I titled this feature “Superman vs. Bigots” with the intent of just covering stories in which Superman, surprisingly enough, fights bigots. But I’ve strayed into a more general realm of discussing race issues as found in Superman stories and nobody has yelled at me about it yet, so I’m just going to keep doing it.
To that end, I’ve decided that, for Black History Month, I’m going to shine a spotlight on twenty-eight Black characters from Superman and related franchises. To simplify things, I’m not going to touch upon times when characters who were white in the comics, but have been cast with Black actors in live-action projects (Perry, Jimmy, Pete, Zod, and more), but only on characters who were Black when they first appeared, which means it likely informed their creation.
I admit that at first I worried I’d be unable to populate such a list, but I actually got to a point where I’ve had to cut some characters I enjoy to make room for some that I felt more worthy of discussion. (I could even do second 28 names and not all of them would need to be obscurities. A third such list, I believe, would be nearly impossible.)
To be clear, I’m not presenting this list as proof that the creators have done a great job with representation. Over eight decades, there have been a couple of times in which creators have tried to make the franchise more diverse, but it never really stuck. I’d wager that Superman is still seen as one of the most “white” superhero books out there by most casual viewers, and it is extremely important to note that most of the characters on this list were created by white people. But I don’t want to wholly condemn the franchise I love so much, I want to say that this could be a starting point, if nothing else.
And so, here in no particular order are:
1 – Steel
John Henry Irons was one of the four replacement Supermen to crop up in the wake of Clark’s “death” at the hands of Doomsday. An engineering genius (which, in comics, means he can do superscience), John built a suit of power armour that allows him to become a superhero on Superman’s level. Because of the armour, he was the “Man of Steel” more literally than Clark was, and it was shortened to Steel over time.
Steel is easily the most successful character on this list, having continued to appear fairly regularly since his introduction and is probably the only one here to achieve any level of awareness to mainstream audiences. He’s had his own comics, joined DC hero teams beyond the Superman-specific franchises, and even had his own movie starring Shaquille O’Neal. That movie’s failure didn’t help Steel’s once-growing cachet. He hasn’t had an ongoing book since the 90s. He’s only had minor appearances in cartoons, and not so much as a cameo yet in recent DC movies. If we’re setting the high bar at Steel, we’re not off to a great start.
2 – Melba Manton
Television journalist Melba Manton was a friend and rival to Lois Lane, depending on if they were competing for a scoop or working together. She’s a lot like Lois in that she’s never willing to let a little danger get in the way of her investigations.
To most people who aren’t me, Melba is going to be a very obscure pick (trust me, I’ll get even more obscure as I go), but I’m pretty sure that the Melba backup story in Superman’s Girlfriend, Lois Lane #132 is the first story under the Superman umbrella in which a Black character is the lead. Melba isn’t the first attempt to add a black woman to Lois’s supporting cast, but the fact she got her own feature makes me think she was the one they thought was most likely to stick around. She would go on to make over a dozen appearances, but didn’t make it out of the 70s.
3 – Bloodsport
Robert DuBois is Bloodsport, a supervillain with the ability to conjure weapons from thin air, including (and especially) fancy high-tech sci-fi guns. The odds were stacked against Bloodsport becoming a recurring villain, given that he proved almost no challenge for Superman in his first appearance, then powers and codename were co-opted by a white racist villain, and then he died in prison. Honestly, I think the only reason we know who Bloodsport is anymore is because he’s got kind of a cool look, which has to be why they introduced a third Bloodsport, an exact lookalike of DuBois, to appear in crowd scenes of Superman villains.
But, if the look is all he really has going for him, it’s weird that in Bloodsport’s first live action appearance on Supergirl, played by David St. Louis, he had neither the mask nor the powers of his comic iteration. And, amazingly, Idris Elba will be playing a character called Bloodsport in an upcoming DC movie who is definitely inspired by this character, though it remains to be seen how much it takes from the comics.
