The First Africans In Superman

I have found something incorrect about Superman… ON WIKIPEDIA!

I’ve noticed mistaken information about Superman on Wikipedia and other fan-written websites before but have generally taken it in stride. This time, I feel compelled to do something about it. While doing research for my most recent Superman versus Bigots article I found this claim on the Wikipedia page for Vathlo Island (the part of Krypton that has Black people):

This is false, but I admit that I don’t know enough about Wikipedia’s rules for editing to just delete the false statement. I know they have rules about “original research” that I don’t actually understand, but I also know that I need some sort of proof of my claim. They have a citation link to an article backing their claim, but even THAT website doesn’t say that the Kryptonian from Vathlo Island is the first Black character. That website says that the Superman comic didn’t have an African American character until the ’70s, then goes on to talk about the Black Kryptonian as a separate entity, which Wikipedia’s editors failed to catch.

So what can a PDR do? Well, maybe I can’t just edit the Vathlo Island article, but I can at least provide the ammunition needed to rectify its mistake. Black people who appeared in Superman’s book prior to issue #234: Here we go:

  • A) During the first year of Superman’s book there are adventures involving several different dark-skinned tribes, most of which are made up of people given trappings of American native groups. But one group, from the presumably-fictional Pogo Island, do bear an appearance suggestive of African descent. I would not cite them as first Africans because we simply don’t have the truth of their origin.
  • B) A Black train porter is seen in Superman #27. The big red lips aren’t good, but this man looks human, which sadly is a victory for a Black man appearing in a comic from 1944. Realistically, this man could be cited as the first “African American” in Superman.
  • C) In Superman #33, the hero goes to “the exotic port of Massua on the Red Sea” and encounters a number of African people, both civilians and pirates. The art is not particularly flattering to them, unfortunately, but I am glad that we see enough of them to be given the complexity that there are good and bad ones, that they’re not just a single monolithic society.
  • D) In Superman #49, some men, presumably Africans, are seen in silhouette carrying Lois Lane in a palanquin for some reason. We never learn why they carry Lois or who they are and never see more of them than this. I’d not really say this one counts.
  • E) Superman #50 has some Africans who are employed by a rich white hunter, and they do all the work and the hunter takes all the credit.
  • F) In Superman #59 we have more Africans employed by another white hunter. This time they are here to provide one of those scenes where the “superstitious natives will go no further” which isn’t as cool as the previous appearance.
  • G) There’s quite a gap until Superman #93, where we find that an African village has been constructed in a Metropolis park for educational reasons. There is a man there who may or may not be a statue, I honestly can’t tell (he appears in two panels and is standing the exact same way in both), but either way is a representation of an African figure within the comic at least.
  • H) Superman #110 gives us superstitious spear-wielding natives living in a “faraway land” that may not be explicitly identified as African, but the group is definitely treated the same way all the previous tribes have been so far: population for an exotic backdrop for an adventure, but barely actual humans.
  • I) At Superman’s funeral in Superman #149 there is more than one Black man visible, which is our first instance of a Black man who isn’t an “exotic tribesman” since that train porter way back. This means 1961 is the point when we finally have Black people in backgrounds in Metropolis more regularly. Among the others seen at the funeral are “world leaders” who may represent African leaders or something.
  • J) There is a single Black child among a crowd of children given a lift by Superman in Superman #153. I assume desegregation of schools has hit Metropolis.
  • K) Some African natives find a chunk of Kryptonite in Superman #173. Oddly, though they appear in three panels, we never see any of their faces. I don’t know why. After a couple of Black people in Metropolis, we’re thrown back to exotic tribes.
  • L) Some dark-skinned natives see Superman stopping a missile in sky in Superman #197, a story being reprinted from Action Comics #282).
  • M) Some Africans are among the many over the world following the race between Superman and the Flash in Superman #199. They are relatively modern, but they do use drums to communicate.
  • N) There is a Black man among the steel workers on strike in Superman #208.
  • O) A single Black child is seen in a class among some other school kids in Superman #218.
  • P) In Superman #219 we once again have a single Black youth among a group. This time they’re playing in the water sprayed by a fire hydrant opened during a heat wave.
  • Q) By Superman #225, there are Black people just showing up in the crowds around the city. There are couple of them spread throughout the issue.
  • R) And again, in #228, there are Black people in the backgrounds around the city, watching Superman do whatever he is doing in the story.

