What do we want from comic books’ superheroes of color?
That’s a question I asked myself after Marvel confirmed last month that it had canceled Nighthawk, a dark and gritty Chicago-based series that featured a black man in a mask taking on everything from police corruption to gentrification and racism. Four issues of Nighthawk have been published to date, and two issues remain before the series ends.
Previously, I suggested that Marvel should take their character, Night Thrasher, a well-known black superhero, and place him in Baltimore to take on a police force that is known to be less than civil to black people. All the while, there was a series featuring Nighthawk with a hero taking on a similar mission.
In recent years, comics have made a lot of progress in creating a mix of superheroes who look like our population at large. But when a superhero of color taking on the societal ills people of color face is cancelled after six issues, it doesn’t give fans much faith that future similar efforts are on the horizon.
Nighthawk should have been a slam dunk in terms of satisfying the demands for diversity in comics that have sprang up on social media. Black hero, black writer (David F. Walker), black issues on the black side of a major metropolitan city. Cover art from renowned black comic book artist Denys Cowan. But Nighthawk will only make it to one collected volume in graphic novel form after Walker recently confirmed via Twitter that sales just weren’t strong enough to justify the series continuing.
Marvel is making a reasonable decision given the sales. We made a great book, but sales didn't warrant a longer run. https://t.co/RCvcOZ1U4G
— David F Walker (@DavidWalker1201) August 28, 2016
Cancellations like this hurt because they can be filed too easily under the “black superheroes don’t sell” category. But that’s an oversimplification of the situation. Joseph P. Illidge recently wrote for Comic Book Resources that Nighthawk was drowned out by two major comic book events — Marvel’s Civil War II and DC Comics’ successful “Rebirth” re-launch. Should Nighthawk have been allowed to make a name for itself when there weren’t industry-hyped events going on? And we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Black Panther is doing well and receiving critical praise, while Nick Spencer is currently telling one of the more intriguing Captain America stories in recent years with his handling of black hero Sam Wilson dealing with a pocket of America that can’t quite accept him as “their” Captain America.
But Black Panther and Captain America are two major mantles from the Marvel universe and two of the most popular superheroes around, currently getting the big screen movie treatment in multiple summer blockbusters. Nighthawk is a hero that even some dedicated comic book fans may not have been familiar with if they hadn’t read Squadron Supreme, a Marvel series in which he appeared. Should such a realistic approach to black issues have been handled with another, more recognizable character? Or are these issues too serious for Marvel to allow them to affect their upper-tier of heroes of color?
That’s not to say that those top heroes of color don’t feel the occasional sociological sting. Miles Morales recently found out the world was fascinated to know Spider-man had brown skin under his spidey-suit when his costume was torn and it was caught on video and Captain America is dealing with racist dog-whistling. The Black Panther is dealing with an anti-Wakandan uprising in the African nation he rules. But nothing like what Nighthawk was going up against.
Maybe when it comes to heroes of color at top publishers, readers want more fantasy than reality. Comic books can be a great escape. Super-powers. Secret identities. Masks. A fictional African paradise, led by a panther king that has never been invaded and a black man using an indestructible shield to defend his country can be visually digested a lot easier than a bird-man taking on real world inspired injustice.
For all the attention in the comics community about characters like Miles Morales and Riri Williams not having writers of color behind them and such characters being gimmicks, credit has to be given to Marvel Comics for giving a series like Nighthawk a try. But Marvel should also be questioned about why they were so quick to end it. Sales numbers talk. But every now and then the message is a little more important than the bottom line.
If Nighthawk is the type of hero of color you want to see more of, you can do the one thing that didn’t happen enough when the series began: Buy the comics. Nighthawk’s first and only volume can be pre-ordered online now.