ReAnimation and ReInvention
Similar to the portrayals of African Americans in the earliest days of television and film, early Black characters in comics were largely relegated to background roles or were characterized by racist stereotypes. As more Black characters came to the forefront of these stories, their depiction began to disrupt the narrative of vulnerable, incompetent, and weak Black characters and normalized the idea and visual depiction of Black power. Afrofuturism is visualized within these comic creations as Writers and illustrators from all backgrounds now utilize the limitless domain of Afrofuturism to create worlds where the Black diaspora and science fiction intertwine.
Jackie Ormes (1911–1985) was the first African American female syndicated cartoonist to be published in a newspaper. Though not a science fiction writer, she pioneered an Afrofuturist expression by writing and illustrating comic strips to create idealized worlds for Black characters, especially Black women and girls. Eschewing racial stereotypes like the mammy and pickaninny, Ormes created a space for original, carefree, and dynamic Black comic characters and stories like “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem” and “Patty-Jo ‘n’ Ginger.”
Ormes’ first strip, “Torchy Brown in Dixie to Harlem,” was published in 1937 in The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender, and her comics appeared in African American newspapers until 1956.
Beginning in the late 1940s, African American protagonists like Ace Harlem and Lobo quietly emerged but struggled to find a mainstream audience in the white-dominated comic medium. In 1947, Orrin Cromwell Evans, a journalist and civil rights activist, founded All-Negro Comics, Inc. Evans had big dreams for this new enterprise, and published a first issue that introduced characters like “Ace Harlem,” a private detective, and “Lion Man,” an international adventurer sent to Africa. The first issue gained national attention through coverage in Time magazine, but it proved to be the publisher’s last. It would be almost twenty years before another Black comic character took a headlining role.
What does a striker on the picket line think about? Orrin Cromwell Evans thought about comic strips…as he walked the picket line, he thought hard about a complaint frequently heard among his people: Negroes are usually ridiculed and their way of life distorted in comics drawn by white men.
Time Magazine, 1947
The 1953 science fiction story “Judgement Day” was a rare comic book allegory about discrimination, and its last-frame reveal of its lead character as a Black man proved highly controversial. When the story was set to be reprinted, the Comics Code Authority demanded the Black astronaut be redrawn as a white man. Publisher William Gaines (1922–1992) refused, and the issue was reprinted with its original design, creating an opening for Black representation in mainstream comic books
Though positive fictional representation of African Americans in comic books was still rare, beginning in the late 1940s publishers used the comic book format to tell stories of real-life Black heroes.Utilizing a comic book format and portraying Black subjects as icons and heroes, series like “Negro Heroes” and “Golden Legacy” highlighted figures such as Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglas, and Alexander Pushkin, and encouraged young readers to learn more about African American history and preserve underrepresented Black stories.