Out of the hundreds of really cool Black comic book characters you could only imagine how hard it was to come up with a list of only ten. Much less a top ten of all time. The thought of cheating and bumping it up to twenty did cross our minds but there’s nothing wrong with a challenge, right? Well here they are folks, enjoy!
War Machine – (Marvel – Iron Man) – James Rhodes first appeared in 1979 in the pages of Iron Man. Years later, after Tony fell back into alcoholism Rhodes took over as Iron Man for a while. He would do this several times under various circumstances but the underlying reasons were still the same. He’s a soldier, Tony is his friend, and evil needs it’s butt kicked. Though he excelled at being Iron Man it wouldn’t be until 1992 that we would see him don the War Machine armour and start to come into his own. As War Machine, Rhodes has faced down some of the nastiest of Stark’s enemies but has also struck out on his own. He’s even had to go up against his best friend when their views crossed. Mainly because Rhodes is still a U.S. soldier and not some freelance superhero like Tony. He’s also never let the armour define who he is which is much different from Tony. Some of the best moments were when Rhodes rejects his status as War Machine and even as Iron Man opting to just be the regular guy from Philly.
The thing about War Machine is that as great a character as he is it’s the inconsistent depiction of his character that kept him from top tier status in the past. That, along with some fans only seeing him as the “Black Iron Man” haven’t helped either. Too many of War Machine’s really cool moments seemed t0 have slipped under the radar because of this. It wasn’t until a few years ago that he received another great push during the super hero Civil War. There was also his series written by Greg Pak who nailed the character perfectly. Bringing together all of the elements that make Rhodey one of the best and should be used as a benchmark for future writers. If Marvel can keep him from being in Iron Man’s shadow once again then quite possibly War Machine would be looked at in a better light by the fans. However, when he’s in a title named Iron Man 2.0 that really doesn’t help. It’s a good thing he is currently a member of the Secret Avengers and still being written well.
Static Shock – (Milestone/DC – Static Shock) – Virgil Hawkins aka Static or Static Shock may not stand out to many as a character to make any type of list. However, when you take into account the character’s earlier stories and direction along with garnering a pretty huge fan base things become a little more clear. Created in 1993 by John Paul Leon and Dwayne McDuffie he was considered their teenage equivalent to Spider-Man. A kid who received powers and was trying to balance out all of that along with everything that comes with being a teenager. The big difference was that Milestone Comics had subject matter that was a bit more intense at times and not just used as a “flavor of the month” type of story. Sure, Static had it’s light moments but Virgil’s personal life seemed to be a lot more dangerous than Peter’s. His bully’s pulled guns on him during school and Virgil was on the cusp of doing the same to protect himself. Racial issues along with homosexuality and kids doing and saying things when not around their parents helped round out several more grounded stories. This wasn’t just any old super hero comic but it really spoke to an audience that neither of the Big Two seemed to really look at. The black teenage geek. Let’s face it, when you’re in that category your peer group choices are pretty limited depending on where you live. This is exactly who Virgil is and it’s sometimes the best part of the book. See, in the Milestone Universe characters like Batman and Superman are just comic book characters and this guy is a huge comic fan! What also brought him to a wider audience was the Static Shock cartoon on the WB. It ran for four seasons and was a lighter translation of the comic but ended up being just as fun to watch. Since Static had been off of the shelves for some time now this was a huge achievement for it to run as long as it did along with receiving the praise and accolades from new and old fans. Plus, how many non white leads are there in cartoons anyway?
Unfortunately his time at DC Comics hasn’t led to the success he had in the past. When the Milestone and DC Universes came together Static was made a member of the Teen Titans to a degree of success. Things didn’t fare so well during DC’s New 52 relaunch when Static received his own title. There were internal issues regarding the book and it will soon be cancelled at it’s eighth issue. Now, don’t let DC Comic’s failure to sucessfuly integrate this character into their universe skew your view of him. There’s several reasons why it hasn’t worked (another article for another time) but you can’t have Static Shock without Virgil Hawkins and that’s what has been missing in their interpretations of him for so long. If you’ve never heard of or read any Static stories you need to pick up the Rebirth of the Cool trade paper back and check out the animated series for some added fun!
