Black women’s progress often collides with media stereotypes about them. However, media can also contradict these stereotypes. Crystal Emery’s 2016 documentary, Black Women in Medicine, highlights stories of successful black women doctors. Black actresses who portray doctors on fictional television shows, such as Grey’s Anatomy’s Chandra Wilson and How To Get Away With Murder’s Corbin Reid, also have the potential to inspire women to join the medical industry. If these manifestations did not exist in our media, young black women might not view medical careers as viable options. As Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the first black United States’ Surgeon General, said to filmmaker Crystal Emery, “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Yet, even when a black woman earns the credentials required to become a physician, racial and gender biases still cause others to look at her with skepticism when she introduces herself as a doctor. Dr. Tamika Cross experienced this during a flight to Houston and she shared the details of that encounter on Facebook. In response to her post, the hashtags #TamikaCross and #WhatADoctorLooksLikepropagated throughout social media as more doctors began sharing similar incidents.
Reyes appeared briefly in issue 65. Her cameo occurred halfway into the book when the story transitioned to a hospital emergency room in the Bronx. This scene included a multi-ethnic group of doctors discussing a live television news report about a fight between Mutants and the military. The doctors were debating whether or not Mutants could be trusted. Reyes walked into the conversation and was asked for her opinion. In response, she made the following vague remark after loosening a surgical mask from her face: “I think a Mutie is a Mutie is a Mutie. It’s time someone stopped talking about the problem — and finally did something about it.” Afterwards, the story immediately transitioned away from the Bronx hospital and Reyes did not appear again until the next issue.
Although brief, Reyes’ first appearance and first statement were significant. Her comment about Mutants was inspired by Gertrude Stein’s famous quote “A rose is a rose is a rose.” Stein’s readers assume “she was suggesting, perhaps, what a rose is not.” A rose is not the actions that you perform on it. A rose is not the emotions it evokes in you. A rose is simply a rose. Similarly, applying this same train of thought to Reyes’ comment would lead us to assume that she is also implying that a Mutant is simply a Mutant; they are not the fearful emotions that non-Mutants project onto them.
Yet, Reyes had an ambivalent stance on Mutants. Her suggestion that it was time someone “finally did something about it” was vague. On the surface, it may appear that she supported the belief that all Mutants were menaces. However, when interpreted with the Gertrude Stein quote as its inspiration, the reader can assume that Reyes wanted someone to prove that Mutants could, indeed, be trusted.
Nevertheless, much like an African American who might choose to pass for white, Reyes chose to keep her Mutant identity a secret from her co-workers. Similarly, readers were unaware that Reyes was a Mutant but it was clear that she was a physician–she wore medical scrubs, a surgical mask rested off of her face, and the staff addressed her as “Dr. Cecilia Reyes.” Her mere existence contradicted the stereotype that black women cannot be doctors. A black woman is a black woman is a black woman.
In issue 66, however, Reyes did not experience racial discrimination. To the contrary, she was portrayed as a confident doctor who was in command of her operating room. This could be a positive glimpse at an ideal situation in which black women’s hairstyles are not an invitation to question their abilities. Conversely, it could be seen as a lost opportunity to examine their common struggles with racism and sexism in the workplace. Yet, Reyes did encounter discrimination because of her mutant abilities. A mutant-hunting robot, a Sentinel, appeared at the hospital and attacked her. At that moment, we learn that Reyes has the ability to create force fields and fire projectiles at her opponents.
After Reyes was saved from the mutant-hunting Sentinel by fellow mutant, Ice-Man, she explained why she became a surgeon:
I was six years old, holding my father in my arms as he bled to death on the sidewalk. There was nothing I could do. Then. But I promised myself – and him – that the day would come that I could do something. That same night, I fell asleep reading my brother’s science text-book. Maybe it was just a devastated child’s way of dealing with a tragedy she couldn’t understand…but from that day on, I knew I wanted to be a doctor.
