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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Essays

He’s One of Ours: Blackness in Animation

It all started with Piccolo...

By Kambole Campbell
Illustrations by Julian Adon Alexander

October 2, 2023

Illustration by Julian Adon Alexander, 2023.

Watching Dragon Ball Z (19891996) as a kid, I knew on an instinctual level that Piccolo was family, and it wasn’t just his paternal nature.

His Blackness always felt right to me. While the supporting character is green because of his alien Namekian heritage, his skin color is a standout visual trait among the series’ principal cast, who mostly have light or white skin. Though the series itself never confirms my reading of Piccolo, searching online quickly confirms that many believe the same.

Gaming developer and journalist Isaiah Colbert discusses this desire to assign Blackness: “My ability to identify Black-coded characters like Piccolo became second nature as I matured in a world infused with cartoons and anime,” he writes. “Black-coded characters are not technically ‘Black,’ typically because the race system we’ve constructed is not mirrored in the worlds they exist in. They are instead ‘coded’ as Black in how their stories or representations often mirror the Black experience in America.” 

My desire to find a mirror partially came from the scarcity of Black animated characters with real emotional depth when the series first aired. Perhaps it’s even wish fulfillment: there are a handful of Black characters on Dragon Ball Z, but none that I wanted to see myself in, given their inconsequential standing and the show’s tendency toward drawing them as racist caricatures, the most significant case being Mr. Popo. Over time, animation has made room for more sensitively depicted Black characters, but growing up, I drifted to characters like Piccolo, who provided a more meaningful sense of connection. 

I had similar interpretations of Blackness about other green nonhuman characters  Watching the ’00s cartoon as a child, I felt the same connection to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2003–2009) even though, looking back, the persistent surfer dude cadence of speech makes that less explicable. I think I saw the characters as cool and of my own heritage because they were different. It could also be that their appearance didn’t dictate their interests (acting “Black enough” was an early insecurity for me.) However, my earlier coding of the Ninja Turtles as Black was partially affirmed in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem (2023) with the film’s casting of Micah Abbey and Shamon Brown Jr. as Donatello and Michelangelo, respectively.

©Julian Adon Alexander, 2023.

We can find self-identification in unexpected places—Blackness can exist intangibly, escaping authorial intent and perhaps later informing it. Take Walter Mosley’s opining (Spider-Man, in comic form, was the first Black superhero, pre-dating the casting of Miles Morales by decades): “People are afraid of him; the police are after him. The only way he can get a job is by taking pictures of himself that are used against him in public.” Mosley continues, “That’s a Black hero right there. Of course, he’s actually a white guy. But [B]lack people reading Spider-Man are like, Yeah, I get that. I identify with this character here.” 

We interpret art largely based on our gaze, influenced by our own lived experiences, politics, identity, etc. Animation, by its very nature, leaves room for us, the viewers, to project our imagination onto the screen. When viewing animated nonhuman characters, or even human characters who are just an artist’s interpretation of a person, in my experience, it’s easy for people from communities not well represented on-screen to seek kinship with these characters. Take how Black fandoms have often identified with anime protagonists overcoming social stigmatization, such as in shows like Yu Yu Hakusho (1992–1994) or Naruto (2002–2007).

Another childhood example is Martian Manhunter, from the beloved series Justice League (20012004) and Justice League Unlimited (2004–2006), developed by Bruce Timm and frequently written by Dwayne McDuffie, a co-founder of DC Comics’ Black-focused imprint, Milestone (1993). The shows popularized alternate figures for superheroes; for example, the Black architect John Stewart took over the role of Earth’s primary Green Lantern from Hal Jordan’s white version of Green Lantern. Through picking Stewart, both Justice League shows put a Black character at the forefront while perhaps helping lead to later superhero shows such as Static Shock, which was produced by much of the same creative team.² However, there is still much coding to decipher in characters such as Martian Manhunter, notably voiced by Black actor Carl Lumbly. Many episodes focused on Martian Manhunter’s alienation and attempts to assimilate with humankind as a shapeshifter. His human disguises have taken a lot of forms, but since Justice League he has most frequently taken the guise of a Black man.³ 

