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Toward a History of the Black Superhero: Review of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes

By Ezra Claverie

Nama, Adilifu. Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011. Print. ($55 cloth. $24.95 paper. 180 pages. Eight pages of full-color reproductions of comic-book covers and panels.)

Adilifu Nama’s Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes has the same strengths as Nama’s previous monograph, Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film. These books deliver wide-ranging surveys of major representational tropes—the ways that black characters have appeared—in the genres that they cover, and they ask provocative questions about how other mass media texts represent race in general and African Americans in particular. In Super Black, Nama opens by declaring most of the small body of scholarly work on black superheroes to be generally shallow, “obvious,” and “embarrassingly reductive” (3). To his credit, his analyses seek and generally find multiple alternative readings of major black superheroes. Rather than reducing a character like Luke Cage or Storm to a single property or function, Nama interprets these characters both as symptoms and as allegories of the changing racial politics of the eras in which they appeared. Nama reads black superheroes as “cultural ciphers for accepted wisdom regarding racial justice and the shifting politics of black racial formation in America” (4), but he seeks to avoid simplistic generalizations that these characters either rehash or refute older stereotypes of blackness. In this, Nama succeeds: anyone interested in the complex modes of black representation in comics since the Civil Rights movement will find Super Black full of starting points for further analyses. However, scholars with a specific interest in the evolution of these characters through transmedia franchises like Marvel Entertainment’s Avengers (Joss Whedon, 2012) may find limiting this book’s emphasis on narrative arcs and origin stories.

Nama’s first chapter, “Color them Black,” begins not with Black Panther, the 1966 hero who coincidentally shared his name with the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense but instead with the groundbreaking, politically topical Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, the work of white writer-artist duo Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams. This series tapped countercultural and anti-establishment sentiments and dealt explicitly with US politics and race relations in the era following the major successes of the Civil Rights movement and the rise of Black Power. Against this backdrop, Nama examines O’Neil and Adams’s introduction of John Stewart, the African American who takes over as the Green Lantern. This chapter also compares DC’s Black Lightning and Marvel’s Falcon, similar to each other as white-collar professionals in their civilian lives but different in their relationships to white superheroes, differences that, as Nama argues, raise questions about assimilation and authenticity. Where Falcon plays sidekick to Captain America (against his girlfriend’s protestations that he is a racial sellout), Black Lightning refuses Superman’s invitation to join the Justice League, and instead joins a group called the Outsiders, which Nama reads as a radical gesture against assimilation to white hegemony.

In contrast, Nama’s second chapter, “Birth of the Cool,” examines two characters that he argues function as overdetermined polar opposites for black superheroism: the Black Panther and Luke Cage. Nama reads each as a political allegory of a different vision of blackness. The Black Panther, the alter ego of T’Challa, genius and aristocrat, hails from the fictional African kingdom of Wakanda, a hyper-technological culture never exploited by European colonialism, and an Afrofuturist utopia. Luke Cage, the alter ego of Carl Lucas, represents the opposite extreme: born in Harlem, wrongly imprisoned, and then subjected to medical experimentation. Nama contrasts the Black Panther, who represents an ideal of black super-heroism born outside the histories of white exploitation and racism, with Luke Cage, who represents the product of racist biopolitics, and who makes that origin legible both through his costume (the chain that he wears around his waist) and through his moniker cage. Nama acknowledges the tradition of reading Cage as heavily influenced by the Blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, but he also argues that the influence operated in both directions, with Blaxploitation heroes and black comic-book superheroes sharing many of the same “signifiers of superhuman status” as they navigate “between black self-determination, racial authenticity, political fantasy, and economic independence” (6).

