One of Marvel’s earliest African American characters — and the first Black human to become a superhero — has come back to life thanks to the imagination of John Jennings, a graphic novelist and professor of media and cultural studies at UC Riverside.
Al B. Harper, a physicist and friend to Silver Surfer, sacrificed his life to save the world in Marvel’s The Silver Surfer #5 edition, published in 1969. The Black character was originally created by Stan Lee and John Buscema in that edition. Al B. Harper’s revival comes after 54 years in this new five-book miniseries, Silver Surfer: Ghost Light, which went on sale Feb. 1.
Al’s superhero persona is now centered to reflect today’s society and the Black experience in the United States, Jennings said.
“A great deal of why Al Harper was created was to talk about race in America. The original story is called ‘And Who Shall Mourn for Him?’ Stan Lee was asking Marvel's fans, ‘If a Black man gave his life for yours, would you care? Would you grieve?’” said Jennings, a Hugo and Eisner award winner and New York Times best-selling author who worked with artist Valentine De Landro on this comic book series. De Landro has worked for Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse on books such as Bitch Planet, X-Factor, and Black Manta. “I was researching this story for another Marvel book in the middle of the George Floyd protests; one of the biggest global protests in history. It just felt like Al Harper was needed again. Marvel agreed.”
This is also the first time Silver Surfer, a cosmic hero who lives on the planet Zenn-La, is at the hands of an all-Black creative team; as a graphic novelist Jennings is known for his advocacy work to diversity the comic book industry.
In Silver Surfer: Ghost Light, Jennings broadens the Civil Rights and racism conversation Lee and Buscema intended at that time. In Al’s comeback, he and Silver Surfer team up against evil, but Al’s primary challenge is picking up the pieces marked by his absence while trying to understand a world that had accepted his death more than 10 years back.
In developing this story, Jennings was inspired by great storytellers, by his own personal experiences, and by community occurrences as well. Readers of the first Silver Surfer: Ghost Light will learn of the fictional town in Upstate New York called Sweetwater. Sweetwater appeared in short stories by the late Henry Dumas, a writer, poet, Air Force veteran, and active civil rights participant, who was killed by police in New York in 1968 at the age of 33. Dumas’s work was disseminated posthumously by Toni Morrison and Eugene Redmond.
In the miniseries Jennings also introduces new enemies and brand-new characters, including Toni Brooks, a teenage girl who isn’t very happy about leaving her friends and city life for a rural home in Sweetwater. Her name, Toni, was a way to pay homage to Toni Morrison, Jennings said.
“Marvel’s motto is that their comics are supposed to show us the ‘world outside our windows.’ However, that window has really only shown a very narrow view of what our society is like,” Jennings said. “I was thinking of Toni as our point-of-view character; much like Chris Claremont used Kitty Pryde as a new perspective on the lives of the Uncanny X-Men. I wanted to show the viewers a new window and hopefully a new way of seeing.”
Jennings’s most recent work includes coauthoring “My Super Hero is Black,” a book that traces the stories of Marvel Universe’s Black characters and their creators. Another is his adaptation of Octavia Butler’s “Kindred” into a graphic novel.
“It has been an amazing experience and I’ve learned so much working with Marvel’s editorial staff,” Jennings said. “It’s been a wonderful experience and I hope to do some more stories with them.”