The 1960s was a time of social change, as the fight for Civil Rights for black Americans was constantly in the headlines of the era. Marvel gets (and takes) big props for their progressiveness in introducing the Black Panther, a dark-skinned super hero, in FANTASTIC FOUR in 1966–and in fairness, that was still an accomplishment to tout. But Marvel wasn’t the first to feature a black lead hero in his own series. No, that crown must be given to Dell Comics, for its short-lived series LOBO. While the book only ran for two issues–apparently, it ran into exactly the kinds of distribution problems that Marvel’s Martin Goodman was always worried about with the Panther, unable to get racking in many places, especially in the South.
LOBO #1 went on sale in August of 1965, and followed the exploits of a nameless black soldier who goes west after fighting for the Union during the Civil War. In the manner of so many other western heroes of the period, he is wrongly accused of a murder and is forced to constantly travel from place to place. He adopts the name of Lobo as an extension of his new condition, and he always gets involved on the side of the underdog and the little guy in whatever situation he comes across. In many ways, LOBO was a by-the-numbers western character–apart from his pigment.
Lobo was the creation of writer/editor D.J. Arneson and artist Tony Tallarico. In later years, when the renowned of what they had created came to be more widely recognized, both men individually claimed to have been the primary if not only creator of the character, with the other man coming on board after the fact to simply handle that part of the job. I’m not going to try to parse the conflicting stories here, so for our purposes, we’ll accept that Lobo was the joint work of Arneson and Tallarico and leave things at that.
I can’t say that LOBO made much of an impact on fandom when it first came out. It was a western title, and most of the active early fans were all about super hero comics, for all that they might purchase an occasional western if it appealed to them. And as I mentioned earlier, it ran for only two issues (with a sizeable gap between the two) thanks to pushback at the distributor level. It’s also a bit of a crude effort, to be honest. Tallarico had a long career working in comics, but he was never a huge fan favorite, and his art had a built-in cartooniness to it that didn’t always work on adventure strips such as this one. There’s almost a coloring book quality to his work here on LOBO #1.
The one thing that was interesting about LOBO in retrospect was the fact that, throughout all of his stories, no mention is ever really made about his skin color or background. He’s simply accepted just as he is, no different than any of the other soldiers or characters who inhabit teh strip. His color is made no issue of at all–which is a pretty progressive manner in which to handle things. An argument could be made that this whitewashes Lobo’s story somewhat–that his experiences are depicted as being interchangeable with those of any white soldier of that time. I’m not really someone best equipped to speak to those arguments. But I can appreciate the fact that Lobo’s creators simply put him out there and allowed his very presence to be the only statement they needed to make.