When viewing such animated series, we can trace conscious efforts by animators to shift the racial balance. White cis-het characters are often the default in children’s media, so when a character comes along who is more vaguely defined, it provides an opportunity to see oneself and questions about oneself reflected in their stories. The proliferation of these readings has eventually led creators to code or re-code nonhuman characters as Black, a recent example being Darwin, a deuteragonist from The Amazing World of Gumball (2011–2019), a clever and meta children’s comedy on Cartoon Network. Darwin’s voice actors for the series have all been Black.4­ Alongside Cartoon Network’s consistent posting of fan art portraying Darwin as Black, the show creator Ben Bocquelet confirmed as much in a tweet. Elements of Black coding are reflected in the show as well, as seen in an episode in which his adoptive family slides into appropriating Darwin’s culture in a misguided attempt to help connect him with his roots, a sharp take on being adopted into a white family.

©Julian Adon Alexander, 2023.

Jordan Calhoun writes of this phenomenon of assigning Blackness in his memoir Piccolo Is Black: A Memoir of Race, Religion, and Pop Culture and how it “created a generation of kids who learned to ‘code’ characters, assigning them a race, sexuality, or other identities that weren’t specifically prescribed but that were no less real to those of us who wanted to see ourselves reflected in a media landscape that wasn’t interested in us” during the ’80s and ’90s, “when entertainment media [was] transitioning away from more blatant depictions of racist caricatures but weren’t sold on diversifying their characters yet.” By coding these characters, viewers like Calhoun and myself created a chance to see ourselves in the lead or, at the very least, more powerful, rather than as supporting characters or background.

The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1984–2014) comic was created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird in 1984 as a parody of comic book tropes popular at the time. For example, writer Sean T. Collins notes this in the title of the series itself—borrowing “Teenager” from Teen Titans (1964–), “Mutants” from the X-Men (1963–), and “Ninjas” from Daredevil (1964–). In the years since, and especially within the context of Mutant Mayhem, we see a range of characters coded and drawn as Black. The mad scientist Baxter Stockman, who creates the Ninja Turtles via his experimentation with toxic “ooze” (charmingly, the film never elaborates upon that pulpy term), is Black. Baxter was even illustrated as Black in the comics by Eastman and Laird but was nonetheless portrayed as a white, soulless nerd in the ’80s TV series. Allegedly the character’s race was changed to make him more “harmless,” inspiring some raised eyebrows about that decision versus the more vicious Black iterations of Baxter in the comics and 2003 TV show.­ In the 2023 film he is a Black man again, voiced by Giancarlo Esposito.5 Mutant Mayhem softens and nuances his representation, conveying Esposito’s Baxter as eccentric and misunderstood; he is human but feels isolated, a social misfit who believes he can only find community with the mutants he creates. The Ninja Turtles likewise exist on the fringes of society because of their appearance, a plight that is not explicitly connected to Baxter’s Black identity but can easily be inferred. The first real point of contact the Ninja Turtles have with the human world is through April O’Neil, Mutant Mayhem’s take on the classic Lois Lane–type character, though teenage April is a junior reporter. In a decision that has ruffled some feathers, April is also Black, voiced with nervy charm by Ayo Edebiri.6 This depiction is a key difference from other portrayals of Black characters in animation such as Mr. Popo, as April and Baxter are both drawn and coded as Black characters with depth and idiosyncrasies.

Here, April is funny and flawed, less confident than in other iterations of her character but incredibly cool nonetheless. She’s an easy character to root for, without being pandering through deification (she has her own embarrassments and teen insecurities too). She connects to the Ninja Turtles through her own feelings of loneliness after being publicly humiliated on her school’s closed-circuit news network, throwing up on camera. Her character design feels like a statement of intent, a doubling down on a decision first made by Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018–2020), the first TMNT series or film to portray the character as Black. Mutant Mayhem’s decision to follow this up makes this feel like a definitive take while giving O’Neil genuinely cool hero moments that stand out from the character’s cinematic history.  

