The Future Is Black and Female: Afrofuturism and Comic Books
For comic book and superhero fans worldwide, the release of Captain America: Civil War on May 6, 2016 became permanently fixed in their minds. Advertised as a film that would disrupt fans’ feelings by featuring two major superheroes–Captain America and Iron Man– going head-to-head, instead this blockbuster showdown was upstaged by two new characters: the much-anticipated T’Challa/Black Panther (played by Chadwick Boseman) and a lesser known character, Ayo (played by Florence Kasumba), one of T’Challa’s security chiefs. Although audiences did not yet know her name, her presence was crystallized with one simple line addressed to the Black Widow: “Move. Or you will be moved.”
Overnight this one character, who would later be revealed as a member of the Dora Milaje, an all-female security team, became a popular topic of discussion. Her character’s presence led to think pieces, social media gifs, an entry point to a comic book series, and piqued interest into her comic book background as well. She also prompted audiences to re-think the role Black women play in the superhero comic book universe.
Historically, Black women have not been heavily featured in the popular comic book universes, with the few exceptions of Storm, Misty Knight, and Vixen. However, with the rise in popularity of comic books academically and cinematically, Black women and girls are beginning to have a regular presence. This popularity has sparked new inquiries between black comic book characters and Afrofuturism. Since Afrofuturism offers a way to take hold of the future, particularly in this case of the Black female, it ensures another avenue to reclaim African diasporic voices, subjectivity, and humanity. Thus, comic books can be a medium that integrates Afrofuturism as a genre by providing a fantasy setting and visual storytelling. The growing popularity of Afrofuturism and comic books within popular culture creates innovative approaches to discussing race, gender, science and technology, and fantasy. These growing relationships and narratives are worthy of further investigation.
Many comic book writers set their characters to engage in Afrofuturist explorations. Various authors employ Black bodies both to disrupt narratives of disability and as technologies in themselves, to counter narratives such as the extension of the white body into explosive images of androids and cyborgs to enhance its performance. Given the insufficiency of representations of women of color, as well as disabled protagonists, in comic book culture, representations at the intersections of these two identities seem particularly important. Visualizing these identities also contributes to their normalization: it un-others them, respects their otherness, and potentially destigmatizes otherness. This disruption can be seen in Marvel Comics’ Misty Knight. After being seriously injured in a bomb attack, Misty Knight is outfitted with a bionic arm that gives her superhuman strength, near-perfect aim with firearms, and the ability to liquefy all known metals. Misty Knight’s character pushes the limits of identification and plays with the hybridity of woman and machine. Her story provides an alternative narrative that disrupts the argument that “female, disabled, and dark bodies are supposed to be dependent, incomplete, vulnerable, and incompetent bodies … portrayed as helpless, dependent, weak.” Misty’s narrative contrasts with superhero narratives that have suggested disabilities are limitations to overcome.
The use of Black comic book characters with an Afrofuturist framing also provides additional illustrations of gender, race, and sexuality in the production of science fiction. Characters represent amalgams of gender, race, and technology, such as the all-female military unit the Dora Milaje (“Adored Ones”). In Marvel Comics’ Black Panther, these women are tasked with protecting the king while armed with swords and jetpacks in the fictional African country Wakanda. First appearing in Christopher Priest’s 1998 issue “The Client,” the Dora Milaje took on a joint role as soldiers and bodyguards as well as “wives in training.” This version, although significant, is also problematic, as these women can be read as submissive warriors who are loyal to the king and must sacrifice their lives and hide their emotions. In 2016, Issue #1 of the revamped version of the Black Panther series written by Ta-Nehisi Coates and drawn by Brian Stelfreeze introduced a shift in the representation and personality of the Dora Milaje. The narrative of loyalty and dutifulness is re-configured as the women take up a mentality of resistance and freedom from patriarchy and assigned paths of tradition. In this series, the first queer African couple in mainstream comic books was introduced (Aneka and Ayo, also known as the Midnight Angels), and they were later given their own series, “World of Wakanda.” This re-introduction of the Dora Milaje narrative speaks to Audre Lorde’s radical, queer, Black feminist approach. This Afrofuturist exploration offers a way to correct past sexist and troubling backstories, particularly for Black women characters, and to imagine a new story. A reframing of the Dora Milaje, according to Coates, “creates a template for how the sexist, troubling backstories of long-standing female characters can be flawlessly course-corrected.”
