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The tragic origins of Black heroines in comics

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Feb 10, 2020

When we think back on some of the female characters in comics who debuted around the emergence of the blaxploitation subgenre in film, they — on the surface, at least — appear to inspired by the Black heroines who were getting their start on the big screen, especially the heroines who headlined their movies beginning in 1973.

Characters like Cleopatra Jones, Foxy Brown, and Coffy embodied the strength, resolve, and general badass-ness of the Black women of the Black Panther Party, but they were also often police officers, government agents, or women who were gainfully employed in some way. Some of them were skilled fighters and amazing detectives, but what they mostly had in common was some form of tragedy impacting their lives, fueling their need for justice. Their heroism was forged in the depths of tragedy.

Credit: Foxy Brown/American International Pictures

An obvious characters who comes to mind from comics of the time is Misty Knight. One of her creators, Tony Isabella, has frequently mentioned that she was inspired by Pam Grier, who initially achieved fame starring in many blaxploitation films. She's a cop, she's well-versed in martial arts, intelligent and capable, and she wants to get justice however she can.

The difference is in Misty's origin story. While it is traumatic, it isn't exactly the same as Grier's character Coffy — who, in the film of the same name, turns to a life of vigilante work after her sister's life is ruined due to drugs. Before Misty Knight becomes a hero for hire, she was a patrolwoman. In Iron Fist #6, she loses her arm while trying to save civilians from a bomb during her beat. Instead of seeking revenge against whoever planted the bomb, Misty actually finds a friendship in Colleen Wing, who helps her through her rehab and finding her true purpose. Their friendship turns into a working partnership, representing another major difference between her character and some of the women in blaxploitation films (who were almost always working alone or certainly not with other women in a meaningful way).

Credit: Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #32/Marvel Comics

One of Marvel's newer characters, Riri Williams, actually has more in common with Blaxploitation heroines even though the connection isn't there aesthetically. Riri's origin story is extremely violent. She loses not only her biological father to gun violence but her stepfather and best friend as well, all before the age of 15. These tragedies become her driving force in becoming the superheroine Iron Heart after she creates an Iron Man suit of her own. In Invincible Iron Man #11, Williams prevents two inmates from escaping the New Mexico State Penitentiary and damages her suit in the process. Tony Stark hears of her accomplishment and goes to meet her. It's during this meeting that Stark decides he will endorse her decision to become a superheroine. Even though Iron Heart doesn't seek out those who killed her loved ones, the tragedy of losing a loved one so violently is what influences her decision to start fighting crime.

Then there's DC's Amanda Waller, who is a bit of a paradox. She has possibly one of the most tragic and violent origin stories — that said, she doesn't fit the Blaxploitation aesthetic even though she was created just a few years after the film era came to an end. Instead, it's her ties to the government that forge the link between her and some of the Blaxploitation genre's most memorable heroines. After losing two of her children and husband to gun violence, Waller uses her grief and anger to propel herself and her remaining children through college. She begins working for a congressman named Marvin Collins, working her way up the political ladder until she eventually gets a job in the employment of the President.

Instead of just working for the system, however, Waller becomes her own system in a way. She does work for or at times adjacent to the government, but the moment that system impedes her end goal she's been well-known to divert from it, creating her own path in order to get things done — the creation of the Suicide Squad being the most notable example. Most Blaxploitation heroines, like Cleopatra Jones, would never work with drug lords. Waller, on the other hand, would exploit any criminal's skill set to handle what needed doing and wouldn't bat an eyelash in utilizing them. She even creates opportunities for other Black women to seek their own revenge, one of them being Vixen.

Vixen, aka Mari McCabe, who (surprise) also comes with a tragic origin, is the only one to consistently seek revenge against those who have directly harmed her. McCabe's father was killed by her uncle over the Tantu Totem, which gives the wearer powers over the animal kingdom. Eventually, Vixen gets her revenge by killing her uncle, General Maksai, in Justice League of America #239. In Suicide Squad #11, Vixen survives a massacre that takes place during a modeling assignment she's on, and Amanda Waller reaches out to her to give her the opportunity to avenge her colleagues.

Credit: Suicide Squad #11/DC Comics

It's not necessarily unique that these characters are inspired to go into a life of fighting crime because they've experienced some form of trauma; there are many non-Black characters in comics who experience the same. However, it is interesting that the tragedies are so violent in nature and frequently the origin stories for a lot of Black heroines and characters in comics.

It certainly feeds into the trope of the strong Black woman given that these tragic events don't break them but instead turn them into the heroes or antiheroes we know today. It's why characters like Monica Rambeau or Moon Girl are so refreshing because their backstories don't involve the same levels of violence and are actually devoid of any kind of trauma, yet they still want to fight crime. But before they were fully realized on the page in comics, there were characters like Misty Knight and Amanda Waller, Black women whose stories were undeniably influenced by the Blaxploitation heroines on the big screen.

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