Blacks in America have always had a peculiar position. At once they are part of the mainstream culture and at once they are a distinct ethnic group with its own culture. This has transpired the same way in comics over the years. What makes black culture mainstream is the fact that it has been readily adopted by all segment of the United States and incorporated to the highest degrees into what is the experience of the nation. From music to cooking to sports, blacks are mainstream America. Yet, there is always some feeling that the black current is an alternative culture within a greater one similar to how Italians, Jews, and Latinos see themselves in the United States.
In some ways the distinctiveness of black culture has take everybody by surprise. For example, on Twitter, there is a whole subgenre of Twitter users that are not interested in the mainstream discussion. Their intense twittering is so effective that the topics of a distinct group of black youth on Twitter often dominate trending topics.
In comics, there has always been this alternative vibe, this other circuit of comic book creators creating comic books often for their communities. Italians, Filipinos, Jews in America do not make their own comic books for their American audiences. But black do. Yet, blacks in America are truly Americans and nothing else.
Often, the comic books started by blacks for blacks and other non mainstream comic book audiences are meant to offer counterparts to the all white world of the mainstream comic book. Yet they often get distributed in the same channels and for some unfortunate reason, do not earn the same audience. Veterans of the genre, trying to offer more inclusive and multicoloured material would argue that the best integrated material that reaches the most readers, is the one that does not label itself as a black audience only product and allows other demographic groups to peak through. In other words, such comic books do not announce their blackness but still impress it through material deemed neutral.
The debate of expanding black-influenced comic books becomes one of whether to exclude other demographic groups or whether to fully integrate them. If fully integrated, are they still black-oriented comic books or just comics created by blacks with other sensibilities? There is no simple solution and one size will not fit all. The best thing once can say is that a variety of solutions and options should be possible and deemed reasonable. There should be comic books that only cater to black readers. There should be others that include everybody. There is no right or wrong, although market viability is always a concern.
In the comic books, this network of fellow blacks has been more prevalent in Marvel Comics. For example, when James Rhodes, the second Iron Man, also better known as War Machine wanted to fix his early armour while Tony Stark was out of commission, he would go to a black mechanics, not a white one. The Falcon, Captain America’s former sidekick got his enhanced weaponry through the Black Panther, not one of the other super smart Avengers. There was no equivalent in DC Comics. For example, we’ve never seen Steel trade architecture tips with Cyborg. We’ve never seen Green Lantern John Stewart in a sparring session with Mr Terrific. It often feels as if these characters exist as black ones outside of all prejudices and expectations of society. They colour only becomes an issue for the odd comic book story ordered to be relevant and outlay a moralistic message. Otherwise, all the indirect networks through which blacks form a community in and outside of comics are not reflected through the characters of DC Comics.
The story of the first black astronaut approaches black comic book culture in a different way. It assumes that blacks are the mainstream and they are not minorities. They are the standard upon which others create alternate cultures. Such a world exists, but outside of North America. In Africa, and to some extent, places like the Caribbean, the dominant culture is black. Comics there, depict a reality where the experience of blacks is the norm. These comic books and their culture barely touches North America. Just like there are movies and soap operas with African actors, there are also comics written and drawn from a black perspective only. In places like Haiti, sequential art even exists as mobile murals on tap tap buses that transport around. Brief stories exposed through sequences illustration on one bus, can tell stories, just like the column of Trajan in Rome or the caves of Lascaux in France. These are comic books in action and audiences in North America know nothing about them. Perhaps one day, The Comic Book Bin will be that place where black astronauts find out about all experiences of blacks in comics.
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