UPDATE 2/23 9:46 PM: Further proving my point, the Washington Post just named Barack Obama, in his appearance in Spider-Man, the number one black superhero of all time.
We all know Spider-Man meets Obama was a big deal and I know that when a president has the gross amount of pop culture appeal that Obama has and we’re waging a war of occupation on an otherized foreign land this sort of cover is bound to happen. But really, Erik Larsen, really?! I hope this whole Obama in superhero comics thing is starting to play itself out (or maybe I don’t because I can research it as a grad student for years to come). The whole mess is pretty interesting to me, given my academic interest in black superheroes. Recently I’ve come across two interesting pieces of online journalism that have related Obama to the black superhero, which I guess is understandable given how a lot of folks think he walks on water and the ever present Alex Ross t-shirt that’s in vogue these days (after the jump):
The first article comes from an unlikely source–Fox News. My good friend Morgan sent me this article recently, which claims that Obama has created space for a new black superhero by making it a legit enterprise. The basic premise of the argument is that Obama makes black superheroes possible because he has redefined what it means to be black. And I quote: “with Obama establishing a new role model for blacks in America, traditional depictions of blacks in popular culture could get a makeover, said culture critic David Horowitz.” (It was the role models that were wrong, not, y’know, centuries of institutional racism) To celebrate this Fox enrolled a bunch of black comic book artists to create exclusive new superhero images that they would have liked to create before Obama made it possible and for what it’s worth, as far as I can tell, the comic book artists that Fox brought on board took the assignment with the same amount respect I would give it, because they came up with tongue and cheek superheroes like this:
In further supporting it’s argument, the article quotes Erik Larsen, the creator responsible for the image at the top of this post, as saying the root of the paucity of mainstream black superheroes is that “there hasn’t been a breakout character that transcends race the way actors Will Smith and Eddie Murphy have, or the ‘Cosby Show’ did, or, frankly, Barack Obama has. The characters in comics are often too ethnic for a white audience and too embarrassing for a black one.” So, Larsen wants a sort of “post-racial” black superhero that’s not embarrassingly black. Which I guess doesn’t jive to well with this image from one of Fox’s hired artists, who seems to have been flipping them the bird:
His name is “Dreadlocks”
Anyway, following Horowitz and Larsen, a post-racial black president creates a new positive role model for black people which will give us post-racial black superheroes that can appeal to the mainstream. That’s an interesting enough thesis with a lot of implications and it will be interesting to watch it prove true or false over the coming years (you can read my book about it in a decade), but this write up from the University of Toledo student newspaper about an exhibit called “Comics in Color: African-American Superheroes” has an even more interesting one. (h/t Newsarama) After giving a brief (if fudged and inaccurate) history of the black superhero in America, the author makes the following amazing claim: “Perhaps the ultimate example of how far black superheroes have come is Marvel’s groundbreaking [Spider-Man] comic featuring President Obama.”
The official discourse, as I understand it from CNN, MSNBC, et al., is that the election of President Obama represents the ultimate triumph of all African Americans in some vague and glossed over notion of Martin Luther King’s “dream.” The UT student’s article takes the thesis further. It is the greatest triumph of not only all African Americans extant in our own “real” world but with the narrative incorporation of our “real” president (which is an innovation, excluding the long unpublished Teen Titans issue featuring JFK) in the four color fictional superhero universes, all fictional African Americans inhabiting those universes are now triumphant as well. Black Lightning now no longer has to feel bad for not being able hold down his own title longer than 11 issues, because a black man is in the White House. Taking what we can learn from these two articles, Obama not only sets off a new era of legitimate post-racial black superheroes, but vindicates the old overly “ethnic” and “embarrassing” ones as well. Good to know what the official line is.