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Stereotypes and milestones: The rise of the Black age of comics

10 mins read

In the beginning of the comics industry, where Black folk were present they were depicted Blackface. Then creators and trailblazers of the Black comics age disrupted misrepresentations of African-Americans and the Diaspora by carving out a visible space in the industry.

Donning an Afro in the late 1960s, and calling himself Black rather than Negro or Afro-American, Turtel Onli was an avant-garde, Chi-town teen who unabashedly claimed his African descent and the rich culture that came with it, despite ribbing from his friends. He also was one of the first kids in his neighborhood to become part of the emerging Black Culture Movement happening at the time.

As a freelance illustrator, who’d always been interested in comic books, he envisioned a career in the comics industry. But he often came up against resistance from mainstream comic book companies because of his skin color.

“I was told to my face, ‘You’ll never work in this field in certain offices,’” Onli says. “Trying to break into comics in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, potential employers would ask him “Do Black people read?” or “When Black people read science fiction, do they understand what they’re reading?”

“I think that the stereotyping came from the early period in the United States, Black people were always revered for partying, music, dancing, singing…” Onli says. “…but not for visualizing and intellectualizing the sense of self and others, which is in the artistic process…they’d say, ‘love the gospel and spiritual music, the R&B, the Blues, but don’t tell me I’ve got to look at a Black guy as powerful as Superman. That’s just not going to work.’”

It’s a (White) Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World

The typecasting Onli refers to dates back to the newspaper comic strips of the late 1800s, and their comic-book counterparts in the 1930s and ‘40s, when people of color – not all people of color, but specifically, African-Americans — were drawn with accentuated features, such as large red lips, broad noses, and short, round bodies.

One of these hyperboles is Ebony White, a character created by comic book legend and Jewish activist, Will Eisner.

An obvious racial pun, Ebony White epitomized the Blackface, Minstrelsy caricature — a man-child with large white eyes, thick lips and a short build. He debuted as The Spirit’s taxi driver, serving as comic relief for the stories, and eventually becoming a regular sidekick. White would speak in exaggerated Southern slang dubbed by the popular minstrel shows of the early twentieth century, featuring white actors wearing theatrical black paint that darkened their skin and red or white makeup around their eyes and mouth to give the effect of these features protruding out or bulging.  

Comic book artist and writer Darrell Goza, who worked at Marvel and D.C. and now owns the comic book company, ScriptGraphics, once had the opportunity to ask Eisner—someone whom Goza highly respected—about his portrayal of Ebony White.

Goza describes his conversation with Eisner this way, “This guy, we talked for about 40 minutes…and he was a great guy. And one of the things he said to me more than anything else was, it was a sign of the times. He said, ‘I did my best to make the character a real character. Nobody was treating Black people with any kind of respect,’ he said. ‘We didn’t think of it in those terms.’”

As times changed, however, Eisner and other comic book creators realized the error in the racist representation of Ebony, and he eventually attempted to create more complex images of the character in later Spirit stories.  He ultimately created Black characters such as Detective Grey, who spoke standardardized English and went against the popular bigotry illustrated in his earlier Spirit work.

Another example is from the 1940s Timely Comics (now known as Marvel) with the series, Young Allies. The comic is about a group of kid heroes—three of them white, one of them Black—led by Bucky Barnes of Captain America fame. Similar to Ebony White, the character, Whitewash Jones, was a blatant Blackface stereotype that literally looked like a white boy painted in the dark hue.

Whitewash Jones in Young Allies

In Young Allies, all of the kids in the gang have special abilities; one is a skilled fighter, and another is an inventor. Whitewash, on the other hand, liked to eat watermelons and used what he perceived to be Black vernacular, such as, “sho,” “dey,” “aint”, even “yassuh,” and always referring to himself as “Ol’ Whitewash.” Once again, he was used as comedy relief, being clumsy, lacking any kind of intelligence and character depth. Thus, if you’re keeping score on the stereotype scale, Ebony White is bad, but Whitewash is absolutely atrocious.

