On an episode of animated show The Boondocks, someone asks lead character Huey Freeman for an appropriate name for a superhero inspired by him. The black-and-proud Freeman doesn't think that could ever happen. "Besides, all the black superheroes are corny," he said. "They'd probably give me a metal headband and a yellow disco shirt or something stupid."
The problem with black comic-book superheroes is that while they exist, they are not considered upper-tier, superstar city defenders like Superman or Batman. They're more like supporting players, occasionally getting a moment in the spotlight. Marvel's resident hero-for-hire Luke Cage, the best-known African-American superhero, is mostly called on to serve as reliable muscle whenever one of the Avengers needs backup. (He also originally favored that metal headband/ yellow disco shirt look referenced earlier.)
While there are other comic-book brothas and sistas around doing their part (X-Men's Storm, Black Panther, The Falcon, Nick Fury—who was originally a white guy), there are those cocoa-colored heroes even serious fanboys might not be familiar with. Black Lightning is considered such a forgotten, one-note joke in the DC Comics universe that Saturday Night Live once mocked the character in a sketch by having him (aptly played by comedian Sinbad, wearing the afro, ugly jumpsuit and all) crash Superman's funeral, virtually unrecognized by the other superheroes gathered there.
Playwright Howard L. Craft, whose Jade City Chronicles – Vol. 1 premieres this weekend at Manbites Dog Theater, knows all too well about the misuse and mistreatment of our illustrated black saviors. As a man who grew up reading comics as a kid, he recalls right when black superheroes like Cage and Lightning hit the scene.
"The black superheroes—the Luke Cages, the Black Panthers—they didn't, in my opinion, come as a result of [comic-book companies] saying, 'We need diversity in Marvel' [or] 'We need diversity in DC,' says the Durham-born-and-bred Craft, who is 40. "They came as a result of the success of the blaxploitation film.
"Also, I think a lot of the writers who wrote those, most of them if not all of them, were white. And that's not saying that a white person can't write about black people or anything like that. But I'm saying that in order to write about people, you have to be invested in their culture. You can't write a stereotype of what you think that culture is. So, if you go back and read those early [Luke Cage comics], it's written as if somebody who doesn't know the culture is trying to write about it. It's filled with a bunch of jive slang that doesn't even fit for the time."
With Chronicles, Craft gives us a proud beacon of soulful, superhero justice with Herald Jones (Mike Wiley), better known as The Super Spectacular Bad Ass Herald M.F. Jones. This kung pao-chicken-eating, Hennessy-drinking crimefighter is the defender of Jade City, a hardened metropolis complete with a corrupt black mayor and a history of racial, social and economic difficulties. The problems get bigger when an Elvis-looking assassin named Memphis Snake and a vigilante serial killer both begin picking off the city's drug dealers and other criminal lowlifes, but for entirely different reasons.
Meanwhile, Jones is struggling and wondering if he should continue fighting for a town that doesn't seem to appreciate him. Not to mention that a Justice League of America-type group called the Amazing Americans has recently approached him with an offer to join their crew, except he'll have to change his outfit and call himself Captain Diversity.
Directed by Jay O'Berski, artistic director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern and resident assistant artistic director at Manbites Dog Theater, Chronicles seeks to be a comic book that comes to life on stage. (It's kind of like that Spider-Man musical, except without the injuries and the miserable U2 songs.) Although the play has the same citified backdrop, actors bounce from location to location in each scene with the help of thin, black dividers, which appear on the stage to create the comic-book panels. Chronicles also incorporates animated sequences by Durham artist Geraud Staton, projected onto a screen that often wheels through a scene.
Craft, who is used to writing more dramatic pieces (like Caleb Calypso, his last play at Manbites) set in the same location, says he was given creative carte blanche in devising this play. "[O'Berski] said, 'Don't worry about location. Write it as if you're making a movie. And we'll figure the rest of it out.'"
Although the play has '70s-era righteousness, Craft says he didn't want the character of Jones to be another blaxploitation-style badass. "I didn't want people to think this was Shaft with a cape. I wanted to give more emotional intelligence."
But Craft still wanted to create a superhero with some credible powers. "I love Luke Cage, but Luke Cage can't fly," he says. "You can't really be legit—you gotta at least be able to levitate like Magneto, you know, to get full superhero status."
Craft is going all-out with making Herald Jones a legit superhero, even creating a Facebook page for him and collaborating with Durham artist Louis Franco for an actual comic-book version of the play. (Some of the pages will be on sale at Manbites this weekend, with the money going to finish the rest of the book.) But it all goes back to Craft creating a comic-book superhero who black folk can not only be proud of but can also recognize.
"The sad reality is that there have been so few black superheroes," Craft says, "and they've been pumped so little, that most black people can't tell you five black superheroes—unless you're talking to somebody that's into comic books."
Maybe when he's done with Chronicles, Jones can fly over to the Superhero Ball at Marbles Kids Museum in Raleigh this Saturday, and let everybody know there's a brotha out there who won't stand for being in the background.