PROGRESS

How Black Heroes Matter Was Born at Comic-Con

A small group of comic book artists and writers started #BlackHeroesMatter to highlight underrepresentation of black people in superhero properties.

Cosplaying Harley Quinns and Jedis and a burgeoning Hamilton horde swarmed San Diego Comic-Con last week, but only one costume sent a perfectly succinct ripple of Black Lives Matter realness surging through the colliding fandoms of fantasy and make-believe.

“I wore it for three days and it was an eye-opening experience,” Baltimore artist URAEUS told me of the “Black Heroes Matter” tees he designed and had printed for the annual pop culture confab, intending to give them out to a few colleagues and fans as a social experiment. “I was stopped hundreds of times by people wanting to express solidarity and wanting to know where they could get their shirt.”

He had no way of knowing it, but when URAEUS had that modest batch of 20 Black Heroes Matter shirts made, he birthed a mini-movement. In a year that’s seen enormous support for the Black Lives Matter crusade highlighting officer-involved violence against African Americans, and in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite outcry that put Hollywood on the hook for decades of institutionalized racial bias, the sentiment behind Black Heroes Matter extends from a natural convergence of worlds.

In comics and creative culture, it’s nothing new. But now it has a name.

“To put it quite frankly, Black Heroes Matter is a label for a movement that has been taking place in black independent comics for decades,” URAEUS told The Daily Beast. He describes it as a response “to the racial issues that plague this nation: profiling, stereotyping, and the killing of people that look like us.”

For URAEUS—who’s spent 12 years creating the worldly immortal scholar Jaycen Wise, an “anti-Tomb Raider” and ancient African sage—that means putting pen to paper to create the kinds of heroes mainstream companies have been slow to churn out.

“It’s what the genre was designed to do—not just to entertain, but to inspire everyday people to seek the heroes within themselves and seek change,” he said. “We’re tired of riding shotgun or being the sidekick, or being the streetwise character with no book smarts. We’re tired of watching others save the world. We want to see us save the world, regardless of race, gender, or creed. Give us a shot.”

Few people expected the political ramifications of Black Lives Matter to spill over into the consciousness of Comic-Con attendees this year. Over 130,000 of them come to San Diego each year to obsess over comics, movies, and television shows, not necessarily to ponder issues of representation and diversity in said properties.

But Saturday at Comic-Con, those crucial topics came part and parcel with the biggest panel of the year when Disney anointed Marvel’s historic first black superhero headliner to deafening applause in Hall H. Black Panther star Chadwick Boseman took the stage in front of 6,500 screaming fans alongside director Ryan Coogler, then proceeded to bring co-stars Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, and Danai Gurira onstage as Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige stood off to the side.

It was a triumphant moment for people of color at Comic-Con, where the biggest panels tend to feature an endless parade of white men. (2016 was also a banner year for women at Comic-Con thanks to Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel.) Elsewhere on the weekend, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. star Ming-Na Wen shared cringe-worthy stories of being mistaken for other Asian actresses and “an Olympic figure skater” because of the dearth of Asian faces that make it into films or television, a subject also discussed on Sunday’s Super Asian America panel.

Just a few hours before the Black Panther cast and director took their historic photo op and backstage selfies, Comic-Con played host to another first: its first Black Lives Matter flash mob.

“I was hoping to get maybe four or five people at the most, because Comic-Con can be such a crazy environment,” explained writer, filmmaker, and novelist David F. Walker, whose work in comics includes Shaft, Marvel’s Secret Wars: Battlefield, and DC’s Cyborg. “I was really pleasantly surprised by how many people showed up.”

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Like URAEUS, Walker didn’t expect his Black Lives Matter meet-up to attract much attention. He wore a button-up shirt and tie, cheekily cosplaying as a proselytizer from The Book of Mormon to spread the word, figuring he’d see a few comic pro pals there on the busiest day of the con. Then dozens of people showed up, including creators, journalists, and allies. Then another wave of supporters joined the cause.

