You don't have to be a comic book fan to know that exceedingly few of the medium's villains are black. All it takes is walking past a comic book store to figure it out. But why? Blogger Eric Barker flags an interesting and surprisingly serious-minded study (appearing in the Bowling Green State University-based Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, naturally) exploring this very question. The study is authored by Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, himself a black man, who says he's been wondering this question since he found out that Darth Vader, who he'd assumed would be black, turned out to be white. "All of the greatest supervillains are white," he writes.
Because of their origins as common thugs, most black villains - like their superhero counterparts - are often inadequate for adventures beyond the street corners and rooftops of the inner city. This is largely due to the industry's tendency to use black superheroes (and characters, in general) as a means to address social issues that its primarily white, nigh invulnerable superheroes could not.
... Beyond limiting their goals to organized or street crime, the situating of black villains in the ghetto has had two other effects that prevent them from being major supervillains. First, it has vastly limited the powers and abilities of these villains. For the most part, black villains typically rely on their fighting prowess or access to weaponry. Marvel, in particular, has a litany of black villains who carry heavy weaponry.
... Beyond greatly limiting the powers of black villains, situating them in urban locales has also, in many regards, made many of them redeemable figures. Many black villains do not stay villains, and even those who remain so have their villainy seemingly justified. Undoubtedly the product of white liberal guilt and the comic industry's sudden interest in addressing social issues in the 1970s, the rise of black superheroes coincided with the rise of somewhat sympathetic black villains.
... The vengeful (even if justifiably so) black man is such a popular trope in mainstream comics largely because writers seemingly have very little else upon which to draw. The most prominent black men in American culture were, for quite some time, the beleaguered, defeated black worker and the hoodlum.
In other words, writing about black comic book villains is freighted with either ugly stereotypes about black men or self-conscious reactions against those stereotypes. So it's been tough for comic book writers to break free. But Cunningham says he'd like to see writers move beyond that and write more black supervillains. He concludes by explaining why, odd though it may sound, more black supervillains would actually be a great and long overdo step forward for popular cultural portrayals or black men.
While I do not wish to romanticize superhero comics or overemphasize their influence, I do believe that they can provide a means in which to challenge preconceived notions about blacks. Like many other forms of popular media, comic books have been singularly focused: As a result of movements by the likes of activists such as Jesse Jackson and the NAACP, over the course of the last three decades, popular media has overcompensated for its lengthy history of negative depictions of black folks by either greatly limiting or outright eliminating roles in which black men and women portray villains. However, doing so is no more progressive than the tokenism to which Singer refers; in fact, what appears to some as altruism is more akin to an inability (or refusal) to develop complex black characters. However, as Brown indicates in his work on Milestone Comics, '[B]lack scholars and cultural critics see the need to develop new models of black masculinity, models that counter the dominant stereotypes not by reforming the hypermasculine image of the black male into an image of refinement, restraint, and desexualization, but by incorporating the associated properties of the mind (e.g., intelligence, control, wisdom) into the popular presentation of black male identity' (1999, p. 30). One way in which to do so has been achieved - to a degree, as Brown suggests - in the portrayals of more contemplative superheroes in the Milestone universe. Conversely, the same could be achieved in developing complex, contemplative, and powerful black supervillains.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.