My latest score in terms of old quirky canceled comic series is Black Goliath. There were only five issues of Black Goliath published in 1976, and it differed from most of Marvel’s superhero comics in two ways: 1) It was set in Los Angeles, 2) Its protagonist was black. For the record, at this time there were two other major black superheroes in the Marvel Universe: Black Panther (who was starring in a title called Jungle Action at the time), and Luke Cage, whose title began as Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, changed to Luke Cage, Power Man, and then finally Power Man & Iron Fist when he was forced to share the bill with the white millionaire industrialist son turned cultural tourist kung-fu master).
Black Goliath is a title that never got a chance to really develop and it suffers from the problems of a lot of early attempts to bring ethnic characters into the limelight. The most glaring problem, of course, is the name. In that era, race was the primary identifier for characters that fell outside of the white (male) default (though to some degree this is also the case with gender). Thus you have heroes like Black Goliath or Black Lightning or villains like Yellow Claw. The difference encoded into their names serves to keep these characters on the margin of the genre—strange and anomalous figures among the superheroic elite.
As I write in the dissertation I am working on:
American superhero comics have a particular racial and sexual politics engrained in them. These politics inform the representation of their communities of superheroes and supporting casts that does not allow for the diverse identities required to give any ethnic or queer (or other subcultural group) character a space to exist as anything but a token and a potential subject of caricature. Douglas Wolk asserts in Reading Comics that in terms of mainstream comic books, “significant lasting change is almost impossible to get past the marketing department” (102). In other words superhero comics are both recursive and reactionary, seeking to repeatedly recreate its successes and as such repeating many of its flaws and limitations in the process. Wolk reminds us that comic book characters (and titles) are franchises predicated on the continued “attached sentimentality” of a hardcore fanbase of readers (ibid). This nostalgia simultaneously undermines and informs all superhero narratives as even the most independent alternative comic creator cannot divorce a superhero character from the cultural resonance of that iconic figure. This cultural resonance makes representations of ethnic (and other subaltern) identities so deeply problematic because of all the assumptions that come along with the genre, foremost among these is how the unquestioned recurring cycles of superhero violence echoes the role of violence in cementing a hegemonic American identity. In other words, superheroes, often referred to as America’s mythology, defend the American way through ceaseless violence in mostly urban spaces.
And Black Goliath is no exception. In the very first scene of the very first issue we see BG in his civilian guise, Bill Foster, return to Watts in L.A. where he grew up. He is forced to fight some thuggish black gang members. As I have pointed out before, violence is the way that a superhero character from a marginalized group asserts his belonging. It is violence by one of the “good ones” (Bill Foster is ghetto kid made good—a successful biochemist that heads up Tony Stark’s west coast labs and that has been sought out for scientific help in the past by the Avengers and other superheroes) against the “bad ones” that really indicates that Bill (aka Black Goliath) is a good one. The scene clearly puts the cause of the neighborhood problems onto the community itself. When Foster sees a patrol car goes by he thinks to himself that if cops were around more people in the neighborhood would learn “respect for the Man.” So while on the surface that may seem like it lays the blame on the previous absence of cops, what it really suggests is that unless the people of Watts are closely watched they are prone to commit crime.
The urban setting of most superhero comics especially in the silver and bronze ages (basically from 1956 to 1985) acts a form of racial dog whistle. Street crime and social ills even when not depicted specifically in reference to black communities are nevertheless the urban populations associated with narratives of urban crisis and decay. In the 60s, 70s and 80s superheroes are needed because according to these comics there is no lack of muggers preying on (white middle-class) people, and it is the perceived color of those people that led to white flight. I think it is no coincidence that in the era of gentrification, even characters that used to be “street level” heroes (like Luke Cage and Spider-Man) are involved in worldwide or cosmic plots as part of the Avengers rather than patrolling the hood. The cultural narrative around cities is not quite the same as it used to be because cities are more segregated than ever.
