issues of John Stewart as Green Lantern, and the Falcon. Jon’s collection of pop cultural heroes and heroines of the African diaspora is inspiring and serves to highlight the importance of having positive black role models in society.
When did black superheroes first appear?
There were a few early attempts from independent companies to produce work by African Americans, for African Americans. All Negro Comics started in 1947 and was a single-issue comic book which saw some success; in 1965 Dell Comics produced Lobo, technically the first African American character to headline his very own series (although unfortunately it was a financial failure before its second issue came out).
As a frame of reference for the Big Two: Superman made his first appearance in 1938, Batman in 1939. It wasn’t until 1966 that Marvel’s Black Panther made a first appearance, and he wouldn’t have his titular appearance for another seven years. Sam Wilson was introduced as Falcon in 1969, the first superhero of African descent not to have the word “black” somewhere in his name. John Stewart was the first black superhero in DC comics in 1971 when he became the Green Lantern; Luke Cage appeared as a Blaxsploitation character in 1973, and in 2003 a short series of Truth: Red, White & Black posed the idea of a group of African Americans receiving the same drug that souped-up Captain America.
For the black female, superheroes came much later. Storm made her X-Men debut in 1975, as did the Blaxsploitation figure Misty Knight, and in 1982 a Pam Grier-inspired Monica Rambeau became the second Captain Marvel. In an alternative history comic from 1986, the second Captain Confederacy was a black woman, pregnant with the previous Captain’s child.
I’m sure you can see the problem here.
The exhibit also talked about black role-models on television, and especially the lack of British examples. Liverpool’s own Craig Charles is a fantastic example of a Black British lead in a popular TV show from 1988, and Jon has some wonderful action figures and comics of Lister. There are many more coming from America: Lieutenant Uhura; Carl Weathers as Apollo Creed; a stretchy JJ from Good Times. They’re all in great condition, and mostly signed. It’s a collector’s dream.
Yla Eason – the trailblazer in the toy industry
Of particular note are Jon’s displays of African American historical icons immortalised in action figure form. Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Malcom X – these are real life heroes and inspirations for young black people. Many of these were produced by one company, Olmec Toys, as part of their Our Powerful Past range. Olmec were the self-proclaimed premier black toy company in America, which came out of a real necessity to create toys which African American children could relate to.
The business has a great background. Yla Eason, the heroine who founded Olmec, was talking to her son one day when he revealed that he didn’t think he could have superpowers like He-Man – because his skin “was the wrong colour”. Yla did what any wonderful mother would do and invented Sun-Man, a group of figures which were essentially a new angle on He-Man, with dark-skinned dolls. The company went on to produce many male and female African, Hispanic and Asian dolls.
Check out the exhibit, it’s free to attend and runs until December. Being around this perfect collection of historically revealing toys is pure joy. It may not be big, but it’s honest and thought-provoking, doing a wonderful job of shedding light on one particular part of a much wider issue.
Keep an eye out for my follow-up explorations, including a greater focus on black female superheroes, the tumultuous history of the Black Barbie, and the independent comics which have been created by, and feature, people of colour.