Illness or the death of a loved one is a motivation that Reyes shared with other aspiring doctors, including other black women. Additionally, she came from a poor neighborhood and become a doctor in spite of the false stereotypes that assume only students from high socioeconomic status families can become doctors. Like Dr. Sanneta Myrie, the 2016 Ms. Jamaica World, Reyes chose to return home to practice medicine. This is consistent with numerous other black doctors who return home to treat “populations that are traditionally underserved in medicine.”
Unfortunately, Dr. Cecilia Reyes is the only active black super heroine physician from a major comic book universe. In 1985, Dr. Midnight was introduced as DC Comics’ sole example but her character was killed in 1993. Independent comic publisher WildStorm Productions introduced us to Micro-Maid in 1999 but all of WildStorm’s titles were cancelled when the company closed in 2010. Dr. Cecilia Reyes, then, is the only lasting example of a black super heroine physician and she has appeared in approximately 500 issues.
While Scott Lobdell–the writer who introduced Dr. Cecilia Reyes in the world of comics–does not examine sociocultural topics relating to the lives of black women physicians, he does reveal Reyes’ Afro-Puerto Rican background in later issues. This provides an opening for exploring critical topics relating to hair textures, skin complexion, socioeconomic status, and heritage amongst Afro-Latinx groups. Although it can be refreshing to depict black women with locs in comic books practicing medicine without discrimination, it can also be empowering to see them model how to overcome the adversity black women still face even after earning their credentials.
This month, I interviewed Dr. Jonathan Gayles, Associate Professor of African-American Studies and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Learning at Georgia State University. He is the producer, director and writer of White Scripts and Black Supermen: Black Masculinities in Comic Books—a groundbreaking documentary exploring early black superheroes. He received his PhD. in Applied Anthropology from the University of South Florida. His primary areas of interest include the anthropology of education, educational policy, black masculinity, race and ethnicity and critical media studies. He recently finished his second documentary film entitled The E-Word: A Documentary on the Ebonics Debate, which examines the context of the national furor in response to the Oakland Unified School District’s Resolution on Ebonics. Released in April 2012, White Scripts won numerous awards, sparked the creation of the NYPL Schomburg Center’s Black Comic Book Festival, and helped clarify an emerging scholarly dialogue around race and comic books in the United States. As our blog series has demonstrated, the documentary’s themes remain salient to current debates. Follow Dr. Gayles on Twitter @JonathanGayles.
Julian Chambliss: Your documentary, White Scripts, Black Supermen ushered in a new era of scholarly engagement around race and representation in comics. Can you talk about the scholarly narratives that prompted you to pursue making the documentary? What was being said and what was your hope in creating the documentary?
Jonathan Gayles: All the “scholarly narratives” that I encountered prior to even conceiving a documentary film on black masculinities in comic books placed comic books within popular culture and critically engaged comic books as we do other popular culture genres. Jeffrey Brown’s work on Milestone Comics was an important initial point of reference – particularly his assertion that black superheroes represent a “potentially threatening cluster of masculine signifiers.” Stanford Carpenter’s workon the forces that influence what is eventually made available to comic book consumers helped frame my initial examinations of the topic. Adilifu Nama published Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes (2011) as I was completing the interviews and I was extremely fortunate to be able to include him in the film. Mark Anthony Neal’s New Black Man (2015) has, for some time, provided me with a critical lens in relation to the performance of black masculinity. It was great to include him in the film, if only for a moment. The historical perspective offered in your ownwork is particularly important as well. This is not an exhaustive listing.
Without exception, the aforementioned scholars situate these images within broader historical, anthropological, sociological, and artistic contexts (among others). Comic books and the images contained therein are attached to serious social phenomena that render comic books worthy of serious critical consideration. Ultimately, this became the aim of the documentary: a serious interrogation of the manner in which black men are represented in comic books and the degree to which this representation reflects broader understandings of race and gender.
Chambliss: Your anthropological training and work on masculinity deeply informed the documentary. What still needs to be done in terms for exploring ideas linked to masculinity and blackness?
