When It Ain’t Broke: Black Female Representation in Comics

By Alyssa Collins 

January 9, 2017

This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.

“If it ain’t broke” (Credit: Image Comics)

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.

Bitch Planet, November 2016. (Credit: Image Comics)

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 of Image Comics’ Bitch Planet. (Source: Image Comics)

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.

(Credit: Image Comics)
“Ideal version” (Credit: Image Comics)

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.

“Being me” (Credit: Marvel Comics)

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.

“What’s the use” (Credit: Marvel Comics)

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.

Gentrifying Luke Cage: The Racial Failure of Nostalgia

By Joshua Plencner 

January 15, 2017

This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.

Genndy Tartakovsky’s Cage! (Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

In superhero comics, nostalgia is often structural. Woven into the formal codes of serial storytelling, it both supports the production of fantastic visions and undergirds a culture of amnesiac longing. While at times an effective creative tool, within the overwhelmingly white context of superhero comics history, nostalgia is also necessarily a means of maintaining and defending the cultural fantasies of institutionalized white supremacy. The desire to reconstruct some bygone sense of the past, then—especially when expressed amidst the present uniquely black creative moment in the history of mainstream superheroes—should be understood as a form of cultural gentrification: sharp-elbowed white re-imagination that legitimates itself by pushing contemporary black cultural producers from view.

Cage! (2016)—a planned four-issue limited series published by Marvel Comics, with writing and art by renowned cartoon animator Genndy Tartakovsky—shows us exactly what such nostalgia-driven cultural gentrification looks like. It’s a comic book that steals energy from the present black creative moment, substituting instead a purportedly rejuvenated essence of 1970’s-era Marvel. By linking nostalgia for 1970’s-era aesthetics and a kind of garish, depoliticized post-racial fantasy, Cage!fetishizes the Blaxploitation-boom roots of its central character while simultaneously emptying out any potential to reclaim those roots for subversive, critical ends. It exaggerates stereotypical hyper-masculinity and an effusive sense of cool while downplaying the earlier prevalence of systemic critique and Black Power social consciousness. In the growing world of black superheroes, Cage! is a gentrifier’s comic, an apolitical morass, and a racial failure.

Although the project was first announced almost a decade ago, Tartakovsky’s Cage! initially languished in production. When Marvel released the first issue on October 5th, 2016, however, the comic’s titular hero, Luke Cage, was in the middle of a cultural moment. Driven by the excitement surrounding Marvel’s Luke Cage television series, which debuted on Netflix less than a week before Cage! hit the comics shop shelves, Luke Cage had captured the American zeitgeist. Under the guidance of Luke Cage writer-producer Cheo Hodari Coker, it seemed like Power Man, Marvel’s original “Hero for Hire,” had finally arrived. And lots of folks were taking notice.

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

The public conversations prompted by Coker’s series help us see how Luke Cage has proven a valuable vehicle for expressing political demands in the #BlackLivesMatter era. But Tartakovsky’s Cage is different from its contemporaries, on screen and in the comics. Rather than engage the fertile black political consciousness that surrounds it, Cage! disappoints by locking itself away from challenging political questions or real-world social problems. Instead, it employs the past as a Make-Mine-Marvel playground for the creator’s childhood affinities. “I grew up with comics,” Tartakovsky explained in one 2007 interview, “especially Marvel’s comics – and I always dreamed about doing my own take on one of their preexisting characters.”

With Cage! so situated in the dreamt and imagined past, Tartakovsky explained, “This series takes the essence of Luke Cage and pushes him more in that direction. If we were going to make a Cage film set in the 70’s, this is how it would be.” Thus, Tartakovsky’s storytelling style is a kind of commercial resource extraction, drilling down into the character’s Blaxploitation-era history in search of an “essence” that he can further exploit and amplify.

Taking him at his word, I think it’s clear that Tartakovsky’s concern with identifying the essence of Luke Cage is quintessentially nostalgic. But because his nostalgia is framed personally as “his own take,” he props up his vision as a faithful adaptation of Luke Cage’s essence—a rhetorical move that attempts to establish the authenticity of Tartakovsky’s Cage! as representative of an earlier, truer, version of the character, as well as confirm Tartakovsky’s authority to “push” Cage further in that direction. Nostalgia, in this case, licenses Tartakovsky to sell his vision of a gentrified, post-racial Luke Cage—a vision ostensibly appealing to white audience expectations, for whom a post-racial Blaxploitation narrative can be coherently packaged as “essentially” true.

How does this nostalgia work? Two examples from the first issue are illustrative. First, consider the spare language of the captions on the first page in Cage! In a few short words the story is placed temporally and geographically. Readers are in “1977, New York,” officially set in the story-world. Yet it’s the outsized scale of the “city of big,” with its “big buildings,” “big shoes,” and “big shirts,” that most directly set the scene, which in turn distorts and amplifies the “big crime” in the story. While such spare language might be read simply as a fast-paced establishment of narrative place, the page’s drumbeat emphasis on sheer magnitude does far more work on the visual register, establishing tone, style, and overall feel of the comic.

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

And it’s the feel of “1977, New York” that’s so troubling. That affective space–the entry into the story-world–is devoid of people (save for shadowy outlines). It’s also lacking any sense of socio-political weight linked to the tension of social movements, police violence, urban ghettoization, and white flight that defined the decade.

Second, when characters are featured in the art, they’re yoked to an exaggerated, rubber-limbed style that highlights the comic’s confused attachment to a post-racial Blaxploitation. Tartakovsky’s rangy figure-work is most effective when communicating theatrical emotion and physical violence. In this way, he references the distortive effects of the original Blaxploitation narrative fueled by largely white audience expectations.

