The 1970s was the age of cool cats and hot pants. As a Millennial, I’m not exactly nostalgic for the 1970s. However, two comic series have made me curious about the time period and about 70s blaxploitation in comics. These include Tini Howard and Gilbert Hernandez’s ASSASSINISTAS as well as Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivelä’s ABBOTT.

Despite very different artistic styles and tones, these two comics have a lot in common. Both star skilled women of color facing off against mysterious criminals. Both are aware of their setting, playing up campy features like big hair, colorful suits, and roller rinks. Yet, as humorous as ’70s fashion is in retrospect, it was a problematic age for social justice. The aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement saw increased attention to representation for people of color. Blaxploitation made the rounds from film to other popular media in the ’70s. Looking at blaxploitation in comics gives readers and creators a glance at the controversial history of black representation in media.

ABBOTT and ASSASSINISTAS play on tropes made popular by blaxploitation. The fashion, lingo, and even some plot features and artwork reference the controversial subgenre. In an age where blaxploitation-era comics LUKE CAGE and BLACK LIGHTNING are being retooled into popular TV series, ABBOTT and ASSSASSINISTAS take on “The Man” in their own feminist ways.

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Blaxploitation: A Brief Introduction

Blaxploitation emerged as a subgenre of the exploitation film genre during the 1970s. On the one hand, the often low-budget pieces pandered to black audiences in order to exploit their buying power. The films also perpetuated racist stereotypes and were often gratuitously violent and hypersexual. For example, the film Shaft, while hugely successful, created a black male figure reliant on hypermasculinity and misogyny. Other films, such as the equally successful Super Flywere widely criticized upon release for glorifying drug culture.

Cleopatra Jones Film Poster
Warner Bros. poster for CLEOPATRA JONES, 1973.

On the other hand, black creators started depicting black narratives in the film industry like never before. These were also the first films to utilize and promote the Black-created musical genre funk. Sometimes, the films took a subversive tone, criticizing oppression and violence against Black people in America. One such trope is the urban black hero’s conflict with “The Man.”

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Blaxploitation In Comics: A Brief History

Blaxploitation quickly made its way from film to comics. Marvel’s LUKE CAGE and DC’s BLACK LIGHTNING are two popular examples. LUKE CAGE: HERO FOR HIRE debuted in 1972. BLACK LIGHTNING followed in 1977. Although characters such as Black Panther and John Stewart (aka Green Lantern) predate Luke Cage and Jefferson Pierce (aka Black Lightning), the two 1970s heroes were the first to star in their own standalone comics. The arrival of blaxploitation in comics filled a gap in mainstream American comics. Previous incarnations of black characters supported white characters. However, Luke Cage and Jefferson Pierce drove their own plots.

However, the original LUKE CAGE and BLACK LIGHTNING runs didn’t challenge blaxploitation tropes. Both depicted racial tensions in urban settings. Cage, a wrongfully charged ex-convict, was the subject of experimentation. His experience of urban life makes his anger at systemic racism understandable. Jefferson Pierce, a teacher in a crime-ridden neighborhood by day and vigilante by night, is also relatable. The neighborhood Black Lightning protects is set in the fictional Metropolis, but the reality of life as a teacher in an under-served school system is sobering.

The comics ultimately didn’t challenge otherwise problematic characterizations. They follow the stereotype of a super muscular, ultra-masculine black man. As a hired hero, Cage is more mercenary than vigilante. Although innocent of his accused crimes, Cage doesn’t challenge the idea that strong black men must appeal to a “gangster” identity. Likewise, Black Lightning conceals his true identity by speaking with an exaggerated jive vernacular, as though he has to make himself fit the stereotypes of the urban black man to be a successful black superhero. As a result, these comics limit the range of possibilities for black male characters.  

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Modern Incarnations, Old Problems

In Who is Marvel’s Blaxploitation Luke Cage comic even for, exactly?,” Charles Pulliam-Moore argues that the 2017 CAGE series doesn’t use blaxploitation in comics to subvert racism. Creators Tartakovsky and DeStefano meant to play with the funky graphic aspects of the original 1970s LUKE CAGE: HERO FOR HIRE. However, the comic itself relies on racist stereotypes. Specifically, Pulliam-Moore points out DeStafano’s depiction of Cage, like the original, is hulking and angry. Worse than the portrayal of Cage is that of the criminal, a cowering figure who’s the frighteningly offensive specter of white America’s racist portrayal of people of color.

CAGE
Image courtesy of Marvel Entertainment.

Pulliam-Moore makes the distinction saying, “Depending on who you are and how you look at Blaxploitation [sic.], the style can either be used to reinforce and perpetuate racist ideas about black people, or serve as a means of using camp and humor to unpack and explore difficult conversations about the black experience.” As Pulliam-Moore rightfully argues, the 2017 CAGE comic exemplifies the issue of the uncritical use of 70s blaxploitation in comics. Luckily, not all modern throwback comics are so oblivious. 

