This post is written by Adrienne Resha, Graduate Student Apprentice.
Altogether, William & Mary’s Richard Wright Collection of Graphic Images of African Americans holds more than 1,500 comics. Published between 1937 and 2001, they span decades and genres: romance, sports, war, science fiction, Western, educational, jungle, fantasy, horror, humor, funny animal, children’s, teen, and superhero. And there is a fair amount of overlap. After all, what would funny animal comics like Tom & Jerry and Walt Disney’s Donald Duck be without humor?
Although the medium is often associated with the superhero genre because of comic books published by Marvel and DC Comics, the so-called “Big Two” comics publishers also produced romance comics like Love Romances and Falling in Love. These can be found alongside titles like Love Secrets (published by Quality Comics) and Teen-Age Romances (St. John Publications) in the Wright Collection. Several such publications feature artwork by African-American comics artist and illustrator Matt Baker.
Elsewhere in the collection, sports comics cover baseball, basketball, and boxing, and often feature famous athletes. War meets science fiction in Western Publishing’s M.A.R.S. Patrol Total War. Educational series for younger readers like Golden Legacy tell true stories about influential African Americans, from Crispus Attucks, Benjamin Banneker, and Harriet Tubman to Walter Francis White, Roy Wilkins, and Thurgood Marshall. Teen series published by Archie feature the company’s namesake as well as Chuck Clayton and Nancy Woods, African-American characters who debuted not long after Black superheroes began to appear in mainstream comics.
Among the mainstream superhero comics in the collection are some of the most important to ever be published: Marvel’s Fantastic Four #52 (1961) and DC’s Green Lantern #87 (1971), the first appearances of Black Panther and Green Lantern John Stewart.
John Stewart and Marvel’s Sam Wilson (The Falcon) may be understood as the first African-American superheroes in their respective canons. However, neither Green Lantern nor Falcon was the first African-American superhero to appear in comic books. That would be Lion Man, who debuted in All-Negro Comics (1947). Only one issue of All-Negro Comics, believed to be the first comic written and drawn exclusively by Black creators, was printed. The Wright Collection holds two copies of it.
More than 45 years later, in 1993, a coalition of African-American creators founded Milestone Media. They did so hoping to address the underrepresentation of minoritized people in mainstream comic books. The Wright Collection has copies of Icon, Hardware, Blood Syndicate (published by Milestone), and Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool (published by DC after it acquired the imprint).
As a collector, Richard Wright sought out not just Black superheroes but also stereotypes, like those evident on so many pages of Will Eisner’s Spirit comics published in newspapers across the country (some of which can also be found in the collection). Through Wright's collection, students and researchers will be able to see how depictions of African Americans in American popular media changed over time.
[Recommended reading: Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books by Jean-Paul Gabilliet (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes by Adilifu Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011), and “All-Negro Comics and the Birth of Lion Man, the First African American Superhero” by Blair Davis (Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, 2019).]
Now through March 6, selected comics from the Richard Wright Collection are on display in "Milestones: Superhero Comics by Black Writers, Artists, and Editors." More comics from the collection will be on display in "On and Off the Page: Representations of Black People in American Comic Books" in Swem Library later in 2022.