“Without deviations from the norm, progress is not possible.” —Frank Zappa

Progressive social change in our country is slow, like a large ocean liner changing direction. Why? Because this type of change is always met with resistance, regardless of how just or deserving. These changes rarely come from the top. Our government is usually forced to act when the cries of protest overpower the status quo. Such movements always start with a tiny minority who aren’t afraid to deviate from the norm.

Those first voices usually come from writers, filmmakers and other artists who are willing to explore ideas outside of the nation’s comfort zone. During the early days of the Civil Rights Movement, Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” and Otto Preminger’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” forced America to see the dark truths it worked to avoid. Along with film and literature, the Civil Rights Movement had another lesser-known artistic ally: comic books.

In the 1940s and 1950s, black comic characters were relegated either to servile roles or jungle savages. It wasn’t until 1963 that this norm was challenged by a liberal-leaning writer named Stanley Martin Lieber, better known as Stan Lee, who introduced Gabriel Jones, a black soldier and a member of Sergeant Fury’s multi-racial Howling Commandos. Their races were part of who they were, but didn’t define them. They were always friends and comrades first. At the time, Stan was told a book about a multi-racial team would never sell, but the book was a consistent seller for Marvel Comics.

Three years later, in 1966, Marvel Comics introduced The Black Panther in “Fantastic Four” #52. As the comic world’s first black superhero, he possessed none of society’s racial stereotypes of the era. He was the wealthy ruler of an African nation that touted technology far superior to any in the western world.

In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King’s assassination, The Falcon made his first appearance in “Captain America” #117. At first glance, he looked to be Cap’s new sidekick. However, Stan made it clear that The Falcon was Cap’s equal and stood toe-to-toe with the Sentinel of Liberty.

These characters were a huge step forward, but they didn’t carry their own titles. It wasn’t until Dell Comics released “Lobo” #1 in 1965 that a black character starred in his own series. Lobo was a western hero created by writer Don Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico. The title lasted only two issues. In a 2006 interview, Tallarico said of the cancellation, “They (Dell) discovered that as they were sending out bundles of comics out to the distributors [that] they were being returned unopened. And I couldn’t figure out why. So they discovered [that many sellers] were opposed to (a) black Western hero. That was the end of the book. It sold nothing.”

Not until 1972 did a black hero carry his own series when Luke Cage premiered in “Hero For Hire” #1. His origin may have been saturated with stereotyping as it piggybacked on the popular blacksploitation genre of the time, but Luke Cage stood as a symbol for overcoming oppression and injustice in 1970s Harlem. After 40 years, he has evolved into a mainstream Marvel character rather than a token hero.

The present day comics landscape may still show inequalities, but we’ve come a long way from past stereotypes. As we watch the headlines of the day and realize that we still have so far to go, perhaps we can look to the “funny books” to help guide the way.

To learn more about all things comic books, visit Hi De Ho Comics, 1431 Lincoln Blvd., in Santa Monica.

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