By David Brothers
Check out part one of this retrospective covering the Silver Age through the 70’s
Roger Stern and John Romita Jr. created Monica Rambeau, also known as Captain Marvel and Photon, in 1982's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #16. Despite no blood relation or shared powers with her predecessor, Rambeau became a legacy character entirely by accident. After her debut, the media began calling her Captain Marvel. While she wasn't entirely comfortable with taking up a dead man's name, her friends in the Avengers convinced her that she was worthy of the title. She later ceded the title to Mar-Vell's son out of respect, and took the name Photon.
Rambeau's a character that has a strong need to do right, no matter where she is. Characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, and Luke Cage needed a reason to become heroes. Rambeau, however, is more in the Captain America mold. Like Steve Rogers, she's driven to serve the public. While Captain America volunteered for a dangerous experiment to serve his country, Rambeau spent years serving as part of the New Orleans Harbor Patrol. Getting powers merely gave her another way to serve the public, and becoming the leader of the Avengers gave her yet another way to help.
Night Thrasher, who first appeared in 1989's THOR #411, represents a different mentality. While the majority of Marvel's black heroes were set in that nebulous age group where they're old enough to be successful—Rambeau was a lieutenant in the Harbor Patrol, for example, and Luke Cage was far out of his misspent youth—Night Thrasher and his New Warriors were explicitly meant to be the younger generation of Marvel heroes. As a result, he was much edgier than his predecessors; angrier, and more violent.
Rather than being driven to serve by an innate sense of honor, Night Thrasher began his career out of a thirst for vengeance. His parents were murdered before his eyes as a child, which introduced him to the harsh realities of life. His quest for vengeance soon grew into an obsessive loathing for all crime everywhere; a less than noble motivation for heroism, to be sure, but one that, again, managed to tap right into the zeitgeist.
1989—honestly, all of the late 80’s—was a good year for hip-hop. Rap was in the process of splintering into several different lanes. 2 Live Crew was busy flirting with the legal definition of obscenity at the same time that Boogie Down Productions was attempting to teach the youth about how to live life. While Ice-T and N.W.A. were turning gangsta rap into a household name, Afro-centrism was also gaining steam, promoting confidence via the shared history of black America.
Rap music, the music of the young black Americans, was growing into something new. A lot of the content was angry, intelligent, and shocking. Songs about violence, real life, despair, and sex were big, and being beamed directly into the homes of millions of Americans. Night Thrasher, at least on a certain level, was keyed into these newly public feelings. His hatred of injustice and violent outbursts reflected the emotions across a surprisingly broad spectrum of rap music.
“Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz created Dwayne Taylor/Night Thrasher when they first conceived of the New Warriors concept,” notes longtime NEW WARRIORS and NIGHT THRASHER writer Fabian Nicieza. “Tom wanted all of us to keep character diversity in mind when developing new concepts, since that was always a hallmark of Marvel, so as Editor-in-Chief at the time, he put his money where his mouth is and helped created diversity for the Warriors by making Thrash African-American.
“I remember trying to focus very much on two things: making his skin color secondary to anything he did as a character or how other characters reacted to him and try to tone down the ‘driven by vengeance’ [motivation] and quickly evolve it into an understanding on his part that he should be ‘driven for justice,’ which is a big difference. I guess a [third] caveat was also to try and find either a way to make the skateboard work or find a way to minimize it. We found a way to minimize it by not using it!”
In 1990, Dwayne McDuffie, Gregory Wright, and Jackson Guice brought us DEATHLOK #1, which reintroduced Deathlok to the Marvel Universe in a new guise: a black scientist. Michael Collins thought he was working on high-tech prosthetic limbs, but soon found that he was in fact creating technology for a new type of weapons system. Betrayed by his employer and implanted in the Deathlok machine, Collins is faced with a horrific scenario. He wants to work to help people, to do the opposite of what his newfound body is programmed to do. He's trapped in what may well be his worst nightmare, with little hope of escape.