Gayles: I remain enamored of Athena Mutua’s conjoining of black and men into the “single social position” she names “blackmen.” This category reflects the specific and concurrent raced and gendered reality of black men (blackmen) in this nation. The history of the United States makes it extremely difficult to disentangle the race and gender of blackmen. I think that there is considerable potential to do more in this area. This includes the social construction, representation and performance of black masculinity. Even in what we might call “intentional spaces” in which the black community resists hegemonic notions of race and gender, the responses of blackmen can mimic this hegemony in ways that privilege only blackmen at the expense of others in the community.
Returning to the notion that what we see in comic books are tied to serious social phenomena, we must continue to explore the real-world consequences of the formulaic and racist representations of blackmen as being inherently threatening that extend back through slavery, Jim Crow, and to the present. In truth, much of the documentary engages the way in which this threat is mitigated in the representation of the earliest black superheroes.
Chambliss: Questions about community, identity, and agency are deeply rooted in the superhero genre. What have your conversations around the documentary made clear in terms of how the audience negotiates these ideas as comic fans of color?
Gayles: The “Black Age Movement” in comic books is key here. This movement represents a broad and expanding community of fans, illustrators and writers that has moved beyond critique of “mainstream” representations of people of color in comic books to creating their own universes, characters, story lines and communities. For me, joining this community is perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the documentary. The patterns of representation that the documentary highlights have been in place for so long that there is a sense of resignation that this is what we should expect from the “mainstream.” This resignation does not mean that we accept the images or the premises upon which they are built, but rather that we should no longer be surprised, for example, when War Machine is the first casualty of Civil War II, just as Giant Man was the first casualty of Civil War I. While Adilifu Nama offers some very interesting interpretive “recovery” of some of these early superheroes, most in this community are not interested in doing such work.
Chambliss: Your documentary makes clear the challenge linked to black masculinity intersecting with power, even if it is imaginary. However, you did not touch on women’s representation in superhero comics. Why not?
Gayles: I wanted to! My initial outline included a chapter on the representation of women. My interview protocols included questions on the representation of women as well. In reviewing the transcripts, it became clear that the most coherent documentary would focus on some of the earliest black men in comic books. The fact of the matter is that during the time period that the film engages (late 60’s to mid 70’s) there were far too few black women in comic books – both as characters and creators. Of course, this remains true today. Even in the largely indie arena of the “Black Age,” most of the creators and characters are men. Additionally, the documentary form can be more limiting than traditional long-form academic manuscripts. Film distributors in the higher education realm have a strong preference for films with a running time around 60 minutes. As a result, I made a decision to pursue depth instead of breadth. If I am honest, I sometimes linger upon this decision with a bit of regret.
I have considered a separate project on the representation of black women in superhero comics. Ultimately, White Scripts was, in some ways, personal for me and I believe another scholar or filmmaker will bring a similar personal focus to a project on the representation of black women in comic books. A more important point is that there are many black women that we can critically engage—beyond (and before) Storm. From vanguard characters like the Butterfly, Bumblebee, and Storm to more current characters like Amanda Waller, Spectrum (it’s hard to keep up with her name changes), and Moon Girl, a project (documentary or otherwise) that focuses exclusively on the representation of black women is beyond necessary. There is also Martha Washington, who is a fascinating character. I would love to see more work on her as well. With the Black Panther film scheduled for a 2018 release and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ provocative storyline in the comic book, such a project could also concurrently consider the Dora Milajae’s history in comic books and cinema. Considering the degree to which the comic book genre is marked as a predominately masculine space, this project would be more than necessary, important, and interesting—it would be disruptive.
Some of the most visceral images of March: Book Two take place as the Freedom Riders arrive in Montgomery, AL, on May 20, 1961, encountering a mob who viciously attack them. In these panels, Nate Powell’s black and white artwork, like his work in The Silence of Our Friends (2012), juxtaposes and plays with our general connotations of white and black. This juxtaposition becomes most apparent in the panels that show a young, white boy, at the behest of his father, joining in the assault on the Freedom Riders. In one of the panels, the father’s words, “git them eyes!” carry over into an image of the boy’s face, in front of a black background. The boy’s eyes look as if they are glowing with demonic rage as blood splotches appear on his face and his fingers reach out towards the reader, eliminating the victim, James Zwerg, from the frame. The grotesqueness of these panels recalls Reginald Marsh’s This Is Her First Lynching and Paul Cadmus’ To the Lynching! from the NAACP’s 1935 exhibit An Art Commentary on Lynching.
