Before he was the Man of Steel or the Man of Tomorrow, before he was ever mistaken for a bird or a plane, Superman had one descriptive title above all others: “Champion of the Oppressed.” A hero for social justice from the very outset, Superman existed not as a mere power fantasy, but as a symbol of change for those people society had failed in its greed and malice. The perils of women, victims of gun violence and the working class in America were all addressed in the earliest Superman stories of 1938. But as champion of the oppressed, should Superman not stand for that gravest of injustice in our culture, the sin of racial inequality?
Superman has been embraced as a symbol of power for the downtrodden for all mankind, regardless of skin color. In the past few decades, multiple visions of a Black Superman have come to bear, but it was a long journey to get there, with longer still to go.
1968: Fear of a Black Superman
Search any list of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time, and as often as not you’ll find one name on top of the list: Richard Pryor. For four decades, Pryor’s raucous, rule-shattering comedy was one of the most essential Black voices in the comedy scene, putting racial tension and frustration to words in a way they’d never been spoken before in public. And the first ticket to Richard Pryor’s national fame, the first performance on his very first album, was a routine about Superman. Not a single quote from that routine, let alone the title, is printable here. But it shattered the comedy world at the time with Pryor’s then preposterous fantasy of one day seeing a Black superhero on screen and how, even if it did happen, the racial prejudices of Hollywood would define that Black Superman solely by his stereotypes. It was the very start of a conversation about representation in superheroes which continues to this day, and one which would link Pryor to the national concept of Superman for the rest of his career.
1970: The Black Continent of Krypton
The 1970s were the beginning of the “Bronze Age” of comics, a time of increased social awareness throughout the superhero universe. The heroes themselves, granted, still remained a more or less uniform lily-white, but people of color had at least begun to inhabit their world. In Superman #234, editor E. Nelson Bridwell introduced some color to the world of Krypton as well. At the time in Superman comics, a series of back-up stories depicted life and society on Krypton before its untimely demise, often mirroring Earth’s own natural history with added elements of science fiction and fantasy. If Kryptonians resemble humans so closely, then when humans represent a wide range of skin tones, why shouldn’t Kryptonians as well? To that end, Bridwell introduced “Vathlo Station,” later known as Vathlo Island, a region of Krypton which was home to the first Black Kryptonians depicted in any DC media. As an effort spearheaded by an entirely white staff who themselves were unlearning their own prejudices, the efforts were, charitably, clumsy. But as shaky as that first step may have been, it was at least one in a just direction.
1977: “Last Night I Saw a Superhero, He Was Black”
Almost forty years after Superman’s debut, there was finally a Black hero in Metropolis. Created by Tony Isabella with artist Trevor von Eeden, Black Lightning was a schoolteacher by day ensuring the city’s future, while he fought gangs like the 100 and crime lords like Tobias Whale by night. He was also the first Black DC character to have his own series, with a debut in 1977’s Black Lightning #1. As an artist in Superman’s world, Trevor von Eeden would rack up another first that year as well, by being the first Black artist to draw Superman for DC Comics, as he appears in Black Lightning #3-5.
1978: We Are the Greatest
Trevor von Eeden’s break through the Superman artist color barrier was followed the next year by Arvell Jones, the first Black artist on a Superman title. Jones began his work in the Superman world in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes #241-242, and continued through 1978 in a Supergirl story in The Superman Family #191-193.
That same year, Superman would meet the only athlete at the time with a legend that rivaled his own. This was Muhammad Ali, heavyweight boxing champion of the world, radical spokesman against war and racism, and an irresistible personality. In All-New Collectors’ Edition #C-56, the pair teamed up for an exhibition match which would protect the planet from alien invaders, all while the Man of Steel learned a thing or two about the Sweet Science of boxing. To many, “Superman vs. Muhammad Ali” was a tacit acknowledgment of how a Black man not only could, but already had conquered popular culture, meeting Superman himself, the symbol of righteous power, as an equal. There was still no Black Superman, but a true to life Black hero could stand by Superman’s side and be undiminished.
1983: Pryor Takes Flight
If you’ve ever watched the classic Superman films starring Christopher Reeve and wondered why Superman III takes the series in a sharp pivot from romance and drama towards slapstick comedy, then you’ve underestimated just how powerful Richard Pryor’s Superman routine was in America at the time.
In need of a new direction after parting ways with director Richard Donner, Superman film producers the Salkinds took a broader view at what Superman represented in popular culture—and saw Pryor. Christopher Reeve certainly wasn’t going anywhere if the Salkinds could help it, so recasting Superman was out of the question. But they could still grant Pryor’s dream of a Black man in a Superman film in their creation of Gus Gorman, an overwhelmed henchman of Lex Luthor stand-in Ross Webster, who later defects from Webster’s plans to help the Man of Steel.
1990: Diverse Multiverse
Comic writer Grant Morrison has been telling stories about the boundless potential of the Multiverse since they first took psychedelics in the Mojave desert and were told about it all by visiting aliens. (Or so they say.) So, in an infinitely mirrored universe where all permutations of all events are possible, why couldn’t there be a Black Superman, somewhere? When a traumatized Psycho-Pirate conjures ghosts of a Crisis-ruined multiverse in Animal Man #23, one of the many realities we are treated to is the “Love Syndicate of Dreamworld”—a ’60s and ’70s counterculture Justice League, complete with a Blaxploitation film-inspired Man of Steel who calls himself “Sunshine Superman.” This Richard Roundtree-esque Superman continued to show through Morrison’s further explorations of the Multiverse in subsequent titles.
But this wouldn’t be Morrison’s last or most notable contribution to the search for a Black Superman. And in the years to come, we would see many more Black Supermen of parallel worlds, Black writers telling Superman stories of their own, and in the main DC Universe, a Black Man of Steel would rise as Superman fell. You can read it all in two days as we finish up our look at the Black History of Superman.
Alex Jaffe is the author of our monthly “Ask the Question” column and writes about TV, movies, comics and superhero history for DCComics.com. Follow him on Twitter at @AlexJaffe and find him in the DC Community as HubCityQuestion.