Afrofuturist comic books also play a role in introducing young Black girls to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Though most Black female comic book characters identified as Afrofuturist are adults, in 2016 Marvel Comics introduced Lunella Lafayette (aka Moon Girl), a 10-year-old Black girl super genius. Lunella’s narrative adds a youthful dynamic and shifts the perspective with regards to gender and science.1 She uses her newfound science as a survival and resistance tactic, thus presenting an alternative image of Black girlhood. Moreover, her story illustrates the power of Afrofuturist narratives to shift perspective with regards to gender and science. Women remain underrepresented in the science and engineering workforce, although to a lesser degree than in the past, with the greatest disparities occurring in engineering, computer science, and the physical sciences. A significant focus in the United States recently has been to increase engagement and interest in STEM curricula, particularly among girls and underrepresented minorities. Lunella’s character plays a role in disrupting this narrative and offers a youthful representation of Black girls in STEM fields. Narratives like Lunella’s within the comic book genre are not only notable, but crucial because they aid in creating a bridge between the gap of fiction and real-world application. In addition to bringing awareness to the insufficiencies in STEM, the character also exhibits a humanized experience of young Black girls while also celebrating their intelligence.
Afrofuturism is not simply a tool of representation, but also a technique that incorporates the medium of comic books to re-craft and build a history and identity through the African diasporic women’s narratives. According to Deirdre Lynn Hollman, “Afrofuturism is black survival. It is an affirmative aesthetic and philosophic position that questions how will we survive in the future, not if we will. It asks what do we need to know, how do we need to adapt, what knowledge do we need to take with us, what new ways of being do we need to create, and how do we retain our ancestral memory.” Because of this affirmation and call for “black survival,” the Black women and girls portrayed in these comic book narratives resist “the danger of a single story” while incorporating Afrofuturism, thus offering refreshing, creative, and complicated experiences. These female voices also engage with contemporary technology, creative and alternative narratives and realities, and popular culture phenomena.
Each of these characters is presented with specific challenges and unique narratives that place African diasporic female voices at the center in a world largely constructed as white and male. They also challenge how people assume Black female characters should be portrayed within popular culture—as invisible, hyper-sexualized, marginalized, and/or relegated to mammy and sidekick roles. These controlling images, according to Black feminist scholar Patricia Hill Collins, validate racism, sexism, and poverty and normalize their power as a part of everyday life. Disrupting these images is essential, and it is also representative of Black feminist interventions. Afrofuturism creates an outlet for technology and the imaginary to be inclusive of all races and genders. In the words of Alondra Nelson, there are still “voices with other stories to tell about culture, technology, and things to come,” and the relationship between Afrofuturism and comic books starring Black female voices is one way to create and tell those stories.
- Lunella Lafayette replaces the red Tyrannosaurus rex’s original caveman pal Moon Boy from the 1970s Devil Dinosaur comic book series. Recently, Lunella was named the smartest person in the 9,000-plus character Marvel Universe, beating out past geniuses such as Fantastic Four’s Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic and Iron Man, both of whom are adult white men. ↩
Comments on “The Future Is Black and Female: Afrofuturism and Comic Books”
I live in Idaho and recently left a nearly decade long job of managing our local comic book shop, though comics are a lifelong passion. Too often I heard so-called complaints about diversity — especially black female diversity — being an excuse to be “PC” or simply “political.” What my mostly straight, male clients really want are white heroes (or women with little clothing). Marvel did not, does not, seem to poor marketing dollars into diverse characters, but instead put their resources into advertising Nazi-Cap, for example. (Ugh! Sam Wilson – the Falcon – is my all time favorite comic character and Marvel didn’t give him time to be Captain American and the new face of Marvel, because you know, Nazi-Cap — but that’s for another discussion.) Anyway, thank you for this excellent article that I’ve shared with all my family and friends. This is a beautiful and wonderful piece that was sorely needed.
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