A History of "Marvelous Color"

"Marvelous Color" is the name of a wonderful small exhibit on display now at the Gallery of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (or CCCADI) near Columbus Circle, here in New York City. Perfect for Black History Month.

The basics about this exhibit with some wonderful photos (better than mine!) can be found at: MarvelousColor.com

The focus of the exhibit is the history and art of Marvel Comics' most popular African/African-American characters and it presents us that history and artistry with simple but bold curatorial strokes. The journey starts downstairs at the curatorial statement to be found on the wall at the bottom of the stairwell that leads to the gallery. After entering the gallery itself on the second floor, you start on the far wall to the left at the two huge faux-comic-cover posters created for the exhibit. One is a presentation of these six characters as they were in an earlier period of their history and the second, their modern incarnation. Both are wonderfully drawn by Eric Battle. The exhibit is organized clock-wise so that if you start at the double posters and walk to the right through the single room of the exhibit you'll have met each character in the rough chronological order they were first created and published.

Muralist David Medina composed a larger-than-life image of each of the colorful (pun intended!) characters directly upon the walls:

(1) The Black Panther, T'Challa, regal African prince of the fictional country of Wakanda. Both the character and his country were introduced in the same Fantastic Four story in 1966. It was while looking at the Black Panther art (some which is by the immensely popular John Romita Jr. and the one pictured below was, I think, by Billy Graham) that my friend Dev Crasta (from whom I had the luck of learnin' me about the existence of the exhibit) pointed out that a story in which the BLACK Panther is depicted fighting Captain AMERICA has a certain weight that you wouldn't find in another 'superhero misunderstanding fight' and this got me thinking that the absurdity of that weight falling so squarely on a single character's shoulders is emblematic of the problem minority figures, both fictional and political, face every day.

Doubly-so for T'Challa. He is both. Nelson Mandela with superpowers. [Click on the image, scroll to the upper left, while trying to ignore the murky reflection of me in the glass entirely through no fault of my own... You'll see a much clearer reflection of what we were talking about.]

(2) Storm, Ororo Munroe, goddess of weather itself and member of the second "All-New All-Different" X-Men team of 1975, and T'Challa's queen since 2oo6. Another character who's a leader, this time in several positions: X-Men team leader, goddess of a small tribe, Queen of the nation of Wakanda. Although her parentage is much more complicated: born of an American man and an African woman, raised in Harlem but soon orphaned while on vacation back in the continent of her mother's origin. She lived on her own, first in Egypt then in the countries of the Serengeti. (Thank you Wikipedia!) She too is a very strong presence and a popular character, which is of course what made she and T'Challa naturally attracted to each other (and a naturally attractive pair to marry for Marvel's editors). A Michelle Obama kind of woman, if you will. Commanding the cultural storms of a country with style. [It is difficult to see from my separate photos, but the Black Panther mural and the Storm mural were positioned side-by-side and their arms are gently reaching out for one another! You can just see Ororo's intricately designed cape (for which we get to see the original design drawing) in the upper left corner of T'Challa's mural. Just try putting them together in your mind.]

(3) Luke Cage, streetwise Hero for Hire and former convict who escaped his prison sentence in a violent Southern jail for a bogus drug-dealing charge in his first appearance in 1972. A Harlem boy, born and raised. (The famous New York City neighborhood isn't too far away from Columbus Circle!) Luke is in so many ways the complete opposite of T'Challa, inspired by Shaft and 'blaxploitation film' instead of being a political Sidney Poitier-type, yet he too has grown into a major leadership role over the past several years, under the loving care of writer Brian Michael Bendis, as the defacto leader of the Avengers team (comprised of Spider-Man and Wolverine, possibly Marvel's two most popular characters) that has been underground since the "Civil War" ended in 2oo7. And who got a fantastic origin-retelling 1920s-transplanted solo mini-series written by Mike Benson and Adam Glass with art by Shawn Martinbrough recently, as well. The collected edition of "Luke Cage Noir" is out this week. It is as smooth and cool as can be. This is a man who has come from the lowest of points and legal indignities to become 'the Greatest', a steel-skinned Muhammad Ali.

I believe a lot of this material about Cage ended up coming from the research that was done by Martinbrough [whose wonderful art was on display as you can see, at left] for an exhibit at the Studio Museum Harlem that never came to be, as I mentioned in this post reviewing the last issue of "Luke Cage Noir".

