Buried deep in his shed-sized home office, amid piles of comic books, action figures, DVDs and a geektastic plastic replica of the Mighty Thor's hammer, TV writer and comic book scribe Eric Wallace can finally admit a shameful truth.
Back when he was a young black nerd with a serious appetite for horror movies, progressive rock music and comics, he had few popular role models who matched his taste for outsize action, sheer pop culture cool and African-American flavor.
Except one. 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 classic blaxploitation film hero, a cocaine dealer from a 1972 film. "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."
What Wallace is doing these days involves helping one of the biggest comic book companies in the world showcase a new array of black, brown and gay superheroes while simultaneously rebooting 52 different titles in its catalog.
The project is called the New 52, and it's an ambitious effort by DC Comics to reimagine some of its best-known comic books in an effort to draw in new fans, starting or restarting 52 different series at once with Number One issues publishing this month.
While most attention goes to marquee names such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Wallace joins a cadre of writers and artists developing characters of color and a gay woman as superhero stars in six new books — some for the very first time.
They are: Static Shock, a black kid with powers over electricity who once had a popular TV cartoon; the new Blue Beetle (now a Latino man); Batwing (the Batman of Africa); Green Lantern Corps (co-led by John Stewart, a lantern who is black); Firestorm (a black teenager with nuclear powers); Batwoman (who is a lesbian); and the book Wallace is writing, Mister Terrific (a black man who happens to be the world's third-smartest person).
Put this together with the attention rival Marvel Comics got this summer unveiling a new Spider-Man who is black and Latino — existing only in a parallel universe created within a special line of books called the Ultimate Marvel series — and you have a new push for diversity by the two 800-pound gorillas of the comic book world.
Wallace has a simple explanation: new audiences.
"We call it a jumping on point for everyone," said Wallace, who will see his reboot of Mister Terrific hit stands Sept. 14. "All those folks who once collected comics and left them, you can come back on a Number One issue and you don't feel like you've been left out.
"We live in a different world now than we did when Superman and Batman and even Spider-Man was born," he added. "We live in a diverse society now. Comic books, just like every other medium, need to start reflecting the audience that is consuming the medium."
Or, at least, the audience they hope will consume it.
Want a symbol for what aids and ails the comic book industry? Consider the Comic Book Guy.
One of the oddball side characters from The Simpsons, Comic Book Guy (voiced by Hank Azaria) is also a hilarious rendering of the middle-aged white males who form the backbone of comic book fandom and readership.
These are the dudes who clog the aisles of the massive Comic Con convention every year, filing into comic book stores like fine connoisseurs, armed with decades of knowledge. In the process, they've created a culture that's insular and shrinking, something the big comic book companies are desperate to reach beyond.
"When you have 800 different issues of Batman, Superman or Spider-Man, for Joe Blow, who hasn't read comic books in 10 or 15 years, they feel lost," Wallace said. "You don't see a lot of 7-year-olds coming in to start collecting and forming that lifelong love and obsession with comic books."
Axel Alonso has been an editor at DC's big rival, Marvel Comics, for more than a decade, ascending to editor in chief in January. As a son of Mexican and English parents, he knows a little bit about trying to find cool superheroes of color in a comic book universe that features very few.
Despite years of conversations with predecessor Joe Quesada, a Cuban-American, about bringing a major Hispanic superhero to the Marvel universe, it didn't happen until this year. The company killed off Spider-Man/Peter Parker and replaced him with Miles Morales, an African-American/Puerto Rican nerd living in Brooklyn.
"The fact that so many of the iconic characters are white is a reflection of the fact that, for so long, the (creators) were white, the marketplace, the people selling the books, everything," Alonso said. "There never was an absence of ethnic characters, but their popularity never got to the place of a Spider-Man or Batman."
Editors at Marvel had been mulling a way of re-creating Spider-Man as an African-American since Barack Obama became the nation's first black president in 2008. The concept got more juice when African-American actor Donald Glover campaigned to be cast in The Amazing Spider-Man reboot movie, which instead cast The Social Network alum Andrew Garfield, who is white.
