Orrin C. Evans showed us Black people could be (super)heroes too

This is the thirty-second entry in the series Honoring Black History.

Did you know that the first Black comic book hero debuted in 1947? “Lion Man” was a college-educated Black American sent to the Gold Coast (now Ghana) by the United Nations to investigate a uranium deposit. His story was but one of nine depicted in the first (and only) issue of All-Negro Comics, the first comic book created by an all Black team. That team was led by a journalist named Orrin Cromwell Evans.

Born in 1902, Orrin began his career at 17, writing for Sportsman’s Magazine. He honed his journalistic skills at the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest Black newspaper in the country, before breaking the color barrier to become the first Black writer to cover general assignments for the Philadelphia Record. His 1944 article series on segregation in the armed services helped end the practice (and became a part of the congressional record), but it also drew the ire of folks intent on upholding the status quo. His family received numerous death threats, which led to their home being protected at one point by a 24-hour vigil held by friends, both Black and white.

When the Record was shuttered during a protest, Orrin began looking for new opportunities. He wrote for a variety of notable publications, but he saw great potential in using comic books to reach the Black community. He had always been enamored by the way in which a well-crafted cartoon could make complex topics easy to understand.

In 1947, Orrin formed a partnership with four of his former colleagues at the Register to form All-Negro Comics, Inc. Together they worked with several cartoonists from both Philadelphia and Baltimore to assemble stories that met with Orrin’s moral and educational standards.

The first issue of All-Negro Comics became available in July of 1947 for 15¢. When the second issue was ready to publish, Orrin’s newsprint supplier refused to sell to him. Other potential vendors also refused to work with him. And so the second issue remains unpublished to this day.

There is some speculation that, in addition prejudice on the part of the paper suppliers, two rival white publishers (Parents Magazine Press and Fawcett Comics) had conspired to undermine the burgeoning company in an effort to reduce competition for their own Black-themes titles.

In addition to Lion Man, All-Negro Comics #1 featured, among other characters, another Black protagonist, detective Ace Harlem. And, while there were other comic books aimed at the Black community, there were no memorable Black heroes in comics until the introduction of Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). In fact, Black people in general were pretty much non-existent, even in street scenes in comic books until the 1960s. Spiderman #18, published in November of 1964, was notable for depicting a Black policeman!

Comics are still pretty damn white, but I am hopeful things are changing for the better. Incredibly successful franchises like Black Panther and Luke Cage (a.k.a. Power Man) play a part, as does Miles Morales’ Spiderman. I loved Dwayne McDuffie’s Damage Control back in the ’80s and Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks in the late ’90s/early ’00s. I’m really excited for the future of the genre though, especially with folks like Eve Ewing (Champions, Ironheart) getting involved in the medium.

Further reading

  1. “Orrin C Evans and the story of All Negro Comics” (archived), tomchristopher.com, 2002; first published in Comic Buyer’s Guide
  2. “Orrin C Evans: The First Black Comic Book Publisher” (archived), First Comic News, 2016
  3. “The Press: Ace Harlem to the Rescue” (archived), Time Magazine, 1947