It doesn’t help that in the five issues that exist, Black Goliath is not very good at being a superhero. In some ways that makes sense. He is new to the gig and bound to make some mistakes, but the problem is that whenever he inwardly compares himself to other superheroes as a general group there is a subtext—he is comparing himself to white superheroes. Even for the deeply-engaged comic reading audience, when one thinks of “superhero” characters like Superman or Captain America come to mind before Luke Cage or Black Panther. It is never more clear than when he says to himself, “As a bona fide grade A, All-American superhero, you are one big joke.” His incompetence is anomalous in the genre for a character with his own title. He is, as a shadowy figure says in issue #2, just “some black super dude.”
I’d really love a Marvel comic that actually tackled this issue and incorporated it into a character’s experience and worldview, but that’d require lasting change to the genre and a challenge to the ways that white privilege plays out in the genre. I mean, at its very basis, the ability for a white dudes to run around in masks (mostly) unhassled is a privilege. J. Jonah Jameson may call Spider-Man a menace and take him to task for wearing a mask, but Peter Parker never has to worry that this enmity comes from his race—though since for all anyone knows Spider-Man is black under that mask, perhaps the ambiguity has something to do with the publisher’s ambivalence to the vigilante. Chris Claremont of Uncanny X-Men fame wrote Black Goliath. Too bad he had not yet developed the chops that would eventually turn the young mutants into the super-popular oppressed outsiders everyone could identify with when he was writing this comic.
And yet, lest we fear that Foster’s black masculinity is diluted by his acquiescence to “the Man” and his heroic ineptness, he is written with the sexual prowess that reinforces another stereotype. In issue #3, rescued by an African-American flight attendant from nearly drowning in a drainage ditch flooded with water from the firefighters who had to put out the fire that Black Goliath’s fight with Atom-Smasher caused, he beds her with his mask on.
Celia Jackson (“Ceil” to her friends and lovers) returns an issue later when she is held captive by Stilt-Man (one of the biggest jokes in the Marvel Universe and Black Goliath can’t seem to beat him either), and then she, along with Black Goliath and her nephew Keith are zapped to another planet, where the events of the final issue take place.
Rescued by a green-skinned four-tentacle armed alien named Derath, the final issue essentially ends on a note of “racial tolerance” in the way that is common to the superheroes and sci-fi genres. Rather than focus on the intolerance that exists, it creates a weird alien other to highlight it instead. At first, the trio of displaced African-American earthlings are frightened by Derath’s appearance, but then they realize that despite being a “monster” he wants to help them. Ceil and BG discuss it when they slip away from Derath and Keith for a little snuggle time in the bowels of an ancient techno-pyramid where they hope to find the technology to return to Earth.
Derath dies, of course, saving Ceil and Black Goliath from Mortag, the big orange dude with an axe you can see int he top left corner of the above panel. This final act cements the green-dude’s friendly nature. Again violence, in this case being willing victim to it, reinforces bonds of belonging.
The series ends with no fanfare. There is just a note on the letters page announcing its the cancellation due to poor sales, despite the many letters of praise the title may have received. Looking over the letters (they started in issue #3), most of them mentioned how happy the reader was to see a new black superhero (and the importance of having more of them), and even when critical of the comic itself (its plotting, art or characterization), they tended to note the potential seen in the comic and express a wish for it to develop into something even better.
Black Goliath would go on to make a recurring appearance in the short-lived Champions comic, b-list superheroes fighting crime and evil plots on the west coast, but would remain pretty obscure until brought back sans “black” in his name in the Civil War crossover event in 2006 just to be killed by a clone of Thor. Poor guy never had much a chance.
Next, I hope to get my hands on the 11 issue run of DC’s Black Lightning from 1977-78. In his case, he donned an afro wig and affected a ghetto-slang way of talking when in his superheroic guise as to better fit into the community he patrolled, a part of Metropolis called “Suicide Slum” that hardly ever saw Superman. While, from what I’ve read, the idea of performing an exaggerated form of blackness as part of his superhero identity is pretty harshly criticized, this kind of doubleness intrigues as the kind of thing that might actually narratives about being black in a superhero world interesting and honest, if done with sufficient self-consciousness—not that I trust DC to successfully accomplish than nowadays, let alone back then.