NBA veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabbar parlayed his global superstardom into a prolific post-basketball writing career that includes critical, historic and narrative explorations of Black excellence and resistance. He addresses these concerns through the lens of Black comic superheroes in his latest column for The Hollywood Reporter (THR).
Abdul-Jabbar’s essay, published online today (July 21) and featured in THR’s July 19 print issue, argues that Black superheroes must have three qualities to successfully relate to and inspire readers: a self-aware social conscience, a sense of humor and intelligence:
First, a Black superhero must have a social conscience that makes them aware that they are a minority and what that means to them and all others who are marginalized. Being Black isn’t just having the colorist shade the skin darker, it’s a significant personal element that motivates the character’s actions. The character doesn’t have to start out full-throttle altruistic and self-aware. In fact, it can be a much more exciting story for the character to start selfish because they’ve been marginalized (“I don’t owe this world anything!”) and slowly come to the realization of their connection to society, even an imperfect society.
Second, the character should have a sense of humor, especially about themselves. The degree of humor depends on the overall tone. Michonne in “Walking Dead” can’t be cutting off zombie heads then using them as ventriloquist dummies. Having dour, humorless heroes only works if other characters poke fun at their dourness, as happens in “Batman,” with Robin, Alfred and Catwoman getting laughs off Bruce Wayne’s brooding self-importance. Humor is even more important for minority heroes because otherwise their earnestness overwhelms the story, making it seem like a political diatribe rather than an adventure story. A great story can be both, but humor makes it more subtle.
Finally, the character should be smart. It’s not enough to defeat the enemy with superior power, the hero must also be able to outwit them. One enduring racial stereotype is the Black man who is more brawn than brain, the runaway field hand who crushes anything in his path to freedom. I prefer to see our Black superheroes flexing their cunning and dazzling us with intellect as much as with their supernatural abilities. We have to promote the idea that anyone can attain knowledge—even as we entertain our fantasies of powers beyond science. Invisibility is nice, but intelligence wins the day.
Abdul-Jabbar cites a number of Black comic characters to make his point, including Luke Cage, Black Panther and “Suicide Squad’s” Amanda Waller. He also references the swashbuckler Lark Adler, who partners with Sherlock Holmes’ brother in Abdul-Jabbar’s own comic series, “Mycroft Holmes and the Apocalypse Handbook.”
“My spin was to pair [Mycroft Holmes] with part-Native American and part-Black Lark Adler, the partner—definitely not a sidekick—who rivals him in every way and surpasses him in some,” writes Abdul-Jabbar. “The rising tide of Black comic book characters lifts all of us closer. As Lark tells Mycroft, ‘This country may not treat me the way it should, but the Constitution says it wants to. I just want to help it get to that point.’”
Read the full column at HollywoodReporter.com.