A new Black superhero has entered the Marvel comics universe, thanks to the vision and writings of a UC Riverside professor.
Dr. Al B. Harper, a physicist and friend of the Silver Surfer, is one of Marvel’s original Black characters, first appearing in a 1969 issue of “Silver Surfer #5.”
Harper’s character — originally created by late Marvel comics legends Stan Lee and John Buscema — has come back to life as a cosmic superhero in a new mini-series, “Silver Surfer: Ghost Light,” created by graphic novelist John Jennings and artist Valentine De Landro.
Jennings, the writer, is a professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside who has been involved with local exhibitions that showcase Black comic book heroes. He said the character of Ghost Light has been nearly 60 years in the making.
“Al Harper was the Silver Surfer’s first human friend, and he ended up having to sacrifice his life,” said Jennings, 52. “He was this character living in the woods, who was used to talk about issues of civil rights. … He didn’t have a background, a family. It just didn’t feel right for him to be in the ground when he saved the world.”
The new series is also the first time Silver Surfer, a fan-favorite cosmic hero from the planet Zenn-La, is in the hands of an all-Black creative team. Jennings hopes it’s one step in his ongoing work to diversify the comic book industry, and start conversations about race in media.
In the original story from 1969, Harper sacrifices his life to help the Silver Surfer and save humanity from an alien bomb. The Silver Surfer marks Harper’s grave with a cosmic flame, symbolizing his heroic deed.
The new series picks up a decade after his death, as Harper’s relatives are moving into his old house in fictitious Sweetwater, New York. Josh and Toni Brooks make discoveries in the house, including a secret lab, and release the Ghost Light — their formerly-deceased uncle, Dr. Al B. Harper — who has a new, mysterious energy.
Jennings saw great potential in bringing Harper’s character back to life, with cosmic abilities that come from the Silver Surfer’s powers. He pitched the idea of a mini-series to Marvel, which greenlighted the project in 2020, and started working with other Black creatives for the project over the past few years.
“For the most part, when a Black character dies, he stays dead,” Jennings said. “So for (Marvel) to say this character is important enough to actually give a family, people that love him; that makes him real. It gives a character humanity.”
Jennings said that he wanted to avoid past harmful media and cultural stereotypes that have too often dehumanized diverse characters, especially in the political superhero world. Instead, he said, he wants to center the modern Black experience, struggles and triumphs included.
“A great deal of why Al Harper was created was to talk about race in America,” Jennings said. “The original story (in Silver Surfer #5) is called ‘And Who Shall Mourn for Him?’ Stan Lee was asking Marvel fans, ‘If a Black man gave his life for yours, would you care? Would you grieve?’”
Jennings said that Ghost Light’s suit design is influenced by Afro-futurism, African Sankofa symbols, and Afro-centric color schemes. He wants to bring Harper’s character — which debuted purposely during the 1960s civil rights movement, a year after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s death — into modern-day context.
“It’s important for Black folks to see themselves represented, to have positive role models,” Jennings said. “If I can extend my empathy to these characters, then people reading this — White, Latinx, whatever — should be able to extend their empathy too. Because I want you to mourn for him, which is what Stan Lee asked … because all of these (diverse) stories matter.”
Jennings is working with Marvel on an upcoming guide, “My Super Hero is Black,” which gives a chronological look at Black characters in the Marvel universe from 1950 to the present day. Harper was introduced in the Silver Surfer a few months before Sam Wilson, aka the Falcon, and three years after the Black Panther.
“It’s empowering for people to see themselves as heroes, especially people who are traditionally looked at as villains … not powerful or contributing anything to history,” Jennings said.
Marvel’s “Silver Surfer: Ghost Light” will have five total editions released monthly online and at local comic book shops through June. A full paper-back series, released in fall, is available for pre-order.