©Julian Adon Alexander and Raquel Hazell, 2023.

If the film’s embrace of mutant-dom is, as Collins suggested, an extension of the idea as popularized by X-Men, then perhaps Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s (imperfect) allegories from the Marvel Universe can also be inherited. Accordingly, the mutants symbolize an oppressed underclass with their own opposing ideas on achieving self-determination and liberation—through conquering and killing or coexistence. We see this tension play out in Mutant Mayhem between the group of mutants led by Superfly (voiced by Ice Cube) and the Ninja Turtles, who believe in peaceful cohabitation, similar to Charles Xavier of the X-Men. Superfly, like Magneto, is less optimistic; he thinks the mutants are an oppressed underclass who will never gain true acceptance from humans, so the humans “gots to go.”

The Turtles’ clash with Superfly also links the helicopter parenting of their sewer-dwelling master, Splinter (Jackie Chan), with anxiety about assimilation. Splinter also doesn’t believe total acceptance is possible, but instead shelters his adopted children from the human world. As a kid, my own family moved to a primarily white neighborhood in the UK, so I felt being Black meant being isolated. There was a sense of comfort in knowing the Ninja Turtles felt this too. 

Mutant Mayhem, meanwhile, also wrestles with the Ninja Turtles’ belief that they can find acceptance through heroism—that is, a sort of social transaction in which they prove they are “good” mutants by saving the city so they can go to high school like “normal” kids. Even though this is quite an extreme situation, their worry about ostracization is highly relatable. In this way, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise has evolved with its latest installment and perhaps unwittingly paints a story about the difficulty of assimilation.

With its character design, Mutant Mayhem also closes the gap of relatability between the action figure stylings of past TMNT series and the viewer themselves. In the film, the Ninja Turtles look more akin to gangly, awkward teenagers as opposed to the overly muscled superheroes of the comics, TV shows, and Michael Bay’s live-action films of 2014 and 2016. They’re more humanized, in part because Mutant Mayhem is notably the first time actual teenagers voice the Ninja Turtles. The character animation in Mutant Mayhem is full of fun, exaggerated posing focused on creating a real sense of fraternity between the brothers. That natural chemistry was born from directors Jeff Rowe and Kyler Spears’s approach to voice recording sessions with all four actors present, allowing the actors to ad-lib together. The film then built in scenes around that spontaneity. The dialogue between the four brothers is unique in how crosstalk is encouraged, reflecting what a conversation between siblings would sound like, with animation that embraces that chaos by having them wildly gesticulate at each other. 

©Julian Adon Alexander, 2023.

In equal measure, as in other TMNT stories, Mutant Mayhem connects the brothers to the world outside their sewer through the culture they’re drawn to: anime, hip hop, R&B, and the many pop culture references they use as linguistic shorthand with each other. The portrayal of these interests and how they talk to each other feels like a refinement of the comics’ magpie-like approach. Here, the Ninja Turtles’ core traits remain present but are adapted to how a modern teenager might act. For example, Donatello’s affinity for tech translates to gaming and being an anime otaku, and Michelangelo’s party-dude attitude translates to a love of theater.

The film’s needle drops create a sense of knowing the distance between the directors and the characters they’re portraying. For example, tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Blackstreet, and M.O.P. provide nostalgia for those in the directors’ age range, but the Ninja Turtles listen to current music, discussing their interest in newer artists like BTS and Beyoncé. Hearing Donny, voiced by Abbey, a young Black actor, talk with such enthusiastic fervor about anime took me back to the subconscious connection I felt with the Ninja Turtles since childhood. But this time, with Mutant Mayhem, my coding of the characters is apparent on the surface and less buried in projections. 