So when it became obvious that they would have to kill off Peter Parker in their Ultimate Comics Universe, Alonso knew what he wanted in the new guy.
"I have an 8-year-old son, and I notice with him and his little friends they all respond like crazy to Spider-Man," he said. "My theory is that all of his skin is covered, so when you're a little boy looking at superheroes, it doesn't matter who you are, he could be you. When you've got this guy swathed in red and blue who an 8-year-old can then see pulling back his mask to be something other than the majority (ethnicity), there's something beautiful about that."
The change follows America's own demographic shifts. According to analyses of the 2010 U.S. Census, more than half the children under age 2 in America are now from racial and ethnic minority groups. Such groups are also more than 50 percent of people under age 18 in 10 states, a trend expected to reach across all 50 states in a dozen years.
But Roland Laird, co-author of Still I Rise: A Graphic History of African Americans, had a more basic question about the new Spider-Man.
"Did they have to kill Peter Parker?" asked Laird, uncomfortable with the idea that Marvel felt a beloved white character had to die to make room for a vibrant new character of color. "Couldn't somebody else have just come up?"
Laird, founder of a media company aimed at developing projects featuring positive portrayals of black culture, also noted how mainstream comics' problem with diversity has seeped into the movies. In recent years, fans have seen a host of comic book superheroes brought to life onscreen: Iron Man, Batman, Thor, the Hulk, Captain America and the Green Lantern, to name a few.
Just two recent franchises, however, feature superheroes of color as the sole stars: Wesley Snipes' vampire killer Blade and Halle Berry's ill-fated Catwoman, both last seen in 2004. One recent superhero film, X-Men: First Class, drew criticism for an ending in which every character of color either died or chose to join forces with the movie's villain, Magneto.
"Comic books play a role, because they're so influential," said Laird, noting how his daughter wanted hair like the Hispanic cartoon character Dora the Explorer. "If you're a 13- or 14-year-old looking at these books, you're not even thinking about how an image could be damaging."
One thing Eric Wallace really loves is creating black male characters who are smart. As an executive story editor and writer for the recently canceled Syfy show Eureka, he helped develop Joe Morton's Dr. Henry Deacon, a character considered the smartest guy in a government-created town filled with genius-level scientists.
Now he's re-creating Mister Terrific, the third-smartest man on the planet. The current hero, Michael Holt, is a newer version of a character who first appeared back in 1942; Wallace will reinvent him yet again as a master of technology who keeps watch for rogue uses.
Unlike the first superheroes of color, whose identity seemed directly connected to their ethnicity (e.g., the Black Panther, Shang Chi, the Master of Kung Fu), Mister Terrific is a super-intelligent billionaire who earned his fortune through technology — the opposite of many stereotypes about black males.
"It's like being 14 again," said Wallace, 45. "Because we're creating the book the 14-year-old boy inside me has always wanted to read."
A native of Hampton, Va., Wallace attended the University of Texas at Austin (alongside Spy Kids director Robert Rodriguez) and headed for Los Angeles, where he worked briefly for B-movie horror king Roger Corman before a series of gigs brought him to Eureka and, later, writing for DC.
Critics of DC's New 52 strategy fear releasing so many new books in such a short time will confuse fans and overload retailers, making it harder for books starring lesser-known characters to have an impact.
But Wallace's message for fans is similar to something he heard back in film school, when a just-emerging director named Spike Lee visited the college, urging students to go see his latest film, 1989's Do the Right Thing.
"He said, 'When you go see a movie, it's like you're voting; you're saying I want more movies like this,' " Wallace said. "I would say to fans what Spike told me years ago: 'Buy the first issue the day it comes out, and if you like it, spread the word.' Because you're voting . . . and if you don't, these books might disappear."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. Blog: tampabay.com/blogs/media. Twitter: @Deggans.