Thursday, February 1, 2018

Butterfly is the first black female superhero—but don't ignore Torchy Brown, Mummy Begum, Merciless, or Bubbles the Dew Dilly

The Golden Age of comics had a few superheroes of color, but none that I've found are black and female. The first female black superhero appears in Hell-Rider Magazine in 1971:
Outfitted with a jetpack for flying and a costume laden with incredibly bright strobe lights to blind her enemies, Marian Michaels is a Las Vegas cabaret singer by night and the crime-fighting Butterfly by even later night.

Yes, she should've been called Firefly. Many superhero names make no sense if you think about them. She's in the public domain, so she's available for anyone to use today.

There are a few earlier characters that deserve a footnote in the history of black women in comics:

Merciless the Sorceress

Merciless was written as a villain, as her name suggests. She was the...
...ruler of the land of Volcano People. Her enemies included Captain Bob Darlington, his assistant "the Professor," and his pilot "Happy" Jack Smiles. Her powers included transforming men into animals, being bulletproof, disintegration, flight, and numerous other powers.
Like Fu Manchu and the Yellow Claw, Merciless was the title character for her stories, though she never had a comic of her own. Turning her into a hero defending people of color from Europeans would be easy. She's unquestionably a black woman in her first appearance in All Top Comics (1944) (Fox Feature Syndicate).  In later stories, she appears to be white or Asian. The likely explanation is the publisher had second thoughts about running a series with a black woman in the title, but that's easily retconned: why shouldn't a sorceress be a shapechanger?


Bubbles the Dew Dilly

All-Negro Comics mostly has male characters, but Eric Wilkinson-Gilyard pointed out the potential for a female:
She was a "Dew Dillie", a type of mythical, elusive being.
Specifically, she's a water-dwelling, mermaid-like spite, and is related to all water-dwelling creatures. She doesn't have a costume, but can breathe underwater as well as exist (seemingly for extended periods) on land.



Mummy Begum

Mummy Begum comes close to qualifying as a superhero: she has a stage name and the ability to see into the future.
Torchy Brown

Torchy Brown appeared in newspapers with black audiences in 1937. She wasn't an action hero—she was a black woman who went to Harlem to perform at the Cotton Club—but she should be known to anyone interested in black women and comics.

And you have to love her name.


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