In the end, Walker and his colleagues were surprised and heartened by the response to their grassroots, shot-in-the-dark event, which picked up even more attention after the fact on social media. They now plan on organizing a more proper Black Lives Matter/Black Heroes Matter event at the upcoming New York Comic-Con, which attracts more attendees—and more attendees of color—than the San Diego edition.

“It’s a conversation we’ve been having for a long time about visibility and representation in popular culture and how that informs how we view people,” Walker said. “The problem is in terms of how black people are viewed in popular culture and the ideological constructs of our society, it’s within a framework of dehumanization. We don’t see a lot of heroes, we don’t see a lot of heroines, and that plays into the diminished, dehumanized capacity with which we are often viewed.”

He calls for more equality of representation across all mediums in pop culture, whether that’s along lines of race, gender, or sexual orientation. “What we need to see is more balanced representation in popular culture, which goes a long way for people looking at black folks and LGBT folks and marginalized communities as being real people and having real lives that deserve respect.”

For the skeptics, Walker draws a close connection between Black Lives Matter and Black Heroes Matter—two related campaigns that seem to share the same opponents.

“Interestingly, the default setting in pop culture for protagonists is white hetero men. Those also seem to be a lot of the loudest voices that are decrying the Black Lives Matter movement and can’t quite comprehend what it is we’re trying to say,” Walker said. “And that’s because they are the perpetrators, not the victims, of the dehumanization.”

“I think it resonates because Black Lives Matter is who and what we are as black people,” Jamie Broadnax, founder and managing editor of Black Girl Nerds, offered via email. “Our lives matter, our stories matter, our images matter. We are fighting for so much right now in this day in age, and with every fiber of our being we want to take a stand against all forces that systemically and artistically try to oppress us. I think mostly black people and people of color at SDCC noticed and lent their voices to the cause.”

URAEUS and Walker, both creatives, don’t necessarily put stock in Black Heroes Matter reaching the ears of studio and publishing execs and sparking change at, say, Marvel or DC. A Black Heroes Matter website is in the works, and interested supporters can purchase the tees online.

“That message to me is a self-determination and a self-definition,” said URAEUS, who is also shopping a live action television project based on Indigo: Essence of the Assassin, about a black female former child soldier. “Defining ourselves, no longer allowing who we are as people of color to be broadcast through someone else’s lens.”

We have to take control of our own images,” said Walker, who has a project under wraps that he plans on either self-publishing or taking to an independent publisher. “So if a big corporation doesn’t want to deliver the images that we want to see, then it’s up to independent artists.”

And while he sees the need to cultivate the creative movement beyond its Comic-Con beginnings last weekend, “I’m just a comic book writer!” Walker laughed. “I’m not necessarily looking to be a social justice warrior or a leader of a movement. I’m just trying to write comics. But at the same time, I’m trying to write comics that entertain the most people possible while delivering something a little extra special.

“If there’s a black kid or an Asian or queer kid that finds something that gives them a sense of empowerment and gives them back a sense of their own humanity, that’s much more fulfilling a feeling than someone who comes up and says, ‘I love your comic.’”

Broadnax noted the progress that has been made, notably on television and in Shondaland, on Netflix, which is set to introduce African-American superhero Luke Cage in his own series, and in major blockbusters like Black Panther.

“I think it’s pretty remarkable that ABC, which is owned by Disney, has a black woman as the president of their network,” Broadnax wrote. “It’s amazing that Shonda Rhimes has a number of TV shows under her belt within that same network. The fact that TV shows like Luke Cage and films like Black Panther with all-black casts lends so much to the fact that black people have so many stories that have yet to be told.”

And as Black Lives Matter has a ripple effect that encourages closer examination of racial representation on screens and comic book pages, she hopes that progress also happens in real life.

“The BLM movement has actually forced mainstream media to care about the killings of innocent black men, women, and children,” she said. “Racialized police violence is nothing new, but BLM has shed a spotlight and scrutinized it enough where now we have to see it and deal with it. I’m grateful for the BLM movement. I just hope the change that we see with representation also reflects the change we need in our justice system.”