But Tartakovsky goes further, using his art style to amplify some aspects of the original while obscuring others. In one scene, for example, Tartakovsky’s Cage smashes a table, shouting that Misty Knight will have “hell” to pay when he mistakes her missing a dinner date as being stood up. The sequence is jarring—perversely suggesting that, when he confronts Knight, the consequences of his misunderstanding will be violent. In another scene, Tartakovsky’s Cage tortures a prisoner for information, strips him naked, and leaves him beaten in his cell. This is appalling stuff—shifting Cage into the role of an erratic, state-sanctioned, hyper-masculine oppressor—yet in Tartakovsky’s hands they’re breezy plot points. Together, we should read them as the utter failure of this comic’s purported nostalgia for 1970’s-era Marvel. Whatever nostalgia might be here, Cage! forgets more than it claims.

Many comics scholars note that navigating the archetype-laden myth-worlds of superheroes is an unsteady march, and black superheroes seem prone to suspect creative tinkering. Rebecca Wanzo attributes these failures to the fact that “the U.S. superhero body has paradigmatically been white and male, leaving women and people of color to possess liminal status.” Even when present, she argues, women, black folks, and characters of color are subject to pervasive caricature and stereotype. Thus Wanzo asks a perennial question: “How do cultural producers transcend the history of black representation, as these representations inform productions and readings of bodies? Can a comic book character not be read as a stereotype?”

(Image Credit: Marvel Comics)

The history of Luke Cage challenges Wanzo’s question, and various iterations of Cage can be read as implicit attempts to answer it—if largely from the margins. A frustrating turn by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Richard Corben in Cage (2002), a five-issue “age of hip-hop” restyling of Luke Cage that Adilifu Nama calls a “nearly unreadable mess” that morphed Cage into a “creepy…ghetto mercenary,” gave way to more nuanced tellings. By the mid-2000s Luke Cage figured centrally at Marvel, notably coming into his modern personality in the pages of writer Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias (2001-2004) and The New Avengers (2005-2010). More recently, in early 2016, writer David F. Walker and artist Sanford Greene rebooted Power Man and Iron Fist—a long running Marvel comic book series from the 1970s originally showcasing Luke Cage. After the first issue went on sale in February, one critic lauded Walker and Greene’s subtly expanding buddy-cop drama as having the “voice and vision” necessary to evolve Luke Cage into a new era, one that “utilizes the past”but isn’t weighed down by it.

Clearly nostalgia can undermine racial stereotypes when it utilizes past narrative as raw storytelling material. But the creative risk is real, and for black superheroes that risk entails a particular kind of racial failure within the white context of American superhero culture. Through its mixed up and questionably inventive nostalgia for Blaxploitation-era Marvel, Cage! shows us such racial failure. Tartakovsky all but abandons the Black Power history of Cage in favor of a gentrified, whitewashing glance backward. As mainstream comics culture increasingly organizes around woke racial politics, Cage! stands out—a retrograde project better left on the shelf.

Joshua Plencner is an assistant teaching professor at Drexel University. His research explores the intersection of American visual culture and the politics of race, with specializations in the study of racial formation in popular culture, affect theory, comics studies, and American Political Development. Follow him on Twitter @joshuaplencner.

Racebending and Representation in Comic Books

By Bryan Cooper Owens 

February 6, 2017

This guest post is part of our blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.

Spider-Man is black. Or more precisely, Miles Morales, the son of an African American father and Puerto Rican mother is currently Spider-Man. Well, he’s one of the Spider-Men. It’s complicated. Miles Morales’ Spider-Man originates in Marvel’s Ultimate Universe. Ultimate Marvel was an attempt at rebooting the Marvel universe and starting fresh, ostensibly giving creators license to tell new stories unburdened by years of continuity heavy history. Comic book continuity is the collection of character and comic book world history that shapes and evolves the medium’s fictional landscape. The Ultimate Marvel experiment has now been scrapped. The Ultimate Universe came to an end, its inhabitants either meeting their own end or ending up collapsed into the main Marvel Comics continuity. Miles is one such character who made the jump. He is now Spider-Man, along with Peter Parker and Ben Riley (Peter Parker’s once thought dead clone). I told you, it’s complicated.

The unmitigated whiteness of popular superheroes is part and parcel of their origins. Superhero comics have been going strong since the late 1930s. This is when many of the iconic superheroes were first published: Superman (1938), Batman (1939), Captain America (1941), and Wonder Woman (1942). They have a legacy that has helped to propel them into popular culture as near mythic characters. By contrast, the first black superhero published by a major company is Marvel’s Black Panther in 1966 (and he doesn’t get his own series until 1973). The marked lack of black superheroes has an insidious inertia to it; their “history” is brief. The most popular characters tend to be those that were created during comicdom’s golden and silver ages.  These superheroes were created during times when racial representation was not prioritized for the comics industry (or the nation as a whole for that matter) but also, the lack of creators of color meant that there was zero impetus on the creative side for racial inclusiveness.

Thus the golden and silver age superheroes represent a tableau of stark whiteness. The superheroes that have become fixtures of pop culture are almost entirely white. Additions to this modern day pantheon have often not fared well. New comic books and their characters are released and cancelled on a revolving basis. Comic book audiences have shown a predilection for familiar heroes, the ones that they grew up with. The repercussions of this for new superheroes of color are that they are often relegated to side characters or simply forgotten. Superheroes of color have failed to capture a wide enough audience that generates enough sales to justify their existence.

The Ultimates (Source: Marvel Comics)

Racebending already established characters is a tactic that has been used to sidestep this problem. Racebending refers to the practice in comic books (and other media) of taking an established character and rebooting them as another ethnicity. Racebending is often conflated with the practice of whitewashing. I argue that whitewashing and racebending are two distinct practices, with different motives and consequences. They exist in entirely different contextual histories. Whitewashing contributes to the erasure of an already miniscule pool of non-white characters. The reimagining of established white characters as African American, Asian/Asian American, and Latinx allows audiences of color to see themselves represented within popular comics narratives. It does not seriously threaten the white hegemony of comic books.

