In his Introduction of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilifu Nama, associate professor of African American Studies at Loyola Marymount University, shares his mid-1970s trip to the toy store, where he excitedly anticipated buying superhero figures.
“[I]t was the Falcon that captured my imagination most and cemented my attachment to virtually all things superhero,” he notes. “Why? He was a black man that could fly” (p. 1).
Around the same time, although about a decade older, I was also deeply entrenched in the Marvel Universe, which in hindsight was—along with science fiction novels—one of the doors opening to my stepping beyond my working-class roots in a white community steeped in racism and conservative ideology. I too was fascinated by the Falcon, who brought me back again and again to Captain America, a superhero I found less than compelling.
Nama asserts that Captain America losing his sidekick, Bucky, was part of “events [that] were just an interesting prelude to one of the most remarkable aspects of the Captain America comic book series: his pairing with the first African American superhero, the Falcon” (p. 69).
Since around 1940, superhero comic books and superheroes have held a solid and important spot in U.S. pop culture, and as pop culture, comic books as a medium (genre) have demonstrated the same sort of flaws and brilliance found in other media, such as film (which Nama addresses in Chapter 5 as well as his Black Space: Imagining Race in Science Fiction Film).
Pop culture often reflects, perpetuates, and confronts the very worst of the culture it serves—in terms of racism, sexism, classism, and the like. Comic books have been, and still are, no different.
Nama’s work is exceptional for his diligent commitment to outlining the role of black superheroes, primarily from Marvel and DC, while avoiding the failures often found in other critiques:
In short, the bulk of analysis concerning black superheroes has come to obvious conclusions, is embarrassingly reductive, and neglects to draw deeper connections across significant cultural dynamics, social trends, and historical events….Either black superheroes are critiqued as updated racial stereotypes from America’s comic-book past, or they are uncritically affixed to the blaxploitation film craze as negative representations of blackness. (p. 3)
Instead, Nama “adopts a poststructural approach that is not beholden to…authorial intent and intensely surface perceptions,” but I must add that despite the scholarly focus, this is an accessible volume for a general readership interested in comic books, pop culture, and race (p. 5).
While offering a wonderful assortment of images, including a high-gloss four-page gallery about a third of the way through, Nama weaves an engaging discussion of the rise of socially conscious comic books (Dennis O’Neil and Neil Adam’s Green Lantern Co-Starring Green Arrow, DC, 1970-1972), “seminal black superheroes,” the tension of black and white superhero combinations, “white-to-black makeovers” of superheroes, and as noted about, black superheroes in TV and movies (pp. 6, 7).
Throughout the volume, Nama offers an impressive outline of the black superhero in mainstream comic books while including a powerful examination of the relationship between comic books and the complicated history of race in the U.S.
My own evolving understanding of race in superhero comic books is increasingly informed by James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates—Baldwin’s confrontation of the specter or whiteness and Coates’s rejecting that “[t]he black freedom struggle is…about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans.”
In the words of a comic book fan and scholar, Nama, I think, honors both Baldwin and Coates, a perspective that resists judging race in comic books through a white lens or against a distorted bar of perfection:
Where but in superhero comics did black people visit alternative worlds, travel in rocket ships, invent and command futuristic technology, or experience time travel? (p. 66)
By coming neither to glorify nor demonize black superheroes in mainstream comic books and pop culture, Nama succeeds in reaching beyond the pages of those books and showing readers how race joins everyone in the same journey:
American blacks and whites are ultimately bound to one another fused by history and circumstances, fate and fortune, dreams deferred and hopes realized, and when either party tries to destructively deny or sever the interconnected and interdependent nature of the relationship, both parties suffer. (p. 88)
However, comic books as manifestations of the culture they popularize are inevitably anchored by the white privilege of that real world. “Black superheroes should never be just a colorized version of the original,” Nama argues, adding:
because that would affirm notions that African Americans are at best a passive reflection and at worst a pathological reaction to white America. To the contrary, blacks have simultaneously retained a distinct form of black racial identity and worldview along with absorbing American folkways, mores, and taboos. Black superheroes, like the black folks they symbolize, must express that dynamic, whether they are completely original, an overt imitation of a white figure, or somewhere in between the two. (p. 125)
Ultimately, Nama’s scholarship is lifted by his childhood love for a black man who could fly—the Falcon merging in his boyhood mind with Dr. J—and readers are apt to enjoy this volume as much as the comic books it honors.
Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body, Robert Jones, Jr.