The first black female superhero was Butterfly, published by the now-defunct Skywald publications in 1970.
Five years later, the publication was out of business, and so was the Butterfly. But The Butterfly wasn’t the only black female character to radically alter the comic book landscape. Following in the wake of the Butterfly were several black female Marvel characters.
Not all of them are morally good, and some are atypically heroic. All of them are strong, capable black women and worth getting to know.
Butterfly might have been the first black female superhero to appear in comics, but Ororo Munroe or Storm has the distinction of being the first of a run of black female Marvel characters to headline her own series.
However, Storm made her comics debut in 1975 in Giant-Size X-Men 1. The character was a human-mutant hybrid whose abilities included:
- Controlling weather/weather patterns
- Altering temperature and atmosphere
Unsurprisingly, Storm earns her name from her ability to control the cosmos. But her imprint on comic book history goes considerably further. As Ororo Munroe, Storm is born to a tribal Kenyan princess and a photojournalist father.
Like many of Marvel’s black characters, she grows up in Harlem and Cairo. When an international conflict leaves her orphaned, Munroe becomes an adept pickpocket, and it’s as Marvel’s solution to the Artful Dodger that Storm gets her first introduction to the world of enhanced superheroes.
A pickpocket attempt puts her in contact with Professor X, who leads the mutant X-Men, and he sees in Storm an ideal candidate for his team of merry misfits. Strom is soon part of the X-Men, and the mutant team provides Marvel with a creative and innovative way to tackle complex issues like discrimination.
Storm also has a long, often complicated relationship with T’Challa, alias Black Panther. The pair met before Storm’s affiliation with the X-Men. Although close, their involvement with divergent branches of the superhero world, Storm with the X-Men and T’Challa with the Avengers, put them out of touch for years.
The pair reconnected during their joint tenure in the Fantastic Four and eventually married. Even this proved complicated, as wedding arrangements had to be made around an ongoing feud between friends.
They briefly brokered a truce, but the marriage was short-lived as Storm and T’Challa took opposite sides in a conflict between the Avengers and X-Men.
Storm’s other notable comic book story involves a battle with DC’s Wonder Woman, where Storm emerged victorious.
When it comes to black female Marvel characters it’s impossible not to talk about Monica Rambeau.
Created by writer and artist team Roger Stern and John Romita Jr, Rambeau made her comics debut in The Amazing Spider-Man as a reimagined Captain Marvel. But she didn’t keep the title long. As time went on, Monica Rambeau’s power set evolved, and as it changed, so did her title. Other notable Superhero identities assumed by this black female Marvel character include:
Whatever her superhero alias, Monica Rambeau’s powers are consistently energy-driven. An overexposure to electromagnetism leaves her with the ability to manipulate all kinds of energy, from visible light to gamma rays. But that’s a lot of power to have rattling around, and many of Rambeau’s early narratives center on her ability to control her powers.
As Rambeau attempts to hone her powers, she joins forces with the Avengers. Later, a superhero in her own right, she becomes the Avengers’ leader. She inherits the role from fellow female superhero Wasp.
However, Rambeau is tested to the limits of her endurance when the team must battle Leviathan. Rambeau is instrumental in the monster’s defeat, and her powers shift in the process. Transformed into a gargantuan and powerful bolt of lightning, she overthrows the monster, but at the cost of her powers. While vanquishing Leviathan, Rambeau unthinkingly damages her atomic integrity and barely resumes a corporeal state.
Even without enhanced powers, Rambeau continued fighting criminals and maintained her connection with the Avengers. She does eventually regain her abilities, too.
Marvel’s Monica Rambeau first appeared on-screen as a child in Captain Marvel. But the character made her first appearance as one of several black female Marvel characters on the small screen in the Disney+ project WandaVision.
As Rambeau confronts the Hex around Westview, viewers witness her first encounter with electromagnetism. This sets Rambeau up to take on one of her many superhero identities in larger Marvel projects, though fans continue to debate which one this will be.
Mercedes ‘Misty’ Knight is another prominent black female Marvel character.
Knight first gets mentioned in Marvel Premiere 20, where her name appears but not the woman herself. However, readers didn’t have to wait long; Knight turns up in the subsequent comics installment, created by creative team Tony Isabella and Avrell Jones.
While Knight is remarkable for many reasons, one of the things that immediately sets her apart from other black female Marvel characters is her bionic arm. Previously Knight was an NYPD officer, and when she loses her arm, she resigns. But that doesn’t stop her from fighting crime.
She returns with a bionically-enhanced arm courtesy of Tony Stark, and with friend Colleen Wing, Knight takes on local villains, with occasional help from Heroes for Hire Like Cage and Danny Rand. Although Knight is predominantly associated with the Daughters of the Dragon, she also briefly helms the Valkyrie.
Knight became more familiar to Marvel fans everywhere when her character came to the small screen through Netflix’s Luke Cage. In the show’s reworking of the well-known comics character, Knight still had her job, and how and when she lost her arm became a source of speculation.
And while it looked likely that Knight’s bionic arm was imminent at the end of Luke Cage’s first season, it wasn’t until The Defenders, another Netflix property, that fans saw their theories realized. As per Netflix, Knight gets her bionic arm, not from Stark, but Iron First.