Racebending is one of the major paths that comic book publishers have taken to address criticism that claims that people of color are underrepresented within the medium. When Marvel launched their new Ultimate Marvel title, The Ultimates (a take on the Avengers), their SHIELD Director, Nick Fury, had been reimagined as a black man with a striking resemblance to actor Samuel L. Jackson. The racebending of a previously established white character was successful enough that the Marvel Cinematic version is based upon this portrayal. By racebending an established character, Marvel created a new character that seems to have some staying power. Of course, it is probably neither a coincidence, nor does it hurt that Samuel L. Jackson is the highest grossing African American actor (and second highest grossing actor overall) in Hollywood.

Captain America, The Atom, Nick Fury, Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), and Spider-Man all have been racebent, that is, reimagined as being of different racial identities. Recently, Marvel has released a new Iron Woman, RiRi Williams, an African American teenaged prodigy. In DC’s WB television universe both Wally and Iris West are now African American. Actor Idris Elba portrays the character of Heimdall in Marvel’s Thor movie. The reimagining of these characters ethnicities has helped to create comic book universes that more accurately reflect our own society’s multiculturalism. Rather than replicating the original starkly white tableau of superheroes, we are now seeing stories that more accurately reflect society. People of color are not merely background characters in these new representations; they are heroes. Racebending effectively creates multiculturalism within the comics’ medium, while also giving fans the characters that they have cherished for decades. It is also a practice that has engendered a great deal of criticism from audiences and creators.

Captain America (Source: Marvel Comics)

Why is there such resistance in the comic book community to racebending? The comic book community is imagined to be a largely white audience. If one examines the online spaces devoted to comic books, they would find the pushback from many fans is that they want the comic book world to remain a bastion of whiteness. Racebending of popular white superheroes is perceived as an explicit attack on white dominance over comic books. White comic book fans seem to view this as a zero-sum game. Greater visibility for people of color equals an erasure of whiteness for these fans. White characters are engulfed by blackness; white supremacy loses tractable ground. For many comic book fans, the default whiteness of their favorite characters is integral to their being. The arguments from comic book fandom are often couched in notions of authenticity. By this logic, changing the race of a comic book character invalidates their authenticity.

This argument is steeped in notions of white supremacy. This is especially apparent when the authenticity argument is juxtaposed with the ever-changing narratives that constitute comic book continuity. The Batman of 2017 is not the Batman of 1939. The Superman of 2017 is not the superman of 1938. Their characters, powers, and even history have evolved over the decades. This is true for all of the heroes that have lasted since the early half of the 20th century. There is very little that is historically “authentic” about characters that are constantly being reinvented to meet audience demand and continue to tell new stories. The authenticity argument is merely a smokescreen for arguing that comic book characters must conform to white racial expectations. This is a transparently invalid argument in a medium where reinventing is the name of the game and history is rebooted and reimagined every couple of years.

In the minds of comicdom’s largely white audience, non-whiteness needs an explanation. When characters are racebent, critics are quick to decry “political agendas,” they claim that the integrity of the character is being erased. The inclusion of newly imagined black versions of superheroes is labeled as pandering to political correctness. All of this calls into question the idea of authenticity. Are the characters authentic? Are the people who wish to see non-white superheroes authentic fans? Ultimately, why is authenticity in comic books linked to whiteness? Comics luminary and professional curmudgeon, John Byrne, opined on his website:

It is currently a fad in Hollywood — bordering on a fetish, it sometimes seems — to swap out White characters for other races and ethnicities. And I am frankly amazed that the Black community is not outraged by this patronizing modern version of blackface.

Ignoring his ahistorical comparison to blackface and minstrelsy, what Byrne has failed to address is new superheroes don’t sell broadly. The established superheroes are the ones that have cache. Audiences of color have a desire to see themselves represented in the medium. The simplest solution to both of these dilemmas is racebending. Critics like Byrne have made the argument that racebending is akin to erasing the ethnic identity of characters. The counter to that argument is that whiteness for most of these characters are not a part of an ethnic identity; it is merely a default setting.

Accepting this argument necessitates that one accept the just-world hypothesis, the idea the world is just and fair and that everyone is on equal footing, and ignore the context of structural and systemic racism that prohibited creators of color from becoming established in the golden and silver ages of comics. It requires one to ignore the dearth of characters of color and the overwhelming whiteness of superheroes. It requires one to assume a stance of “color-blindness,” where race is not a factor in representation. This “color-blind” world that critics like Byrne appeal to does not exist. Of course if it did exist, it would preempt their rejection of racebending. Racebending of characters would just be another flavor of superhero identity. Miles Morales’ multiethnic Spider-Man is a representation of what the comic book world could be.

Bryan Cooper Owens is an adjunct lecturer at Queens College, CUNY. He is an educator who has split his time between both the museum world and academia. He holds graduate degrees in both African American Studies and African Studies with areas of focus in art history, anthropology, and history. At Queens College he teaches courses in African American history, and African history and culture.  Follow him on Twitter @anansithespider.

How “Black” Is Your Science Fiction?

By I. Augustus Durham 

February 7, 2017

Avery Brooks as Captain Benjamin Sisko.

Depending on the context of its usage, the Spanish term género is definable as “gender” or “genre.” This conflation suggests that whenever deployed, the contextual gesture is never not haunted by the subtextual one. In this same manner, when one speaks about “race,” one could imagine that for some bodies of color, black ones in particular here, that social construction contrives that “[t]he fastest runner doesn’t always win the race, and the strongest warrior doesn’t always win the battle. The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time” (Ecc. 9:11, NLT). While these platitudes may seem trite, they prove that doublespeak is itself paraliterary, à la Samuel R. Delaney, and, as per Alexander G. Weheliye, that the “indispensable contributions to Black studies, literary studies, science fiction, fan fiction, fandom studies, and Afrofuturism” made by Speculative Blackness arrive in the right place at the right time.

