Best Bets: Overlooked Black superheroes, characters get spotlight in DSU exhibit

Artist Guy Miller creates a lunch box and thermos design for the 1990s film “The Meteor Man” with Robert Townsend in the new exhibit “Subversion: Not a Bird, Not a Plane,” available to view online and in person at Delaware State University. The exhibit represents his exploration of the issue of representation of African Americans in pop culture.

Superman, Batman, Meteor Man, Blankman.

While the first two superheroes are known the world over, the last two are known only to a select few.

Delaware State University alumnus Guy Miller’s new art exhibition, titled “Subversion: Not a Bird, Not a Plane,” represents his exploration of the issue of representation of African Americans in pop culture. The works on display reflect an alternate reality created by Mr. Miller, in which Black superheroes from the mid-1990s are celebrated on lunchboxes, PEZ candy dispensers, trading cards and movie posters, all of his creation.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the exhibit can be viewed virtually at artgallery.desu.edu/exhibitions. It is also behind a glass door in the William C. Jason Library on the Dover campus.

Mr. Miller’s works feature his renditions of African American superheroes of the mid-1990s — 25 years before the cinematic success of 2018’s “Black Panther” — such as 1993’s “The Meteor Man” with Robert Townsend and 1994’s “Blankman” with Damon Wayans, as well as Marvel Comics characters like Bishop, Black Ranger, Storm, Blade and others.

Because lunchboxes and other items of those years were adorned with images of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk and other non-Black heroes, the Miller exhibition begs the question: Why were African American superheroes excluded from such products?

Mr. Miller, 29, graduated from Delaware State in 2013 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio arts. He later continued his education at American University in Washington, D.C., where he completed a Master of Fine Arts in 2019.

He is now an art educator at the Kent County Secondary Intensive Learning Center in Dover.

In the exhibit, Mr. Miller gives Susie, a character in the Nickelodeon cartoon series “Rugrats,” the lunch box she never had.

He said that it was upon going to school in Washington, away from the historically Black environment of DSU and the people with whom he grew up in New Castle, that he noticed his frame of reference, especially in pop culture, was different from those around him.

“I had a different database than the people I was in class with and I’m trying to communicate with daily. So that got me starting to think about just the things that I saw growing up, the movies that I’m familiar with, the TV shows that I know like the back of my hand, and how they could be very different for somebody else,” he said.

“So I started thinking about pop culture from a Black perspective, like what’s called culture to a Black guy. And I started collecting a bunch of images, different movies and things like that. And I just had a gut feeling that I should celebrate these things.”

At first, Mr. Miller’s thought was to build a makeshift shrine to these characters, but after further reflection, he came up with another idea.

“I started thinking about what people do to celebrate the things that aren’t popular. Superman, Batman, how are they celebrated? And I just thought about it. Oh, they show up everywhere. There are license plates. They’re on sneakers. They’re on lunchboxes, PEZ dispensers. There are 1,000 movies with the same guy over and over again,” he said.

“So that’s what I went and did. I started making the things that would propose the ideas of what it would look like if these guys were celebrated the same way that traditional superheroes were celebrated.”

For the exhibit, he created four movie posters, three for “The Meteor Man” (the original and two sequels that were never made) and, in the “Batman v. Superman” vein, a poster for a nonexistent movie where Meteor Man squares off with Blankman.

Those two movies, although lighter in tone than most of the superhero films are today, were failures at the box office. Mr. Miller isn’t entirely sure why.

“My best guess would be maybe there just wasn’t like a swirling conversation about (race) just yet. The movies did take place. They did happen. They were in theaters. But I don’t know if society was so ready to get behind the idea yet. Maybe they weren’t resisting and boycotting or were throwing tomatoes at the screen. Maybe they weren’t against it in that way. But maybe there was still just a little reluctance to actually support it.”

It wasn’t really until “Black Panther” with the late Chadwick Boseman that society was willing to accept a Black superhero on screen, Mr. Miller said.

“Everyone was ready to support it. And we mainly just weren’t there as a society just yet (in the 1990s),” he said.

