Before 1970, DC Comics’ only African-American character was Jackie Johnson, a member of Sergeant Rock’s Easy Company. It was a substantially lower number when compared to Marvel, its chief competition of that time. Throughout the 1970s, DC made an overdue effort to populate their fictional universe with more black people. Some of the new characters were introduced more successfully than others, but all of them continued to appear after the ’70s. This was linked to the comic book industry’s then-ongoing transition out of what became known as the Silver Age of Comics and into the Bronze Age of Comics. Storytelling became both edgier and more sophisticated, status quo changes and even character deaths started occurring, and current events started becoming subject matter for stories. Let’s take a closer look at this period of DC’s history.
The Teen Titans
In 1970, Robert Kanigher and Nick Cardy created Mal Duncan. Duncan was an ally of the Teen Titans who quickly became a member. By 1976 Mal had become a legacy hero, taking up Jim Harper’s mantle as Guardian. Only months after that, Karen Beecher, aka Bumblebee, joined the Titans as well. Karen, a creation of Bob Rozakis and Irv Novick, was DC’s first black female superhero. And before Vixen arrived in the 1980s, she was DC’s only African-American heroine.
In 1970 Jack Kirby moved to DC, and used his historic run on Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen to reintroduce a group of kid heroes he had co-created in the 1940s: the Newsboy Legion. Well, sort of. These boys were clones of the originals. However, Kirby chose to add diving expert Walter Johnson, Jr., or “Flippa Dippa,” to the ensemble. All of these boys were mainly known by their nicknames. This was one of the first instances ever of a character lineup being (slightly) diversified to update it for a revival.
In 1971 Kirby introduced the Forever People, a group of young people from New Genesis. One of them was the magnetically powered Vykin the Black. Also introduced in 1971 was Willie Walker, a paraplegic Vietnam veteran who became the human host of the Black Racer. The Black Racer, first seen in New Gods, was not a superhero but a force of nature. He was the embodiment of death. In 1973, Kirby would also introduce Shiloh Norman, sidekick of Mr. Miracle. Kirby had managed to place at least one person of color in each of his New Gods titles, at a time when this was not standard practice. Not surprising from the man who co-created Black Panther and Falcon at Marvel.
In 1971, Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams introduced the third human Green Lantern, John Stewart. John would not become a major part of Green Lantern storytelling until the mid-1980s, when he was elevated to the main character of Green Lantern comics for two years. He has remained a series regular since then. Meanwhile, you can count John’s 1970s appearances on one hand. Incidentally, Stewart in his first appearance was far from the level-headed professional we know him as today. Instead, he was basically the archetypal “Angry Black Man,” resulting in some now-awkward scenes.
In 1975 DC began a short-lived martial arts title called Richard Dragon, Kung Fu Fighter, written by O’Neil. Richard Dragon’s best friend, Ben Turner, would later pop up in O’Neil’s Batman stories, where he was brainwashed by the League of Assassins. Under the League, Turner took the masked identity of Bronze Tiger, which he kept after he regained his mind. In the ’80s he would distinguish himself as one of the few likeable, trustworthy members of the Suicide Squad.
In 1977, Tony Isabella and Trevor Von Eeden created the first African-American DC character to star in his own title: Black Lightning. Jefferson Pierce was a high-school teacher in Suicide Slum, an unusually crime-ridden part of Metropolis. As Black Lightning, he made use of a novel variation on the old secret identity routine. When in costume he tried to appear more stereotypical and “streetwise” to prevent anyone from recognizing him as the relatively upper-class Pierce. (In the early days this meant wearing a fake afro and using lots of “jive turkey” slang.) Jefferson’s series was canceled after only 11 issues. But he gained renewed popularity in the ’80s as a member of the Outsiders, a super-team founded by Batman. Black Lightning was the first of many, many black superheroes with electricity powers.
Also in 1977, Aquaman’s enemy Black Manta, who had worn a full body suit and face-concealing helmet since his first appearance ten years prior, removed his helmet. In what was at the time a shocking twist, he was African-American. Black villains had appeared before, but never anyone as prominent as Black Manta. This happened in the same issue that Manta infamously murdered Aquaman’s son, solidifying his status as Aquaman’s arch-enemy.
In 1979, Len Wein and John Calnan added Lucius Fox to Batman’s supporting cast. Lucius was in charge of Wayne Enterprises’ financial and stock management. By 1982 he would become the CEO of Wayne Enterprises. As a close friend of Bruce Wayne and someone whose financial knowledge was essential to the company, Lucius was often kidnapped or otherwise targeted by villains. Lucius, like John Stewart, would eventually become one of DC’s A-list characters, thanks in no small part to his appearances in the Dark Knight film trilogy
Dishonorable Mention: Tyroc
In 1976, Cary Bates and Mike Grell, acted under an editorial decision that Grell in particular was not a fan of. They produced a Legion of Superheroes story meant to explain the lack of black people in the Legion’s futuristic setting. The story revealed that the “black race” of the 30th Century was isolationist, inhabiting an island-city named Marzal. The superhero who protected this island was an incredibly goofy-looking man with sound-based powers named Tyroc. You’ll have to see Tyroc’s costume to believe it.
What’s significant about all these characters is that they lasted (even Tyroc, who was redeemed by later writers). By the end of the decade they were no longer conspicuous, and instead felt more like a natural, essential part of the world. In the ’70s these heroes and villains were often supporting characters or in minor roles, but from the ’80s onward they were allowed to be protagonists. And they helped to make the increasing diversity of modern comics possible.