In andré m. carrington’s Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction, genre leaves an indelible mark insofar as it “functions as an organizing principle in the field of cultural production . . . not a property intrinsic to a text . . . but a condition and a product of interpretation” (2; 6); in turn, genre elicits performances of/in the social, namely race, gender, and sexuality. At the same time, via Delaney’s notion of the paraliterary (6), carrington deploys a reading of speculative fiction that is assuredly paracanonical. That is, he departs from using “stalwarts of Black science fiction,” such as Delaney and Octavia Butler:

I have selected authors and works that emblematize particular situations in the development of speculative fiction across media. . . . this study compose[s] no discernible canon formation, and I acknowledge that the perspective afforded by this approach is less than global. . . . this book rehearses the kind of interdisciplinary curiosity about Blackness and speculative fiction that I hope to stimulate among specialists in these topics and nonspecialists alike.

The candor of carrington’s admission is provocative: although carrington sets limits on the parameters of what Speculative Blackness theorizes, that liminality allows him to read genre through the raced and gendered epistemologies from which his research emerges—“a distinctly African Americanist and feminist practice of scholarship” (3)—and thus signifies, no different than the aforementioned ecclesiastical rhetoric, that “saints”, literary and otherwise, are not necessarily canonized. That said, under the umbrella of the “Whiteness of science fiction” and the “speculative fiction of Blackness”, vis-à-vis Afrofuturism, surrealism, Otherhood, and haunting (22-8), Speculative Blackness uses racial categorizations as bookends for the synonymy of a genre with different spellings (21-2). This ideation manifests itself in carrington’s chapter formulations.

“Josh Brandon’s Blues: Inventing the Black Fan” charts amateur science fiction publishing in fanzines. carrington opens this first chapter with the historiography of an early twentieth century Harlem science fiction club called the Scienceers started by James Fitzgerald, “a light skinned Negro, about thirty years of age.” Perhaps the “first group in the United States devoted to the discussion of science fiction” (30), this club situates blackness at the origin of sci-fi fandom. Pivoting to Carl Joshua Brandon, or “Josh” as the chapter’s title suggests, carrington constitutes Fitzgerald as a progenitor of Brandon’s “blackness” (41; 65-6), even as we soon learn that “Brandon” is a white Bay Area fan named Terry Carr (33). The archival work encountered in the chapter shows a level of care for the objects of inquiry, even as this recent revelation exhibits what Fred Moten considers “[t]he paraontological distinction between blackness and blacks [that] allows us no longer to be enthralled by the notion that blackness is a property that belongs to blacks.”

In the second and third chapters, “Space Race Woman: Lieutenant Uhura beyond the Bridge” and “The Immortal Storm: Permutations of Race in Marvel Comics,” respectively, carrington highlights constructions of black women in science fiction as both reducible and irreducible to long-held stereotypes regarding race and gender. Employing feminist and black feminist critical apertures, whether Nichelle Nichols’s own theorizations of her groundbreaking character on Star Trek and her work with NASA as a catalyst for Mae Jemison’s own space travel or Storm of the X-Men franchise as a “magical Negro” (94), these chapters are set against the backdrop of the long twentieth century, more specifically the Cold War.

In line with the culture wars that would be given rise in the latter part of that time period, carrington outlines paths of escape from such battlements via chapters four and five. Centering black aesthetics in speculative fiction, “Controversy and Crossover in Milestone Media’s Icon” examines futurity and the urban center as shown in the success of a comic book franchise marketed by a black-owned publishing group, just as “The Golden Ghetto and the Glittering Parentheses: The Once and Future Benjamin Sisko” thinks through the valences of speculative fiction singularly and episodically occupied by Avery Brooks on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

In these two moments, on par with Mark Anthony Neal’s reading of Brooks as Hawk and Sisko in Looking for Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities , carrington conveys what happens when a fictionalized character has a foot deep in the culture. That is to say, he theorizes what these portrayals betray, albeit positively, about blackness when one “writes” the self into being such that in Icon, Raquel contrives Rocket—the superhero with the interstellar name who will defend the concrete jungle that is Raquel’s home—who is, in fact, Raquel (118-21); or Brooks-cum-Sisko embarks on a voyage back to the future where fictional author Benny Russell, played by Brooks, has visions “Far Beyond the Stars” to conjure that selfsame time traveler (158-63). In the final chapter, “Dreaming in Color: Racial Revisions in Fan Fiction”, transnationalism is the mode through which carrington considers the genre, juxtaposing the Harry Potter series with Buffy the Vampire Slayer as both vehicles utilize characters who are black British women. Tracking fandom in cyberspace, carrington reimagines génerounder the auspice of diaspora.

In this indeterminate season of #alternativefacts, it appears that the admonition to speculate may somehow lessen the burden of the contemporary ubiquity of the fictitious, while also spurring self-generated fact-finding missions. Therefore, if Speculative Blackness interrogates how “black” one’s science fiction is, then perhaps a proper response is to posit what black is and ain’t. Then, with hope, the inquirer may gauge how black speculative fiction can and will be.

**This piece was originally published on NewBlackMan (in Exile) and is reprinted here with permission.

I. Augustus Durham is a fifth-year doctoral candidate in English at Duke University. His work focuses on blackness, melancholy and genius. He is the author of several articles including  “A Loving Reclamation of the Unutterable: Patricia Hill Collins, Hortense J. Spillers, and Nina Simone as Excellent Performers of Nomenclature” in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International. Follow him on Twitter @imeanswhatisays.

