13 black TV superheroes who helped pave the way for Black Panther

A brief history, from Black Vulcan and Microwoman to M.A.N.T.I.S. and Moleculad.

Images: (Clockwise from upper left) Filmation / Warner Bros. / The Everett Collection

Marvel's Black Panther is poised to have one of the biggest weekends in box office history. Clearly, audiences are hungry for diversity in their superheroes. The 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (which does not count Marvel-branded films from other studios such as the X-Men franchise), Black Panther is the first solo vehicle for a black character in the series.

The earlier Blade trilogy of 1998–2004 often goes overlooked, as the Wesley Snipes vampire hunter was brought to life from the pages of 1970s Marvel Comics. Rewinding a few years earlier, one can find African-American superheroes headlining films like Steel (1997), Spawn (1997), Blankman (1994) and The Meteor Man (1993). But going back further, one is hard pressed to find examples on the big screen, outside of the larger-than-life crimefighters like Shaft and Foxy Brown in 1970s blaxploitation flicks.

Television, on the other hand, is another story. Black heroes slipped on spandex to fight alongside Wonder Woman and Batman on Super Friends. Black action heroes battled giant aliens on far-off planets. Below, you will find a baker's dozen of trailblazing characters. Not all of them are superpowered, but they certainly are vital characters who brought people to comic conventions. Besides, what is Batman beyond a clever rich guy with a rigid workout regime?

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1. Uhura

1966–69, 1973–75

Representation is a powerful thing. Uhura may have been a mere communications officer on the Enterprise, but her presence on the bridge mattered. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., a Trekkie himself, convinced actress Nichelle Nichols to stay on the show. (Watch Nichols herself tell the story to MeTV.) Whoopi Goldberg once told Gene Roddenberry, "Do you not know that, prior to your show, there were no black people in any sci-fi, anywhere?" It's true. Uhura's presence made a young Goldberg think, "Oh, we are in the future." Goldberg would go on to become part of the Star Trek universe herself, playing Guinan on several seasons of The Next Generation. Often forgotten in the story of Uhura is her increased role in Star Trek: The Animated Series. In the episode "The Lorelei Signal," Uhura, a black woman, takes command of the Enterprise, two decades before Sisko and Janeway.

2. Dan Erickson

1968–70

Visionary producer Irwin Allen took a Gulliver's Travels concept to outer space with Land of the Giants. The show centers around the crew of the spaceship Spindrift, who get, well, "lost in space," crashing on an Earth-like planet populated by giants. Helping them survive the mess is pilot Dan Erickson, played by Don Marshall, a man ready for action. The brave Erickson was featured on the Land of Giants lunchbox and the cover of Land of Giants coloring books, along with other merchandise.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. Elizabeth M'Bondo

1974–79

This British series brought to mind the X-Men, as it focused on a band of super-powered "Homo superior" akin to Charles Xavier's mutant students. The show was created by ITV as a response to the BBC's Doctor Who. In the second season, Elizabeth M'Bondo (Elizabeth Adare) joined the team in a mentor role, as the only black lead on the show. In 2013, the CW launched an American reboot, which lasted 22 episodes.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. Astrea

1977

The cosmic superheroes known as The Space Sentinels hit the Saturday morning cartoon schedule in 1977. Alongside Greek gods Mercury and Hercules was Astrea, a character created for the show. She had the ability to transform into any animal.

Image: Filmation / NBC

5. Black Vulcan

1977

Hanna-Barbera's Super Friends cartoon featured a bevy of DC Comics superheroes, from the Trinity of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to lesser figures like Hawkman and the Atom. The animators wanted to include Black Lightning, a new hero introduced in comic books in 1977, it could not be worked out with the character's creator, Tony Isabella. Instead, Hanna-Barbera created Black Vulcan, who sported a similarly colored costume and shot electricity from his hands.

Image: Hanna-Barbera / Warner Bros.

6. Microwoman and Superstretch

1978

A year later, the umbrella program Tarzan and the Super 7 brought a handful of new short cartoons to Saturday morning. There were familiar faces like Tarzan (naturally) and Batman, but also fresh creations like Superstretch and Microwoman, a married couple named Chris and Christy Cross with Wonder Twins–esque powers. Superstretch could morph into any shape, while Microwoman shrunk down her size.

Image: Image: Filmation / Comic Art Fans

7. The Brown Hornet

1979–84

A show within a show, Brown Hornet was a favorite watch for the characters of Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. The character dated back about a decade earlier however, as Cosby first performed some Brown Hornet skits on his radio program in 1968. An obvious spin on the Green Hornet, the Brown Hornet cruised in a spaceship shaped like an insect with his robot pal Tweeterbell.

Image: NBCUniversal Television Distribution

8. Moleculad

1981–82

Like Tarzan and the Super 7, Space Stars was a Hanna-Barbera block featuring a handful of different animated segments. Space Ghost and The Herculoids revived familiar characters, while Teen Force delivered some younger superheroes in outer space, Kid Comet, Elektra and Moleculad. The latter, seen here in his green suit, had the ability to change his molecular structure.

Image: Hanna-Barbera / Warner Bros.

9. Dr. Elvin "El" Lincoln

1985–86

In a market awash with endless Eighties reboots, the delightfully quirky Misfits of Science remains an underrated property of the Reagan Era. Those who remember it likely recall a young Courteney Cox. Another X-Men-like concept, the Misfits featured a ragtag group of nerdy characters with superpowers. El Lincoln (Kevin Peter Hall) towered over the rest, standing at over 7-feet tall. His power? Shrinking, of course.

Image: The Everett Collection

10. Lothar

1986–87

The cartoon Defenders of the Earth revived decades-old characters from the panels of Gold Key and King Comics, vintage heroes like the Phantom, Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician. Joining the team was Lothar, described on his action figure packaging as a "Caribbean Ninja." His son, martial arts expert L.J., fought with them, too. Buster Jones gave Lothar his voice, having previously played the parts of Black Vulcan and Doc in G.I. Joe.

Image: The Everett Collection

11. Benjamin Sisko

1993–99

As we discussed Uhura, we would be remiss if we did not include Sisko, the commanding officer of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. James Earl Jones and Eriq La Salle were considered for the lead role before Avery Brooks landed the gig. Brooks was previously best known as the star of A Man Called Hawk (1989), a spin-off spotlighting his character from Spencer: For Hire (1985-88).

12. M.A.N.T.I.S.

1994

Before he directed the Spider-Man trilogy, Sam Raimi produced this overlooked gem for the Fox Network that was canceled before its time. Dr. Miles Hawkins (Carl Lumbly) is paralysed after being shot. He constructs an exoskeleton dubbed the Mechanically Augmented Neuro Transmitter Interception System which grants him the ability to walk — and much more. The vigilante zips around in a hovercraft fighting crime. Low ratings led to a dramatic retooling of the plot, injecting more fantastical elements.

Image: The Everett Collection

13. Jett Jackson / Silverstone

1998–2001

The Disney channel production The Famous Jett Jackson also featured a show-within-a-show, Silverstone. Jackson was a young actor working on the fictional super-spy series in North Carolina. The show tackled issues of celebrity, race and other growing pains, while slowly introducing more supernatural elements. Eventually, in a sequel movie, Jett entered the fictional world of Silverstone and vice versa.

Image: The Everett Collection

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