Rebooting Mister Terrific, Spider-Man and the New 52: Comics seek new fans with diverse superheroes
When I first met Eric Wallace at his cozy home in Burbank, Calif., we truly felt like twin sons from very different mothers.
He can wail on an amazing bass guitar he keeps propped up in home office; I've been noodling on bass for 15 years and playing drums for 30. He earns a living as a writer for the syfy show Eureka; I make a few pennies scribbling for the St. Petersburg Times and NPR.
And we both grew up ad serious music and comic book nerds in the 1970s, with very few heroic role models in pop culture except for one.
The blaxploitation movie star and cocaine dealing ghetto hustler Super Fly
"I look at that growing up now with the goggles of hindsight, and I go, 'That was it? We had a killer?' " Wallace says of the 1972 film's protagonist. "When I was growing up, some of the only male African-American role models I had were blaxploitation figures like Shaft and Super Fly. That's why I do what I do. It's too late for me, but we've got a whole other generation out there."
That's why he's also proud of his other job, helping DC Comics reboot one of its most up-and-coming superheroes of color, Mister Terrific, as part of an initiative to revamp 52 different books in the company's line called The New 52.
In a bid to gain new audiences, DC is reinventing 52 different titles, all restarted with new Number One issues this month. Along with a burst of press coverage, the idea is to hook longtime collectors with the new first issues and entice rookie readers by jettisoning all the history and starting fresh.
They've also gained a bit of attention for their digital strategy, releasing versions of the booksa for purchase online, through smartphone apps and for tablet computers (like, say the iPad) at the same time as the printed editions, making it easier for fans to sample all the new material while possibly cutting into retailers' profits.
Sitting in his home office, where issues of his prized classic Fantastic Four issues sat, mounted on the wall encased in plastic, Wallace talked about cutting his teeth on revamping another lesser-known hero of color, Tattooed Man, for his own miniseries, Ink. ("Sometimes, to turn a second-tier character into a major star, you just have to treat them like a top-tier character," he said, with trademark enthusiasm.)
With Mister Terrific, Wallace was excited about creating a character who so immediately reverses stereotypes -- a billionaire inventor among the smartest men on the planet, his only powers are his intellect, technological invention and will.
After spending some time with him in Los Angeles while I was in town for the TV Critics' press tour, I wrote a cover story for the St. Pete Times Latitudes arts section on DC's efforts to give superheroes of color and one gay female seven new books to star in -- at the same time that rival Marvel Comics has developed a new Spider-Man for one of its books who is black and Hispanic, named Miles Morales.
These moves resonate beyond comic books. This year, wev'e seen a string of big budget superhero movies hit theaters with little or no ethnic diversity, because the books on which they were based had no diversity (Marvel editor in chief Axel Alonso predicts superstar offspring Jaden Smith will play Morales in a big screen version a few years from now, if he srays in the acting game).
Like most old heads, I remain a little jealous that today's comic book nerds will be the recipients of so much attention. To remind everyone what fans like me and Wallace dealt with, I cobbled together a list of the highest visibility modern superheroes of color, along with some notes on their development.
Feel free to weigh in with you own thoughts, along with any feedback on the New 52 or the state of modern comics:
The Top Modern Comic Book Superheroes of Color
The Black Panther – Introduced in 1966, he is the first black superhero character in mainstream comics, an athletic, highly trained African prince named T’Challa who rules a fictional kingdom called Wakanda. He was fine-tuned in laster years to become the ultimate fantasy for some African Americans; a black prince whose people were never conquered by Europeans or Americans.
Storm – First introduced in 1975, she is a leader of the mutant superhero group The X-Men. With power to command the weather, the character gained more prominence when Halle Berry portrayed her in the X Men films.
Kato – A faithful sidekick/valet/driver for crime fighter The Green Hornet, Kato was first introduced with the Hornet on a 1936 radio series as a Japanese man. Played bymartial arts movie star Bruce Lee in a 1966 TV show, he became an expert in kung fu, similar to the character played by Jay Chou in the 2011 film.
Static Shock – Given the ability to control static electricity and magnetism by exposure to a gas, 15-year-old Ghanian-American high school student Virgil Hawkins became Static Shock. The character was featured in a Kids WB animated series in 2000, now airing on Disney XD.
Blade – The son of a woman bitten by a vampire as she was giving birth, vampire hunter Eric Brooks, a.k.a. Blade, was first introduced in a Dracula comic book in 1973. Wesley Snipes played a revamped version of the character in three movies, starting in 1998.
Kyle Rayner/John Stewart Green Lanterns – Stewart, who is black, was first introduced in 1972 as a backup to Hal Jordan, Earth’s representative on the extraterrestrial police force called the Green Lanterns. Rayner, a half Mexican, half Irish graphic artist, appeared in 1994 when Jordan went mad and briefly became a villain.