Nama’s subsequent chapters explore other ways that black superheroes either work through or elide these questions of history, politics, and identity. Chapter three, “Friends and Lovers,” treats black-white pairings of heroes: Tony Stark’s Iron Man with Jim Rhodes’s War Machine, Storm with the predominantly white X-Men, and the title characters of Cloak and Dagger. Here, Nama argues that such pairings serve as models and experiments in racial cooperation and negotiation, ranging from the liberal to the radical. Chapter four, “Attack of the Clones,” looks at re-imaginings of originally white heroes in “white-to-black makeovers” that Nama argues “deliberately attempt to ignore race, but in so doing often call attention to it” (7). Chapter five, “For Reel? Black Superheroes Come to Life,” surveys black superheroes in the television and film of the past three decades. In a particularly valuable section, Nama discusses the ways that black film stars have influenced, and even provided the physical models for, black comic-book heroes (Jim Brown as the model for Alex Ross’s version of Luke Cage; Samuel L. Jackson as the model for Ultimates‘ Nick Fury). Nama closes the chapter and the book by arguing that the election of President Obama, a black fan of superhero comics, opens the way for still more varied representations of “super” blackness. Obama’s appearance on the cover of Amazing Spider-Man #583 and Alex Ross’s painting of Obama ripping open his shirt to reveal an “O” costume (in the manner of Superman) both suggest that the comics industry is incorporating the 44th President into their arsenal of images of black achievement, dignity, and power.

Nama’s book gives a welcome overview of black superheroes and Afrocentric treatments of black-white relations in US superhero comics since the 1960s. The strength of Super Black, therefore, lies in its concise introduction to these characters and in the interpretative and political questions that Nama raises—questions that readers can productively apply to other texts. The book is historicist insofar as it tracks the development of black superheroes against the background of watershed moments in US racial politics, such as the passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, the Blaxploitation film craze, moral panics over “gangsta” rap, and the election of a black-identified, biracial President of the United States. The book would have been stronger had it considered the histories of these characters in other contexts, such as the US comics industry’s transition to direct marketing via specialty comic shops in the 1970s and 1980s, or the subsumption of the superhero duopoly of Marvel and DC into larger media conglomerates. Alternately, Nama might have explored the reception of these characters by examining fan archives, such as the letters pages of back issues, or online discussion boards. Herein lies what many readers will find the book’s major weakness: its disconnection from histories of production, distribution, and reception in favor of an at times almost New Critical focus on the characters on the page. If Nama performed close, formalist readings of panel and page composition, this exclusion of industrial contexts might seem less like a weakness, but the book instead dwells on costume design, dialogue, and summary-friendly narratives in a way that neglects the formal properties of comics as a medium. Nama draws on a variety of theorists of culture (Frantz Fanon, Stuart Hall, bell hooks, Richard Reynolds, Kent Ono), but he does not draw on theorists of comics (Will Eisner, Scott McCloud, Theirry Groensteen, Pascal Lefèvre, Josef Witek). This offers the virtue of making the book a quick read (since the parsing of anthropologies can get tedious), but it comes at the expense of in-depth formal analyses, which Nama does not offer.

The book’s discussion of black superheroes in television and movies shows similar emphases. To Nama’s credit, he discusses transmedia franchise characters adapted from print (Spawn, Storm, Blade, Catwoman) and also non-franchise characters written for the screen (Meteor Man, Blankman, Hancock, M.A.N.T.I.S.). However, the book doesn’t touch upon the ways that producers use black actors’ star images to groom movies for the mass market or for market segments. Neither does it bring up the ways that franchises often re-configure the movie version of a character (like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury) into the dominant version as part of a larger strategy to dethrone comics as the source of the authentic or definitive version of a proprietary character.

Nevertheless, Super Black offers a welcome introduction to characters that have been too often overlooked. It can be used as a model to approach analyses of race in mass-cultural texts, and as a starting point for in-depth formalist or historicist studies of black superheroes. Anyone hoping for a history that draws on the archives of the comics industry—sales figures, interviews from trade publications like Comics Journal or Comics Interview, original scripts versus editorial revisions—will find Super Black a disappointment. However, what the book lacks in depth of this kind, it makes up for in breadth: Nama’s examinations of these characters in close succession, coupled with his provocative comparisons of the ways that they work through similar themes, suggest points of departure for any number of further projects using various archives or formal approaches. Super Black is a beginning, not an end.

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