Redefining Black Superheroes for the 21st Century

black superheroes

A conversation with comic book creator and innovator of Black superheroes, Arvell Jones.

When the Marvel Netflix TV series Luke Cage goes live on September 30, viewers will be treated to another, hopefully riveting Marvel Universe narrative, but this one will be a little different — it’ll focus on a Black superhero.

Luke Cage black superheroesLuke Cage in Jessica Jones, ABC Television Studio

The title character, Luke Cage, has indestructible skin and describes him as superhumanly strong. He was last seen on the Marvel Netflix series Jessica Jones. His first appearance in comics was in 1972 in a book called Hero for Hire issue #1.

Black superheroes, if they appeared at all in those days, were always men. It took a kid from Detroit named Arvell Jones to dream up another Black superhero who happened to be a woman. He called her Misty Knight.

Marvel in the ’70s

The mid-’70s were a time of mythological portrayals of African Americans, most famously seen in Blaxploitation movies, such as Super Fly, Coffy, Shaft and a slew of others.

Jones wasn’t the biggest fan of how those “myths” were seeping into real-life perceptions of Black Americans. His co-workers at Marvel, as progressive as they were, occasionally fell victim to those myths. Jones was often the only Black person in the room, so he brought some verisimilitude to the Marvel offices when it came to Black characters. How they spoke. How they dressed. What they felt.

Misty Knight black superheroesMisty Knight, Marvel

Misty Knight was originally conceived back when Jones was in high school. The goal was to have her “sound like and act like one of my girlfriends — people that I knew,” Jones says. The character was further developed with help from writer Tony Isabella and others.

Jones was one of the first Black artists hired by Marvel, so it was inevitable that he would create his own Black superhero for the comic book company. He even got a compliment from Stan “The Man” Lee for his work. Overall, Jones enjoyed living out his dream of being an artist for Marvel Comics. Then again, while it was fun, he came to realize that office politics weren’t his thing.

“I burnt out because the politics of the comic industry is very similar to little Hollywood — it’s about personalities,” Jones says. “People deciding who [what characters] will live or die…the politics of it all. It’s unnecessary. It’s all about the best story and being creative. People were power-tripping.”

He found that most of the people he worked with were very encouraging. “People who were pretty open-minded, they thought — their preconceptions came out sometimes,” Jones says when it came to Black characters’ portrayals in comics. “And I sort of didn’t have a filter, so I’d tell them where they were wrong.”

What stressed him out most about nine-to-five jobs is what he calls “the interpersonal craziness.” He figured if he could eliminate that element of it, he would be happy.

Eventually, as he embarked on becoming an entrepreneur/freelancer, he realized what he really wanted to do was solve creative problems and help people.

“I enjoy being the miracle worker,” Jones says. “Being a creative person with new challenges all the time keeps you fresh. Nothing is routine anymore.”

Selling Black Superhero Comics to the Masses

Jones went on to do work for DC Comics as well as Milestone Media in the ’90s. Launched by African-American writer Dwayne McDuffie, this new imprint featured Black superheroes in a fictitious city called Dakota.

McDuffie became known in animation particularly for his work on the Justice League cartoon and Ben:10 Alien Force. Jones was hoping that the Black superhero line would find its own niche market. Sadly, it didn’t work out as expected.

“I said to Dwayne, ‘What happened? How come Milestone had to go?’ He said the retailers didn’t support it, especially in the Southern areas,” Jones says. “They just wouldn’t carry Black comics. We’d have good stories, but there were certain states they might order one or two copies and that would be it. I did the tour with them. Went to a lot of the stores. Most of the people who would come in were white.”

black-pantherBlack Panther in Captain America: Civil War, Marvel Studios

With more Black superheroes appearing on the big screen and new TV series, Jones sees some work that needs to be done. He’s hoping that more Black writers will be involved with superhero properties. Marvel has an upcoming Black Panther movie written and directed by Ryan Coogler (director of the critically acclaimed film Creed), and Roxane Gay (the first Black woman to write for the genre) and Ta-Nehisi Coates are cowriting the upcoming Black Panther comic. That’s progress for sure.

“If our voices are not in there, then the stories are going to be told the way they want them told.”

— Arvell Jones

“If our voices are not in there, then the stories are going to be told the way they want them told,” Jones says. “We’re kind of a conquered people in that regard. Because we’re always letting everyone else tell our stories. Like the Klingons say, ‘History is written by the victor.’”

Teaching the Right Process

Jones has also spent time passing on his deep knowledge of the industry to the next generation.

Although his students look at him as the teacher, Jones says that in many instances they’re teaching him. The cultural and generational differences can be an eye-opener.

“As a human being, it helps my understanding of the entire nature of humans and their state of being,” he adds. “I figure I owe the students.”

It wasn’t until Jones started working with a group of females on their projects that he really began to understand what they were trying to express. He might have created a female Black superhero, but he wasn’t a woman. That meant he was still viewing things from the outside.

“A man created Wonder Woman, Spider-Woman, the new Captain Marvel, and the women are going, ‘They’re cool characters, but they don’t define us,’” Jones says. “Women, they have a tendency to do conflict resolution and use their brains a little bit more. They’re ruled a little bit more by emotion. The nuances start to show up. I’m working on a character called Venus Moon [with a female writer]. I can’t wait for it to come out.”

Moving Beyond the ’70s

The big boom of these comic book characters means that they’ll continue to invade everything from movies to TV series, video games and other mediums.

Sure, his professional career started with Marvel Comics and superheroes, but Jones has evolved into other areas. Black superheroes are cool, yes; however, he hopes to do more genre-bending work.

Arvell black superheroesCourtesy of Arvell Jones

Since 2004, Jones has been the president/CEO of Encode Entertainment, LLC, a company focused on film development, mobile app development, Internet entertainment experience and more.

He sees himself not so much as an artist (he’s still an artist) but as a creative. Whether it’s paint on canvas, a computer screen, two actors in front of a camera or two models modeling clothes, it all boils down to what kind of story you’re telling and the message you’re trying to convey.

“And how do I make it interesting to anybody taking a look at it?” Jones says. “That’s a creative. Everything else is just materials. It’s medium. It’s paint and a computer thrown together to create the image.”

These days, he works quite frequently on his iPad and uses other forms of technology. Still, it doesn’t necessarily cut the time in half.

“I started in the ’70s and it’s always been a time factor,” Jones says. “The new technology doesn’t eliminate the time factor. It allows you to do more stuff in the same amount of time. Back in the day, I’d have to do a paste-up, then it would go to typographers [and others]. You couldn’t easily convey your vision that way. Technology is just another color in your palette.” end



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