Black Women, Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime: An Interview with Deborah E. Whaley

By Matthew Teutsch 

March 1, 2017

This month I interviewed Deborah E. Whaley about her book Black Women in Sequence: Re-Inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime (University of Washington Press, 2015). Whaley is an artist, curator, writer, and Associate Professor of American Studies and African American Studies at the University of Iowa. She received degrees in American Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz (BA), California State University, Fullerton (MA), and the University of Kansas (PhD). Her research and teaching fields include the institutional history, theories, and methods of American and cultural studies, 19th and 20th century American cultural history, comparative ethnic studies, Black cultural studies, popular culture, the visual arts, and feminist theory. Dr. Whaley has published original art, poetry, as well as articles on social movements, popular culture, sequential art, documentary photography, and film. Her recent book Black Women in Sequence: Re-inking Comics, Graphic Novels, and Anime explores graphic novel production and comic book fandom, looking in particular at African, African American, and multiethnic women as deployed in television, film, animation, gaming, and print representations of comic book and graphic novel characters. She is also the author of Disciplining Women: Alpha Kappa Alpha, Black Counterpublics, and the Cultural Politics of Black Sororities(SUNY Press, 2010). Her book in progress, Feeling Her Fragmented Mind: Women, Race, and Dissociative Identities in Popular Culture, examines dissociative identities as a narrative trope in popular literature, film, television, and memoir, with a particular focus on Latinas, White, Asian/American, and Black women. Dr. Whaley is on the editorial board of the journals American StudiesAmerican Studies: Euroasian Perspectives, and Lexington Press’s Africana Studies series.

Matthew Teutsch: In the “Preface,” you discuss your personal experience with writing Black Women in Sequence. Can you share with us your journey through the realm of comics and fandom that led you to write Black Women in Sequence?

Deborah E. Whaley: I came to the project as a researcher, although I am an artist and did some formal training in cartooning when I was a teenager. Reading comics was a part of my young life and adult life. Like many, I enjoyed superhero comics and mainstream male characters, but I also felt affinities to female characters of color like Eartha Kitt’s Catwoman, Storm, and Vixen, because they represent strong women.

Teutsch: Black Women in Sequence covers artists and characters from the 1930s through the present in various genres, and you argue that we need to consider “sequential art as a viable form of understanding how popular literature and visual culture reflect the real and imagined place of women of African descent in nation making, politics, and cultural production.” Can you elaborate on this?

Whaley: Although sequential art is a burgeoning field, there is often a perception of comics as being for children or as having little intellectual merit. In the book, I expose how sophisticated narratives and images in sequence work together to provide a unique reading experience that I describe as optic-cognitive. Readers and creators are co-creating and processing words and images simultaneously, which is what makes comics and graphic novels unique. We can learn much about history, culture, and politics from comics, simply because its writers introduce such ideas in their work. The characters I explore in the book are a part of storylines that address many key historical moments and topics, including US and African relations, migration, civil rights, government surveillance, class inequality, racism, sexism, sexualities, and the dissemination of the Black female image in Asia.

Teutsch: You begin by discussing Jackie Zelda Ormes and her strips or gags that appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, the Chicago Defender, and elsewhere in syndication from the 1930s through the 1950s. How did you discover Ormes and why is she an important starting point for this study?

Whaley: It made sense to me, as an Americanist and cultural historian, to organize the book chronologically from the 1930s to the 21st century to assess changes in representation and culture over time. Research on Black cartoonists led me to Ormes. I also contacted and began to interview women who were a part of the Ormes Society to provide a context in which to understand the impact Ormes has on contemporary writers and artists. I begin with Ormes and end with the Ormes Society to bring my work full circle. Ormes is the first recognized Black female cartoonist. As you note, her work appeared in Black newspapers during key times in Black history and culture. Ormes’s work depicted the migration of Black women from the South to the North, working-class Black women and their role in shaping ideas about domestic workers’ rights and patriotism during World War II, and how young women advocated for social change and strategized about social change during the 1950s and 60s Civil Rights era. She gave voice to Black women at a time when such voices were rarely discussed as a part of the historical record. In many ways, Ormes was marking historical change and inserting Black women into American history through her comic strips and gags.

“Friday Foster,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1972. Photo: Deborah E. Whaley.
“Friday Foster,” Chicago Tribune, May 5, 1972. Photo: Deborah E. Whaley.

Teutsch: The term “Black comix” appears in the final chapter when discussing artists such as Nara Walker and Rashida Jones, and you argue that they expand the term by presenting non-Black characters as “vehicles to explore the Black subconsciousness.” Through their depictions, they represent what you call the “affective progression of blackness.” Can you explain this process and why we should reexamine the way we define the term “Black comix”?

Whaley: Not all artists and writers working in the independent realm depict Black characters. Comic creators such as Rashida Jones, in Frenemy of the State, use a protagonist coded as white to explore a range of issues that affect people of color, but also depicts the relationship between citizens and their role in upholding or resisting policies of the nation. I argue that Black women’s narratives and art still reflect the diversity of Black consciousness and art even when their characters are not conspicuously Black. Writer and artist Leisl Adams, in On the Edge, uses animal characters and human-animal hybrid characters. Ashley Woods in Millennia Waruses human and elf characters. What both of these women share is an ability to explore different identity configurations to question binary identities and understandings of identity. The themes and topics that their work reflects strategically address issues of concern to people of African descent while having universal appeal beyond any one particular race. Their engagement with the psychology of the mind and the politics of domination are universal, but can have particular consequences for those disenfranchised by their identities. There is a common definition of Black popular culture as creative expressions that are by, for, and about people of African descent. I do not reject this definition but I do argue that artists and cultural critics should not be contained or constrained to that definition. Artists such as Nara Walker focus on formalism and the beauty of physical bodies to present affective images and narratives. Characters that appear female are male; characters that appear raced simultaneously question visible signifiers of race; and, she uses didactic, visual poetry to augment cyclical narratives. Visual poetry, that is, the calculated spatial arrangement of visual images and written verses to convey meaning, becomes a compelling approach for her to interweave stories of love, loss, and intense emotion. What all of these women share is that they complicate our notions of identity instead of being beholden to essentialist ideas of identity.