As part of the NAACP’s anti-lynching campaign, Walter White organized An Art Commentary on Lynching in New York in 1935 with contributions from both black and white artists in various mediums. The exhibition ran for two weeks. Jenny Woodley notes that “White wanted the audience for his exhibition to be liberaled, moneyed, northern whites . . . who would normally shy away from a subject as unpalatable as mob violence and to provoke the many apathetic whites” who became desensitized to the atrocities of lynching. Out of the thirty-eight artists who submitted works for the exhibition, there were only ten African Americans and one woman. The others, including Marsh and Cadmus, were white males.
Like Powell’s panel, Marsh’s image is in black and white, and the inhabitants of the picture appear joyous yet grotesque, enveloped in hatred. We do not see the victim of the violence in This Is Her First Lynching; instead, we see the psychological effects of racism and segregation on the perpetrators of the heinous act that occurs in the “blank space” off stage.1 I have ever seen.”] Marsh’s image shows a mob viewing a lynching, and in the middle of the crowd, a woman holds up a young girl. Unlike the other individuals in the picture, the girl appears inquisitive, as if she is learning a lesson like the boy does in March after he attacks Zwerg. She holds a finger to her chin, pondering the heinous act in the “blank space.” The woman holding the girl has a contorted smile on her face that exudes animosity and an abhorrence for the victim. Carmenita Higginbotham notes that Marsh’s image aims to confront an urban audience to the horrors of lynching, and she calls upon “us to question how the work operates and invites us to consider for whom it was intended.” Through this representation, Marsh delves into the psychological effects of oppression on the oppressors themselves. Margaret Rose Vendryes argues “Marsh’s matter-of-fact handling accentuates the macabre without overt condemnation” of the act itself. What does this removal do for a “liberaled, moneyed, northern white” audience whose exposure to lynching and mob violence may only be through newspapers and the media? How does this carry over to a work like March as well, a work that crosses time and space?
Paul Cadmus’ To the Lynching! presents another psychological effect, one of incongruous racism and bigotry that engulfs the very being of an individual and the community. Like Marsh’s This Is Her First Lynching, Cadmus’ lithograph presents the lynch mob with distorted features and visages. The man at the top left looks ghoulish, and his hand takes on the characteristics of an animal’s claw. The man’s face at the bottom appears to reverse stereotypical images of African Americans with his mouth, and the man’s hands on the right again look like claws or talons gouging at the eyes of the victim. Commenting on the framing of Cadmus’ image, Vendryes says,
To the Lynching! situates the viewer on top of the scene. We are drawn into the confusion, where the figures are disturbingly identical in color. Cadmus’s willingness to pull the viewer in so close might be a sign of his awareness that the majority of those who would visit the exhibition would be white. The triangle of white men, in their freedom, are the ones to be feared.
Cadmus’ image invokes chaos, bedlam, and violence through its swirling lines that draw the viewer’s attention to the victim in the middle of the carnage. Unlike Marsh, Cadmus displays the victim of mob violence, and like Marsh, Cadmus highlights the inescapable psychological effects of the act upon those holding the African American man down.
Through their varied depictions, Marsh and Cadmus both implicate the viewer in the act that occurs. While Marsh does not show the violence, he places the viewer in the crowd who observes the violent act off stage, and he draws the viewer’s attention to the ways that ignorance of the ongoing epidemic affects those who stand idly by doing nothing, thus associating the audience with the unseen act. Cadmus’ lithograph also draws the audience into a position of association by placing us above the scene, looking down into the swirling madness.