4 – Bart Spencer
Bart Spencer is one of several convicted criminals who appear in a two-part story in Superboy #186 and 187 in 1972. In a story about prison conditions, Superboy learns that all of the convicts have stories that show they are more than simple “crooks” and that prison is not set up in a way that helps with rehabilitation. Bart specifically makes the case that he started life on bad footing because of his race and class. His earnest attempts to earn a living only resulted in people mocking him for trying, until he turned to crime. Superboy sympathizes and eventually goes so far as to break the prisoners out long enough for them to help fight a spreading fire, with Bart saying “Come on, guys! Let’s show ’em what the dregs of society can do!” In the real world, sadly, convicts working on firefighting teams get little respect, but in this tale they actually earn a say in how their new prison will be constructed, with cleaner cells, decent food, and a chance to get an education or learn a trade.
Bart was not a recurring character, and was never meant to be, but his appearance in this story is a clear sign of how the comics were going for more politically-minded messages.
5 – Matt Ritter
Speaking of black people that Superboy knows: On The Adventures of Superboy (the final two seasons of the late 80s / early 90s Superboy show), young Clark Kent had a job working as an intern at the Bureau for Extranormal Matters. One of Clark’s allies at the Bureau was field agent Matt Ritter, played by Peter Jay Fernandez. Often in a role like this the character’s Blackness could be treated as incidental, and mostly it was, but I can say that there is at least one episode focusing on Matt that I intend to cover someday.
Excepting the comics based off this show, neither Matt nor the Bureau for Extranormal Matters have appeared elsewhere. It’s a shame because the Bureau, being a government agency that isn’t a militaristic SHIELD ripoff like the agency on Supergirl, come across as a more likeable group; one I’d be okay with Superboy helping. Anyway, with two seasons as a recurring character under his belt, Matt is one of the most frequently-appearing characters in this list.
6 – Iph-Ro of Vathlo Island
In 1971, the creators made an attempt to explain why we hadn’t yet seen any Black Kryptonians in decades of Superman stories. I’m sure it was well-intended, but it came off as if they were saying “There were proud Black Kryptonians and they all lived over on Vathlo Island and they were happy there so they didn’t come over here to the important parts of Krypton” and so on.
Krypton exists only in the past tense for most stories, so they never really had to deal with the issue beyond that. It was rare to see a Vathlo Islander even after the explanation was given. Iph-Ro himself didn’t appear until thirty years after that, and even then not for more than a few pages as an ally of Jor-El. The sole reason even I remembered this character existed and chose him to embody Vathlo here is the terrible pun of a name. Get it? It sounds like “afro”? Thankfully more recent depictions of the doomed planet depict Kryptonians of varying skin colours and I have to assume that big stories I have yet to read, such as New Krypton, must have Black Kryptonians whose names aren’t questionable jokes.
7 – Ron Troupe
Ron Troupe is a Daily Planet columnist introduced in the 90s comics and who rose to prominence, like Steel, in the era. He became an important part of the many ongoing plots in that era, truly becoming a B-tier member of Superman’s supporting cast. It may not be possible for a new character to become as iconic to the franchise as Lois, Perry, and Jimmy, but for a while Ron was getting close. And then he was forgotten. Every now and then he’ll turn up for some background appearances, but he just never got back to the heights of his first decade.
Ron has appeared in a minimal role on several of the shows and animated movies, and even made it into All-Star Superman, so I feel like he’s prominent enough that they could still build on that foundation.
8 – Medini
This one is a bit of a cheat, because Medini’s ethnicity is never actually made clear and he presents himself with more stereotypical “Orientalist” trappings. But what I do know is that he is, as far as I can tell, the first person of colour to appear in a Superman story. Appearing in 1940’s Action Comics #25, Medini had actual hypnosis powers, which may also make him the first super-powered criminal Superman fought. All of this makes it pretty unfortunate that Medini has appeared only the once.
Although he does have those actual superhuman hypnotic abilities, Medini is still a scam artist. He presents himself as a mystic, doing seances and stuff (explaining the outfit), but he’s actually just hypnotizing his clients so they’ll do crimes for him, which goes well for him until one of those clients happens to be Lois Lane.
9 – Jonathan Slaughter
In 1971’s Superman #246, Clark finds out that his neighbours at 344 Clinton are concerned about crime and are talking about getting guns for their protection. Clark tries to talk them out of it, but ultimately fails. One of those neighbours, John Slaughter, later mistakes a neighbour for a prowler and shoots him. It’s an interesting story, with a gun control message and a clear attempt to add diversity to the building where Superman lives, but I’m not crazy about the way the man who (non-fatally) shoots one of his neighbours is the Black man. John would go on to make more appearances among the 344 Clinton ensemble, but never really became a character in his own right.
