The History of the Black Male Superhero in Comic Books: An Interview With Dr. Jonathan Gayles

Superman, Batman and the Flash -- you know those super heroes right? But do you know Power Man? The Black Panther? Icon? If not, you need to rush out and watch the film, which traces the early history of black male comic book heroes.
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Superman, Batman and the Flash -- you know those superheroes, right? You probably know their stories too, don't you? You might even know their weaknesses and secret identities. But do you know Power Man? The Black Panther? Icon? The Falcon? Ever heard of these super heroes? Do you know their origin stories or arch-enemies off the top of your head?

If you are like most people, the answer to many of those questions is no. And if your answer is no to any of them, (and even if it isn't) then you, my friend, need to rush out and watch the documentary White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books .

White Scripts and Black Supermen is a film by Dr. Jonathan Gayles that traces the early history of black male comic book heroes. The film explores, among other things, the racist stereotypes commonly used to tell black male super hero stories, which were often written by white men. White Scripts and Black Supermen also offers critical commentary by leading scholars and comic book creators. Dr. Jonathan Gayles, who is a professor of African American studies at Georgia State University, created the documentary out of his own desire to share the history of black male super heroes.

However, it looks like he isn't the only one longing for those stories. Since its creation, Gayles has screened the documentary all over the country, most recently at The Schomburg Center in Harlem, for their first ever Black Comic Book Festival.
An avid comic book fan myself, I caught up with Dr. Gayles while he was in Harlem to talk to him about black superheroes and why creating and telling our own comic book stories' matters.

Yolo: Why did you create White Scripts and Black Supermen? What was the driving moment where you realized you wanted to make a film about the history of black male superheroes?

Gayles: I suppose that the true genesis of this project can be found in my frustration in the absence of African-American heroes during my adolescent love of comic books. However, it was not until I stumbled upon a collection of the first few years of Luke Cage that I started thinking more critically about comic books. Luke Cage was one of the few African-American superheroes to which I had access. As a result, he was my favorite. In reading this collection, I was astonished to find that much of what I read offended me. I read and loved this very same material as an adolescent but through my adult (and academic) eyes, I was sickened.

I started working on a paper on Luke Cage and discovered the growing body of scholarship on comic books, graphic novels and sequential art. As a recently-tenured professor, I decided that a documentary on the topic would, at the very least, be interesting. I had no notion that the documentary would be received with so much enthusiasm.

Yolo: What sickened you about Luke Cage specifically? What black male stereotypes did you think that he reflected?

Gayles: I always thought of Luke Cage as this powerful and invincible hero. Revisiting him as an adult, it became clear that he is powerful only in the most limited sense. He is a street-level hoodlum. His powers come not from some divine supernatural intervention but from a prison experiment. He is a hero for hire. His primary "jurisdiction" is Harlem -- a Harlem that is represented only in the most negative notions of urban decay and dysfunction. He struggles to pay the rent. He dodges bill collectors. His best friend is named after D.W. Griffith, director of the infamous white supremacist propaganda film, Birth of a Nation (seriously). As with many of the heroes that are at the center of the film, his super heroic status is undermined by these kinds of (literary) devices.

Yolo: While your film focuses exclusively on black male super heroes, there are still references to black female super heroines and characters. What black female super heroine do you feel has had the largest impact on black culture?

Gayles:The obvious answer is Storm because of the X-Men film adaptations. The truth is that there are precious few African-American women in the genre -- both historically and in today's market. There is some very interesting work being done by independent artists and members of the black age movement that expand the representation of African-American women in important ways.

Yolo: In your film, you interviewed the legendary Dwayne McDuffie, who passed in 2011. McDuffie, who was African American, was a co-founder of Milestone comics, which featured many African American and Latino superheroes. He was also responsible for writing numerous television shows including episodes of Justice League Unlimited, Ben 10, the animated feature Justice League Doom and much more.

What was that like to interview him? Was there anything that he said that caught you off guard or surprised you about his experiences in the comic book industry?

Gayles: No answer that I provide here will adequately communicate how fortunate I feel to have had an opportunity to sit with him. Dwayne was as we all knew him to be through his work -- smart, funny, and thoughtful. His groundbreaking contributions to the genre and popular culture cannot be denied and may never be matched. Dwayne is a giant. Losing him is like losing the architect that designed the house that one is in the process of building. The plan is present. The structure is in place. Still, there's nothing like having the architect himself.

Yolo: Recently at the Schomburg Center, you along with the Junior Scholars Program organized The Black Comic Book Festival, which was extremely well attended. What kind of feedback did you get from the Junior Scholars about the film, or from young people in general? And were you surprised at how well attended the event was?

Gayles: Judging from the quality of their questions during the Q&A, they were certainly engaged and clearly think critically about the way in which African-Americans are represented in the genre and in popular culture generally.

I thought that the event would be successful but even I was surprised with the attendance. I am told that this was one of the most well-attended events since Khalil Muhammad took the reigns as director. It was quite a day.

Yolo: Do you read any comic books regularly now? If so, what's your favorite title?

Gayles: I do not read many comics regularly. My familial and professional commitments severely limit my "pleasure reading." I was following Mr. Terrific until the title was... canceled. I still follow Batwing and the great work currently being done with the Black Panther. I am also greatly anticipating the new Brotherman graphic novel.

Yolo: What would you say the experience of creating this documentary has taught you? What have you learned about black culture and comics?

Gayles:The most important lesson is that everyone has a right to dream their own dreams and that dreaming for others must be done with great caution - if at all.
Black people are human beings. We have the right to lay claim to everything that this means - including a diversity of experiences. I believed this entering the documentary and upon completing the documentary and reflecting on the incredible work being done in the Black Age Movement, this was certainly affirmed.

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