Collins' fate actually mirrors some of the content found in the music around this time. The way Deathlok's dilemma parallels black history isn't hard to see. If you consider that Deathlok can easily be a metaphor for being forced to live in the projects or to break the law to feed your family, things begin falling into place. You didn't ask for it, you don't want to be there, but you have a very, very small chance of breaking out. Deathlok, then, was about freedom. The freedom to escape your circumstances, to rise above the fate you've been given, and the freedom to be your own man.
James Rhodes had filled in as Iron Man for Tony Stark off and on since 1983, but in 1992, he hit the comic shops in his own title, WAR MACHINE. While Iron Man was an Avenger and a traditional super hero, War Machine was a walking armory. He built on the foundation laid by Night Thrasher and Deathlok. He was angrier and edgier than Iron Man, but embraced the violence, rather than rejecting it out of hand. War Machine saw his methods and weapons as the lesser of two evils, and it was better for him to commit a few small sins than for injustice to win. His methods led him to butt heads with several super heroes, but he maintained the necessity of his war.
War Machine represents that part of us that sees or is a victim of wrongdoing and wants to lash out. Peaceful protest only goes so far, and War Machine showed us what it could be like to become proactive. War Machine is a man willing to make hard choices, and while that's tough to justify sometimes, it definitely has its own appeal. It's hard to say whether someone would behave otherwise if they found themselves with the power Rhodey possessed.
Almost 10 years later, in 2001, The Anarchist, also known as Tike Alicar, made his debut in X-FORCE #116. The creative freedom that Peter Milligan and Mike Allred had allowed them more freedom to portray and explore race than Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had when they created Gabe Jones. Alicar, who was adopted by a white Canadian family and whose mutant power was sweating acid, openly called himself the "token black guy" of X-Statix.
This overt reference to how super hero teams used to be formed—generally one black guy, one or two ladies, and the rest of the team a variety of white males—wasn't new or revolutionary, but it was refreshing. X-STATIX concerned itself with how super heroes interacted with each other on every level, from romantic relationships to team dynamics, and race was no exception. While there were no grand speeches about the evils of stereotyping or suggestions on how to cure institutionalized racism, X-STATIX did something with race that had rarely been done beforehand: it acknowledged it existed without approaching it as a problem to be solved. Tike was black, secure, and confident. He didn't have to prove his blackness or take part in “A Very Special Issue” of X-STATIX to prove that. He simply was who he was.
“The Anarchist was a key figure in the love triangle that was Mister Sensitive, U-Go Girl and himself in the strange X-brew that was X-Statix,” says Milligan. “As such he was a vitally important character who killed a lot of less vitally important characters. What I liked about him was that while his ‘blackness’ was a key part of who he was it wasn’t all he was. He also suffered from OCD. I was very fond of this character, his sometimes brash performance being a nice foil for Mister Sensitive’s…sensitivity.”
“Tike Alicar uttered the immortal words, ‘I’m a black mutant—that’s like being black with a little black added,’” recalls Marvel Editor-in-Chief and X-FORCE/X-STATIX editor Axel Alonso. “I think he was stepping out of a hot tub, leaving behind two bikini-clad beauties at the time. The Comics Code didn’t approve—and the rest is history. Needless to say, Tike was a real character. More than a pint of anger in him, but also gallons of compassion and heart born of experience. I really, really miss him.”
2001 featured the introduction of another black character that made waves. Ultimate Nick Fury added a layer of Samuel L. Jackson cool to the superspy that Lee, Kirby, and Jim Steranko built, and the results were fantastic and thoroughly modern. 2001 isn't 1963, and black characters are on an equal footing with white ones. Your war hero/superspy/military leader of the free world doesn't have to be a Pop Art-inspired, incredibly stylish, cigar-smoking white guy any more. A bald, gruff, and smooth-talking black man can fill the role just as easily, as Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar proved in the pages of THE ULTIMATES.
