What Can Comic Book Heroes Teach Us About Black History?

A yearlong Narrative Projects series offers a fresh perspective on Black history, looking beyond the familiar lessons you may have learned in school.,


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Before the office emptied and Times journalists retreated to their homes with their laptops, Veronica Chambers, editor of The New York Times’s Narrative Projects team, often found herself bumping into George Gene Gustines to chat about comics, a topic he has covered for The Times since 2002.

“There’s a fair number of comic book fans in the office,” Mr. Gustines said, “but she’s definitely passionate.”

It was that same zeal for the characters and story lines in the pages of Marvel, DC Comics and other publishers that inspired the latest package of stories for Black History, Continued, a yearlong Narrative Projects series that is examining pivotal moments and transformative figures in Black culture.

The package tracks the complex history of Black characters in comic books and their evolution in the hands of diverse creators, beyond the mainstream success of films like “Black Panther” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” It further explores what their powers and personal struggles can tell us about the multiplicity of Black experiences.

In the articles, the writers look at how Marvel’s Falcon and his hesitancy to take over as Captain America can offer insight into the complexity and pressures of American identity. As a teenage girl from a hyper-policed community in Chicago, Riri Williams brings a humanity to her missions as Ironheart that challenges traditional notions of what crime-fighting and bravery can be.

“Superheroes gave us an opportunity to look at this thing that will keep coming back through the year, which is, what is a Black hero and what do heroes mean in Black history?” Ms. Chambers said.

The series Black History, Continued, which began in January, examines how that history “touches sports and politics and business and fashion and fine art and music and everything else,” Ms. Chambers said. The series has revisited the work of Augusta Savage, a Harlem Renaissance sculptor, told the origins of Black History Month with an illustrated timeline and featured an essay by the scholar Imani Perry that posits whether we ask too much of Black luminaries.

Once a topic is decided on, the visual editor Marcelle Hopkins and the photo editor Amanda Webster collaborate to give the story a unique visual treatment.

“We’re aiming to explore the depth and breadth of the Black experience with images that aren’t often seen in the Black history lessons we were taught in school,” Ms. Hopkins said. By telling these stories with archival video, illustrations, 3-D modeling or virtual events, she added, “these narratives feel current and relevant to our lives today.”

The superhero package, which was published online Friday and appears in Sunday’s Arts & Leisure print section, features four stories, including an introduction by Ms. Chambers that imagines Blackness as a superpower. It touches on the rumor that Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. served as the inspiration for Magneto and Professor X in the X-Men comics, the “Harriet Tubman: Demon Slayer” books and Allison Hargreeves’s civil rights story arc in the second season of Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy.”

The package also includes an article by Mr. Gustines about the possibility of a new Black Superman film, and essays by the critic and comic book writer Evan Narcisse and the sociologist Eve Ewing, in which they discuss the politics of scripting superhero stories as Black creators.

The writers Ms. Chambers recruited represent her larger goal for Black History, Continued, which is to tap both talent from within The Times and visionary voices outside it. She said she was also interested in engaging with the topics covered in the series off the page, by way of virtual and live events.

The first Black History, Continued event, which is tied to the superhero story package, was prerecorded and will stream on YouTube on April 27. (Readers interested in tuning in are encouraged to R.S.V.P. online). It features a reading by the poet Nikki Giovanni and a conversation between the Times correspondent John Eligon and young activists. Ms. Chambers also hosts a panel discussion with the writer N.K. Jemisin, the illustrator Peter Ramsey and the singer Estelle about how creators learn to dream.

“All three of them talked about what it means to be a Black creative and how long and hard the road is,” said Ms. Chambers. “You get this incredible success and creativity, but also the realness of the challenges of trying to do what they do as Black people.”

As for what readers can expect from the series as the year goes on, “future topics include literature, sports, politics,” Ms. Chambers said, adding, “We’d love to hear what people want to read more about.”

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