Lucas Bishop – (Marvel – X-Men) – You have to love (or at least love to hate) Bishop. The man is dedicated to a fault, and while he may have gone a little crazy in recent Marvel history, his intention has always been to save the mutant race. Bishop first splashed on the comics scene in 1991 (Uncanny X-Men #282) and he instantly gave a new definition to the term “time traveler” in the Marvel Universe. He’s from an alternate future, a god-awful one, where mutantkind has been forced into slave camps under the iron fist of humanity. Is this a direct analogy to a similar time in actual Amercian history, or even just flat out human history in general? Absolutely, and Bishop’s sole reason for existence is to prevent that future from ever transpiring, no matter what the cost. There’s something to respect in that, even if one doesn’t agree with his methods, but it’s difficult to root against the guy. He’s ridiculously powerful, too, possessing the ability to absorb energy and deal it back ten-fold. He’s also an expert marksman, a commendable leader, and he knows no fear. Bishop lost some relevency in the early 2000s when Marvel wasn’t really sure what to do with him. They gave him a new look, shaved his head, and ultimately made him the top cop of the mutant police. Which actually wasn’t too far off from what his role was with the XSE (Xavier’s Security Enforcers) of his home timeline. So it fit, but not necessarily well within the confines of the current Marvel Universe.
So Marvel decided to bring Lucas Bishop back to his roots, and in the fallout of Messiah Complex, he has been on the hunt for the woman responsible for the future enslavment of mutantkind. The only way to prevent that future from transpiring is to kill the culprit- Hope, a (currently) 15-ish year old girl. This dicotomy is what makes Lucas Bishop such a powerful and noteworthy character. He’s balancing the life of one against the lives of billions, and in that regard, it’s difficult to villify him. He hasn’t shown up in comics for about a year now, but with Hope still running around and Cable returning to the 616 Universe, one has to think that Bishop’s due for a comeback of epic proportions.
Blade – (Marvel – The Tomb of Dracula) – Van Helsing may have already been the most recognizable vampire hunter but it was Gene Colan and Marv Wolfman who would give us the Daywalker back in 1973 in The Tomb of Dracula #10. When most black characters were only being used as jive talking pimps or some various type of criminal, Blade was becoming a staple character in Marvel’s horror line. As his notoriety grew in part to writers such as Colan, Claremont, and Wolfman it set the stage for his biggest rise in the 90s. He was featured in a solo series and again he was teamed up with several of Marvel’s horror heavy weights to go up against his old foe, Dracula, along with other various demonic types and other worldly creatures. However, in 1998 the character would get a huge push with the debut of Blade in movie theatres! Played by Wesley Snipes, Blade hit the mainstreme and people went crazy. It was successful enough to spawn a sequel which surpassed the first film and a third installment that many try to forget they ever saw. There was also the short running Blade: The Series back in 2006 which didn’t do the character any favors as well. After not being seen for a while things seem to have been cranked up again for the character as he was recently killing vampires alongside the X-Men and there is a Blade anime currently running where he is voiced by Harold Perrineau (Lost, Oz).
Michonne (Image – The Walking Dead) – Probably one of the most noticeable and famous of the ensemble cast of characters that populate The Walking Dead is Michonne. Armed with her katana she’s been cutting through zombies and human enemies alike since the 19th issue. My introduction to the character came when she was already a prisoner of the Governor and being put into the games after being tortured. Her revenge on her captor was methodical, sadistic, and the guy deserved every minute of it. What was intriguing was that before and during all of this she was portrayed as very stoic and driven. It wasn’t until her escape that Kirkman gave us a look at her humanity showing she’s just as broken as the group she is traveling with. Not just some awesome killing machine but a woman who had lost her entire family due to the zombie apocalypse and was forced to adjust or die. Her dedication to make sure Rick and Carl are safe even seems contradictory to how distant and cold she appears.