Also, John’s surname is Slaughter and one of the other neighbours is an Apache man named Nathan Warbow. I want to give the benefit of the doubt that, if choosing those violence-evoking names was intentional at all, it was done to play into the theme of the issue’s gun-control message. But no matter what, it becomes a bit of a strange burden on them as characters going beyond that first appearance.
10 – Star McAdams
Speaking of the main cast’s neighbours, during the third season of Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman, Star (played by Olivia Brown) was introduced as a new resident in Lois’s building. She worked as a psychic and, though she was a bit flaky, her powers seemed genuine. She didn’t last more than five episodes, but I found her pretty likeable.
I can’t find a source for her surname on the show, but the Internet seems sure that it is McAdams, with articles dating back to the 90s saying so. Incidentally, Smallville once had a psychic named Star appear in what I assumed was a reference to this Star, though that character was white if I remember correctly.
11 – Maximum
Maxwell Williams was a promising young athlete who was badly beaten to the point of being paralyzed “an incident of ugly racial violence” and was given the opportunity to be rebuilt with experimental technology by Lexcorp. Becoming a super-powered vigilante, he wound up joining the Supermen of America, a team of young superheroes gathered by Lex Luthor so that he could control them. Maximum was single-mindedly focused on helping his neighbourhood and over the course of the team’s miniseries he would become extremely powerful. How to use that power became the primary conflict.
This version of the Supermen of America (which was named after the real-world Superman fan club from the 40s) did get out from under Lex’s thumb, but then they stopped appearing at all. At least they all stopped appearing, not just Max.
12 – Frank Jackson
Clark Kent’s apartment building is often depicted as having a doorman, for a time, that doorman was Frank, who first appeared in the same issue as John Slaughter above. But where John only had a handful appearances, Frank would show up consistently (even if only for a page or two at a time) and I’d be unsurprised if Frank was the Black supporting cast member to appear most in the pre-Crisis era. That said, he was never given a lot of focus, and was even given contradictory surnames until eventually being revealed to be Franklin Pierce Jackson, a former baseball player who was living a low-key life.
After the company rebooted their comics’ continuity in the 80s, Clark’s building was still shown to have a doorman, but it wasn’t Frank. I suspect it may have been a conscious choice to not have one of the books’ only Black cast members in what could be seen as a subservient role, but it did remove a Black character who had been around for a long time.
13 – Angela Chen
Yet another journalist, Angela is a multiracial news anchor seen on the Superman: The Animated Series. Angela’s role was similar to that of Melba, she would occasionally cross paths with Lois and the others, but generally she didn’t get as much focus. Most often, her role was an expository one, being the face on the television who would tell the audience, or even the main cast, about breaking news.
I wouldn’t claim that Angela is a vital part of the franchise, but any time the comics depict a newsreader that isn’t her, I consider it a missed opportunity.
14 – White Rabbit
Angora Lapin is an old friend, lover, and later villain of John Henry Irons. She worked with him when he was a designer of weapons for the military-industrial complex, but where he came to regret that stuff, Angora leaned into it and became a criminal called the White Rabbit who sold high-tech weaponry indiscriminately.
Angora apparently had albinism, but there was at least one flashback in which she was depicted with dark skin. I assume it was a mistake, but perhaps the creators had some intent for a reveal that they never got around to. Either way, as Steel has lost focus over the years, nobody has ever felt the need to bring White Rabbit back.
15 – Barbara Johnson
Barbara was an elderly religious woman who, after a few encounters with Superman, came to believe that he was an angel sent by God. What’s more, she began to believe that she could call him down when she came across problems that needed his help, so he had to keep an ear out for her just in case. This was all fine until she confronted some dangerous criminals while Superman was occupied with a monster fight. There were tragic consequences, but ultimately things worked out.
Barbara was another character not intended to become an actual member of the supporting cast, though she did make at least one more appearance, when Superman visited her to ask her opinion on some theological matters. It’s a role that could be used to bring her back again, if someone wanted to.
