Monday, September 20, 2010

The Birth of Harlem Noir/Steamfunk


The prospect of creating a relevant black superhero caused me as a writer to really stretch my imagination. Being that I am an African American male who has grown up in a society where people of my color have been largely excluded from sci-fi and fantasy staples...you must understand that it takes a great deal of vision to imagine something you have never seen or have been told could never be. In trying to rationally piece together my secret history of black superheroes for my Lucius Hammer graphic novel...I traveled back to the Harlem Renaissance and discovered The first official black superhero (at least that's what I'm calling him in my literary universe)...The Harlem Shadow. Now I decided to write this piece because I know there are a lot of you out there who are checking out the facebook posts and the website looking for info on Lucius Hammer but keep seeing things about the Harlem Shadow and are wondering who the hell is The Harlem Shadow? Well, if you bought issue one of Lucius Hammer (get to the website and get a copy...I'm making history here and you will be truly sorry if you overlook it) The Harlem Shadow makes his first appearance as Lucius recounts the reasons why he wanted to become a superhero in the first place. The Harlem Shadow was a figure of mystery and action during the great black flowering known as The Harlem Renaissance. In this particular issue of Lucius Hammer, the Harlem Shadow only appears in one panel and is really a plot device to move the story along...of course I had ideas to flesh out his story a bit more down the line but people started making inquiries about this masked man from Harlem. People who bought the ashcan sketch edition of Lucius Hammer at the 2009 Wizard World Comic-Con wanted to know when was I going to explore the realm of 1920's Harlem and reveal the origin of the first Black Superhero...The Harlem Shadow. I was caught off guard by this interest in a peripheral character, but intrigued suddenly by the diamond in the rough I had unwittingly discovered. I had been a fan of Will Eisner's The Spirit as some of you may know from earlier blogs, I was also a fan of Dick Tracy and The Shadow written by Walter Gibson and the influence for Bob Kane's iconic Batman. Hard boiled crime pulps are also a source of great enjoyment for me...and when I was dreaming up the Harlem Shadow I was reminded of my interest in Chester Himes and his Harlem Crime Cycle books. Most notably, Cotton Comes to Harlem and A Rage in Harlem, were two gritty, nasty, down-home collard green eating action, hard boiled mysteries starring two rough ass negroes named Gravedigger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson. If you like pulp fiction and hard boiled detective flavor...read both of these books and you will get your money's worth of both. I started thinking to myself...first of all, there are no Golden Age Black Comic book heroes. To my knowledge there are no black pulp adventurers. I can create an entire new genre with this character...and what better setting than Harlem during the age of rebirth. African Americans during this pivotal social and economic wellspring were coming into their own. Literature, art, music and ethnic style was given a chance to breathe and proliferate. Black life and it's instinctive swagger became en vogue and something of a novelty to the white liberals who ventured into Harlem for good food and music. Of course this pulse of life and excitement attracted money...and money attracted people from all walks of life who wanted to cash in on the NEW NEGRO EXPERIENCE. Harlem was not only an incubator for a new era African american consciousness but for vice and criminal activity. The mob, seeing the sudden influx of money being generated by the numbers game being played in the predominantly black realm of Harlem...invaded the neighborhood and tried to usurp the operation. The Black underworld that existed was aggravated simply because on one hand white society would not allow them to have decent jobs to make a living legally but now were also taking away their illegal means of living the so-called American Dream. What better setting could I have picked to introduce the first African American vigilante/superhero? You've got the end of World War I/ the mob/ corrupt police/ jazz musicians/poets and writers/African and West Indian immigrants/flappers/ Voodoo and Santeria/ and emerging scientific discoveries. Blacks were also coming forward as doctors, lawyers, bankers and scientists. I am a huge Alan Moore fan and have collected his entire run of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen which is representative of a body of fiction storytelling referred to as steampunk. For those of you who are not familiar with the genre of steampunk...let me give you a brief description: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction, alternate history, and speculative fiction that came into prominence during the 1980s and early 1990s.[1] The term denotes fictional works set in an era or world where steam power is still widely used, usually the 19th century and oftenVictorian era Britain. It has prominent elements of either science fiction or fantasy; and it often features anachronistic technology or futuristic innovations as Victorians may have envisioned them. Based on a Victorian perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, art, etc., this technology may include such fictional machines as those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne or real technological developments like the computer. Now keeping all that in mind, I said to myself, what if in addition to the HARLEM NOIR setting that I'm creating...what if I add an element of steampunk to the Harlem Shadow's adventures. I mean...all the heroes like Doc Savage, The Original Shadow, The Avenger, The Spider and any number of other pulp heroes had at their disposal an arsenal of highly speculative technologies...magic rings...computers....short wave radios...auto gyros etc etc. How cool would it be to meld the worlds of hardboiled detectives and superheroes with a steampunk element? Very cool. So then I fashioned the term Harlem-Noir Steamfunk to describe the universe I'm creating. Harlem Noir meaning a very specific time...1925 through 1950...steamfunk meaning a period of time where black folks are delving into the same mysteries of science and mechanical innovations that Europeans are and coming up with weird yet plausible gadgetry to aid them in their exploits in this brave new world. So there it is...the innards of my imagination revealed to you....the birthing process of The Harlem Shadow. The first of many characters to emerge from this Harlem Noir/ Steamfunk universe I am building. Now that I have hipped you to my wonderful tale...go to www.ravenhammercomics.com and pick up Lucius Hammer # 1 "I, Hammer" and Harlem Shadow # 1 "Birth of the Cool". I am about to change the way you look at comic book heroes! Trust and believe.

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3 Comments:

Blogger The Griot said...

Sounds very interesting, bruh. Got a few steampunk ideas myself. Looking forward to it.

September 20, 2010 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger Urban Mac User said...

Don't forget: Alex Simmons amazing character "BlackJack" was the first black pulp adventurer, circa 1930's. We've also had Captain Gravity, and DC ( arguably) retro created the first Golden Age Black Superhero, Amazing-Man ( Will Everett) in the pages of All-Star Squadron.

Glad to find another Chester Himes fan out there.
I assume you also like Donald Goines as well?

February 4, 2011 at 5:55 AM  
Blogger BWilliams said...

Sorry for the late reply...love Donald Goines.

Had seen Black Jack solicited in Previews some time back in the nineties...and the same with Cap Gravity. Liked them but they didn't have that essence of "blackness" I was looking for. They are great books...but my intent with the characters I'm creating is to set the record straight on black superheroes.

January 27, 2012 at 6:35 AM  

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