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ASSASSINISTAS: Undercover Mother

In the current two issues of ASSASSINISTAS, retired hitwoman Octavia “Red October” Price takes on one last mission to pay for her son Dominic’s college tuition. Howard’s plot develops a half-baked blaxploitation storyline — the “back in the game” story — into something bold and new. Instead of Octavia being the sexy distraction, she’s center stage. Of course, the underlying crime mystery feels referential to the blaxploitation genre. Hernandez’s artwork also plays with the 70s aesthetic. The flashback scenes include disco balls, afros, and flared collars. Instead of feeling like a B-movie, ASSASSINISTAS makes fun of its CHARLIE’S ANGELS-esque plot while making room for a tough heroine and her gay son.

Octavia’s hitwoman identity is not unlike blaxploitation heroines Foxy Brown, Coffy, or Cleopatra Jones. Moreover, Octavia’s drama with former colleagues and lovers adds to her wild 70s backstory. Yet it’s clear that Octavia knows how to handle herself. She doesn’t need to pose as a drug dealer or a sex worker to accomplish her goals. Also, evolving from blaxploitation heroines, the Assassinistas target a new version of “The Man”: corporate CEOs.

blaxploitation
Image courtesy of IDW Publishing.

One aspect of ASSASSINISTAS that doesn’t quite fit with the classic blaxploitation genre is the mother-son narrative. Octavia’s relationship with her son pulls the reader out of 1970. While Octavia is nostalgic for the era, the comic looks for ways she can be an accepting mother and a hitwoman. As a result, ASSASSINISTAS cleverly pays homage to blaxploitation plots without letting it get in the way of a different, richer future for black representation. How exactly ASSASSINISTAS will continue to challenge 1970s stereotypes will be exciting to watch as the series unfolds.

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ABBOTT’s Social Commentary 

ABBOTT takes a more direct look at “The Man” in 1970s America. Elena Abbott is the only woman, and person of color, at the white-focused Detroit Daily newspaper. Her boss even recognizes the fact that her column exploits a “niche” audience: black Detroiters. Elena targets crime news. She isn’t well liked by white male police officers due to her righteous coverage of police brutality incidents. If anyone is taking on “The Man” — by which I mean the injustices of American white heteropatriarchy — that person is Abbott.

ABBOTT #1
Image courtesy of BOOM! Studios.

Kivelä’s artwork for the first issue of ABBOTT is gritty, giving the comic a crime noir effect. Like ASSASSINISTAS, this brings to mind the underworld-esque feel of blaxploitation narratives. Kivelä’s attention to detail includes era-appropriate fashion, cars, and cameras. All of which matches the attitude affected by Ahmed’s writing. Indeed, Kivelä brings heat to scenes with Elena and her former love interests. The allusion to an erotic backstory adds to the comic’s homage to blaxploitation in comics and film. Yet as groovy as the comic feels, there is more to it than a funky mystery story.

ABBOTT also draws on magical realism to make a strong political argument. Elena faces a fierce evil that is attacking people of color in her community. It’s not a hate group, but rather some kind of occult magic. Although the comic still relies on the backdrop of 1970s racial tensions in Detroit, the magical realism adds further depth to the story. In the 1970s, magical realism didn’t accompany blaxploitation in comics. However, the inclusion hints at a broader definition of minority identities in American comics.

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Conclusion: Foxy Ladies Matter

Blaxploitation in pop-culture exemplifies how industries target audiences rather than amplify minority voices. Creators like Howard, Hernandez, Ahmed, and Kivelä clearly understand what’s really at stake. Representation matters. Although blaxploitation media puts black characters into the mainstream, the genre relies on and perpetuates negative stereotypes in doing so. Luckily, comics like ASSASSINISTAS and ABBOTT take tropes from blaxploitation in comics and use them to subvert clichés and constructs.

ASSASSINISTAS and ABBOTT give narrative space to women of color. Octavia and Elena are rough around the edges, yet smart and dedicated. Both of them take on “The Man” and challenge the (white) man’s world. One need not be Luke Cage or Black Lightning to be a black hero. Indeed, Octavia and Elena demonstrate that black identities and narratives have a place in comics, and not as sidekicks or other prescribed roles. ASSASSINISTAS and ABBOTT recognize the significant cultural moment of blaxploitation in comics. The two play up the 70s vibes with great fashion, criminal plot lines, and pointed social commentary. Yet the comics take the image of powerful black women further than sex dolls, drug dealers, or distractions. They’re not the objects of their comics, but rather the delightfully super fly heroines of their own stories.

If you’re interested in reading ASSASSINISTAS, the first two issues are available from IDW Publishing here. ASSASSINITAS #3 comes out March 3, 2018. ABBOTT #1 is available from BOOM! Studios online and in stores. The second issue in the series comes out February 28, 2018.

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