16 – Franklin Stern
The ownership of the Daily Planet newspaper is one of those things that is often in flux as stories come and go, but one of the longest-serving CEOs of the company is Franklin Stern, a former reporter and friend of editor Perry White. More conservative and business-focused than Perry, Stern gives the Daily Planet cast a different kind of boss to argue with when inter-office drama is needed. And, on top of that, he was played by James Earl Jones on Lois & Clark, which is a pretty good get.
I would’ve thought that Stern would be an easy character for the books to hold onto, but indeed he seems to have been forgotten. Either way, we will definitely be seeing him in more articles when I reach that era.
17 – Myra Allen
Myra Allen ran an orphanage in Metropolis and she was very protective of the children under her care. She wasn’t afraid to fight off robots or mutants when the kids were threatened, and she wasn’t afraid to tell off Superman when she thought he wasn’t doing the right thing.
While Myra did get about a dozen appearances before it happened, it was only a matter of time before she got killed in a big heroic sacrifice to protect the kids.
18 – Dave Stephens
First appearing in the infamous issue of Lois Lane titled “I Am Curious, Black” Dave Stephens was a community leader in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Metropolis. I’ll leave the details of that story, which I will certainly be covering when we get to that point in the chronology, and instead point out that it wasn’t Dave’s only appearance. He would go on to become a reporter for the Daily Planet and appeared more than a dozen times before being forgotten.
I think that one of the problems with the attempts to add diversity to the supporting cast is how often they are added to the Daily Planet. If we’re looking at it from a story-writing standpoint, the Planet probably has enough cast members by this point. The franchise just has enough reporters. I think Dave would have been better served if they’d made him a politician, which would have given them different story opportunities.
19 – Baron Sunday
A hitman with magical powers who uses voodoo trappings to spice things up a bit. It’s well known that magic is one of Superman’s only weaknesses other than kryptonite, so you can see why they’d create a character like this, but after that first creation, they didn’t feel the need to go back to him again in the comics.
However, Baron Sunday actually made it to live action on Lois & Clark, where he was played by Cress Williams. To my memory, the episode of the show that was about voodoo killings had the most Black characters of any episode of that show, with the possible exception of the one which was a partial Jeffersons reunion.
20 – Nat Irons
Starting as a supporting cast member in her uncle’s book, Natasha Irons (niece of Steel) has gone on to be a superhero in her own right, and continues to appear both alongside her uncle and apart from him. Mostly she’s been like her uncle in that she both engineers and wears power armour, but I gather she’s also been given powers in some stories. According to the Internet she’s used the superhero names Steel, Starlight, and Vaporlock. She’s also the only known LGBT character on this list, so its doubly a shame that she’s never really gotten an iconic super-identity of her own.
It also seems very obvious to me that a decent movie with a Spider-Verse type of energy could be made starring Nat. Someone needs to get on that.
21 – Fran Johnson and Jackee Winters
I’m lumping these two together because they fulfill the same purpose: they are both Daily Planet employees, both friends with Lois, and both seem to exist only to fill out crowd scenes. Neither ever got even the minor focus of Melba or Angela, both of whom benefited from working for WGBS rather than the Planet. I can put it like this: if you’re reading a comic from the 1990s and there’s a scene in which Lois talks to a Black woman co-worker, it’s probably Fran. If that happens in the 2010s, it’s probably Jackee. Fran did get to be a maid of honour at Lois’s wedding, though. That’s got to count for something.
I promise, this’ll be the last time I put reporters on the list, but I assure you there are more that could qualify.
22 – Chidi
When the Special Crimes Unit of the Metropolis Police Department got their own miniseries in 1994, Chidi (full name unrevealed) was one of the new characters created to flesh out Maggie Sawyer’s team. I wouldn’t say that she was particularly memorable, what we know of her can be boiled down to three points: She was a competent police officer, an attractive woman, and protective of her fellow officer Lyle Beedler, who was coded as neurodivergent.
Chidi did continue to appear beyond that miniseries, though I don’t think that she broke ten total appearances, so there isn’t a lot more to say.
23 – Ed Lacy
In the late 70s Krypto the Superdog had a feature running in Superman Family. There, Ed Lacy was his sole recurring cast member. Ed is a private detective who joined Krypto for a handful of adventures, including one in which he was reunited with some of his family members, ultimately culminating in an abrupt parting no doubt caused by a desire for Krypto to return to the status quo.