Powell creates the same type of grotesque, psychological imagery; however, the panels appear surrounded by images of the victims as well. During the attack, the faces of the mob members take on distorted characteristics, accentuating their loathing of the victims. In one panel, we see a victim of the mob’s violent aggression, and the older, white woman in the frame looks similar to the woman in Marsh’s image. She greedily, and lustfully, gropes for the man she wants to attack, saying, “KILL HIM!!” In this moment, the woman, and those with her, appear as non-human; they have lost complete control of themselves and who they are. Powell highlights the continuation of racism, oppression, and subjugation when he juxtaposes Barack Obama’s inauguration with images from May 20, 1961.
While some of the horde congratulate each other and shake hands, as in the bottom left of the page, we also see the young boy who groped for Zwerg’s eyes at the top left of the page. As with the previous panel, we see his face against a black background; however, here the boy looks down at his bloody hands in disbelief, as if asking himself, “What have I just done?” We know what he has done, and why, and his father’s hand, resting on the boy’s shoulder, lets us know that even if the boy questions his actions, his father will “correct” his thoughts and teach him how to hate soon enough. Below and to the left of the young boy, we see Zwerg and John Lewis together, both bloody, symbolizing unity and equality. All of these images, and more, occur with a double page frame of Aretha Franklin singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
Within these pages, we see the past and the present coming together. Even though March flashes back to the sixties and forward to 2009, I cannot help but look at Powell’s Aretha Franklin in 2009, surrounded by images from May 20, 1961, as a commentary on how far we have come but on how far we still have to go before achieving equality. We see the Confederate Battle Flag, a passive policeman who stood by as the violence erupted, a young boy, a dead woman, and battered victims. As Franklin sings, “Let freedom ring,” she is surrounded by violence and oppression in the adjoining images. Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, the Charleston Nine, and countless others encompass the page with their lingering presence.
By implicating the audience, and delving into the ways that mob violence and racism affect the perpetrator as well as the victim. Marsh, Cadmus, and Powell position the audience in a way that makes them think about their own roles in the continuation of racism and oppression. This is the same technique that authors like Ernest J. Gaines, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, William Faulkner, and others deploy, placing the white audience member inside the chaotic absurdity of the situation, turning a mirror back at the viewer to implicate inaction and complacency. In many ways, the overlap of 1961 and 2009 in March confronts the reader head on, asking, “What will you do in the current moment?”
Marsh was mostly known for his depictions of the urban environment. This is Her First Lynching originally appeared in the September 8, 1934 issue of The New Yorker and later in th January 1935 issue of The Crisis in An Art Commentary on Lynching. Marsh donated the piece to the NAACP, and Walter White called it “the most effective [image of lynching
On June 9, 2017, the face of the Marvel Cinematic Universe changed as the trailer for Black Panther made its debut. The trailer quickly went viral. Within days, it became one of the most viewed trailers ever released by Marvel. Building on the success of Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix, Black Panther promises a majority Black cast for a major motion picture release. While fans have long championed the character, the implication that Black Panther will be something different in style and substance has become a common refrain. The first Black superhero, the Black Panther and his world have captured the reality of new expectations linked to race and identity in the United States since his appearance in 1966. Is his cinematic debut the beginning of a new era? Is it the continuation of mediated tokenism?
Black Perspectives, the blog of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), seeks essays that examine the Black Panther and the narrative world linked to the character in comics, animation, and film. We invite new and experienced writers–including undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, and independent scholars–to submit guest blog posts for this series. Broadly speaking, blog posts in this series will examine how this moment in the long history of the Black Panther addresses broader societal concerns in the United States.
We encourage potential contributors to submit guest blog posts that explore topics that include but are not limited to the following:
Afrofuturism in Black Panther
Colonialism, independence, and reparations across fictional Africa
LGBTQ narratives in Black Panther
Indigenous design and comic universes
Intersectionality and the world of wakanda
Technology, magic, and the black radical imagination
Religion, royalty, race, and nation in Marvel Comics
War, reconciliation, and gender in Wakanda
Blog posts should not exceed 1,500 words (not including footnotes) and should be written for a general audience. Submissions will be accepted on a rolling basis until December 30, 2017. Accepted blog posts will undergo a peer review process before they are published. Blogs can be submitted as an attachment to Microsoft Word to the guest editors at email@example.com.
