Black Marvel superhero Ghost Light tackles race, social division

Hosted by

“A lot of naysayers will say comics and superheroes are not political, but I would argue that they're inherently political because as signifiers, they're able to carry so many types of political statements and symbolic messages,” says graphic novelist and UC Riverside professor John Jennings about his new character Ghost Light. Photo courtesy of John Jennings/Marvel.

There’s a new Black superhero in the extensive Marvel universe, but he’s a ghost from the past that some fervent comic book fanatics may recognize. 

His name is Ghost Light. He’s a friend to one of the most celebrated characters, Silver Surfer, and his debut is “54 years in the making.”

UC Riverside Media and Cultural Studies Professor John Jennings worked with comic book artist Valentine De Landro to bring one of Marvel’s first Black characters back to life as Ghost Light in the new five-book miniseries, “Silver Surfer: Ghost Light.” The second issue drops today. 

Jennings, an acclaimed graphic novelist, talks about reenvisioning the character, reflecting on the Black experience in America, and diversifying the comic book industry. 

What is Ghost Light’s backstory?

The character, whose real name is Al B. Harper, is a Black physicist that appeared in “Silver Surfer #5,” which debuted in 1969, a few months before the creation of Sam Wilson, who we know as the Falcon in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

Silver Surfer is trapped on Earth by his former master Galactus because he helped humanity and betrayed his master. Silver Surfer is trying to get off [of Earth] and he ends up falling into the woods after hitting the energy barrier Galactus put around the planet. 

It so happens that this Black man [Harper] who happens to be a physicist, is actually looking for rocks. So he finds Silver Surfer, takes him back to his house, and ….  essentially Al B. Harper ends up having to sacrifice his life to save the whole planet. After that, the Silver Surfer is so moved by this that he buries Al and he puts an eternal cosmic flame … on his grave to mark him as a hero as long as the planet shall live. 

How is the story reimagined? 

I was thinking about some of the things that were happening in the original story, and how they were echoing with what's going on now in our country.  [There] seems to be just as much division as in the 1960s — just as much hatred, just as much violence, just as much ignorance, and just as much lack of empathy. So I thought that instead of having a character that was obviously created to die, I thought we needed him back to help us. 

What drew you to the character?

I was doing research on this other book [and] I came across the character … in the middle of the George Floyd protests. I had recently lost my own sister to a heart attack super early, this was right before Chadwick Boseman passed away. I lost a close friend of mine to COVID. And it just seemed like [there were] just a lot of people of color who were being affected by COVID — and disproportionately so. 

It just seemed like a lot of Black death around me, and I was looking at this character, and I was like, “Well, why couldn't it be resurrected?” If you know anything about the Marvel universe, cosmic energy is what actually creates their first superheroes: the Fantastic Four. And I was like, “Well, his body is being bombarded by this cosmic power source, couldn't we do something with this guy?” So Marvel listened [and] they let me resurrect him as this character Ghost Light.

Where did the name Ghost Light come from?

During the pandemic, there were a lot of shutdowns of pretty much every business, particularly like ones where you're gathering together like theaters. … [There is this] folktale that theaters are haunted by ghosts. So the ghost light is the last light you leave on, and it symbolizes that the show will come back. I thought it was just a really cool name for a character that [we] will literally be bringing back from the dead.

How does Ghost Light carry on Stan Lee’s legacy?

The title of the original story is “And Who Shall Mourn for Him?” It's like Stan Lee has created a character that is kinda like a “Black Death Matters” story. 

Stan Lee seemed to want to have a conversation about race and about civil rights because at the end of [the story], he creates this wonderful character that he then kills on purpose. [He] then asks us, “This Black man who has saved your lives [and] has saved the entire Marvel universe, do you care about him?”

This character is created to have a conversation about some of these really difficult issues that are happening in our country right now. A lot of naysayers will say comics and superheroes are not political, but I would argue that they're inherently political because as signifiers, they're able to carry so many types of political statements and symbolic messages.

Who is the new character Toni?

Toni is our Point of View character. …  She left her friends behind in Bed Stuy in Brooklyn, and they've moved into Sweetwater, New York, which is a fictitious upstate New York town. There are some strange things that have transpired in Sweetwater. I took advantage of the fact that the original story didn't say where it took place … and I actually started constructing the narrative around that. 

Silver Surfer has hidden [Al’s] body in this alternative universe. … And so she and her brother Josh are discovering the mysteries of not only the town of Sweetwater, but also the mystery surrounding Uncle Al's disappearance,

Will Ghost Light continue beyond the five-book miniseries?

It's up to the fans. If people like the character, and I like what I've created, I've left a lot of threads open. … I'm just really glad that I'm getting a chance to write the story that I want to see on the page.

Why do you want to bring diversity to the comic book industry?

It’s really important for people from various backgrounds to see themselves reflected in society and in the media that they produce. 

There is this term that was created in the 1970s called symbolic annihilation that I’ve been obsessed with since I learned about it. The idea is that you can … metaphorically destroy someone by erasing their images from the media or from society.  There's no wonder why when people are conquered, the first thing that [the conqueror does] is burn their books,  destroy all of their artwork, and destroy all of their images.

[That’s] because they want to erase the fact that [the conquered] actually made anything on Earth. In response to that, we want to create very powerful images that respond directly to people's needs and wants. The superhero is inherently a power fantasy. So up until fairly recently, most of the people that have been … superheroes are straight white men. That has been very limiting. … Everybody should be superheroes, right?




Tara Atrian