Superhero comics have been, unfortunately, homogenized for most of their existence. Straight, white male heroes were the standard for the longest time. With a changing culture in the 60s and 70s, finally, nearly 30 years after Superman burst onto the scene, the world was introduced to the first black male superhero, the Black Panther. A decade later, the first Black female superhero debuted as Storm of the X-Men.
Except Storm wasn’t the first. She was beaten by nearly four years.
Creating the first Black female superhero
Whether placing first in a race or the first deaf superhero, so much importance rests on breaking boundaries first.
This is why Marian Michaels, AKA The Butterfly’s, obscurity is such a shame. Even her publisher, Skywald Publications, went out of business.
In December 1970, editor Sol Brodsky, associate editor Herschel Waldman, and freelance writer Gary Friedrich hatched an idea for an adult-oriented comic book. They brainstormed a hero called Hell-Rider but quickly realized that his story filled only part of a magazine.
A few days later, Brodsky pitched The Butterfly, the first Black female superhero.
The comic came together under the title Hell-Rider, and The Butterfly made her debut in August 1971 — making 2021 her 50th anniversary.
Marian Michaels, AKA The Butterfly, the first Black female superhero
Every hero has a secret identity. The Butterfly secretly lived a public life as the up-and-coming Las Vegas singer Marian Michaels. Hiding her costume in her dressing room, Marian slipped away before or after her shows to patrol as The Butterfly.
She sang a soul-funk song to a receptive audience in her first appearance. Her singing career earned her famous friends and tours, performing around the country and in Washington DC (even if that show led to superhero antics).
As The Butterfly, she used her power pack to fly, a flashy costume that could blind enemies, and gloves tipped to cling to surfaces, much like Spider-Man. However, she only fought a handful of villains.
Both Marvel and DC addressed current events through the years with Batman, Spider-Man, and all their heroes. Skyward Publications wanted the Hell-Rider magazine to reflect the culture of the 1970s, so naturally, their heroes face off against heroin smugglers, biker gangs, and white supremacists groups.
In her second issue, The Butterfly fought the Order of the Crimson Cross, a white supremacist group with mind-control technology. The second-in-command escaped, while the arrested leader turned out to be a United States senator. At the time, this would have been hugely controversial.
She had the powers, the secret identity, and she was the first female Black superhero. So why does no one know about her?
Copyright laws released her into the public domain upon publication
With companies like Disney and Nintendo sending Cease & Desist letters left and right, it’s hard to imagine how a company could accidentally lose the copyright to its characters.
In 1971, when Skywald published its Hell-Rider magazine, they failed to include the word ’copyright’ or its symbol, followed by the publication year and copyright holders. Therefore, the magazine, and the characters within, were immediately public domain.
Hell-Rider only ran for two issues. An advertised third appeared in the back of other Skywald comics but never released.
Skywald Publications went out of business in 1975, pushed out of newsstands by Marvel Comics.
If the first Black female superhero is public domain, free for anyone to use, why hasn’t Marvel or DC scooped her up?
Unfortunately, it’s because she is public domain. While they can create a version of the character, a competitor can just as easily do the same without any legal proceedings. Why put the effort into developing a character when someone could suddenly make a more profitable version?
Admittedly, the comics contain some outdated ideas and language. However, The Butterfly was born out of a desire to reflect the real world. She may only appear in two comics, but her story as the first Black female superhero is so much bigger.
Paving the way for characters like Storm and DC’s Bumblebee, The Butterfly deserves special recognition on her birthday.