A Pez candy dispenser depicting Wesley Snipes’ character of Blade, created by Guy Miller, is one of many pieces in his new exhibit at Delaware State University.

“I think there’s a lot to do with the association with it being a Marvel film and having a pretty strong foundation. Also, the climate at the time. Everything’s been going crazy the last couple of years, and I think a lot of conversations about race have come to the forefront. You see a lot of Black success nowadays. So it’s a lot more easier to digest, I believe, right now. So it’s just more, I’m not gonna say more appropriate, because my whole point is that it should have been happening then. But I think digestible is the best word to use for people right now.”

He points out that the popular belief is that “Black Panther” was the first African American Marvel character to star in a film franchise. In actuality, it was 1998’s “Blade,” starring Wesley Snipes.

In the exhibit, Mr. Miller shows a comic book collection made by Marvel after “The Meteor Man” was released that he jokingly calls “every issue ever.” Just seven were published.

Also included in the exhibit are lunchboxes that depict what Mr. Miller calls “auxiliary characters.” They are Black characters that appeared in comic books and cartoons but weren’t prominently featured.

Guy Miller

He calls some of these characters “covertly Black.” He offers Skeeter from the Nickelodeon cartoon series “Doug” and Panthro from the “ThunderCats” cartoon as examples.

“With Skeeter, his skin is blue. But you know from his mannerisms, his interests, we all can kind of pretty much deduce that he was Black. You acknowledge us and our culture, you added it to your show, which means it has to have some value. You have to agree with that. But at the same time, you didn’t actually show us as we are. There had to be some type of alterations,” Mr. Miller said.

“I can’t really say what their thoughts were when they did those things. But looking at it as myself, that’s where it leads me, is just questions that I have. Like, how come we couldn’t appear like Doug? He had a flesh skin tone. So how did it end up being blue?”

Without being identified as Black, Panthro also had stereotypically Black features, said Mr. Miller.

“He had a dull, gray coat with a big, wide nose. He was known for his brute strength, which is kind of a popular depiction for Blacks. “Especially, decades ago — more muscle, no brain. But he was a smart character. He was intelligent. He had technology and everything. But there were times where he was the brute force, as well,” Mr. Miller said.

“Even on his intro, when he appears, they play like a funky, super funkadelic theme song where he jumps on the screen. So this is very different than anything else that you hear when other characters come on screen. He was voiced by a Black guy, as well. So there were subtle things that they will do to let you know that somebody is Black.

“I don’t even know that it’s a bad thing. At that time, they maybe thought they were being inclusive. So I’m not taking issue with it. But it’s just something to point at and think about.”

The exhibit will be on view through December.

Holiday Shoppes

Over 100 crafters and vendors will gather for the Holiday Shoppes at the Delaware State Fair on Saturday.

The event will offer a wide selection of jewelry, accessories, home decor, candles, hand-painted items and more, as well as an array of food trucks.

An early-bird shopping pass allows entrance from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $7, plus a ticketing fee.

Advanced general admission is from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at $5, plus a ticketing fee.

Tickets at the gate are available from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. for $8.

Face masks must be worn at all times by food vendors, crafters, patrons and staff on the fairgrounds. This includes inside buildings and outside. If you are noncompliant with this request, you will be asked to leave with no refund.

For more information and tickets, visit delawarestatefair.com.

Decorations sought

The nonprofit Historic Odessa Foundation, which owns and operates the museum properties known as the Historic Houses of Odessa, is calling on the community to donate old holiday ornaments and decorations through Dec. 31. Donations help support the foundation’s educational programming and preservation efforts. The museum houses have been closed and all tours suspended since March due to COVID-19.

This holiday season, Historic Odessa will be setting up a recycled holiday ornament resale shop Nov. 27 through Dec. 31 in the foundation’s Visitor Center.

Community members looking to donate their gently used decorations and ornaments can drop them off at the foundation’s Visitor Center through Dec. 31. Visitor Center hours are Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1-4:30 p.m.

The Historic Odessa Bank/Visitor Center is at Second and Main streets. Call 378-4119.

Now Showing

New in theaters this weekend is the comedy/horror film, “Freaky.”