There we go. That’s all I could find. It’s certainly possible I missed some, but it’s also certainly a higher number than the zero that Wikipedia claimed. For posterity I must also note that I ignored several appearances of Egyptians, who are African but are not depicted as dark-skinned in the comics in the way that the Vathlo Island post is clearly talking about. This includes also ignoring depictions of the Sphinx, whose face I assume is based on some ancient Egyptian who could, for all I know, be dark-skinned. Furthermore, the information I’ve gathered here does not include people appearing in advertisements, or gag strips, or educational material in the issues that is not part of a Superman story. I saw examples in each of African or African American individuals, but they were not what I was there for.

And I also want to make it clear that this data comes only from the comic magazine entitled “Superman” because the wording of the claim only drew specific attention to that book. Superman stories have also appeared in places like “Action Comics“, “World’s Finest Comics“, and “Superboy“, and I’d also count books like “Superman’s Girlfriend Lois Lane” and “Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen” as Superman books. Each of these books told hundreds of stories with Superman and I’m sure plenty of those involved “primitive” tribes and witch doctors as well until the 1970s came and they started peppering Black people into backgrounds. I’ll note further that the Superman radio show, the cartoons from the ’40s, and the show starring George Reeves all had African characters from various parts of the offensive representation spectrum (somehow the show managed it best in an episode that included a villain in blackface).

Some further thoughts: Obviously this is not a good amount of representation for Black people in Superman over those decades. There’s not one Black person among those A to R that I would classify as an actual “character”. There are no names, only a handful have lines, and they almost never actually matter to the story in which they appear (something also true of the Kryptonian scientist in Superman #234 whose appearance started all this). But I didn’t go into this hoping I’d find out that the magazine had secretly diverse beyond our previous imaginings. I don’t think superhero comics are as diverse in representation as they need to be even now, let alone before the fight for civil rights. And furthermore: There is not a single face listed above I feel confident in saying is a Black woman. Maybe one of the two in the very last image, but even then I can’t be sure. It’s no wonder it has been so hard for creators to establish a Black Woman of the Daily Planet when it took decades to get a Black woman as a mere extra in there.

So, maybe we can change that one line on Wikipedia now that we have an article to cite, but what would be more important would be to keep expanding representation of not just Black people, but all kinds of people, in our popular culture. It can be done, but to do it we actually have to do it.

A Flailing Attempt At Being A Superman Fan

A few days ago a lot of the people I follow on Twitter to see their Superman-related thoughts were all answering the same set of questions, which began with this post. It’s one of those things they do on social media to get to know each other better and feel like they’re all being fans of the things they love together, y’know?

I’ve said it before, but I always feel kind of outside of the Superman fan commuity. A lot of my “takes” feel so contrary to the accepted mainstream views that I feel like when I chime in, I’m being overly negative.

But then I find I don’t feel comfortable in “fandoms” in general. One of the primary reasons for that is I don’t often see the value in ranking and picking favourites among the things I enjoy. But hey, even as an outsider, I can feel the fun in participating. And I gotta put something on this darn site. So here goes:

1. Favorite member of the Superfam?

So, to translate into PDRese, which of the Superman-related cast of characters do I like best? Realistically, without Superman himself, would I even be here? But I’ll give some honorable mentions: I have high hopes for Natasha Irons to become a great character. Lois Lane is nearly as iconic as her husband and with good cause.

2. Adding onto the other one, who’s your favorite ‘Superman’? Like whether it be Kenan, Jon, Clark, or some other world variant.

At this point, if I’m deciding which person who has gone by Superman is my favourite, the boring answer of Clark is the truest.

3. Who do you believe is Superman’s best rogue and/or your personal favorite?

Different supervillains serve different purposes and which one is “best” really depends which purpose your story is going for. Lex is good for scheming superscience and corruption. Zod is a nice stand-in to be the kind of fascist strongman that Superman is occasionally incorrectly called. Really, I just have more thoughts on Superman villains than my head can contain.