About the guest editors
Dr. Julian Chambliss is Chair and Professor of History at Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. His teaching and research focus on urban history and culture in the United States. He is the co-editor of Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, which explores the changing depiction of superheroes from the comic books of the 1930s to the cinematic present.Follow him on Twitter @JulianChambliss.
Dr. Walter Greason isthe Founder of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and an economic historian in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University. He is currently the Dean of the Honors College at Monmouth University. He is the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey andmore recently, The American Economy, (with Melissa Ziobro and William Gorman). He is also the creator of the #Wakandasyllabus. Follow him on Twitter @WorldProfessor.
Julian Chambliss: You have recently grabbed a lot of attention with your adaptation of The Kindred. How does Blue Hand Mojo offer a different creative experience for you?
John Jennings: The opportunity to do Kindredwith my long-time collaborator and friend Damian Duffy has been a remarkable experience. Octavia Butler is one of the most important American writers to ever live. However, Blue Hand Mojo is totally my own creation from top to bottom. The experience of essentially collaborating with another writer is vastly different than controlling the entire narrative. With MojoI could make format changes, rearrange story elements, and enhance the narrative as I worked on it. You don’t have the same range of freedom when you are doing such a beloved book as Kindred.
Chambliss: In Blue Hand Mojo, you focus on the figure “Half Dead” Johnson. What is it about “Half Dead” Johnson that you wanted to bring to life as an African American scholar, writer, and artist?
Jennings: “Half Dead” is the fictional first cousin of the legendary blues musician Robert Johnson. I wanted to take something from our cultural history that was already a piece of folklore and then push it even further. “Half Dead” represents the raw anger and pain that was the burden of Black men and women working under the weight of the Jim Crow South. His revenge on his white attackers and his subsequent curse to work for the Devil represent the fact that those experiences followed Black people with them during the various stages of the Great Migration. I wanted to explore what that does to a person but also use the supernatural as the lens through which to view the narrative implications.
Chambliss: Your story is steeped in the cultural legacy of the African American experience, but shows a depth and complexity around race, community, and identity. What were your goals in crafting this story?
Jennings: I am from Mississippi and I carry a lot of the weight of the racism in our country in my own personal experience. It’s a haunted existence sometimes. This is why I coined the term (with Stanford Carpenter) the “EthnoGothic.” It is dealing with very complex tensions around the Black experience in the United States and in particular the Black Southern experience. It’s also dealing with how trauma acts as a revenant of our continually contentious narratives around race, class, and history. Even as I answer these questions, protesters use their bodies to occlude a white woman’s painting of Emmett Till. Our past isn’t done with us. It’s not even the past.
Chambliss: You have been a consistent voice helping to create space where scholars and practitioners are in dialogue. Your work seems to model that process. How do you see this kind of creative intervention evolving in the future?
Jennings: I think that I can see my practice evolving into one of producer, editor, and facilitator. I have a knack for being able to find overlaps across disciplines and between scholars from various modes of discourse. My most important asset, however, isn’t a skill set at all; it’s a point of view that I fervently believe and constantly put into practice. I truly want us all to be successful. I truly believe that by working together we can achieve anything. So, I have dedicated my career and my energies to creating opportunities where many individuals have the potential to move forward and find agency in the experience. I think that if we can make collaboration the norm and not the exception, we would be totally amazed by what we can accomplish.
Chambliss: What is on the horizons for your creative work exploring the Black experience and Black identity?