(4) Blade, the Daywalker, a half-vampire hunter of vampires created in 1973 who was so surprisingly popular upon being brought to the big screen back in 1998. We've moved now from an African country (fictional or not) or Harlem with a quick detour to the American South, to south London where Blade was born to a prostitute who was bitten by the vampire Deacon Frost while in labor. (Another thank you to Wikipedia, the blogger's friend!) Blade is second only to Cage in having been altered from a bit of a 70s joke to a popular bad-ass superhero. Imagine Michael Jordan if he had been called to a nomadic life hunting the undead, instead of slam dunks followed by a baseball stint, followed by more basketball, followed by a brilliant corporate career. (Okay, that's a really loose one. But they are both smart, resourceful, athletic masters of their domain who maintained their position for a long time.)

(5) The Falcon, Sam Wilson, former sidekick to Captain America himself seems on the surface to be a degrading African-American figure, a subordinate to the white Captain AMERICA. But although Sam has never had his own ongoing series the "Captain America" series was re-titled "Captain America and The Falcon" for a number of years and Sam has shown himself to be his own man, most notably when he quit the Avengers (the premiere superhero team of the Marvel Universe) citing his stated degrading 'token' status. Back to Harlem we must go for Sam's origins: raised by a minister father, he was actually the first African-AMERICAN superhero from Marvel as he debuted in "Captain America" in 1969, four years after the Black Panther and T'Challa was after all African, but not American. Like the character we will meet next, Sam took over his white friend's superhero identity when he was unable to. Which means that Captain America was black... twice. He didn't actually have wings of any kind before he was gifted with a technological flying harness by T'Challa. Making him in some ways a pretty remarkable character of mixed linage: born in America, pro-America (to the point of temporarily embodying it), yet a beneficiary of his forbears in Africa; willing to stand as a subordinate, yet refusing to stay in a position where he is taken for granted. A high-flying risk-taker. The first African-American superhero. I do believe we have our Barack Obama.

(6) War Machine, James Rhodes, a former marine who has recently been seen on the big screen in the highly successful "Iron Man" and is to be seen again in this year's "Iron Man 2", this time gearing up in his own suit of armor as War Machine! A Philadelphia boy, 'Rhodey', as he's affectionately called, became Tony Stark's personal pilot after assisting him in the escape from captivity that figured so heavily in his origin story (as seen in flashback in a 1979 story). Suddenly forced to don the Iron Man in an emergency (partially caused by Tony Stark's inebriation) Rhodes became Iron Man for various periods of time on three separate occasions and eventually received his own suit of armor and identity from Stark. Rhodey stepped up to the part of Iron Man in place of Tony when he fell and he eventually became a hero in his own right. A career military man, Rhodes is intelligent, (generally) cool-headed, and a man of integrity. Colin Powell in a suit of armor.

(This writer hopes you will take his African and African-American character/real-world figure comparisons for what they are: loose comparisons with the intention of illuminating the importance of these fictional characters in our culture and tying the exhibit, and this post, more fully into the context of Black History Month. No specific political comment or endorsement is intended beyond equality for all people of all races. Minor discrepancies or outright contradictions can be found by anyone with a more thorough understanding of these characters or these figures, I am sure.)

The CCCADI is at 408 West 58th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues in Manhattan, New York. That's just about a block west of Columbus Circle, one of the major transit hubs on the island. Suggested donation is a mere $5. The same as the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art downtown. The exhibit will run through February 26, 2010 and when I met-up with the exhibit's curator Edgardo Miranda-Rodriguez I was informed that awesome events to spotlight the different characters and their creators were still yet to come! The gallery is holding a 'Meet the Artists' event on Wednesday the 24th at 6:30 PM at the CCCADI Gallery at which you could hear the great Gene Colan and the young Dennis Calero and Shawn Martinbrough.

I highly recommend going to this if you are in New York City and even going to the website and signing up for the mailing list to learn about any other events lined up for the end of the month!


  1. Thank you so much for a thorough review of the exhibit. It was great having had the chance to meet you when you and your friend Dev at the CCCADI Gallery.

  2. Just read this great write-up from The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/01/nyregion/01graphic.html

    The newspaper of record said some very nice things about Edgardo and his wife, their company, and their exhibit. But they don't seem to be aware that the exhibit had been over for two days and the Meet the Artists event had occurred four days earlier at the time of posting.