In any case, until the Krypto cartoon in the 2000s, Ed was the only “owner” Krypto had who wasn’t one of Superman’s family or friends.
24 – Keith White
During the 90s run of the books, there was a young boy named Keith who seemed to have the worst luck in the world. His mother died of AIDS and then he spent time getting attacked by monsters and stuff. He wound up in Myra Allen’s orphanage and she was, as expected, extremely protective of him, but then she died as well. It was only after all that that Keith was adopted by Perry and Alice White.
Keith had a few minor appearances after joining Perry’s family, but it is telling that his description on the DC fandom wiki ends with his adoption. He was of less use to the stories when he wasn’t an inveterate victim and ultimately, like so many supporting cast members of the era, he disappeared.
25 – Amanda Spence
When a secret government project created a clone to replace Superman, they used the DNA of project leader Paul Westfield as a starting point. Westfield would go on to die a villain, but he had at least one child, Amanda Spence. We never met Amanda’s mother, but given that Paul was white and Amanda was biracial, we have to assume she was Black. Amanda would go on to plague Superboy as she tried to regain control of her father’s project, and would become one of his deadliest villains, even killing a member of his supporting cast.
I must note this version of Superboy’s background was later changed so that he was instead created from the combined DNA of Superman and Lex Luthor. I’m not a fan of this revelation, mostly because I think it’s hackneyed and treats the universe as if it only has two important characters, but also because the “drama” meant to be wrung from the idea that Superboy has Luthor DNA unfortunately implies that certain family lines are just inherently evil. But I also ALSO dislike it because it makes Amanda an essentially meaningless character.
26 – Gus Gorman
An original character from 1983’s Superman III, portrayed by Richard Pryor. The best thing about that movie is the junk yard fight. I’d argue the second best would be Annette O’Toole’s casting as Lana. But if the movie has a third good thing, I could be convinced that it is Gus Gorman. He’s a genius computer hacker who tries to scam a big business but then gets caught up in more and more supervillainous acts. Not all the jokes land, sure, maybe even not most, but while Gus is pretending to be a general in a Bugs Bunny-like scam to get close enough to Superman to expose him to kryptonite, I can envision a movie in which that’s funny. And shouldn’t that count for something? The answer is no. Anyway, the second-most significant Black character to appear in those movies was the pimp who said Superman had a “bad outfit” so at least Gus is better than that.
Personally, I’d love to see Gorman brought to the comics or shows and redeemed. It would be easy to have Gus as an amoral hacker that Superman is trying to steer in a good direction, but who is tempted by money or loyalty to criminal friends to occasionally stray back on the wrong side of the tracks.
27 – Lee Lambert
Lee Lambert was a firefighter who lived in Clark’s neighbourhood. During a story in which Clark’s secret identity was revealed under less-than-ideal circumstances, Lee met and befriended Clark. Her most significant contribution to the arc was working alongside Clark as he aided protesters facing off against police.
I can’t say for sure if the creators ever intended to make Lee a love interest for Clark, but she was introduced in an era of stories in which Clark and Lois were not an item and she was given the alliterative L name that is often, but not always, used for women who catch Clark’s attention. But if she was created for that reason, it never did manifest and Lee was so thoroughly forgotten that it was only about three years later that an entirely different (and white) firefighting woman with an alliterative name and potential romantic feelings for Clark was introduced.
28 – Sam Troupe
The child of Ron Troupe and Lucy Lane, little Samuel Troupe only got a handful of appearances before being obliterated from existence when continuity was rewritten so Lucy and Ron were no longer a couple. And sadly, as far as I can tell, it was done solely so that Lucy could be made into a supervillain, which itself is probably not the case anymore. It feels so typical of bad superhero comics to treat any cast members who don’t get into fights as a burden.
But anyway, for a few moments there Lois and Clark had a biracial nephew, and I think that’s probably more significant than the creators may have realized. Given the focus in recent years on the duo as parents, I lament that we don’t live a world where young Jon Kent has a brash cousin to bounce off of as they go on adventures.
Next time I will try to do what I said last time I’d do next time. And maybe I’ll stop including a “Next Time” section if I’m going to go off track so often.