Jennings: I just finished up toning pages for a book with Tony Medina and Stacey Robinson called I AM ALFONSO JONES. It’s a black and white graphic novel from Lee and Low/Tu Books that deals with the death of bi-cultural teenage boy named Alfonso Jones. The entire story is told from the boy’s perspective as a ghost. The book deals with social justice, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
I just signed a contract with Rosarium Publishing to put out a 10 part maxi-series with Ayize Jama Everett called BOX OF BONES. The story follows a Black queer Southern woman who is doing her dissertation fieldwork around a mysterious artifact that punishes people who have wronged people of color throughout the African Diaspora. The scholar, little by little, realizes that the artifact is real and that her destiny is connected to it. It’s not for the squeamish. I use the elevator pitch of “Afrocentric Hellraiser” to give the context in a quick sound bite. The terror begins this Fall.
Damian Duffy and I are currently finishing up BLACK COMIX RETURNS. It’s the follow up to our 2010 art book Black Comix: African-American Independent Comic, Art and Culture. This book, which was fully backed on kickstarter, will be a 12 x 12 in., hardcover, full-color art book with double the amount of independent Black comics creators inside. It should be coming your way in early Spring 2018. There are more things coming but I am not at liberty to talk about them just yet. Thanks so much for the opportunity to talk about this work.
In a 1976 essay appearing in In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker notes that an absence of models, or literary representations, is an “occupational hazard to the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect—even if rejected— enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence.” She warns that without such models entire artistic communities suffer. Walker goes on to provide a glimpse of her own models, listing several influential artists, not all of them women, not all of them black. She insists that these writers are in the business of “saving lives”: representing the misrepresented, the distorted, the erased or lost. She argues that this kind of representation is the business of art.
I’ve returned many times to this passage in considering the ongoing conversations about representation and diversity in the comic book industry. There has been much discussion of industry trends and failed attempts produced by mainly white writing staff. While industry-wide campaigns to represent minority characters sound exciting, what kind of stories can and are being told when the makeup of comic book writing teams hasn’t shifted dramatically? Is witnessing various lives in print or on-screen sufficient as Walker seems to suggest? What does changing the face of comics but not the artistic producing bodies do to the genre of comics? More specifically, what does the increased number of black women in comics (not necessarily written by women of color) offer a comic book readership?
I would argue that some comics have much to offer, and that recent series like Image’s Bitch Planet and Marvel’s Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur offer new and fuller models of intersectional embodiment that we haven’t seen in popular comics thus far.
Questions and problems of embodiment, of strength and weakness, of the post-human, gender, and monstrosity, could be considered standards of many mainstream comic book franchises and these conversations were once solely focused on white bodies that aligned with a presumed white male readership. Traditionally, we have seen that white male embodiment is slow or reluctant to reveal systemic problems and do the work of representing how we live with the weight of historical oppression and violence.
Yet over the past several years, comics readers have seen a proliferation of characters of color, especially of women and girls of color. And once we begin to focus on the embodiment of these women’s realities come into sharp focus. The questions and problems raised by their bodies become scripts or models through which we can read the actualities and limitations of the comic book’s world. Similarly, we can see the serialized and ephemeral nature of comics easily reflecting the real-world racism, sexism, and classism that structure American society.
The two character models I highlight below, Penny Rolle of Bitch Planet and Lunella Lafayette of Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, prompt readers to see these series through a womanist, black woman centered, or black feminist, framework. These series focus on articulations of particular black womanhoods and allow us to consider and ask questions that we cannot answer with other bodies.
Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet is a self-described “women-in prison sci-fi exploitation riff.” The series is set in a technologically fortified patriarchal world in which “deviant” women are sent off-world due to “non-compliance.” In the first two issues, readers are dropped into a main narrative that offers slivers of world building through dialogue and setting, yet we are not privy to the total picture until Bitch Planet #3: Too Big to Fail. In this issue readers are given inmate Penny Rolle’s backstory.
Penny is part of the ensemble cast and does not seem to be an integral part of the unfolding plot. Yet we find that Penny’s presence—her body—is incredibly important to the narrative. She is central—the key—to seeing and beginning to understand the realities of this imagined near future. As readers, we are shown that everything about Penny’s body from her large frame, mixed race parentage, desire to be physically strong, interest in laughter and play, explosive tendencies, all the way down to her “unruly” and unpredictable mixed curl-pattern hair make her an enemy of the white patriarchal “Fatherhood” state.