When it comes to horror comics my knowledge is limited but from what I”ve seen most black characters are basically treated the same way they are in film and television. Depicted as either background characters, one dimensional embarrasing stereotypes, or just one of the first to die. In most cases all three. Robert Kirkman has avoided all of these with Michonne and given the fans a character much deeper than even I expected. Now if he could only give her to us in The Walking Dead television show then the world would be a better place!
Black Panther – (Marvel – The Black Panther) – Considering the racial climate of America during this time, debuting Black Panther in 1966 was another groundbreaking step for Marvel Comics. Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee the African King of the fictional country of Wakanda was unlike anyone who came before him. In T’Challa’s first appearance (Fantastic Four #52) he tested himself against the Fantastic Four and won. This was just the beginning of what this man is capable of. T’Challa would go on to become a member of the Avengers and then star in several solo titles along the way. It wasn’t until Black Panther came out under the Marvel Knights imprint that the character received another surge in popularity. Written by Christopher Priest with art from Mark Texeira these were some of the best Black Panther stories of the time. T’Challa just wasn’t a guy in a costume anymore, he was cool in every way and for all the right reasons. Utilizing his enhanced abilities and vast tech from his country along with his intellect T’Challa was a force to be acknowledged. Unfortunately, after Priest, there weren’t too many really good Black Panther stories though a few would pop up every now and again. However, it would be T’Challa’s involvement in many of Marvel’s big events in the last few years that would help to reestablish him as dominant character. Though it was with the game changer, Doomwar, from Jonathan Maberry which has set the stage for T’Challa’s current situation as Daredevil’s replacement as protector of Hell’s Kitchen.
He no longer has his enhanced abilities, the advanced tech he had access to is no longer available, and he is no longer King. However none of that has stopped David Liss from writing him as The Most Dangerous Man Alive! T’Challa, at his lowest point, has been able to hold his own and prove that he’s much more than super human abilities and gadgets. He’s at his best when he’s written as methodical, calculating, and driven towards his goal. When wrighters dumb him down and put him in super hero cliches then he fails to be interesting. His impact on the Marvel Universe has been a significant one hopefully Marvel will remember that and return him to being a top tiere character again.
John Stewart – (DC – Green Lantern) – John Stewart is one of the most poorly handled characters in the DC Universe, but despite that, he still makes it on this list because he’s such a great man. He’s ex-military and a natural leader, and when Earth needed a hero to wield the Green Ring in its defense, Stewart rose to the challenege and punched it’s face off. Since then he has experienced a series of ups and downs, but sadly, in recent DC history he has been handled terribly. Stewart is a natural born leader, a man with an endless supply of guts and a warrior’s mind. Yet, he’s somehow always in the background of DC’s Green Lantern titles, playing second fiddle to jokers like Guy Gardner, Kyle Rayner, and Kilowog. Sure, Stewart had a cool moment in Blackest Night where he repelled a wave of Black Lanterns all by himself, but besides that, where has he been in the new millennium? In the current Green Lantern Corps series of the New 52, he’s doing nothing but get his butt kicked and this is just wrong. And insulting.
The best John Stewart story to this day remains his first appearance in Green Lantern vol. 2 #87 (1971), written by Denny O’Neil and penciled by Neal Adams. Considering the time when that book came out, it was a ballsy move to put an African American man on the same plane as a white man, but that’s what the Adams/O’Neil Green Lantern run was all about- ignoring tabboos and tackling relevent social issues in America. When Guy Gardner went down, the ring chose Stewart to be it’s next wielder and from that moment on, he made his mark in Green Lantern history. It would be right for DC to return Stewart to a prominent role. There is absolutely no reason why he shouldn’t be leading a team of Corpsmen- he has experience in this field, given his military background, plus his fighting prowess and willpower are admirable and second only to Hal Jordan’s. Fans are eagerly awaiting the day that John Stewart is truly given his due spotlight, but until then, he’s easily one of the best black characters to ever appear in comics.
