‘Invisible Men’ brings Black comics history into the light

February is Black History Month, and a great new book sheds a much-needed light on the hidden history of Black golden age comics creators, mostly ignored or suppressed in their time.

There’s a lot more diversity in the comics field today than there once was. It really took until the 1980s and 1990s for things to open up some – for instance, despite comics as we know them debuting in the 1930s, it wasn’t until the 1970s that Black superheroes really came into their own. The first Black superhero was of course, The Black Panther, but the first to get his own book was Luke Cage, Hero For Hire in 1972.

There was a mini-boom in Black heroes in the ‘70s (pretty much every one of which got the word “Black” in their superhero name). I was always fascinated by the 1970s adventures of Luke Cage, the short-lived Black Goliath, The Falcon, DC’s Green Lantern John Stewart, Tony Isabella’s street-level hero Black Lightning, and of course, the Black Panther. 

Reflecting the industry at the time, the ‘70s Black hero adventures were pretty much always written by white men, although the late Black artist Billy Graham played a pivotal part in Luke Cage and Black Panther adventures. And sure, these comics overplay the “angry Black man” trope a bit, but they’re also very much a product of their protest-filled era. 

Before that, there were few brief sightings of Black leading characters in comics – the interesting short-lived western curio Lobo for instance – but much of Black comics history remains frustratingly obscured. The new book Invisible Men: The Trailblazing Black Artists of Comic Books by Ken Quattro attempts to correct that, with an excellent compilation of essays about and excerpts from Black-created comics from the 1930s on up to the late 1960s. 

Here you’ll find the life stories of a dozen Black men who blazed trails in comics, often discriminated against, sadly too often forgotten (women of any colour were exceedingly rare in Golden Age comics). You’ll meet Elmer Cecil Stoner, Owen Charles Middleton, Elton Clay Fax, Matt Baker and many more. 

Matt Baker is probably the best known Black comics artist of the Golden Age, a creator of spectacularly sexy 1950s “good girl” art with characters like Phantom Lady. Yet despite his amazing talent, Baker and his Black identity were obscure until long after his early death at just 38. 

Other Black artists edged their way into comics working on mainstream characters like Blue Beetle or Spy Smasher, while others attempted to tell stories about Black history or were pigeonholed into the “jungle comics” genre. Some of these artists only dabbled in comics and went on to far greater success in illustration, painting or other art endeavours, such as Alvin Carl Hollingsworth

Invisible Men includes an essay on and excerpts from the Black-created All-Negro Comics #1 – a title which admittedly is pretty problematic in 2021 – but in 1947, this short-lived title attempted to be a landmark showcase for Black cartoonists with characters like “Ace Harlem” and “Lion Man.”

Quattro’s done an excellent job of excavating the obscurest of historical details to fill in the lives of creators who in another era, might’ve been the next Christopher Priest or Denys Cowan. 

The history of Black comics artists in the Golden Age isn’t always uplifting – for every Matt Baker there were dozens of frustrated artists locked out of the medium – but Invisible Men is essential reading. The creators here paved the path for things like black-controlled Milestone Comics, for the Black Panther to star in one of the biggest movies of all time … and for a world where far more people are able to be visible instead of invisible. 

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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