Penny, who often visually exceeds the limits of the frame, loves her body. Her “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude poses a serious challenge to the structures of power that operate in the series. In fact, her body is a threat to the prison “Bitch Planet” itself. Within the issue, we see authority figures struggle with an insubordinate Penny whose confidence in her body can withstand even the “cerebral potential integration and extrapolation matrix”— technology that is supposed to reveal her “true” feelings about her appearance. Nothing, it seems, can break her.
DeConnick and De Landro offer Penny’s body, as the framework, the tone, and intent for the series. We see the sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic work of the Fathers refracted through Penny’s body. While there are many bodies in the world of Bitch Planet that are different, powerful, and renegade, Penny’s body, which is part of her crime, and her persistence in loving herself, is fugitive, interrupting the system if only for a moment. Instead of being inexplicable or illegible, Penny Rolle is the nexus through which the reader interfaces with the world. Penny allows us to re-center conversations of equity, justice, and revolution through the lens of a black woman, and a womanist framework. Such a change of focus is certainly something new.
The second model we might look to is Lunella Lafayette—one of the youngest, smartest, and, by way of these characteristics, one of the most isolated people in the Marvel Universe. Unlike Penny, Lunella’s body is not specifically rendered as oppositional to the state. Yet her concerns about her body, her age, and her genius, as well as her imminent transformation into an Inhuman, structure the narrative and design of the series.
Written as an attempt to attract not only a more racially diverse but also an age-diverse readership, in Moon Girl Reeder, Montclare, and Bustos effectively render the realities of black girlhood by doubling down on Lunella’s difficulties. She is not only different from her classmates, but also isolated her from other geniuses by educational access and age. She cannot take solace or comfort in her family because she fears what will happen to them once she transforms.
Yet once Lunella does transform she finds her body unchanged. The transformation leaves her DNA intact, but allows her to swap brains with her sidekick, Devil Dinosaur. Throughout the series Lunella’s small frame, intelligence, and her methods as Moon Girl are juxtaposed with Devil Dinosaur’s and when they switch places Lunella is forced to adapt new tactics of embodiment: self-making through inventing and technology must be translated into terms of the body. In these moments we can see that Lunella is aligned with a literary tradition of black inventors or “tinkerers” like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Lunella feels most like herself, most in control, when she is building.
As Lunella, begins to work through the problems of (monstrous) embodiment: how to exist and problem-solve in a deviant dinosaur body, we see such transactions isolating her own body further from her human and superhuman counterparts. For each time Lunella returns to her 3-foot frame, she is restrained. Interestingly enough, these moments leave her not with the same worries of isolation but instead with a growing determination to change her reality instead of hiding or ignoring problems as she once did. Her connection to Devil Dinosaur reframes the way in which Lunella (and the reader) can read her own embodied situation. Devil Dinosaur is simply an accessory to this exploration.
Nine-year-old Lunella provides a new lens for the “growing up” and “identity” questions that are comic book standards. To witness a black girl dealing with isolation, awkwardness, and owning herself is not only empowering for readers, but is a narrative of black girl valuation. Lunella, as a model, persists without structures of authority (super-powered or otherwise). Even as the “weakest” of the inhumans, Lunella’s story can be recognized and read.
In these ways, comics like Bitch Planet and Moon Girl are narratives that are focused on and refracted through black women. They offer models, or the kind of valuable representation Walker highlights. They take steps away from metaphorical blackness, stale monoliths, and expected symbols towards lithe narratives interested in shifting focus and investigating possible lived realities that have traditionally been misrepresented and misunderstood. It would seem that when it comes down to a question of representation and models, these particular comics are doing the work. Hopefully others will begin to do the same.
Alyssa Collins is a graduate student in the Department of English at the University of Virginia. Her research interests include 20th Century American, African American, Global and Transnational Studies. Follow her on Twitter @LyssaDee.