First, let me clarify something. This is an issue that numerous people have addressed over the years many of which are better informed than me, so in no way do I mean to say that my ideas represent the definitive answer to this question. However, I do have some thoughts that I'm going to share which can basically be broken down into two separate non-exclusionary theories. The first theory is one I have heard from other comic book commentators, and after pondering it for months, I've decided that it tracks with me, so I am going to pass it on to you. The second theory consists of my own observations on the issue at hand.
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Theory #1: Black Superheroes Are Not Relatable
Let's take a moment to identify some of the most popular black superheroes in mainstream comics and consider how relatable they are. Black Panther is a scientific genius/martial arts master/leader of a small nation which, due to its vast resources, is one of the most powerful nations on the planet. Anybody feeling much kinship with him? How about Storm? How many of you have been recognized as an African goddess before becoming a teacher at an elite school for the most talented youngsters on the planet? Can anybody commiserate with the half-vampire/half-human Blade who has no discernible friends and spends every waking moment hunting down those who represent the dark side of his heritage? No? How about Steel? Is anybody a technological and mechanical genius who designed weapons which wiped out a third world country? No?
Look, I actually like Steel a lot, and I have no animosity against any of the other characters I mentioned, but though I might like the actions of heroes like Steel, I cannot really claim any sense of identification with their origin or abilities. At least with Steel, I can identify with his compassion, his desire to do good in harsh circumstances, and the sense of deep family bonds that were so present in his own series, but most black superheroes do not even have that much common ground with which I, and I speculate most others, can identify. Blade has little compassion and no family. Black Panther is a pretty stoic character from what I have seen. Storm definitely has some compassion, but she still, in my perception, has some leftover attitude from her time as a “goddess” which makes me feel she is a bit set apart from the average Joe's perspective.
Now if you have your critical thinking cap on, you are probably saying, “But BatWatcher, white superheroes are not relatable either.” In many cases, you are absolutely right. It's safe to assume the average comic book fan is not the Last son of Krypton, an amazonian princess, a narcissistic industrialist, or a billionaire with a rodent fetish, but all of these characters were established in the early days of comics, and they have since become iconic representations of the genre which have in turn become embedded in the subconscious of virtually ever person in the Western world. By getting in on the ground floor of comics, they did not have to be relatable in as large a degree. Those are the guys that new characters now have to compete against.
If you look at many of the characters who have become established in more recent ages, then they often run the Peter Parker route. They are, for the most part, everyday schmoes with a normal life who become extraordinary by circumstances and/or force of will. Think of the Batman and Green Lantern families and consider Jason Todd, Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Guy Gardner, John Stewart, and Kyle Rayner who were all had relatable lives before the domino masks. How many black superheroes can claim the same?
There was at least one black superhero that managed to break into mainstream comics in the modern era, Static, and he was essentially the black Peter Parker. He did not have anything exceptional going on in his life until he happened to get caught up in the Big Bang and developed electromagnetic powers. Static had a successful comic run of 45 issues in the nineties along with a cartoon series that lasted four seasons. With a notable track record like that and a desire to diversify their line, it is no surprise that DC tried to restart his series in the DCNU. However, they rebooted the character as a wealthy scientific genius, and it flopped. Coincidence? I think not.
Theory #2: Racial Disinterest
Racism is often talked about as if it is a white problem, but it is not. Racism is a people problem. Everybody of every race has a natural tendency to be drawn to those of his or her own race. Now the causes, the implications, and the strategies for dealing with this inherent racism on an individual and global level are all fascinating discussions which have nothing to do with this article, so let's set them aside for the moment. All I am doing is making the point that racial bias is the natural tendency of humans.
With that in mind, it is clear that people tend to be drawn towards entertainment with a protagonist of their own race. Perhaps this sounds controversial, but it pretty obvious if you just stop and think about if for a second. The majority race in the United States is white, so protagonists in movies, books and comics tend to be white. In Japanese movies, protagonists tend to be Asian. In India, protagonists tend to be Indian. There are many movies made for the United States designed to target different racial demographics, and they inevitably star protagonists of the targeted race. The closer the protagonist is to the audience, the more likely the audience will identify with the story and enjoy it.
In light of this, white consumers, which are the majority in the United States, will naturally be less inclined to pick up a book starring a black hero. It is probably not even a conscious decision; it's just that there is slightly less of an identification with that hero.
However, just like with the movie market, this racial gap should theoretically be made up by the comic being more appealing to black consumers. That's the way it works with movies, so why does it not seem to work in comic books?
My theory is simple. I think the black community is uninterested in comics.
I taught English at a school in Pine Bluff, Arkansas that was 97% black, and there were many cultural shocks in store for me during my brief tenure, but one of the greatest shocks revolved around superheroes. One day, I wanted to talk about the heroic archetype while preparing to read The Odyssey, and I tried to lead the class in a discussion of what makes a hero by talking about superheroes. I know this is going to be difficult to believe, but when I tried to discuss the heroic qualities of Superman and Batman, I soon discovered that my ninth grade students had no idea who those characters were. Oh sure, they knew the names, but the vast majority of them could not tell me anything more about them. To quote one student, “Mr. Sims, we don't watch that s***.”
Now there were certainly a few Batman fans in the classroom, and I even ended up sharing some comics with a few of them in an attempt to find some kind of pop culture common ground, (its a long, agonizing story best saved for another time) but most of them had no knowledge or interest in the world of superheroes.
To be fair, one classroom does not a representative sample make. I tried to find some statistics on racial breakdown of comic followers to see if I could confirm my suspicious, but it seems this info is not readily available. However, if comics are trying to target a market which simply is not, as a whole, interested, that would certainly explain why black heroes rarely seem to gain ground.