Recommended: Adilifu Nama’s Super Black

In his Introduction of Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black SuperheroesAdilifu 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).

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Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes, Adilify Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011)

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.

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The origin of the Falcon in Captain America 117 (Marvel Comics, September 1969).

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).

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Captain America and the Flacon ran as a co-titled comic from 1971-1978.

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)

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Luke Cage, Hero for Hire, represents the often contradictory representation of black superheroes in the context of blaxploitation film conventions.

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).

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The full-color, gloss insert includes vibrant images such as the original Black Lantern from January 1971-1972 (DC).

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 CoatesBaldwin’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.

See Also

Black Goliath: “Some Black Super Dude,” 

Black Lightning Always Strikes Twice! – Double-Consciousness as a Super-Power

Black Communities of the 30th Century: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics

The Man Who Lived Twice! (If You Can Call That Living): Marvel’s Brother Voodoo

Humanity Not Included: DC’s Cyborg and the Mechanization of the Black Body, Robert Jones, Jr.

Should We Marvel at a Black Captain America?

The Captain White America Needs

3 comments

  1. goldenoj

    Fun & enriching post. Loved the portrayal of Luke Cage in Jessica Jones and I’m so looking forward to his series. There’s a great moment of his wondering about the race thing. Also the glimpse of Black Panther in the new Civil War trailer.

  2. Ramon Jones

    As a superhero aficionado who teaches superhero comics, plans on writing essays focusing on the role of superheroes in hip-hop, and is working on my own superhero novel with an African American male protagonist, I thank you for this post and for your dedication to English and social justice.

  3. Scott Simmons

    In watching “Jessica Jones” on Netflix, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how Luke Cage was written in the early 2000s and how that changed over the next decade. When he first entered the story in “Alias,” he was a near-caricature of the black badass, complete with gold tooth, contemporary hip-hop wardrobe, and a seething layer of resentment and suspicion. His first role in the story is to take advantage of the damaged white girl by bedding her, to the shock and lurid, voyeuristic delight of the audience. “Look at Jessica,” the story tells us. “She’s as hardened and callous and victimized as the blaxploitation guy! The white girl can hold her own.”

    That narrative quickly soured on the shelf, and by the time Luke has left Jessica pregnant, there’s a scramble to rehabilitate his scary, angry tough image into that of a respectable family man. It’s as if the audience forces him into a shotgun wedding with Jessica to rehabilitate his wallowing in stereotype. Stereotype to toothless role model, over the course of a decade.

    It’s a trip Luke Cage has made a couple of times. I’m anxious to see how Nama frames that journey (made by lots of black characters) in terms of the social push and pull going on in the real world — AND how he addresses writers’ efforts to reconcile the stereotypes and reductive portrayals into consistent, compelling human portrayals.

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