Published: May 30, 2010 02:00 AM
Modified: May 30, 2010 12:23 AM
Black characters have not enjoyed much mainstream success in the comic book world, but they have helped challenge society's view of minorities, especially black men, says one professor.
Randall Kenan, a UNC English professor, gave a brief timeline of black characters in comic books during a lecture, "It's Clobbering Time! Comic Books and Creating the Idea of Black Masculinity."
Black characters enjoyed greater equality in comic books than the real world, thanks to Comic Book Codes of the 1950s, a voluntary set of rules publishers followed in response to criticism that their work had become too violent. The codes prohibited creating sympathy for criminals, depicting crime as a positive activity and having the word "crime" appear alone on a cover.
"Thanks to the Comic Book Codes, you could not portray black folk as criminal," Kenan said. "You rarely saw black criminals in comic books despite the images being fed by the popular media."
The codes created a disconnect between the comic book world and often racist views in the real world. Black men were strong and hard-working in comics yet perceived as weak and lazy in real life, he said.
Black comic book characters grew in the 1970s with characters such as X-Men's Storm, the Green Lantern and the Black Panther, who had existed since the late 1960s. The concept of comic book masculinity also was reflected in popular blaxploitation movies such as "Shaft" and "Superfly."
In 1972, Luke Cage - dubbed "Power Man" - was one of the first black superheroes to have his own comic book. He had superhuman strength and spoke "a jive language I've heard nobody else speak," Kenan said.
But these characters lost popularity as quickly as they gained it.
"To a lot of people, a black man as a superhero is a hard thing to swallow, which is why I think a lot of characters had a hard time gaining traction," Kenan said.
Black characters enjoyed minimal success because their target market was so small, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black culture at Duke University.
During the 1970s black kids paid attention to black comic book characters because there were so few, he said. But many black families with religious leanings outlawed comic books in their households.
"I think whenever things are [associated by race] in our society, they take on greater meaning and become metaphors for other things," Neal said. "When you think about the disintegration of the superhero class, that does have relevance in how we may view the emergence of black CEO's in mainstream corporations over the last 25 years."
Both professors are interested to see how President Barack Obama, an admitted comic book collector, will influence the comic book world.
"Only time will tell," Kenan said. "We won't know if we're in the black comic book renaissance until we're in the next phase."