4. Thoughts on Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen?

They kick ass. As I’ve said before, if you want Superman to be a character who inspires people to be their best selves, it is handy to have Jimmy as someone in-text who is living that inspiration. And Lois is great because she shows the audience that you can be as driven as Superman and fighting the same kinds of battles even without being a godlike superhuman.

5. Thoughts on Jon Kent as both Clark’s son and successor?

I like Jon a lot. His current iteration, where he’s been trapped in other dimensions and whatnot throughout his childhood isn’t something I care for, I’d rather he was born and raised in Metropolis and had a childhood that is at least somewhat more relateable, but I still love him. I’d love to see him become an eternal and iconic part of the mythos. I’d also like him to go into school to be a psychiatrist.

6. Do you prefer Superman with or without trunks?

With. Mostly I like it just because it is how Superman has looked for most of his career and it has become iconic. It also helps that I have zero self-consciousness about goofy stuff in the stories I like. I feel like a lot of the trunks-haters are still kind of embarrassed to like Superman and want to make it less goofy so they don’t need to feel that way. I don’t care about that. And also, if we’re going to have other Supermans like Jon and Kenan around, leaving Clark his trunks gives them to have their own unique trunkless looks.

7. Follow up to the previous one, what is your favorite suit that Clark has worn?

Assuming this means Superman suit and not just a suit-and-tie combo he wore to the Planet, I’ll just go with the classic look that you can find through most of the Silver and Bronze Ages and beyond.

8. Preferred origin story?

I don’t think my preferred version of the origin has been told yet. I generally find retellings of the origin to be useless to me at this point. They’re easily skimmable at best.

9. Favorite Superman writer?

No strong opinion.

10. Favorite Superman artist?

No strong opinion.

11. What do you believe is Superman’s best story? And what is your personal favorite(s)?

I can’t pick a single best. Just give me stories with a mix of science fiction and journalistic mystery where some threat to the world is opposed by Superman and his allies. I’ll be happy.

12. If you could make any change to Superman’s lore/ mythos, what would it be?

This would admittedly be a hugely sweeping one, but I’d want to sever any and all connections between Superman and the DC Universe. This is definitely a PDR opinion that is note shared by the masses.

13. Favorite adaptation of big blue?

I have a fondness for the radio show. It’s not perfect, but no representation of Superman has been perfect and this one does a lot of things right. Not everything though. It never really delved into Lois and Clark as a romantic couple and I never like the loud dramatic stings that are so overused. But it gave a good mix of Superman sci-fi plots and social causes and fighting supervillains and character stuff.

14. Favorite live action actor?

No strong opinion.

15. Favorite voice actor?

No strong opinion. I guess Collyer would be the reasonable choice.

16. Favorite Superman theme?

I dunno, the Williams one I guess. But what really bugs me is that all of Superman’s themes are these big orchestral deals when what I want for him is a theme that compares to the 60s Batman or Spider-Man themes. Superman needs a theme that a four-year-old could sing.

17. Favorite and least favorite Superman takes?

I think my most and least favourite takes on Superman are kind of the same one. Does Superman represent “Hope”? I have gone on the record that I don’t think so more than once. I think Hope is meaningless without followup and I think we need to keep fighting even when it’s hopeless. But all the same, some of the people who espouse the Superman = Hope stuff are coming at my ideas about Superman from a different angle. They want him to be a figure that shows us what we can aspire to and should be fighting for. I’m fine with that.

18. Who is your favorite Superman ‘analogue’?

Supreme, the Image character, specifically when written by Alan Moore. That run was one of the big steps in the path that made me the Superman fan I am now. It showed me that you can use Silver Age-style silliness, but still take the story seriously. There are flaws in the run (and its incomplete nature is frustrating), but I enjoyed the heck out of it.

19. Your favorite shield?

I don’t really care, but lets just go with Fleischer-style. I will say that I prefer it to just be an S for Superman over it being the Kryptonian symbol for the House of El.

