Friday, November 30, 2007

Black Characters in Iron Man

I've been reading and re-reading some old Iron Man issues, lately - especially the ones illustrated by Bob Layton, Iron Man artist extraordinaire. I dig the hell out of that period in Iron Man history for both the stories and the fantastic art.

One reason I'm so fond of Layton's Iron Man days (besides how skillfully he renders the title character) is the fact that this was the first comic book series I ever remember reading that had Black characters that looked Black.

James Rhodes (a.k.a "Rhodey") and his lady friend, Marcy (sp?) were the most consistent examples of this. Rhodey, in-particular, just blew me away because he was a strong-willed, though reasonably flawed, example of an honest and brave Black man in the comic book realm - even if he was "the help" for a long time.

Iron Man #225

That was great, but I also dug - I mean really dug - the fact that Rhodey wasn't just drawn as white man who happened to have brown skin (and curly hair), but as an African-American character. His lips were thicker without venturing into "Ebony territory" and his hair seemed to have been thoughtfully conceived and sculpted into a realistic and then-modern example of the "Negroid" hair-type.

Iron Man #125

The above illustration from Iron Man #125 is a little before my time, to be honest. I wasn't following the comic during the days that afro's were still in-style. (Now that I think about it, though, Black comic book characters have often sported or retained hairstyles and slang well beyond their expiration dates. I guess this is how it goes when you've got Black characters whose words and visages are usually crafted by white creators.)

Iron Man #224

Anyway, I'm enjoying these Iron Man issues for lots of reasons. I just wanted to chat a little about one reason of which I was recently reminded: the positive depiction of Black characters as Black characters (sans white hair, blue eyes, Caucasian facial features, etc.).

In fact, noticing how cool Rhodey seemed, to me, kinda pointed out something I hadn't noticed before - just how rare these types of characters were. In fact, it was right around that time that I realized that I'd never seen Black hair depicted so well (not that it was never done right, but I didn't see very many examples). I also realized that, despite how much I enjoyed drawing, even I didn't draw Black characters very often ... so infrequently, in fact, that when I sat down and tried my hand at it, I realized I had to think very hard about how to draw hair like mine.

That seemed pretty strange to me, at the time, and kinda sad to me, now. Whenever I drew comic book characters, they were white characters with "white" hair, like the blonde-haired (and blue-eyed?) Johnny Storm (a.k.a. "The Human Torch") of the Fantastic Four. John Byrne had a very distinctive way of drawing Johnny's hair and I tried my best to reproduce it every chance I got - so much so that, when the time came, I had no clue how to draw "my own" hair.

I'm not sure what all the implications are of Black kids who only play with white dolls and draw white people and watch tv shows with white characters, but I doubt they're positive.

I'm thankful that there were at least a few opportunities for young Black readers, like my(younger)self, to see reflections of themselves in their entertainment. Bob Layton certainly wasn't the only example, but in my book, he's one of the best.

If only because it was among the very few times this comic book fan has seem Black male characters and Black female characters in a relationships... with each other.

The below isn't the best example (from Iron Man #238) of Layton's work, but, to me, it represents something very positive. Having said that, I should also give props to writer David Michelinie, for even (creating?) using these characters this way.

EDIT: And, according to a buddy, some credit should go to John Byrne for suggesting/deciding that Rhodey should be Black instead of a white guy, as he was reportedly originally conceived. Props, Mr. B.
Iron Man #238


Open Grove Claudia said...

I am amazed at comic book artists. Like you, I love these pictures - he added the detail that give a character... well, character.


West said...

Hi, Claudia!

Bahlactus said...

Props indeed.

Edson Mattos said...

Good post, man! I'm from Brazil and I'm making a researching using Google about black characters and how to draw black people...

Rhodes was very designed, very good work, and Mr. Popo from Dragon Ball anime is good example about what you DON'T have to do, hehehe.

Anonymous said...

Hey, loved your post. Used to read iron man as a kid. I live in Congo and am 39 now, I found your post with thses key words "black character for iron man", you know why? I remember having an issue in which a black character with a mustache used the armour, but that's all I remember...can you find out about that? Anyway, thanks for this post I love it

John Vumbi