Ultimate Nick Fury isn't just a carbon copy of the original, either. He has his own quirks, including a willingness to be extremely sneaky and underhanded, and gets up to things that his forefather wouldn't. He's a product of modern-day politics and culture, and an interesting and multi-faceted update of a classic Marvel character.
|Ultimate Nick Fury|
He also answers an oft-asked question: "Why can't these characters be another race?" There's very little about Nick Fury that explicitly requires him to be a white male, so when given the chance to switch things up, a black Nick Fury actually makes narrative sense. After all, General Colin Powell had been both United States Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fury, in his own way, represented how far black characters had come since 1963. They could be the boss, and not only that, but a boss that sometimes made decisions we'd consider wrong.
"I hate to say it, but the Samuel L Jackson Nick Fury visual came from Bryan Hitch,” says Millar of the character’s resemblance to the Hollywood actor who would ultimately portray him in “Iron Man” and other Marvel big screen endeavors. “I'd love to take the credit, but all I said was ‘Cool, African American guy’ and Hitchy came back with SLJ, which was of course genius on his part.
“The reason I changed him from the Caucasian look is that I felt the classic 60’s Rat Pack era Nick was great, but a little dated for a modern audience. It was classic cool or even retro cool as opposed to what a little guy in 2001 would have found to be a cool super-spy. Jackson was and always will be the coolest man alive so he was a perfect choice for that effortless, laid-back swagger the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. should always exude. Colin Powell was my original inspiration when I first put him in ULTIMATE X-MEN #8, because he had held a similar, real-life position not long before. But he didn't look as good in a leather jacket as the guy Hitchy morphed him into."
|The Black Panther|
What's nice about comics is that even the trailblazers get a chance to take advantage of the benefits they helped create. James Rhodes is currently headlining his own series, IRON MAN 2.0, with a high-profile launch and an all-star creative team. He played a major role during the Dark Reign status quo, taking the battle directly to the people who deserved it most.
Black Panther's reintroduction to the Marvel Universe courtesy of Reggie Hudlin and John Romita Jr. in 2005 elevated the character to sales and prestige he hadn't seen in years. Hudlin's take blended black American culture with the African super hero, and was a version of the Panther that had a lot to love. Hudlin took T’Challa from the jungle to space and back again in stories that were intended to entertain and brought a certain amount of authenticity to the series.
One of the highlights of Hudlin's run was the “Bad Mutha” story arc, which put Panther, Monica Rambeau, Luke Cage, Brother Voodoo, Blade, The Falcon and Shang-Chi into an international team-up. Hudlin revealed a very good, and very logical, facet of Luke Cage's history, too. While growing up and in prison, Cage looked up to The Black Panther. T'Challa had the freedom, power, and glory that the then-powerless and helpless Cage didn't have. He was a role model, and an inspiration, much in the way that the Afro-centrism movement of the early 90’s and late 80’s resurrected the idea of Africa as the Motherland, where blacks were kings and queens, rather than slaves.
Luke Cage, of course, has enjoyed unprecedented visibility and popularity. Thanks in large part to Brian Michael Bendis' efforts in ALIAS, DAREDEVIL and NEW AVENGERS, Cage has been at the forefront of the Marvel universe, both in terms of creative hits and best-selling comics. He's been a crucial part of several events, from Civil War to Siege, and has turned the tide in countless battles. That's not bad for a guy who started out as a blaxploitation riff.
|Luke Cage the Avengers|
Luke Cage's success especially speaks to the staying power of these characters. Without something to latch onto at his core, whether you prefer the wish-fulfillment fantasies of blaxploitation or savvy street smarts, Cage would've withered on the vine and been forgotten. But, since he managed to click with so many readers for such a variety of reasons, he's lasted the test of time. He stuck around, weathering years of obscurity or worse, until the time was right and he could be thrust into the spotlight to an audience who would truly appreciate him.
Also, as a final note, Luke Cage began leading the Avengers in 2007. A year later, Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. Now, I'm not saying that someone at Marvel saw it coming and made a black man the leader of their foremost super hero team. That would be silly, wouldn't it? But, at the same time, it's funny how Marvel keeps ending up in the right place at the right time, doesn't it?