We’re currently living in a new golden age of comics, where the main characters are finally beginning to look like the people who’ve always read them.
There’s an openly gay (and unabashedly sexual) Batman analogue teleporting his way around the DC Universe and a new Muslim Ms. Marvel patrolling the shady streets of New Jersey.
This diverse golden age is the end result of a long-fought push for more representative characters, plotlines, and stories. Writing for Vocativ, Jennings Brown traced the origin of the modern age of diverse comics to the Black Panther’s introduction In Fantastic Four #52, released back in 1966. And though the Black Panther established a modern baselines for narratives built around minority characters, he wasn’t the first black superhero, and he might not even be the most important one.
That title belongs, collectively, to characters invented by black writer Orrin Evans for his All-Negro Comics, created almost two decades before the Black Panther, in 1947.
Back in the 1940s, there were no black superheroes. As odd as it may sound now, most black people probably weren’t looking for them. That’s not to say that black people didn’t read comic books: Titles like Batman, Superman, and Prince Namor: The Sub-Mariner sold like gangbusters then, and their continuing momentum has a lot to do with why DC and Marvel Comics are still around today.
Claude Lewis, a black journalist active in Philadelphia around the same time as Evans, once explained that young black people identified with white superheroes by default because they’d never really seen themselves in any type of print, let alone a comic book.
“We weren’t very conscious about being left out, it was just the way things were,” Lewis said. “If you’ve never seen a black hero you don’t spend a lot of time wondering where they are. Today you would, but back then, there were no blacks in ads. It just didn’t happen.”
Orrin Evans wanted to change that.
Evans was the first black journalists to cross the color barrier in Philadelphia. In the 40s, he left his position at the historically black Philadelphia Tribune for a news writing gig at the white Philadelphia Record. During his time at the Record, Evans made a name for himself with his coverage of segregation in the military during World War II.
His writing drew both praise and criticism from his local community. His article, "How One General Solved Bus Problem For Negroes By Deal With Company,” was entered into the Congressional Record as part of an argument advocating for the dissolution of military segregation.
Though Evans was a well-respected journalist, he lost his job in 1944 as a result of a company-wide strike that led the Philadelphia Record’s owners to shutter the publication. Professionally, Evans was a traditional journalist, but he’d always had a particular fondness for printed cartoons.
He’d recognized the medium’s ability to convey intricate ideas and arguments in succinct, relatable forms. And so, finding himself at a creative crossroads, Evans set out to create his own comic book:All-Negro Comics.
All-Negro Comics was a book of its time. The stories were swinging, vibrant, and full of the kind of characters you’d expect to see in a 15-cent comic book from 1947. There was Ace Harlem, the slick New York detective; Lion Man, the book-smart college student turned secret-agent; and the fashion-forward “Hep Chicks.” These characters rounded out a robust book created for the black youths who’d grown up dreaming of Metropolis.
Comic book heroes who followed ––the Black Panther, Storm, and other minority characters –– would eventually make their way into the mainstream publications. In 1947, however, there was something different about All Negro Comics.
Evans dreamt up his characters long before the market or the industry thought to consider that maybe black kids would want to read stories about people who looked like them. He didn't have the financial backing to get his comic book on every newsstand in Philadelphia, but he was dedicated to giving the book a solid run.
Ultimately only one issue of All Negro Comics made it to print in the Spring of 1947, but the Evans' impact was evident almost immediately. Later that same year, Parents' Magazine published the first (and only) two issues of Negro Heroes, a historically-focused comic highlighting contributions made by black Americans. Not long after Fawcett began putting out Negro Romance, cashing in on the popularity of romance comics while also courting a black audience.
Orrin Evans died in 1971, 24 years after he'd created the first black comic book. Two years earlier, in 1969, Sam Wilson, the Falcon, had become the first African-American hero to join Marvel's Avengers. In many ways, diversity in modern comic books began with black characters, and black comic book characters began with Orrin Evans's vision. So the next time you're geeking out over Miles Morales, or wondering whether Tyrese really will play John Stewart, remember: it's all thanks to Orrin.