“My phone has been ringing off the hook with people who want me to talk and talk and talk and talk,” he told The Washington Post. “And you know what? As long as the talking helps move the ball forward in terms of finally addressing racial bias and maybe making some progress, I’ll keep talking.”
Cooper’s experience is a master class in why generation after generation of black Americans know that one day, no matter their education, where they live, what they’ve achieved, someone just may take offense to the very idea of their existence and try to weaponize it against them. But as his poise in the infamous video reveals, Cooper is well-suited to this teachable moment for America. As a gay black birder, and as someone who has helped comic books become more inclusive, he knows the cultural forces that try to reduce him to something he’s not — and has the will and the confidence to defy them.
He owes the birdwatching habit to his late parents. His father taught science. His mother, English. As a child they nudged him to a wood shop class. He had two options: build a footstool or a bird feeder. He chose the latter. During a cross-country road trip starting from his childhood home on Long Island, a young Cooper started reading a book on birds. After his family arrived in California, he pointed out a magpie, to the surprise of his parents.
His interest in superheroes also began as a child, with frequent viewings of the Marvel Comics cartoons of the ’60s, featuring Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.
“It just touched me,” Cooper said. “I guess I’ve always had a mind-set that was geared towards the mythic, and superheroes are the last bastion of mythmaking in Western culture, if you ask me. Here was something that sort of brought, granted, a very pop culture form of myth, but still a form of myth to life on the TV screen when I was but a wee lad of all of 5 years old. It totally grabbed me.”
During high school, he walked into a 7-Eleven, back when you could find comic books there for sale on a spinner rack for less than a dollar, and saw the African mutant weather goddess Ororo Munroe, a.k.a. Storm, on the cover of an X-Men comic. “I’m like, wait, there’s a black X-Man? And she’s got white hair?” Cooper said.
Cooper recognized that comics were attempting to be inclusive — but falling short. There were few black comics writers or artists then. The Black Panther was around, but he was starring in “Jungle Action,” and wasn’t being written by Reggie Hudlin, Christopher Priest or Ta-Nehisi Coates just yet. Storm was progress that came with a palm to the forehead.
“She’s a fantastic character. But she’s aesthetically incorrect,” Cooper said. “This goes back to the whole thing of racial bias. There’s a subtle implication that a black woman can only be beautiful if she’s got blue eyes and straight white blonde hair. But yes, it was amazing to see Storm on that comic.”
And so began a lifelong love of the X-Men, through comics by John Byrne and Chris Claremont and viewings of every X-Men movie ever made. (He admits most of the X-films are not great but stands by 2003’s “X2: X-Men United” as a Marvel mutant movie masterpiece.)
When he arrived at Harvard in 1980, he became a frequent customer at the Million Year Picnic, the comic shop in Cambridge, Mass. Cooper wrote superhero fiction about his dorm mates, and used it to decorate the hallways. “I think everybody got a kick out of it because they knew they were written in as some alternate character and there was always some adventure going on,” he said.
His college friend Tony Davis, who now owns the Million Year Picnic, recalled watching sci-fi films together in the ’80s, waiting in line at midnight for “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi” in Boston. He remembers Cooper’s preferences for choosing seats: the width of your vision should always equal the width of the screen.
On that recent May morning, Davis saw the hashtag #BirdWatchingWhileBlack trending. Who could it involve but Cooper, the only black birder he knew?
While watching the Central Park video, Davis instantly recognized Cooper’s sense of calm, never shouting, never angry, but standing his ground for something he believed in.
“Chris is a very gentle soul,” Davis said. “To see her attempt to transform him into that stereotype of the scary black person. … There are many Chris Coopers and Christina Coopers throughout the history of this nation who have not survived such situations."
After graduation, to the surprise of no one, Cooper became an assistant editor at Marvel, despite co-workers telling him repeatedly that he was overqualified and could easily make more money elsewhere. “Just the idea of getting my foot in the door at Marvel Comics,” Cooper said. “What fan wouldn’t [want] that?”
Cooper scripted some X-Men comics, including “Excalibur,” and was involved in Marvel’s very ’90s swimsuit specials. He was an editor on “Alpha Flight” when its superhero Northstar revealed he was gay, paving the way for the character’s headline-grabbing wedding in 2012.
And in his writing he created the first gay human character in Star Trek history, Yoshi Mishima, for the series “Star Trek: Starfleet Academy,” and Marvel Comics’ first openly lesbian character, the dark magic expert Victoria Montesi.
A couple years after leaving Marvel in 1996, he created the online comic “Queer Nation.” In the over-the-top political satire, as he describes it, a comet comes within striking distance of Earth and emits rays that give gay people superpowers.
Cooper later went “cold turkey” on reading comics, but remains a Star Trek fan (loved “Discovery,” not a fan of “Picard”). And his newfound fame has led to discussions about bringing “Queer Nation” back. “There’s more story to tell and I’m itching to tell it,” he said.
Now a senior editorial director at Health Science Communications, he hasn’t lost his connection with nature, which is what led him to Central Park on May 25. When he saw a dog walker not obeying leash laws, he pressed record — as many other birders have been doing.
“I think it depends on the birder and their level of comfort with confrontation,” he said, adding, “It has a dual purpose: to try to get enforcement [from the parks committee], and to push back a little and put these people on notice.”
When the dog walker threatened Cooper, it didn’t matter that he was an Ivy Leaguer. A birder. A Marvel geek. He knew his accolades wouldn’t swoop in like the Avengers to protect him from prejudice.
“I don’t try to speculate. I don’t know what was going on in her head,” Cooper said. “If I had to guess, I’d say she was just looking for any way to get an advantage in the situation. It was a stressful situation. We were at odds, and she was looking for a way to get a leg up. … And she just went to a place that she should not have gone.”
His sister Melody shared the video on Twitter, which helped it spread. When she first saw it, “I was so incensed,” she said. But her shock was mixed with pride in seeing the teachings of their parents on display. Melody, who writes for TV, film, theater and comic books, said their father believed in science fiction’s power to open a horizon he didn’t see the real world giving his children.
“Our parents taught us to move through the world as if we had a right to be there. I know that a lot of people don’t learn that until later, but we were taught that very young,” she said.
What she couldn’t get out of her mind after viewing the video were the other possibilities that could have transpired.
“My imagination took me to see him face down on the ground, with police around him, and — this is ironic — in a chokehold, but I didn’t know about George Floyd yet. I just imagined them having him face down in the dirt and killing him that way."
The racial bias that made the dog walker highlight that he was a black man, Cooper said, is “the same racial bias that made this white cop think it was okay to keep his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds until he was dead,” he said. “It happened on the same day and it sprang from the same wellspring.”
There are only certain parts of the United States where Cooper feels safe as a gay black man. Central Park is one of those places — despite its history of racial mistreatment that he now joins, including the Central Park Five and the predominantly black residents of 1850s Seneca Village, who were forced to leave so the park could be built. If his presence there should irritate someone in the future, his suggestion is to evolve.
“I am going to keep birding,” Cooper said. “If your dog is off the leash, I’m going to have something to say about it. You’re just going to have to deal with that. That’s not going to change.”