The Illusion of Change: What Afrofuturism is doing for mainstream comics


photo by Alex Smith

I got hooked on comics before I could read. My older brother H. T. would recap stories he had read himself—like the one where Colossus picked up a skyscraper, or the one where the Sub-mariner threw a city bus at the Thing. He told me about Captain America and the Super Soldier program. He told me about the X-Men and their fight to protect a world that feared and hated them. In my childish mind, these stories were no different from those of biblical heroes, and I revered them the same way. Now, as I turn 40, and I’m living through an era in which police shoot innocent black folks in their own homes, the President of the United States regularly and openly disparages women and people of color, and climate change threatens the future as world governments and corporations sit on their hands. It’s no wonder comic stories and characters are still important to me. They settled an uncharted region of my developing imagination that I return to whenever I can. While I know those characters can’t save us, I do hope that their stories might offer us some clues as to how to save ourselves.

When I was four years old, my older sister taught me to read and write, and as soon as I could, I began reading comics for myself. I loved Batman for his intensity and drive, I loved the way Ms. Mystic used the very elements to fight evil, and I loved how The Badger battled on behalf of animals and the environment even as he struggled with his own mental illness. Early on, though, I began keeping an eye out for characters who looked like me. Black Lightning, The Falcon, Storm, Vixen. Slowly, blackness, the nature of oppression, and Afrofuturism have begun to influence the field at large—possibly because not only are there more characters of color in comics now, there are creators of color telling authentic stories based in their own experience of the world. In the last few years, though, the pace of change has quickened. The stories have taken on a new energy—as if creators of color have run short of patience and are no longer trying to cajole the mainstream audience into caring about characters of color.

In 2011, writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sarah Pichelli introduced Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino boy who took up the mantle of Spider-man after Peter Parker was killed in action. (He got better.) Morales was created, in part, after Donald Glover tweeted a photo of himself dressed as Spider-man and fans began calling for him to be cast as Peter Parker. Racist fans hated the idea and a flame-war commenced. Bendis, the adoptive father of a black daughter saw no reason there couldn’t be a black Spider-man and invented one shortly after. In the first eight years since his creation, Miles has starred in an animated feature and hundreds of print issues. He was folded into the mainstream Marvel Universe and shares the name Spider-man with the original Peter Parker.

His adventures are presently written by Saladin Ahmed, author of the acclaimed Throne of the Crescent Moon. When I asked him how he approaches writing Miles Morales as opposed to Peter Parker, Ahmed told said, “[Miles is] driven by brightness in a way that Peter Parker isn’t. He has his darker moments, but he’s not as melancholy as the other Spider-man.” In the comics, especially, Peter Parker is motivated by grief and hounded by bad luck. He even made a bargain with the demon Mephisto to trade his marriage for the life of his dying Aunt May. Miles goes through his own dark times, but his adventures are infused with a joy that’s hard to shake.

In 2015, Sam Wilson became the new Captain America when the Super Soldier serum was extracted from Steve Roger’s body and he lost his powers. (He got better.) Wilson’s tenure as Captain America was met with quite a bit of resistance from white fans, and his inaugural adventure pitted him against racist militia members at the border with Mexico. Wilson has since handed the shield back to Steve Rogers in the comics, but Avengers Endgame saw the MCU’s falcon given the Shield after Steve Rogers retired to live a normal life. Falcon is one of those black characters whose earlier incarnations left a lot to be desired—he existed mostly in the shadow of and as sidekick to Captain America, he was once ret-conned into a reformed street criminal to make him “more realistically Urban”—but his handling in recent years has elevated him into one of the premiere Marvel heroes and given him a stronger personality. This wasn’t the first time a black man had taken the mantle of Captain America, after all. In their 2003 miniseries, Truth: Red, White, and Black, Kyle Baker told the story of Isaiah Bradley, the black man who served as Captain America before Steve Rogers took up the codename.

Over at DC, blackness and Afrofuturism manifest in the creation of new characters like Signal and Batwing, two new Bat-family characters, in a higher profile for Black Lightning, courtesy of his own TV series, and in one of the most exciting new offerings—Far Sector, by the renowned N. K. Jemisin. Part of DC’s Young Animal imprint, this series follows Green Lantern Sojourner “Jo” Mullein as she conducts a murder investigation on a composite world that hasn’t seen a violent death in 500 years. Jamal Campbell’s art is crisp, bright, and evocative, and Jemisin seems to have made a graceful transition from prose to comics. All the characters—and especially Mullein—are brimming with personality, and so far the story is perfectly paced, offering just enough intrigue to make readers fiend for the next issue. Reading the first issue of Far Sector reminded me that Ava Duvernay is taking on the New Gods—a group of classic DC characters whose number has only included two black characters until now. If Jemisin’s work is any indication, DC is just as interested as Marvel in keeping pace with the changing demographics of their readership.

