By: Peggy Sue Wood | @pswediting
It’s Black History Month, and I wanted to share a topic that came up in my animation program recently.
If you read a lot of comics, you are probably already aware of some tropes within the medium or genres that you like. I, for example, read a LOT of isekai, and I’ve been able to divide it by premise into several sub-genres.
I also really enjoy Superhero comics, and as such–you start to notice trends. One such trend that I am about to talk about here is prevalent enough to warrant a wiki listing and was brought up as a topic in our class, which is the Electric Black Guy (Source).
Different arguments about this trope were brought up in our class, from my professor, and from cursory online research. The primary argument that tends to be made is that the trope stems from the generally occurring factor by which the popularity of any premise in a type of work leads to imitation. (Essentially, it becomes popular, and lots of people copy it).
In a discussion with Matt Wayne, hosted by Charles Pulliam-Moore, “Wayne reasoned that electrokinetic powers were the perfect way of having a black hero around who could participate in a fight, but not necessarily be the one to win the fight” (source). I have heard several other comic creators and academics who study this form of literature make similar points.
Personally, I think it’s a mix between the popularity leading to imitation and an attempt to avoid creating a ‘savage’ connection between black characters or POC characters and a nature-based power. As Pulliam-Moore puts it in the discussion mentioned above, “the thing that’s always stuck with me about most black heroes with nature-based power sets is the very thin line writers and artists have to walk to make sure the character isn’t being depicted as a ‘savage.’ The idea that black people are inherently closer to nature is one of the larger undertones to the problematic magical negro trope [and noble savage trope] that many black characters are often hamstrung by” (source).
While more recent depictions try to avoid this as much as possible, there are still many examples of ethnically diverse cast-member being made out to be ‘savage’ or more animal than human in both present-day and historic examples.
Of course, there are also examples of black characters with nature-based powers that fall outside of the electric power trope like Crown Princess Aisha (or Princess Layla) from Winx Club, the Fairy of Waves (a water-based power-user). We also have Vixen, a DC Comics character, who has the Tantu Totem that allows her to replicate super powers and gives her animal mimicry (in a way that is different from Beast Boy’s transformations). Vixen probably walks the line Pulliam-Moore talks about more than Crown Princess Aisha, but, still, they do not have eclectic-based-nature powers.
(BTW, I learned while editing that the electric based powers are typically called Shock and Awe elemental powers, but I am ignoring that and continuing to call it electric-based.)
Following this, I present a tangent or three…
Since most of my favorite superheroes and supervillains tend to fall under the “Electric” category, I found this discussion to be particularly interesting among the several that were covered. I’m a huge fan of Static, Black Lightning, and Storm–all of whom fall under this trope (as well as many others, like the villainess Livewire). In fact, Static Shock was one of my favorite shows outside of Pokémon as a child, and through the show I was introduced to my first superhero, Virgil Hawkins (Static).
That’s right, Static came first–long before I became a Batman fan, or saw anything Marvel related, before the Powerpuff Girls (we didn’t have Cartoon Network at the time), or Sailor Moon–I was a Static fan.
It’s that introduction to the superhero genre that I’ve always claimed got me interested in superhero stories and why, I feel, I’ve always gravitated towards the Electric heroes and villains in super/meta-human stories.
Static’s reappearance in Young Justice, alongside Black Lightning had me jumping with excitement. I really wish we could have seen more of them or had, at least, had a few episodes centered around them in the third and/or fourth season. I think it would have been preferential to the amount of screen time devoted to Halo, Forager, or Geo-Force.
I also state this because, to me, the most memorable Justice League episode was the one that crossed over with Static Shock–showing how dynamic Black Lightning and Static could be when paired.
These characters are interesting with rich stories that make people laugh but can also bring you to tears.
I remember the Black Lightning centered shorts from DC that were released some years ago–the ones where his daughters are shown with their powers newly forming. I would highlight the two shorts as probably the best shorts that came out of the campaign. I mean, watch for yourself:
Title: “Lightning Under the Weather” (Extended)
Title: “Clothes Make the Hero” (full)“
Both videos, together, total about 3 minutes but tell so much about the family, the powers, their dynamics, and their potential as characters in a longer narrative.
I think that some of the animated superhero stories that depict pre-teen/teen-characters have been those that focus on the mentor/mentee/family relationships within the premise of crime-fighting as superheroes. It doesn’t have to be the whole story, but at least a central element would be nice.
This is why I argue that the more recent (relatively) Batman cinematic animated universe starting with Son of Batman is the best of the animated Batman stories thus far (and it hasn’t, to my knowledge, ended yet).
So many stories depict either the hero or the sidekicks going off on their own–but we see how much those same sidekicks, while capable, could use or want a mentor that can work with them. It shows most often in their willingness to latch onto an adult that welcomes their interest in working together, even though that’s usually a sign that those same adults are the bad-guys (because the adults that care about their underage counterparts obviously feel hesitation putting them in harm’s way).
While we didn’t see much of Black Lightning and Static interacting, we do get to see some of it in Young Justice. While the Young Justice characters don’t so much latch onto the adults, many of them fear rejection by their hero counterparts. Conner (Superboy), for example, keeps trying to reach out to Clark (Superman) even when repeatedly rejected. Dick (Robin) constantly seems to worry about how Bruce (Batman) will react anytime he fails even slightly (and don’t get me started on that therapy session with Black Canary because whew).
I guess, what I want to say in this tangent I created off of the serious discussion regarding problematic tropes is that Static Shock is an awesome show that shouldn’t have been canceled–Black Lightning and his family needs more animated appearances (and, live-action ones)–and, uh, there should be an entire show dedicated to Static gaining Black Lightning as a superhero mentor and learning things/fighting bad guys even if it never happened in the comics (I don’t know if it did or not, but it certainly hasn’t happened in the animated DC works and that is tragic).
Side note, I bet the dad energy and conversation between Jefferson Pierce (Black Lightning) and Robert Hawkins (Virgil/Static’s dad) would be hilarious. Can you imagine? Oh–Another side note:
I heard about an indie project earlier last year called Master that features a potential superhero with electric powers that I’m excited for–here’s the trailer:
Title: Master Official Trailer
According to a review of the trailer and, assumably, an interview with the creator(s), Alex Billington writes that Master “follow[s] Olivia, a once promising martial arts champion endowed with [electric-based] superpowers, who is on a journey to get her family to what she believes is a better life [sic]” (source).
The story comes from Jamaal Bradley, who you may recognize from his work with Sony Pictures, Disney, and DreamWorks Animation. Also working on the project is Peter Ramsey who brought his comic-style vision into the 3D production of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (the sequel of which is to release this coming October 2022).
Based on the teaser trailer released last year (February 2021), the art style is very similar to Into the Spider-Verse although, without the comic-style Ben-Day Dots.
It’s being produced by Orlando’s Steamroller Studios and California’s Pop Willy Production–so the quality is sure to be solid and smooth.
The expected release date right now is sometime in June, and my hope is that we can fan the fandom flames for this production while we wait.
With that I conclude my stream of consciousness on a topic brought up in one of my animation courses… Thank you for sticking with me. BYE~