Black Power Fantastic Haunted by fandom, Adilifu Nama explores ways blackness merged with superheroes

Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes

Adilifu Nama (University of Texas Press, 2011) 212 pages with 85 illustrations and photos in color and black and white

Like so many books about comics written in the United States, Alifu Nama begins Super Black: American Pop Culture and Black Superheroes with an origin story about his love and attachment to comics. Sometimes these narratives are both apologia to non-comics readers and evidence of bona fides for comics aficionados: “Don’t you think (Insert name here)’s run on (insert name of comic here) was under/overrated?” But the defense of his adult pleasure seems somewhat incongruent with the popularity of superheroes in popular culture. Nama says that when parents encounter him going with his wife “into the latest superhero film, he sees “scornful glances that betray feelings ranging from mild annoyance to awkward disdain for what they probably perceive as an adult still stuck in adolescence.” That seems unlikely, since superheroes have been pleasurable adult entertainment for decades. Marvel’s The Avengers is currently the third-highest grossing film of all time. Even adjusted for inflation, it ranks in the top thirty—a title it could not hold if the audience was only children and the stereotypical geek man-boy. American audiences love masked crusaders.

Thus the by-now predictable gesture toward skeptical readers is really not about defending the idea that he is an anomalous adult consumer of superhero blockbusters. It is actually about justifying the consumption of the superhero’s original medium, the comic book, as well as the enterprise of scholarship about superheroes and comics. If there is something unseemly (to some) about adults who read superhero comics, there is something even more useless about producing scholarship about it. People who study popular culture are often greeted with scorn, so the need to justify the field is almost mandatory. Why write a scholarly book about glossy stories told with pictures? What is there to say about a genre and medium that, often described a “cartoon,” is thus synonymous with lack of depth?

As it turns out—quite a lot. The field of comics studies has been growing exponentially over the last couple of decades. While much of the scholarship has come from people in literary studies or media studies, people in other disciplines have also been interested in comics as history, material culture, and art. Narrative theorists have been interested in issues such as time and semiotics, something particularly called attention to in the comics medium. While texts like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a watershed in superhero comics, have been treated as literature, in literary studies and the few outlets that might rank graphic narratives in top-ten lists, there has nonetheless been somewhat of a high/low distinction in which nonfiction narratives have been privileged over superheroes, fantasy, and comic strips. But Nama and cultural historians like Bradford Wright (Comic Book Nation) privilege narratives told in popular superhero comics as an important mechanism for tracing how ideology moves through—or is resisted in—culture.

From Luke Cage to Barack Obama, the pleasure of the culturally-rooted black superhero is of one who can confront the multi-headed hydra of white supremacy with a body and spirit that cannot be broken by discrimination.

Nama’s book is in the vein of cultural history, but is also part of identity studies in the field. Numerous essays and a few monographs about Jewish identity, women, and race have been produced in the last decade. Nama is surprisingly dismissive of others in his field in his description of scholarship about African-Americans in comics. Citing only two articles and Jeffrey Brown’s oft-cited book about the black imprint Milestone in support of his claims, Nama argues that “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.” Since Nama takes up very little of the substantive theoretical work in comics scholarship, he could probably be a tad more generous about the quite specific disciplinary interventions scholars are making in their work. Brown’s important study explored the relationship between comics and fans, inserting black fans into a conversation that so often erases their existence. Fans are important to the study of superhero comics, as their influence in the shaping of superhero narratives gives us insight into constructions of the ideal “American male” reader, as well as glimpses into the ways that “other” audiences are interpolated by texts or push back against normative representations. Super Black is indebted to the scholarship that makes a book like this possible: texts that focus on comics and comic book history; work that privileges the perspective of readers or fans in cultural studies; and studies of the difference identity makes in consumption.

While Nama’s interest is in black superheroes as “ripe metaphors for race relations in America,” fandom is nevertheless an issue that haunts the text. Because Nama argues that the “book adopts a self-conscious critically celebratory perspective for examining the various expressions of superhero blackness,” it may be useful to see Nama’s scholarship in a tradition of black acafandom. Acafandom, a term most associated with media scholar Henry Jenkins, describes scholars whose relationship to fan culture informs their research. People often use that term derogatorily, seeing it as a sign of a scholar who is unable to be critical of their love objects. That can be true, although we often render invisible the way that “high” cultural productions also hold our love and allegiance, making scholars equally incapable of finding problems with James Joyce or Jean Luc-Godard. Acafans have an insider knowledge of a cultural production and the fan culture surrounding it. Such knowledge can make claims about how a text circulates in a community and how fans interpret such texts hold more analytical heft. While Nama definitely uses his history as a comics consumer as a grounding for his work, the community of fans is less present here.

His five accessible essays explore the ways that blackness has historically been awkwardly included in, or at times, disrupted the white superhero genre. “Color Them Black” traces the ways that the inclusion of black superheroes align with broader cultural changes in U.S. politics. “Birth of the Cool” looks at the emergence of black superheroes in relationship to black power discourse, and “Friends and Lovers” examines the friendships and partnerships between black and white superheroes. “Attack of the Clones” explores the history of creating black versions of white superheroes, while “For Reel? Black Superheroes Come to Life” analyzes varied film and television versions of black superheroes.

The most provocative aspect of his analyses is his intervention into claims that the advent of black superheroes in DC and Marvel merely drew from the blaxploitation genre—the 1970s film genre characterized by larger-than-life black heroes violently fighting back against white supremacy, but plagued by racial and sexual stereotypying. For Nama, the blaxploitation superheroes like Superfly and Boss Nigger are superheroes too, which invites interrogations into how wide-ranging the superhero framework might extend. He includes a number of films in the last chapter that would not count as a “superhero film” per se—but should we see all action heroes as versions of superheroes? Since we could trace the genealogy of the superhero as emerging from earlier action adventure heroes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we could see superheroes as a subset of the American hero as he has developed in popular genres. Shouldn’t the “super” part mark some important difference? Why might that matter?

He ends the book with a brief discussion of representations of Barack Obama that circulated depicting him as a black superhero, and that reference may hold a key to the difference blackness makes in reading the non-superpowered as superheroes in cultural discourse. Blackness has often marked one of the visible limits of the fantasies depicted in superhero narratives. Nama describes a famous Green Lantern issue in 1970, “No Evil Shall Escape My Sight,” that has an elderly black man asking Green Lantern why he seems to fight for the rights of different colored people on many other planets, but had not fought against American racism. The Green Lantern had no answer for him. And his inability to have an answer demonstrates the ways that evil in many superhero comics, while always possessing a zombie-like quality to rise and fight again, offers the pleasures of consolidated threats and risks. The diffuse dangers caused by racism—state violence, unequal applications of laws, educational inequality, poverty, intraracial violence, microaggressions, workplace discrimination, and other issues—cannot be consolidated into a single monster who can be felled by superman’s blow. This marks the black difference, one that would not resonate in the same way with the white American experience privileged in superhero comics. While black consumers obviously get pleasure from traditional narratives with white superheroes and all kinds of narratives that have excluded their experiences, Nama wants to point here to the specific interventions made by the black superhero genre. From Luke Cage to Barack Obama, the pleasure of the culturally-rooted black superhero is of one who can confront the multi-headed hydra of white supremacy with a body and spirit that cannot be broken by discrimination. So you don’t need to fly to be super black. You “just” need to be able to look racism in the face without fear, do what white supremacy would find unimaginable, and with each battle, although only a fraction of the fight, win. That’s super indeed.