The story of Virgil Hawkins had no business jumping into my childhood the way it did. The year was 2000, and my 8-year-old self-had only been exposed to superheroes of the Caucasian variety, the Batmans and Supermans and Spider-Mans ran my young life. I loved these characters and what they could do, but it never even clicked to me that black heroes existed as well. One fateful day, I was watching Kids WB cartoons, chomping down on whatever sugar filled cereal I had brow-beaten my mother into buying for me when I saw it. A preview for a brand new cartoon starring…a black kid with dreadlocks whose power is to control electricity!? My mind was blown.
Static, the 1993 brainchild of Milestone Comics’ Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, Derek Dingle and Michael Davis had finally been given the animated treatment after years in print. The show follows a high school freshman named Virgil Hawkins, a brilliant black boy who often got mixed up in the wrong crowd. One fateful night Virgil sneaks out to meet up with his friend who, while is super protective of Virgil, pressures him into pulling weight in his gang. A huge fight breaks out, and a pair of police choppers show up, firing tear gas into the fray. One of the canisters hits several drums of mysterious chemical gas, creating what would hence be referenced through throughout the series as “The Big Bang.”
This massive explosion affected anyone who came into contact with the gas, mutating their bodies with either extraordinary powers that didn’t affect their appearance at all, or with extraordinary powers that turned them into disfigured monsters. Seriously, there was NO in between. You either had powers and looked normal, or you looked like a blob. Or a cross between an animal. Luckily, Virgil was able to keep his melanated features when he was granted the power or electromagnetic phenomena generation. He can magnetize objects, make objects levitate, and straight up tase bros. With these new found powers and his nerdy white best friend Richie, Static defended Dakota City from rogue mutants known as “Bang Babies.”
This show had all the typical beats about using one’s power responsibly, sacrificing for the greater good, and saving the day in flashy fashion, but it had something that set it aside from your Spider-Mans and X-Men Evolutions: the show centered a black teen. Being young and black comes with its own set of issues. Black people, especially black men are expected to properly represent their communities at a very young age. Quite often there’s no sympathy for black boys who get peer pressured into joining gangs or committing crimes, just a mugshot on the evening news and a cold jail cell. Static Shock wasn’t afraid to delve deep into this issue, humanize the so-called thugs of the show. Wade, the friend that pressured Virgil into joining his gang, was a gang member, but he also saw a young, nerdy black kid being picked on and protected him from harm.
This show made sure the audience saw these villains through Static’s eyes. A perfect example would be the episode with Boom and Mirage, an orphaned brother-sister duo who used their powers of sound manipulation and photokinesis to commit crimes. With deeper investigation, Static found out from Mirage that they didn’t want to do these things, but after developing powers her brother felt that they could do what they needed to in order to escape their life of poverty. Most of the Bang Babies on the show weren’t looking to start trouble for trouble’s sake, but were simply products of their environment, an environment that gave them power when their previous circumstances made them feel powerless. The chemicals that caused The Big Bang ended up being owned by a white billionaire who refused to take responsibility for his chemicals poisoning the people of the city (big shocker there), which can easily be an allegory for the 1% endangering the lives of the lower class in order to put money in their pockets. Knowing this made it all the more fulfilling when at the end of the episode Static didn’t just beat the “bad guy,” but helped them get their life together after suffering from circumstances that were mostly out of their control.
I was truly blown away by the way Static navigated through life as a nerdy black kid, getting his grades straight and using humor to diffuse rough situations, in and out of his costume. He was like Spider-Man, but way smoother. I loved the way he utilized his powers, from using his electric discharge to add pressure to a gas chamber to bust himself out, to using his knowledge of electrolysis to split a villain comprised of pure H2O into hydrogen and oxygen. He was a hero who used his loc-covered brain to take care of any villain.
Slick talking a bad guy zapping aside, there was something special this show had that no other superhero show did that no other animated superhero show did this smoothly: its abundance of celebrity cameos. One day, Virgil could be getting life lessons from Shaq, the next Static is shooting a music video with Lil’ Romeo (I wonder if Virgil tried applying to ICDC College for undergrad). Hell, even Coolio showed up as a Bang Baby one episode. Static Shock never shied away from pop culture, seamlessly incorporating it into Virgil’s world. I hope the show gets a reboot, because seeing Static shake his dreads onstage with either J. Cole, Future, Travis Scott or Migos would make my century.
It wasn’t just real life celebrity cameos that made the show special, but the superhero ones as well. Static teamed up with Batman and Robin to take down the Joker, and the Justice League to take down Braniac (having to fight a brainwashed team in the process.) He’s even gotten to work some black hero magic with John Stewart, both as a teen and later on as a full grown Justice Leaguer in Batman Beyond’s future episode.
My favorite storyline is that of Ebon and Rubberband Man, two brothers who were both granted abilities, but used two different paths. Rubberband Man initially used his powers to get revenge on a shady record producer, but later decided to use his powers for good. His brother Ebon used his powers to gain more power in the city. Ebon kept trying to get Rubberband Man(never thought I’d be writing the name “Rubberband Man” this much in an article) to side with him, but he continued to resist, no matter how much he tried to tarnish his name. This storyline discussed brotherhood with faces I could relate to. No, it didn’t stop me from duking it out with my own brother from time to time, but I appreciated the representation.
Looking back, I loved how Static Shock was the first animated superhero show to bravely center blackness when every other show with a man in costume was whiter than the 45th president’s cabinet. This show made us fall in love with Virgil and his family, his sister who showed him love in the form of constant shade, and his father who was forced to raise two kids on his own when his wife was killed in the line of duty. I love how this show broke black stereotypes so effortlessly. Virgil’s father was the quintessential black parent, constantly checking in on his son to make sure he kept on the straight and narrow. When Virgil gets himself tested after receiving his powers, his doctor is black. No fanfare about a black man being a doctor, he’s just there doing his job. I’m glad this show zapped its way into my life, and I hope I get to see more animated action from this character in the future. He’s already a part of the Young Justice DC universe, and there’s a possibility he may show up in the live-action Black Lightning series, so I may not have to wait too much longer to see Virgil Hawkins serve up another shock to the system.
Author: Lorenzo Simpson
Editor: Han Angus
Keshav Kant, aka Mx. KantEven, is a neuroscience nerd turned Creative Consultant and Executive Director of Off Colour!
You’ve probably seen her on TikTok or caught her work on Off Colour's many channels. From consulting on films & shows, manuscript review, conducting interviews, or hosting podcasts & panels, if there is some way to bring sensitivity and authenticity to diversity, inclusion and equity conversations, Keshav will be there.