"Blackman" to the Rescue: Comic Book Artist Re-imagines Overtown's History

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It's a comic about "Blackman," an Overtown superhero with powers inspired by African myth. The character's nickname: the Colored Crusader. And it's conceived and drawn by a white guy.

Yeah, we cringed too.

But then Socrates S. Alvarez -- an admirably ballsy, very blond, 26-year-old Cuban-American in a Silver Surfer T-shirt -- laid out his sketches and explained his concept. And damned if our politically correct squeamishness wasn't zapped away as if by Cyclops' laser ray.

For two years, Alvarez has run ComicED, a nonprofit providing comic books to libraries and youth centers around Miami-Dade County. Now he has unveiled his grand plan: a comic book series designed to teach kids about local black history. More to the point, he wants to give Overtown -- and Miami -- a supernatural savior. "Every town needs their own superhero," he declares earnestly. "All those Marvel and DC comics were based in New York. You would think, in real life, that one of those superheroes would come here on vacation and decide to stay."

In Alvarez's sketches, which he is shopping to comics publishers, an Overtown laborer is transformed into a superhero -- yes, Blackman -- after finding the rings of legendary South Florida-circling slave-turned-pirate Black Caesar. Among the true historical events that Alvarez has woven in: Overtown's '50s-era renaissance, the McDuffie riots in 1979, and the neighborhood's eventual crippling bisection by I-95.

In later issues, Blackman even takes on gentrification. There's also a retired Jewish superhero who lives on Miami Beach, and two Cuban titans -- El Polo and La Mandaria -- with a "nice little abuela," Alvarez explains.

As for the Colored Crusader, Alvarez says that's the nickname an editor at '50s-era fictional newspaper the Miami Star gives to Blackman. He's referencing the prevailing racism of the time, he says: "I wanted to show the struggle of early black people in Overtown."

Alvarez brought his material to Timothy Barber, executive director of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. Barber gently suggested that he change the main character's original name to Barry Blackman to make his superhero title a bit less jarring. And he nixed Alvarez's concept that Overtown thrived in the '50s from the gold of Black Caesar because it was, well, gravely inauthentic.

"I asked him to just be sensitive to the nature of the story," Barber says, "and sensitive to how it will be received."

But Barber emerged a fan. "The Colored Crusader put me in the mind of the Brown Hornet," he says, referring to Fat Albert's favorite superhero. "All in all, I think he's doing something important. I'd love to stock it in our gift shop."

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