20. Finally, why do YOU like Superman?

As a child I watched Superman movies and the Lois and Clark show and recognized Superman as a fun action hero. At some point in my teens I got into the weirdness and imagination in the stories from the 50s and 60s and realized the potential for sci-fi plots closer to Star Trek and Twilight Zone instead of always just being about fights. I followed that path into the Golden Age stuff when I was in my twenties, and there I saw Superman angry about corruption and fighting to better the world. Finally I looked back to the 90s comics (which realistically should have been where I started, but I missed them somehow) and saw the fantastic worldbuilding built around the character. Those all added up into a single franchise that had so much potential to give me what I enjoy. And sometimes it even lives up to that potential. Sometimes.

Super-Ventriloquism > Heat Vision

I’ll come right out and say it: I think super-ventriloquism is a better Superman Power than heat vision.

I'm sure all this nonsense here makes sense in the story, but I ain't puttin' the effort in to explain it right now.

This goes against the majority opinion, I’d wager. I know that, on the internet at least, super-ventriloquism is routinely mocked as silly, and as a sign that Superman has too many powers. Meanwhile, the heat vision is cool. It allows Clark to get into big laser fights and, more recently, to threaten people with glowing eyes when he gets angry. And I don’t deny that laser fights are cool. I may not care for threatening glowy eyes, but overall I don’t have too much problem with the zappy eyes. But once you start mocking the super-ventriloquism, well then I have to disagree. If you think that Superman has too many powers, I say you cut the lasers before the voice.

For posterity I should explain: Super-ventriloquism is a power that Superman had in the olden days allowing him to throw his voice to anywhere in the world (and imitate people as well) without needing to move his lips. It was used more often than you’d think, not a one-time deal. If he needed to get a message to someone across town, he could do it. If he wanted to make it seem like something inanimate was talking, he could do it. These were the days when superhero comics were about finding innovative uses for super powers, not about who can do the punching the best way to win all the fights.

For the most part, Superman’s powers are just things that regular people can do, turned up to Super levels. Superspeed is basically just running, but Super, right? And flying (an outgrowth of the “leap over tall buildings” thing) is just jumping, but Super. Telescopic and X-Ray vision are just looking, but Super. And so on*. But then look: Super-ventriloquism is speaking, but Super. Heat vision is starting fires, but Super? That one doesn’t fit the pattern.

There’s a logic to how the heat vision came to be one of his powers, though. In the early days they gave him the ability to see through solid things and they called it X-Ray vision. Superman’s powers didn’t actually function exactly like X-Rays, but that’s the name they gave it, after an invention that was at that point younger than many of the people in the world. The connection to X-Rays was there, and they knew that real X-Rays gave off heat. They carried that over into the stories, Superman using his X-Ray vision to heat things up. Over time, it drifted to became a totally separate ability.

The fact that superhero stories have grown to be more about combat than anything is a big part of why heat vision is beloved, but I don’t think it is the whole reason that super-ventriloquism is reviled. I genuinely think it is the name. I feel like if it were called “voice projection” or something similarly bland but more accurate, it would be accepted.

I do think that if we brought super-ventriloquism back, we’d probably need some manner of limitations on there. Instant communication to anywhere being something hard to write around is why so many horror movies have to write out cellphones right away. Here’s a couple ideas:

  • Firstly, I’ve seen him use it to talk to people in space. I don’t think I need that. Let him need to find other ways to solve that problem.
  • He should need to know where he projecting his voice to. It isn’t telepathy so he can’t magically reach a person by thought. I envision super-ventriloquism as a physical ability of sending sound waves to a location, so he’d need to know where the target is to send them there. Given his vision powers, this wouldn’t be too hard, but it is something.
  • Maybe he has to put more effort in to not be drown out by other sources of noise at the target location? If the target (let’s say Lois) is in an abandoned warehouse with not a lot of noise, Clark can be heard easily. But if she’s standing on a busy Metropolitan street, he needs to put some more effort in. We know Superman can be loud (after all, one of his other powers is shouting, but Super), but putting that effort in might make it a little harder to look like he’s not speaking to people around his real location.

What I’ve got here is not a significant limitation of his powers, I could probably come up with more if I were doing it as more than a mere thought experiment, but those limitations weren’t the important part of this whole post anyway. The take-away message here is that heat vision is a sillier super power than super-ventriloquism and anyone who disagrees is incorrect.