Storm – (Marvel – X-Men) – It was writer Len Wein who introduced us to her but it would be Chris Claremont who solidified her place as one of the most impressive black characters in comics. From the moment Storm made her debut in 1975 she stood out from the standard cookie cutter images of what had come before her. A black woman with white hair and blue eyes. Not only was it her physical appearance that blew fans away it was also the presence she commanded as an X-Man. While other females were being “put in their place” by their male counter parts Storm was being worshipped as a goddess and wielding the power of mother nature. Under Claremont’s watch Storm evolved into the kind of female character that made the guys step back and recognize that she’s not one to be taken lightly. She also began to show female readers a much different depiction of how a woman can be written in comics. Not just a background character or something only around for eye candy but a fierce warrior who held her own with any member of the team. Even showing that it wasn’t her powers that made her special when a depowered Storm beat Cyclops in a one on one fight for leadership of the X-Men. She went on to carry the team armed with only her leadership skills, intelligence, and deadly fighting skills. She’s also gone on to lead the Morlocks and in the nineties she led the X-Men’s Gold Team for some time. For as long as she’s been on the team she’s been involved in almost every key moment of the team’s history and actually was a significant presence. Stories like The Mutant Massacre, God Loves, Man Kills, and The Dark Phoenix Saga to name a few.
For many female characters there are times when things boil down to how good they look and how many provocative poses the artist can get her in. This was not the case with Storm. She owned her sexuality as she would stroll around the mansion in the nude startling her teamates at times. Her views on nudity differed because of her upbringing and Claremont built a very strong case for that and used it sparingly. Something a lot of writers could take note of. There is a reason why Storm has been a prevalent character in many of the mediums the X-Men have been in from video games, to cartoons, to film, and many others. There was no black female (or any other female) character like her before or after her debut and she has definitely helped set the standard for strong female leads in comics.
Al Simmons – (Image – Spawn) – If there is a “most popular character from the 1990s not of The Big 2” award, it would easily go to Al Simmons, the original Spawn! Well, original in the sense that he’s the first version of Spawn we, the reading audience, have ever seen. Throughout time there has always been a Spawn in existence, the ultimate weapon that both Heaven and Hell have pined over with the intent to bring about the utter destruction of the other side. But Al Simmons in particular has been the most popular and bad ass of all the wearers of the Spawn symbiote. Why? Because he doesn’t take no for an answer. He isn’t afraid to confront the most ultimate evil in existence if it leads him to the answers he seeks. Al Simmons has strung readers along for over two decades as he tries, like every man, to discover just what his purpose is on this Earth (and beyond).
In the “Endgame” story line, which began in #185, Al Simmons chose to end his life for the greater good. Just what that means exactly is still up in the air over 30 issues later, and whether or not Al Simmons is truly gone is a question that has yet to be answered. While there may be a new man under the cowl, Simmons’ essence still resonates as the supporting cast constant remind the reader just how killer he was when he drew breath. Also, what other character out of the 90s still has his solo title going strong with 200+ issues? Savage Dragon? Please. Spawn was one of the rare instances in comics where nobody cared about the guys race or creed, everyone just loved him for who he was- an awesome superhero in both look and execution.
Martha Washington – (Dark Horse – The Life And Times of Martha Washington) – Born in Chicago’s Cabrini Green, Martha’s life would go from test subject, to soldier, to space explorer in some of the best stories ever written for comics. Created in 1990 by Frank Miller and Dave Gibbons, Martha Washington was pretty much ahead of it’s time. America is in the midst of it’s second Civil War, fast food conglomerates wage war, the President has kept his position for over 3 terms, and we’re fighting wars all over the globe. Martha’s journey through all of this was something that up unitl now had never been told with a black female lead character. Espicially one not written as well as she had been and for as long as it took Miller and Gibbons to tell her story. She’s more of a relunctant hero who stepped up to meet whatever was thrown at her and took her bumps and bruises along the way. Whenever someone mentions the lack of unembarrising black characters this book should be mentioned right up there with your favorite mainstream character. What was also great about her story was that it wasn’t about a black female lead. Martha was just a woman who overcame a lot of crap, kicked ass, and saved the world who just happened to be a black woman.
So there’s our list for you guys and hopefully you enjoyed the coverage of the previous Top 12 of 2012 and Underground lists as well. Whether you agree or disagree remember you can discuss at our forums but remember to keep it fun because in the end, it’s just comics!