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The Black Hero Origin Algorithm

A recent Komplicated webcast (which you should really check out every Sunday evening at 9:00PM PST/12:00 EST if you aren’t already) discussing Miles Morales, the new Ultimate Spider-Man, brought up a well remembered web relic- the Black Hero Origin Algorithm. Basically, the Black Hero Origin Algorithm was a set of four basic criteria that most black superheroes published by the two major superhero comic publishers (Marvel and DC) all seemed to fall into at least one of the categories, as follows-

  • They were raised in poverty
  • They have been in the Olympics
  • They have a criminal background
  • They have been inspired by white heroes

Back then, Algorithm creators Hannibal Tabu and Vince Moore (who have gone on to put together the aforementioned Komplicated website focusing on the Black geek aesthetic) calculated that only about 15-20 characters didn’t follow the Algorithm (initially they came up with 12 but then Dwayne McDuffie added a few Milestone characters and a few of the ones they initially thought didn’t were found to actually hit one of the criteria).

Now it’s important to clarify something at this point- I don’t think Tabu and Moore were in any way saying that a black hero being raised in poverty here or a black hero having a criminal background there was necessarily “bad”, they were of course saying the opposite, that almost all black heroes falling into one of those four characteristics was (and is) the problem. Now, as I mentioned above, this was resurrected in a discussion about Miles Morales because based on all that has been released to date, it appears that Miles definitely hits one of the criteria (inspired by a white hero) and possibly a second (“raised in poverty” is very tricky because there are different levels of poverty so that could cover a lot of ground). This is noteworthy because even as one of the major comic book publishers does something noble and noteworthy in the name of increasing diversity in their publishing efforts, they still fumble the ball a bit.

Although the creation of Stealth predates this Black Hero Origin Algorithm by at least three years, I have to admit my own observations on this particular subject played a role in the creation of the character. I thought it would be interesting to examine how Stealth stacks up against the Algorithm and give a few thoughts on each point-

“They were raised in poverty”

It’s never really been played up that much but Allen White is pretty well off with a mom that is a pretty successful news anchor. This was a conscious decision on my part from the very beginning, while I understand it can help make the character more relatable, I specifically didn’t want Allen to fall into the tried-and-true formula of the hard luck hero who struggles for everything and wanted to present a black family that was steeped in success- it probably sounds corny but I wanted something similar to a superhero version of the Cosby Show environment.

“They have been in the Olympics”

I’m not sure if this should be taken literally but a lot of black heroes do tend to be described as having been world class athletes. While I made a point of having Allen be an athlete in order to combat another classic comic book archetype (the nerdy weakling), I also made sure to establish that Allen isn’t a great athlete by any means- he was a backup quarterback, a guy good enough to hold a clipboard (as opposed to sitting in the stands) but not good enough to actually get off the bench.

“They have a criminal background”

This is obvious, Allen is about as straight arrow as you can get

“They have been inspired by white heroes”

This obviously doesn’t apply to Stealth the way it would a mainstream hero but it’s worth going over nevertheless- Allen doesn’t pick up somebody else’s mantle to be a hero, he’s forging his own way and doing his own thing. When I was developing the concept that eventually became Stealth (it’s a long story but at that point I had the characters mapped out but the actually hero concept was still up in the air- if I ever post the original comic featuring Allen White, I think you all would be shocked at how totally different it was from what it became), one of my original ideas was to actually have a legacy involved where the new hero takes over for a previous hero. I scrapped that because I wanted to have a hero who was 100 percent his own man- someone who could create his own legacy.

Of course, while interesting to look at as a little exercise, the Black Hero Origin Algorithm wasn’t created to judge independent characters like Stealth where creators generally put the kind of thought that I did into their own creations. Rather, the Algorithm was made to judge characters spit out by the mainstream and as mentioned in regards to Miles Morales, the mainstream is still slipping even as they try to make positive moves. This is just as troubling now as it was 8 years ago.

© 2011, William Satterwhite. All rights reserved.

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6 thoughts to “The Black Hero Origin Algorithm”

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  3. this is true but i think it comes from a lack of diversity of writers and creators. most of the creators may not know that every black person isn’t super poor, we arent necessarily rich but we arent in the type of “good times” world that they may think. The same is true of female characters and if you have a female black character the concept could be aliens to the average white creator whose only interaction with black women are beyonce and rap videos or a check out girl at the super market.

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