Knight’s on-screen appearance wasn’t limited to Luke Cage, either. Simone Missick, who plays Knight, disappears and reappears across the Marvel Netflix universe, and in addition to her prominent role on Luke Cage, she also features in:
- Iron Fist
- The Defenders
Not all of the black female Marvel characters featured in the comics, or for that matter on screen, are protagonists. Mariah Dillard was created by collaborative team Steve Englehart, George Tuska, and Billy Graham.
She first appears as an antagonist to Luke Cage in Heroes for Hire 5. Luke bets her, and Dillard does time in prison, but she returns with bigger and brighter plans to best her nemesis. As Dillard plots Cage’s demise, she initially teams up with several other villains, including:
- X the Marvel
- Gideon Mace
- Mr. Fish
Cage escapes, but Dillard is unfazed. She embarks on a new scheme distributing a drug called Acid Z, whose detrimental side-effects range from madness to self-destruction. Dillard joins forces with another female Marvel character, Jennie Royce when Cage foils this scheme too.
This time, instead of going to war with Cage, Dillard and her partner hire him. They need him to acquire the Supersoul Stone, and they persuade him on the basis that it’s an old family artifact. Cage is successful, and when, by a circuitous route, Dillard ends up in possession of the artifact, it becomes the building block of her villainous empire.
She’s still villainous over on Netflix’s Luke Cage. On-screen, she has a finger in almost every pie. And while it’s her cousin, Cottonmouth, who has routine confrontations with Cage, viewers have little doubt who pulls the strings.
Luke Cage also fleshes out Dillard’s origins, and we see her connection to Maybelline Stokes. Stokes is interested in her own right because the portrayal of her character draws extensively on Stephanie St Clair, who made her name in policy banking, was vocal on police corruption, and resisted mafia involvement.
It’s a fascinating starting point for one of Marvel’s more well-rounded villains.
Tilda Johnson is another of the black female Marvel characters to break the occasional rule.
Steve Englehart and Alan Weiss first introduced Johnson in Captain America and the Falcon 16, where she made a remarkable debut as Queen of the Werewolves.
Incredibly, this isn’t Johnson’s only name. Over the years, she has also been dubbed:
- Dr. Nightshade
- Deadly Nightshade
Her arsenal of weapons ranges from a capacity for extraordinary genius to a chemical serum that enthralls nearby men and has the side effect of transforming Johnson into a werewolf. Not only that, Johnson is bitten by bedbugs who endow her with additional powers. In the way of comic book logic, even though the bite comes from a bedbug, the resultant abilities are spider-based.
And whereas Mariah Dillard is unequivocally antagonistic, Johnson is more morally flexible. She briefly teams up with other characters to protect an alternate Chicago from overzealous white nationalists. She also successfully confronts an army of Life Model Decoys that have run amok impersonating significant characters like Nick Fury.
As of a more recent turn, Johnson had inherited the title of Nighthawk and was, for the time being, firmly on the side of the heroes against ongoing incursions by Hydra.
When Johnson appears on Luke Cage, however, it’s as Mariah Dillard’s daughter, and she comes by her villainy honestly. The relationship between estranged mother and daughter is one of the many ways Luke Cage deviates from Johnson’s comic book character, but it does preserve her moral fluidity.
When Johnson enters the show, Dillard has taken over running the Cotton Club, and her villainy is pronounced. Johnson’s character is subtler in her machinations. And in a move that feels more biblical than comic book, she kills her mother with a kiss.
It’s a heel-turn for this black female Marvel character, who works as a holistic doctor when not assassinating relatives. To add final insult to injury, she does not inherit the Cotton Club, the long-established family organization. That goes to her mother’s nemesis, Luke Cage.
While the comic book depiction of Valkyrie hardly classifies as one of the many black female Marvel characters on offer, her on-screen representation is a different story.
The comics depict Valkyrie as the traditional Nordic goddess, fair-haired and fair-skinned. She first appeared in The Avengers 83 and was created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema.
But when Thor joined the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Tessa Thompson took on the part. Appearances aside, not much else changed. The character remains a capable warrior who leads the Asgardian vanguard.
As the Thor movies progress, Valkyrie takes on ever more leadership. By the end of one of the films, she is the ruler of New Asgard.
What is remarkable about Shuri as a black female Marvel character is that while she does eventually take on the Black Panther mantel, her initial brilliance is her intellect. This gives Shuri the distinction of being not only young, black and female, but a woman in STEM.
Shuri first appears in Black Panther 2, created by the collaborative duo Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr. Initially, she was intended as a supporting character for her brother, T’Challa. But her rapidly-growing popularity made publishers change their minds, and it wasn’t long before Shuri headlined a series in her own right. Many of these were written by popular black female author Nnedi Okorafor.
There are ongoing discussions with best-selling author Roseanne A Brown and Scholastic to produce a Shuri-inspired graphic novel. As of writing, the graphic novel is due for release in May 2022.
When she arrived on the big screen, actress Letitia Wright played the scientific genius. While there’s ongoing speculation about whether or not her character will inherit her brother’s superhero abilities, the cinema has so far emphasized Shuri’s extensive contribution to STEM studies.
Top Black Female Marvel Characters, Final Thoughts
Black female Marvel characters come in all shapes and sizes. Many are law-abiding and even heroic, but others are more morally complicated. Without exception, they are interesting women with complex stories to tell, on-screen and off.