The Big Payback

It was this kind of history in comic books that Onli, and other African-American comic book creators, had to fight against almost 40 years ago. Of course, by the time Onli was an adult trying to make his mark in comics, the portrayal of African Americans already evolved. The creation of heroes such as Black Panther, The Falcon, Black Lightning, and Luke Cage emerged and were well known in mainstream comics. There was still a glaring problem — they were created by white men. And negative depictions lingered.

By 1993, Onli like Dawud Anyabwile, had just a few years before, wanted to take matters into his own hands. If he could not break into the comic industry through the mainstream companies, he would do it on his own. Consequently, he and his brothers, Guy and Jason Sims, decided to create their own comic book called Brotherman: Dictator of Discipline, an 11 issue comic book series self published through their own publishing company, Big City Comics, Inc.

Turtel Onli

Onli recounted. “I was kind of looking at the music industry as a model and thought, ‘Well, this area of comic books and graphic novels, if it had a genre that made it clear, then maybe that will cut down the tension and open up acceptance and participation.”

Taking cues from the Black Culture Movement, and the comic book convention of naming the different publication periods throughout its almost 100-year history—Golden Age, Silver Age and Bronze Age—Onli began creating characters under his company, Onli Studios, and knighted his new movement the Black Age of Comics.

Next, he published comic books featuring Black superheroes from his works and those of other creators. Then Onli founded the Black Age of Comics conventions, which have now expanded from Chicago to Detroit, Philadelphia, Atlanta, San Francisco and New York.

Reminisced Onli who still resides in Chicago. “I know how corny this is going to sound, but I remember running into certain Blacks [at comic book conventions] that worked in the industry and they were like, ‘Brother, could you stay away from me?’ Like I’m going to out them for being Black.”

He continued,  “…they were so uptight and uncomfortable about  [the Black Age of Comics movement]. Defining Black culture in the ‘60s and naming it opened up a lot of possibilities. And defining Black culture in this industry opens up possibilities, whether it’s a comfort level in the office or in the studios, or in the market or with characters…not having to cloak yourself to be a white person so that I can work for this company.”

Brand New Bag

Around the same time, Denys Cowan and Dwayne McDuffie, who both worked at Marvel, had the seed of an idea. At the ‘91 San Diego Comic Con, Cowan together with McDuffie and friend Michael Davis, began talking about what would eventually become Milestone Media. They recruited Derek T. Dingle, who would become the company’s president and CEO, and writer Christopher Priest, best known for his work on Black Panther.

For close to two years, the group worked on their Milestone plan in secret, but Priest, who was slated to be editor-in-chief of the company, backed out for personal reasons. By 1993, Cowan, McDuffie, Davis and Dingle signed an unprecedented publishing deal with D.C. Comics, which gave the large company limited licensing of Milestone’s characters, editorial works and other creative content. But Milestone kept complete editorial control and the copyrights of its stories and characters.

Onli had a meeting with Milestone’s founders.Together they agreed that Milestone coupled with Onli’s Black Age of Comics movement would launch simultaneously, in February.

At the Black Age of Comics convention in Chicago, Milestone sent advanced material for Onli to present. According to Onli, Milestone was the most important company in the history of the Black Age movement, with a host of rich, relevant characters.

Those personas—Static Shock, Hardware, Icon and Rocket—were all African-American, and along with the multicultural, superpowered gang called Blood Syndicate, were part of what was dubbed the “Dakotaverse,” referring to the fictional town of Dakota, where all of the early Milestone stories took place.

These characters and the others that were spawned after Milestone’s first year, represented what its  originators felt was needed in mainstream comics. As Cowan puts it, “When we introduced Milestone, it was into a landscape that had no diversity. There were Black characters, but that doesn’t make diversity. That means you have a couple of Black characters. You want to see any Black characters or heroes of color, we had to create them ourselves. Simple as that.”