Jackie Ormes, Patty-Jo n' Ginger comic. Photo: baladycreatives.com.
Jackie Ormes, Patty-Jo n’ Ginger comic. Photo: baladycreatives.com.

Teutsch: Given the scholarly attention to sequential art over the past few years, where do you see the field going from here?

Whaley: The field is expanding to examine various forms of difference, including race, sexualities, and (dis)ability. There is still much work to do, especially interdisciplinary work. There are some in the field who believe print comics should take primacy in comic scholarship, or who bemoan the work on mainstream characters and companies and superhero comics and do not see merit in the film adaption of comics. In order for the field to grow, we should move beyond the past while we revisit past work. We also need more work on independent comics, gaming, virtual worlds, and film. I do not think scholars should abandon doing work on the superhero genre. For example, Nicholas Yanes has recently written a brilliant analysis of the Supergirl television show in SequartLawrence Ware and others have been and are writing about the new version of the Black Panther. Important conversations in fan and scholar communities are occurring about gaslighting and abuse in iterations of the Joker narratives and Suicide Squad. The recent Avengersfilms and the series on Netflix Jessica Jones and Luke Cage are interesting case studies on US nationalism and international conflict and gender, sexual, and racial trauma. What are we to make of the “browning” or gender remixes of mainstream characters like Spiderman and Ironman? Thus, there is still much to say about characters and narratives that remain popular. At the same time, there are forms of sequential art that are understudied in regards to female characters and female characters of color. The good news is that the archive is large and there is plenty of room for all of us to help the field grow, especially in relation to issues of difference and fandom.

Graphic Voodoo: Africana Religion in Comics

By Yvonne Chireau 

November 17, 2016

This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.

Brother Voodoo. Source: Comics Amino.
Brother Voodoo. Source: Comics Amino.

Graphic literature, including comics, cartoons, and sequential art, reveal discursive practices that give meaning to race, religion, and national identity in different periods and contexts. In this post, I discuss the representation of Africana religions, coded as Voodoo, in 20th century graphic narratives. Consider this cover from a World War II era series called Jungle Comics.

Jungle Comics, 1940.
Jungle Comics, 1940.

With the savage wilderness as its backdrop, the image dramatizes the terrible power of Voodoo in its deadly enactment, as seen with the menacing, dark figure and his supine white female captive. The violent tension of this scene, and its fierce rupture of the present, juxtaposes the branding of African aesthetics with a Kota sculpture, an ancestral mask, ceremonial accouterments, and well-formed, naturalized bodies. And although the text shouts suspense, we know it will not end well for the black man.

What can graphic literature tell us about representations of Africana religions? Visual narratives generate subjectivity by distilling categories like “religion” and “Africa” and re-presenting them in stylized forms. “Voodoo” is such a category. In graphic media, Voodoo has been used to both displace and appropriate black spirituality while authorizing the dualism between magic and religion that is emblematic of western classifications of indigenous African systems of knowledge.1

Weekly World, 1897.
Weekly World, 1897.

Although the term Voodoo does not come into common usage until the 20th century, its rendition in graphic narratives originates with portrayals of blacks as denizens of an imaginary geography, as depicted in late 19th century newspapers and magazine cartoons with images that refracted “Africa” through a prism of grotesque and derogatory visions of its people. Since the diminution of non-Christian religions justified western imperialism, I also argue that theological alterity consolidated American whiteness into a shared national identity that disaffected black spirituality. Comics and cartoons stereotyped African religious authorities according to a visual rhetoric that cast indigenous religions as strange and uncivilized, personified by barbaric fetish priests, cannibal kings, and witch doctors. Such contrived views of Africana religions formed the basis of later representations of black spirituality as Voodoo.

In the first four decades of the 20th century, Africana subjects assumed conspicuous roles in newspaper “funnies” and animated cartoons. Promoted far and wide for comedic purposes, Voodoo morphed into a farcical symbol of religious debasement and superstition. It appeared more ubiquitously in consumable products as the technologies of mass culture expanded from print into film. It is noteworthy that the American theatrical cartoon industry endorsed flagrantly racist graphic formations even as it parodied black bodies and behaviors for entertainment and profit. The most enduring gags and memes manifested in stereotypes that elided distinctions between African and African-based religious cultures, as with the 1938 minstrel cartoon film Voodoo in Harlem. Visible signatures of black vernacular religion were ridiculed as little more than primitive folk practices, retrograde supernaturalism, and exaggerated fears of ghosts, Conjure, and witches—a hilarious yet harmless kind of Voodoo.

Voodoo Comics, 1973 (left) and 1952 (right).
Voodoo Comics, 1973 (left) and 1952 (right).

By the mid-twentieth century, Voodoo was rendered as less benign and more dangerous, and its depiction in graphic narratives was no laughing matter. Prior to the imposition of a stringent code of industry ethics and standards in 1954, publications such as Ajax-Farrell’s Voodoo Comics show cased macabre elements that suited the conventions of popular horror fiction. Voodoo joined spectacles of physical desecration to fantastic elements that linked African-based ritualism to human sacrifice, cannibalism, and a gruesome iconography of skulls and zombies.

The turn to Voodoo as an Africanized horror trope in the twentieth century coincided with U.S. military interventions in Haiti and elsewhere in the Caribbean, where black diasporic religions had historically rooted in post-slavery communities. An auxiliary to nationalistic propaganda, these forms of what I call graphic Voodoounderwrote ideological rationales for the expansion of American empire and projected domestic racial anxieties into the production of nightmarish imaginaries. Representations of Voodoo inhabited visual and narrative spaces that encompassed whiteness in jeopardy and blackness as a source of sinister malevolence, manifesting the prevalent and consumable themes of avenging violence, terror, and retribution that were constituted in the horror genre.

