What’s in a name? Apparently, if you’re Black Vulcan, the answer is everything.
What the esteemed Attorney Harvey Birdman shows us in this clip is the issue of assimilation versus isolation among characters of color played out in a name. For most superheroes of color, the first mark of their ethnicity comes in their real name or their codename. It makes sense that minority characters have birth names that reflect their heritage; in fact, this isn’t exclusive to people of color. The X-Men’s Ireland-born Banshee is named Sean Cassidy, and the Russian mutant Colossus is named Piotr Rasputin, so why not have a Latino hero names Maya Lopez? The problem arises, however, when minority codenames go beyond a celebration of a character’s culture, and start relying on stereotypes and lazy antiquated formulas.
For African-American superheroes, and their creators, finding a way to emphasize the color of their skin was easy: put black in their name. As if the color of their skin didn’t show it enough, these heroes’ codenames became giant sandwich boards that shouted “Look at me! I’m not white!” Here are just a few heroes whose codename is a product of this tired trope:
Black Eagle, Black Lightning, Black Panther, Blackwing, Black Vulcan, Black Racer, Black Spider, Black Samson, Black Goliath, Black Hood, Black Musketeers, Black Badge, Black Rapier, Black Manta…
This is just a few. And that’s not including heroes who had the word “black” in their subtitles, like “The Black Green Lantern,” or “The Black Superman”.
While the aim to call attention to these characters is noble, the overuse of the word “black” in code names has led to a different kind of assimilation and blending. But African-American superheroes aren’t the only one who had to sacrifice a little dignity for acknowledgement.
Enter the Super Friends!
In the 1970s DC Comics introduced a more diverse group of superheroes with the aim of sending a message of inclusion and acceptance. If we only take into consideration the fact that there were more non-white characters on television and in comics, then DC achieved their goal and then some. But if you think about the characters themselves…uh…well, let’s rundown the additions to the roster:
Meet Apache Chief. Presumably an Apache (it is never confirmed), this loincloth-clad stoic crime fighter has the power to grow as tall as a building by simply crossing his arms, and shouting “Eh-neeek-chock!”
El Dorado, the Mexican superhero with Aztec origins. While El Dorado has super strength, teleportation, and telepathy, he is more commonly known for swapping out English prepositions and phrases for their Spanish counterparts.
And then there is Toshio Eto, also known as Samurai. Like El Dorado, Eto uses Japanese phrases during conversation. Plus he has a samurai sword, and is often accompanied by Japanese woodwinds and gong crashes whenever he appears on the show.
Could Black Vulcan simply be called Super Volt? Could El Dorado be Mind Master? Could Samurai at least not get the gong treatment? Who knows? In the end, these characters epitomize both success and failure regarding heroes of color. We call know their ethnicity, but we have no idea who they are and what they do.