Say it Loud

Other African-American independent comic book companies and creators were critical of Milestone’s deal with D.C. According to Cowan, the Association of Black Comic Book Publishers (also known as ANIA) was among the harshest. Yet, it was mostly in fun, he says, a way to generate publicity; much in the way Muhammad Ali’s rivalry was with Sonny Liston.

ANIA consisted of four Black-owned comic companies — Afro Centric Comic Books, Africa Rising, Dark Zulu Comics, Inc. and UP Comics — and published stories featuring Purge, Ebony Warrior and Zentra.

Like most of the Black comic book creatives at the time, they just wanted to provide young African-American readers with positive messages and let them know that there are superheroes they could relate to. Nabile Hage, a member of ANIA and creator of Zwanna: Son of Zulu, was so desperate to get that message out that he climbed the Georgia state capitol building dressed like Zwanna, according to a news report in ‘93. He was later escorted down by police.

“‘We’re Black and we keep it Black.’ They were like that,” says Cowan. “My goal was, and is, to reach as many types of people as possible, while remaining true to what Milestone stood for and what we wanted to do, and the types of stories…universal things, things that we were always interested in at Milestone, and that I still refer to. They called us a sellout. Yeah, I’m a sellout. The best words you can hear as a comic artist, or as a publisher or whatever,[is] ‘sold out,’ you know?’ That was always our goal.”

Due to poor sales, Milestone shut down in ‘97. Though it lasted only four years, the vision of its founders—McDuffie, Cowan, Priest, Davis and Dingle—to create cultural awareness in comics, has inspired a whole new generation of creators.

McDuffie died in 2011 from complications due to emergency heart surgery, a day after his 49th birthday.

Dr. Sheena Howard, the first African-American woman to win an Eisner-award, is the author of Black Comics: Politics of Race and Representation and the Encyclopedia of Black Comics. She argues that Milestone was one of the best things to come out of the ‘90s regarding Black comic books. “Reginald Hudlin has said that Milestone was like the Motown of comics,” she claims.

Howard continued. “It had a tremendous impact. It was, certainly, to the many Black creatives working in the industry to continue telling their stories. It also gave comics new stories and new perspective. The superheroes had backstories that allowed for different issues to be explored. For example, Icon’s human persona was Augustus, who was a corporate lawyer, and this allowed the writers to pull in storylines around Blackness and success in the ‘90s.”

Soul Power

The need for variety, not just in mainstream comic books, but in Hollywood and other creative outlets, is nothing new. It’s what everyone at Milestone fought for. But with the massive success of Marvel’s Black Panther movie this past February, it’s once again brought  questions of diversity to the forefront of America’s social consciousness.

“Milestone was competing with the saturation of the market and the idea that their comics were just for “Black people,” notes Dr. Howard. “This makes it an interesting dynamic when thinking about today because I don’t see Black Panther tossed aside as “just a Black movie.” This is in part because Black Panther was created by white people and Marvel is still a white-owned and operated company, and we are in a different cultural moment. I believe people’s eyes are more open today to the realities of race and racism…”

Cowan, along with a host of other renowned comic book creators of color including Kyle Baker, Reginald Hudlin, Amy Chu and Jim Lee, among others, is bringing back some of Milestone’s most beloved heroes from its “Dakotaverse,” such as Icon, Rocket and Static in a new expansion of the D.C. universe called Earth M.

But they are also adding some new titles. Among them is Love Army, about a secret army of women with amazing abilities sworn to protect the planet.

“We have talented people doing these books, bringing the same point of view to tell multicultural stories, which are even more important now than ever before…” Cowan says.

Since, Onli has seen growth in the Black Age of Comics movement. “I’ve fortunately been around long enough to see the progress, to see if for what it is.That does not make me blind to the challenges,” he says. “The comic book industry, I would say, is about where the music industry was when Elvis Presley had his first big hit, and people were like, ‘Wow! You mean you can make money with Black music?”

“Like most growth, it’s painful and and it’s going to be awkward,” Onli says. “But we see the impact. It’s certainly a lot better than when I started publishing in the ‘70s. I mean a whole lot better.”

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Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga, Tennessee with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications.

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