It’s not just comic from the Big Two that are showing the influence of Afrofuturism, either. Excellence is a stand-out title from Image, about a young black man who becomes a renegade sorcerer, following in his father’s magical footsteps. And then there’s Rosarium, an independent publisher with a flourishing comics output. Company head, Bill Campbell is currently writing a series called Bad Muthas. The series takes black musicality and Afrofuturism to create something that shouldn’t quite be possible—a musical comic you can hear. BTTM FDRS by Ben Passmore and Ezra Clayton Daniels isn’t a superhero story, but it is solidly Afrofuturist and takes full advantage of the comics medium to tell a terrifying darkly science fictional tale in which gentrification and its fall-out is the big bad. I have no idea whether Passmore has any interest in superhero comics, but if he ever makes his way into that realm, I will happily devour the results just as I have with the rest of his work.

American and international audiences have been exploiting black culture, style and thought for generations. There’s a reason why both Jazz and hip-hop have taken hold all over the world. That exploitation has unforeseen side-effects, though. When blackness is consumed, it begins to influence the consumer. The same is as true in comics as it is in music or fashion, and the latest X-Men relaunch is proof of that. In an era where oppression has become much more visible, Marvel has taken the comparison between the mutant struggle and the struggle for black civil rights. Since before I began reading, Professor X and Magneto have been compared to Dr. King and Malcolm X. Now, it seems that Marvel’s X-men office has realized that Dr. King and Malcolm X were never actually on opposite sides.

In Jonathan Hickman’s new vision for the X-books, Professor X has realized that humans will never allow mutants to live in peace. In the best-case scenario, humans oppress mutants enough to buy time until a monstrous alien race arrives to wipe out humanity completely. Through a strangely simple manipulation of history and time, the Charles Xavier is able to start over, forewarned of the future. He makes peace with all his historic mutant villains, establishes a sentient mutant homeland in the Pacific Ocean and delivers an ultimatum to the world’s governments. This new version of the X-men owes a huge debt to Black Panther and Marvel’s portrayal of the kingdom of Wakanda, both in comics and in films—and it’s honestly the freshest the X-men comics have ever been. One other element of the relaunch hits home for me even harder than the rest: the attention to joy. The X-men have always lived in dangerous times. Hounded by extradimensional despots, genocidal robots, and other mutants brainwashed into attack dogs, X-men stories could sometimes become a slog. The relaunch brings with it a sense of renewal. Long dead characters are resurrected en masse, and instead of appearing suddenly during battles, the mutant nation holds welcoming rituals for all of them where they are presented amid music and celebration, hailed for emerging from memory into a brighter present. Details like this make me suspect that Hickman and the rest of the creative team are paying closer attention to the mechanisms of and reactions to oppression than others have in the past. It makes me feel like the way our present era enables communication and information exchange does more than expose pain.

It used to be that a comic with more than two black characters was automatically a “black comic.” Black characters like Storm and Black Panther, with little in common were forced into marriage, and black characters were almost always derivative of other heroes, had powers tied to their ethnicity, or at the very least, had to have “black” in their name. I watched brilliant series like Marvel’s The Crew by Christopher Priest and Joe Bennett die on the vine because fans seemed to consider them “too black.” Comics in general, and The Big , especially, still have a long way to go, but there are more and better black characters than ever before, and their blackness is more than cosmetic. It’s influencing not just their stories, but those of the more traditional heroes.

DC and Marvel have been publishing comics since the 1930s, and many of their most popular characters are decades and decades old. That kind of longevity makes it necessary to maintain, on some level, an illusion of change. Perhaps that’s why their fans have such an aversion to deviations from the stories they hold most dear. The idea of a black Superman, Captain America, or Human Torch, is enough to send a certain segment of comics readers into frothing rages, but without actual change the medium will stagnate and eventually die off. These companies aren’t doing readers of color or other marginalized groups a favor by including their sensibilities and perspectives. In order for characters like the X-men, the Avengers, or the New Gods to flourish in changing times, they too must change and appeal to a broader readership. Hiring writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Roxane Gay, and N. K. Jemisin is just good business, but it also makes it possible for me to keep enjoying comics as an adult, because I see myself reflected in the stories.