Marvel Comics’ Black Panther character is the first black superhero to appear in American comic books, debuting in Fantastic Four #52 (July 1966). While the Black Panther’s published adventures are plentiful and continue today, the adventures of America’s first black superheroine, The Butterfly, are few; she had two appearances in a short-lived comics magazine generated by a now-defunct comics publisher, and the character is not well-known to modern comics readers.
The Butterfly debuted in the first issue of Hell-Rider #1 (August 1971), a black-and-white superhero action comics magazine published by Skywald Publications. From 1970 through 1974, Skywald published mostly black-and-white horror comics magazines, such as Nightmare, Psycho, and Scream; these magazines were exempt from the self-imposed content restrictions of mainstream comic book publishers under the Comics Code Authority.
Skywald used this creative freedom to target an older male comics-reading audience, with content that would not be found in 1970s mainstream comics. The cover of Hell-Rider #1 depicts a costumed superhero (the eponymous Hell-Rider) riding a flame-throwing motorcycle as he thwarts costumed villains on a beach, while two bikini-clad women – one black, the other white – cling to one another amid the excitement.
In her book Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, African American studies professor Deborah Elizabeth Whaley examines the titillating elements of the cover: “The thrill-riding, violence, patriotism, scant clothing, homoerotic imagery, and cross-racial desire illustrated on this cover were surely meant to entice male readers.” But Whaley goes on to note the significance of the comic: “Yet Hell Rider [sic] did notable cultural work by introducing an unlikely metamorphosis in the comic book world: the Butterfly, who is the first Black female comic book superheroine.”
Hell-Rider featured three loosely inter-connected adventure strips: lawyer/biker/Vietnam veteran Brick Reese is given superhuman strength and endurance by the experimental Q-47 formula and fights crime as the costumed hero, Hell-Rider; Las Vegas nightclub singer (and coincidentally, a friend of one of Reese’s clients) Marian Michaels dons a revealing skintight costume – equipped with a jetpack and blinding strobe lights – to fight crime as the Butterfly; and the Wild Bunch, a tough-but-benevolent motorcycle gang with social connections to both Reese and Michaels.
The characters were created by writer Gary Friedrich with a variety of artists, including Syd Shore, Dick Ayers, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, John Celardo, and Rich Buckler. Artists Mike Esposito and John Celardo are credited with illustrating the Butterfly’s first adventure, and in the second and final issue of Hell-Rider, Buckler is credited as the artist for that issue’s Butterfly adventure.
In an interview with blogger Daniel Best, Buckler states that he also wrote the story (but not the final script) of the Butterfly’s second adventure, and that as an artist he chose to make the characters “more black” in appearance. However, Buckler states that Skywald was not happy with his depictions of the characters, and that the publisher hired artist Bill Everett (the creator of Marvel’s Prince Namor, the Submariner character) to make the characters appear “more white”: “I got flack for this and Bill Everett was hired to touch up many of the faces (to make them look more white–go figure), and I quit when I saw the final result.”
With only two published issues of Hell-Rider, the Butterfly had a brief superhero career. In the first issue, she fights the henchmen of a villainous costumed drug dealer, The Claw; in issue two, she defeats a racist, Ku Klux Klan-inspired organization, the Order of the Crimson Cross, which fails to corrupt the superheroine with its mind control technology. For modern comics readers, the Butterfly’s published adventures are obscure and hard to find, and the character is generally only remembered by comics historians and Skywald fans.
Approximately a year after Hell-Rider ceased publication, Friedrich, now working for Marvel Comics, co-created another hero character with similarities to Hell-Rider (e.g., rides a motorcycle, has a similar name and uses fire, but with an actual connection to Hell), Ghost Rider. While many comics fans know Friedrich as the co-creator of Ghost Rider, they may not be aware that he achieved a cultural milestone when he co-created and wrote the adventures of America’s first black female superhero character.
NOTES AND FURTHER READING: In her book Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime, Deborah Elizabeth Whaley examines the presentation of the Butterfly and other female characters of African descent in comics.
Daniel Best’s interview with artist Rich Buckler about his work on the Butterfly can be found here.
You can read more about the Butterfly’s first and second adventures at the Out of this World blog. The cover for Hell-Rider #1 and the introductory page for the Butterfly’s first adventure, used above, can be found at this site.
The artwork from the Butterfly’s adventures in Hell-Rider #2 were scanned from the author’s copy of the magazine.
The images above are the property of their respective owner(s), and are presented for not-for-profit, educational purposes only under the fair use doctrine of the copyright laws of the United States of America.
#MarvelShare: Here’s a digital code for Illuminati #1 – first person to redeem the code at marvel.com/redeem, gets it!
8 thoughts on “The Butterfly: The First Black Superheroine in Comics”
Butterfly will return soon in an anthology comic created by myself early next year. Besides original characters and stories by myself and two time Eisner Award winner Mike Baron there will be Butterfly’s return plotted by myself and the late Rich Buckler with story by R. Alan Brooks and art by Frank Fosco
Thanks for sharing this information; the anthology sounds great, and I look forward to reading the further adventures of the Butterfly.
Please keep me informed on this new project. I am Prof. William H. Foster III, Comic Book Historian. I would enjoy helping pass the word. email@example.com.
Has this comic come out yet?