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Highlighting Black superheroes and creators


Joel Christian Gill has what may be an unpopular opinion: Batman is a terrible superhero.

Gill, who leads Boston University's visual narrative MFA program, describes Batman as "a billionaire who takes his money and uses it for research and development to beat up poor people."

Because of that, Gill prefers other superheroes, he told WBUR's Radio Boston. And some of them are Black.

Take Hardware for instance. Also known by his human name, Curtis Metcalf, is a comic book character created by Milestone Media in the 1990s, who is taken in by what Gill describes as an "Elon Musk-type" character, who turns out to be corrupt and has relegated Metcalf to being the help.

"Where you have most of the superheroes who are billionaires ... Hardware — Curtis Metcalf — is a fantastic counterbalance to that," Gill said. "He uses his intellect and the money and resource he has to fight corruption as opposed to beat up poor people."

For Gill, Hardware is "much more of an everyman whose idea we would all agree with." And, yet, Hardware isn't as widely lauded, and Gill thinks he knows why.

"The problem is that race is so embedded in America that people don't typically want to see themselves in this Black man," he said.

What kind of Black comic book character fans can see themselves in is a question that interests John Jennings, an author, graphic novelist and professor of media and cultural studies at University of California, Riverside.

Speaking on Radio Boston, Jennings said he recreated Dr. Al B. Harper for Marvel Comics because he wanted to challenge the trope of the Black person being used as a sidekick.

Dr. Al B. Harper is a Black character who appears in 1969 in The Silver Surfer (No. 5), an issue that explores civil rights but in which he's a plot point, according to Jennings.

"He ends up having to sacrifice his life to save the world. That's the stakes," he said.

When doing research for a new character, Jennings drew inspiration from events around him: The George Floyd protests; Chadwick Boseman, the actor who famously played Black Panther, died from cancer; and Jennings' sister died from a heart attack.

"So there was a lot of Black death around me, you know?" he said. "And so even though this character is like, not real, I was like, 'can we can we not be in the ground anymore?' "

Plus, the circumstances around Dr. Al B. Harpers' death seemed ripe for a resurrection. There was a cosmic flame marking his grave until the end of time, and that got Jennings and co-creator Angélique Roché thinking: "You know, the Fantastic Four got their powers from cosmic rays, couldn't we resurrect him?"

Jennings made his pitch — complete with a backstory for Dr. Al B. Harper — to Marvel, which ultimately approved it and greenlit a five-issue series on the character.

Gill called Jennings' work with Dr. Al B. Harper "incredible."

"Black characters always died, right? Like we always have to sacrifice for the greater good," Gill said.

But that's not what's happening with this new Black character, Gill said: "You're not sacrificing. You're going to be the hero. You're not going to be the side character. You're going to be the main attraction."

This segment aired on February 23, 2023.

Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.


Chris Citorik Senior Producer
Chris Citorik was a senior producer for Radio Boston.


Vanessa Ochavillo Associate Producer
Vanessa Ochavillo is an associate producer for WBUR focused on digital news.



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