Even at a time when superheroes have taken the helm of Hollywood, the upcoming “Black Panther” film, partially shot in Atlanta, commands special attention. Acclaimed filmmaker Ryan Coogler directs Chadwick Boseman as Marvel Comics’ African prince turned high-tech hero opposite such actors as Michael B. Jordan and Oscar-winners Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker and Lupita Nyong’o. The movie opens Feb. 9, 2018.
“A black filmmaker, directing a majority black cast, with that budget – it’s going to be a ‘Roots’ moment,” says independent comic book writer/publisher Carlton Hargro of Atlanta.
“Black Panther” will lead more African-American superheroes into the spotlight, like DC Comics’ “Black Lightning,” debuting on The CW in early 2018. But for the most part, black superheroes have been token characters playing subordinate roles to better-established white heroes.
As two African-American brothers growing up reading comic books in the 1970s and 1980s, Carlton and Darrick Hargro noticed how few characters looked like them. Today they’re making the ranks of caped crusaders more diverse with a line of digital comics starring original African-American superheroes.
By day, Carlton, 47, works as an editor, and Darrick, 50, as a contract coordinator, but earlier this year they launched three superhero titles, each with a foot in a different genre. “Nia Griggs and the Kimetic Sisterhood of Science” draws on espionage elements to depict a “far from mild mannered music journalist” who fights domestic terrorists and other villains as her alter ego, a super-powered Amazon.
In “Moses,” title character Moses Jones finds herself at the center of a sci-fi mystery involving alien abduction. And the forthcoming “Makossa” depicts a detective who wears an African-style mask.
“It’s kind of a modern-day pulp hero,” says Carlton.
Carlton and Darrick named their Atlanta-based comic book publishing company 20th Place Media after the street where they grew up in Gary, Indiana. The brothers’ childhood home on 20th Place set them on a course to create their own superheroes.
“When we’d do our chores, our father would reward us with comics – he’d come home and give us a stack of ‘X-Men,’” says older brother Darrick.
The brothers noticed that the token black superheroes in mainstream comics tended to be second-rate.
“We didn’t like Luke Cage – he was not looked on as competent,” says Carlton. “Black Panther was cool when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced him in ‘Fantastic Four,’ and then went into wackness in the 1970s. Blade was a terrible comic book character. He was a scrub!”
But they found an unexpected local hero in Indiana’s Tom Floyd, who had produced an original African-American comic book, “Blackman,” in the 1970s. Carlton recalls the eponymous character’s powers as being a little too literal: “To fly, he pulled himself by his bootstraps – because his costume had these big bootstraps,” he says. He was nonetheless impressed by Floyd’s achievement.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this guy did it!’ It was the first time I had ever seen an independent comic book, but the art and color was professional.”
While their childhood friends drifted away from comics, over the years Carlton and Darrick’s conversations about the need for more and better black superheroes continued.
“We want to reframe what people think about black people,” says Carlton. “For centuries, there’s been one kind of story about us. Look at how pop culture is transmitted around the world. One of the first black characters – Luke Cage – was an ex-con. I think enough stories have been told about that. Let’s tell different ones.”
By the early 1990s, they decided to put their ideas on the page and into the marketplace — not only introducing more black heroes, but creating iconic characters that drew from the African-American community and traditions.
“We didn’t want them to be white heroes with black skin – we wanted them to be based on black culture,” Darrick says.
“And not, in a heavy-handed way, like, ‘Oh, I was just thinking about Martin Luther King,’” Carlton says.
Carlton began seeking out artists who could visualize the brothers’ scripts. He found long-time collaborator Andre Moore by putting up flyers at the Atlanta College of Art.
“In 1994, we published this comic called ‘Isis,’ about a black woman superhero,” says Carlton. “We published two books, we were in the Diamond comic book distributor catalog and we built this little network of African-American comic creators.”
But their sales were never super. “They weren’t selling, so we took a step back,” Carlton says.
After more than a decade refining their ideas and learning from their missteps, they launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 to support an original collection called “The African-American Comics Anthology,” which received more than $5,000.
“Our Kickstarter … helped us get our creative groove back, pushing us to write more,” says Carlton.
The Internet has helped with their second coming in other ways, too. It’s easier to collaborate with their artists, some of whom live in Europe. And the comics are available digitally through ComiXology and Peep Game Comix, an African-American digital distributor, in addition to a limited number of books on paper.
So far they’ve been most excited by the reception of the “Moses” release party at Little Five Points’ Moods Music, where about 100 people showed up. “I’d say 50 percent of them had never bought a copy in their life,” says Carlton.
He compares the initial roll-out to TV pilot season, and says the goal for 2018 is to double the slate of new and continuing titles.
“The main challenge we have is acceleration,” he says. “We need to move faster and speed up the time from talking to publication.”
It’s a happy coincidence that the brothers are introducing their original characters at a time when Atlanta, as a TV and film production hub, is bringing the likes of Black Lightning and Black Panther to life.
“When Black Panther comes out in 2018, I know for a fact that people will be asking ‘Where are the other black superheroes?’” Carlton says. “I want to be part of that conversation. A rising tide lifts all boats.”
“We want to catch that wave right when it crests,” Darrick says.
While 20th Place Media may not save the world, the brothers hope their superheroes may nudge it in a better direction.