Donald Duck Hoodoo Voodoo, 1949.
Donald Duck Hoodoo Voodoo, 1949.

In the latter part of the 20th century, Voodoo’s depiction in graphic media telegraphed American uncertainty in an increasingly globalized cultural and geopolitical milieu that fostered the Cold War, nuclear proliferation, Vietnam, and the rise of revolutionary and anti-colonial independence movements in the Third World. In 1973, the Marvel comics supernatural horror series Strange Tales introduced a character by the name of Brother VoodooA transnational figure who drew from the broad lexicon of western renderings of Africana cultures, Brother Voodoo deployed Voodoo as dangerous and subversive magic, but with a twist: resignified, the Haitian religion Vodou became the weapon of choice in the superhero’s arsenal of enhanced abilities. The Brother Voodoo character, a repatriated black psychologist engaged in spiritual warfare against zombie gangs and evil bokors, enacted dominant tropes of comics’ masculinity while complicating African-based religiosity. Voodoo was used to appropriate a repertoire of superpowers that featured the divinities known as lwa, the ritual technology of spirit possession, and artifacts of protection and defense called wanga.

Left: The Katzenjammer Kids, 1906. Right: Jumbo Comics, 1938.
Left: The Katzenjammer Kids, 1906. Right: Jumbo Comics, 1938.

It is noteworthy that the appropriation of Voodoo as an Africanized superhero ability in the field of representations occurred at the same moment that graphic literatures added themes of black protest, political unrest, and cultural nationalism into their historical framing of the American social backdrop. In the last decades of the 20thcentury, Voodoo-inspired characters in comics would become more commonplace, portrayed with the likes of D.C.’s Papa Midnite (1988) and Jim Crow (1995) from Vertigo, who personified New Orleans’ distinct styles of African-inspired spirituality. Finally, with black female characters such as Vixen (1978), an African model who acquires her extraordinary abilities from a sacred totem, and Empress (2000), a crime fighting mambo (Vodou priestess), Hoodoo worker, and servitor of the Yoruba orisha Oya, Voodoo was generalized so as to fulfill a triad of meanings that were primarily useful for character flair. Although the formation of Voodoo as a symbol for black power developed in response to nascent demands for black representation in graphic literature, it has remained a stand-in for essentialized African religion – albeit the locus of supernatural empowerment, the expression of black identity, and a source of spiritual and cultural heritage for comics characters.

Empress, 2011.
Empress, 2011.

These representations of Voodoo have highlighted the tensions between worldview and imagination in referencing race, religion, and spirituality in visual and narrative forms. In their creation of Africana subjects, comics, cartoons, and other graphic media effaced the distinctions between African-derived traditions such as Haitian Vodou, black American vernacular spirituality, and indigenous African religions, and created an oblique, mutable trope that was viewed as alternatively benign and dangerous, ambiguous and inspiring, in its display of affecting presence and power.

Taken together, narrative depictions of Africana religions as graphic Voodoo are reducible to both their most egregious racialist expressions and their most spectacular and visually engaging aspects. Even as they articulate dominant interests and values in specific historical moments, graphic narratives are responsive to the exigencies of mass culture and its commodification by popular discourses. We look forward to future critical work on black culture and graphic literature as part of a collaborative, interdisciplinary research agenda for historians and other scholars of the black intellectual tradition.2

Yvonne Chireau is Professor in the Department of Religion at Swarthmore College. She is the author of Black Magic: Religion and the African American Conjuring Tradition (2003) and the co-editor of Black Zion: African American Religions and Judaism (1999). She blogs on Africana spirituality, magic, and religion at The Academic Hoodoo. Follow her on Twitter @Conjurehealing.

  1. Voodoo is a creation. It is a metonym for African religiosity, construed as an insurgent and illicit spiritual force, a utility word that encodes a racialized metaphysical orientation. Semantically distinct, popular discourses usually conflate Vodou and Voodoo. Vodou is a West African term used properly to denote a cluster of sacred traditions and lineages associated with the worship of African spirits in Haiti. See Vodou in Haitian Life and Culture: Invisible Powers, Claudine Michel and Patrick Bellegarde-Smith, 2006. 
  2. Recent scholarship on race and graphic media includes Sheena C. Howard and Ronald L. Jackson II, Black Comics: The Politics of Race and Representation, 2013; Adilifu Nama, Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, 2011; and Jeffrey A. Brown, Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and their Fans, 2001; and Francis Gateward and John Jennings, The Blacker the Ink: Constructions of Black Identity in Comics and Sequential Art, 2015; and Brannon Costello and Quiana Whitted, Comics and the US South, 2012. 

‘A Different Picture’: What’s Next for Luke Cage?

By Sam Knowles 

December 2, 2016

This guest post is part of our new blog series on Comics, Race, and Society, edited by Julian Chambliss and Walter Greason.


In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, my immediate response was an incredibly depressed one. These feelings only deepened with such news as a sharp rise in racist attacks in the wake of the election, or children expressing fears for the safety of their parents and the unity of their family as a result of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant views and beliefs such as that there should be a ‘total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.’ I thought about the genuine optimism with which I wrote – only at the beginning of this month– about the diversity of gendered and ethnic casting and the truly progressive racial politics of the 2016 Luke Cage. Writing just after this election and referring to the promise of Obama’s 2008 victory, NPR editors noted: “Eight years ago, the future of race relations in America looked, well, hopeful. Today, it’s a different picture.’

