By Wendy Browne
The face of Western comics is changing, but it’s been a long road and a journey that still has many hills to climb. Black characters are taking on more prominent roles in the panels we read, and more Black creators are shaping their stories behind the scenes. But what of the creatives who came before? This column traces the path of Black comics creativity throughout the decades, with each year focusing on a book that features a Black writer, artist, colourist, letterer, or editor. From underground comix through Black Panther and beyond, this series will reveal the evolution of diversity in the comics industry, and shed some light on the unsung Black heroes that have helped to shape it.
Larry Fuller’s self-published comic Ebon #1 stands out for many reasons, including a glaring overuse of exclamation marks! But more importantly, it is the first appearance of a Black superhero in a titular role! Although Black Panther was introduced by Marvel in 1966 as the first Black superhero, Ebon’s role in the history of Black superhero comics remains a significant one! It’s also, quite possibly, the first comic entirely written and drawn by a Black person!
As an African American creator, Fuller’s efforts were equally significant since, even in the world of underground comix publishing, there was little African American representation. Only one hundred copies were ever printed, with the promised second issue never coming to fruition.The predominantly white, adult market of underground comix wasn’t the audience that Ebon needed – which is unfortunate, since Ebon was exactly the kind of character many Black youth still need today.
On the shelves in January 1970, issue one, “Birth of a Hero,” opens with a stark reminder of what life is like in the “ghetto.” “Life, at its best, is a struggle!” the narration reads. Unpolished, amateur black and white artwork paints a bleak picture of the poverty and anguish, leading into a funeral scene where we meet Valentine Jones, who has just lost a loved one. Frustrated by the violence that has stolen this person from him, and the inability of the police to do enough about it, Jones storms away from the empty comfort of the priest and detective’s words.
Abruptly transitioning to outer space, we meet Oju who has been sent by his people to find the Earthman who bears the Heartmark of Jom, indicating their alien ancestry. Oju is from the planet Nyta. He is impressed by the diversity of Earth, though concerned with its penchant for war. Still, the oracles directed him to this planet and there are indeed people who resemble the royal people of Nysk. “They are indeed a varied race, these Earthmen! But the one I seek is nearest to the image of the royal people of Nyta!”
It’s easy to overlook the comment in this single panel as mere justification for the similarity of the two races, but the significance to Black people who rarely get to see themselves in positive media roles is profound. It is the kind of seed that we saw blossom with 2018’s Black Panther film — though the fact that we had to wait until 2018 to see this effect remains a concern.
When Oju gets a hold of Jones, he transplants the Heart of Jom and gives him a new costume and name: Ebon. He learns about Jom, his ancestor, who came to Earth and fell in love with these plucky humans, but fell into despair as human nature turned to aggression. Jom eventually passed away, but told his people to watch over Earth, hoping that humankind would find peace, but ordering intervention should they continue on a path of violence and hatred.
The inspiration for this story has an interesting background. Fuller’s childhood love of comics shines through, with obvious Superman influences in the mix, but there is also medical science involved. While stationed at Minot, a SAC Air Force Base in North Dakota, the idea for the character came to Fuller when news spread of the world’s first successful human heart transplant performed by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in 1967. (Sadly, the patient, who was in late-stage heart failure, did not survive long, but the operation itself was a success and paved the way for the evolution of the procedure). This historical moment in medical history ended up shaping a historical moment in comics history for Black creators and fans through Ebon #1.
“And what are these powers you rap so very freqy of?!!” asks Jones of Oju, who proceeds to challenge him to a battle where he learns of the enhanced speed, strength, and agility granted by the Heart of Jom that has been transplanted into his body. As the fight continues, Jones discovers that he even has the ability to fly.
But this is the end of Oju’s mission and he leaves without offering the heavy rapping Ebon wants to help understand his abilities and purpose. “You will learn in time!” Oju exclaims before peacing out of the solar system.
With vengeance still on his mind from the beginning of the story, it seems like Ebon’s initial plans are clear. Presumably Fuller intended for his character to use his powers for good, like Superman, and channel his rage into the change we still need to see today.
As far as origin stories go, this one follows a fairly basic formula and the overall quality of the writing and art reveals Fuller’s inexperience. Fuller freely admits to his inexperience. After searching for over a year to find an artist for the story, he finally decided to take art courses using his GI BIll so that he could draw it himself. To enhance what he learned, Fuller used poses swiped from various artists he admired, including Gil Kane and John Buscema. “Of course, this was before I knew better, and is a practice long since abandoned,” he wrote on his website. “I post this mostly because it might be good for more than a few laughs to modern readers.”
That’s not to say the art is bad, though there is a lot of inconsistency in the inking and linework. Word balloons are messy, but creative. Still, given his inexperience, the work shows potential. And it’s Fuller’s passion and desire to see this kind of story told that truly gives Ebon its power.
The book closes with the Ebon, “the world’s boldest Black man,” giving a shout out to to Gary Arlington, the owner of the San Francisco Comic Book Company. Not only did Arlington print and publish Ebon #1, giving Fuller his start, but he was also the main distributor of all underground comix in the area.
Fuller would never go on to be involved in mainstream comics, but he did go on to play a major role in underground comix as one of the only two Black men in the small press industry. Ebon #1 was a first in many ways, and Fuller did not stop there, publishing Gay Heartthrobs, the first fully homosexually-themed comic. Along with Raye Horne, he was also the first Black comics artist to earn commercial success with adult comics with White Whore Funnies. He was an avid supporter of LGBTQ rights and became an influential icon for the marginalized comics communities that he represented.
It’s unfortunate that Ebon didn’t go further than its first issue and that Fuller did not continue with comics into the ‘90s and beyond – but his influence remains!
Written, pencilled, inked and lettered by Larry Fuller
Published in 1970 by Spearhead Comics
Although Ebon #1 has never been republished, you can find the entire issue on Larry Fuller’s website here.