Op-Ed: Superhero comics taught me the beauty of black power


As a young black boy in the 1970s, one who was queer but didn’t really know it, I was taught next to nothing in school about slavery (other than Lincoln’s exploits in ending it) and absolutely nothing about the cornucopia of possibilities for one’s own slavery gender or sexuality. But even in my elementary school days, I knew that anti-black racism is powerful. I opposed white racial ideas and challenged them when I could identify them, and I had a strong dislike for injustice.

Reading superhero comics has been a powerful and unexpected source of my willingness to challenge the status quo. These often discarded, unrealistic action-adventure stories about mostly white male heroes, written and drawn almost entirely by white male creators, fueled and sharpened my imagination.

My experience suggests that even if some of the recent harmful curriculum and book bans are successful in restricting children’s education, there is hope that they will miss their ultimate goal. At least some of today’s youth are finding elsewhere what they need to learn and thrive, despite the needless damage these attacks on academic freedom are inflicting on them.

None of my favorite superheroes like Thor and Dr. Strange was as powerful an influence on my childhood imagination as the little-known Nubia, Wonder Woman’s black twin sister. Endowed with all of the god-given superhuman gifts and martial abilities of her iconic sister Diana, Nubia’s story was revealed over the course of three issues of Wonder Woman comics in 1973. However, she became a footnote, mostly known to connoisseurs of superhero comics. Nubia and her shared ancestry with Wonder Woman were erased from two-dimensional existence by the successive DC Comics reboots beginning in the 1980s.

But I happened to see one of those first issues in 1973 when I was in third grade and living on a military base in West Germany where my father was stationed. And because I saw it, I started reading superhero comics.

Nubia was created as part of DC Comics’ attempt in the 1970s to integrate its all-white roster of superheroes and expand its consumer audience after the furor of rival Marvel Comics, which introduced the Black Panther in 1966. But unlike other contemporaries DC Comics tests in racial diversity, such as B. the now main character John Stewart (the Black and Green Lantern), Nubia did not become a recurring character in DC’s fantasy world.

Her commercial failure didn’t stop me from loving Nubia and making her a star in my own imagination. Apparently not for many others either. After almost 50 years of infrequent comic book appearances, Nubia – or new versions of the original (she’s no longer Wonder Woman’s twin sister) – has been revived. 2021 brought us the miniseries Nubia and the Amazons, as well as a graphic novel for young adults, Nubia: Real One, starring a teenage Nubia.

While fantasy is often seen as an escape from reality, especially when it offers a blueprint for a utopian future, Nubia taught me that fantasy can be an active engagement with reality and a basis for questioning the present place. Of course, a significant part of her appeal is her portrayal as a black woman with superpowers, very few of which are part of the superhero comic book mythos. But for me, the biggest part of Nubia’s allure was the way it offered itself to my imagination, how it was a stepping stone into my fantasies of beautiful black power – despite, or perhaps because of, it’s been so underutilized in the comics.

Nubia’s anomalous but sporadic presence as a black super warrior made her a particularly fertile catalyst for imagination. This is because comics require imagination to engage with them. They require imagination to animate and connect the static images of each panel on a page. Learning this fundamental requirement of reading comics – active imagination – allowed me to envision connections between panels presenting Nubia that fit my own fantasies, where I created adventures for them that had never seen the site. This practice was key to developing the imagination I needed to navigate a world that constantly reminded me of my differences as black and gay.

My ability to imagine fairness, which doesn’t exist, was enhanced by reading superhero comics because every superhero is involved in a fight for justice. Seeing Wonder Woman identify the wrong thing in sexist men’s perceptions that she wasn’t strong helped me identify the wrong thing about the racism of the world I lived in.

Reading superhero comics can satisfy a shared desire to be a different person than you think you are – sportier, prettier, smarter, funnier, more popular. It can also provide a vector for the wish that the world You live was different.

Right now, many people are trying to prevent children from reading books that talk about “otherness” — particularly those related to race, queerness, and gender identity — by banning titles from school curricula and libraries in record numbers. With her recent revival, some of the children who are “protected” by book bans will find Nubia, or they will find their own version of her. Be active and imaginative in Superhero comics can allow you to see yourself and the world differently. Reading these comics will help kids prepare to withstand the real world afflictions they are already facing, just like Nubia did for me.

Darieck Scott is an author and Professor of African American Studies at UC Berkeley. His latest book is “Keeping it Unreal: Black Queer Fantasy and Superhero Comics.” Op-Ed: Superhero comics taught me the beauty of black power

Caroline Bleakley

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