Growing up in Danville in the 1960s and '70s, Frank X Walker loved superhero comic books. As a black youth, he was especially drawn to the handful of black heroes emerging in the pages of Marvel and DC comics.
"At first, I was just happy to see someone in there who looked like me," Walker said recently. "Then, in college, I had my consciousness raised and I began to notice more."
He noticed things such as the puny power levels of most black heroes. Black Panther was an acrobatic African king, which was cool, but he wouldn't last a minute in a fight against boulder-crushers like Superman or Thor. The Falcon's power? He could talk to his pet bird, Redwing.
Some were barely reformed street thugs ("Sweet Christmas!" hero-for-hire Luke Cage hollers in a typical panel. "You gotta be jivin' me with an off-the-wall rap like that!"). Some were occasional substitutes when white heroes were unavailable for duty (John Stewart filling in as Green Lantern, Jim Rhodes wearing Iron Man's armor). Many had "Black" tacked onto their names (Black Lightning, Black Goliath, Black Racer) to drive home a point that didn't need making.
And nearly all were written and drawn by white men, and they almost never got their own monthly titles or television shows or movies.
Still, as Walker built a successful writing and teaching career, eventually becoming Kentucky's Poet Laureate, he stuck with his childhood hobby, buying anything he could find featuring black superheroes — thousands of comic books, posters, action figures and original art.
He finally accumulated so much stuff that he didn't know where to put it. The colorful display in his University of Kentucky office "was distracting people during our meetings," he said. "They kept looking over, wanting to check it out."
Now he's found a temporary solution. Until Jan. 5, a portion of Walker's personal collection is being shown at Lexington's Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center as an exhibit called We Wear the Mask: Black Superheroes Through the Ages.
On a recent weekday afternoon, wearing a Spider-Man shirt, Walker explained the cultural history behind some of the items to a small crowd that gathered at the exhibit for a Lexington Philharmonic event.
"I keep getting surprised by the response," Walker said. "We opened the weekend of the Roots and Heritage Festival, and we had several hundred people come through in just the first few hours. Folks kept saying, 'I didn't know any of this stuff existed!' It never occurred to me, growing up as I did, that other people were unaware of all this."
The previous week, Walker said, he received an email from a woman who toured the exhibit with her husband and their children.
"She said her husband had a great time because he got to share his childhood heroes with his son," Walker said. "That was nice. But it went to a deeper level when she told me her son went to school and had gotten to arguing with another kid as to whether there were any black superheroes. The other kid insisted that no, there weren't. So then her son walked in here and saw that yes, there were."
Comic books are more diverse today than they were 40 years ago, when Walker paid 12 cents for them. Marvel and DC have sprinkled black, Hispanic, Asian and gay heroes among the ranks of The Avengers, the Justice League and other super-teams. Marvel is introducing updated versions of some of its iconic characters, like Spider-Man and secret agent Nick Fury, who are black instead of white. Also, there are comics and graphic novels telling the stories of historic black figures such as President Barack Obama, Malcolm X, Congressman John Lewis and the Negro Baseball League.
Superhero creators still tend to be white men, though, as do most of the readers. Dwayne McDuffie, a black comics writer who died in 2011, once told an interviewer that he felt resistance from the industry whenever he tried to put black characters in a leading role or add more than a couple of black members to a team, even if the team already had a dozen white superheroes.
"In popular entertainment, once there are three black people in it, it is now 'a black product,'" McDuffie said. "Being a writer that the reader knows is black puts a lot of the readership — and I mean the mainstream, the white, male readership — on edge. The phrase I hear all the time is that I'm trying to shove my agenda down their throat."
Walker wants to improve the diversity by involving the next generation. He teaches an English class at UK called "Comics and Graphic Novels" where students study the form and use software to produce digital comics telling their own stories. He also has handed out free comics to kids for decades, hoping they'll get hooked.
One of those kids was Lafe Taylor, who remembers Walker giving him his first comic book 30 years ago, a copy of Plastic Man. Taylor learned to draw by replicating what he saw in comics.
Now 38, Taylor is a graphic designer for websites and mobile apps in Lexington. And he's waiting for a blockbuster Hollywood movie starring a black superhero to join the parade started by Iron Man, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Thor, Wolverine and assorted other whites in tights.
There already are a couple of black heroes onscreen, like the Falcon, who appeared as a sidekick in this year's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Taylor said.
"At this point, it's really about the marketing," Taylor said. "The studios ask, 'If we come out with a lead black character, will it have mass appeal?' It's not only about selling movie tickets, it's also whether they can sell the toys to kids."