* Freeze breath is basically just blowing on stuff to cool it down turned up to Super levels, but it is a dumber example than the others I gave there.

The Tal-Var Venn Diagram

In a recent post on Twitter, I posted a venn diagram saying that Tal-Var should be considered one of Superman’s biggest foes alongside the likes of Lex Luthor, General Zod, and Brainiac.

The joke here is that I’d chosen an obscure villain who had appeared in a single issue of Jimmy Olsen’s comic and tried to elevate him to iconic with specious reasoning. Nothing in there actual comments on the quality of any of the villains, it just says stuff about them. If I wanted to declare a fourth-most important villain to Superman, I’d put the work into making the Ultra-Humanite the one. (It has even been pointed out by a friend that if you take the diagram I’ve made and replace Tal-Var’s name with Mr. Mxyzptlk’s almost all of it still applies, though I’d not call him a “villain” traditionally.)

So that diagram is just me being stupidly obscure for what could almost be called a joke, but just barely. But it did occur to me that over here on the ol’ Book of PDR I try to regularly put together my “Superman Thoughts” so why waste the thing on a Twitter post? I do have actual ideas for how I’d use Tal-Var.

The deal is that he is an otherdimensional baddie who likes to come to our dimension and be a jerk. Okay, working with that, I say posit that Tal-Var’s natural form might be some strange unknowable dark god kinda thing and that the Kryptonian-looking shell is merely adopted for coming to this realm and fighting the likes of Superman. Then I’d go a little more controversial: I’d keep Tal-Var as a Jimmy Olsen villain, rather than moving him directly into Superman’s gallery. That’s right, I think Jimmy Olsen should have his own villains. Superman can still fight them and stuff, but let Jimmy have some fun for a change.

Another One Where I Complain About Hope

I’ve mentioned this one before, but I gotta write something, so I might as well get back to complaining about how I don’t like Superman being about “Hope”. And to get more specific, I’m gonna talk about a story from the “Future State” event a year or so back.

I don’t have the energy to explain what “Future State” was, but the story I am particularly gonna talk about is about a future when Superman is missing and a young woman goes on a pilgrimage to Smallville and meets up at a meeting with a bunch of people who had been saved by Superman over the years. They share their stories about how Superman saved them and feel bad because they assume he’s dead.

Some kid says Superman is about hope, PDR complains.

The main character is not happy with these survivors. She thinks it’s shameful that they’ve given up hope that Superman is still out there. PDR is not happy with these survivors because they got saved by Superman and it seems like all they took from it was that Superman sure is great and we need him to be around forever. Unlike main character (whose name I have not committed to memory), I don’t care if these people think Superman is dead.

I have to be clear, these Future State issues do point out that Superman’s supposed “giving us hope” was accomplished via doing good acts. The main character says she was helped by a story he wrote as Clark Kent and she says of Superman: “If his powers had never come, he still would’ve been what he was. He’s just have saved people in different ways.” She’s clearly saying that Clark’s actions are the good thing here. But she also says “We didn’t call him Superman because of what he can do! We called him Superman because of who he is!” and that’s where the argument fails for me.

I agree that it isn’t what Superman can do (his powers) that makes him special. But I do think it’s what he actually DOES do that makes him Superman. I don’t like the idea that Clark is just inherently a good person and he is a symbol of whatever whatever good stuff. If any one of those people at the meeting said “Superman saved me, which made me realize I should be helping other people, so that’s why I became a teacher or doctor or whatever” then I’d respect them. I don’t care if they’re full of hope. They could be utterly hopeless and working to do good and I’d respect the hell out of them. That would be keeping Superman’s spirit alive whether he is alive or not.

I don’t know, I feel like I’m repeating myself and not making my point any clearer. I don’t know that it can get any clearer. This story was by the guy who is still writing the main Superman book and he has continued to weave “Hope” into his stories. The run has been popular on the Internet circles I travel in, so I feel bad that I mostly only comment on the flaws I see in it. But just remember this isn’t just a flaw I see in this run of comics, it’s a flaw I see in the entire public perception of the character! That’s… better… right?