Kwanza Osajyefo writes for Bleeding Cool
"What if only black people had superpowers?"
By paralleling superhero tropes with real-world issues, it's the tagline that launched a graphic novel I wrote into the public consciousness. Through that lens, BLACK brought attention to the dearth of African-American representation in comic books' creative process – and therefore their content.
Where we were not absent was the culture. No, not The Culture, but comic book culture.
While the term "blerd" has recently entered geek lexicon, black nerds who enjoyed comics did so reading about characters who mostly did not look like them or authentically reflect their experiences. Though comics were rife with "relatable" and flawed characters that had "average problems," none of these problems were having the police called on them while waiting for an associate at Starbucks.
At best, black nerds could enjoy allegories of social injustice alongside the rest of geekdom, reading the adventures of persecuted costumed heroes who, for the most part, take off their masks to live as abnormally beautiful white people. For the few characters who were overtly inhuman, we'd get a few pages where they were harassed or attacked for how they looked – but these stories were few and far between.
Despite their mistreatment, the attractive outsiders and their frightening comrades were unified in turning the other cheek. They even fought against their brethren who were not inclined to be as kind-hearted because, despite the collective power they had, they were a minority against a much bigger world of people who feared and hated them. This was the foundational theme of their struggle and made them comics darlings for nearly 30 years.
One of the frequent questions about the concept is, if black people have had powers for centuries then why did slavery happen? A fair question that, as a writer, leaves me to coyly suggest people continue to read the trilogy, where more will be revealed in WHITE, the sequel to BLACK. Shameless plug: we're currently crowdfunding it on Kickstarter.
So, while fans' enthusiasm to know more about the history of the universe is taken as a compliment, there are detractors like Comicsgate who find this to be a story flaw.
These hecklers feel I've missed a beat because they believe that black people with superpowers in the modern world would fight back, as though real slavery and segregation ended by magic and not through the sacrifice of our very real black heroes, or that black people with powers today would take over our country.
Aside from those arguments having racist overtones that broadly paint black people as either sheepish, or as vengeful savages waiting to serve white people a comeuppance, for the most part, they try to deny inequality while acknowledging it in the same breath.
What an odd hill for these supposedly real fans of comics to die on.
Granted, their aim is solely to minimize the voices of women, POC, and LGBTQIA+ comics creatives, but as so-called normal fans who want quality comics – what have they been reading?
Longtime comic book readers and hardcore X-Men fans regard Chris Claremont and Brent Anderson's God Loves Man Kills as not only a defining moment for the writer's career, but also for the format of comics, and in particular a cornerstone of the X-Men mythos.
To that end, I won't recite the entire premise of the book – you have comic shops, ComiXology, and Google for that – it's recommended reading for any real fan.
Instead, I'll focus on the catalyst of the story, which is two black mutant children – Mark and Jill – who are pursued by The Purifiers, a gang of henchmen lead by Reverend William Stryker.
In the dead of night, the Purifiers chase this empowered pair of siblings to a playground where the kids try to hide. Mark is shot in the leg and can't run anymore, allowing the hunters to corner them. Nowhere to go and his young sister to protect, Mark's eyes crackle with superhuman power as he bemoans their attackers' murder of their parents – it's time to avenge them.
Except a Purifier aims her gun and blows his brains out.
Little Jill is executed just as coldly. These empowered characters had no chance against a mob and their firearms – despite any wondrous abilities they possessed. God Loves Man Kills sets the tone for the X-Men to parallel the discrimination, aggression, and attacks that real minorities experience in the United States.
As Stan Lee said, "the world outside our window."
The X-Men are accepted and embraced by comics readers as Marvel's minority group. Underdogs who, despite their powers, are tyrannized, constantly under threat of extinction. A visceral and palpable fear to have in the face of humanity conquering most of the species in the sky, on land, and in the sea.
Perhaps comics have allowed some readers such an escape from reality that they no longer understand that in the face of overwhelming numbers of determined attackers, a tiger's claws, an eagle's wings, or a whale's size doesn't matter. History has shown us the human ambition to bring other beings to kneel – and it is never accomplished with fair odds.
But it has also shown us that actual resistance is not accomplished in 20 pages. Freedom is not won in an hour and forty-five minutes. Happy endings don't happen in a half hour. And while a struggle against the odds is the core of all of our greatest stories, it comes at the highest price.
So what is the disconnect? If blerds can find solidarity among comic readers in having empathy for the fictional struggles of Professor X, Cyclops, Magento, etc., why is it a problem to connect with the real sacrifices of Huey P. Newton, Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, and countless other black heroes that they are inspired by?
I think you know the answer.