As a multimedia franchise, other angles on these characters—from comic books to the ’80s TV show to previous films—inform the film alongside what the audience, many of us lifelong Ninja Turtles fans, might carry into Mutant Mayhem. Before the film’s release, confirmation of my intuition arrived as a crossover comic with the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. In a moment of what feels like incredibly canny fan service, aware of how readership sees the characters, the quartet briefly takes on human forms in the comic book, and lo and behold, they are Black teenagers. Reactions to this, including my own, were mainly along the lines of, I knew it!, an affirmation of what’s been there all along. It made me feel a little less ridiculous for believing it innately, as those instinctual childhood ties yielded a conclusion—an instance of contemporary comic writers tuning into audience perceptions and listening to them more. 

There has since been some resistance from fans who are upset about these racial revelations, with many believing there should be no coding or finding such visions contradictory to their own conceptions. Regardless of the naysayers, such affirmations are heartwarming to longtime fans and indicative of a very different pop culture landscape. We no longer have to search for such readings since they’re easily accessible in popular animation from across the globe—like how Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999) builds in references to figures such as Coffy (1973), one of the eponymous musicians in Carole & Tuesday (2019), or the self-explanatory Afro Samurai (2007). In shows increasingly directed at children, the 2000s offered Black lead shows such as Static Shock (2000–2004) and Fillmore! (2002–2004), and more have followed since Kipo & the Age of Wonderbeasts (2020) and Craig of the Creek (2018–).  

The importance of finding examples of both Black-coded and explicitly Black characters, particularly in shows aimed at children, brings me back to Piccolo. Unlike the Ninja Turtles, Darwin, and other characters we have confirmation as Black or Black-coded, there’s no such meta-textual evidence with Piccolo beyond what audiences have inferred from the show. 

Black viewers like me drifted to Piccolo because he was visually distinct from the other characters. At the time, as Colbert writes, Piccolo was “the sole representation of an ‘other’ . . . among a cast of white-presenting characters.” His alien nature was easy to empathize with, especially when I ended up in a school where the majority of children were white. Watching these comics, I understood Blackness wasn’t monolithic. I could extend what Blackness could be to characters I connected with, to characters who felt like they illustrated a piece of my reality on the screen. During a time when my white peers “were being taught that it’s virtuous to not see race,” characters such as Piccolo gave me and a generation of Black kids the tools to code characters and identify ourselves in media even if we weren’t meant to be reflected. 

In 2023, this concept of coding characters takes on a different meaning. With more frequency, kids’ animation features character design that inspires such identification. For example, in Steven Universe (2013–2019), Garnet is a literal living crystal with an afro and speaks with the voice of musician and actress Estelle.7 Cartoons such as Steven Universe, itself heavily influenced by Dragon Ball Z and its predecessor Dragon Ball (1986–1989) and other anime, feel like a response to the lack of intentional Black representation in animation for decades. Characters such as Garnet take racialized readings of othered characters a step further, incorporating Blackness more explicitly into the makeup of the show. While steps toward better representation remain incremental, we’re moving past the need to settle for stereotypes or the inklings of Black fandom. Instead, we’re already there.


1. It’s curious to note a number of comic characters we read as Black are green or alien. It now triggers a Pavlovian response when I see a new green character.
2. In the episode “Fallen Hero” (Kids WB, February 7, 2004), Static Shock investigates an alleged crime spree by John Stewart, particularly because Stewart is a “hero” of his.
3. In live action, Martian Manhunter has been portrayed by Harry Lennix and David Harewood.
4. Voiced by Kwesi Nii-Lante Boakye, Terrell Ransom Jr., Donielle T. Hansley Jr., and now Christian J. Simon. They each were replaced when their voices deepened due to puberty.
5. Todd Freeman played the role of Dr. Baxter Stockman in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tyler Perry played him in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2
6. O’Neil was also portrayed as Black in the series Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2018–2020).
7. Steven Universe is primarily known for its exploration of LGBTQ+ identity. The Crystal Gems are presented as nonbinary, and Steven himself has a somewhat fluid identity when he “fuses” with his friend Connie to become the NB character Stevonnie. Other characters, such as Bismuth and Sugalite, are also Black-coded.