Cleverman – The First Aboriginal Superhero?
“I wanted to create a superhero for my son,” says Ryan Griffen, the creator of ABC TV (Australia) / Sundance (USA) co-production of Cleverman.
Set in a dystopian future, Cleverman is a new television series which provides an opportunity for Ryan Griffin’s son to see what many have suggested is the first Aboriginal superhero. But if we look back over past efforts we find that there are a number of prior examples that have set the stage for the appearance of the new newest in a line of Indigenous Australian superheroes.
For a look at the first Koori or Aboriginal superhero, we reach back to 1973 and the first television program written by and featuring Aboriginal people. Basically Black was a program which featured a comedy skit “Super Boong.” Here was a hero with a decidedly racist term for a name, even in the days of the early 1970’s. Super Boong was a parody of Superman in the camp style of George Reeve and was the brainchild of legendary activists and civil rights leaders Gary Foley and Bob Maza. The character was designed to afford a few laughs but along with the rest of the characters of Basically Black, Super Boong gave audiences something rare and important – a glimpse at black Australian people, away from the evening news where we were invariably portrayed as victims or criminals. The show was imbued with a deliberate layer of social commentary which acted to tackle racism head-on.
The next effort that might be seen as an Aboriginal superhero, is another character whose origins began in social commentary. “Condoman” was created as a tool for the promotion of safe sex practices in the early 1980’s. Condoman took its visual cue from Lee Falk’s “Phantom“, which has a long history as the most popular comic character within Aboriginal Australia. A fact which may be owed to the somewhat unusual point that the Phantom is a character who has always been portrayed as one who treats black people fairly, whilst also being reliant upon them and their kindness for his successes. It is no great surprise then that the Phantom was also licensed from King Features Syndicate for the production of a comic book which showed the character interacting with Aboriginal people, promoting electoral procedures and the importance of voting.
The 1980’s also saw the arrival of a slew of Aboriginal characters, based in US publication houses – DC and Marvel. At this time Australia was the flavour of the month in the US, with Crocodile Dundee having topped the box office charts, whilst Aussie musical acts like Midnight Oil, ACDC and INXS were household names across America. It was only a matter of time before comics jumped on the bandwagon, and that began in 1988 during the bicentenary of the invasion of Australia, by the X-Men joining the invasion.
From issue #229 of the Uncanny X-Men, the team had relocated their base of operations to the “outback” of Australia, and with this came the introduction of the character known as Gateway. A central Australian Elder, Gateway was also a mutant, who was born with powers that allowed him to transport matter from one location to another, achieving this via the creation of a portal with the aid of a bull-roarer. As a character Gateway was little more than a super powered doorman, but later in the storyline he played an important role as the ancestor of an X-Man from the future, the mutant known as Bishop.
At various times Bishop has been depicted as an important cog in the X-Men story. However, his ethnicity like much of comic-doms continuities is pliable, having been portrayed as both as a black Australian, and an African American.
Peppered throughout Marvel and DC’s catalogue of titles from the last 30 years there are a number of minor characters that are shown to be Aboriginal people. Among them is the Dark Ranger, a character introduced into the DC pantheon by Grant Morrison, during his acclaimed run on the Batman titles. Australia’s answer to Batman, the Dark Ranger was recruited by the Dark Knight as part of his “Batman Inc”, and club of international Batmen period. The Dark Ranger is notable for being one of the few Aboriginal characters who appears to have been researched to even the smallest degree, highlighting the respect with which Grant Morrison holds for the world’s oldest living cultures. The Dark Ranger is shown to have an educated, urban background, which contrasts heavily with the naked Central Australian with a limited understanding English styled trope which is so often employed by writers, despite the vast majority of us being from the coast, and living in cities and major regional centres.
Manifold is another character who has at times pushed for some prominence, only to have a few rare moments in the light. This was a character who was created as part of Secret Warriors book in 2009, and who then went on to become a member of the Avengers in 2012.
Another character created by Grant Morrison is the Thunderer, a DC analogue of Marvel’s Thor, who belonged to an entire team of playful Avenger rip-offs. This character was created as a central figure in the Morrison’s Multiversity Maxi-Series, and whom was an attempt by Morrison at revising another character by the name of Wandjina (named for the Northern Australian Creator Beings associated with storms) who despite the Aboriginal theme and spirituality, was actually a Caucasian.
America has shown a fondness for utilising Aboriginal Australian characters within the US comic industry and their limited attempts at depicting diversity, but it’s not alone in such attempts. The Japanese manga series Silent Möbius is home to Toyko police officer Kiddy Phenil, a redheaded Aboriginal woman with cybernetic implants.
Australia too has produced Aboriginal characters within its own small, home-baked comic industry, with creators such as Gary Chaloner, Glenn Lumsden and Dave DeVries having featured Aboriginal heroes during their days in producing Cyclone and Southern Cross comics throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
What the future may hold for heroic depictions of Koori people, or Aboriginal people in general is hard to tell. Certainly it remains to be seen whether the likes of Lin Onus’ painting of Kaptn Koori, or any other black driven characters will supplant those characters already being produced with respect, but indelibly without any depth, or firsthand knowledge. We can certainly hope.