In 2008, during his presidential campaign, Barack Obama told a joke at a charity event. “Contrary to the rumors you have heard, I was not born in a manger,” he said. “I was actually born on Krypton and sent here by my father, Jor-El, to save the planet Earth.”
And a couple of months prior, the artist Alex Ross made a painting of Obama depicting him in a Clark Kent-like pose with an unbuttoned shirt revealing his costume — this one with an “O” instead of an “S” — underneath.
All of this inspired the comic book writer Grant Morrison: Why not create a Black Superman?
And so was born Calvin Ellis, a Black Man of Steel brought to life by Morrison and the artist Doug Mahnke, who envisioned the character as a beacon of hope who would fight alongside Superman and the other heroes of DC Comics in an apocalyptic story line titled Final Crisis, which ran from 2008 to 2009. In the narrative, Ellis came from an alternate version of Earth. In his reality, he was the most powerful man on Earth twice-over: He was Superman and the president of the United States.
“Final Crisis was kind of a response to the Bush era and that sense of permanent war and that the bad guys had won,” Morrison said. President Superman, as Ellis is known, was meant to embody the opposite — “a shinier way forward,” as Morrison put it. (His teammates included a Black Wonder Woman, inspired by Beyoncé.)
Fans embraced this version of Superman as an alternate depiction of arguably the most iconic superhero of all: the Man of Steel, who made his debut in 1938. Decades later, Superman remains a global hero. His “S” is recognized around the world, and he epitomizes compassion and the quest for truth and justice. Recasting Superman as Black has a singular resonance, and the potential to open up the character to new fans.
President Superman is just one nonwhite version of the Man of Steel that comic book fans are familiar with. They include Sunshine Superman, created by Morrison and the artist Chaz Truog in 1990, and Kong Kenan, the Super-Man of China, who was introduced in 2016 by Gene Luen Yang and Viktor Bogdanovic.
This year, it was announced that the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates is working on a Superman screenplay, and unnamed sources told the Hollywood Reporter the film would set up a Black Superman. If that character is, in fact, President Superman, there is an actor who has already expressed interest in portraying him: In 2019, Oprah Winfrey asked Michael B. Jordan about rumors that he would play Superman. Jordan was hesitant to play Clark Kent, but, he said, “I’ll be Calvin Ellis.”
The possibility of a nontraditional Superman getting his chance at the spotlight is a welcome notion to many. “I didn’t see a lot of representation that included myself or my friends and family when I was a kid growing up,” said David F. Walker, a comic book writer, filmmaker and author. “For every one female character, every one Black character, every one Latino character, every one queer character, there’s 20 or 30 that aren’t those things.”
Heroes like Superman and Spider-Man are often recast within comic stories, though rarely permanently. Characters are sometimes replacements who temporarily don Batman’s cowl or borrow Iron Man’s armor. Sometimes time travel or parallel worlds are involved, as with Calvin Ellis, where history developed differently and as a result so did its heroes.
Still, the back story of a character like Ellis can have deep resonance for readers of color. Readers learned more about his parallel world in a 2012 issue of Action Comics written by Morrison and drawn by Gene Ha. Like the original Superman, he was rocketed from Krypton on the eve of its destruction by his parents and is found by a couple (notably, both sets of parents are Black), and as an adult he begins the battle for “truth, justice, liberty and equality” as Superman.
Ha refined Ellis’s appearance, modeling him after Muhammad Ali. “I had been looking at this Superman vs. Muhammad Ali comic by Neal Adams from the 1970s and I just loved the scale of it and just the idea of Ali on every page punching Superman,” Morrison said. (Adams adapted the comic based on a story by Denny O’Neil.)
Walker, along with co-creators Brian Michael Bendis and Jamal Campbell, had his own opportunity to contribute to the tapestry of DC Comics with the 2019 debut of Naomi McDuffie, a superpowered Black teenage girl who is adopted and sets out to learn more about her birth parents. (The character is being developed for television by the director Ava DuVernay.) “The first time I saw a teenage Black girl cosplay as Naomi I was like, ‘Wow, there is space for you here,’” Walker recalled. “And I want there to be space for everybody.”
Naomi’s last name is a tribute to Dwayne McDuffie, a popular Black comic book writer who was known for championing representation in comics. In 1993, he co-founded Milestone Media, a publishing imprint that centered on Black, Asian, Hispanic and gay superheroes. The Milestone version of Superman is Icon, an alien who arrived on Earth in 1839, and was created by Dwayne McDuffie and Mark Bright. An enslaved Black woman finds Icon’s ship, and he adapts his appearance, including the color of his skin, to fit in. DC will begin publishing new series featuring the Milestone characters in June.
In a way, there has already been a Black Superman on the big screen: In 1997, Shaquille O’Neal starred in “Steel,” which was based on a DC Comics hero of the same name created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove. In his civilian guise he is Dr. John Henry Irons, who emerged to protect Metropolis in 1992 after Superman’s death. (Spoiler: Superman returned the following year.) The comic character’s fortunes were considerably better than that of the film, which a New York Times review described as “a tepid vat of cinematic sludge.”
A more recent Superman vying for film attention is Val-Zod, another Black Kryptonian, introduced in 2014 by the writer Tom Taylor and the artist Nicola Scott.
Taylor’s approach to representation was to bring the stories into the present. “Everything I write, whether it is TV or comics, represents the world as it is rather than 1950s American comics,” he said. He also redefined the very idea of a superhero. “I wanted to come up with someone who was pretty much the most powerful person on the planet, but he didn’t want to punch anyone. He was a pacifist,” he said. “With great power comes great knowledge that you can hurt someone, and he didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
The response to the character was overwhelmingly positive, Taylor recalled. “It was a younger, nicer internet in those days,” he said. Val-Zod was “such a welcoming, warm, charming character that you rooted for him — and our fans felt the same way. He came from a harsh planet and the world needed his light.”
“I’ve said it for a very long time: Everyone needs heroes,” Taylor continued. “And everyone deserves to see themselves in their heroes.”