In the days that followed Trump’s victory, though, I started to put aside feelings of despair. This is a time for considered responses, not unfocused wailing, and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency doesn’t have to be – shouldn’t be – the death knell for the progressive cultural politics espoused in Netflix’s Luke Cage. The NPR phrasing was right: there is ‘a different picture’; but it doesn’t have to be one that rejects the multiracial vision put forward by Luke Cage creator Cheo Hodari Coker.

To this end, I returned to the first volume of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, to consider whether there were other stories – different pictures – that are as yet unexplored in the adaptation. (As I explained, the first season of the TV series was based solely on the first two issues of the first volume.) And in a world in which the incoming US Commander-in-Chief has repeatedly advocated repatriation and denounced immigration, are there interpretations of the original comic that could provide not only lessons for a reading public but a potentially productive opposition to the right-wing rhetoric of the incumbent political class? I would respond in the affirmative.

In issue #8 of the first volume of Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, the protagonist faces a threat that at first glance appears to arrive on three fronts. Whereas previous issues have pitted him against a single villain – like Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker, whose storyline made it onto TV in 2016 – this episode is different: he is either assaulted or starts an attack in three distinct directions. He is hired by a mysterious European individual to target a group of warehouse workers, he tracks down a criminal (one Georgie Simms) from a previous issue in the volume, and he comes face-to-face with an obvious super-villain: the armor-clad, cape-wearing, forebodingly monikered Doctor Doom.

Willis ‘Diamondback’ Stryker in Netflix’s Luke Cage (played by Erik LaRay Harvey).

Quickly, though, it turns out all is not as it seems. While Doctor Doom is presented as a villain – both visually, with an aggressive stance and a dramatic costume, and aurally, in the way that speech bubbles show his shouting of his stereotypically evil name – he in fact explains that he was behind the European man’s initial approach of Cage and is actually on the side of the ‘Hero for Hire.’ In spite of his villainous presentation, this antagonist is apparently keen to join forces with Cage.

This gesture towards cooperative intent is by no means unheard of in the world of superheroes — nor even in the world of Luke Cage. In the 2016 TV series, Luke agrees to an alliance with two of his erstwhile opponents (the corrupt politician Mariah Dillard and the gangster Hernan ‘Shades’ Álvarez) in order to defeat Diamondback, their common foe. It is strange, however, for this cooperation to be suggested at the very first meeting between a protagonist and an antagonist; and it makes this meeting a prime candidate for future adaptation.

Marvel's Luke Cage
Hernan ‘Shades’ Álvarez (played by Theo Rossi) and Mariah Dillard (played by Alfre Woodard) in Netflix’s Luke Cage.

However, it is not only the narrative interest generated by this union between apparently opposed characters that makes Doom’s appearance of interest. The pervasiveness of the character is significant. In the course of this and subsequent issues, we learn that the multiple threats faced by Cage at the start of the current issue all actually stem from one source: Doom himself. In interrogating Georgie Simms after he fails in attempting to kill Cage, Luke finds out that the gangster was involved in a murder from earlier in the volume, which is eventually linked to Doom; and the European gentleman who sends him to the warehouse is one of Doom’s henchmen. Moreover, Doom himself is not what he seems, as he has no intention of paying Cage for his services in attacking the warehouse workers.

The identity of these warehouse workers is interesting. They are African-American men, and the environment in which they live is introduced using animalizing language, establishing a racially dismissive climate from the outset: captions explain that Luke ventures ‘into the worlds of people who call New York an animal, and live off it like tapeworms’ (Luke Cage: Hero for Hire, vol. 1, #8, 10.1). The ultimate act of ‘othering,’ however, is not linguistic but narrative. When Luke attacks the gang he is surprised by their stamina and willingness to keep fighting in spite of their adversary’s strength; he only discovers the reason for this when one of his blows shatters the face of one of the workers, and circuit boards and wires are revealed: Doom’s targets were robots.


This is intriguing. The 1972 comic, coming as the world – and America in particular – entered an era of technological progression and increasingly mechanized labor, unifies fears about these computerized advances with a mistrust of a racial ‘other’ that was making strides in social and political circles at the time: from the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s legislation against normalized racial discrimination, to the Supreme Court’s 1971 landmark decision to uphold the busing of students for integration in Charlotte, NC, or Shirley Chisolm’s 1972 run as the first major-party African-American candidate for US President (after her election to Congress in 1968).

Luke’s ‘stark, staring, stultifying amazement’ at the discovery of the workers’ identity is shared by the audience. In the case of the non-African-American readers of the comic, however, this consternation could have had two sides: it reveals the extent to which black communities were viewed as less than human by an overwhelmingly white establishment.

The narrative thread involving working African-American men and robotics, then, is another contender for adaptation — and a particularly important one. Pursuing this story line in a modern setting would have interesting consequences, both for ideas of cultural representation and for students of contemporary American history. If Cheo Hodari Coker, his fellow show-runners, and producers can construct a narrative that follows concomitant thoughts about computerization and racial inequality, then it may well be possible for the TV adaptation of the comic to interrogate the twin issues of economic disenfranchisement and racist politics that so dominated the rhetoric of Donald Trump’s 2016 election.

Until these two trains of thought are united, the responses to this presidency are too often going to fall into an unproductive polarity: either anti-Trump protests or pro-Trump celebration, with neither side allowing contact with the other. When a lack of communication may be one of the reasons America got into this position in the first place, vocally and simultaneously addressing the economic and racial concerns of many of those involved may be one way forward. However, it starts with a continuation of this progressive comic adaptation. Now, more than ever, culture matters.

Sam Knowles is a teacher, lecturer, and writer specializing in the study of race and form in culture. His first book, Travel Writing and the Transnational Author, was published by Palgrave in 2014. A forthcoming research project will consider the political histories of a number of transnational island spaces. He is also pursuing research into the uses of graphic novel/comic form in representing the political and social complexities of postcolonial existences.Follow him on Twitter @life_academic.